Atheist Ministers and Christian Bakers: A Sermon on Acts 9:1-20

I preached a version of this sermon on Sunday, April 10th, 2016 entitled “Learning to Be The Church: Identity”.  I don’t usually write manuscripts for my sermons, so I’m super grateful to Linda Hershey, who transcribes our worship services for those in our congregation who are living with hearing loss, for the text that is making up this blog entry.  It also allows me to re-write history and destroy evidence of any awkward phrasing or verbal ticks Linda may have picked up on.

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a visionc a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Sauld and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

I don’t know how many of you pay much attention to what is going on with the church in Canada, but there’s an interesting sort of case going on with the United Church of Canada and a member of its clergy by the name of Gretta Vosper.
Rev. Vosper serves as a minister at a small United Church in Toronto, and has been the subject of a lot of media attention, as of late.  She’s currently the subject of an investigation into her ministerial “fitness” by the United Church of Canada.

The Reason?

She serves a congregation of a Christian denomination (The United Church of Canada), and yet refers to herself as an atheist.
Now, it might, at first hearing,  seem like this would be a very clear,  cut-and-dry case.

After all, you might ask, how can an atheist serve as a Christian minister?

But it’s a little more complicated than that.
To understand why it’s a little more complicated, it’s important to dig into the context a little bit.

First, the United Church of Canada is a very unique denomination. In many ways, its history parallels that of Canada.  The United Church formed in the 1920s, as a merger of several Protestant denominations across Canada, and it formed its identity in the 20th century, not unlike Canada, which forged a unique national identity and burgeoning economy over those same years.

As a denomination that emerged out of a merger of multiple faith traditions, the United Church has been a tradition that has concentrated on its commonalities and celebrated its theological diversity.  Among folks who know the North American Church, the United Church of Canada is known for being open and progressive, and in practice, it’s often a place where people who didn’t have a faith home anywhere else feel welcomed.
Enter someone like Rev. Vosper, who was long nurtured by the faith, and felt a sense of calling to ordained ministry.  But, as she reflects in her own writing and speeches, even as she was taking her ordination vows, she felt uncomfortable with some of the theological language, concepts, and constructs that were part of United Church theology, liturgy, and even her ordination vows.

She began to talk about her discomfort with this language in her ministry, from the pulpit, and in other public venues.  At one point, not only nodding to her theological and philosophical questions, but the persecution of non-religious and vocal atheists in religiously conservative nations like Bangladesh, Rev. Vosper began referring to herself as an “atheist,” though we might more precisely refer to her as an “A/theist,” as she does note that there are things she can’t say with certainty about the existence of some sort of divine something-or-other, but she rejects the notion of a “Theistic” God who controls history, the weather, whatever.

Hence–an A/Theist Minister.

Rev. Vosper speaks about this with precision, depth, and, by utilizing a good bit of language from the Christian theological tradition.  As she spoke about her a/theism more explicitly, there were those in her congregation who stuck around, and others who left.  When she made changes to her church’s liturgy–like removing the Lord’s Prayer (because  if you don’t believe in a God who intervenes in the world, it’s hard to pray to “Our Father Who art in Heaven”), that was too much for many people, but there were others who found her ministry quite attractive, and soon showed up to see what this A/theist minister was all about.

None of this was without controversy. But depending on who you ask, the trouble for Rev. Vesper began last year following the violent attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in France.

Gary Patterson, the moderator of the United Church of Canada, authored a statement in response to this act of religious violence.  Not an unusual thing–most mainline denominations offered some sort of statement or prayer.  His read as such:

Gracious God,
By the light of faith,
lead us to seek comfort, compassion, and peace,
in the face of escalating violence around the world.
As we read news reports describing the horrifying situations in Paris,
we offer our heartfelt prayers
for those who were injured in today’s shooting;
for the emergency response crews and police officers who are working toward providing security and safety for all;
for the people of Paris who are mourning the death of loved ones.
God of Epiphany,
We humbly offer you our pain, our bafflement, and our cries for peace,
seeking your gift of transformation and your promise of hope.
Amen.

This is a pretty typical, heartfelt statement.

But Rev. Vosper, who in my reading, sees herself as a reformer, had an indicting critique to offer:

The prayer posted to the United Church’s web portal is one of the myriad responses and I appreciate that we chose to offer it in a timely manner. I question, however, the merit of such a response because it underscores one of the foundational beliefs that led to the horrific killing in Paris: the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined and which, once interpreted and without mercy, must be brought about within the human community in the name of that being. This belief has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory. If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.

(for Rev. Vosper’s full upon letter, please visit her website here.)

It was after offering this critique that the investigation into her fitness began.

For me, Rev. Vosper’s words are a powerful challenge.  Here’s what I hear her saying:

When we, in the name of mercy, invoke God’s name and claim that we, by praying, can influence God’s action in the world, we open up the door to the possibility that people who kill in the name of God  can legitimize their claim as well.

I think there’s a lot to unpack in a statement like this, and I find a lot of common ground with Rev. Vosper:

I’d agree that all language about God is metaphorical.

I also think wed have to be careful about the way we claim God is active in the world.  It’s easy to make claims that are clearly unhelpful, or downright abusive.

We have examples of egregious violence done in God’s name, of course, but it’s also important to consider how we say God is involved in our lives–if we’re involved in an accident, we live, and another person dies–What sort of thing are we claiming if we say that God “spared us” and yet did not spare the other person?

What sort of God is that?

The Notion of God that we claim is at the heart of our identity as people of faith.

As the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we are a people who celebrate an open table.
We say that every one has a place.
That is core to our identity.
We welcome everyone.  Gretta Vosper has a place here.

But here’s the thing: we say that we are welcomed to this table because Christ welcomes us. We are welcomed because we are all valued by a God who welcomes us, who meets us in the real world.
That is our claim, that is what we say, that is the claim that we hang our identity upon.

Sociologically speaking you create your identity by setting limits, drawing a boundary line, establishing a fence that says:
“I belong to this group. And this-this-is what defines this group.”

But in our tradition, we say something paradoxical.  The boundary we set is an open table.

The boundary we set is not a boundary at all!

But how does that play out when we consider the welcome that we offer to someone like Rev. Vosper, for whom the theological basis of our invitation would sound like a false premise.

Well, that’s why I think this story of Paul is so important.

The story of Paul’s first experience of the Post-resurrection Christ appears most fully in Acts, as a narrative written many years after Paul’s death, and in Paul’s own letter to the Galatians.

There are significant differences between the two tellings, of course.  Acts is, in many ways, an idealized version of the story–some of the details are different in the two accounts, and Paul often acts differently in Acts than we might guess he would based on what he writes in Galatians.

But for our purposes today, it’s important to note an important consistency in Paul’s behavior.

Paul shifts from being the persecutor of the ancient Christian community to one who offers a welcome to the community.

And that shift occurs because he finds himself welcomed.  By God. Through Christ.

Rooted in an experience of the Holy, Paul shifts from being the early Jesus movement’s most feared persecutor to its most celebrated host of an open table.

In the narrative arc of Acts, we see his work going hand-in-hand with the radical invitation of all people, rooted in the experience of a God who creates and welcomes all of humanity:

In Acts, the Church makes room for women, for an Ethiopian eunuch, and even in its dramatic opening act, the story of Pentecost, the very notion of church is the creation of a place where all who speak, no matter their language, are understood.

And in Galatians, Paul follows up his story of his Christophany with his argument with Cephas (Peter) that is all about table fellowship–making sure that a welcome is offered, no matter the religious tradition of those who find themselves transformed by their experience of Christian community.

Paul even follows that up with that beautiful poetic statement:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Perhaps, in the case of Rev. Vosper, there is no longer “Believer” or “Non-believer”

The boundaries are–paradoxically, mysteriously–set by our openness.  We need to spend our energy making sure that we are clear about that, not obsess about whether Rev. Vosper  is clear in her beliefs.

We are called to invite and to welcome.  To offer room. That is how we set boundaries.

And that, my friends, is why I have spend the last week absolutely incensed.

I have watched state legislators in our state and in surrounding states design, brings forward and pass laws that have been discriminatory in function under the guise of “Religious Freedom.”

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have encountered a news story about these laws.

There is one in North Carolina passed under the shadow of night, one in Mississippi passed in plain daylight, and one in the State of Tennessee currently awaiting action. Each has its own end goal, but essentially they are  motivated by the same variety of hate and intolerance.
Under the guise of protecting “sincerely held religious beliefs,” they either give business owners the right to discriminate or limit municipal ability to pass non-discrimination ordinances.

It’s pretty clear that these discriminatory laws focus on the lesbian, gay, transgendered, bisexual, and questioning folks, but these laws are so open and so sloppily constructed that many leave other groups vulnerable as well–differently-able people, ethnic minorities, and in some circumstances, women and children.

No matter how you want to argue the legality of these pieces of legislation, in terms of Christian practice, these laws are highly problematic.

You cannot believe in an open table and support these laws.

As a Christian, if your “Sincerely Held Religious Belief” means that you close the door of your business to anyone, you are doing one of two things wrong:

Either your religious belief is wrong or the sincerity with which you hold it is false.

We are called to follow Christ–the one who offers the invitation, to take seriously the example of Paul, who extends the invitation.  In our public lives, in our private actions, in our lives of faith, we are to live in a messy, sociological paradox: The boundaries that we set are not really boundaries at all.

Our identity is built upon our ability to be open, to welcome, to make room for anyone who crosses our path.

Instead of assuming that must transform people–of different belief, like Gretta Vesper, or of different identity, like that oft-evoked gay couple searching for a wedding cake– in our image, we are called, like Paul to be transformed ourselves and spend our lives making room, declaring that there is no difference in the people who are invited and the people who extend the invitation.

If there is any doubt in terms of how we live that out in our public lives, I think the best advice I have seen on that comes from Jesus himself, as paraphrased by my friend Joshua, from the gospel of Matthew:

If a gay couple asks you to bake them a cake, then bake them two.

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