Sermon For Sunday, August 4, 2013

John 3:17

The State/The Fate Of The Church: New & Emerging Voices 3

Today’s sermon is part of a series in conjunction with the work of the New Visioning Team.

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Jake Pruitt & Allen Harris, Preachers

Twitter: @FranklinCircle; Pastor’s Blog:


John 3:17

Amplified Bible (AMP)

17 For God did not send the Son into the world in order to judge (to reject, to condemn, to pass sentence on) the world, but that the world might find salvation and be made safe and sound through Him.

Jake Pruitt

Jake Pruitt

Jake Pruitt’s Reflections (outline):

*  Hesitant to share this experience

  • Richard – Well-spoken and grounded in the Word of God
    • Not me!
    • Allen must be crazy!
      • He was even going to let me choose my own topic!
      • Then Jessica shared, and absolutely floored me
        • So well-spoken and grounded in her faith
          • Faith not shaken by being open to others
  • How cool would it have been to have grown up in a church like this?!

*  The church I was raised in

  • Active in worship
  • Member of choir
  • Sang solos
  • Couldn’t have done any of that if I had come out as gay
  • Jessica is heterosexual, but she would have been just as embraced and encouraged if she wasn’t

*  Huge contrast between the two church environments

  • Many, many churches like the one I grew up in
  • Growing number of churches like Franklin Circle

*  Not our job to change the mission statements of other churches

  • Comes with daily interactions w/people who attend other places of worship

*  Our job is to be as boldly vocal as possible about who we are and what we believe

  • Finally show the world that there are other options
    • We are grounded in the Word of God
      • Not just a bunch of homos and homo-lovers ignoring parts of the Bible for a feel-good, Buddy-Jesus religion

*  We need to shut up about hell

  • Not a call to “Universalist” theology
  • Even in the most strict definition of Salvation, it is ultimately in God’s hands
  • We need to focus on the life and ministry of Jesus, and the love of God for all His children
    • Not only reaching out to the so-called “lost”, but also the many who have been turned away

*  We must not be hesitant to share in this experience

  • We need to show that we, too, are well-spoken and grounded in the Word of God
  • We, too, have pastors who may, in fact be crazy!
    • Crazy enough to believe that ALL people need an environment to grow in their faith

Pastor Allen’s Reflections On Jake Pruitt’s Thoughts:

1.)   The Church Has An Image Problem

It isn’t a huge surprise to learn the church has an image problem.  Studies (and common sense) tell us that folks today either hold close to their childhood memories of church, if they were even a part of one or, if they weren’t, they observe what is presented in popular culture and accept that for what all the church is.  Either image is either outdated or wrong for the church, like any institution, is as complex and diverse as the people who make it up.

Or, as is more and more the case, there are people who have neither attended church nor even heard about it in the media.  For these folks, religion, spirituality, and certainly “church” mean little or nothing.

I was struck by this fact during the visit to Cleveland of Craig’s sister, Colleen, and great-nephew, Josh this past week.  Amidst the busy week of tourism, they stopped by Franklin Circle Christian Church for a tour.  When we reached the sanctuary Josh, who is 9 years old, explored it like he had discovered a recently opened tomb of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh.  He took pictures of everything, and kept asking what this was and what that was, clearly never or rarely having seen the interior of a church sanctuary.  He pointed to the communion table and asked what that was.  I said it was a table where we eat bread and drink grape juice to remember Jesus.  He stared at me blankly.  I fumbled for a moment and clumsily added, “A really cool guy we follow.”  Brilliant pastor you folks got!

I was caught off guard by his complete lack of information about the church.  In the same way many folks stay away from church because of the images and experiences they bring from their younger years, many others stay away because they do not know what church is, what it stands for, and what value it might have in their life.  We could bemoan this fact, and cry big crocodile tears, or we could, as Craig and I later came to the conclusion, acknowledge this moment in history as a chance to reimagine church for a new generation.

The church of the future would do well if we approached the world around us with a blank slate, neither spending all our time defending what the church was or wasn’t nor trying to describe it in the way our parents and grandparents described it.  I hear you say, Jake, let us boldly be who we are and say why we follow Jesus and let that clear and hopeful message be the new image in which the church is crafted in the minds of a new generation.

2.    Open & Affirming Is Not Relativism!

I really appreciate your bold affirmation that we are grounded in the word of God!  It was refreshing to have you use as your scripture for the day John 3:17, the necessary and critical compliment to John 3:16, a verse that is all-too-often and incorrectly used to “judge the world” and “condemn the world.”  John 3:17 reminds us that God-in-Jesus will have none of that, and that it is God’s complete intention to love the world, period!

One of the most frustrating (read that “anger-inducing”) aspects of being a person who is committed to the church as a place of “welcome and grace” is the constant charge by persons of a different ilk that my theology is lacking and biblical scholarship is suspect.  That’s a much nicer way of putting it than most folks who disagree with me and us put it.  Somehow we have ceded the moral high ground on scripture to those who are narrow-minded, hateful, and condemning.  In fact, as I hope you have heard from this preacher for the last twelve years, the Holy Scriptures are overwhelming in favor of including the outcast, expanding the table, and widening the circle.  There is, in fact, a huge amount of great biblical scholarship, theological conversation, and real life living out the gospel to show that God intends for the people of God, the Body of Christ, the Church to be Open to and Affirming of ALL people.  In the words of a now-famous t-shirt at the General Assembly this past month, “ALL Means ALL!”

It is a tried-and-true tactic of persuasive debate to seek to discredit the opponent at all cost.  I remember that from my debate days in school and from my first college English class at Phillips University.  If you can’t make a good argument on the merits of the topic at hand, try to demean and call into question the integrity of the person making the case.  This happens time and time again in the question about a more inclusive gospel, and those of us who are welcoming and affirming think that somehow we have to take such nonsense as a part of our broad and inclusive identity.  Bull crap!  If someone wants to discuss the merits of this or that biblical interpretation or theological point, fine, but no one should say or imply that just because I am Open & Affirming I therefore must be bound by relativism.  No!  I am bound by the truth of the gospel, and I can prove it quite nicely, thank you!

The church of the future would do well to not let the negative and narrow voices define what is scripturally accurate nor what is sacred and holy.  In fact, to use the image that Martin Luther King, Jr. offered so eloquently in his speeches, the arc of the truth of scripture and intent of the gospel is long, but it definitely bends towards inclusiveness.



3.    Complacency Is Not The Gospel Either

In your remarks as well as in your conversation with me this last week you emphasized that congregations like ours must be careful not to become complacent in our good work to include others.  I was reminded of Galatians 6:9 “Let us not grow weary in well-doing.”  In my two plus decades of working with congregations on becoming Open & Affirming, Anti-Racist, and Accessible To All I have come to realize that the struggle can be hard and long.  Quite often the result is that folks become very tired and once a statement is written and a vote is taken the leaders want nothing more than to relax, sit back, and enjoy the fruits of their grace and welcome.

You remind us that as natural and understandable as that yearning might be, it is not our calling in Christ.  A moment of rest and renewal is always appropriate, but the forces that would narrow God’s welcome and limit Christ’s grace are always at work, and so must we be.  In the same way we have made this congregation welcoming for this or that child of God, there are others out there who still believe they are not welcome here or there is no advocate for them within the church’s walls.

I am reminded by a frequent phenomenon that happens as I have told my story over and over again.  It is epitomized by a conversation (that I’m sure I’ve told in a sermon before) that Craig and I had while visiting a church in Lynchburg, Virginia many years ago.  We were on what I kiddingly call our “homo promo” tour, talking to the church and ministerial alliance about what it means for a church to welcome into the life and leadership gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersexed, queer and questioning folks.  After a day of workshops and speeches, Craig and I relaxed with a glass of wine at the home of an elderly member of the congregation who was hosting us.  She had heard our story that day, perhaps a couple of times, and clearly wanted to talk about it.

We expected she wanted to talk about what it meant for Craig and me to be gay.  We were wrong.  She wanted to talk about what it meant for her to have just had to admit her husband, unwillingly, into an institution after his Alzheimer’s disease had become so pronounced and his behaviors so unpredictable.  Sitting their open-mouthed and heart-heavy, Craig and I realized that our openness about being gay clearly had given this woman permission to talk about this terribly traumatic and what she felt as shameful action on her part.

The church of the future would do well, Jake, to recognize that when the door is open for one person, there are other hungering souls who also want to enter a place of restoration, compassion, healing, and love.  Franklin Circle Christian Church, and congregations like ours, cannot rest on our laurels thinking “what a good church we’ve been” having become Open & Affirming, Anti-Racist, and Accessible To All.  Not only do each one of those commitments demand ongoing attention (we ain’t there yet!), but there are so many other folks who have been hurt by religion or felt excluded from the church.

But if we are open to it, and are honest about it, each time we welcome another child of God to sit at the table with us and our sisters and brothers, our own faith is renewed, our relationship with Jesus grows stronger, our hope in humanity is restored.  We don’t do this important work to save ourselves, but in doing this work we are saved.