When you begin to consider following Jesus out into the world, you start to make some decisions. How far will we go? Who will be included? Do we draw the line anywhere and say, “This is far enough.”? We have begun to follow Jesus as far as Cuba to build relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ, learning from and praying with one another through personal visits and emails and old fashioned letters.
There are ways to follow Jesus into the world without crossing the ocean, however. This past week as I rode the “el” in Chicago, I watched as the passengers shifted from mostly Hispanic to mostly white to mostly black as I traveled from north to south. People got on and off in neighborhoods where many of the neighbors look the same and talk the same. In Jerusalem the old walled city is divided into quarters– there is the Jewish quarter, the Christian quarter, the Muslim quarter and the Armenian quarter. You can tell when you are leaving one quarter and walking into another. For example, the Jewish quarter clearly has well kept homes and streets, with plenty of room to move around, while the Muslim quarter has streets full of people and markets of amazing spices and colorful food items.
Right here in Baltimore, sometimes we can literally cross the street and be in a different world. You walk from Ten Hills into Edmondson Village and you find people who experience very different daily lives. No one likes to use the term ghetto, as it brings up very negative images in our minds of Nazi enforced Jewish communities in Europe or run down housing projects in any big city in the US. But ghettos exist anywhere that people are clustered together because of a common language or heritage or socioeconomic status or race. You can disagree, but I would suggest that a poverty stricken neighborhood where outsiders are reluctant to even drive through without locking their doors can be a ghetto as well as gated community of large homes where strangers of any stripe are looked at with suspicion or a senior living community where people under 65 are rarely seen or a neighborhood of people who speak primarily Spanish or Polish or Arabic. People living in their own ghetto tend to draw internal, and sometimes even external, lines between themselves and others, lines which determine who belongs and who doesn’t.
Jesus’ disciples, and for that matter, even Jesus himself, do the same thing! They draw lines in their minds between those they think should be eligible to come to Jesus for healing and those who are not. In their case, it is not only based on geography– the people of Tyre and Sidon are clearly outsiders. But it is also a line between those who believe in God and those who are not a part of the established religion. The woman who approached Jesus crying for help for her daughter was a woman, a foreigner, and a Gentile. She has 3 strikes against her from the get go. The disciples know what needs to happen: Send her away, Jesus! She is an interruption, a bother. She is not within the circle of those to whom we are trying to reach in our ministry. When Jesus finally addresses her, he too is clear that he understands his mission to be salvation for the house of Israel, that is the children of God, and this woman is not included. In their confusing exchange about dogs and children and crumbs off the table, Jesus and the unnamed outsider are basically wrestling with the line that exists between them. This is one of the tense moments in the gospels….will Jesus reach across the line or not?
The woman’s argument is like the cry we have been hearing across our country since the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and others who continue to die on our streets: Black lives matter! It is an urgent cry beating on a door which still so often seems to be closed. It is an insistent cry that race or color or nationality are never measures for who is eligible for justice, opportunity, acceptance and appreciation. The woman is desperate as well: my daughter’s life matters! She is in a stance of humility, bowing, on her knees, begging for a response like the blind man on the road. She knows she is not a Jew, and neither is her daughter, but her life matters. Her persistence, her courage to actually verbally wrestle with Jesus, pushes the door open a crack. Then Jesus opens it the rest of the way— basically saying to her, contrary to what we all had pegged you as, you do have great faith! Of course your daughter matters.
For my entire ordained ministry, which will be 28 years this June, our denomination has been struggling over where the line belongs between persons with heterosexual orientation and persons with homosexual or bisexual orientation. I am sure you have followed it to some extent. Looking back, it is like the PCUSA was throwing crumbs to a group of people who were knocking at the door but could not come fully in to the house. First we said it was okay for gays and lesbians to join our churches. After all we, are welcoming of all, right? But we drew a line. Openly gay or lesbian persons could not be ordained, either as elders, deacons or pastors.
They continued to knock. As time went on, more crumbs were thrown… we agreed that it was okay to ordain an openly gay or lesbian person if the majority of the Presbytery would agree to waive the traditional guidelines. This way it would be up to each Presbytery to decide and not a one size fits all approach. But still there was a line. PCUSA pastors were not allowed to officiate at a wedding of persons of the same gender, nor were PCUSA sanctuaries to be used for such weddings.
They continued to knock. Until last summer, when the General Assembly agreed that it was up to the pastor and the session as to whether or not a wedding between same gendered persons could be held in the church. Another crumb. Again, allowing pastors and congregations the leeway to draw their own line. And now, this past week, the majority of our Presbyteries have agreed that marriage, although traditionally between a man and a woman, does not have to be limited to that particular expression of love and commitment. The new wording which will be used in our constitution, the Book of Order, will read: “Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” Many hope that now the crumbs have accumulated enough to be filling, and that now our denomination can say that we have completely crossed the line we had previously drawn between people of differing sexual orientations. It was a line in our heads and hearts and it was a line in our governing documents.
For more than 28 years, people have been saying, “Gay lives matter. We should be able to serve Christ as officers in our church. We should be able to marry in the sanctuary where we worship God and are nurtured in our faith. We should be treated like anyone else who is ready to commit to another for life.” No pastor or session is required to perform or host weddings of same gendered people, and I imagine that in many local sessions, the wrestling will continue. That is always the case when someone is knocking at the door, someone who feels left out in the cold, someone who lives in a different world even when it is next door or down the street.
Following Christ into the world is not likely to be without some form of struggle or wrestling. We are beginning to work on following Christ into the Rosemont neighborhood for our Vacation Bible School experience this summer. Instead of hosting VBS here on this corner, we are taking a VBS experience to Harlem Avenue. It will be open to elementary school children and youth helpers from the neighborhood there, and from our congregation. We will be looking for adult volunteers to assist with dinner each night, with crowd control, with telling the Bible stories or leading craft activities or singing. We will be focusing on the ways God loves people, animals and all of creation AND the call of Jesus to share with others through the Heifer Project curriculum. Children will be exposed to new ways to share around the world, to music and traditions from around the world, and to one another, bridging the different worlds that we inhabit in this city. It is not our neighborhood, we are definitely the outsiders knocking on the door. Some residents and leaders of the neighborhood are welcoming and some are not so sure that we are eligible to get involved there. After all, Hunting Ridge is a suburban church in their minds. It will be a time for wrestling with one another, determining where the lines should be drawn as we figure out how neighbors from different worlds can build a bridge over the lines that exist as we pray, play and eat together for a few evenings this summer. The door is opening. Let us not be the ones to close it. Amen.