Another Way Forward or: Why “Holy Conferencing” Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

On November 16th, 2016, Americans flocked to their assigned polling stations. The election cycle had been particularly brutal with the partisanship at its zenith. And while countless citizens waited for the election results to come in, a handful of people gathered for worship at Duke Divinity School to hear Stanley Hauerwas preach.

It’s a good sermon, you can read it in his recent book Minding The Web, but there’s one part that has really stuck with me over the last few years:

“I need not tell you this is the day Americans elect their president and a host of other offices. We will be told this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels, and the people asked for Barabbas. Voting is often said to be the institution that makes democracies democratic. I think, however, that is a deep mistake. It is often over-looked, but there is a coercive aspect to all elections. After an election, 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do.”

Annual Conference is often experienced as the most determinative week in the life of United Methodism. Sure, we have a General Conference every four years that establishes the global budget and a handful of other truly important matters. But every year, every Annual Conference meets to discern the future of the local church as it pertains to missional strategies, ordination, and conference structures. And we worship occasionally, but that certainly feels like an afterthought most of the time.

And within the regular movements and machinations of Annual Conference there is an element of conferencing that is so engrained into who we are that we no longer question its’ subversiveness – Robert’s Rules of Order, and specifically voting in general.

I don’t know the exact date of when the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations sold their souls to the organization of Robert, but I do know for sure that it has nothing to do with the gospel.

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Take Hauerwas’ point: The only democratic moment in the Gospels is when the people choose Barabbas instead of Jesus. They thought they knew what they were doing and they nailed the Lord to the cross. There are, of course, other moments of important decision in the New Testament, but they don’t happen through a pre-arranged structure, or through secret ballots, and certainly not through electronic devices. 

There isn’t even campaigning for particular people or ideologies.

When the apostles needed to choose a new disciple to replace Judas they did so with the casting of lots.

When the apostles encounter the Spirit’s movement among the Gentiles they simply went along with the flow rather than creating subcommittees to study a new way forward for the Good News.

But that’s not how we handle things in the United Methodist Church. 

For years I’ve entertained the thought of approaching one of the open microphones to make a motion (under the guidelines of Robert) to amend our general rules and practices so that EVERY vote would be done with the casting of lots. I’m sure that it would be debated, and ultimately struck down, but the craziest thing is it would have the potential of being more faithful than whatever it is we are already doing.

Instead of listening for and discerning the movement of the Spirit, we “take matters into our own hands” by exhibiting our democratic rights. Which means, to put it another way, that the UMC has adopted a secular means of deliberation that mirrors corporate America more than the living Word of the Lord.

Rev. Dr. Dennis Perry, who is retiring at this year’s Virginia Annual Conference says: “We have conflated effectiveness with efficiency, so that we now care more about process than outcomes to the point that our outcome is our process. If asked, most United Methodists can tell you who should be around the table and how to use parliamentary procedure, but few would have any words for how to create and lead a Gospel-centered community.”

During this Annual Conference cycle there has been a lot of behind the scenes politicking in order to establish slates of candidates to be voted upon for the 2020 General Conference. Different camps/tribes are hoping to either overturn or strengthen the Traditional Plan from GC 2019 that created stiffer penalties for clergy who preside over same-sex weddings and Bishops/Conferences that ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

Those who lean to the right have their slate of candidates and those who lean to the left have their own slate of candidates. But on both sides, two of the primary factors for consideration have been electability and knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order.

So here’s my question: What does it say about the United Methodist Church that when discerning the future of God’s church we want to elect individuals who have name-recognition and who are aware of a parliamentary process that has nothing to do with the Bible?

Robert’s Rules of Order is not Holy Conferencing and neither is sitting down for an election. They might keep us attentive to the matters at hand, but they also leave us more polarized than we were when we started. 

So, here’s another way forward in light of GC 2019 and our continued Annual Conferencing – 

Get rid of Robert’s Rules of Order. Throw it away and never look back. Will Annual Conference become chaotic and difficult to keep under control? Of course, but that’s what the Holy Spirit does best. Do you think the disciples waited for someone to make a motion to accept the Holy Spirit before it was poured out on Pentecost?

And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of voting altogether. We can either work through consensus building, or cast lots like they did during the time of Jesus. Will it be difficult, and will we feel like its’ unfair? Of course, but God’s grace is entirely unfair – it’s for everyone.

We, the Church, have drugged ourselves into believing that proper organization is the key to our relationship with God. But faith isn’t about what we do or what we control – instead, it’s about what God did and does and whether or not we have the eyes, ears, and minds to perceive it.

Today, we are addicted to a version of the church that has more to do with Sears than it does to the kingdom of God.

Here on the other side of GC 2019, our conferencing is growing more and more incompatible with Christian teaching. To continually give ourselves over to Robert and his rules is to admit how drunk we are with manifesting our own destiny. 

My fear is that we are so entrenched in our ways, that we are no longer listening to The Way. 

If we’re honest, none of our committees would elect Jesus to do much of anything. He is far too radical, too perverse, and he associates himself with all the wrong people. He wouldn’t sit around for all of the parliamentary procedures before marching out to do his own thing.

I just hope that we would have the presence of mind to follow Him, rather than trying to show Him where to go. 

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God Hates Figs

Luke 13.6-9

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

It was brutally cold in the middle of February as we lugged our recording equipment up to the arena in St. Louis, Missouri. We had somehow hoodwinked the powers-that-be at the General Conference that we were a reputable media organization, and they happily provided us with press passes. So my buddies and I parked as close as we could, but we had to get all of our podcast equipment to the designated Media Area.

We were all shivering, having not packed enough winter clothing, while waiting for the light to change in the sparsely populated downtown streets. Over chattering teeth we opined about what and who we might encounter at the General Conference, and we even wondered whether they’d actually let us in or not.

However, by the time the arena came into view none of us were talking. Instead we were gobsmacked by the presence of representatives from Westboro Baptist Church picketing in response to our called General Conference.

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Our denomination was meeting to discern the future for LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion, and mere feet away from the main entrance were a handful of demonstrators who, by the signs and shouting, let everyone know how they felt about the whole thing.

NO WOMEN PREACHERS!

I thought, “They’re going to be really disappointed when they realize that women preachers were the first to tell the disciples about the resurrection.”

DIVORCE, REMARRIAGE, AND GAY MARRIAGE ARE ALL SIN!

I thought, “They’re not necessarily wrong, but so is eating shellfish and working on the Sabbath so…”

BELIEVE ON JESUS THE DESTROYER OF SODOM!

I thought, “Wait a minute, Jesus was born centuries after Sodom was destroyed.”

YOUR PASTORS ARE LIARS!

I thought, “Yep. Just like everyone else.”

AMERICA IS DOOMED!

I thought, “Huh, maybe they’re on to something…”

And the last sign – GOD HATES FIGS

Honestly, even with what felt like subzero temperatures, I started laughing right there in the middle of the street. God hates figs! These people really do read their bibles. Jesus rebukes a fig tree and curses it to never grow fruit ever again, and he tells a parable about a fig tree in which the owner of the fig tree can’t stand its inability to do what he wants it to do.

And so I entertained the thought of crossing the line to the dark side to congratulate the protestors for their astute reading of God’s Holy Word. I mean, I had problems with some of their claims, I could have pulled out the Bible from my bag and showed chapter and verse to contradict their signs. But GOD HATES FIGS? How can you argue with that?

It was only as we got closer, and the yelling through the megaphone grew greater in decibels did I realize how I misread the sign. It didn’t say God Hates Figs. 

It said God Hates Fags. 

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A man had a vineyard and in the vineyard he planted a fig tree. For three years he would wander out to his field of grapes to check on the prayed for figs, only to return to the chateau empty handed. So one day he says to the gardener, “I just can’t take it anymore. This fig tree has been wasting my soil for three years. I want you to cut it down.”

But the gardener looks at his employer and says, “Lord, let it be. Give it another year. I’ll spread some manure on it later today. If it bears fruit next year, all the better. But if not, then you can do whatever you want with it.”

Short and sweet as far as parables are concerned. Unlike my parable of walking to the entrance at General Conference there are no superfluous details, nothing to distract the listener from what the story is saying, and the main thing stays the main thing. 

And yet, even for its simplicity and brevity, there are a lot of weird and notable details in the parable. So many, in fact, that I preached on this exact passage a mere three months ago and there’s still more to say about it. Honestly, I had to look up my sermon because I couldn’t even remember what I said about it three months ago.

That’s the enduring and endearing beauty of God’s Word – it is a never-ending mine of glory from which we can glean again and again and again.

Ah, but back to the matter at hand: Why does the vineyard owner plant a fig tree among all his grapes? Don’t you think he would be worried about an outside plant vying for the nutrients in the ground? Or was he just a sucker for a dry fig every once in awhile? Or what if he was planning to start the first Fig Newton distribution service in Jerusalem?

We don’t know. All we know is that the owner of the vineyard delighted in planting a fig tree among his grapes. Maybe its a sign to us that God, as the vineyard owner, rejoices in us, his fig tree, but that we are also not his chief concern. We are not his bread and butter as it were. If that’s true, its all good and well, but it has the rotten luck of showing all of us how we are not nearly as important as we think we are.

But there are still more details – enter the gardener.

In terms of storytelling, it is notable that the gardener, not the vineyard owner, is the one who ultimately displays and offers grace to the fig tree. 

Jesus could’ve told another quick and easy story in which the vineyard owner himself offers grace to the inexplicable fig tree among the grape vines. But that’s not the story Jesus tells. Instead it is the owner himself who can no longer wait idly by with patience hoping for the blasted tree to grow some fruit. He wants to tear the thing down.

It is the gardener who speaks in defense of the speechless tree.

And what does the gardener say? “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” At least, that what it says in our pew Bibles. 

But in Greek, the gardener says, “KYRIE, APHES AUTEN”

Literally, “Lord, forgive it.”

Sound familiar?

Lord, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

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These might be some of the most striking words from the Bible both because they proclaim the apparent forgiveness of the Lord for no reason at all, and because they help us to see how little we can.

Three years ago this week a gay night club in Orlando, Florida was hosting a “Latin Night.” There were about 300 people dancing in the club when the announcement went out for last call around 2am. And shortly after the crowds made their way to the bar for their final drink of the evening, a man walked into the club and started shooting indiscriminately.

There was the initial barrage of gun fire, a hostage situation in one of the bathrooms, and eventually a SWAT team entered the building to eliminate the shooter. By the end 50 were dead, including the shooter, and another 53 were in the hospital. 

At the time it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in US history, only to be eclipsed by the Las Vegas shooter a year later. But it still remains the deadliest incidence of violence against LGBTQ people in the history of our country.

And, tragically, this is nothing new to an entire community of people. Nearly a quarter of all hate crimes in the US are committed against LGBTQ people and the number of incidents have increased every year since 2005. Many of those perpetrating the violence regularly cite religious convictions to defend their actions. 

And just this week, a Sheriff’s Deputy in Tennessee implored the members in his church to call upon the federal government to round up and execute members of the LGBTQ community. 

Sometimes it takes decades of hearing a preacher belittle and ridicule people for their sexual orientation, and sometimes all it takes is seeing a protestor with a sign with three terrible words, and then someone can assault two men walking down the street hand in hand, or walk into a night club and shoot into the darkness simply because women were dancing with women and men were dancing with men.

Sometimes it takes a sentence in a book about incompatibility that becomes a shackle around the ankle of a church, a shackle that it is forced to carry ad infinitum.

In Jesus’ parable, there are only two characters and Jesus paints them vividly for us – the vineyard owner, God the Father, and the gardener, God the Son. 

The gardener, as Christ, invites the owner of the vineyard into forgiving the fig tree and to live according to the light of grace. His words here, as we’re already noted, are the very same words from the cross. Words that, if we’re honest, haunt us.

Lord, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing. 

All of us, whether we like it or not, live under the decisive reign of forgiveness. And yet, the world usually thinks and is hellbent on acting otherwise. 

The world thinks it lives and spins by merit and reward. The world produces people who can wave signs and sing slogans that, at times, result in people being buried simply because of who they love. The world likes to imagine that salvation comes from a God who rewards individuals for their righteousness, whether its biblical or not.

But the foolishness of God, the one who mounts the hard wood of the cross for us, is smarter than that.

The cross with which we adorn the sanctuary, in all of its ugliness, is a sign and testament to Jesus becoming sin for us – how Jesus goes outside the boundaries of respectability for us, how he is damned to the dump for us, and how he ultimately becomes the manure of grace for us.

Is there anything more striking in the story than the fact that the gardener offers to dump manure all over the fig tree, all over us? Only in the foolishness of God could something so nasty, so dirty, so grossly inappropriate, become the means by which we become precisely who we are meant to be.

It is the horrific nature of the cross, Jesus’ profound death for all eyes to see, from which Jesus returns to us. And he returns marked by the grave and the journey to it – he comes with holes in his hands and feet, bringing along all of the nutrients our roots could possibly need, and he brings them for free.

Jesus does not wait around for our fruit before offering the manure we so desperately need, he doesn’t wait until we master the art of morality. He returns, and he dumps the dung right on top of us. 

Jesus doesn’t give a flip whether we’ve got a fig on the tree or not. He only cares about forgiveness, a forgiveness we so desperately need because we have no idea what we are doing. 

For if we knew what we were doing, we would’ve solved all of the world’s problems by now. We wouldn’t have to worry about a young girl being ostracized in middle school for dressing like a boy. We wouldn’t have to worry about the safety of people dancing in a nightclub simply because of who they might be dancing with. We wouldn’t have to worry about a person contemplating ending their life because of what a preacher said in a sermon about who they are and their incompatibility.

But we do have to worry about these things. Because this is the world we live in. We turn on the news reluctantly knowing that we are about to be bombarded not by the joys in the community but by devastation. We see images of violence so often that we become numb to how broken this world is. We hear people shouting from the streets of life about what they believe and we walk idly by not thinking about the repercussions of what they are saying.

We are a fruitless fig tree standing alone in the middle of God’s garden. 

We are doing nothing, and we deserve nothing.

And yet, and yet (!), Jesus looks at our barren limbs and is moved to say the three words we deserve the least, “Lord, forgive them.”

Which is why we come to the table, again and again, knowing that this simple meal is anything but simple – it is, believe it or not, the manure for our soil – it is, believe it or not, our forgiveness – a forgiveness we need because we have no idea what we’re doing. Amen. 

Incompatible

Ephesians 4.1-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Can’t we all just get along?

So asks the woman in her Sunday school class, so asks the friend of his neighbor wearing the Make America Great Again hat, so asks the father of his children fighting in the back seat of the car.

Can’t we all just get along?

You don’t need to hear it from me to know that, at our cores, we can’t really get along. We resent our neighbors for the dumbest reasons, we berate our children for raising their voices after we first raised our voices at them, and we drive through town day after day with clenched fists as we hear the news over the radio.

Sure, getting along in the world might be a forlorn possibility. Maybe our differences in opinion, our polarized political proclivities, and our desire to speak more than to listen will always prevent unity in the world.

But the church should surely be a place of unity, right? If nothing else, can’t we be the place where we just get along?

I passed 15 different churches on my way here this morning. 15! That alone answers the question of whether or not we can get along.

This part of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is absolutely breath taking: One body, one spirit, one calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. I can hear Paul crescendo-ing these words in the locker room we call the church. It is the pep talk of all pep talks about what it means to be who we are.

But the more I read it this week, the more I wondered, when has the church ever felt like this? I can’t speak toward what this church was like before I arrived, but I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a church that felt like what Paul’s talking about. What Paul describes sounds more like a wedding, or a giant party, focused on one particular thing where great pluralities of people can join together in oneness.

In contrast, the church often feels like the place where we are supposed to gather for one, but the plurality is precisely what holds us back.

Most of us tend to think we know best, we insist on our own way, and we are intolerant of others’ quirks and weaknesses. We stand on pedestals of our own making looking down on just about everyone else. And even if we are “tolerant” of the differences, that’s because we are the ones with power! No one wants to be tolerated! We want to be loved and heard and cherished and respected.

Do you all remember the time Jesus traveled into town and gathered everyone together to hear his earth-shattering proclamation? “The kingdom of God is near, and the time has come for toleration!”

Yeah, me neither.

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Paul does not say the mission of the church is to tolerate the behaviors of others.

            Paul says the church is called to be one.

But can’t we all just get along? Can’t we be one by just being nicer to each other?

There is a tremendous difference between loving one another (like Christ), and being nice. Being nice often means being quiet, and not calling out the behavior of others. Loving like Jesus however, often means speaking up and actually calling someone out.

            Easier said than done.

Paul pokes and prods our human tendency toward division and schism by using the word “one” seven times in two verses. We can all imagine the divisive energy that must have been present in Ephesus for Paul to write these words, because those types of arguments are still very much a part of the church today.

The sevenfold emphasis on oneness is at the heart of the great challenge we call the church. How do we find unity in our plurality? Unity, to be clear, is not uniformity. Jesus does not want the church to be a factory where random parts are brought in and perfectly congruent products are shipped out.

And so, as the church struggles toward, or around, the kind of unity that God has already created in the church through Jesus Christ, a unity made possible by the three-in-oneness of the trinity, a question arises: Where have we dug our trenches so deep that we are no longer able to experience this God-given unity?

The line that forms after worship is one of my favorite, and least favorite, things about the church. I love the intimacy that can be found in our narthex as I overhear conversations about the prayers, and the hymns, and even the sermon. I relish in the opportunities to hear feedback about what we all experienced together. And every once in a while I receive the greatest compliment a pastor can ever hear: “I heard God speak to me today.”

But, of course, the narthex can also harbor the resentments that percolated during the service. A wrong word, or phrase, or reading, or hymn can stick with us and boil over when we finally have a chance to let it go. I see the same arguments and disagreements manifest over and over again in small and subtle ways.

A few months back I was observing the strange space that is the narthex following worship, when a new family walked up to shake my hand. They had recently moved to the Woodbridge area and were looking for a new home church. They expressed their joy with our worship and how welcomed they felt. And though we talked about a great number of things, our conversation ended with the father saying, “But we really need to know your opinion about homosexuality, and this church’s opinion about homosexuality.”

Since then, it’s happened three more times with three different families.

And in every one of the conversations it was abundantly clear that however I answered the question would determine whether the family would come back the following week or not.

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As it stands the United Methodist Church believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. In some churches this means that pastors prevent openly gay individuals or couples from becoming members of the church. In some churches this means that pastors refuse to baptize or offer communion to anyone who is openly gay. And it means that in all churches an openly gay individual is not supposed to be a pastor, and that pastors may not preside over same sex unions.

As it stands the United Methodist Church believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

There are, of course, some churches within the UMC who ignore the language and do whatever they can to welcome those who are gay, and because we, as a church, are not united in our theological convictions about those who are gay, the church is struggling to find a way forward.

There are those who want the language to remain and for stiffer penalties to be enacted against any pastor or conference who violates the tenants of the incompatibility of homosexuality.

Maybe they want uniformity.

And there are those who want the language to disappear all together and to be fully inclusive of anyone who is gay.

Maybe they want uniformity too, just of a different flavor.

And there are those who wish to remain in the middle, they want a church where people who believe it is incompatible, and those who believe it is compatible, are able to sit down in the pews together to worship the living God.

            Maybe they just want everyone to get along…

The language surrounding the incompatibility of a human being in Christian teaching is strange and wrong. To say that who someone is makes him or her incompatible with what we do as the church is oxymoronic in a way that is indescribable. So much of Jesus’ ministry, and Paul’s too, was founded upon finding people who were once told they were out and showing them how God in Christ brings them in. The message of Jesus is one where we are made one, regardless of any other identification.

And the incompatibility of Christians, at least the way some use the language, is now also applied to those who believe that individuals are incompatible. Some will use places of power and privilege to say that those who are gay are incompatible. But others will use similar places of privilege to say that if you believe someone is incompatible, then you are now the one who is incompatible with Christian teaching!

The infighting within our denomination about identity such that some are in and some are out, that some are compatible and other are incompatible, is antithetical to the Good News made manifest in Jesus Christ.

            Friends, no one is incompatible with Christian teaching. No one.

            Or, perhaps better put, we are all actually incompatible with Christian teaching. Not because of our sexual orientation, not because of who we love, but because we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Paul begs, truly begs, us to live lives worthy of the calling to which we were called. And we will never be worthy. None of us.

We, like Paul writes, are so tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, we are moved by trickery. We look out at whatever the other is, and we are so quick to pull out the label of incompatibility.

            But it is in using that label we become the thing we so label!

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Here is the truth spoken in love. You and I, all of us here, we are broken and battered disciples. We are incompatible with the one born in the manger and delivered from the tomb. We have grown apart and ignored the call to grow into him who is the head, into Christ. It is Christ who joins all of our incompatibilities and knits together every ligament of our greed and our sinfulness and our judgments and builds us up in love.

Hear Jesus as he speaks to us throughout the centuries, hear his voice in the songs we sing and the prayers we pray. He is not just being nice and asking us to be a little kinder, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Jesus didn’t get killed for saying we ought to love one another. Jesus got hung on a cross for calling out the sinfulness of the world and the sinfulness in you and me; The shouts of “crucify!” came because the crowds knew that the message of Jesus would disrupt the power dynamics in which they were most comfortable.

Even today, Jesus speaks to us and disrupts what we think we know about who is in and who is out. Because the truth, the hard truth, is that none of us should be in. None of us.

And yet, this meal, what we call Christ’s communion, is offered to all, as surely as Christ is for all, as surely as all of us are not divided in him, but all of us belong together and brothers and sisters.

All of us are poor sinners and all of us are rich through Christ’s mercy. In our incompatibility, we are made one. 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.

Devotional – Galatians 3.28

Devotional:

Galatians 3.28

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Weekly Devotional Image

Yesterday, while countless Christians were gathering across the country to worship the Lord, reports were coming in about the horrific and tragic attack in Orlando, Florida. While Christians were sitting in the pews with their families listening to sermons about things like love and grace and mercy, families in other places were frantically calling their children hoping they were not at the club the night before. While untold sums of people continue to believe that arming the nation will prevent further attacks and loss of life, Christ speaks from scripture: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

While the nation mourned throughout the day at the news became clearer, flocks of people flew to social media in order to call for prayer. While people stretched for miles in line to donate blood, members of the LGBTQ community were prevented from offering their arms. While media outlets were quick to blame the rise of Islamic terrorism, people changed their profile pictures in solidarity with a battered community. While 50 children of God were murdered for nothing more than their sexual identity and physical location, the UMC still believes that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

While Christian communities wrestled with how to respond to this tragedy, politicians and public figures quickly deleted online comments like “you reap what you sow” implying the victims got what they deserved. While the world watched the most powerful nation in the world fall to its knees in sadness, many Americans have grown numb to the seemingly endless onslaught of gun violence across the land. While emergency responders and police returned home to hug their children, details about the victims were made available to the public.

While we weep and mourn the loss of life, we remember the words from Paul: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female. Or, to take it further, there is no longer gay or straight; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus. As Christians it is our responsibility to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world, we are called to stop seeing events like the one in Orlando as a call to arms, but a firm commitment to peace. There is no greater time than now to start seeing the LGBTQ community as our brothers and sisters.

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