I have a horrible memory, which makes it all the more surprising to me how vividly I remember the moment that “Lisa” walked up to me. You might think this is weird, but it’s times like this that make me love being a pastor. It was after one of those infamous church potlucks in a basement fellowship hall, my empty plate still in hand, that she approached me with a burning question. The concern was written all over her middle-aged face. Lisa had a dilemma, and in her mind I knew the heart and mind of God in all things…if only she knew.
“Pastor, I don’t know what to do…a gay couple just moved in next door.” Those were the only words that left her lips as she then stood there staring at me.
Talk about left field, I didn’t see that one coming. In the two seconds before I responded, I had a variety of emotions race through my body. Part of me wanted to laugh because judging by the look on her face you would have thought that she discovered a terrorist cell in her cul-de-sac – Al-Qaeda right here in Oregon. Another part of me was disappointed. What about the neighbors on the other side who broke the Sabbath, or the father who worked too much and neglected his family, or the two women who met at the mailboxes to share the dirt on the other neighbors? Why didn’t those require a pastoral consultation? This is why, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made me step down and rescue myself from the jury. We can’t be trusted to dispense judgment evenly. Mostly, though, as I looked into her waiting eyes, I was proud of her. Proud that behind the question was a woman that wanted to get it right. Proud that she was trying to sort out what faithfulness to God meant on her street.
When you become a follower of Jesus, you are making the choice to walk down a different road than what most of those around you are walking. As people who are “in the world but not of the world,” we face these kinds of issues daily. It is helpful to know that the early church took their cues from Jesus on how to conduct themselves in a world where they were the minority, and what they stood for was being consistently violated by culture.
According to Luke’s Gospel, as Jesus stood before Pilate, trumped up charges were flying left and right, but there was one accusation that was true.
“Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.’ “So Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied.” (Luke 23:1-3 NIV)
If we were sitting in a Bible Study, I’d have you underline that word “subverting” five times, maybe six. It is really a powerful concept. To “subvert” literally means to “turn from beneath.” It carries with it this idea that something can be overthrown through unassuming means. It is the stealing of an allegiance as opposed to forcefully gaining control. Think about it. According to Jesus’ accusers, in just a few short years, Jesus had managed to dethrone both Caesar and Herod in the hearts of people and win over the allegiance of many…without ever picking up a sword. How can someone be such a threat when his weapon of choice is a towel?
The concern that I have is that the church is losing its subversive power when it favors the sword over the towel. The religious right has made a name for itself as a political force to be reckoned with, but it has come with unintended consequences. Rather than vying for hearts, we have tried to seize the scepter, and as a result, hearts have been hardened toward the faith, and a divorce has happened in the minds of people who are drawn to Jesus but want little to do with His church. It may be that when the church is in the majority, you can use political tactics to shape culture because there is an agreed-on set of values, but not when you are the minority.
I saw subversive Christianity at work several years ago. When I first moved to Salem and introduced myself to my old neighbor Fred, he was pleased to meet me…until he found out I was a pastor. Upon the delivery of the bad news, Fred proceeded to do his best Lou Piniella imitation as he kicked the dirt in disgust. His dumb luck that a preacher would live across the street.
Every now and then, I would see a girl in a wheel chair visiting Fred along with her grandpa. One day I walked over to meet this girl whose head kept slumping off to the side, a bib gently placed around her neck to catch the drool. Cerebral Palsy had immobilized this beautiful little girl. The grandpa expressed frustration that the wheel chair wasn’t adequate to hold her head up and that he didn’t have any money to fix the problem, and that the government had not come through as they had promised.
A week later, I was still upset about this when I mentioned her story in a sermon I preached on the brokenness of our world. I wasn’t soliciting anything, I was just venting. Our people, led by our senior pastor, rose up and committed to purchasing a new wheelchair for this complete stranger. I will never forget the look on Fred’s face as he overheard me extend the offer to the girl’s grandfather. All of his angst against religion and the church had been…subverted. From that point forward, Fred never once missed an opportunity to chat or wave as I drove by.
The new church some of us are planting in West Salem, Oasis Community Church, recently held a Heaven on Earth Campaign where I commissioned four teams to bring a taste of heaven to someone whose life might be a living hell. We sent them out with $500 each. Several of our teams experienced that same kind of story that I just told, where an openness to the things of God was created where there was previously a closed door. We have no idea how powerful love really is.
Subversive Christianity is the church that served lemonade to those waiting in line at a Marilyn Manson concert. It is our Lord extending forgiveness to the soldiers at Golgotha shocking them and igniting faith. Subversive Christianity undermined the idol making businesses in Ephesus leading to a riot in the book of Acts. These businesses weren’t tanking because someone signed a petition, but because so many of the former patrons became followers of Jesus. Subversive Christianity is what happens when you and I genuinely care for people and express the love of God in ways that make no sense to the unbelieving world. Perhaps that is why, in His last meal with his disciples, Jesus then put us in charge of the towel.
So, what to do about the gay couple that moved in next door. I told her to “bake them some cookies.”
Keith Ritter is Lead Pastor of Oasis Community Church – a new church in West Salem. Keith has served for many years as pastor and is excited about the launch of Oasis. Check them out on their website at www.oasiswestsalem.com.