Sermon: “Where’s Jesus?” (20th Anniversary of Becoming ONA) [10/22/17]

“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  It was fun last weekend at Pride to take note of Caesar’s things and the God’s things.

I signed up for Pilgrimage’s booth Sunday afternoon.  I had Allen let me out at 10th and Spring and walked from there to the park.  During the parade.  It took a while.  J

On my walk, I saw that Caesar was well-represented at Pride.  The city had used garbage trucks to block off streets for the parade.  At each blockade was an armed APD officer.  The presence of law enforcement and those garbage trucks made me feel safe.

I also felt safe as I made my way through the thousands of people lining the north side of 10th Street.  The claustrophobe in me would have preferred a few less thousand people per square inch, but slogging through all those people, I felt perfectly safe.

The only time I didn’t feel safe?  When I approached Peachtree and saw the signs.  “Judgment is coming.”  “All potheads, homosexuals, thieves, drunkards, whoremongers, and liars are hell bound.”  “How can ye escape the damnation of hell?”  I saw the street preacher, his face bright red, yelling into the portable sound system.  Yeah.  It was a church group.  I’m guessing Westboro Baptist or a Westboro wanna be.

There at 10th and Peachtree, you know what made me feel safe?  It definitely wasn’t that church group.  What made me feel safe was the presence of the Atlanta police.

And Jesus.  Yes!  Jesus was there, too.  He had long hair, was wearing a white robe, sandals, and, of course, a rainbow stole.  People lined up for selfies with Jesus.  How heartening to see Jesus just chilling, hanging with his peeps, mugging for the camera right in front of those hateful signs and angry preaching.  And how telling that, at 10th and Peachtree, Jesus chose not to be a part of the church.

Finding Jesus in the world today can be a little tricky, can’t it?  I mean, you’d expect to find him in the places that call themselves Christian.  Jesus Christ; Christian churches, right? Sometimes, though, Jesus seems more content to hang out in other places, with other people.

The Pharisees’ question to Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson is an attempt to find Jesus…. mostly, so they can put a target on his back.  Matthew tells us the “Pharisees plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians.”  Why the Herodians?  Herod was the Jewish person appointed by the Roman government to keep watch over the Jewish population on Caesar’s behalf.  Among many responsibilities, the Herodians made sure the Jewish people paid taxes to Caesar.

What the Pharisees are doing here is manipulative in the extreme.  They’re asking Jesus to choose between religious and civil law, to choose God or Caesar.  Choose God, he breaks civil law.  Choose Caesar, he breaks Jewish law.  It’s no-win any way you look at it.

Seeing through their hypocrisy, Jesus calls the Pharisees—appropriately enough— hypocrites, then gives the best non-answer in all of Scripture:  “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  Basically, Jesus tells them to figure it out for themselves.

We’ve been wrestling a lot in the last year over the relationship between our faith lives and our civic lives.  Negotiating those relationships as an individual is hard enough.  Negotiating them as a community is an even bigger challenge.  That’s why we have a special prayer time.

Jesus’ Caesar-and-God statement reminds us that the relationship between our faith lives and our civic lives is dynamic–which means that each informs the other.  Sometimes, as citizens, it’s necessary to speak out and take action to preserve and protect the rights of people of faith.  And sometimes, what’s going on in the world cries out for people of faith to pray, discern, speak out, and take action as people of faith.

That’s what this congregation did 20 years ago.  In 1993, in response to a play at Theater on the Square that referenced a gay character, the Cobb County Commission passed the so-called  Family Values Resolution.

In response to that civil–and unjust–action, this congregation began the process of becoming Open and Affirming.  December 7, 1997, the vote was taken and Pilgrimage UCC became the first UCC congregation in the state of Georgia to become Open and Affirming.  Cobb County might reject LGBTQ people and families, but this congregation of Jesus’ followers would not.

When I interviewed to become your pastor in 2001, the Search Committee–chaired by Frank Hyland, who I still miss–said very clearly, “We’ve voted to become Open and Affirming.  We want our next pastor to help us live into that reality.”  That’s what we’ve been working on together for 16 years now.  I am so proud to have been part of this work with you.

So, what’s next?  Where is Jesus now?  In the mid-90’s, Jesus was in the process of discernment, then of voting to become ONA.  The last 20 years, Jesus has been in the process of living into our ONA identity.  Where is Jesus leading us in 2017?

Might it be to mentoring other congregations as they become ONA?  Chestnut Ridge Christian Church at Post Oak Tritt and Johnson Ferry has just voted to become ONA.  Might we partner with them?  Might we become more active with other ONA UCC churches in the Atlanta area, like Decatur UCC and Kirkwood?   I’ve heard that when the new legislative session begins in Atlanta in January, a new version of the so-called “Religious Freedom” bill will be back in play.  Might Jesus be calling us to some sort of action in response to that?

Twenty years of living into our ONA identity is terrific.  It is appropriate to celebrate, to renew our ONA covenant, to eat cake.

But then what?  What might it mean for us to continue living into our ONA identity?  Where is Jesus now?  How do we follow Jesus now?  How do we act others into wellbeing in Jesus’ name now?

I had another experience of Caesar’s finest this week.  As you know, my mom was in the hospital last weekend.  I had to go down to get her out of the hospital and get her settled at home.  She’s doing very well now.  Thank you for all your prayers and good wishes.

For those who don’t know, my mom lives in Gainesville, Florida.  It was an interesting week in Gainesville.  Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer spoke there this week.  Wanting to prevent what happened in Charlottesville from happening in Gainesville, a large law enforcement contingent convened in Gainesville last Thursday.  The cashier at the Burger King at I-75 where Mom and I had breakfast (She was tired of hospital food.) said that since she’d arrived at work that morning she’d seen at least 200 law enforcement vehicles from all over the region drive by.  Once again, I found Caesar’s contingent reassuring.

As you’ve probably heard, protesters outnumbered Spencer’s people by a large margin.  As I left Gainesville on Friday morning, all was well again.

In reading about Thursday’s events in the national news, I got an unexpected glimpse of Jesus among the crowd of protesters.  I’ve begun to wonder if that glimpse of Jesus might give us a glimpse of where to find Jesus as we continue living into our ONA identity.

A short video focuses on Randy Furniss of Idaho, head shaved, t-shirt covered in schwastikas, blood trickling down his chin from a blow just received from a protester.  In the video, an African American man in dreadlocks, approaches Furniss, hugs him, then asks:  “Why don’t you like me, dog?”

Aaron Courtney, is a 31-year-old high school football coach in Gainesville.  He said he wanted to show Furniss some love.  “I could have hit him, I could have hurt him . . . but something in me said, ‘You know what? He just needs love.’”  The hug may have been a small act, but Courtney thinks it can speak volumes.  “It’s a step in the right direction. One hug can really change the world. It’s really that simple,” he said.

Courtney hadn’t originally planned on attending the protest.  But when he received a state of emergency notification on Monday ahead of Spencer’s planned appearance, he decided to do some research.  “I found out about what kind of person he was and that encouraged me, as an African-American, to come out and protest.” Courtney said.

After almost four hours, Courtney was about to leave when he saw Furniss causing a scene in the crowd.  “I had the opportunity to talk to someone who hates my guts and I wanted to know why. During our conversation, I asked him, ‘Why do you hate me? What is it about me? Is it my skin color? My history? My dreadlocks?’ ” he said.  Courtney repeatedly asked Furniss for an answer, only to be met with silence and a blank look.

Exasperated, Courtney asked Furniss for a hug. He was initially reluctant, but as Courtney reached over the third time, Furniss reciprocated, wrapping his arms around Courtney. Courtney said, “And I heard God whisper in my ear, ‘You changed his life.’ ”

“Why do you hate me?” Courtney asked Furniss one last time. “I don’t know,” came the response.  For Courtney, that was a good enough.  “I believe that was his sincere answer.  He really doesn’t know,” Courtney said.  (Washington Post, October 21, 2017)

Where is Jesus in 2017?  Where is Jesus leading us as we begin our third decade of being an Open and Affirming congregation?  Whose lives might we change simply by loving them?

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2017

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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