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A powerful earthquake hit the halls of Christianity in the Unites States this past week.
The tremor was felt far and wide and, I suspect, there will be many aftershocks…maybe even a tsunami on the way. The United Methodist Church, unified since 1968 when it finally “decided” its position on segregation, is now, perhaps irretrievably, headed towards schism. It’s still over the issue of segregation, only this time the target is LGBTQIA+ people and their right to belong in a denomination whose official motto is, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”
In case you don’t know, or don’t really understand what went down in St. Louis during what is called the General Conference, it was a special conference convened specifically to address divisions over LGBTQ+ issues in the church, specifically the inclusion of,
the marriage of, the ordination of, the belonging of, LGBTQ+ members.
Several months ago, the denomination’s bishops pushed hard for a resolution that would have allowed local congregations, conferences, and clergy to make their own choices about conducting same-sex marriages and ordaining LGBTQ+ pastors. This proposal, called the “One Church Plan,” was rejected by a small majority of the gathered delegates, who instead choose the so-called “Traditional Plan”, which keeps the decades old language of the Methodist rulebook, calling the “practice” of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching. It was not only affirming the bigotry that has been in place, it was doubling-down on it.
I, along with many of you, stand heartbroken with my siblings in the United Methodist Church, the church that raised me, the church to which my family remains actively connected. To be told by the church to which you belong, much less the church which may have baptized or married or even ordained you, that you actually don’t belong is an unimaginably painful thing. It has been happening for decades now, in single incident after single incident, including to people in this congregation. But now it is a wholesale rejection. And it breaks my heart.
Now, to be clear, it does not break my heart because I believe that I am right in promoting a Christianity that embraces ALL of God’s creation as created in that Divine image, though I do believe that. It does not break my heart because I insist that everyone agree with me on that issue, though I do think that is ultimately a matter of justice in the Church. It breaks my heart because apparently we cannot disagree with any sense of love whatsoever, as demonstrated to many of my colleagues by their fellow church members at a church gathering, with mean words, harsh glares and, eventually, this vote. There is no grace. There is no compassion or attempt to understand. There is only the law. At the heart of this conflict, within the Methodist church and beyond, lies our approach to this “law”, our response to Grace and the authority of scripture itself, a struggle between an emerging Christianity and an adherence to a fundamentalist “orthodoxy” that is not “the way it’s always been,” not “timeless”, not ancient – but relatively new in the long history of the “Christianties” that make up our tradition.
It seems to always start off like this – “The Bible Says…” But, you know, here’s the deal. It can be amazing what happens when you actually read your Bible, because it says lots of things. It does say that marriage is between one man and one woman…but it doesn’t only say that. It also says marriage is between one man and several women, between a man and his slave, between a man and his brother’s widow, or a male soldier and a prisoner of war. The Bible does say a few things about same-sex acts, but doesn’t describe same-sex attraction, love or relationships the way that we do now, nor does it speak to any number of 21st century issues – because every word was written a minimum of 2000 years ago! We have to use the Bible as a tool, a guide, not a rulebook. We read it to extrapolate wisdom, to discern and to help us find moral and ethical directives, using reason, experience and the tradition alongside scripture to find meaning, a meaning that can change as our reason and experience changes. Ironically, it was John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who taught that model.
This is the United Methodist Church’s pain right now, but it is not just the United Methodist Church. We’ve been there, too. There are many of us here in this sanctuary this morning who can remember the painful, brutal “dialogue” that occurred in here in the UCC, in our own conference annual meetings, and at our Synod gatherings almost 15 years ago over this very issue. We can remember the debates, the number of times t
“The Bible Says” was trotted out and the ways that “Christian love” was wielded like a weapon. It was horribly painful, a time of great anxiety about the future, lament for what we were losing, fear about what might come. And I think that it’s fair to say that as we have gone down this path of openness & affirmation, it has been more beautiful and more wonderful than we imagined…the work of the Holy Spirit, changing our lives, our congregations, and our theology. And the Spirit is not done.
Photographers, especially those who practice photography as their art, often describe a picture by the choice of lens they used. Up-close, tight shots show you specific details, like the dew on the petals of a flower, while a wide-angle lens gives you context, like the storm that is producing the hard rain you thought was soft dew on those petals. Both perspectives are important, and both tell their own stories.
In some ways, what happened over the last weekend was both a tight close-up and a wide angle view of Christianity in the United States. The close-up is the very real and very lamentable pain and conflict caused by the confluence of the movement of the Spirit and the unwillingness to see past doctrine. And in a bigger sense it is about who we are as the Church, and what we think that following Jesus is all about. In the Book of Acts, one story of the origin of the church, the Holy Spirit specifically tells Peter that in order to experience God, he will have to disregard the law, step over doctrine and find a new authority. Will we, like Peter, listen to the Spirit telling us to go out into the world, setting aside the purity codes of our time, moving beyond the “law” that we have recreated to follow the one who cast out the law, reaching beyond our borders for those whom God sends to us and hearing a voice from the Spirit saying, “do not call profane what I have made clean?” When the Spirit commands Peter to seek “the other,” it wasn’t tolerance or “hate the sin, love the sinner” that was sought, it was welcome and embrace. The Bible, my friends, says lots of things. Our tradition has said lots of things. The real question is – what do we think that God is saying – right now?
The late, great church historian, Phyllis Tickle once wrote in her book, “The Great Emergence,” that the church holds a big “rummage sale” about every 500 years, and that we are entering another time of seismic shifts in doctrines, liturgies, practices, theologies and, perhaps most importantly, shifts in authority. The last “rummage sale” was the Reformation, in which the authority of the western Church was replaced with the authority of scripture. Prior to the Reformation, the western Church didn’t necessarily connect their actions to Biblical support, but afterwards – and particularly in the past 200 years or so – the church did the exact opposite, splitting up and causing rifts over the slightest scriptural distinctions in a dedication to scripture’s authoritative position. But the 500 year shelf-life of the absolute authority of scripture might be just about up.
Longtime Harvard historian Harvey Cox has argued that we are moving to an “age of the Spirit,” in which doctrine and dogma are replaced by experience and engagement. This age is driven by relationship and community, seeking a faith in which we know Jesus (and therefore God) by doing what Jesus did, by practicing our faith, not just declaring it. It is a much more slippery, much less tangible and far less certain way of being Christian than the version any of us grew up in or even near, where the authority comes from a complex discernment rather than a wooden, set rulebook.
I believe that we are waist-deep in this newness here at Fellowship, and probably need to swim out further. We question the mainstream practice of Christianity, jettisoning the certainty of pat answers for the trust of God’s Love and Grace, abandoning doctrine and “the law” for the slow process of discernment, the power of experience and the movement of the Spirit. From my perspective, and I trust the perspective of this church, the path of inclusion is more than just a growth strategy or a mission statement. It is the indwelling of the Spirit in our hearts, asking us, as it does throughout the Book of Acts, to step across the borders we have created, thinking that they were God’s borders, for that is where God is found. It’s not just a marketing strategy, or a refutation of the Bible, but an embrace of what we see as the Gospel, the good news of God’s Love for all people…ALL people.
The Church has far more often been just like Peter on the mountainside in our passage for today, seeing Jesus in shimmering light, making all the appropriate scriptural connections and pledging to stay right there – building some edifices to that moment and solidifying it as the revelation of God…while Jesus walks down the hill seeking God in the next moment, in the encounter to come, in the story that is yet to unfold. We have clung to tradition and custom as if they were God, practiced rituals as if they were jars that kept God vacuum-sealed and static, read scripture as if it were the actual words of God, chiseled in stone with a meaning that can survive time, culture, language and translation unchanged. We know that’s not true. Who we think God is, what we think God is up to in the world, how we can know or experience or understand God has all changed, many times, and is changing now.
As we prepare for the season of Lent, a time of reflection and introspection, we will begin with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes, a ritual that is pretty old itself, and evokes even more ancient traditions. Ashes, after all, were the sign of mourning, the sign of lament, the sign of reflection that comes not of choice, but of circumstance. It is a chance to step back, to see that wide angle shot, and then to peer in for a close-up and to see what those perspectives can teach us. It is a time to witness the power of God shining before us and then to follow that light, away from static certainty into the Spirit’s call. Maybe it’s good that the Easter season is upon us, for the time for introspection is now – the Church needs to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus. We need to know that we have come, as the great Robert Frost wrote, to that divergence of two paths in the snow, to the road not taken, and we must choose in which direction we will walk. It will cost us something. We will lose things to that choice. It will be painful and soul-wrenching and worthy of great lament. And then, in a story familiar to us as Christians, then comes the true lesson of Easter…God’s action found in life, in death, AND in resurrection.