A wide spot in my imagination.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Messiness of Being Human: A Pentecost Sermon in Response to Hatred

Timothy B. Tutt
Pastor, United Christian Church
Austin, Texas

Sunday, May 27, 2012  
8:30, 9:30 and 10:45 AM Worship

Pentecost Sunday
 (Lectionary Year B)

"The Messiness of Being Human:
A Pentecost Sermon In Response to Hatred" 
Acts 2:1-21 and Romans 8:22-27

My sermon title in the bulletin is “Years of Wonder, Days of Spirit.”   And that is a very fine sermon.  But I am not going to preach that sermon this morning.  That sermon is about Pentecost in the first century and Pentecostalism today.  There’s a little bit in that sermon about Albert Einstein and some about Moses.  I will leave copies of that sermon here on the pulpit.  Feel free to take a copy home today.
            Instead, I would like to speak to you, for a moment or two, about a situation that has been bothering me the past two week.  I’ve had this nagging issue in my mind.

Two weeks ago the President of the United States expressed his personal support for gay marriage.  Those were historic words from our nation’s chief executive officer.  People responded in a number of ways to his comments.  Some cheered, some questioned, some said, “About time.”
In the middle of those responses, a pastor in North Carolina preached a sermon offering his views on gay marriage.  The pastor’s name is Charles Worley, and his congregation is in Maiden, N.C.  (MSNBC.com, May 22, 2012)

Now let me say a few general things about his comments, before I address his sermon specifically.
First, I support, and have the privilege of, a free pulpit.  No one in this congregation has ever told me what to preach or what to say.  Sometimes you disagree with me and argue with me, and that is okay.  That is a hallmark of Protestant Christianity, ministers being free to speak on issues as the Spirit leads them, and church members being free to use their minds to think. 
I also treasure the corollary of a free pulpit, the freedom of speech that our Constitution guarantees people in this country.  As we celebrate Memorial Day tomorrow and honor this nation, the freedom of speech stands first among the things I cherish.
And, I also strongly support the separation of church and state.   I think keeping state and church separate allows both to better fulfil their purposes.  And part of the separation of church and state is the freedom the church has to criticize the state.  I think, as Christians, we have a duty, a responsibility, to speak out when we feel the state is wrong, is unjust.
On the issue of marriage, I also understand that there are some people who hold very strongly to traditional views of marriage.  And by traditional, I mean the Western views that we have held for about the past four hundred years, based on romance, love, mutual respect, and maintenance of the nuclear family.

So, this preacher in North Carolina, Reverend Worley, has the freedom to preach as he feels led, he has the freedom to speak as he feels called, he has the freedom to critique our government as he sees fit, and he has the freedom to support marriage as he defines it.
But his words went far beyond freedom and tradition.
You may have seen his sermon on the news or on YouTube. 
Two Sunday ago, Mr. Worley said in his sermon that he opposes gay marriage.  From his pulpit he called the president some very childish names.  He also stated for whom he would vote and implicitly instructed his congregation to do the same.
And then he went on to say that we should round up all of the gay and lesbian people in this country. He said we should put them in a pen of some sort with an electric fence around it.  To show how kind he is, he said we should fly airplanes over and drop food from time to time.  And he said that because they won’t reproduce, we should just wait for them to die off. 
This man is proposing a Holocaust, concentration camps.

I have been to Auschwitz.   
I have seen the barbed wire and the bricks and the ovens. 
I have seen humankind’s inhumanity to others. 
I understand the Apostle Paul’s words about groaning for the world.  (Romans 8:22)
I have been to Eastern Europe where the walls of communism kept others in bondage. 
I have been to a Navajo reservation where Japanese Americans were jailed by our government, trapped on grounds of suspicion. 
I have crossed the Trail of Tears where Native Americans, where my children’s great-grandparents, were rounded up, forced to leave their homes by an oppressive government.  
I have stood on plantations where one race, my race, my great-grandparents, enslaved another race and forced them to do their bidding, or die.

Those acts were wrong.
Often, the Christian church supported those acts.  That was wrong.

Friends, we must stop the hatred, the language of violence. 
Christianity is a faith of grace and love, not a system of hatred and intolerance. 
We must not allow our faith to be used to build prisons of intolerance, whether they are actual prisons of fence and of stone or whether they are prisons of the mind and of the spirit.
Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the church.  It is time for the church to be born again, not born of ideology and segregation, but born again of integration and peace.
Pentecost is a freedom.   The Jazz Ensemble played “Freedom Jazz Dance” as the prelude.  Very appropriate. 
Pentecost is the story of the free spirit, the free mind, the free soul.  It is a story of God’s unbounded love for diverse humanity. 

Pentecost is also a story of fear.  The scripture says that God’s spirit came upon these early Christians in a new and powerful way.  They ran out into the street.  And the people who met them, who heard them, were afraid.  They made fun.  They called them names.  They thought they were drunk.  You read the scripture (Acts 2).  They were afraid of them.   They were afraid of new ways of speaking, new ways of living, new ways of loving. 
We live in a time of fear. 
As horrible as Reverend Worley’s words were two weeks ago, I understand something of why he said them.  He is afraid.  He is afraid of a changing world. 
And our world is changing rapidly.  Issues of marriage, issues of economics, issues of technology, are all changing.  We live at time of great change.  History shows that about every 500 years, the world undergoes dramatic upheaval.  The birth of Jesus and the Pentecost explosion (0), the Constantinian domination (c. 500), the Great Schism (1054), the Reformation and the printing press (1500s.)  (Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence)   
It’s hard to live in a time of change.  How we communicate is new, where we live is new, how we relate to each other is new, even the hymns we sing may be new.  And people are afraid.
Over and over again, our Bible sings out to us, “Do not be afraid!  Do not fear!”  When those early Christians gathered in that upper room, they must have been terrified also.   It wasn’t just the people outside.   It was the people inside, as well.  They were afraid.  Jesus, their lord and leader and teacher, was gone from their midst.  They were all alone.   So they hid in a room. 
And in an experience that defies our understanding, the Spirit of God showed up.   It wasn’t enough for a prophet to speak or a writer to pen the words, “Do not be afraid.”  This time, God spoke in a new and powerful way. 
Did the wind really blow?  I don’t know.  Did fire really sit on their heads?  I have no idea. 
But something happened.  Some moment of great connection with God occurred that caused them to cast off their old ways, to cast off their fears and to live and speak in new ways.
I don’t know that I have the words to speak to and for our world.  I lean on Paul’s words that the Spirit will speak for us.  (Romans 8:26)
I pray, I pray fervently and deeply, that the Spirit of God will move in the heart and mind of this Mr. Worley, that he will see the new work of the Spirit, and that he will not be afraid.  At a minimum, I pray that he will renounce the words of violence and the images of Holocaust and hatred that he used.  I pray that he will be freed from his narrow-mindedness and be opened to the love of all God’s children.
And I pray for myself.  I pray that I will be freed from my own narrow-mindedness.  I pray that I will be open to the love of all of God’s children.
After all, God’s children are a fascinating, wonderful mix of critters.   You are, just you the people in the room, are different and unique and wonderful and weird.  And in the Pentecost story, the Spirit meets us “where we are: in the midst of a multitude of languages and experiences” and weirdness.   
Theologian Eric Barreto has pointed out that, “The Spirit translates the Gospel instantly into myriad languages….Imagine then the miracle of Pentecost and what it means for us today.  God meets us in the messiness of different languages and does not ask us to speak God's language.  Instead, God chooses to speak our many languages. God does not speak in a divine language beyond our comprehension.  At Pentecost, God speaks in Aramaic and Greek and other ancient languages. Today, God continues to speak in Spanish, Greek, Hindi and Chinese alike.  At Pentecost, God makes God’s choice clear.  God joins us in the midst of the messiness and the difficulties of [the human experience], speaking different languages, eating different foods and living in different cultures. That is good news indeed.”  (Huffington Post, May 21, 2012)
Freeing, liberating, life-giving Good News that transcends our fears and opens the prisons of our minds.

It is easy to take the same kind of hatred that Reverend Worley used in North Carolina and turn it back on him.   It is easy to call him names and belittle him, as he has done for others.  It will be harder for me to pray for him.  But I will try.   And in a moment, out Jazz Ensemble will remind us of that when they play, “Speak No Evil.”  So I will try.  And I invite you to join me in praying for him as well. He is part of the messiness of the human experience.  God speaks his language too.
And I’m going to do one other thing as well.  I’m going to write a check for our United Mission Offering.  And I’m going to give it our church to give away.  On the memo line, I’ve noted that this gift is in honor of Charles Worley.  I didn’t want to write that phrase, but I did it.  However much I disagree with him, I feel compelled to honor him as my brother in Christ, my sibling in this messy human family.
Now, there may be a little “dig” in there, maybe I’m not as pure as I should be, because, you see, part of this money will go to support the Justice and Witness ministries that seek to include all people in the church. 
Part of this money goes to support new churches like Hope United in Georgetown that is an Open and Affirming church that is working to be a welcoming presence in Williamson County
Part of this money goes to support the reconciliation ministries that bridges divides and brings people together.
I don’t know that Rev. Worley will appreciate the way this money is used.  But I’ll tell him about it in the letter I will send him.  And rather than lambast him, I hope this is a way, one small way, to promote the unity of Spirit that we find in the Pentecost story.  So I invite you to join me in this giving. 
I invite you to join me in praying for those with whom you disagree.
I invite you to join me in dedicate our lives, once again, to living as people of the Spirit.

God, this Pentecost living is messy business.
We, your people are complicated, difficult people. 
Warm our hearts once again and open our minds to your ways.
I pray for Charles Worley. 
I’m sorry for the fear in which he lives and the ways he expresses that fear.
I pray for myself, O God, for the ways that I am afraid and the words I have used to harm.
I pray for those who are left out of the church, those who feel belittled and forgotten.
I pray for our United Mission Offering, for the ways that our gifts can help and heal. 
Visit us all with a sense of your renewing Spirit,
that we may all be instruments of grace and peace, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.


  1. I'm so sorry we missed this--I was feeling a little puny this morning. I'm going to print and read this. Thank you for your ability to make us think and to lead us

  2. “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them." - Matthew 7:15-16.

    It is easy to recognize the fruits of this tree. Hatred, prejudice, fear. The good news is that this "preacher" comes from a small, insignificant church in the backwater of North Carolina. And God has found a way to transform vitriol into love, by using the words of this sorry little man to mobilize hundreds of thousands to come together in the true Christian spirit of Love and Acceptance. Despite this false prophet's best efforts to slander the teachings of Christ, the Holy Spirit has prevailed. Thanks be to God.

  3. Tim, in our recent visit, my memory is not clear (surprise, surprise!) did I tell you about this?
    Recently my UU minister, Rev. Robin Tanner (another NC minister), offered these thoughts in a sermon with the title, "The inherent worth and dignity of Sarah Palin." That phrase (inherent worth and dignity) is contained in the first principle affirmed in Unitarian Universalism. Her sermon asked the question, What is it in the life narrative of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and others that I have no way of knowing? Then she offered these references:

    [It is what the great rabbi spoke of when asked to explain the Torah to a Gentile who vowed to convert if the rabbi would only explain the Torah standing on one foot. It is what the rabbi spoke of when he said, “Sure, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest is just commentary.”

    “Love thy neighbor,” as told by Jesus.

    “Be the change you wish to see,” whispers Ghandi.

    “Nameste,” in the Indian salutation. Translated the sacred in me bows to the sacred in you.

    What does this person have to tell me that I don’t already know? This is the spiritual practice of shifting the source of our identity. Perhaps the ultimate goal of living is to melt into the universe of being, if then we must melt toward the Rushes and Sarahs.

    What does this person have to teach me?

    Today, I thought of her sermon when reading this article in Salon:


  4. "I pray for those who are left out of the church, those who feel belittled and forgotten."

    I followed a link to this sermon from your comment on HRC's facebook post, and I'm glad I did. I was raised in a church founded by my grandfather, currently pastored by my uncle with my father as the associate pastor. After my divorce I realized I'm homosexual. I have sat through many hurtful sermons preached by my family as well as guest speakers. I eventually stopped going to church, but still sent my son. After the president's support of gay marriage went public, people from the congregation began to take a more active stand against the gay lifestyle. They said this is a bigger issue than other sins in the Bible because people are making a lifestyle of it. I decided I could no longer send my son to church with my father, who has picked him up for services twice a week. I planned to have a serious talk with my father explaining my decision, as it would not be taken lightly. I planned to find a new church to attend that is more in line with what I believe Jesus wants from us. As it turned out I didn't have to have that talk. My father simply stopped calling and stopped showing up to pick up his grandson. We are cast aside, cast aside by Christians in the name of God. These are the people who taught me about Jesus as a little girl. What do I make of this? I've pondered this question for many years. Is God a concept that was invented to control, to provide comfort to conformist? As a homosexual I know that I didn't choose this, I didn't, I truly, from the bottom of my heart, did not choose this. But I can't convince anyone. They don't believe me. God must know that. What do I do with this?

    1. Hi Magen, I attend Tim Tutt's church, and I wanted to tell you that I believe you, and so many other people do. God believes you. I am sorry for what you've gone through--you deserve better. And it is very possible to be a good Christian and a homosexual Christian at the same time! Please email me, maybe I can help, just as a friend from afar. sarahnaomiwagner@gmail.com

  5. Magen: I am sorry to hear your story. Your pain I clear and sadly, too common. I am sorry the people who cared for you and loved you and taught you about Jesus as a little girl are not able currently to live out the love of Jesus for your now. People are flawed messengers, but the message of love and grace still rings true. I hope you can find a supportive, loving, accepting church that will care for your son and for you. Please feel free to email me at tim@uccaustin.org, if you would like to chat more about this. Please know that you and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. May I include your name in the concerns of our congregation so that others may pray for you as well?

  6. My sermon this Sunday is going to follow-up on last Sunday. As I think about Magen's post about her family "casting her aside" (orphaning her) because of her sexual orientation, this week will be pondering the verse: "Religion that is pure before God is this, to care for orphans and widows in their distress..." (James 1:27)