Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Sermon on Inclusion--Where Do the Mermaids Stand?

(On this last Sunday before we leave Birmingham my Pastor, Steve Jones asked me to preach at Southside Church where we are members. Here is what I had to say in this last sermon. This is a summary of what I deeply believe.)

Robert Fulghum, is one of the great storytellers of our time. He tells a very funny story about one evening when he volunteered in a weak moment to watch the children at church while the parents went on what they called “Parents Night Out.” He said eighty children showed up. He didn’t know what he was going to do. So he decided to break them up into teams so they wouldn’t kill him or each other. And he said, “OK, you're either a Giant or a Wizard or a Dwarf.” After he said that, he felt a tug at his pants leg and he looked down and there was a little girl standing looking up at him. “Where do the Mermaids stand?” He said, ”There are no such things as Mermaids.” “Oh yes there are,” she said. “I are one. Now where do the Mermaids stand?” Well, he said he didn’t know what to do or say. Then he said, “The mermaids stand right here next to the King of the Sea!” And he grabbed her hand and they stood back and reviewed the troops as the Dwarfs and the Giants and the Wizards came slowly by. Fulghum said he learned something from that experience. The little girl had taught him something he had never known before. That mermaids really do exist. After all, he said, he had personally held one by the hand.

I think Jesus would have loved that story because it is in the spirit of what he said at the very beginning of his ministry in Luke 4. His baptism was over. He had wrestled in the wilderness with the evil one. The temptations were behind him—temporarily. Then he returned to his hometown, Nazareth. Luke says, “As was his custom” he went on a Saturday morning to the synagogue with the people he had known all his life. During that service they asked him to read. Luke says that he opened up the papyrus scroll and turned to a passage which would become an overture for everything he would ever do. Opening that scroll, his finger ran down the papyrus until he found his place. It was that exile passage from Isaiah 61.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those that are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

What is he saying here? I think what he is really saying is that he is giving Mermaids a place to stand. For you see, since its beginnings the temptations of faith has been to categorize, pigeonhole, or put people into little boxes. There are Wizards, There are Dwarfs, and there are Giants. The saved and the lost. And we really don’t know what to do when some Mermaid comes along and says, “Where do the Mermaids stand?”

Charles Talbert who is a graduate of Samford and a very fine New Testament scholar has said that what Luke does here is to define the scope of Jesus’ ministry. For the conflict which runs throughout the Gospel and spills over into Acts and in every part of the church’s life begins in Luke 4. That struggle is: Will this be a tiny, hometown outfit or a worldwide movement? Will it be for some or will it be for all? Will the Gospel be a Nazareth thing for only the respectable people like Giants and Wizards and Dwarfs—or will it encompass everyone—even the Mermaids of the world?

This was his audience: the poor, the destitute of the world, the brokenhearted, which meant the shattered and the disintegrated. The captives who were prisoners. The blind that could not see. Even those who rant on the Paul Finebaum show. The bruised who were the oppressed. And the downtrodden and the victims and those crushed by the tyrannies of a world gone wrong. And this magnificent overture we find in Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 would play out a splendid theme. For all the marginalized people of the world—the great horde who do not fit into the categories or the pigeonholes or the boxes, he comes for these too.

You know them. That woman at the well with so many men in her past she could not even remember their names. And Zaccheus, that insider turned outsider because he was a cheat and a liar and had made all of his money in payday loans. And the lepers? The unclean ones that nobody was supposed to touch because you might catch something. And remember what he did? The children always giggling and squirming and coloring outside the lines and how he opened up his arms and took them in, and nobody had ever done that before. If that was not enough, think of the women he reached out to and lifted up to a higher level that had never been done in society before.

Once upon a time we Baptists were really off on the edge of things. We couldn’t even get in the back door of the country club. We had not come to town and been baptized into respectability but we were mostly on those side streets, across the tracks where the illegal immigrants lived. But we had faith. And we sang with gusto. We turned from hard, hard weeks at work to the meeting where we were met and graced and loved and affirmed and felt important. And for some it was the only place in their lives where they felt like they were somebody. The Mermaids, swimming against the tide of an established church. Their preachers were put in jail in Holland and in England and in this country. Some were killed. They were the first civil libertarians because they believed in liberty and justice for all—not just for their own kind—why even the Mormons. And when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States came into being, they helped to stitch somehow into the fabric of those document that wonderful, wonderful phrase: “all are created equal.” All. And they continued to write, “Congress should make no laws pertaining to the establishment of religion.” That’s a long way from school tax vouchers for the important people and tax breaks for people who have plenty. So the question really is this: Where do the mermaids stand?

The great theologian Karl Barth wrote his first book of sermons called, Deliverance to the Captives. These sermons by this brilliant man had been preached in Basel, Switzerland to prisoners behind bars. What did he tell them? Eyes could now see, some for the first time. Liberty to victims in a world gone wrong. They would somehow find that the chains that bound them down would be broken all would be free. He preached an acceptance for Dwarfs and Wizards and Giants and even Mermaids—but maybe not in that order. “Whosoever will may come!” Not just the special and the privileged and the beautiful and the saved and the heterosexuals. Everybody. And if it isn’t for every body—it isn’t for anybody. After two thousand years the words are still revolutionary. They leap across the barriers like geography and culture and race and class. “Across the crowded ways,” the song goes, “We hear his voice still.”

But he wasn’t done. Is he ever done? He wasn’t done. For he told them two stories that got him into trouble; The first story was about Elijah. Three and a half years there had been a famine in the land. People starved and babies and old people died and the wind blew across a parched land where nothing could grow anymore. No rain. God’s prophet came to a widow in Zerephath—Sidon. Now where was that? Well, he breezed passed the Giants and Wizards and the Dwarfs and kept on going until he came to a place where he looked on the door and the sign read: “Mermaid’s House.” Elijah knocked on the door. And it made Jesus’ congregation in Nazareth restless because they couldn’t believe God’s prophet passed over all the good people and went down the road to a woman whose family had been on food stamps for three generations. And probably did not have her papers. Who would have believed it? How dare he? That was his first story.

But he wasn’t finished. He told a second story to his congregation about Elisha who was Elijah’s successor. He told about a place Syria—which should have given them a clue of where he was going. In Syria there was this leper colony. A place where nobody would go because you might catch something. It was an awful place. Outside the gates of the city. And there was a man named Namaan—a non-Jew. Not one of God’s chosen. He was healed. This foreigner was healed. And it was just too much for the people of Nazareth. “And when they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath and rose up to put him out of the city”—talking about Jesus—“and they led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong; but passing through their midst he went away.”

Fred Craddock, A very fine preacher has said the people in that synagogue room were furious because Jesus had used their own story to make them feel uncomfortable. Why isn’t Holy Scripture supposed to make you feel warm and squishy and happy? Like Joel Osteen. Craddock says it is not the Scriptures we don’t know that give us trouble—but the Scriptures we know and have just tip-toed over and domesticated until they mean nothing. Consequently people come up to preachers and ask, “Preacher tell us what Ezekiel means?" Or "Let’s study Revelation and find out who is the mark of the beast. Could it be Obama?" Or maybe they ask what Danny Ford asked me one day when he was Coach at Clemson, “Preacher did that whale really swallow Jonah?” Why do we get off the track? We might as well be talking about Chinese calligraphy. None of those questions will get us in trouble.

But what about the texts we all know. Abraham. A light to all the nations—how did they forget that? Or Jonah, ignore the whale for a moment and ponder its meaning which is that the Lord God of Israel reaches his arms out and takes everybody in. Or what about Micah: “Let justice roll down like waters. Kindness, Walk humbly. Everybody. For when the text arrives in our mailbox with our name on the envelope we open it up and we are stretched and we see dreams and visions that are sometimes scary. But it’s our letter. Robert McAfee Brown called it unexpected news—news we do not expect.You see, it is always revolutionary. It is always the heart of the matter. And Jesus said all God’s children can find a place. He makes room in his house for every person. It is a love that transcends everybody and everything.

When I was a little boy growing up in Columbus, Georgia the strangest would happen in our little Baptist church two or three times a year. After we had sung the Doxology which we sang every Sunday year after year—after the prayer—down the aisle and all the way to the front Doug would shuffle in his overalls and his cap on and plop down on the front bench right in front of the preacher. Doug was the village character. Middle aged about 45 or 50 years old. He was the shoeshine man and didn’t smell too good and was downright scary looking. When we would see him on the street, we'd whisper, "There's Doug--let's get on the other side of the street." He was the central figure in a thousand children’s nightmares. But there he sat front and center at church with his shoeshine box on that front row. Of course all the parents would look straight ahead and punch their kids and whisper: “Don’t look!” The preacher would get just a little edgy because every once in a while during the sermon, Doug would let out a gasp: "Agggg...” four or five times. Nobody ever knew what to do. But he would just slouch there comfortably on that front row with his hat pulled down . About the time of the last song Doug would beat it to the door and would be up at his corner shining shoes before the postlude ended. I’ve often wondered why he came and why he was there. What brought him to church? And why did he come in his old work clothes and sit on the front row where no well-meaning Baptist would ever sit? I think he came—much like that little girl in Fulghum’s story. Deep in his heart, underneath all the pain in his broken life--I think he was looking for a place for a Mermaid to stand.

Isn’t that what Jesus meant when he said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captive, recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Prayer after the Sermon: Lord, it’s a bigger gospel than any of us imagined. It’s a bigger church than we intended to join. Stretch our hearts until we can take in all the children of the world, till some how in our love and missions and evangelism and caring, the kingdoms of this world really do “become the kingdoms of the Christ.” Help us as we do it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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