Out of Their Minds (Reflections on the Christian Scholars Conference) *A Sermon to the West Islip Church of Christ*

Then [after the calling of the disciples] he [Jesus] went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” (Mark 3:19b-21)

“The scribes said…’He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” (Mark 3:22)

I spent the last half of this week with people who have gone out of their minds.  I don’t know a better way to describe them.  They are not normal, respectable, well adjusted folk.  Oh, they are brilliant (genius and senility are close bedfellows) and they were gathered in Nashville, Tennessee to share their gifts, but who could hear the hard words they had to say?  Regardless, wherever they went crowds gathered to listen.

There were lots of reasons the crowds gathered.  Some had heard rumors that these out of their minds people were naming, challenging, and exorcising demons that had plagued the church for decades,  and so the crowds gathered to be healed.  Some were curious–what is this new teaching about justice, reconciliation, and…cyborgs (?!), and so the crowds gathered to understand.  Some were restrainers–out of their minds people can be dangerous agitators of the status quo, and should be stopped, so they crouched low in the crowd and waited their turn to pounce.

Nashville, Lipscomb University, and the Christian Scholars Conference brought all of these out of their minds people together and the crowds followed.  I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to attend, and to bring back word to you.  In many ways it was a return home for me.  I grew up in the Churches of Christ, but I have not spent much time in recent years with my brothers and sisters.  We’ve grown apart, and I admit I was skeptical to attend the family reunion.  As I found out, I wasn’t the only one returning home.  Some of the out of their minds people had received their education at Lipscomb University.  These scholars, who had gone on to do out of their minds scholarship in locations all over the world, were coming home too, just as Jesus had come home, after his out of his mind ministry in Galilee.

Take, for example, the guy I sat next to in a panel discussion on gender identity.  He hid his eyes under a grungy conductors hat, had a large loop earring, a few strange tattoos, an unshaved face, and wore a faded green T-shirt that proudly advertized “I recycle.”  What the heck, I thought, I’ll break the silence.  I asked him how he had heard about the Christian Scholars Conference.  He said he had studied Christian ethics in undergrad at the feet of Dr. Lee Camp of Lipscomb University.  You studied here?!  I don’t know why it surprised me, perhaps because he didn’t look like the rest of the khaki wearing Lipscombites.  I went on to discover that he was enrolled in an M.Div program at Asbury Theological Seminary.  I learned he had written a book, published by Cascade, and in it he engaged the scholarly community as a Church of Christ ethicist on issues of war and peace.  The next day I bumped into him again.  That’s when I learned of his firing.  He had heard I was from West Islip, and someone had told him about our unique place within our fellowship.  He confided that he had worked for a church and preached a sermon on gender justice.  He preached the sermon on Sunday and received the firing call on Thursday.  For four days he thought he had made a difference.  If only someone would have restrained him, reigned him in, protected him from himself.  But what good would it have done, he was obviously out of his mind.   He thought he could exorcise the demon of patriarchy, and allow the captive gifts of many to go free.  But someone came along and said “No.  He has gone out of his mind.  It is by Beezlebul, the ruler of the demons, that  he casts out demons (that must explain the grungy hat and the loopy ear rings).”  So they fired him.  I told him to come visit us sometime, that we too had a few people accused at one time or another of being out of their minds, and we would be honored to have him.  I hope he wears the faded green shirt and hasn’t shaved for a week.  I want you to have the full effect.

The Lipscomb educated Christian ethicist was one of many.  I could tell you about the Faulkner Lawyer with the thin vertical striped white and baby blue dress pants.  He was a graduate of Vanderbilt law school, and he left a lucrative career at a law firm to educate a new generation of Church of Christ lawyers who would fight for justice and equity in the courts across our land.  He is obviously out of his mind–who would do such a thing?  The same guy, along with his wife and their two daughters, recently marched the streets of Montgomery, the ones that so many marched decades ago during the Montgomery bus boycott, to protest unjust legislation.

I could also tell you about the ABD Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University who dared to ask if the Churches of Christ had the resources and the bravery to develop a robust public theology intent on protecting the most vulnerable, and providing for the least of these.  He interviewed Larry James, another person out of his mind, who has given years of his life working in the inner city of Dallas.  Larry James is so mindless he doesn’t call those he works with ‘the poor’ or ‘underprivileged’ or ‘the deprived’–he just calls them his neighbors.

I could tell you about the Ophthalmologist from Alabama who traveled to Washington State and Canada to conduct interviews with two of his heroes–Robert Meyers and Bill Floyd.  Robert was an English professor at Harding University, and Bill was the Student Body president.  Robert helped Bill write a letter to the board of directors asking for Harding to desegregate in 1957.  Together they worked to circulate a petition signed by hundreds of students and tens of professors.  Both Meyers and Floyd acted at great personal risk to exorcise the demon of segregation.

There was an attempt to restrain the Ophthalmologist who had traveled to the Scholar’s conference to  present his interviews and research.  The Ophthalmologist was trying to present the truth, and to call for needed reconciliation.  A heckler in the audience said he wasn’t a scholar, so he didn’t qualify.  She attacked his presentation.  She said he was out of his mind, and by Beezlebul, the ruler of the demons he was attempting to cast out demons.  I was there.  I saw the whole thing.  When it was over I went to lunch with him.  The next morning we ran together, along with a bunch of other people who also were out of their minds. I like the Ophthalmologist.  We are going to be good friends.

I could tell you about the brilliant theologian who said Jesus was a cyborg.  No, really, she said that.  You would have had to be there.  She studies post-human and trans-human theological anthropology.  Yea, it all sounds mindless, but it’s not, take my word for it.  In many ways we all are cyborgs.  Each of our lives are enhanced daily by the machinery we carry with us, both planted in our bodies, and attached to our hips.  One day there will be other enhancements available (a day quicker than we imagine) and so theologians are beginning to ask ethical questions about what it means to be human, and what these enhancements will mean for our health and well being. How will they be shared?  Will there be equity in their distribution?  Exorcise the demon of ‘reactive theology.’, she suggested, Get ahead of the curve.  Some shook their heads and walked away.  She’s out of her mind.  Why talk about the future?  What does Christianity care about this world’s future?  Jesus isn’t a cyborg, she’s a Beezlebul.

I could tell you of even more.  There were countless mindless people at the Christian Scholars Conference (ironic really).  I have left myself just enough time to tell you about the worst of the bunch–I saved him for last.  His name is Fred Gray, and he’s an old man.  You know how it is when you get old–you become a little senile, start getting confused, have to have someone lead you here and there.  Maybe that explains it, because old Fred Gray is definitely out of his mind.  Fred was a graduate of the Nashville Christian institute.  The Nashville Christian Institute was the college where black Church of Christ members went to receive an education because they were not allowed to attend a segregated David Lipscomb University.  From there he went on to law school, and after law school he moved to Montgomery Alabama.  He was one of two African American attorney’s in the entire city in the days before the civil rights movement (i.e. he was a black southern lawyer in the time of the American apartheid).  One day a woman refused to give up her seat on a city bus and was arrested.  Fred Gray became Rosa Park’s attorney.  Fred Gray also became the attorney for a Baptist preacher who organized peaceful but effective protests and demanded equal rights–his name was Martin Luther King Jr.  Fred spent his entire career fighting for the rights of his people.  He filed suit after suit.

Here’s the kicker–one of the suits he filed was against David Lipscomb University.  When the Nashville Christian Institute dissolved David Lipscomb University received money that was set aside for African Americans to obtain post secondary education.  There was a disagreement about whether or not Lipscomb used this money for these intended purposes–Fred Gray and the people he represented believed Lipscomb did not.  They were right.

Talk about out of your mind!  Why would you ‘come back home’ to the institution you filed suit against?  Why would you come back to the institution that took your money, and didn’t follow through on its promises.  Do you think you can exorcise the demon of history, and the injustices of the past?

As it turned out the burden of proof was too great for the plaintiffs.  Fred Gray lost the law suit.  But that’s not the end of the story.  Two days ago Lipscomb’s president Randy Lowery presented Fred Gray with an honorary doctorate, admitted Lipscomb’s failures and sinful actions, and pledged that all the money given them at the dissolution of the Nashville Christian Institute, and all the interest that would have accumulated on that money over the past four decades, a sum totaling almost one and half million dollars, will now be used for the purposes it was originally intended for (better late than never).  I was there, seated at table eleven.  I saw the whole thing.

When I was at the Christian Scholars Conference I wore a name tag–it read “Jesse Pettengill, West Islip Church of Christ.”  Do you know how many people (out of their minds people) saw that name tag and stopped me and said “Your church is an inspiration to me”?  They remembered to me our involvement in Faith Corp, and in Brooklyn, and our struggle for gender justice, and the early articles in Mission magazine.  Some of them knew our history better than I do.

Sometimes I think we are all alone.  The Methodists have the other Methodists.  The Catholics have the other Catholics.  The Presbyterians have the other Presbyterians.  But who does the West Islip Church of Christ have?  Who are our family?  Sometimes I think that I am alone.  Who are my colleagues?  But this week I was not alone, and we were not alone.  There were a bunch of out of their minds, socially conscious, humble reconcilers, and forward thinkers who were our family–our real family, and they were Church of Christ family.

When Jesus was told that his family was there to restrain him in Mark chapter 3, he responded by saying, “Who are my mother and my brothers?  Here are my mother and my brothers.  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Well who is our mother, and who are our brothers?  Here they are.  They wear faded green t-shirts, and they talk about cyborgs, and they leave Vanderbilt to fight for justice, and they moonlight from their optometry by interviewing heroes in Canada, and they spend their days in inner city Dallas with all their neighbors, and they accept honorary doctorates from people who stole their money.

And when we see the good they do, we remember that Satan cannot cast out Satan, and a kingdom or a house divided against itself cannot stand.  And we remember that this isn’t the work of Beezlebul like the restrainers would have us believe.  This is the work of the Church of Christ Christian Scholars, our crazy new family–and I love my crazy new family.  And I hope they give you courage.  They are filled with the Holy Spirit, and you better not say anything bad about the Holy Spirit.

Dear friends, we are not orphans.  The West Islip Church of Christ is not alone.  I know–this past week I went to our family reunion.  I sat at table eleven.  I saw the whole thing.

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3 Responses to Out of Their Minds (Reflections on the Christian Scholars Conference) *A Sermon to the West Islip Church of Christ*

  1. Calandra says:

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful perspective of the weekend. The CSC was, indeed, a confirmation that we are not alone!

  2. Calandra, it was a great reconnecting with you and meeting your husband this past week. Community is so important. Stay in touch.

  3. jamesmccarty says:

    Great post!

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