For those of you following our “Help My Unbelief” webinar and study of Fleming Rutledge’s book, this blog is a two-fer. That is, it includes links to the video tapes of our last two sessions. Here’s the most recent, from Monday May 16, in which we covered two sermons on the topic of inclusiveness. Fleming’s question that provides the rubric for those sermons is “Don’t we need to make Christianity more inclusive?” Though these sermons were written some time ago they remain relevant, even urgent.
And then the recording from the week before, addressing two other questions that are often asked, “Shouldn’t we get rid of the idea that God is judgmental?” and “Didn’t St. Paul mess up the simple gospel of Jesus?”
Jason had asked me to take “center stage” on the inclusiveness topic/ sermons at least in part because the other three panelists are all Methodists, a denomination that remains stuck, and now divided, on the LGBTQ issues. The UCC was able to resolve those issues in part because of our congregational polity (congregations could make their own decisions apart from the denomination) and in part because the UCC doesn’t have the global makeup of the Methodists or Episcopalians, with churches particularly in Africa, resistant to an “open and affirming” position.
That said, we actually didn’t focus our discussion on the issues of sexuality very much. In introducing the topic I noted that the invocation of “inclusion” and related words, “diversity,” “openness” or “acceptance,” had a two-fold impulse. One was certainly the question of gay/ lesbian inclusion and ordination. But another was a more general effort to be more welcoming of the un and the de-churched. A fair number of people experience churches as clubby and not particularly receptive to the wide variety of humanity. So “inclusion” has been an effort overcome these tendencies or failures.
But often this effort has proceeded without much theological grounding and has been, as a result, more of a human virtue to be aspired to or even a new “law,” as in “let us all now be inclusive.” These sermons take a different and better approach, which is to treat inclusiveness as intrinsic to the gospel message of God’s grace for sinners — a category that is really inclusive.
Remember the story Jesus told of the Pharisee and the tax collector? Two men enter the Temple. One advances to the front and thanks God for his good and virtuous life, and (with a backward nod) that he not like the other guy, that tax collector (read: person who makes money off a corrupt system). Meanwhile, the tax farmer stands at the far back of the Temple and wails, “God have mercy on me a sinner.” Which one, asked Jesus, “went home justified?” You know the answer: the one who relied on God’s grace, not on his own (self) righteousness.
Often in our “inclusive” churches I have heard us say something like, “Thank God, we are not like those nasty, narrow minded conservative Christians.”
As Fleming notes we human beings are always making distinctions between ourselves and others on all sorts of grounds, and judging ourselves, like the Pharisee in the story, to be better than others. Before God none of that holds up very well. Before God we are all sinners in need of grace. That is the basis of true inclusiveness. I’ll close with a relevant quote from Bonhoeffer.
“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”