“Where Do You Draw the Line?”

September 30, 2012


Nehemiah 2:11-18

Mark 9:38-41

When our Mission Board was preparing for their table at last summer’s Iowa City Pride Festival, they decided to get a couple of banners that they could display to let people at the Festival know about the kind of congregation that we are. With some design help from Robyn Hepker, they produced one banner that announced that current United Church of Christ motto: “God is still speaking.” The other banner invitingly told people: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

It’s a great message of hospitality and openness. So as the new school year started, I had Sheila Bloomer hold the step ladder for me (she does all kinds of things that aren’t really in her job description) and I hung that banner outdoors on the Jefferson St. side of the our church. Every day I could see students and others walking by and slowing down as they read the message announcing to each person that this was a place for all people.

That lasted a couple of weeks—and then the banner was torn down.

I don’t know who did that or why. Perhaps it was just college high jinks. Maybe somebody wanted to put the sign in his or her room—some kind of trophy.

But I’m also concerned that it was removed because that announcement of welcome is an unwelcome message to some. There are those who want churches to be places of exclusivity, places that draw the line between those on the inside and those on the outside, between the “saved” and the “unsaved,” between the right and the wrong. Some Christians are currently driving around Iowa in a bus telling people to vote against retaining a judge because he was part of a unanimous decision that opened the way to marriage equality in our state. In a state whose wonderful motto proclaims: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain,” this bus tour says that all rights are not for all people.

It is my hope that we will come up with the money to replace that banner sometime soon.

In its absence, I’ve been wondering: Where do you draw the line?

This morning we heard stories about rebuilding the walls of a city some twenty-five hundred years ago and the mistaken notion of a disciple of Jesus. When we listen carefully, these stories begin to speak at a deep level. They suggest new challenges and new opportunities for how we understand ourselves and our congregation.

Together these two stories present us with a tension between two images: a wall that will keep others out and Jesus, who would welcome all people.

When Nehemiah accompanies the exiles back from Babylon, he finds the walls surrounding Jerusalem in ruin. After secretly inspecting the walls and the city by night, Nehemiah says to the people: “Let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” A wall would provide peace within its boundaries and security from without.

In his book, Transforming Congregations for the Future, Loren Mead reminds us that those ancient city walls distinguished what was inside the city from what was outside. It helped the city establish its identity.

There is something about a wall of a city that finds an organic parallel in the wall of a cell. Healthy cells are defined. They “know” what is a part of the cell and what is not. A cancer cell, on the other hand, has no boundaries and respects no boundaries of other cells.

The task of rebuilding the wall of the city was a first step in restoring the health of the city.

This suggests that for us as a congregation we need to continue to be clear about who we are, about what makes us unique. We say, “You are welcome here.” We say that we “Respect Questions.” We tell others that as a congregation we seek to nourish the body, mind, and spirit of all people. We establish the authenticity and distinctiveness of this congregation so that we can live our faith visibly. In the rebuilding of those ancient walls we find an image that encourages us in our ongoing work of clarifying the boundary of this community and maintaining it. It does involve us in seeking to define what is inside and what is not inside our community.

Now, as congregation that is part of the United Church of Christ, that task is not so simple. Of course who would think that anything in the United Church of Christ would be simple?

In the United Church of Christ we emphasize faith, freedom, and community.

We seek to follow the God made known to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We seek to be open to the Spirit of God moving among us. But we are wary of formulations of that faith. No creed is binding upon the members of this church. This is not because creeds do not matter, but because sincerity of conviction requires the full opportunity for intellectual freedom and personal experience. This inclusive basis of membership naturally attracts women and men of genuine conviction, of adventurous faith, and of gracious respect for each other’s sincerity.

It also gets us into trouble.

We speak of the freedom we have within the United Church of Christ, but that leaves many with a sense of vagueness. “No one can tell us what to do” and “You can’t tell me what to think” are hardly stirring affirmations of faith.

So we constantly face the issue of boundaries. When the boundary between a congregation and the world outside is so blurred that we can no longer tell the one from the other, its identity takes on the contours of the dominant society, whatever they might be. The church then operates by society’s standards without reference to its own story, heritage, and values, and the individual members have no community compass to determine true directions for life.

We must pay attention to boundaries between the church and the community. This means rethinking what it is that makes us a special community. It means rediscovering and rehearsing the story of where we came from and whose we are. It means reconnecting with the power of our heritage.

 Where are our boundaries? What are our limits? How do we define who we are? How do we speak of faith, freedom, and community in ways that will mean something not only for adults today, but also for the youth that follow us tomorrow?

Sometimes it seems to me that all of this would be a whole lot easier if we didn’t have the Bible.

Without the Bible as a guide for faith and practice, we could make things up as we went along. We could decide on our own how we would order ourselves. We could decide on our own—and for our convenience—whom we would have as members and to whom we would talk. We could live comfortably with the rest of the world, taking our values from the culture around us, living in ways that would please the government and our neighbors.

The problem, of course, is that we do have the Bible. As Christians, especially as Protestant, Congregational Christians, we claim that each individual is able to read and interpret the Bible and that more light and truth is yet to break forth from these ancient words.

The Bible is not without error

The Bible contradicts itself at time.

But unlike any other book, the Bible is a witness to Jesus Christ, a record, it has been said, of God’s search for humankind, and, I think, a guide for our common life as a congregation.

And that, as I suggested, is the problem.

We start listening to the stories of faithful and not so faithful people recorded on these pages and somehow our lives as faithful and not so faithful people are touched, sometimes even changed.

In spite of the many times the Bible encourages the people of God to welcome strangers, the stories we have show people taking just the opposite approach.

John comes running up to Jesus and proudly announces: “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and as he was not one of us, we tried to stop him.”

This man—whoever he was—was the first “outsider.” He wasn’t following the established leadership of the church. And that was just too much for John to take.

The line had to be drawn somewhere—and this seemed to be a pretty good place.

I think a major reason that the image of walls and borders is so uncomfortable for us is that so often in the church lines have been drawn in ways that exclude people.

            Women were long excluded from positions of power and leadership.

            African Americans were often excluded from white churches.

            Gays and lesbians are still excluded from many congregations.

“We tried to stop him because he was not following us.” A poor, unnamed “someone” was seeking to be faithful to the Jesus he had somehow come to know. And he comes up against that most difficult person—another follower of Jesus.

If John had it his way, the followers of Jesus might have been limited to those twelve original disciples—after all, they knew one another. And they all shared one thing in common: each of those followers had a pretty good misunderstanding about who Jesus was and what he was about in this world.

These disciples—and many of their contemporary counterparts—seem to be afraid of strangers simply because they are strangers—because they are not “one of us.” New people see things differently, do things differently. Their hopes and fears may be different from our own.

The line has to be drawn somewhere—right?

Jesus draws a line. But as usual, he doesn’t draw it where we would expect.

“No one who performs a miracle in my name will be able the next moment to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is on our side.”

These two sentences urge graciousness and generosity of spirit on us as we form opinions about others who would follow Christ.

Jesus draws a line. He establishes a new and appropriate border. We aren’t asked to remove all of our defenses, to be totally open to everyone and everything. Those who are “against us,” who would harm us, who would tear down or destroy the open and welcoming community that we seek to build should remain on the other side.

But while maintaining this border, we need to remember that those who aren’t against us are for us—and welcome them.

Within the United Church of Christ we have often drawn the line in ways different from other churches.

In 1785 the all-white Congregational church in Granville , Massachusetts called the Rev. Lemuel Haynes as minister. He was the first African-American ordained to Christian ministry in a mainline tradition.

In 1853 Antoinette Brown was ordained as minister of a Congregational Church in New York , making her the first American woman ordained into Christian ministry.

In 1972 the San Francisco Association of United Church of Christ ordained Bill Johnson, and we became the first denomination to ordain an openly gay person.

We live with a certain degree of tension in the church between the desire to be inclusive and the need for boundaries that define who we are.

It is important for us to know who we are. We are powerless to change ourselves and the world for the better if we are confused about what our community stands for. A congregation needs walls that define what it is. Within our tradition, however, the wall, the boundary, is not for the purpose of separation but of service.

So we also need gates that provide access to the world and entrance to all who would join with us in this joyful following of Christ.

Let the lines we draw be clear.

Let them also be easily crossed by all.

In this way, we can continue to tell the city, the university, and all who will listen: no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.