The Sunday Sermon: The Challenge of God’s Grace

St Paul’s welcomed the Rev Michael Kinnamon for both the forum and the sermon on Pride Sunday.

Grace and peace to you in the name of our savior, Jesus Christ! I give thanks for the ministry God has done through the St. Paul’s community, including your ministry to the homeless, your support of Dorcas House, your concern for the environment, and your active, outspoken welcome of persons who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer. The original St. Paul instructed the Romans to “welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you, to the glory of God.” I understand that you take this to heart by making sure there are no “visitors” at St. Paul’s. Thank you for making me, and others, feel at home.

Of course, I think you’ll agree that if through this cathedral people are welcomed, the needy are served, and justice is done, it is not our accomplishments we celebrate, but God’s gifts for which we give thanks. In this sense, the Pride parade yesterday, seen through Christian eyes, was not simply a celebration of gay rights and dignity, but a testimony to the welcoming, liberating grace of God.

It was with this in mind that I decided, when your wonderful Dean first invited me, to preach about grace. But then came Orlando, a horrifying assault on the LGBTQ community, followed by Dhaka and Istanbul and Baghdad and Baton Rouge and Minneapolis and Dallas and Nice and the brutal murders of homeless men here in San Diego. And so I need to preface my sermon by reminding us that grace is so precious because the world remains so broken.
One thing I love about the Episcopal Church is your insistence on taking seriously the whole Christian tradition. That tradition, on the one hand, is realistic: It knows about the depth of sin and the toll it can take on the human family, on God’s creation. We should never “get used” to the violence and exclusion of this world, but neither should we be caught off guard by it. The world is, by no means, as God would have it. The Christian tradition is realistic about this. The church has a heavy agenda as participants in God’s mission.

On the other hand, Christians are also insistently hopeful, trusting that the Holy Spirit is at work around us. If you didn’t see the presence of the Spirit when Ireland voted to approve same sex marriage, or the Boy Scouts changed their membership standard to exclude exclusion on the basis of sexual orientation, or the Roberts’ court ruled that same sex couples have a Constitutional right to marry in all fifty states, then you may not have been paying enough attention! Realistic and hopeful. Actively lamenting the tragedy of human sin; actively celebrating the presence of God’s grace.
End of preface.


I don’t think I’ve ever started a sermon with an axiom before, but here goes: If you want
to be sure of being wrong, try to determine the boundaries of God’s grace. We learn in scripture that Israel’s identity was rooted in a special relationship with God, the One who had delivered them from bondage. But listen also to this word from the Lord as delivered by the prophet Amos: “Yes, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt. But didn’t I also bring the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? Are you not like the Ethiopians to me?”
What a shocking thought that must have been! Almost as shocking as the Book of Ruth in which the instrument of God’s saving work is a Moabite woman, or the Book of Jonah in which the prophet learns to his horror that God cares for the people of Ninevah with the same generous compassion that God has shown toward Israel. How, he frets, can God be so indiscriminate?!

Please say it with me: If you want to be sure of being wrong, try to determine the boundaries of God’s grace.
One of the seminal memories in the development of early Christianity is that recorded in the passage we heard from Acts 10. Peter, you recall, has a dream that challenges his inherited notions of what is clean and what is unclean; and it opens him to associate with, of all things, a Gentile. “I now understand,” says Peter, “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to the Lord.” Finally, he goes to the great council in Jerusalem where he tells them, “Yes, I know what parts of scripture say about Gentiles. But, you see, there is this man Cornelius–and the Spirit is in him.” We know what parts of the Anglican Communion have said about sexual orientation. But, you see, there is this bishop named Robinson– and the Spirit is in him.

Communities throughout history have set up boundaries to determine who is in and who is out, who is worthy and who is not. But, as Peter learns, God’s grace doesn’t operate according to rules of our devising. And, thus, our identity, as those who live in thankful recognition of such grace, should be marked by an expanding sense of wholeness, not fearful, defensive contraction.

This brings us to our other reading for this morning, what may be the most astonishing text in the entire New Testament. The key figure, as recorded in Mark 7, is a Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin–the ultimate outsider, little more than a dog in the eyes of many of the contemporaries of Jesus. And, in fact, when she pleads with him to heal her daughter, Jesus responds with an anti-Gentile cliché: “Let the children [that is, the descendants of Abraham] be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food [the good news of God’s grace] and throw it to the dogs”!

In order to understand this disturbing passage, we need to acknowledge how the basic sickness of human society has much to do with “zero-sum thinking,” what some call the

“economy of scarcity.” Racism, sexism, class prejudice, homophobia–all those attitudes which force some people to live as underdogs in our midst–get their impetus from this idea that there is not enough wealth or respect or power or grace to go around. In order for me and my group to be up, someone else has got to be down.

But, says Jesus throughout the New Testament, it is not this way in the household of God. In the household of God, there is more than enough forgiveness and joy for everyone. In the household of God, where there are no “visitors,” no one need go hungry because even the crumbs of God’s banquet are satisfying.

The irony, of course, is that this outsider must remind Jesus of his own message. Okay, the nourishing food of the gospel may have been served to others first, but (notice the imagery) it spills over the table, and there is more than enough for everyone. For far too long, Christians have used the gospel to declare that God loves especially us and our kind. But the logic of the gospel is that God has been gracious, not only to us, but even to us–though we may have gone to work in the vineyard (you remember the parable) late in the afternoon.

If you want to be sure of being wrong, try to determine the boundaries of God’s grace. You know as well as I that the Bible is frequently used to validate our various prejudices, to pronounce with certainly that God’s favor is here and not there. But it is a monstrous misuse! Taken as a whole, scripture repeatedly exposes the narrowness of our affections and the pettiness of our exclusions, including those sometimes found within scripture itself.

Let’s come at this another way, with specific reference to our focus on this Pride Sunday. Recent years, as we noted earlier, have seen a tremendous change in public attitude toward persons whose sexual orientation or gender identity is not that of the majority. For which we say, “Thanks be to God!” That’s the hopeful side; now the realistic. Far from being in the vanguard of such social change, such social liberation, much of the church in this country continues to regard the newly-public support for gay rights as a sign of moral relativism that must be opposed in the name of biblical truth. Gracious welcome is treated as a sign of weakness, as if those with firm convictions about the gospel will always want to draw firm boundaries to exclude persons who are different.

Thus, friends, it is crucial for us to say “No!”. If you want to set boundaries on God’s favor, if you want to treat people as categories instead of looking for the Spirit at work in them, then you are sure to be wrong! You have missed the good news.

I was privileged to preach at Riverside Church in New York City on the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. It was a joyous service! And at its conclusion, a thousand persons in the congregation, maybe more, left to join the parade through mid-town Manhattan. But the previous evening, I had gone with a group from Riverside to Yankee Stadium for the closing of the Gay Games (a kind of parallel to the Olympics), where throughout the festivities the church was, understandably, the butt of jokes, not a source of inspiration. It was incredibly painful.

Allow me one other memory. Twenty-five years ago, I was the search committee’s nominee to be the General Minister and President (to translate that into Episcopalese, the Presiding Bishop) of my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)–a nomination that was defeated at our General Assembly (the only time that has happened) because I was a member of GLAD: Gay Lesbian and Affirming Disciples. During the period between the nomination and the assembly, I had a number of interesting encounters–including an invitation to speak at a forum hosted by our church’s right-wing group, where I was received as warmly as President Obama would be at a convention of the NRA.

I have to tell you, however, that we immediately found common ground, because the moderator began by declaring that “Homosexuality is the defining issue of our age.” And I told him: “For once, I think you’re right!” This struggle is an opportunity to proclaim again, in our generation, the superabundance of grace. Paul faced the challenge of exclusivity, the push to put limits on grace, over the issue of circumcision. Peter faced it over questions of what is clean and unclean. Our 19th century ancestors faced it over slavery. During the past century, our churches have wrestled with it over questions of racial justice and the role and status of women–struggles, I add, that are clearly not finished. And now it is our turn to keep faithful witness to the One who has made us as we are, who values us all equally, and who loves without limitation.

Those of us who marched yesterday under the glorious banner of St. Paul’s Cathedral were not there as single-issue people, but as gospel people. It is not simply the rights of an often-excluded and demeaned community that we proclaim, but the wondrous news of the unboundaried grace of God–to whom be the glory forever and ever!

The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, Ph.D.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral San Diego

July 17, 2016

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