This past week, two events have reminded me of the importance in offering alternative Christian witness to the dominant voices of our society. The first was a sermon delivered by Dr. Stephen Shoemaker, the pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, entitled, “The Opposite of Love: Engaging Constitutional Amendment One.”
From his own pulpit, Shoemaker preached to his congregation why he would oppose Constitutional Amendment One that will appear on the ballot in North Carolina this May. The amendment would recognize only unions between one man and one woman as a legal marriage in this state.
In the sermon, Shoemaker described how he felt the proposed amendment infringed upon the First Amendment by promoting one religious viewpoint on marriage over others. He went on to say that he believed that Baptists should be opposed to any infringement upon religious liberty and that Christians should be opposed to actions that run counter to an ethic of love.
He spoke his conscience in a public way and he challenged his congregation to re-think their own witness on this issue. Shoemaker finished the sermon by saying that churches and other institutions would come down on either side of this issue, and he prayed with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Let us not be among the indifferent as this vote approaches.”
The second event was a call from evangelical author Rachel Held Evans to pastors, fathers, and men of all stripes to respond to recent comments made by pastor John Piper. Piper recently spoke at a pastor’s conference and shared his conclusion that “God has given Christianity a masculine feel.” Evans wanted to show Piper that not all men of faith shared his viewpoint, and so she asked for the men to respond this time.
And the stories came pouring in from all over the world. People shared about their own experiences with their mothers, daughters, spouses, sisters and friends, women who had shown them the goodness of God in their lives. They spoke of scripture and all the places where God creates both male and female in imageo Dei, the parts where Paul says there is neither male nor female, and where God hovers over creation like a mother to her children. Evans then posted many of the responses on her blog for all to see. She said they were important reminders “for all those who have grown weary of being treated like second-class Kingdom citizens…that there are indeed many Christian men out there who support and celebrate women in the Church.”
Both of these public events are important because they remind me that following Jesus means being both comforted and afflicted. I imagine as Dr. Shoemaker took to the pulpit, sermon notes in hand, that he may have had a small moment where he realized that this was one of the scariest moments of his life. He had pored over his manuscript all week, making meticulous corrections and changes in his language, hoping to finally come up with the best balance of truth and love that he could preach on this matter. Perhaps his hands shook a little as he laid out the pages in front of him and looked out to see the grim faces of his congregants, awaiting to see what all the fuss had been about at church all week. Perhaps Rachel Evans felt it as well in those moments of quiet that followed after she issued her challenge to men of faith. There were those few minutes when no e-mails or phone calls came in, and no comments burst forth on her blog. The world seemed silent.
In those moments, I wonder if they asked themselves some of the haunting questions I find myself dealing with. Have I made the right decision to stand up for what I think is right? Will people respond? Or will they think me a heretic and attack me for being a raving liberal? Is this the way of Jesus? The silence thundered as the questions multiplied.
And yet, the silence gave way to response and opened new avenues of conversation. Shoemaker looked out on his congregation and began to notice the nodding heads and smiles. He saw faces come to life. He felt warmth in the room as the people he loved surrounded him. At the end of his sermon, he even received something very few pastors do at their churches: applause. As the responses came pouring in and her inbox filled to the brim, I’m sure Evans smiled. She may have even cried as people told some of their deepest and most sincere stories about the women in their life. “Thank you, God,” she might have prayed, “for letting me hear these people.”
As people following Jesus of Nazareth, we are at our best when we are inviting and challenging. Following Jesus does not only entail the feeling of unconditional love, but it also entails risk. Shoemaker and Evans both made bold, public risks – the type of risks that will merit public scrutiny from the dominant voices who see this as an affront to their interpretation of Christian faith.
Yet for others, these actions were an open door to them and allowed their voices to be counted among others on these two issues. Yes, these are the things I thought Jesus was talking about when he said to care for the least of these. Yes, these are the same words that I have been begging for someone to speak. By their words and actions, we are all challenged and invited to join in this alternative witness to the status quo.
More importantly, these public professionals remind me that this is a time to be brave. There are many who will come down on both sides of these two important issues. The issues strike at the core of our beliefs about equality, about the nature of faith, and about our life together.
There will be just as many who would rather avoid the issues altogether, hoping to bury their heads in the sand until it all passes. But for me, these are the few opportunities we have to live up to the call of our faith. These are the moments where we have the opportunity to stand up for the people that Jesus stood up for, to stand with those whom Jesus would stand with.
It is a chance to make everyone curious as to why a bunch of people would give up all of their own interests in order to fight for the interests of those on the margins, to speak for those without a voice, and to care for the least of these. These are the moments to risk something big for something good. So let us not be among the indifferent today, even as we face challenging issues about gay rights and women’s equality in church.
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