Coloring Outside the Lines

2000 Covenant Conference
Friday Evening Communion Worship, November 3, 2000


Coloring Outside the Lines

 Acts 10, selected verses

Thomas K. Tewell
Pastor, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
New York City

 I love the story of the Pentecostal man who wandered into a Presbyterian church. During the sermon, the visitor got so excited that whenever the Presbyterian preacher made a point, the Pentecostal man would scream out, “Praise God!” or “Hallelujah!” or “Amen!” The elders were so distraught about the Pentecostal’s behavior that the Clerk of Session went down the aisle and whispered to him: “You’ll have to keep quiet! The pastor’s right in the middle of the sermon!”

The Pentecostal man said, “Keep quiet? How can I keep quiet? I’ve got the Holy Spirit!” To which the Clerk of Session replied, “Well, you didn’t get it in this church!”

The Pentecostal man made a theological error that many of us make. You see, he didn’t have the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit had him! And that’s the problem with much of our theology in the church. We wish we had the Holy Spirit. There’s a part of us that wishes we could keep the Holy Spirit in the nice, neat, tidy confines of categories and barriers. We’d like to put God in a box.

But the problem is: Nobody has the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit always has us. And frankly, that’s frightening and that is scary, but it is also the risk and the excitement of the Gospel!

When we come to the realization that the Holy Spirit has us, we learn a couple of things about the nature of God. First of all, we learn that God always colors outside the lines. God is always seeking to tear down fences and eliminate barriers. God is an inclusive God, a God of grace, who is always reaching out to people on the margins of society. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God is portrayed as a God who colors outside the lines, a God who is always doing a new thing. But there’s something inside us as human beings that wants to keep God inside the categories. We want a God in the box. We’d like a God who’s safe. We’d like a God who’s predictable.

I love the story of Dr. Ralph Sockman, who was the former pastor of Christ Methodist Church in New York City, very close to where I pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Dr. Sockman was coming home from a speaking engagement and arrived on the train into Penn Station, and got a taxicab and said to the taxicab driver, “Take me to Christ Church, please.” As the taxicab driver was weaving his way through New York City, Dr. Sockman opened his briefcase and he was looking for a few things. In a few moments, the taxicab driver pulled up in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Dr. Sockman was horrified! He said to the taxicab driver, “This isn’t Christ Church!” To which the taxicab driver in New York said, “Listen, Buster. If He ain’t here, He ain’t in town!”

And you know, a lot of people in the church of Jesus Christ have the “If God ain’t here, then God ain’t in town” mentality. And we try to put God in a little category. But God always breaks out of it. God colors outside the lines!

I believe that what’s going on in Acts, chapter ten is that the Holy Spirit got hold of people and broke through some of their tightly held stereotypes. I think that Peter and Cornelius truly wanted the Holy Spirit; the problem was the Holy Spirit got a hold of them and broke down the barriers. They were “If God ain’t here, He ain’t in town” kind of people. But they found out that God was doing a new thing and was including Gentiles as well as Jews in the kingdom!

In that day, for Gentiles to become Christians, they had to first become Jews. They had to adhere to the Jewish food laws, they had to be circumcised; they had to obey all the Jewish rituals. And even the thought of a Gentile being baptized as a Christian, without first becoming a Jew, was anathema to Jewish believers.

On the rooftop Peter got this crazy idea that maybe there is a new wind blowing, but he was afraid of it. But this idea was confirmed as a group came from Cornelius to Peter’s home and invited him to Caesarea. All along the road to Caesarea, I think Peter was wondering, “Is there a new wind blowing? Does the Holy Spirit really have hold of me? Can it be true that the gospel of Christ is also for the Gentiles?”

Now imagine being brought into a room, as Peter was, and Cornelius says, “God has a word for us through you.” That would be pretty scary! But Peter was up to the challenge! He used the word katalambano ,which means “an idea took hold of his mind.” Peter began to open his mouth. And I believe the Holy Spirit of God took hold of Peter’s mind and said to him, “If you follow me, it’s not going to be business as usual. You’ll be following a Lord who breaks down barriers and who is more inclusive than you ever imagined.” When the Holy Spirit got hold of Peter’s mind and spoke through him to the people at Cornelius’ home, telling them that God wanted to baptize the Gentiles. . . people stopped breathing for a moment. The idea was so radical! God was doing a new thing! God was coloring outside the lines!

The biblical story reveals a God who is always coloring outside the lines. God didn’t appear to announce the birth of the Christ to the wealthy of the day, but to shepherds in a field. The first witnesses to the Resurrection were not men, but women. The rock couldn’t hold Jesus in the tomb: God raised Jesus from the dead! God is always coloring outside the lines!

What I’m getting at is: The sovereign God is doing a new thing! And if we worship that kind of a God, who colors outside the lines, then the second thing that we learn about the nature of God is that this kind of God is calling us to color outside the lines as well.

William Holmes Borders was a very famous pastor in Atlanta, Georgia. He used to startle his worshipers — those who were visitors and those who worshiped regularly — because almost every Sunday, as the worship service began, he would utter a prayer. And when Borders uttered the prayer, everyone was shocked by it. His prayer was: “Dear God, May something happen in our service this morning that’s not printed in our church bulletins.”

See, William Holmes Borders was open to the Holy Spirit. He was open to the fact that there could be a new wind blowing. He was open to the fact that God could be doing a new thing. He was open to the fact that he wasn’t in control of that service; God was in control.

I have a great love relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA). I was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This city means a great deal to me. I was raised in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, in the South Hills area of this great city. Southminster Presbyterian Church was my home church. My father and mother were Elders in that church. I was ordained in that church in 1973.

One would think that the Presbyterian Church (USA), which has often been a leader in so many things in our world, would be on the cutting edge of what God is doing in our world. One would think that our denomination would be open to God’s new thing. And yet sadly, so often we want to remain in our categories: “If God ain’t here, God ain’t in town” kind of mentality.

C. S. Lewis said once, “A familiar captivity is frequently more desirable than an unfamiliar freedom.” And so often the church of Jesus Christ is in captivity to the way we’ve always done it.
I want to share with you tonight that sometimes I’ve been afraid of the Holy Spirit. I have wanted to control the Spirit and keep God in my tidy, safe categories. But God has been coloring outside the lines in my life and disrupting my stereotypes. Throughout my 27 years as an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), I have read, prayed, and thought quite a lot about the ordination of gay and lesbian persons. I have been greatly helped by John Wesley’s “quadrilateral,” that when you’re trying to make a decision, look to the Bible, to tradition, to human reason, and to human experience.

As I have examined each part of Wesley’s quadrilateral in great depth, I have come to the realization that my reluctance to speak out about the ordination of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters was not really because of anything I read in the Bible, but was born of my own fear. And I hate to admit to you tonight that God has been doing a work in my life for twenty years, but it’s taken twenty years for me to get up the courage to say publicly what I really believe in my heart to be true: that God is inclusive and shows no partiality.

God taught me this lesson by slowly breaking down barriers in my life. God has been slowly teaching me how to be a more racially inclusive person and how to work for economic justice and break down socioeconomic barriers, barriers of gender, theological barriers, and yes, to break down barriers with persons of a different sexual orientation than mine.

Years ago, I met a lesbian couple who confided in me. They were wonderful parents to a little girl, and these two lesbian women were two of the finest parents I’d ever met. But I saw how badly they were treated by some in the church, and I saw how this couple was left out of events and wrongly stereotyped by so many. And I wept for them because I had a sense of their pain.

And then I met a gay couple, which included one of the finest elders I’ve ever known. And I watched that elder deal with the man he loved and to whom he had been faithful for fifteen years as he was dying of AIDS. And I watched that elder love his partner to the end. And I thought of how the apostle John said of Jesus: “He loved his own who were in the world. He loved them to the end.”

And I saw in these homosexual people the most wonderful fruits of the Holy Spirit. My friend Doug Nave, who spoke tonight at this service and who is a Trustee of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, represents the hope of our denomination and of the church of Jesus Christ. Dr. Oscar McCloud and I are blessed to be pastors of a congregation in New York City where we could have brought several dozen gay and lesbian Christians like Doug Nave: articulate, winsome, warm, intelligent, Christ-centered, Bible-centered people who have put their lives and behavior under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When I see Doug Nave (I’ll embarrass him a little bit), this is what I see: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-Control. These are the nine fruit of the Holy Spirit that Paul identifies in Galatians 5 as being characteristic of mature Christians.

As I see these qualities in Doug, and it is so obvious that he has a call from God, I ask myself, “Then why is it that I don’t speak out more strongly about ordaining gay and lesbian people who put their sexual orientation under the lordship of Christ? Why don’t I speak up for homosexual people who have been in a fifteen- or twenty-year relationship that is more faithful than many heterosexual marriages I know?” And I come to the realization that it’s not theological or biblical or spiritual. It is raw fear.

And so I accepted the invitation to preach tonight at this service of worship as a way of saying that I really do believe there is a new wind blowing in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I have felt it in my own soul. It really is the Holy Spirit. It is a new idea that has grabbed hold of Peter’s mind and my mind and, I believe, all of our minds. I believe God is doing a new thing.

There’s a signboard at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church that reads: “This is God’s house. All are welcome.”

And we mean it; but as long as G-6.0106b is in the Book of Order, people don’t really believe we mean it; and I have to ask myself, “Do we really mean it?” And so I pledge myself to pray for and to work for the elimination of that section from the Book of Order, and to continue to work for inclusivity, not only of people of different sexual orientations, but of all people. And I truly pray for the day when the church of Jesus Christ will be as inclusive as the love and grace of God. I am grateful to people like Doug Nave who have modeled for me the courage and hope of the church, and as I’ve seen them, I’m starting in my life to color outside the lines.

In Normandy during World War Two, there were two GIs who took their dead comrade to be buried in a cemetery. They went to the cemetery and asked the Roman Catholic priest for permission to bury him inside the walls of the cemetery, and the priest, of course, said, “Well, the rule is that you’ve got to be Roman Catholic; you’ve got to be a member of the parish. I just can’t allow it. I wish I could, but I just can’t allow it.”

And they begged him. They said, “It would mean so much to us to bury our friend inside the fence.” “I’m so sorry,” the priest said. “I just can’t allow it, but bury him outside the fence, just anywhere outside the fence. Just bury him wherever you like.” The two GIs reluctantly dug the grave, said a prayer and buried their comrade. The next day they were going to come back to put the grave marker in the ground.

They came back dutifully the next afternoon and walked up the side of the fence, and they looked to where the grave had been dug, and there was no grave there! And they walked all up and down the fence, and they couldn’t find where they’d dug the grave! They knew they’d dug it. They walked all around the cemetery, all around that fence, and they couldn’t find it!

They went in to see the priest and they said, “Father, forgive us. We were the ones who came yesterday.” and he said, “Oh, yes. I remember.” They said, “Forgive us for bothering you, but we asked for permission to bury our comrade inside the fence, and you said ‘Bury him outside,’ and we did, but we can’t find it. Are we lost? Where is the grave we dug? Do you know what might have happened to it?”

And the priest said, “Oh, yes. I know what happened. I was so upset about your visit yesterday that I spent half the night worrying about what I said to you. And I spent the other half of the night moving the fence.”

In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer, may we always move fences. May we always color outside the lines… just like Jesus! Amen.

Comments will go through moderation before they are posted. Those wishing to leave a comment must include their full name and a working email address, and all comments must be respectful and civil. Personal, ad hominem, or anonymous comments will not be allowed.