Worship reflection Sunday, February 19, 2023

“All About: Living Diversity”

The theme for today is “All About Living Diversity.” I would start by asking you to recall the Protestant Reformation, which began about 500 years ago. That seems long, long ago and far, far away, but as William Faulkner said, “history isn’t dead, it isn’t even history yet.” The Reformation let loose forces that changed Christianity and Europe and the world, and they are still changing the world today.

At the center of the Reformation was an idea, a doctrine if you will, of the priesthood of all believers. The reformers said, We are all priests to each other. Wherever two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus, Jesus is present. It was a radically egalitarian idea, and a radically democratic one. The way we are arranged in this Great Hall as we worship is an affirmation of this idea–the priesthood of all believers, the belief in equality. That’s one of the central ideas of the Reformation and the Protestant tradition, our tradition.

A second key idea was “covenant.” The reformers knew that the word “testament” comes from a root word meaning “covenant.” We are a people who believe in equality and in covenant. The central ethic of the biblical covenant is best translated into the English made-up word “one-anothering.” Pray for one another, support one another, encourage one another. Love one another.

The reformers used these two ideas, equality and covenant (one-anothering) to come up with the idea of the common good. The role of government, they said, is to support the common good. In the United States today the prevailing political philosophy is from John Locke. In Locke’s theory the role of government is to enforce contracts and protect private property. There is no theory of the common good. But in the covenant, everything is about the common good. Failure to provide for the common good is a failure to keep the covenant. A state that cannot or will not provide for the common good is a failed state. Turning public schools into shooting galleries is a sign of a failed state. Failure to provide decent affordable housing is a sign of a failed state. Creating food deserts is a sign of a failed state. The inability to provide for safe streets is a sign of a failed state.   

So, the Protestant Reformation was a radical movement. The leaders of the movement believed in equality. And they believed in the common good. And they believed in an ethic of caring for and about one another. And they grounded these ideas in their understanding of the covenant, the books we call the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible. The books of the covenant.

When the church was young, people spread all sorts of rumors about what Christians were doing because they did not know about Christianity or maybe they were opposed to it. There was a massive misinformation campaign. So, Emperor Pliny sent spies into the church to find out for himself. One of the spies wrote back and said, “These people,” meaning the Christians, “These people actually love one another.” That’s how the church grew. The word got out. It was an alternative society. A society of people who actually loved one another. In the second century, Christians endured a time of great persecution. One of the church leaders named Tertullian said of that time, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” What he meant was that the persecutions exposed the cruelty of the empire and demonstrated the need for a new society.

After the death of Jesus, the cross became a symbol not only of Roman oppression, but also of Christian resistance. Rome was a society in which might makes right. The love of power was greater than the power of love. But for the Christians, the ends do not justify the means, the means have to be consistent with the ends. The power of love is greater than the love of power. In every way the church set out to show the world a more excellent way of living.

This is our Protestant heritage. The cross is an important symbol of our tradition, but it is not the only symbol. Many years ago, I had the privilege of visiting what was then East Germany, the German Democratic Republic. When I went there, I discovered that the cross was not the primary symbol of the church. The rooster was. The church in East Germany was a “woke” church. The rooster was its symbol. If I was the pastor of a church in certain states, I’d put a rooster on the lawn. Another time I had the good fortune to visit a church called St. John the Baptist Church. I told my host that I could not remember ever visiting a church named after John the Baptist. So, I asked, “How important is John that he should have a church named after him?” My host said, “H’mm, a little more important than Jesus.” So, I asked the next question, “Why?” My host said, “This congregation is a voice crying in the wilderness. That’s why they chose this name.” We need many symbols to tell our story.

Now let me turn our attention to the communion table before I finish this morning. The symbols on this represent our common life, our values as a community, and they connect us with the world. We are fed at this table so that we go out into the world to witness to a world in which there is enough. So, this week I took the liberty of putting Howard Thurman’s Jesus and this Disinherited on the communion table. It’s Black History month. We need symbols that celebrate Black history. Thurman’s book asks the poignant question, “What does religion say to a people who have their back against the wall?” How does the symbol of the cross answer that question? What other symbols help us come to terms with that profound question. What does the church have to say to people who have their back against the wall?  How do we witness to the common good? How do we affirm living with diversity and equality?

I also put the Pride Flag on the communion table. We have talked about buying a Pride Flag to put on the building. I hope we will make a decision today or next week. Some of you get the newsletter from Kansas Interfaith Action. Rabbi Reiber is the organizer of that group. They lobby in the state legislature. In his newsletter called this week, “Trans Hell Week in Kansas,” because of the dreadful legislation being introduced. One bill targets transgirls in sports, another bill would strip medical practitioners of their license if they help people who are transitioning and another bill regulates who can use which bathroom, and it goes on.

Rabbi Reiber calls this a Niemoller Moment for the church.  Martin Niemoller was a German pastor during World War II. He wrote a famous poem in which he said:

First they came for the communists,

and I did not speak out because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,

and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me,

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Living with diversity because we believe in equality and we affirm that power of love and the common good is not easy in a state that wants to deny diversity and equality.

Let me close with these words from Angela Davis, she is a social activist. She said: “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.” Let it be so.