Transcript from “Welcome and Affirm” Sermon by Ben Mann

13433349_10102718116858913_8542018625271769185_oPhoto by B Rae Perryman

***This is a rough transcript from a sermon delivered to Calvary Baptist Church, DC on Sunday, June 12, 2016. A recording will be made available soon via http://www.calvarydc.org***

Good morning.

Let me start with a BIG thank you. I am overwhelmed to be standing in this pulpit today.

For years, I have admired the many people whom have assumed it. Men and women sharing their messages of hope and change, challenge and progress, but still with a heart for the values and traditions that have been markers of our Baptist and Christian experience.

For those of you who are visiting, welcome. We hope that you feel a warmth and connection to this place and to my fellow members of this community. For in the long arch of our history at Calvary, we are known to be somewhat quirky and diverse and fundamentally human.

If we miss welcoming you in the fashion in which would make you the most comfortable, I apologize. We are not perfect. But, we are traditionally a place in Baptist life where experimentation in what is possible is acceptable. AND, we hope that you will catch glimpse of that today.

SO, thank you for weaving me into the narrative of Calvary.

I want to start out today by inviting you into what I affectionately call a courageous conversation. I wish that I had developed this term, but it is a buzzword among my professional colleagues to mark the beginning of a politically incorrect dialogue. It means that I want to bring up a topic that might make you uncomfortable, and I am hoping through honesty and compassion that we might find a measure of understanding together on a tough or challenging difference between us. It is a way of setting expectations. I want to be courageous in what I share with you, and I hope that you will be courageous in receiving it. Can I count on you?

Today, we examine one of the letters in the Christian texts of the Bible written by the Apostle Paul in Romans 16.

Now, to some, including myself, it is strange to marry the idea of discussing Paul’s letter in Romans with what is already positioned as a sermon on welcoming outsiders. Paul was not always a lover of whom we might classically label as “the other”. In particular, it seems to many observers that Paul has a woman problem. In the sense that Paul could be read to have a problem with women… It is after Paul who gave us classic quotes, like”

“As in all the churches of the holy one, women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate even as the law says. If they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.”

– 1 Corinthians 14:33-35

YIKES! Knowing my audience here, and identifying myself openly as a feminist, it is Bible passages like this one from Paul, which sometimes turns my stomach. And for those of you who relate to that sentiment, I beg you to wait just a few moments, before passing judgement on Paul. This is, because I have a theory that Paul might just be a bit more subversive than we give him credit.

Just before the section of Romans 16 that we read earlier is a wonderful opening passage of welcome. Like many do so well in the Bible, Paul lists a series of friends and partners whom have been part of his ministry and success. It is a regular Oscar acceptance speech, “I want to thank my manager and producers, my family and my friends…” Only for Paul, it’s more a reflection on the goodness of the men and women whom have stood by him through prison and travel, and whom have been hospitable to his journey.

What draws my eye to this section of Paul’s writings is his references to women.

I didn’t grow-up in the type of Christian culture or community that embraced the full value of women in the Church. This was ironic as the lion share people who informed my growth in the faith, as well as those who continue to do so are disproportionately women.

And, while women have come a long way in shattering the stained glass ceiling of the church, there is much that we do not discuss or recognize about their role and influence in the Bible and in church history.

I find myself often turning to the work of theologian Bernadette Brooten out of Brandeis University. Her dense and convincing work suggests that as early as the first translations of the Bible that the role of women was consciously diminished. She argues numerous accounts where characters of the Bible may have undergone literary sex changes – in other words she points to evidence in the original manuscripts where a person now recognized as a man in the Bible was originally noted to have a woman’s name. Strange.

For some, this is the beginning of a courageous conversation.

Which is to say, that it can feel threatening to question that the very gender of the people about whom we read could be inaccurate. Please, hold onto that thought in your future readings of the scripture.

For me, in reading Paul, having this knowledge makes me more cautious and sensitive when I see women who have made it into our Bible.

If you turn to Romans 16:3, we are introduced to a woman named Prisca (Priscilla) and her husband Aquila. This isn’t the first time that we have met them. And, in fact, Priscilla and Aquila get credit about 7 times throughout scripture. They are recognized by many scholars to be among the original 70 disciples that sprang from Jesus’ ministry, and are often called 1st century missionaries.

By Paul’s standard of recognition they are clear headliners.

What is dynamic here, and in most translations of the Bible, is that Priscilla gets top billing over Aquila. In the patriarchal society of the first century, it would have been strange to introduce a husband after his wife, which is why we see Paul return to this pattern of husband-before-wife introductions just 4 versus later.

Could Paul be signaling something for us here? Is this a code?

We know a little bit about Priscilla. Some say that she was, the true leader of her household. Others say that she may have even held a church office, such as pastor. And, there is some evidence to suggest that she may have, been the original author of the Book of Hebrews, although that has been a long-lasting debate. Regardless, unlike many women we experience in the Bible, Priscilla has not become a caricature, and unlike Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians, she certainly was not silent.

It is almost as if Paul wants us to know something that he could not express in his own context, but that he wanted us to remember Priscilla as she was.

Is that possible?

I press-on for more evidence.

Something else about this opening caught my attention, is where it states, “Greet one another with a Holy Kiss.” Now, the Holy Kiss is not something that we practice today. Our closest approximation at Calvary is our weekly Passing of the Peace. Whether or not you enjoyed that particular element of our service, in the first century, the Holy Kiss was actually an important element of worship.

Beyond just a warm and moist greeting, it was actually seen as an intimate act to display unity within the body of Christ. Modern commentators, mostly conservative, tend to fixate on the fact that the kiss was only expressed between same-sex individuals. In other words, only men-kissed-men, and only women-kissed-women. ON. THE. MOUTH. HUH. Let’s pause just a moment and imagine how that would have gone over here this morning?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve often wanted to kiss some of you, but I am not sure that I would have felt closer to God as a result. What is more interesting is that as early as the 3rd and 4th centuries, so just one century removed from the invention of the Holy Kiss, church fathers began to attack and dismantle it, until it became a far lesser expression of worship, except in references like Romans 16.

Part of what fueled their attacks was the level of intimacy and vulnerability expressed in this act of worship. I contend that Paul understood this vulnerability, and purposefully placed the order to Kiss in this welcome. He could have easily said to welcome Priscilla et al with shouts joy or acts of service, but instead he picks an act of particular significance and unity, while simultaneously lifting up his female counterparts. The mystery of his motivations is certainly worth further examination.

The remainder of verse 16 in Romans is a less-than-casual lecture about the necessity of our reflecting our true faith in community. We are extolled to boldly live what we know to be true and all that we have learned. We are to identify good and evil, and to avoid smooth talkers, as it were.

 

What I read out of these verses is that we should look for opportunities to be truly unified, to look for the Priscillas or Aquilases in our lives and to greet them into our worship with a level of expectation that we are living as righteously as we know how. And, maybe, we should kiss more?!?

There is one community for which I would say that the Kiss is still very much a form of worship. And, that is within the LBGTQIA community. LGBTQIA stands for… (queer).

Calvary has been an open and affirming church of the queer community for some time now. This week is a Celebration in DC called Pride, and Calvary has been actively engaged in many of the elements of that celebration.

Pride is a season in the annual calendar that recognizes queer advancement in society through our history, our progress, and our future. There are many Pride celebrations that occur all over the world in large and small communities, and in most places they are an act of subversion to the common culture.

There is a spirit of flamboyance and open sexual and gender expression weaved throughout the celebration, and an over-emphasis on welcome and inclusion. I guarantee that as I walk down the streets of Pride today that I will welcomed by strangers with kisses. Because in the queer community a kiss is to say, “I know you, I see you, we are the same; whatever you are, I am; and, the fight that we share to be wholly ourselves can only be won together.” Or, “I think you’re really cute, and this might be my only opportunity to kiss you.” Regardless of true motivation, it is an act of both public subversion, yet personal unity with the community.

What is tough for me about celebrating Pride through the Church is part of why I wanted to welcome you into our courageous conversation. Because as welcome as many of us feel to be queer and part of this amazing Christian community. We, also, need you to be more our community and our protectors against those who would diminish and dismantle our history from that of the church. And, given the horrific events in Orlando yesterday, maybe, we just need you to protect us!

More specifically, I call upon the Church to pay attention this Pride to a homelessness crisis happening right under our noses in DC. Combating homelessness has been a vanguard service both of Calvary and sister churches for centuries. And yet, today, 40% of homeless youth in DC identify as queer.

I’ll say that, again,… That is an astounding percentage, and a reflection of a culture of rejection by the Church, in which Christian parents all over America still embrace the idea that to convert their sons or daughters to some pretend version of “straight-ness” they must first throw them to the streets. My brothers and sisters, by all measures, and certainly by what I read in Romans 16, THAT IS EVIL!

I believe that we can find a bigger, better welcome for these children, and all children who question with wonder who they are. It will require the courage for us to reject boldly what we know to be false. Which is to say that Calvary will stand against a rampant wave of homophobia that pervades our country and openly mocks the spirit of Christ that we claim within us. We cannot, we should not, we will not ignore the actions of those so-called parents who cast out their children out of the convenience created by false teaching.

OUR action doesn’t need to be proclaimed with bravado and fanfare. Instead, we should examine the very nature of how we treat the queer community from this pulpit and in Sunday school for students of all ages. And, while I would love for you to go home today and call your homophobic family and friends in a fit of outrage, I would settle if you would stand up to people telling gay-bashing or queer-diminishing jokes in your workplace. Or, maybe, if you didn’t invite people who QUOTE “just don’t get this whole transgender thing” to the party. Or, maybe, if you were just a little less concerned with whom I am dating – or not dating – or whom you may know that you think that I might date.

All your queer Christian brothers and sisters want is a Romans 16-style unity. We want to build you up. We want to build up what we know to be righteous, and we don’t want to suffer the fate of our early church mothers and become buried in a translation of our history that does accurately reflect the love and respect that we had for our heterosexual brothers and sisters.

So, if no one has before, welcome to our community, we accept you as an Ally! And, when we show up to this community, scarred from the rejection of those proclaiming a false god, consider welcoming us with a Holy Kiss!

AMEN.

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