Crying on Easter

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Marcy Paysour about the readings for Easter Sunday [A] (Jeremiah 31.1-6, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3.1-4, John 20.1-18). Joanna is an elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lengthening Lent, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Incubus and The Weeknd, Easter in Coronatide, defining worship, finding grace in the wilderness, contingencies, dying with Christ, resurrection emotions, and biblical connections. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Crying on Easter

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Allegiance

Colossians 1.11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. 

Our local Wegmans can be a little overwhelming depending on what time you go to the store. For instance, if you left from worship this morning, mere days before Thanksgiving, and went to the store we might have to send a rescue team to find you. There is a better than good chance that today the store will be filled to the brim with individuals and families making sure to stock up on everything necessary for the once a year meal on Thursday.

A few weeks ago, right in the middle of a peak moment while the store was jam packed, I was pushing around my son in a cart trying desperately to get what we needed and then to get out of there. We were going up and down aisles, throwing things into the cart, and my head was constantly darting back and forth hoping to find the next item.

And the store was loud. There were other frantic parents banging into carts trying to get around a corner, on top of the PA system piping in music that should’ve stayed in 1987, and even Instacart employees who buy your groceries for you so you don’t have to.

It was in the midst of that loudness, in the midst of the frantic searching, that I noticed my son was saying something under his breath to himself.

For what its worth – this is a fairly common experience. We can be anywhere around anyone when he will spontaneously break in song, usually something like “Jesus Loves Me.” Or I’ll be sitting in the other room and I’ll hear him playing with all sorts of toys and having them engage in a conversation together.

So when he first started talking in the shopping cart I didn’t pay much attention until I heard the actual words he was saying…

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”

“Where did you learn that?” I asked.

To which he replied, “Dad, I learned it at school. We say it every morning.”

My son is three years old.

I share this story not because I want to offend or ostracize any among us regarding our potential affinity for the pledge of allegiance, but I do want to call into question how the pledge has become something so determinate in our lives against, and perhaps in spite of, Jesus our Lord.

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Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is a day when, for at least the last hundred years, churches affirm the Lordship of Christ and how our truest allegiance belongs with him over and against anything and anyone else. As a liturgical Sunday it began after the wake of the Great War during a time when Christians needed to remember what it was they really believed in the hope that we would never resort to such horrific violence toward our brothers and sister ever again.

Spoiler warning: It didn’t work.

And yet we still mark this day differently than other Sundays because the Lordship of Christ really does reorient our priorities, our proclivities, and even our politics.

It is a time for us to confront one of the most important truths of the gospel: If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.

Or, to be a little more on the nose about it: If Jesus is Lord, then America is not.

Paul writes to the church in Colossae with this kind of distinction in mind. Now, what was read for us might feel lofty and gratuitous: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” But Paul wrote to the early church not with hopes of academic pandering. Instead he used words and ideas to speak directly to problems in the lives of real people struggling to understand what a life of faith is all about.

Whenever we confront new ideas, new world-views, whether we lived in the first century or we live today, the temptation is to take the unfamiliar and fit it into what we already know. It’s how the church, time and time again, takes Jesus outside the content of the Good News he brought and declared through his life, and instead uses him like a bludgeon to beat back our theological or political enemies.

This is perhaps best exemplified with a bumper sticker I once saw that said, “If Jesus had a gun, he’d still be alive today.”

That bumper sticker is fundamentally unintelligible from a Christian perspective. 

For some strange reason, *cough* sin *cough*, we want Jesus to be a lot of things for us – a teacher who teaches the perspective we already have, a healer who heals those on our side while ignoring those on across the line, an ethical guide who affirms our current behavior, and even a political wedge so long as we’re right in the end and the others are wrong.

And, at times, Jesus is those things. But when he is those things it is for the Kingdom, and not for our own opinions. 

Today we declare that among the many things we want Jesus to be, that he is forever our King, and that makes all the difference.

This is why Paul is so inclined to begin and end everything with Jesus. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Paul will not let the world set the terms for the church because he knows and believes its actually the other way around. He writes about how we, those who follow the Lord, are transferred from one kingdom to another. In this new kingdom everything is different – the rules are different, the ruler is different, and all the assumptions about what is good and right and true are different.

Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, brings us into a new kingdom and yet we are forever trying to bring him over into one of our own. We cherrypick verses, or isolate moments in scripture, in order to give meaning and validity to whatever we already think is important.

But if Jesus is Lord then it means he’s the one who tells us what’s important.

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Paul proudly and boldly proclaims that becoming a Christian is like being dropped into a foreign land. Everything we thought we knew gets thrown out the window as we learn a new language, and new customs, and even eat new food. Being a Christian is not about fitting Jesus into our present ways of thinking – Christ has kicked us out of the kingdoms of our own desires and says you’re stuck in this kingdom with me. 

And in Christ’s kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first.

I’ve noted a few times recently that it often doesn’t help the church to just spend time addressing what’s wrong in other churches. And I want to own that – I know that. But sometimes we have to know what’s wrong in order to know what is right.

If the church tells us that we need to put America first, then it is not God’s church.

If the church tells us that some people are in and some people are out, then it is not God’s church.

If the church tells us that any politician or any leader or any celebrity is more important than the least of these, then it is not God’s church.

We can only know what is good, right, and true because we know who Jesus is. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, makes the invisible God visible. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, is before all things and all things are held together in him, by him, and for him. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, is first.

Jesus is first. 

If we believe that were true, could you imagine how differently we would live and move and breathe in this world? How many things would we toss out forever? What divisions would we destroy? 

Or, if we can’t quite wrap our heads around that thought exercise, let us just rest on this for a moment – Do we really put Jesus first in whatever we are doing and whatever we are talking about?

That kind of thinking can get us in trouble with the world. Its that kind of thinking that calls into question the practices and habits that form us. Its what made me stop when I heard my son saying the pledge of allegiance. 

It made me stop because as a Christian, my first allegiance is to God.

Grace is not about adjusting the words of Jesus to fit into the mold of the world. The grace of God is about judgment, because our King doesn’t rule from a throne or from behind a desk in an oval office. Our King rules from the cross!

The Kingdom of God is a kingdom the world doesn’t want because it makes a difference, and that difference means that we will be different because God has made us different.

The problem in the church today is that we want to seem like everybody else.

God, thankfully, won’t let us have our way.

On Christ the King Sunday, more than almost any other Sunday in the year, we confront the wonder and beauty of the new thing God has done in the world through God’s Son. In the person of Jesus Christ a new creation has taken place and a new Kingdom has been established. And in that kingdom, we are made to be gentle even in a cruel world, we are made to call out that acts of cruelty that result in even more people being little, last, least, lost, and dead. 

And calling those things into question will make the world want to kill us.

It’s why Jesus was killed.

And that’s the whole thing right there. Beyond all talk of allegiance and behavior and worship. At the end of the day we have a King who died for us, who showed us that power comes not with militaristic might, but with meekness – a King who made peace through the blood of his cross.

Advent begins next week. Most of us like to imagine that Advent is that special time set apart for us to get ready for Christmas. It’s why the stores are already decorated and the radio stations are already playing the songs. 

But Advent isn’t about getting ready for Christmas.

Advent, strangely enough, is about the end.

It is about what happens when Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Advent shows us glimpses of a time we cannot yet imagine when the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of the Lord who reigns forever and ever.

Which leaves us with one final question on this Christ the King Sunday – To whom will we pledge our allegiance? Amen. 

We Are What We Eat

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Christ the King Sunday [C] (Jeremiah 23.1-6, Colossians 1.11-20, Luke 23.33-43). Alan serves at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including a farewell to Year C, the case for weekly communion, King Jesus, outsiders on the inside, sheepish disciples, abstracted justice, Thrice references, flipping power upside down, victory in death, pledging allegiance, family meals, The Highwomen, and praying with Hauerwas. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Are What We Eat

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Twittered Repentance

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Hosea 11.1-11, Psalm 107.1-9, 43, Colossians 3.1-11, Luke 12.13-21). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including O Brother Where Art Thou?, hipster pastors, cold brew coffee, unwinding repentance, social media identities, roaring like Aslan, vulnerable redemption, talking to strangers, and problematic parable preaching. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Twittered Repentance

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Three Powerful Words

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Wil Posey about the readings for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Hosea 1.2-10, Psalm 85, Colossians 2.6-19, Luke 11.1-13). Wil serves as the pastor of First UMC in Murphy, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including praying in Greek, pastoring a football team, whores in church, unpacking scripture, idolatry in symbols, the one thing needful, weeds, death, erasing the record, and the prosperity gospel. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Three Powerful Words

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The Orchard Of Scripture

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Wil Posey about the readings for the 6th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Amos 8.1-12, Psalm 52, Colossians 1.15-28, Luke 10.38-42). Wil serves as the pastor of First UMC in Murphy, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including fruit puns, sermon titles, fishing for a thesis, baldness as a punishment, the feat of death, reading canonically, using the first-person plural, piety vs. mercy, and praying with our feet. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Orchard Of Scripture

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Bedazzle Your Crosses

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with David King about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Amos 7.7-17, Psalm 82, Colossians 1.1-14, Luke 10.25-37). David is a 21 year old college senior who is currently studying philosophy and religion. Our conversation covers a range of topics including plumb lines, persistent pursuits, sycamore trees, justice for the marginalized, easy Christianity, hearing hope, poor parable preaching, and dying to save. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Bedazzle Your Crosses

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Hats At The Dinner Table

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 1st Sunday After Christmas (1 Samuel 2.18-20, 22-26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3.12-17, Luke 2.41-52). Teer is the associate pastor of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA, and is part of the Crackers & Grape Juice Team. Our conversation covers a range of topics including life after Christmas, conscripted youth groups, dressing for the job your parents want you to have, praise vs. gratitude, shout outs to DBB, the people who give church a bad name, SNL, education models, and the imagination of children. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hats At The Dinner Table

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Not My President

 

Colossians 1.11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.

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A year ago today I stood in this pulpit and preached about how God’s kingdom is not of this world. I used Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus (“Are you the King of the Jews?” “You say that I am…”) to juxtapose the world’s expectations against God’s expectations. The sermon ended with a staccato’d refrain that emphasized the kingship of Jesus and our allegiance to his kingdom.

I said:

The world tells us to gain all we can.

            Jesus tells us to give all we can.

            The world tells us to seek vengeance.

            Jesus tells us to seek forgiveness.

            The world tells us to destroy our enemies.

            Jesus tells us to love our enemies.

            The world tells us we are the center of the universe.

            Jesus tells us that God is the center of all things.

            The world tells us to ignore the weak.

            Jesus tells us that the meek shall inherit the earth.

            The world tells us that death is the end.

            Jesus tells us that death is the beginning.

I didn’t think it at the time, but it was a pretty political sermon. After all, making the claim that Christ is our King is a political statement. But what I didn’t anticipate was how the words from that sermon would play out over the next 365 days.

We’re told not to mix politics with religion. Political opinions and religious beliefs are supposed to be kept in the private sphere, they are things we can think about on our own time but the world has no right to interfere with either.

Except the world interferes with both all the time. We hear about things like the Christian Coalition, and the need for Christians to take back the Supreme Court, and I even get emails asking about what the church is going to do regarding local school board decisions.

We hear that the church is not supposed to be political. We shouldn’t endorse particular candidates or platforms. We shouldn’t tell people how to vote, or even to vote at all. The church can’t be political in the sense that it can’t be Republican or Democrat, but the church itself is a politic. To be part of the church, to be part of the body of Christ, implies that our worldview is changed and therefore everything else changes as well.

Like many Sundays throughout the liturgical year, this one has a special focus and significance. However, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the Christian calendar. Whereas Christians have celebrated the likes of Maundy Thursday and Pentecost for a long time, Christ the King was only established as official day in the church in 1925. It took the church 1900 years to need this day the same way that we need it now.

In 1925, Mussolini had been head of Italy for 3 years, a loud insurrectionist in Germany named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was rapidly growing in power, and the entire world was suffering under the weight of a Great Depression.

Yet, despite the rise of autocratic dictators, despite the lack of economic opportunities, despite the strange and uncomfortable silence between two World Wars, Christ the King asserted, and still does, that Jesus Christ is Lord and he shall reign forever and ever.

Throughout the last Christian year from Christ the King to Christ the King, we’ve read from Genesis to Revelation, we’ve encountered the living God in the stories from Creation to Redemption, we’ve been transformed by the Word of the God becoming incarnate in the way we live our lives…. And all of this, all of the Sundays, all of the sermons, all of the scriptures, have pointed to one thing: Jesus Christ is Lord.

That’s the thing about Christians, for us everything starts and ends with Jesus. In his letters Paul addresses this strange and beautiful quality of Jesus over and over again. And rather than trying to accommodate Jesus to the ways of the world, Paul calls for all Christians to put Christ first. Yet, Christ is the King of a Kingdom that is so different, and so far from what we’re comfortable with, that putting Jesus first is difficult.

In Jesus’ kingdom the rules and the ruler are different. All assumptions about what is important, and who we are to be, and what we are to care about, have been changed.

It’s like being deported to a strange new land where everyone else is speaking a strange language. It takes time to learn the lingo, and adapt to the habits of the people around us. It’s not a simple matter of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking, nor is it just giving an hour of our week to worship in a church. We don’t fit Jesus into our lives; Jesus fits us into his.

We are the ones transferred, moved, and deported from one kingdom to another. We move from the kingdom of consumption to the kingdom of communion; from the kingdom of popularity to the kingdom of poverty; from the kingdom of destruction to the kingdom of deliverance; from the kingdom of competition to the kingdom of cooperation.

Everything about what we think we know and understand changes in the kingdom of God, because Christ is King.

USA ELECTION AFTERMATH

The last two weeks have been particularly tumultuous in our country: Economically disenfranchised people are fearful about the potential of losing their health care coverage, while some devastated Democrats are calling for the murder of Donald Trump. Muslims are being threatened with a registration much like the Jews were forced to register in Germany prior to World War II, while Trump voters are being physically assaulted across the national landscape. Immigrants are cowering in fear over whether or not they’re going to be deported, while countless protestors are flooding the streets of cities and the pages of social media with the declaration: Not My President.

Some are berating and demeaning the crowds for their rejection of Donald Trump as their president as if this is the first time people have rejected the president-elect in the United States. It was only sixteen years ago that tee-shirts and bumper stickers were mass produced with pictures of George W. Bush accompanied by the words: Not My President. It was only 8 years ago that Confederate flags were waved during protests after Barack Obama won the election and people were chanting: Not My President.

Thank God Jesus is not our president.

For if Jesus were our president we would have had to pick him to lead us, and we never would have picked him to lead us. We would never willingly elect someone who told us that the first will be last and the last will be first. We would never willingly elect someone who told us to sell all of our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. We would never willingly elect someone who told us to open up all the borders and let all the refugees in. We would never willingly elect someone who spent so much time with the riff-raff of society.

If Jesus were our president he would be a product of the world rather than a product of God’s incarnation. He would have to make promises to the rich in order to maintain economic stability. He would have to compromise with other world leaders who treat their citizens like dirt. He would have to second-guess the stories he told out of fear that he would not be re-elected in the future.

If Jesus were our president he would have to make us promises that he could never keep, instead of being the glue that keeps all of us together. He would have to take sides in political debates and ostracize entire communities. He would have to brag about the stability of the union rather than name the brokenness that is keeping us from becoming who God is actually calling us to be. He would have to order the extermination of particular individuals and communities in order to keep our country safe.

Thank God Jesus is not our president. Jesus is our King. And instead of electing him, he elected us.

The kingdom Jesus rules is not of this world and it forces us to confront how broken our world really is. Jesus, as our king, subverts the powers and principalities and shows us a new way.

In this broken and flawed world, we see and know God because we see and know Jesus. Jesus is the image of the invisible, the very beginning of everything in creation. Jesus is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

When we encounter things that appear diametrically opposed, things like Republicans and Democrats, Christ is the glue that holds it all together. Through the blood of his death, the blood that was poured out for the world, we encounter the “other” as brother and the “stranger” as “sister.” All the worldly things that seek to divide us are broken down by the glory of the cross that seeks to bring peace and reconciliation rather than division and destruction.

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It is not an easy thing to be a Christian, to worship Christ as King. We need the strength of God to endure everything with patience while giving thanks to the Father, because we cannot do discipleship on our own. But when Christ becomes first in our lives, when every Sunday is like Christ the King Sunday, when we realize that we a part of a strange new kingdom, everything else starts to change.

Our King does not build walls to keep people out, nor does our king require the registration of different communities under the auspices of “safety.” Our King invites all to the table to discover the power and love of his grace.

Our King does not call for his followers to take up the sword to wipe out political opposition. Our King forgave the people who delivered him to the cross.

Our King does not pander to us with empty promises in order to procure our allegiance. Our King meets us where we are with a simple invitation saying, “follow me.”

Nearly 100 years ago, Christians all across the world needed the first Christ the King Sunday. They needed a Sunday set apart to reflect on how the Lordship of Christ outshines even the most powerful of dictators and the most devastating of depressions.

Today, we need it just as much. We need Christ the King Sunday because it helps to remind us that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It forces us to confront the strange reality of our King being nailed to a cross for the people of his kingdom. It reminds us that peace comes through his sacrifice, a sacrifice that we remember at this table.

Do not be conformed to the ways of this world, but be transformed by the bread and the cup at the Lord’s Table. Instead of consuming the politics and priorities of the world, be consumed by the grace of God made manifest is Jesus Christ. Reject the powers and principalities that seek to undo God’s creation, and kneel before the true King: Jesus Christ. Amen.

On Homosexuality

Leviticus 20.13

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Colossians 3.12-15

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

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Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series has been different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of the sanctuary, we have confronted some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I have said something from this pulpit during the series that you don’t agree with, and I am thankful for the vulnerability and honesty that has been present in our conversations following worship. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we conclude the series with the topic of Homosexuality.

 

When someone rings the doorbell at St. John’s, you can hear it throughout the entire building. More often than not our wonderful church secretary will answer the door with a smile on her face and direct the person to their particular destination. We regularly have people down on their luck knock on our door looking for a little bit of financial help, sometimes we have people in the midst of a crisis who want to speak with a pastor, and every once in a while we have someone who is just interested in learning more about the church.

A couple months ago I was sitting in my office working diligently when the doorbell rang. I listened for the echoes down the hallway to discern what kind of interaction I was about to have when the secretary called my office and said, “Someone needs to talk to you.”

The visitor was an older woman, recently to Staunton, dressed to the nines with a gold cross hanging across her neck. When she offered her hand in order to introduce herself she had a subtle grandmotherly smell about her that immediately elicited visions of old books with tattered dust covers, prescription pill dispensers, and Vicks VapoRub.

She said, “I’m a United Methodist.”

            I said, “How wonderful, so am I.”

            She said, “I’m new to town, and I was just driving by and saw the sign out front and I thought I’d like to know more about the church.”

For the next thirty minutes we sat in the front pews of the sanctuary and I gave her the elongated elevator speech about St. John’s UMC. I pointed to the particularly pertinent aspects of our Christian architecture here in the sanctuary. I shared with her about the hilarity and joy of our Preschool that meets in the basement. I offered her reflective stories about the intellect of our Circle group of youth who are regularly more faithful than their pastor. I talked about our lectionary bible study that meets on Thursdays and how they contribute more to the sermon on Sunday mornings than they get credit for. And then I started to tell her about how we worship, how we let the Lord speak to us through scripture, hymns, prayers, and even sometimes the sermon.

When she asked about our attendance and giving, I proudly proclaimed our Sunday average and told her that we are about to pay our apportionments in full for the third year in a row. When she asked about the kind of people who participate in the life of the church, I told her the truth: that on Sunday mornings this placed is filled with the most beautiful and brilliant people Staunton has to offer.

For thirty minutes we discussed the ins and outs of the church, and for thirty minutes I watched her fall in love with the descriptions I shared. With every anecdote and short story I could see her seeing herself becoming a vital part of our worshipping community. Honestly, it was one of the best conversations I’ve had in a while and when it ended she said that she was eager and excited to join us in worship on Sunday morning.

We shook hands and said goodbye, but right before she made it to the door she turned around and said, “Just one more question… What do you think we should do about the gays?”

            Without hesitation I said, “I think we should love them.”

            “Well then,” she said with a sigh, “I won’t be coming back.”

Human sexuality, and in particular homosexuality, is one of the most polarizing issues in the United Methodist Church today. Like all of the controversies we have confronted over the last month and a half, it requires a tremendous amount of vulnerability and patience whenever it is discussed.

The controversy regarding homosexuality and the church is made manifest in a number of ways. For many, like the woman I met in the sanctuary, it is the defining question that determines whether someone joins a church or not. That specific conversation is not the only time I have been asked about the church’s stance on homosexuality in the middle of a conversation about joining or participating in the life of the church. In fact, during my second week at St. John’s, I received a phone call from the Newsleader inquiring whether or not I, as the pastor, offer sessions to counsel individuals out of their gayness. Which is to say, our local newspaper wanted to know if I could turn a homosexual into a heterosexual.

            But beyond church participation and local media questions, the controversy is one at the heart of what it means to wrestle with being a Christian today.

The United Methodist Church has a governing document called The Book of Discipline that is edited and republished every four years. In it we receive our organizational structure, the means by which individuals can become ordained clergy, and a host of other relevant church matters. In that book you can find the following statement regarding homosexuality: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers the practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The language in the Book of Discipline about the incompatibility of homosexuality has led the church to also assert that any bishop, clergy member, or local pastor may be tried (as in a church trial) when charged with the following offenses: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or performing same sex wedding ceremonies.

So, to summarize, according to the United Methodist Church to be gay is to be incompatible with Christian teaching; you cannot be a clergy person if you are in a gay relationship, and clergy can be punished for marrying a gay couple.

When it comes to the bible, the witness of scripture is explicit regarding homosexuality. In Leviticus, God proclaims that anyone engaged in homosexual behavior is an abomination and should be put to death. In Paul’s letters, the sin of homosexuality is listed along the likes of envy, murder, deceit, gossip, slander, and faithlessness.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the United Methodist Church has taken the stance it has, and that many a preacher proclaim the incapability of homosexuality from the pulpits in the churches they serve.

At this point, I could point out that the few texts that do speak about homosexuality in scripture have been overly emphasized again and again whereas other biblically prohibited behaviors are tolerated. For instance, some of us like to eat shellfish, some of us have tattoos on our bodies, and some us have let our hair become unkempt (all worth punishment in scripture).

Or I could talk about how our country guarantees the rights of its citizens to not be discriminated against because of their sexuality, and how it has affirmed the constitutional right of its gay citizens to be married.

Or I could mention how many scientists and geneticists believe that one’s sexual identity is not a choice and is instead fundamentally wired into who they are through a particular gene.

Or I could bring up the fact that God, rather than condemning the marginalized and calling them incompatible, commands us to go to those on the fringes of society to be present with and for them.

Or I could make mention of the fact that Jesus [remember him?] says absolutely nothing about homosexuality in any of the four gospels.

But I won’t talk about that.

            Instead, I want to talk about repentance. Not the repentance the church thinks someone from the LGBTQ community should confess because of their identity. But the repentance the church desperately needs for singling out a particular community and denigrating them for decades.

175 years ago, many pastors across the United States preached sermons from their pulpits about how the bible reveals a divine sanction of slavery. There are plenty of verses in the Old and New Testaments that seem to affirm the subjugation of one people by another. We, as a church, were wrong.

60 years ago, many churches across the United States believed that scripture makes it clear that white churches should remain white. There are scriptures in the Old and New Testaments that can be interpreted to proclaim that society needs to be segregated and that birds of a different feather are not supposed to flock together. We, as a church, were wrong.

50 years ago, and still today, many Christians throughout the country believe that a literal reading of the bible makes plain God’s design for women to be submissive toward men. There are verses from the Old and New Testaments that can be understood to advocate for women to not have the same rights as men. We, as a church, were wrong.

And for all the wrongs we have committed, we confess and repent. We look back on the days long gone and shake our heads about how foolish we once were. We dig up old dusty sermons and can’t believe that a pastor would be so filled with hatred to single out a particular group of people and label them as property, or unworthy, or subordinate, or incompatible. We see the scars that are still very present in our society because of what the church once believed and for that we pray for God’s forgiveness.

            And we need to do it again today.

For too long, the church has abused its power to dominate and condemn particular people out of fear and bigotry. Pastors all across this land use pulpits like this one to isolate the LGBTQ community and tell them they are incompatible, they have no worth, and they have no value.

            Can you imagine what it would feel like to bravely take a step in faith to attend a Sunday worship service at a church only to hear that you are incompatible with Christian teaching?

Can you picture the pain and agony that would come if you felt God calling you to ordained ministry and the church said you’re wrong because of who you are?

Can you imagine the anger that would percolate inside you if you found someone you wanted to spend the rest of your life with and the church told you it would not be a part of your wedding?

If we’re honest, our answer is probably “no, we can’t imagine.” We can’t imagine what it would be like because we sit comfortably in our ivory towers of heteronormativity, assuming that the world would be a better place if other people looked like us, thought like us, and acted like us. But the beautiful and wonderful diversity of humanity is part of God’s divinely created order, and it is one that we foolishly try to fix on a regular basis.

Months ago, a woman wandered into this sanctuary to ask about the church, but what she really wanted to know was what we should do about the LGBTQ community. In her question, and response, I experienced the fear and loathing that is fundamentally disconnected from the love and grace and mercy of the living God. And I wish could go back and change my answer. Not because the answer I gave her was wrong, but there’s a better one.

“What do you think we should do about the gays?”

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, we are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We are supposed to bear with one another and forgive each other just as the Lord has forgiven us. Above all, we are called to clothe ourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

If can’t agree that the least we can do is love them, then we have no business calling ourselves Christians.