Last week I attended the birthday party of a newly 24-year-old gay man in a bar. I know that may come as a shock to some of you, and you might even hit “unsubscribe” because of it. Before you do, though, I hope you will hear me out one last time.
I was at a queer birthday bash in a bar because that is precisely where I believe Jesus would be. He didn’t get the reputation of being a “friend of sinners” by keeping his distance from the gritty side of life. And he didn’t get called a glutton and a drunkard by abstaining.
That can be tough to hear, I know, especially if you have spent a good portion of your life in places that teach an image of a porcelain Jesus. You know the ones, alabaster skin, waif-like beauty, clean, manicured nails.
I can’t tell you whether Jesus was man-gorgeous, but I can tell you that he got his hands dirty. Jesus was a tekton, a builder working alongside his father. He hung out with fishermen. He called himself a shepherd. None of these occupations are known for their similarities to the fragrant allure of the perfume counter.
Some of the rest of you are going to be angry because I insinuated that being at a gay man’s birthday party is gritty. You would be correct. It was one of the most low-key gatherings I have attended in a while, and I am a pastor so do not underestimate just how tame things get when I am around.
I sat at a table of people with diverse lives, histories, and backgrounds. Some had boozy drinks, others savored a craft beer, some mostly sipped water. Not one of them expected that the late-30’s mom type who just sat at their empty space was a pastor, except the person who invited me to sit beside them. That person knew my secret identity, but no one else did. So they were honest. Honest about their lives. Honest about their dreams. Honest about their frustrations.
One person spoke about their interactions with the post-worship crowds on Sunday at a local deli counter. One nicely dressed Christian physically assaulted her co-worker because they were out of his favorite chicken. Here was the moment that would out me.
I had a choice. I could have remained incognito, the one person at the table who knew me would not have revealed my secret. Honestly, though, there was no way I could not say what came next. “I’m so sorry that happened. As a pastor, that ticks me off and breaks my heart.” Then I added just for flair, “Next time he comes in, you should tell him you are praying for him.” I couldn’t help it. She would not strike the average church goer in middle-America as being the praying type.
I’m not always a good spokesperson for Jesus. I would guess that all of us fall short from time to time, and I can’t say I’ve never been the guy so mad about chicken that I blew it. (Ok, maybe not about chicken, but other things for sure.)
My point in writing this is really to call my Christ-following friends out of the closet, out of the church doors, out of our enclaves and onto a chair at a table, in a bar, celebrating the life of someone God loves with people whose only interaction with Christians is post-worship hangry-ness. If we want people to have a different view of Christ, a different impression of Christians, we have got to spend more time with them.
I can hear the objections, “But, go to a bar?” Yes! GO to the bar. “Sit with people who are drinking?” Yes! SIT with people. (Ok, sit where you are invited to sit, and maybe don’t start at a biker bar, and make good choices, and be safe, and take a friend.) But the only way you are going to look like Jesus–friend of sinner, glutton, drunkard–is to go where Jesus went and hang with those society has labeled as not enough.
Spending time with people does not mean we agree with all their choices or that we share all of their opinions. What it does in us is to demonstrate the value of those around us, and what it does for them is offer an alternative view of Christ and his church. Those open doors are worth everything.
We have done an awfully good job of dividing the world into “us” and “them.” We hang out with people who are like us, and sometimes in a very literal sense we say, to hell with “them.” I believe that breaks the heart of the One who came to tear down the dividing walls of hostility. It is uncomfortable and challenging to spend time with people who are not just like us. Growth is uncomfortable, but necessary if we are to love “them.” If our personal righteousness and reputation are more important to us than bringing light and life into the lives of others, we aren’t heeding our master’s call.
Our presence with them, hearing their stories, seeing the light in their eyes, will change our hearts. Which is great, because Jesus already loves them. If we truly believe what we say with our mouths, that Jesus Christ died to save sinners, with us at the top of the list, then Jesus Christ died to save those we have too often labeled as defective. And it’s time to peel off the sticker we’ve plastered over Christ’s stamp declaring their worth as priceless.
My friend, whose birthday was being celebrated, pulled me aside and asked, “Is it wrong or selfish of me that I am glad that all these people are here for me?” Three tables, about 12-15 people total. “No, my friend. It’s your birthday, and you are worth celebrating.”
Joining God in loving those around us,