“Jesus’ Big Tent”
May 1, 2005
Dr. Jimmy R. Watson, St. Mark UCC
Franklin Delano Roosevelt met an old neighbor during the third term campaign. “Whom are you voting for this year?” Roosevelt asked. “The Republicans,” the man said. “How come?” Roosevelt asked. “Third term issue bothering you?” “It’s not that at all, Franklin,” the neighbor said. “It’s just that—well—I voted Republican the first time you ran, I voted Republican the second time you ran, and I’m going to vote Republican again because I never had it so good.”
As everybody knows, this country is fairly evenly divided, politically speaking, between not just Republicans and Democrats, but between red-state and blue-state people. (It’s amazing how quickly those color designations have caught on!) The people who make the most political noise see themselves clearly as either blue-liberals or red-conservatives, although, truth be told, the majority of Americans would best be labeled as moderates or “purple” people. Conservatives (or red-state people) are more likely to vote Republican and liberals (or blue-state people) are more likely to vote Democratic. Those who are solidly red or blue make up what we call the “base” of the two parties. The numerical split between these two groups is always fairly even, although at this time in history the conservative-red base seems to be stronger than the liberal-blue base.
Because there is such an even ideological divide in this country, the political parties try to do two things during a national election: 1) Solidify the party base, and 2) Go after the purple people—the moderates. Appealing to the moderates is the key to winning elections. To do this you have to convince the voters that your party has a “big tent.” You have to convince the purple people that there is plenty of room in your party for people who don’t always agree with solidly red or blue-state people. This is true in other places as well. Canadian political parties spend most of their time appealing to their solid constituents, but during an election they clamor for the moderates. One web site said that during an election season, “Tories become suddenly compassionate, the NDP is fiscally responsible, the BQ forgets its separatism, and the Liberals—ah, yes the Liberals: they slip into the political center the way most of us slip into a warm bath.”
Convincing voters that your party is the “big tent” party is good political strategy, but the problem is that it often leads to a watering down of your message. A lot of compromising takes place when a political party tries to widen its tent. If your message gets too wide, it is in danger of becoming too bland, meaningless and “toothless.” Also, if your message gets too wide—if the tent gets too big—you may run the risk of angering your base. Red or blue people may not feel comfortable aligning themselves with too many purple people. Such is the dilemma of running a political campaign.
In much the same way, many religious people feel the need to be careful about having too large of a tent—allowing too much diversity. The view is that if we extend our hospitality to those who have different beliefs and practices then our religion becomes almost meaningless. Red, or conservative, Christians feel very uncomfortable with blue, or liberal minded Christians in their church or denomination, and vice-versa.
But I think this attitude is wrong-headed. The way I understand the realm of God, the tent can never be too large! If God’s grace means anything at all, it means that God’s “tent” has no boundaries and no limitations. It can hold red, blue, and purple people, and all shades of color in between.
I’ve been thinking about tents all week long. At the beginning of the week Dee Blann came to see me about taking the youth on a camping trip in June. She said she had a couple of tents but we will probably need a couple more. Then, on Wednesday, I was explaining to Mary Griffin about our need to get more tents and she told me she and Dennis had one they wanted to get rid of. So I bought a tent (hoping that I will prove Rayleen wrong when she said I will never figure out how to put it up). Before I even talked to Dee and Mary, however, I read Psalm 66, trying to get some inspiration for my sermon today. The psalmist remembers how God had rescued the people of Israel in the past. And even though they had gone through some very difficult times, “Yet,” the psalmist said, “you (God) have brought us out to a spacious place.
I’m not sure if the psalmist is talking about their return to the land of Palestine or to the Temple in Jerusalem, which was a very spacious building. Regardless, he seems to be saying that there is plenty of room for God’s children. God has a “big tent.” God’s realm is “spacious.” When I read the phrase “a spacious place” I couldn’t help but think of my home in west Texas. I get teary-eyed almost every time I drive home because there’s always that moment when the sky just opens up. Literally, of course, the sky isn’t any bigger in west Texas than anywhere else in the world, but because there are no large trees and the mountains are flat top mesas, the big blue sky really grabs your attention. At the very least, the spacious skies of west Texas have become for me a symbol of the big tent of God’s domain.
God has indeed created a spacious place for you and me and the rest of creation. But more than that, God’s grace is also very “spacious.” Although many people (both blue and red) would like to put strict and narrow boundaries around God’s grace, I believe God’s grace is characterized by the big tent philosophy: there is room enough for all, blue, red, purple, and all shades in between! In our reading today from Acts 17 the Apostle Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles, is doing his best to open up God’s tent even wider than previously accomplished. Paul is in a Pagan city, Athens, Greece. Confirming what I said last week about the ancient pagans, Paul says to them, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
As I said last week the pagans were so religious they weren’t satisfied with just one god, they needed lots of gods. But perhaps the reason they needed so many gods is because none of them were ultimately sufficient. They felt like they needed different gods for different aspects of their lives. But Paul tried to convince them that “the God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth” has a big enough tent to include everyone and everything about us. No other gods were necessary, not even those who “live in shrines made by human hands” or those made out of “gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Paul didn’t use the “tent” metaphor like I am doing here, but he could have when he quoted one of the ancient pagan philosophers who said about God, “In him we live and move and have our being.” Sort of like being in a very large tent. By the way, do you remember what Paul did to make a living as he traveled from town to town preaching the gospel? He was a tent-maker!
Paul certainly did his best to expand and enlarge the tent of God for the Gentiles, but it was Jesus who first began opening people’s hearts and minds to the possibility that the realm of God was larger and more hospitable than they thought. In John’s Gospel, for example, Jesus is quoted as saying, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” If he had been talking to nomads at the moment he probably would have said, “In my Father’s tent there is a lot of space.” Jesus understood God’s “tent” to be so large as to be almost incomprehensible to his contemporaries because they had a small tent philosophy. Not just anyone could get in. According to Jesus, however, God’s “tent” or realm could hold everyone his contemporaries thought couldn’t get in: the poor, the lost, the hungry, the mourners, the sick, the tax-collectors and sinners, the lepers, the prostitutes, women and children, the possessed or mentally ill, enemies, the bad and the unjust, Samaritans, the last, and adulterers.
Notice how Jesus created a big tent not by moving to the center (as today’s political parties try to do during an election), but by moving to the edges, to the periphery, where the wounded, the hurting, and the disenfranchised dwell. Of course, expanding God’s tent eventually got Jesus killed because those who controlled the institutional face of God’s tent on earth—the religious elite—decided the tent needed to stay small, pure, and holy. Much like the solid base of today’s political parties, the religious elite in Jesus’ day did not want to compromise their beliefs and practices by dwelling under the same tent as most everyone else. In fact, the name “Pharisee” is related to the word “separate,” implying a separatist attitude on their part (which many of them had). And they weren’t the only group to have such an attitude.
One reason I am always very reluctant to criticize the leaders of our denomination, the United Church of Christ, is because I recognize what they are trying to do. Whether some of us agree with all their actions or not, they are sincerely trying to widen the tent of God’s realm. Sometimes the tent gets so wide in our denomination that some in the tent decide there’s not enough room for them. In reality this is not true, because the tent is large enough for all those who wish dwell therein. Our challenge, as UCC people, is not to work for a church that only includes red-state people, blue-state people, or even purple people. Our challenge is to work to make everyone feel welcome in our church because our church is simply an extension of the big tent of God. Our challenge is to try to create as large a tent in the 21st century as Jesus and his followers created in the first century.