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First shall be last and last shall be first

Date: 21/09/2014/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

Jonah 3:10-4:11
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.
And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”

Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not
know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’
They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.

Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series:
Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Patheos community here.

Patheos has invited a number of us to write an end-of-summer post about what we find “most critical within our tradition” today (italics added), “the issue of greatest import.”

My tradition is Christianity – especially in its American form. I have been both all of my life. The most critical issue within American Christianity today as I see it? The co-optation of its most publicly visible face by an individualistic, self-oriented, exclusivist and entrepreneurial form of Christianity.

Individualistic: the Christian life is primarily about where we as individuals will spend eternity – heaven or hell. Or, in the prosperity gospel, how our lives as individuals will turn out in this life. In either case, what matters most are what we believe and how we behave as individuals.

Self-oriented: this is a direct and intrinsic corollary of the previous point. Christianity is about the eternal preservation of the self. Or the well-being of the self in this life. Or both.

Exclusivist: Christianity is the only way. That’s why people need to be Christian. Salvation – whether in the next world or this world – comes only through Jesus. That’s our product.

Entrepreneurial: the best-known American clergy today are those with mega-churches and/or television ministries. Most started their ministries themselves or inherited them from a charismatic founder. Many of them (most?) have not had a serious and sustained theological education. Many (most?) have not been ordained by a “brand-name” denomination. Entrepreneurial clergy succeed because they read the market well. And the market is seldom the way of Jesus.

This form of Christianity dominates Christian television and radio in America today. It is highly visible politically in the issues of “the Christian Right.” They are mostly about individual behavior, especially sexual behavior: abstinence teaching in sex education classes, no abortion, sometimes opposition to contraception, and of course defense of “traditional marriage.”

Beyond sexuality, the emphasis on individualism often leads these Christians to disregard and disparage “the common good” – as if “the common good” – what’s good for all of us and not just for a few of us – were a socialist or communist notion and not a biblical emphasis.

Also beyond sexuality: these Christians are most likely to support the use of overwhelming military power to counter any perceived threat to the United States. They were the demographic group with the highest approval (84%) of launching – starting – the war in Iraq in 2003. Most of them also unconditionally support the use of Israeli military power in Gaza and more broadly to control Palestinians living on what was once their land.

If the most public form of American Christianity were Christianity, I could not be Christian. I have a friend who frequently asks me, “How can you be Christian?!?!” I tell him: “I know that I live in the belly of the beast – and I still want to try to change the beast.”

What is at stake is what might be called “the soul” or “heart of Christianity.” Is it about my doing well in this life and/or the next? Or about so much more? For me, it is about so much more. For it to be less than that would be a betrayal.

First and foremost, I want to start by saying thank you. Thank you to all of you who have come together to make Amplify a success – to the people leading the worship, the technical crew, the welcome team, the ops team, the catering team, the Amplify connect leaders and all of you who participated. It is no longer just in theory of what we can do when we come together – we have seen the realization of the beloved community in action. We have come together and demonstrated something as a community. The question is this – what’s next FCC?

I will just summarize what I have learned from the three esteemed speakers this weekend –

1. We need to realize that we are building a movement and not a monument. Jesus built a movement. But it settled and fossilized into an inflexible structure that is about preserving the status quo and tradition.

2. We need to realize what our calling is. Are we just called to be just another Christian church just done gay? Are we just building a replica of the church we came out of, just that it welcomes LGBT people?

3. To do what we need to do we need to are, like what Rev Elder Darlene Garner so eloquently put – are we a spiritual emergency room that people go to get healed, and then realized that there is no space for healed people, they no longer stay. Or are we a spiritual fitness center, spiritual gym where we come to exercise and build up our spiritual strength to do what we are called to do as the Body of Christ? Yes, that still means we serve those who seek healing, and reconciliation and come for the “physiotherapy.”

We will remain that space that provides people struggling to come to terms with their faith and sexuality. We will remain the space that welcomes and embraces diversity. But I don’t think that is all we are called to do.

I think we have a special calling.

We need to realize that we are in a special position to be part of another Reformation of the church to make it relevant to the times. To keep the church grounded. We, on the margins, are the ones who push the envelope of what church can be. We can see the churches in Western Europe. Many of them are more a tourist attraction than a church.

But we can be like Jonah. We can run away from our call. We can choose not to move out of our comfort zone. We can be unwilling to serve those we are called to serve. We can get angry because God didn’t do what we expected God to do. We can get angry because the events that transpired proved us to be wrong, and we don’t want to be wrong.

We can stick to what we are doing – happy to be just like the other Christians, and hoping that one day we would be accepted by them, hoping that one day we would have membership in the National Council of Churches. Happy to be paid the same wages as those who came in the morning.

But what if that isn’t what we are called to be? What if God intends for something bigger for us? What if, OMG, because of who we are, we have something special to offer the Church?

What if the first shall be last and the last shall be first means something more? What if being first isn’t just about being on top, having the seat of honour, but rather, being first is about leading?

My friend Rev Cody Sanders wrote a book titled “Queer lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow.” I read it on my month long break in August, and it had a lot to offer us in the way forward.

The Church needs to be relevant. Irrelevant churches only serve their own objectives and only serve to preserve the status quo.

But the Body of Christ is not to preserve the status quo. It is to break in the Commonwealth of God.

We, the queer church, is poised to be the ones breaking tradition – not for the sake of breaking tradition, but to usher in another reformation. We have the gifts to do it.

Many of us went through wrestling with our selves, and diving deeper into our faith, Scripture, to find something larger than ourselves. We have learned not to take things at face value, to discern, to explore.

The Church in Western Europe is dead. They are monuments to an age of glory. I was at St Paul’s in London for Evensong service. There was maybe 100-200 people there at the service. And almost all of them were tourists. Church is no longer relevant – only relegated to being a tourist attraction.

We, the church, the body of Christ, have to relate to the now.

We have learned a lot on our journey – we have reclaimed parts of our tradition that is useful for us, and embraced it. We have left behind the baggage of our tradition that is not useful for us, the kind that only hinders us.

We have communion every Sunday. We carry on this tradition that goes back to Jesus – and some folks would say go even way before that to the Passover meal – because it has meaning, it has significance. It is an intimate encounter with God. We have, however, left behind the baggage of exclusion that surrounds the table. We do not require folks to be baptized – some churches even restrict communion only to the people who are baptized in their own church and nowhere else. We left that baggage behind because it is not useful – it does not build up, and it does not bring people closer to God.

How? Who? What? When?

What lessons can we offer?

We, who were rejected know something about being welcoming. Though we must remember – we sometimes fail at being welcoming ourselves.

We, who are sexual minorities have something to offer about sexual intimacy. We know when it is intimacy, and when it is not intimacy. We know when sex is good, and when sex is bad. We know that just because sex is done within the boundaries of a marriage doesn’t make it good, and we know that sex can be good and bad – and it really comes down to how we treat the other person – is there mutuality, consent, respect, love? Is sex socially just, life giving, affirming and liberating or is it diminishing, addictive, manipulative?

We know something about being reflexive – we want to examine and reexamine our assumptions, our motivations, our values and principles. We want to always ask ourselves the question – is what we are doing loving? Is what we are doing harmful?

We know something about not being dogmatic. Because our faith is a living faith. It is a journey with God. It is not nailed down to doctrines and dogma.

We know something about doubt and uncertainty. Because we know we need to have faith. If something is certain, we do not need to have faith. We learn to doubt because it keeps us thinking, it keeps us wondering. There is still no other progressive church in Singapore.

I was speaking in a talk, and a young woman – probably studying in the university now came up to chat with me. She was from our neighbor across the road. I was talking about the only time Jesus got angry and violent. She had not been taught that before.

We need to stop seeing ourselves as latecomers to the field. Whether it is seeing the Western/ American colonialists as being more Christian than us, or seeing our heterosexual siblings as those who have been in the field longer than us, and we have to avoid offending them, or we have to placate them so we have a place at the table.

But we also have to look within ourselves, are we also the gatekeepers of Gilead, the ones who get angry when God makes people equal to us whom we think are not deserving one way or another.

Free Community Church – It is no coincidence that we are called Free Community Church – because we are called to First Realize Everyone’s Equal. We are called to Free others – because Free people free people. It is no coincidence that we are here at One Commonwealth. Because God is concerned about “the common good” –what’s good for all of us and not just for a few of us – the common wellbeing of all people – including the enemy, the Other, Nineveh.

As Marcus Borg so eloquently put it – “What is at stake is what might be called “the soul” or “heart of Christianity.” Is it about my doing well in this life and/or the next? Or about so much more? For me, it is about so much more. For it to be less than that would be a betrayal.”