Terms And Conditions May Apply

Luke 9.28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not know what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. 

I think honesty is a pretty good thing to strive for in the church.

While we are steeped in a world of deception, when we never quite know who or what to trust, surely in the church we could do for some transparency.

So I’ll start with this: It’s been a long and difficult week.

I traveled to St. Louis with two of my closest friends, who happen to be clergy in the UMC, and with whom I host and produce a number of podcasts. 

We weren’t really sure what to expect. We sat high above the arena in the press section and were witnesses to every moment of the conference. We tried to write about what we saw and what we felt, and we also reached out to people of all sides of LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion debate so that we could share, as well as we could, what was going on and what was at stake.

We put out a conversation we had with a pastor who was fired without trial for presiding over a same-sex union. We talked with a man who leads a conservative lobbying group who was strongly advocating for the Traditional Plan. We interviewed a retired bishop about his experiences throughout his career and how they led to a moment like this one. We spoke with a gay pastor and his partner. And we reached out to a lot of people who simply said they didn’t want to talk.

And all the while we waited. We watched the legislative angling in which people from every side of the spectrum argued for their vision to become reality. We watched as protestors stood up to sing hymns in order to drown out people from an opposing view-point. We watched as bishops struggled to keep the room in order as different proposals were brought to the floor.

And then on Tuesday afternoon, after all the fighting and debating, THE vote came before the delegates of the general conference. They were simply running out of time and needed to get everything settled. 

Incidentally, we were on a time crunch to leave the arena promptly because they needed to dumps tons of dirt on the floor in preparation for the Monster Truck Rally that was scheduled for the evening.

It took exactly 60 seconds for all of the delegates to cast their votes through their electronic devices. And for 60 seconds most of the people in the room were wondering the same things:

Would the global United Methodist Church adopt the Traditional Plan that continues to ban LGBTQIA persons from ordained ministry? Would the church double down on punishments for clergy who preside over same sex weddings? Would the language of incompatibility be reinforced and therefore resonate strongly across the globe?

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God does a lot of ungodly things in the Bible, and in particular through the person of Jesus. 

We could expect that God in the flesh would sit tight in a particular region, waiting for the people to gather, but Jesus goes walking all over the place. 

We might expect that God would share a clear and cogent vision for what it means to live a faithful life, but Jesus tells these strange and bizarre parables that leave people scratching their heads. 

We might imagine that God would command people to tell everyone about the Messiah being in their midst, but Jesus usually order people to keep their mouths shut.

So it comes to pass that Jesus calls Peter, John, and James to go up onto the mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, his face changed, his clothes became dazzling white, and suddenly two men were standing next to him, Moses and Elijah.

Peter and the others don’t know what to make of it. Scripture doesn’t even tell us how they knew it was Moses and Elijah. But ever eager Peter makes the bold claim that they should stay up on the mountain even though the two figures were talking with Jesus about his departure in Jerusalem. In many ways, Peter wanted everything to stay the way it was, he wanted to build houses on top of the mountain, perhaps to avoid the reality of what might happen down in the valley.

And in that precise moment of Peter’s rambling, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified.

I’ve always loved the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. It stands as a high point, both literally and figuratively, in the gospel stories. Whatever the disciples think they know about Jesus takes on a whole new meaning of power and majesty and might, when two of the greatest figures from Israel’s history are flanking him on his left and right. 

Moreover, in these two particular persons, it’s as if the whole of the Old Testament is conferring with Jesus.

Moses is the Law.

Elijah is the Prophets. 

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It’s a great moment for preaching and teaching because everything changes after this divine declaration – all eyes are now aimed toward Jerusalem. The team has huddled together on the mountaintop and there’s no turning back from the cross.

And then the cloud overshadows all of them, and the disciples were terrified.

I imagine that the waiting in that moment was akin to the breathless waiting in the convention center at General Conference. So much would hang one whatever happened next, and yet in that moment of darkness the mind wanders all over the places and through every possibility.

Throughout the arena there were a number of screens that would display the occasional votes, and after the requisite 60 seconds, the results were made available to everyone with eyes to see.

The Traditional Plan passed.

438 to 384

53% to 47%

What happened next was a strange thing to behold. 

At first the room was truly silent, completely unlike it had been in the previous days. And suddenly a group of delegates began to gather in the very center of the room, they embraced one another as the tears began flowing down their faces, and they started to sing. 

This is my story.

This is my song.

Praising my Savior all the day long…

In their singing and in their weeping, the dreams of a different future for the UMC were brought to a halt.

And then something else began to take place. Other delegates rose from their seats, and they made their own circle off to the side, and they started dancing, and clapping, and celebrating the results.

Never in my life have I been witness to such tremendous suffering and such exalted joy only an arm’s length away from each other.

And we call ourselves the church. 

When the disciples cowered in fear as the cloud overshadowed them, they waited for whatever would come next.

Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And the disciples kept silent in those days and told no one about what they had seen,.

There were a lot of people at the Special General Conference last week. There was plenty of talking and fighting and arguing. There were quite a few moments where the Bible was weaponized to knock down someone else for trying to make a theological argument.

And though we started the whole thing in prayer, and though we had a cross up at the front of the room, there was one person who was conspicuously absent from the proceedings: Jesus.

Sure, I heard a lot about what it says in Leviticus. I heard a lot about Paul. I heard people quote precisely from John Wesley. But Jesus? 

I honestly don’t know where Jesus was while we were trying to figure out the future of his church. 

In fairness to our Lord, it felt like he had better things to do than witness the devolution of an institution whose motto is “Do No Harm.”

It seems like we’ve spent so much time listening to ourselves, that we’ve forgotten what the voice cried out from the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration.

I don’t know what the future holds for the UMC. I’m not even sure what it means to be a United Methodist right now. Open hearts, open minds, open doors right?

But from the time that Peter quaked in fear on top of the mountain, Christians have always known that what we’ve always been taught and what God is saying today aren’t always exactly the same thing. 

Christians have known since that horrific moment where the crowds chose to save Barabbas instead of Jesus that voting and democratic decision making have plenty of flaws.

Christians have known since that first Easter morning, that resurrection is only possible on the path that includes the cross.

In a few minutes we will gather at the table, as countless Christians have done so before us. We do so as a United Methodist Church, whatever that means, but more importantly we do so as disciples of Jesus. Despite what a Book of Discipline might say, there are no terms and conditions on this moment. Nothing can preclude us from the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

So when we come to the table, when we cling to the cross, listen for the voice crying out from the overshadowing cloud. 

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Amen.

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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.