A Christian Community

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” was the start of Paul’s admonishment to the small church community he founded at Philippi.” The community was founded based upon a dream that came to Paul to evangelize in what is now western Turkey or Macedonia in Biblical times. Even after arrival he endured stonings and imprisonment so this wasn’t a cakewalk mission for Paul. He did not live in a $10M mansion nor did he have a private jet. He suffered for his faith and he was often misunderstood.

When Jesus saw the demoniac chained to the wall at the Gerasene cemetery, he didn’t think to himself, “Uh oh, this is a crazy man. I’m gonna go somewhere else.” No, Jesus stayed, had compassion for what was tormenting the guy and he managed to transfer a legion of unclean spirits into a herd of pigs. I sometimes feel sorry for the poor farmers (unmentioned) in this story who owned the pigs. All their bacon went over the cliff but staying around even in the face of physical danger and opposition is something both Jesus and Paul did repeatedly.

When Paul, Silas and possibly Luke first went to Philippi, they immediately searched for a place where they could hold meetings. At the riverbank they encountered Lydia with a group of women. Apparently Lydia owned and managed a business that harvested rare snails off the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean Sea and with some effort, converted them into purple dye for clothing. The dye was extremely expensive and only kings and royalty could afford purple clothing. Lydia was sometimes mentioned in Latin translations of the bible as “Lydia purpuraria” or “Lydia the purple seller.” She was a woman of substantial means and she immediately offered her entire house to be used as housing for the evangelists and as the house church for their efforts.

When Jesus encountered the tax collectors, he did not immediately fall prey to all the popular assumptions about them. Many of the tax collectors were Jewish but they were hated by their fellow Jews. They were seen as being in collusion with the occupying Roman army and government (the two were inseparable). First century Jerusalem Jews would no more sit down at the table for a meal with a tax collector than any person in the United States today would want to have a meal with a leader of ISIS.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  Mt 9:9-13 But Jesus did indeed eat with tax collectors and sinners. Notice the complete lack of judgment in this scene. Notice the lack of assumptions. No one is making assumptions about anyone else. The tax collectors aren’t saying among themselves “This is a bunch of religious nuts. We’ll have dinner on them anyway.” The disciples aren’t saying among themselves “These people are all crooks and prostitutes.  How soon can we leave?” They are simply eating together.

Much has been made of racial and sexual diversity these past fifty years, but the bible points out an even more important aspect of diversity. I will call it “social diversity.” This is where people of radically different social groups can come together – to worship, to have meals and fellowship, and to bring other people into fellowship (evangelize). The challenge with diversity is that it requires connection, communication and an intentional willingness NOT to make assumptions or judgments. A diverse community is messy. Mistakes are made. Feelings can be hurt. Some people leave. Different social classes have different rules and norms of behavior. They have different ways of interpreting the world around them. A diverse community is not much different than the dinner of the disciples with tax collectors and sinners. A diverse community is fragile and not nearly as easy to build as a bunch of like-minded automatons.

You can turn on the television or drive around Muskogee and find lots of “churches” that are nothing more than a collection of bobblehead dolls. The preacher smacks them on their heads and they all nod in assent – “Yes, all XXX people are lazy and doomed to hell. Yes, all Episcopalians are doomed because they are not saved like we are. Yes, all poor people must have sinned to deserve their fate. Yes, if you just believe all the stuff we do, you too will be saved and make a lot of money.” ISIS by the way is just an extension of this kind of rigid ideology coupled with a literal (and twisted) interpretation of scripture.

I am very proud of this community we call “Grace Episcopal Church” in Muskogee.  I am proud of who you are:

  • The only church that openly accepts cross-dressing people who can then serve at any position in the community
  • The only church that has an open door policy for people of all social classes – rich, poor, black, white, young, old, straight, gay, uncertain.  And they are all welcome into the full life and ministries of the church.  We are either ALL in together or we are not a Christian community.
  • The only church that openly welcomes difficult questions about scripture, its meaning and application to everyday life. We get down and wrestle with this stuff. It is not easy. We don’t have a single authority telling us what to believe about the Bible.
  • The only church that leaves judgment of others up to God
  • The only church where people freely say “I don’t agree with X or Y.  That wasn’t what I was taught … but I am willing to remain in this community because we are all struggling together and it is worth the effort.”

The hallmark of a true community of faith like ours is not smug assurance or a set of answers to all of life’s vexing questions. It is the struggle and the willingness to hang in there together. One person already hung in there to the bitter end for us and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.

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