Sermon texts: Psalm 34:2-7 and Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Our Scriptures focus heavily on forgiveness this morning.? A lot of folks argue that forgiveness is the foundation of Christianity that sets us apart from all other faith systems.? Really? I don?t think so.? Many faith systems include forgiveness as a key spiritual discipline.? What Christianity became so adept at for several centuries was selling forgiveness and in the aftermath of the Catholic Church selling indulgences we ended up with Martin Luther and early Protestant faiths requiring correct belief in order to gain access to forgiveness.

What we?ve discovered through the centuries is that forgiveness is so important that it is easily abused.? Forgiveness is free, or it is probably not forgiveness that we are participating in.? Forgiving someone who has hurt us horribly is not a requirement.? Really.? It?s true.

I?ve told many of you that I was horrible injured and abused as a child.? I?ve not forgiven those sins.? Those who hurt me have not sought to make amends.? There are some issues, like murder and horrible abuse, that is just going to have to be between the abusers, the hurters, and God.? I?m not big enough to forgive something that has injured me with a lifetime of scar tissue.? I try to not let it cause me any more pain, or to stop me from living well.? Do I hold a grudge?? Well, if remembering what was done to me and protecting myself and others from similar abuse is a grudge, then I have one and I?ll keep it as long as it remains a healthy functional part of my life.

I believe in forgiveness and I hope you do too.? If you need to forgive in order to be healthy, please do.? If you wonder if God is big enough to forgive you, God is.? Accept it, and then go make restitution for the wrongs you?ve committed and enter the spiritual discipline of discovering what your new mental and spiritual health will be.

Remember that forgiveness is free, or it is not forgiveness.? That?s all I have to say about that this morning.? I find myself pulled in another direction.? But, forgiveness always deserves mentioning.

I discovered as I began to do sermon work this week that my mind kept getting pulled in one direction.? It was a good one, so I?m going to follow it.? The Church Council of this church, the boards and committees that are the formal structure of our organization, really do an outstanding job.? Churches do not magically do the work that we are called upon by our faith to participate in.? It isn?t magic; it is more of the miraculous that happens. ?Miracles do not occur because of magic.? Miracles happen when a one or two, three or more, people get together around this spiritual concept of being representatives of the Spirit of the Living God, the church and we end up dreaming and doing and creating, not out of nothing, but out of the mixture of our real lives operating around a church structure and the lure of God, the active presence of God.

One does not need the church to do miracles.? Miracles happen all the time without the structural support of an organization.? I celebrate and openly and easily acknowledge the movement of the divine presence in all things at all times and there is nothing but joy when we individually sparkle the divinity that is in us.

But, I really do enjoy other people joining together to do work that God is luring us to accomplish.? ?I need my alone time, but I need my community as well.? And specifically, I long for a community, a church, and a faith-based organization that generally enjoys pondering and serving God the way I do.? Most of us are here not because of our differences, which are vast, but because of our similarities.

Our formal church structure at First United is tasked not with maintaining the structure at all costs, but managing a couple well-paid clergy, a multi-million dollar building, and the job of expressing as a group some faith-based joint action.? We are here in this very elegantly designed space this morning because of the faith impetus of a group of frontier women and men in the early 1820?s.? Please, do allow yourself the time to give thanks for our ancestors, who in their day boldly lived lives that we are still benefiting from in our day, and include in that prayer of thanks a prayer of? hope that our faith expressions will be found fitting to be remembered by the generations that come after us.

Our Church Council in early January met in retreat and after many hours of discussion and prayer and listening, we affirmed as a core several key statements about ourselves as a faith group that we thought we needed to keep in front of us. Among those items listed were for us to continue to seek to express what it means to be a theologically progressive faith community. I can do that.? I enjoy that process.

Second on the list was something that I get flummoxed trying to figure out.? We were asked to seek to be a racially, culturally diverse congregation.? Have you noticed, incidentally, that mainly we are a very lily white, pinkish congregation?? I?ve noticed about myself one of my responses to this reality; I say out loud, ?Well, this is Bloomington, IN, which is rather WHITE.?? But, if the truth be told, if we want to be a racially and culturally diverse congregation, we need, I need, to learn how to do it better than we are, because Bloomington is much more diverse than is our congregation.

Four or five decades ago when this congregation became the first white mainline church in town to integrate, this congregation got purposeful.?? It declared that it had been sinfully comfortable being an all-inclusive congregation of white people.? Anybody that was white was welcome.? I am so thankful for those of you who were present at the beginning of this congregation?s attempt to become racially diverse.

It is not easy to be culturally, racially and gender diverse.? It takes purposefulness.? In the 1950?s this church?s membership went out and recruited black couples, black families that would be willing to cross the lines of exclusion that marred not only this congregation but a whole country as well.? Most of us are acutely aware that racism has not died, and is in fact thriving, despite the progress that our society has made.

Last weekend, many of you know I was not here.? I was on vacation, sort of.? A week ago today I was not in this church, but I want you to know that I was in two other churches in official capacities and representing us.? The second church I was in was relatively easy, because I knew what I was doing, I knew my audience.? I was a participant, I brought the call to the candidate and ordination vows to a lesbian woman in the congregation where Lynn and I served in greater Chicagoland for sixteen years.? It was the first time in nearly seven years to step into a pulpit that I had known very well.? It was like being in a time machine, but rather than going back in time, it was strange, because everyone had gotten older.

Suffice it for me to say that going out of my regular routine and standing firmly and as powerfully as I knew how for a woman and a lesbian caused me no consternation and probably nor does it you.? You expect that of Caela and me as your clergy.? We have fought and are used to the reality that we must continue to fight for the rights of women as well as the call of God to be validated for our GLBTQ friends.

I started out last Sunday morning at 8301 South Damien on the south side of Chicago at the Emmanuel Baptist Church.? The pastor of that church was a student of mine back in 2005, when I was a doctoral advisor in the multiple denominational preaching program at McCormick Seminary.? It was a humbling for me to be an advisor of a well-practiced and accomplished black pastor.

What I then knew about the black preacher experience I could shove into a thimble.? I?ve always existed in a white bubble world.? Pastor Rogers Jackson and I worked together for three years.? We bonded well.? But I knew that what I had to do was learn about his world, which I was cut off from, before I could help him with anything that I knew anything about.? He swears on a stack of well-loved Bibles that I was good professor and that I should come and preach at his place someday.? We?ve done that dance for seven years and I had invited him to risk traveling through Martinsville to get to this church.

Who knew that anyone started a worship service at 7 AM on a Sunday morning?? About the only thing I worship at that time of the morning is a Starbuck?s Coffee.? What I want you to know is that I was rather anxious.? I was moving off my secure ground, the things that I know forwards and backwards.? Of course people are just people, right?? What that congregation had to wonder is what was this old white guy doing in the neighborhood at this time of the morning.? And, what I wanted them to know was that I was in the neighborhood because Rogers and I had learned from each other and had come to value each other and that our work, our calling, does not know any difference between churches, it only knows that God is calling us and that we are choosing to follow where it is that God calls us.

I invite you to follow me in stepping over whatever it is that is standing in the way of our becoming a more racially and culturally diverse congregation.?? We don?t really push very much on this idea of inviting a friend, a neighbor, a business or faculty associate to church.? And truth be told, we are very fortunate as a congregation.? We have a lot of visitors without our having to step out of our way to invite people.

But, you know as well as I do that it is a problem as much as it is a blessing.? I would love for this church by design, by intentionality, to be the place that truly represents the gathering of the whole world of people. And, we are well on our way in so many ways, aren?t we?!? This congregation has done the hard work of taking our holy literature that culminates for us in Jesus, our Christ, and ?learning how to read it seriously rather than literally.? But, now the task before us is how to live it with that same seriousness into forming a worldwide community here.

The Apostle Paul is very problematic in so many areas for us theologically.? But, he is also outstandingly profound on several occasions.? We love in this church his line that, ?There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female for we are all one in Christ.? Most of us have added to this line, which we can do since God is still speaking, that there is neither straight nor gay.? But, you know as well as I do that we are still living with major differences between black and white, white and Latino, and, well, white and just about anything else that exists.

When out in the community meeting with people, many people know about us in a variety of ways.? That?s good.? The folks know about our leadership and participation in environmental concerns.? We have several people here to thank for their intentional efforts and organizational persistence in these areas.? We have only begun to make concrete our efforts to make changes that will make a difference in our environmental impact as a congregation.? There are always many different concerns, but the environment and environmental spirituality is going to be the premier issue of the next twenty-five years.

People know us for our concerns for hunger through MCUM and Community Kitchen, our key role in providing volunteers and space for providing for the emergency needs of those experiencing homelessness.? We have a growing presence in the young parent world because of our Heiny Helpers program and the leadership that Caela and others of you provide through Bloomington Birth Services.

When the interfaith partners in Bloomington want to organize an event the word is on the street that First United is open to providing meeting and gathering space, as well as women and men and children who will place their bodies where our mouths are.? We have sponsored and participated in programing this last year along with Beth Shalom, the Islamic Center, the Sikhs, and the Buddhists.

I am bragging right now about our shared efforts.? But, couldn?t we stand a little more company?? Wouldn?t it be delightful if there were double the people in the pews to join together with?

How long has it been since you sought with true diligence to find one other person to bring into our faith community?? I?m not talking about saving anyone?s soul, though I guess in theory it could happen. I know my soul is in better shape because of the challenges and love of this faith community.? How about yours?

By next Christmas, is it asking too much for you to have sponsored one person from our larger world of people into this faith context?? One person.? To me, it is like asking someone to dinner at my house.? I love to have people into my home, to feed them, value them, and get to know them.? There is no substitute, incidentally, for the personal invitation, saying to someone?s face, ?You know, I would really like to have you join me in discovering if this might be a faith community that you?d enjoy.?? Have them to dinner.? Take them to lunch.? Discover more about them and then ask them if they?ve ever considered sort of a different kind of faith community.

We?ve been challenged by several of our college seniors about our congregation?s willingness to reach out and educate our community about who we are and what we are about.? Libby and Michael have told me repeatedly that they wished they knew three years ago, two years ago, that we existed.? We owe a word of thanks to our choir, incidentally, for Libby and Michael?s attendance.? Michael is one of our paid tenors who has seen the light, and I have so appreciated working on Monday evenings with Libby, Michael and Georgia.

I am very proud of this congregation.? I am very much of the mindset that what we need to be about is doing good work, not tooting our own horn.? But, it is good work to invite others to that which might well benefit them, and the wider world that we are seeking humbly to serve.? Jesus was invitational and encouraged people to come and see and to consider following the path that he was establishing.? Let us seriously consider stepping out and growing our community to be a more effective representative of the reality of God in our world.? Let us personally invite the world into these spaces, let us get to know and care about them, and let us risk further igniting the light of God in our context.

I suspect that this is the Word of God for us in our day.