Later this afternoon, United Methodist clergy and laypersons from our Annual Conference will meet in Pasadena with our Bishop, Minerva Carcano, for what is called a time of “Holy Conferencing on Biblical Obedience.” Both Rev. Martha and I will attend, along with several hundred others, as we seek to respond to the growing conflict between our denomination’s policy on homosexuality and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Book of Discipline, which constitutes the official law and doctrine of the United Methodist Church, states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. It stipulates that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are prohibited from ordination and appointment in the Church, and that United Methodist clergy are prohibited from participating in ceremonies that consecrate same-sex unions. Clergy who preside at same-sex ceremonies are subject to church trial; if convicted, they face the potential surrender of their ordination credentials.
Last month, the Rev. Frank Schaefer of Pennsylvania made national news when he was brought to trial for officiating at the wedding ceremony of his gay son more than five years earlier. While Rev. Schaefer is not the only United Methodist pastor to perform a same-sex union, his case has become emblematic of the deep struggle we face as a denomination, and as a society, on the issue of homosexuality.
Three weeks ago, Rev. Schaefer was found guilty of breaking the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church; he was subsequently defrocked by the Board of Ordained ministry of the Eastern Pennsylvania conference. In recent weeks, our Bishop extended an invitation to Rev. Schaefer to join our annual conference and to serve in ministry here. Rev. Schaefer will be in attendance at tonight’s meeting in Pasadena.
I share this with you today because I care deeply about each of you and this congregation, and I understand fully that, on the issue of homosexuality, not all of us are in agreement. It’s the most volatile and divisive issue of our day, especially in the church, and I know that my speaking on the issue may be uncomfortable and perhaps even disillusioning for some. But I believe this is no time to bury our heads in the sand, or draw lines in the sand, or dig in our heals for battle to hurt one another. Our conference is quickly approaching a crossroads, and our Bishop is asking us to discern whether God might be doing a new thing among us. I stand with my Bishop in affirming that our denomination’s policies are in conflict with the spirit of Jesus, who taught us by his words and deeds that all God’s children are of sacred worth and welcomed in the embrace of God’s grace.
I don’t expect all of you to agree with that, and there was a time in my life when I might have been conflicted as well. I grew up in a small, rural community, where the most ubiquitous bumper sticker in town read, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” I knew the Bible didn’t say much about homosexuality, only that it was an abomination to God. And because I didn’t know anyone who was openly gay, and because no one talked about the issue, it was easy enough to believe the prevailing attitudes and the popular stereotypes. If you’re over the age of 35, I suspect that this is how it might have been for you. It’s not my problem. I don’t need to deal with it. I don’t have to accept it. Just go with the status quo.
But when I went to college, I met gay people. When I went to seminary, a Christian seminary, I met gay people. While in seminary, I studied the Bible passionately, and my understanding of homosexuality began to slowly evolve. I studied the passages from Leviticus and Romans that condemn homosexual activity, right alongside passages from Matthew prohibiting divorce, and passages from Leviticus prohibiting the eating of pork – did anyone here eat bacon this morning? I studied passages from Paul’s Epistles prohibiting women from speaking in church, and the words of Moses commanding us to honor the Sabbath and to keep it holy – even when the Chargers are playing in Denver. In the process, I came to see these specific prohibitions in the particular context of the time and place and culture in which they were written – some as many as three and four thousand years ago.
That’s when I learned how to read Scripture. I also came to see that, when we turn to the scriptures, we have to turn to the whole of the scripture. We have to use the whole of scripture to interpret the parts. When we do that, the central and overwhelming message – the metanarrative of the Bible – is a story of God’s inclusive and inexhaustible love for all humankind. This boundless love of God in Christ sweeps away some highly specific prohibitions; this love overrides all else. It’s captured in that familiar passage from John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” It was in that same spirit of love that Jesus, in his own time, believed that many of the laws and prohibitions of his religion were no longer relevant to his community, which is why he said, over and over again, “You have heard that it was said long ago… but now I say to you…” What he was saying was, “Love transcends the law.” That’s the message of Jesus. People come before rules. Love transcends the law.
As my understanding of Jesus and scripture evolved, something else happened. I became a pastor, and I had members who were gay, and parents whose children were gay. And what they said to me: “Can I still be included?” “Will I be accepted?” “Will I be welcomed in your congregation?” And the doors to the church, and the door to my heart, opened even wider.
And then I became a father, and one afternoon our sixteen year old daughter sat down with me and her mother and said, “I have to something to tell you: I am gay.” And nothing changed – nothing changed at all – but everything changed. In a topsy-turvy kind of way. In a wonderfully unexpected kind of way. What I believed in principle suddenly became deeply personal; the abstract became entirely real.
I am the father of a gay child. And I know many of you who are parents, and grandparents of gay children. I know that regardless of how open-minded you are on the issue, it can still be very hard to reconcile your feelings, your faith, your loyalty and love. You do it. You just don’t do it like everyone else. And what makes it especially hard is knowing that the church says, in essence, that you cannot reconcile these things, because to be gay and Christian is irreconcilable, incompatible.
It’s, in part, for this reason, that the Church is losing an entire generation of Christians. In one national poll, 91% of all young people 16-29 identified the church as anti-gay. 87% percent said it’s judgmental. 85% said it’s hypocritical. 40% of young people in the US describe themselves as agnostic or atheist. Another 40% say they’re not interested in church at all. Only 20% of 18-29 year olds are affiliated with a church.
The question is, what is preventing them? What is hindering them?
The Book of Acts tells the story of a eunuch who’s returning from Jerusalem on his way home, to Ethiopia. He’s traveled this great distance to Jerusalem in order to worship there, but the back-story is that, because he is a eunuch – because his genitals have been mutilated – he’s not permitted, according to Deuteronomy 23, he’s not permitted inside the Temple. He’s ritually unclean. Don’t get me wrong: he’s not some kind of outcast. He’s a very wealthy man; he works for Candace the Queen of Ethiopia; he’s a powerful, high-ranking official in the royal court; he’s black, which makes him an object of wonder and fascination among the Jews. He’s not an outcast; but he’s an outsider. He’s never been thrown out; he’s just not allowed to come in.
And as he’s cruising home in his chariot he reads from the scroll of Isaiah, where it says, “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearers is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was denied him.” Christians believe this was Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah, the Christ, who in the face of humiliation and death did not fight back.
Phillip, an evangelist, is waiting by the roadside, having been commanded by an angel to go there and wait. And when Phillip hears the eunuch reading aloud, he asks him, “Do you know what that means?” The eunuch says, “How can I, without someone to help me?” So Phillip climbs into the chariot and tells him everything he knows about Jesus. It’s a tender image. Phillip, the evangelist, sharing the gospel of Jesus with a eunuch, an outsider, who wants to know God.
But the most powerful scene in the story happens when the eunuch rolls down the window of his chariot limousine and spots a pond of water. He tells his chauffeur to stop the car, and he looks at Phillip and says, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized? Right now. Is there any obstacle, any rule, any hindrance?”
This outsider who, because of some bizarre law about genitalia is prevented from worshiping in the Jewish temple, is asking Phillip, “Can I be included in your family?” Is there anything that would prevent me from being a Christian, from being baptized?”
Phillip says, “Get in the water.”
And all at once, this outsider is adopted into a new family. His whole life story changes. He’s no longer a eunuch looking in from the outside, but a Christian, a child of God, a person of sacred worth embraced and included by God’s boundless love. And for once, be belongs to God, and to God’s family, without condition.
It’s a liberation story, if you ask me. It’s not just a faith story. It’s a freedom story. Like the ancient Israelites who fled to freedom through the sea and no longer belonged to Pharaoh, when the eunuch stepped out of the waters of his baptism, he was no longer a slave to the powers of this world that made him less than human and less than worthy; he was free. He belonged to God. He belonged to the family of God.
Love transcends the law. That’s where our freedom lies. That’s our liberation.
More than two hundred years ago, the church said that black people were different than white people. It said that slavery was biblically justified. It said, “Don’t mix politics and religion. Just keep things status quo. It’s in the Bible.” But among so many others, John Wesley, the Father of Methodism, spoke up. He said, “Give liberty to whom liberty is due – to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion. Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do with every one as you would have him do unto you.”
For centuries, the Church said that women should not speak in church, could not be preachers, could not be ordained. It’s in the Bible. It wasn’t until 1956 that Methodists came to their senses, even though Wesley, two hundred years earlier, had spoken clearly on the issue. In a sermon preached in 1786, Wesley said, “It has long passed for a maxim with many that “women are only to be seen but not heard.” And accordingly many of them are brought up in such a manner as if they were only designed for agreeable playthings! No, it is the deepest unkindness; it is horrid cruelty; it is barbarity. And I know not how any women of sense and spirit can submit to it.”
What he was saying is, love transcends the law. People come before rules. In this gospel of love is our freedom. And the eunuch reminds us that this freedom is the gift of our baptism. We all come from the waters of our baptism. But not all of us who’ve stepped into the waters have passed through the waters, and not all of us are home in the household of God.
“Is there anything that would hinder me,” he asked?
And Phillip said, “Get in the water.”