This is a picture of a baptism in the West African nation of Benin. One of our scriptures for the day features a person from the East African nation of Ethiopia. While this image and story feature people separated by the width of an entire continent, the call to baptism is clear in both the story and the picture. You can access the picture here: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54255
A Love Broad and Deep: Acts 8:26-40 and 1 John 4: 7-21
One day, back when I was in college, I was doing some group work with another student. He wasn't someone I knew particularly well. We just happened to end up in the same class during our January short term, which meant we saw each other every day. Somehow, in the course of our conversation on that particular day, I said something about my church. Honestly, I don't even remember how it came up. But, I do remember my classmate's response to my mentioning church. He said, "Oh, I didn't know you were religious." At first, I was defensive. I thought, what did he mean by that? What in the world had I done in his presence that was so un-Christian that it would surprise him that I was devout?
You see, I grew up going to a different kind of church than a lot of people in my community. It was the kind of community where people put really strict bounds on who got to be considered "Christian." I had grown accustomed to spending a lot of time explaining my religiosity to people who weren't sure that I was really Christian enough since I went to a different kind of church than they did. Because of those experiences, when this guy said, "Oh, I didn't know you were religious," initially, I heard it as an insult. But, eventually, I realized that he had actually meant it more as a complement. He was a person who had been treated very poorly by lots of people who were Christians. In fact, he rarely experienced devout Christians as anything but hostile forces in his life. I was polite, even kind, to him (I don't say this to brag... I was being just basic level Southern polite). In his experience, Christians were mean and judgmental. If I wasn't those things, how could I be Christian?
I have a ministerial colleague who had a similar experience before she went to seminary, when she moved to Florida and started working in theme parks. She'd meet new people. As they all shared more about their lives, at some point, she would talk about her Christian faith. She said, more often than not, her new friends would say, "You're a Christian? But you're so nice!" Like the guy in my class in college, many of the people she worked with, people who were gay, or not religious, or single mothers, had had far more bad encounters with Christians than good ones. When they met my colleague, who was creative and kind and generous, they had a hard time reconciling her identity as a Christian with the mean-spirited and stingy Christians they had known. In their lives, Christian had become shorthand for mean or unsupportive. I think it still is.
Both of the stories I shared happened about 20 years ago. I'd like to share a similar one that happened just a couple weeks ago. While Tasha and I were on vacation, we had the opportunity to hear an actress named Stephanie Beatriz talk about coming out as bisexual, and what this has meant for her professionally and personally. In talking about coming out to her family, she began this part of her story by saying, "They're really religious." At that moment, everyone in the room knew what she was going to say next. We knew that she was going to say that they weren't supportive of her because of their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, we were right. She shared how they had a hard time with her coming out. While they didn't disown her the way some families do when their children come out, they won't really totally affirm her either. Recently, the character she plays on TV recently came out in the course of a storyline. While Ms. Beatriz' family usually talks to her a lot about her character, they won't talk to her about this storyline yet. They are religious, you see. This is one step farther than they are willing to go.
I don't know when "Christian" and "religious" became shorthand for mean and unreasonable. I do know that this is has been a common narrative for most of my life. To be fair, Christians have often lived up to these bad reputations. When you look at the kind of Christianity that has shaped public discourse over the last 40 years, it is not often a generous or joyful iteration of the faith. Just this week, in Oklahoma, the state legislature has passed a bill that will likely be used to keep LGBTQ people from being allowed to adopt children. That bill has been supported by many legislators who call themselves Christians. Also, this week, the leader of one of the largest Christian denominations in the country has been in the news for saying that abuse is not a valid reason for getting a divorce. Regularly, "religious" people decry the dangers of having children outside of marriages while also doing little to make sure poor folks, who's marriages often suffer because of financial instability, have programs available to support their families. "Christian" people will be in the news for being unwelcoming to their Muslim neighbors who are trying to build a new mosque while also insisting that every football game and school day start with a Christian prayer.
Even as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's was rooted in a liberative and justice-seeking Christianity, the culture wars of the last several decades have not been shaped by the same kind of public testimony. Christianity has, too often, had a nasty public face. Too many Christians have had trouble living out a faith that looks like the faith described in today's readings. In the first reading, Philip happily taught the Ethiopian eunuch about Jesus, even though Philip's own religious community would have excluded the Ethiopian because eunuchs had ambiguous gender identities. When the eunuch asked to be baptized, to become part of their community, Philip saw no good reason to say no. In the second, the author tells a Christian community that "everyone who loves is born of God and knows God." The writer asserts that love is the primary attribute of God and of the Christian community that serves God. The person who wrote this letter said very clearly that our communities should be known by their love, not by stinginess or self-righteousness or hostility to outsiders.
It is possible to live in Christian community that looks more like Philip and 1 John and less like the hard-hearted Christians who have hurt so many people in God's name. I know it's possible because it's what we're trying to do in this church. Through your Church World Service donations, and the deacons' fund, through your work at the food pantry and your welcome to new comers in this community, you are practicing faith as love. But, if we want to counter the "mean Christian" narrative, it is going to take a whole lot more people living a loving faith out loud. I want to share a story with you about another Christian I've seen living out this kind of love-rooted faith. I've told a couple of you all this story already. But, this scripture reminded me so much of another encounter I had on vacation that I had to preach about it today.
At the same convention where I heard the panel I mentioned earlier, I also had the opportunity to meet an actress named Nafessa Williams. She plays a superhero who is part of a whole family of superheroes on the TV show Black Lighting. One thing I appreciate about this show is that her fictional family, the Pierce family, are Christians who live a loving faith. They pray, and attend worship, and go to protests together. Throughout the course of the show, they talk about how to use their powers in service to their neighbors. Ms. Williams' character in particular talks about how her powers are "a gift from God." It is important to note that while Ms. Williams is straight, her character is a lesbian. It is also important to note that her character's devout Christian family wholeheartedly supports her. Not once in the narrative of this program has her character ever been asked to choose between her faith and her sexuality. Now, this... this is the kind of Christianity that I want to see more of in the media. This is a faith lived in love.
When I got the chance to speak with Ms. Williams, I thanked her for portraying a faith like this. I said that I think it's important for there to be models of generous Christianity in the media. The moment she heard me say that I think it's important to see Christians who unabashedly support their daughter, she stopped everything she was doing and put her hands on my shoulders. She even turned me slightly so she could look right in my eyes. She started to preach to me. Frankly, I was so surprised by her generous response to me that I don't actually remember exactly what she said. But, I know she made sure that I knew that I was a beloved child of God, and that everybody who comes out should have an experience like her character did. Now, it's been a while since I've needed to be assured that I have a place in the Christian community. I had other Christians who did this for me a long time ago. But, she didn't know that. All she knew what that far too many people don't get that kind of welcome from Christian community. And she is a Christian. She is called to love. She wanted to make sure that I knew that I was beloved. So, she stopped everything she was doing to tell me.
After I met her, I paid attention to some interviews she gave through the rest of the weekend. Repeatedly, she said, "I feel like God has put me here." She talked about feeling a calling to give black women and LGBTQ people a hero to look up to. She has a profound sense of purpose, rooted in both her own experience as someone who needed to see people like her on television and also in her belief in Christ's love. Now, none of us in this room are on TV like she is, but we will each have an opportunity to testify to God's love like she did. If we love one another, God lives in us, and God's love is perfected in us. How are you going to make sure somebody knows that God is this love? How are you going to live a life that shows the world a Christianity rooted in love?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
J.R. Daniel Kirk: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3633
Alicia Myers: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3632
Judith Jones: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2448
Simone Sunghae Kim, "Fifth Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
An article about the Oklahoma adoption bill- https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/oklahoma-advances-adoption-bill-could-discriminate-against-gay-couples-n870186
Article about Patterson's views on abuse and marriage- https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/04/29/southern-baptist-leader-pushes-back-after-comments-leak-urging-abused-women-to-pray-and-avoid-divorce/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6035b35b1b89
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.