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Chasing Christian Unity?

Last Thursday morning I went to visit the Islamic Center of Southern California on Vermont Avenue for the 3rd time in as many weeks.  This time I went to participate in a press conference to speak briefly about how our regional Lutheran churches and our synod are engaged in strong relationships with Muslims and Latino immigrants.  I announced that Bishop Guy Erwin has established a task force on “Sacred Solidarity and Sanctuary”—of which I am a part—to assist congregations in building relationships and when necessary offer protection to persons who feel under threat in this season, especially immigrants and Muslims.  It wasn’t the slew of television cameras and reporters in the audience that excited me—frankly it was a little nerve wracking as I tried to speak meaningfully and briefly.  What was most powerful for me in the experience of the press conference was standing on the speakers platform together with two dozen other religious leaders from around the LA area.  Not only was I standing together with some well-known Jewish and Muslim leaders, but I stood together with a host of Christian religious leaders from different traditions: Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, UCC, Catholic, even an Evangelical leader.  Whatever our distinctions, for those minutes we stood there—we were united in our faith in Jesus Christ.

Today—the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany when we hear about how Jesus called his first disciples starting with Simon Peter—we celebrate the start of what mainline Christianity calls the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.”  It is a week when we are called to celebrate how Jesus Christ has called all of us to be followers of the Son of God who—as we heard last week—came to take away the sin of the world.

But what does Christian unity mean?  As I stood on the speaker platform last week, I felt strengthened in my faith as I stood surrounded by and united with fellow main-line Christians.  But the reality is that Christianity—especially Christianity in America—is as deeply divided as ever as revealed in the polling data in our last election.  According to the Pew Research Trust, while a large majority—approximately 70% of Jewish and other non-Christian religious voted for the Democratic Candidate—among Christians, the majority of all Christians—Protestant, white Evangelicals, and Catholics voted for the new president except for Hispanic Catholics who voted 70% for the democratic candidate.  Evangelical Christians voted 81% for the new president.  Even the group defined as “Protestant/other Christian” voted approximately 60% to 40% for President Trump. Christianity—including the ELCA--is divided along political lines.

In this context, is there any hope that we can at this moment in our nation, at the start of this Week of Christian Unity and on this Reconciling in Christ Sunday when we celebrate our long history of being a community for LGBTQ Christians, that you can feel any sense of kinship and unity with the many other Christians who may have voted differently from you?  To bring it closer to home, is there any way that we at St. Matthew’s could feel a sense of faith with the Vice President Pence who states that he rejects gay marriage, gay rights or gay identity because of his Christian faith?

I do not think that chasing Christian unity is an effective use of our energy and resources in this season.  But I actually do think there is something that unites all Christians and it is our fundamental commitment to being what St. Paul asks the divided people of Corinth to be: Paul tells the Corinthians to “be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” Paul uses these phrases in another letter of his, the letter to the Philippians in which Paul exhorts the residents of Philippi to have the same mind and the same purpose as Jesus Christ. Fundamentally, to be a Christian is to have the same mind and the same purpose as Jesus Christ.  Listen to what Paul says: “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”

To be united as Christians in the same mind as Jesus Christ means to be prepared to abandon our self-interest and in humility, empathy and solidarity to pour out our selves for the restoration and wellbeing of others. 

And to know what it means to be united in the same purpose as Jesus Christ, we just need to turn to the close of our Gospel reading today where we get a quick summary of what Jesus did in his early ministry.  So what did Jesus do? [He taught, he proclaimed the Good News of God’s kingdom of grace and restoration, righteousness and justice, and he went throughout the countryside curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”]

What unites all Christians is our commitment to being of the same mind and purpose as Jesus Christ; what divides us is how we discern what that is and how we live that out.

Just as there is a debate about who are the “real Americans”—middle-American, predominantly white supporters of President Trump—or the diversity-embracing, largely educated, city dwellers.  There is also a debate about who are the real Christians—Evangelicals and conservative protestants who stake their faith on social policies of anti-Abortion and anti-Gay?  Or more moderate or even progressive Christians who advocate for human rights and justice reform? 

If we look at the voting statistics, today being Christian doesn’t signal much about the mind and purpose of Christ.  What being Christian signals in the public square is that you are a social conservative.

This was brought home to me on Inauguration Day. I had travelled with my family to Washington, DC to participate in protest actions.  On Friday, my husband Stephen and I were standing in line at one of the security checkpoints to get into the inaugural parade sites.  We were headed for a protest organized by the ANSWER Coalition, a human rights organization in DC that fights racism and services the poor.  At the time we were in line, there were more protesters than supporters of the President patiently waiting to inch down the block and through the magnetron metal detectors.  Passing alongside those in line were Trump supporters, protesters and an occasional evangelist.  At one point, a large man carrying a banner that proclaimed “Jesus Christ loves you” called out to those of us in line something kind like: “Jesus Christ loves you!  Whatever you are going through, if you approach Jesus with humility, you will experience God’s endless love for you.”  No fire and brimstone, no anti-Gay or anti-abortion rhetoric.  Pretty much just gentle grace.  One of the protesters in line called out to him: “Hey mister, you are preaching to the wrong crowd”—and the other protesters in earshot laughed loudly.

The reality is clear: the voice of progressive Christianity has been all but drowned out by the Christians on the right and secular progressives on the left.

If progressive Christians want to have any hope of claiming some part of the public square, we must be bolder in discerning and bolder at articulating what it means for us to be of one mind and one purpose with Jesus Christ, and much bolder in how we live it out. 

There is a reason why I didn’t just go to the Women’s March on Washington wearing the beautiful “pussy hat” that Karen knitted for me.  I also wore my clerical shirt and collar and a rainbow stole.  Because I wanted to make clear that my call for human rights and civil rights and dignity for all springs from my discernment of what it means to have the same mind and purpose as Jesus Christ.  And as I pushed through the crowds on Saturday, several people gave my garb the “thumbs up” and one woman came up to me and said: “I want you to know it means a lot to me that you came wearing this”—as she gestured to the clerical clothes. 

My Christian brothers and sisters, we must claim our faith, we must claim our oneness with the mind and purpose of Christ, we must claim our voice and our space in the public square boldly.  And so I urge you—the next time you march—and there will be many next times ahead—be evangelical and consider wearing a cross around your neck or pinned to your coat.  Or don’t wait till you march again.  Start now.  The next time you tweet or post on Facebook, be evangelical, and claim your identity as a Christian.  Post: I am Christian…..and I believe that God loves gay people.  I am Christian….and I believe that God builds beloved, inclusive community.  I am Christian….and whatever you believe.  So that the world may know that too have discerned what it means to have the same mind and purpose as Jesus Christ—the healing of the world.


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