Free Community Church – July 24, 2016
Yap Kim Hao
On the Way to Free People
I was assigned to preach this morning on the significance of the word FREE in the distinctive name that we have chosen for our Church thirteen years ago. This is an effort to define the sacred meaning and divine purpose of this community of faith. FREE in Free Community Church is a proclamation of freedom that we have in Jesus Christ. It is also an acronym for “First Realize Everyone is Equal” – the good news that we are all equally created in the image of God, equally accepted, embraced and loved exactly as we are by God.
Whenever we use the word “free” we have to post some disclaimers. Free does not mean that we can do anything. Harsh homophobic people ridicule us for our seemingly pre-occupation with sex and promoting free sex. But even an open relationship is still a debatable issue within the LGBT community. The word equality is not meant to suggest that we are equal in all aspects of life. We recognize individual differences and uniqueness. We respect differences but we are able to embrace diversities under the rubric of unity-in-diversity. In affirming freedom and equality we are not suggesting that there is no right or wrong, good or evil. We value that which is right and good. There are limits, boundaries and parameters to freedom. To be free is to be responsible at the same time. Freedom with responsibility is honoured.
My approach here is not to enter into an intellectual or theological discourse of the word free. My emphasis is upon the calling to be free. I will look at “free” not so much as a noun but a verb. Therefore, I have chosen the motif of the Exodus story or the narrative concerning Moses to guide us. There we encounter the context of slavery, oppression and bondage and the process of liberation, redemption and freedom. Then I have to discern what is the nature and role of FCC, its mandate and its mission. What is the task of the members of this community as we look to the next stage of our evolving and developing.
I have put myself into a rather tough situation. I was reading and pondering over it for some time and began to type out this sermon only a few days ago. Last week I had the opportunity to have Gary and Pauline over in my home for lunch and I was sharing with them about my difficulty in preparing this sermon. I have to find a handle for this. What is going to be the tone of the message. Jamie will be pleased that I do not intend to scold. How much should I share without hiding unpleasant facts. We are still work in progress. Around midnight of that I day I opened up Facebook and the first item was this one from a new FB friend, Steve Harper, who resides in Orlando.
He wrote, “Every God-inspired movement in Scripture began with dislocation of some kind. We cannot enter a promised land without leaving an Egypt; we cannot become new creations without something old passing away. We cannot remain the same and live a new life. Faith arises when a dream is more compelling than the pain required to realize it.”
The message hit me. Acknowledge the process of change. Accept the constant flux.
It is about being open to do the new thing. It encourages us to dream – FCC Dreaming.
Here is the unexpected reference to the Exodus event for me. Coincidence? Serendipity? Transcendence? It confirmed the direction that I needed to pursue in this sermon.
This biblical account about Moses at the time of Pharaoh comes up again and again in different contexts in Biblical and in secular history. The Israelites were sent into exile later in the 8th century B.C. The prophets like Amos, Hosea and Micah advised them. It appears in the most challenging way in the mission and ministry of Jesus and his followers under the domination of the Roman Empire. Jesus was crucified in the form of punishment for opposing oppression. He did not die for our sins but because he was a threat to Roman domination. It shows up in the Reformation of the Church and with different Christian leaders who founded the various non-Catholic communities or denominations. It flares up in the Civil Rights struggle under the leadership of Martin Luther King and the black Christian churches. This is the religious history. They parallel the secular history in the Freedom Fighters for independence from the colonial powers. The call to be free from bondage – religious, political, social and economic is persistent and on-going. We have to learn the lessons of history if we are to avoid condemnation. The cause of freedom must accompany us as we journey into the Promised Land.
For the current sermon series we have been recalling our own brief history. We are trying to put our hearts into this house. We want to place our hearts into the community. We want to put not only our hearts but also our minds and hands on the life of FCC for a brighter future.
In a strange twist of personal history I was invited by Safehaven thirteen years ago. I met the core group of Safehaveners over a quiet dinner meeting. They found me helpful and invited me to join them in their struggle. My fate was sealed with FCC. The gay issue was not on my radar before, for I could not detect the LGBT people who were fearful and insecure, isolated and closetted in their individual caves. It was unexpected, unscheduled and unplanned. For me it was a natural extension of my life-long ministry with a bias towards marginalized communities. I do not consider it as a sacrifice. It is normal and natural. I have no regrets. I stuck with FCC till now. My concern is that I cannot comprehend fully the complexity of your community since I was told you are wired differently. I render assistance whenever I am requested. Therefore I restrain myself from full involvement in this early stage. I resist from giving unsolicited advice I just made myself available and respond when needed. I have been observing most of the time. I have been questioned as to why I did not intervene more directly in a number of issues. My silent watch has been intimidating to some as their body language reveals to me.
I am learning still. I am surprised that I have not received any hate mail all these years. What is unusual and perplexing is that the original group that officially invited me have almost all left for various reasons which I am not fully aware of. A few keep in touch with me outside. My original hosts have left me a guest standing alone. You all know that we have a revolving door. For the past few years we are in a plateau as far as church attendance is concerned. It means we have a significant number of first timers coming every Sunday. However the total number has not increased. Only a minority is with us for an extensive period. There must be thousands who have come through this house. The public is aware of our presence. The pioneer leadership has dissipated. But I remain. We are less like a safe and secure permanent home and more of a transit hotel. People come and go. They appear to resolve their personal conflicts and leave after they either secure it or do not attain it. It seems that we deal only with the single issue of sexuality. FCC is of no use to them anymore and they can survive without FCC. Their personal needs have either been met or not addressed and they are not here for any length of time. This has resulted in a stagnant state with zero growth in numbers. We render the unique service of reconciling faith with sexuality. But there is more to be done than the sexuality issue and we can do much, much more.
Let us examine the Exodus event and see what lessons it can offer to us. In the dawn of human history humankind sense their captivity in a mysterious environment in which they find themselves. The fact of our birth is a form of liberation. Humans learn to exist and grow out of their dependency and survive the primitive conditions. It is a feature of human existence to want to be free and to be in community.
In the Old Testament we meet Moses an Israelite. There was the background of family and tribal conflicts and the search then for sanctuary. The royal order was given to take the drastic step of directing the midwives to kill all male Israelite children who were born in order to reduce their population increase. Moses was fortunate to be found alive and was adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh. Harsh conditions were imposed to oppress the foreign migrant workers. The Egyptian taskmasters were cruel and brutal. When Moses witnessed one fellow Israelite being attacked, his anger could not be contained. He intervened and killed the Egyptian bully. For fear for his own life he fled to the safety of the desert in another country. In spite of the comfort as an adopted child in the Royal family, he abandoned it. He worked as a common labourer tending a flock of sheep. There in self-imposed exile he survived and was getting adjusted to his new family life. But he was restless and continued to hear news of his suffering people back in Egypt. The foreign migrants were even forced to make their own bricks without straw. He had a sense of responsibility.
Then came the experience of the Burning Bush, a constant reminder. God has seen the affliction and heard the cry of the oppressed. Moses could have done as we usually do and pray to God to intervene directly. We close our hearts and keep our hands clean and settle deeper into our comfort zone. God waited for the human agency to effect the change. “Go Moses” was the insistent call. In faithfulness he set himself to the task of emancipation and mediated God’s deliverance of God’s people in captivity. This process is repeated again and again in history – wherever and whenever people are in bondage, the call comes to set them free. Leaders are required to go to engage in this work of liberation.
The founders of FCC found themselves in a similar state. LGBT people are in a situation of fear and captivity. They had to decide to come out to be free. They too felt the pressure of the Burning Bush which will not disappear until they themselves responded to establish FCC. It was not an easy birth. They left their Egypt and crossed their Red Sea and entered into wanderings and hopefully to inherit the Promised Land.
For the past thirteen years we have been wandering in this new wilderness. Some are disappointed and wanted to go back into exile. Others are wondering and grumbling and murmuring and complaining. They complain about spiritual food and long for the food in the days of bondage. You have come to FCC and you are warmly welcomed. You must be grateful that we exist and thankful to those who made this possible.
Let us recognize the human factor or the human agency when we reflect about the way our Creator relates to us and to the world. It is easy enough to accept God who created the heavens and the earth and human, animal and plant life. They reveal the power of the Creator to sustain all that was created. We cannot fully comprehend nor appreciate it. All came into being without human effort. We know it was out of love that God created and commanded us to be good stewards.
In the case of the life of the slaves in captivity God knows about it and heard their cries and want to deliver. Our omnipotent God can do it directly to set them free. But God had to wait for Moses to accept the leadership. So when we pray do not deceive ourselves that God needs to be reminded by us to save and free the captives. God is waiting for US to engage in setting the people free from ALL forms of captivity that they find themselves in. Just praying is just not enough. Our God is patient with us all the time and waiting for us to step forward; this is the call to leadership. We have to express our God-given freedom to decide to do it. Just close our hands in reverent intercession is not enough for we need to open our hands to reach out to the captives and deliver them.
In the short history we are already facing an awesome challenge. We are called to be the only authentically inclusive Christian community. We stand alone. The wider Christian community isolate us with their greater numbers and resources. We are the only religious institution that is projected to minister initially to LGBT people struggling with their sexuality. Many have given up on religion altogether. We have a broader agenda than the problem of sexuality. People come together to chart and develop a new inclusive future. We call into question the exclusive nature of all other religions groups. We aim to incorporate a new religious inclusive community truly regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic and political status. We have to be not like any other. We are to pioneer into the new promised land of justice, equality and freedom.
We are the vital core of this new community while others are contented with the comfort and security of their fancy establishments. But that is not the future we are seeing now. We already see the breakdown of that selfish ambitions of the rich and powerful people and nations. A book has just been published recently about the End of the White Christian America. This is statistically accurate as far as the population figures portray. We cannot hold back the rising tide of progressive and inclusive advances. Even the conservative interpretation of the author cannot reverse the change that is taking place so rapidly. In the face of these challenges we must have people who are willing to be equipped to provide the leadership in order to fulfil the mission of FCC. Will you step forward?
Let me now turn to the specialized ministry of reconciling faith to sexuality. No other church here is engaged in this service. No one has plans to be involved in it any time soon. Professional agencies of secular counselling, psychology and psychiatry are not equipped with the religious factor. We require more fully theologically trained full time pastors. Miak is the only one gay person now in service here. People who are committed for pastoral leadership need to keep pace with theological developments if they want to be effective. There are no short cuts. No one is in sight and how long is Miak going to last.
I was in touch with Rev Dr Steve Harper whom I quoted earlier. I found him helpful on dealing homosexuality. I know about him although I have not met him. He was known as a conservative Evangelical leader. He was the Vice-President of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and was the Dean in the new branch campus of Asbury in Orlando, Florida. This seminary is an independent conservative one different from the thirteen other United Methodist seminaries supported by the denomination. He had a change of heart only a few years ago specifically on the issue of homosexuality. Recently when the first lesbian, married, Methodist Bishop Karen Oliveto was elected, he published an insightful statement of endorsement much to the dismay of his former fellow conservatives. With the change in his theology he describes himself now as a progressive evangelical Methodist. He published his study in 2014. I sent a message to him to say in his own words the significant change in refuting the mantra – Love the Sinner but hate the sin.
He texted me this reply immediately. “Sexual sin is something that people of all orientations can commit (e.g. promiscuity) and that sexual righteousness is something people of all orientations can manifest by living according to Covenant (sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency)” . By this he exposed the hypocrisy of the convenient mantra that is used to justify it – Loving the sinner but hating the sin of same sex act. Under query the homophobic views are moving toward to churches welcoming the LGBT people with the caveat that they must undergo counselling and reparative therapy. If the change of sexual orientation does not occur then they have to commit to a life of celibacy. Sexual orientation when properly understood does not forbid same-sex acts. Sexual orientation naturally leads to same-sex attraction and fulfilment in the sexual act. Orientation is natural and not sinful in itself and necessarily leads to same-sex acts unless gay and lesbians choose a life of single blessedness.
A book reviewer commented that “(Steve Harper) rightly notes that the Bible’s declaration of sin pertains to inappropriate acts and that being homosexual is no more sinful than being heterosexual. But all Christians (whether attracted to the same or other sex) are held to standards of holiness that preclude acting out their orientation in ways that are declared sinful by scripture. And he reminds us that the word “fornication” is used in Bible to describe any sexual act that is practiced outside the bond of marriage. With respect to a single person, premarital sex is fornication. With respect to married persons it is adultery. With respect to every person it is also any act that sexually harasses or abuses another person. All such acts are what the Bible declares to be sinful. When viewed this way, the author says that all Christ followers should be able to unite in efforts to oppose any attitudes or actions that demean another human being. This would include the recognition that a person’s sexual orientation (in and of itself) is not sinful, but how that person expresses his or her orientation may be so. But he then goes on to say that if “marriage” is more about the “permanent” nature of the union than about the gender of those being united, then there may be a legitimate basis to speak of “same-sex marriage” but not a double standard.”
For the gay community, as well as for the straight community, we have to reconcile our faith to all the forms of sin including sexual sins. This demands a new understanding of our faith and beliefs. No one is without sin and we must see how our faith helps us to repent and be a new creation.
Most of you come from conservative churches of domination. Their theological orientation is that you are not welcome really in their religious home. You have experienced their rejection and expulsion. You are officially an abomination for their church teaching is that homosexuality is a sin.
What have you brought with you as you come to settle in this new home in FCC? Do you want to maintain their theology which led to your expulsion? Is their way the only one way which they sing and proclaim? Can you still read the Bible in the same manner to justify their reaction to you when you were exposed and given the label of abomination. You find it hard to unload your theological baggage for that is the only one in which you have been indoctrinated even though it was toxic to kick you out eventually.
The same rules of interpretation of the Bible that we use to deal with the so-called clobber passages about homosexuality must be employed in all other issues concerning our life on earth. We have to study critically our beliefs and doctrines of Christianity which govern all areas of life and our life together in the human community.
We are called to leave our Egypt behind and do a new thing. What and where is the new thing? We have to critically evaluate what is good and bring it to this open table and fashion a new religious life. I don’t know myself for sure what it is going to be but we must be open to it. We have to check and reject that which has reached its expiry date and no longer useful or relevant in the new context. I have to force myself to do that intentionally and keep myself open to new interpretations of my Christian beliefs, as well as those in other religions.
I remind myself constantly of the meaningful words of the hymn, which says – New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth. Be always open to the new and exciting future. My religious mentors had instilled in me that we are not called to keep and follow rigidly old traditions. Do not be bound by our traditions. We are free to engage in the never-ending process of traditioning. One of the slogans of the Protestant Reformation is “Always reformed, always reforming”. Jaraslov Pelikan’s definition of tradition can help strike the balance for reformers and traditionalists — “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” This quote was shared by a former colleague of mine who served as a missionary in Sarawak. He is retired and was a seminary classmate of Steve Harper.
We need to remember the appeal of Bishop Flunder who spoke so eloquently at the Amplify Conference here, “The Church is a movement and not a monument. We see how the magnificent churches in the West have already degenerated to become museums in our time.”
For gays as well as for the straights we have to reconcile our faith not only to sexual sins but to all forms of manifestation of sin. The personal sins are like the obvious ones of selfishness looking one’s interests, greed coveting what others possess, lack of empathy and compassion, deficient in maximizing our God-given talents. We have to avoid the classical list of the Seven deadly sins of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride. Correspondingly, we need to attend to the Seven Catholic virtues are chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility. Our faith and beliefs help us to develop and become transformed people earning respect and emulation.
The change of heart for Steve Harper took place when the conservative theology he held so long made the turn to become progressive and inclusive. It is my contention that your faith can be reconciled to your sexual orientation when you make the same theological transition. I know no church with a fundamentalist conservative theology able to give up its view that homosexuality is a sin and an abomination. Our theology must also enable us to account for the well-being of our personal lives so that we are more responsible for our wholeness or health and happiness.
Let us now move to the human condition where the basic factor of freedom has to be accounted. I am indebted to my former colleague in Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. I discovered his Schubert Ogden’s book entitled, “Faith and Freedom” published in 1989 the year when I was there. He was a renowned American theologian. Philosophy of Religion is his forte and he is a proponent of Process Theology. I must admit that I did not have the academic capacity to engage in serious theological discussion with him then. I did not know I have his book. It is still looks brand new 26 years later. I had been reading and re-reading it over the last two weeks. This treatise has only 125 pages and it was rough going. The subtitle is Toward a Theology of Liberation. His thesis is that the liberation task must include both personal and social revolution.
This scholarly academic work posed a challenge to me. He framed the discourse on the relationship of faith with freedom. He acknowledged the basic principle of being free and the reality of captivity. Our religion is not only about the nature of God and the destiny of man. It is to understand how God relates to humankind. Our faith is about the role we have to play in dealing with our personal and social existence in captivity. Our faith commitment is directed to the emancipation from bondage for human freedom – spiritual, religious, political, cultural, racial and sexual. It is not only practical issues of peace and justice but also of beliefs and doctrines. He calls for the faith as human existence in freedom and human existence for freedom.
In freedom for our sinful condition and for freedom of others in all sorts and conditions of captivity are our objectives. This calls for the engaging in the task of an authentic Church like FCC and by faithful in the work of personal redemption and social emancipation.
My comment of the Wholeheartedly undertaking is not to just bring wholeness to the heart of the individual lives alone — but wholeness to the corporate life of community of faith and the wider human community trapped in brokenness and division. The image of the wounded healer appears. Those who have been made whole must engage in making others whole again. We are not completely whole when there are others whose lives are shattered. We must be involved in the healing of individual lives as well as the healing of the life of the community and the nation.
We not only have the challenge posed by the individuals but also the challenge of the churches and other religious communities to participate in the task of liberating people and society. The immediate goal is that when FCC is seen to be involved in this project and show positive results, we will impact other churches to make the paradigm shift away from dealing only with the issue of homosexuality or social justice. The religious communities will then be fully reconciling authentic faith with all types of bondage or captivity. We will then proceed further to ensure that we all become inclusive as well as progressive religious institutions leading further to build an open and multicultural society with justice, equality and freedom.
The meaning and purpose of being free is to participate in the comprehensive life of the church that seeks to engage in both personal salvation and social holiness. Will you participate in this exciting enterprise in setting the people free from all forms of bondage? It is in this liberating service that we fulfil the sacred nature and divine calling to set people free and to never be slaves again.
It is not only about the future of FCC in itself but the future of the human community to which we belong. No other religious institution is poised to do this holistic ministry and mission wholeheartedly.
We have a heart, for this house.
We must have also a mind and hand for this world.
This is our FCC dreaming.
Bring it into reality.
This is our FCC mission.
Bring it to fulfilment.
Let us answer the call to set the people free, to exist in freedom and for freedom; and to be on the road to the Promised Land.