Sunday 3 March 2019
In the story from Luke today, Peter and James and John see Jesus transformed before their eyes. They see him shining like the sun and accompanied by Moses and Elijah. They see him looking like nothing they have ever seen before, and they are terrified by it.
Of course, it’s not Jesus that changed. He has always been shining with the light of his glory. It’s just that most of the time they can’t see it. Jesus has always been the glorious Son of God, it’s just that most of the time that is hid from their eyes. It’s when they see him shining that they see the truth. And they are terrified.
My sermon topic changed midweek. As many of you already know, there was news in the United Methodist world this week. The church’s General Conference, the legislative gathering of the whole denomination, met in St. Louis. This was a special session of the General Conference, with delegates coming from around the world to debate the church’s understanding of human sexuality. And for those of us who were hoping for a move toward greater inclusivity for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, it was a disappointing week.
The United Methodist Church is a global denomination, with congregations in the United States, Africa, the Philippines, Russia, and parts of Europe. That is a very broad spectrum of cultural contexts, and it makes it hard to find consensus. There were hopes that the General Conference would have voted to allow for regional differences in the church’s understanding of sexuality, just like the ELCA did in 2009. But instead the conference chose more of the same: prohibitions on same-sex weddings and the ordination of gay clergy.
The church has been struggling with these issues for longer than I have been alive. The first reference to homosexuality appeared in the church’s law book, The Book of Discipline, in 1972. And since then, it has been a topic of conversation and controversy every four years when General Conference rolls around.
I remember when I first became aware of the issue. It would have been 1992. I was in middle school, and we were pretty new members at West Salem United Methodist Church.
Our pastor, La Vernae Hohnbaum, had died while she was serving there. A retired pastor who was in the congregation served as an interim. But then it came time for a new pastor to be appointed. And the bishop appointed Rev. Jeanne Knepper.
Now, I didn’t meet Jeanne back then. But I remember that her name was used almost like a curse word. You see, she was… a lesbian. Always in that hushed tone. Lesbian. And that was all that we needed to know about her. Clearly she was unacceptable. Clearly she was not a real Christian. Clearly she was a liar and a cheat, and certainly a sinner. Clearly the bishop was trying to destroy our little church.
There was a huge uproar in the congregation. There was a meeting with the bishop, and the superintendent, and Rev. Knepper. I remember that I wanted to go. I had already been confirmed, so I was a full, voting member of the congregation. I should be there. But my parents went without me. In retrospect, I’m pretty glad I wasn’t there. It got pretty ugly, I gather. I’m pretty sure there were some people there who weren’t living their Christian values, but probably not the ones I thought at the time.
The appointment was rescinded. All I knew about Jeanne back then was her sexual orientation. What I didn’t know was that she was a highly-gifted, massively overqualified pastor and advocate. She had her doctorate, because although she had been a qualified pastor for ten years at that point, she could not find an appointment. She was qualified, but she couldn’t find a congregation, so she got more schooling.
What the Book of Discipline said, both then and now, I believe, was this: “While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world.” Okay, that’s a high bar. But we should be aiming high, right? It continues: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” That’s the bit there. That’s the provision that she was supposedly violating.
It’s interesting, though. It says pastors are subject to human frailty, and it says that pastors should nonetheless maintain the highest moral standards. But it only lists one activity that should bar a person from ordination. Only one. Nothing in there about adultery, fraud, embezzling church funds, domestic abuse, gambling, drug or alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, participation in a hate group… none of that. Just one thing. Self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Strange.
As you can imagine, there has been a fair amount of wrangling over what that phrase means: self-avowed practicing homosexual. It has been the subject of eight separate rulings from The UMC’s highest legal authority, the Judicial Council, kind of like the Supreme Court of The UMC. They offered this clarification. “Self-avowed practicing homosexual is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual.” So, if you’re gay but you’re celibate, you’re fine. If you’re gay but you’re closeted, you’re fine. You’re only violating the clause if you’re gay, you’re in a relationship, and you announce that publicly and officially to a particular set of church authorities. By that definition, by the way, Rev. Knepper had done nothing wrong.
It puts our LGBTQ clergy in a terrible situation. We tell them we are happy to have their service. We just want them to be celibate. But if they aren’t celibate, that’s okay too, just don’t tell us anything about it. But in the mean time, we’ll discriminate against you, call you names, refuse you positions, because we have this complicated language that allows us to use you and abuse you, whichever we choose, and whenever we choose.
When Rev. Knepper’s appointment was cancelled, I felt like that was a great step forward for good Christian values. My church had been saved from sin and corruption. You see, I knew that homosexuality was wrong. I knew that it was condemned in the Bible as an abomination. I knew that it was unnatural. I knew that none of my friends or family members was gay or lesbian.
Except that I was wrong about every single one of the those things. But it took me a while to realize it. And I want to tell you how God changed my mind.
Temperamentally, I’m pretty conservative. I don’t like pushing the boundaries. I don’t like causing a fuss. I am not a radical. I don’t like stirring up controversy. I like following the rules. I know that sometimes rules have to be broken, but I don’t like doing it unless there is a really good reason. I’m the kind of person who has their own copy of Robert’s Rules of Order and has actually read the whole thing. I don’t change my mind just on a whim.
So what changed me? It was two things. One was a personal encounter, and one was the bible.
Now I’m college. I think it’s the summer between freshman and sophomore year. It would have been 1998. I was a youth delegate to Annual Conference in Boise, Idaho. After sessions were over one night, I was walking with a friend of mine from college. I’ll call her Sarah. Sarah was a few years older than me, and I really looked up to her. She was one of the most gracious people I knew, someone who had been a model to me of Christian living. I knew that she was planning to pursue ordination as a pastor, and I was sure she would be a great one.
In Methodism, when we talk about whether someone is called to ordained ministry or not, sometimes we talk about “the gifts and graces for ministry.” It’s more than just asking if someone has the skill to be a pastor. It’s more than whether they have the qualifications. When we talk about gifts and graces, we’re asking if there is evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in someone’s life. The evidence that God has called someone should be visible in that person’s gifts and graces, or rather, the gifts and graces that the Holy Spirit is working in them. Sarah had the gifts and graces. It was clear that the Holy Spirit was working in her. I had no doubt of it.
That night, as we were walking across campus, Sarah came out to me. No one had ever done that to me before. I was no longer quite so naïve as to think that I didn’t know anyone who was gay or lesbian. And I was beginning to realize that gay people seemed to be very much like straight people. But this friend coming out to me was something new.
I don’t remember what I said to her. Probably not what I should have. I think I at least had the grace to listen more than to speak. I remember thinking it was brave of Sarah to be so vulnerable. I remember feeling a sense of embarrassment, though I wouldn’t have been able to explain exactly why. And I was anxious and confused. This did not fit with the truth I thought I knew.
But it didn’t change my mind, not on it’s own, not right away. What changed my mind was the bible. And the text that God gave to me was from the Book of Acts, the 10th chapter. It’s a long story, the story of the Apostle Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Now, the centurion is a Gentile, which means that Peter, as a good follower of the Bible, is not supposed to consort with him. An encounter in public would be one thing, but he certainly should not enter the house of a Gentile or accept hospitality from a Gentile. That is because the Bible says that Gentiles are sinful. They are, by definition sinful. They are unrepentant sinners. Peter knows that they cannot be part of God’s people, not as long as they remain as Gentiles.
And yet, God is about to do something new. God is about to do something that will violate the faith that Peter knows, something that will violate the precepts of the Bible. God is about to pour out the Holy Spirit on Gentiles. God is about to adopt Gentiles into God’s family. They won’t have to change first. They won’t have to repent of their sinful ways. They will keep on violating the commands of the Bible, commands about circumcision, dietary rules, and purity. They will keep on in their unrepentant, sinful ways, but God will accept them anyway. And God wants Peter to welcome them into God’s family.
But God needs to prepare Peter first. So while Peter is praying, God grants him a vision. He sees a tablecloth being lowered down by its four corners from heaven. And inside the tablecloth, he sees all of the different animals that the Bible says are unclean, all of the animals the Bible says it is sin to eat. Peter knows that it is a sin to eat them. But he hears a voice, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!”
“Absolutely not!” Peter replies. “I’ve never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
But the voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter has the same vision and the same conversation three times. Never consider unclean what God has made pure.
And it’s just as the vision is ending that messengers knock on Peter’s door. Cornelius has also had a vision from God that led his people to come and find Peter. Peter hears a voice telling him not to ask any questions and to go with them. Despite the prohibition, Peter invites these Gentiles in as guests, and the next day he goes to visit Cornelius. After Peter enters the house, he tells them, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean.” After Cornelius explains the vision he has had from God, Peter continues, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships and does what is right is acceptable to God.” And he begins to preach the story of Jesus.
And as he’s preaching, the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles who are listening. Just like had happened with all of those Jews at Pentecost, now Gentiles are speaking in tongues by the power of the Holy Spirit. Peter and his fellow Jews are confronted with evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in people that they thought were impure, unholy, outside of God’s love. They see something they thought was impossible: the Holy Spirit at work in a Gentile sinner.
And they change their minds. It takes a while for them to convince others in the Jesus community, but eventually they do. They decide that God has done a new thing and that they should go against the Bible and include these new followers of Jesus even though they have no intention of following any of the bible’s rules about diet or circumcision or purity. They go against the Bible because they see the Holy Spirit at work in a way they did not think possible. Peter explains to the other church leaders what had happened and how they saw the Spirit working in these Gentiles, and he closes, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
I heard that story, and my heart burned. I felt convicted. I felt like I was Peter. I was sure I knew who was inside of God’s plan and who was outside, who was a saint and who was a sinner. But I had been presented with evidence to the contrary. I had seen the Holy Spirit at work in Sarah. I had seen that she had the gifts and graces for ministry. And I felt just like Peter. Who was I that I could hinder God? That’s how God changed my mind.
It wasn’t until later that I learned that those six passages I had been taught condemned homosexuality really had very little to do with a loving, committed relationship between two people of the same sex. They had to do with rape, temple prostitution, the abuse of slaves and children, but not about same-sex marriage. But even without that, my mind was changed. The bible says that eating shellfish is an abomination, but we don’t bar people from ordination for eating shellfish. The bible says that mixed fabrics are an abomination, but we don’t bar people from ordination for wearing poly-cotton blends. More telling, we don’t bar people from ordination for succumbing to greed, even though Jesus preaches more about greed than any other subject and more than 2000 verses of the Bible are devoted to the subject. All I needed to know was that God was doing a new thing and that I could not presume to hinder God.
Of course, in truth, God was working among LGBTQ people the whole time. It was not something new. But I had failed to see it before.
I am grieved that the General Conference again told our LGBTQ sisters and brothers that we know better than God and that they are not full participants in our community. I am thankful for the many brave LGBTQ pastors and deacons who have served faithful for years in this church and for those who have been brave enough to tell their stories. I give thanks for those who have continued their ministry in The UMC, and I wish well to the many, like Sarah, who eventually felt they had to go somewhere else to fulfill their call from God. I ask forgiveness for the ways that I have hindered God. I am grateful that our Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and our Western Jurisdiction are continuing to insist on full inclusion and are gladly welcoming the ministry of our LGBTQ clergy. I know that there continue to be complex cultural and social issues surrounding this topic, and I know that some of you may be in a different place than I am. I pray for the unity of the church and that we might find a way to continue to be in ministry with each other even when we disagree. But as for my part, I know what God has shown me, and I will do my best to love with the unimaginably expansive love with which God loves us.