OPENING THE CONVERSATION
There really aren't words for how strange it has been to prepare for today. As I was writing these words, I was in a hotel room in Andover, Massachusetts, preparing to help lead a workshop for churches in our Conference. It was a workshop on calling and how churches can help create an atmosphere where people can discover God's calling on their lives. In the background, the TV was showing the aerial bombardment of Iraq. Waiting at home for my attention was a family whose father's funeral will be here on Tuesday night, and many, many serious ongoing concerns.
With all of that, I sat down to write about homosexuality. I'll say to you honestly that a part of me was angry about that. I was angry that of all the possible issues for the church to be concerned about and divided over, we have fixated on who should and shouldn't be loving each other. For my part, I don't think this issue has any business being on center stage in the life of the church. When we have dealt with the sin of hatred; when we have dealt with what the Bible calls the "root of all evil"–which is the love of money; when we have dealt with the sins that create monsters like Saddam Hussein; when we have learned how to be peacemakers and how to care for the planet God has charged us with tending...when we get all of that straight...THEN we can see whether any of our loves are misplaced or disordered.
The only reason that I am willing to address the issue from the pulpit is because current United Methodist policy, which states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, is causing a lot of people great heartache. When Christian practice is causing pain, especially when it is causing pain to those who share the same Lord, faith, and baptism, we really need to examine ourselves to be sure we are not repeating some of the hurtful mistakes of days past.
And so we deal with the issue today. I do want to assure you, however, that I have no intention of moving this issue to the center of our life together at St. John's. The only legitimate center of the Church is Jesus Christ, and I will resist any attempts to replace that center with something else. The center will not be this or any other social issue. The center will not be a building program. The center will not even be something sacred and holy like the Bible or worship. The center of the Church is the God revealed in Jesus, who lives and directs our lives through the mighty and often unpredictable wind of the Holy Spirit. That is where I look for direction, and if any of you ever feel we have moved off of that center, I hope you will call me to account.
Because we keep Jesus at the center, however, does not mean we ignore the world around us. Jesus did not do that, and he spoke out forcefully about a number of the issues of his day. Jesus does not mention homosexuality at all. I also cannot think of a passage where he specifically speaks to the concept of war, and yet the United Methodist Church has declared both homosexuality and war to be incompatible with his teachings.
So how do we proceed? My main concern this morning is to try to create an environment where we can discuss difficult issues without condemning the faith of those who believe differently. This goes back to Who is at the center of the Church. What any one of us believes about homosexuality, or war, or abortion, or capital punishment is not what defines us as Christian. On all of those issues and many others, good Christian people differ. Good United Methodists differ on these things as well, even though the representative body that determines a stand for the denomination may declare something as if we all speak with one voice. We don't. Some are offended that the Discipline says that war is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. Others are offended that the Discipline says the same thing about homosexuality. And yet the same waters of baptism have flowed over our heads, and we pray to the same God for guidance and direction.
We are dealing with this topic this morning because I received questions about it, when I asked you what you would like to hear sermons about. One of the questions asked about the "Reconciling Movement," which is the group of congregations who openly say that they welcome those of any sexual orientation. The questioner wanted to know why this was necessary because it seemed like that was already a part of who we are as United Methodists. The person who asked that question was right. Insofar as local church membership is concerned, there is no barrier to anyone who can take the vows we ask.
April 6 we will take new members into our congregation. We will not ask them about their sexual preferences. We will not ask them what their positions are on capital punishment, war, or abortion. We will ask them whether they accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. We will ask them whether they repent of their sin and whether they will seek to resist injustice and oppression.
We will not form a committee to determine whether they have repented of all the sins we might think they should have repented of. The vow they take is between them and God, and we do not stand in judgment of it. We will simply welcome some new people into this community, and we will struggle along with them to head toward God, to do what Jesus taught, and to work directly with the Holy Spirit to get the sins and kinks out of our lives. They will serve, as they are able, in any and all areas that are open to local church members.
Churches that become part of the Reconciling Movement in the United Methodist Church can't say much more than that. The local church cannot speak for the denomination or change denominational policy. Only the elected body of the General Conference can do that. So the person who asked that question was correct. A United Methodist church need not be labeled as a Reconciling Congregation in order to welcome people of any sexual orientation as full members of the local church. It is already our policy to be open to all those who can take the vows.
That being said, the reason that some United Methodist Churches go ahead and become Reconciling Congregations is because those on the outside...and often those on the inside...don't realize that sexual orientation is not a barrier to membership in a United Methodist Church. In many churches, gay and lesbian persons are barred from worship, forbidden to take part except for sitting in pews, or are harassed and intimidated.
By becoming a Reconciling Congregation, a local church openly says to that particular group of people, who often feel that a church is the very last place they could possibly feel comfortable, "you will be safe here." It acknowledges that all of us are struggling to live our faith, and that the logs in our own eyes are significant enough that we're not going to try to gouge the speck out of the person in the pew beside us.
But I am not asking us today to accept that label. My main goal for today is to open the conversation, and to emphasize that in this conversation, we are not talking about "us" and "them." A person's sexual orientation is not what defines a Christian. Baptism defines a Christian. In today's discussions and in any later discussions you may have, it is perfectly fine to debate whether sexual relations between two people of the same gender is sinful or not. As I said, good Christians differ about that, just as we do about war, abortion, capital punishment and all the rest. What is not acceptable in those conversations is to suggest that it is impossible for a gay or lesbian person to be Christian. That is exactly the sort of judgment that the Bible forbids us to make.
Sexual orientation is not what defines a Christian. Political persuasion does not define a Christian. How someone votes on a controversial issue does not define a Christian. Baptism defines a Christian. Whether we are good Christians or bad ones is between us and the savior we have made Lord of our lives. The life-long process of sanctification, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the way that all of us move from being a Christian mess to being a Christian saint. You simply may not look into the eyes of the baptized and say, "You are not Christian," without inviting judgment on your own soul. That's the primary rule of the conversation.
A second is that in making statements about whether homosexual behavior is sinful or not, be informed. If that is just coming from your gut because it is not your orientation and you don't understand it; if it is coming from media images or from one particular type of situation; please do more homework. Yes, the Bible does address the issue, even though Jesus does not. There are not many passages about it, but there are some.
As Christians, we may not simply tell the Bible to jump in a lake. If you are going to take a stand on this issue, then Bible study is part of the homework you need to do. Even if we had a month of sermons on this topic, I couldn't deal adequately with the Bible texts...not because there are so many, but because they are so complex. What I have done, however, is to prepare a handout for those of you who want to be able to take a stand. I found a website that was striving to be balanced on this issue (http://www.religioustolerance.org) . It presents every Bible passage dealing with homosexuality and then gives both the conservative and the liberal interpretations of those passages.
When I first put it together, it was 54 pages long. I've condensed it down to less than half of that, and copies are available in the narthex. We have just a hundred of them, so please take just one per household and we'll copy more for next week if we need them. Just like it is shirking your civic duty to vote for a candidate if you haven't got a clue who they are or what they stand for, you are harming the debate about homosexuality if you don't know what the Bible says and how different scholars have interpreted those passages.
If Bible study were as easy as just reading whatever translation appears before your eyes, we could dispense with half the courses we have to take at seminary. When we read the Bible, we are reading a translation of dead languages, written by those who lived half-way across the world at least 2,000 years ago. It is not beyond the ability of a dedicated student to interpret, and it is not beyond the ability of the Holy Spirit to bring any particular passage to life for us in a time of need, whether we have studied it or not. But if you are intending to judge others and to use the Bible as your authority, then you had darn well better study it and know what you're talking about. That's why I prepared the handout. It just scratches the surface.
Lastly, in engaging this discussion, I think it is vitally important to hear from someone who has both Christian faith and a homosexual orientation. Brett Hodgdon grew up in this church and came to discover his sexual orientation in college. It is easy to hear the witness of heterosexuals, as we are the majority. But I believe we cannot truly engage the conversation without a person of a different orientation who can share their heart with us. I'm going to invite Brett to come and share now. He will be present at tonight's discussion if you have questions for him. I have not edited what others have had to say from this pulpit, and I have not done so with Brett either. He is free to speak his heart to the people of God in the house of God as a child of God.
OUTSIDER IN THE SANCTUARY
This morning I’m going to share with you my story. Storytelling seems to come naturally to us. Our lives are built on stories, and we are connected to each other by and in and through the telling of our stories. As a people of faith, we are a people of stories. Just flip through the pages of our Sacred Scriptures, and you will likely find not theological tracts nor doctrinal treatises, but stories, indeed sacred stories. You will find in these pages holy narratives, telling the story of a people for whom the human and the divine were forever intersecting. They are the sacred stories of a people learning what it is to be faithful to a God whose expectations of them were only the highest.
Are these not our stories, too? Are not our stories but echoes of these, entwined and entangled with the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved? Is it not true, that God in Christ has sanctified our very humanity, that our very lives are now holy, and our stories sacred? Friends, it is in this spirit that I tell my story. Although it is not entirely mine: it is also God’s, because I am God’s. And when we share our stories, we share God with each other.
My story of faith begins right here, in this sanctuary, at this altar. I was baptized here nineteen years ago by Pastor Dan Weaver, when I was three. Sunday after Sunday, I sat on these steps, listening to Pastors John Blackadar and Wes Stinson, as they would pull mystery items out of brown Cokesbury boxes, yarns that they would miraculously weave into children’s sermons, and in a small way illumine the face of God for us little people. I sang my angelic little heart out in Cherub Choir with Barb Johnson and Sue Chamberlin, and then donned one of those bright red robes with the shiny white collars in Junior Choir with Dot MacKenzie. I was confirmed right here on these same steps by Pastor Earle Custer, along with my friends, Amanda, Alison, Molly, and Deb. I made a Joyful Noise playing handbells and a really loud noise playing the organ. And upon my graduation from high school, I was handed a scholarship and a conducting baton by Pastor Allen Bryan on Children’s Day. Countless calls to worship, prayers of confession, hymns and doxologies, said and prayed and sung, with the community of the faithful at 28 Cataract Avenue – a seemingly endless supply of spiritual bread and wine we have shared here together, this Body of Christ at St. John’s.
Yet the story I have to tell here today is a story in the margins, a story on the periphery. Mine is a story of an outsider in the sanctuary. Understand me, friends, it is not something I intended, to walk a path of exclusion. No one sets out at the beginning of adolescence, hell-bent on experiencing what it’s like to be excluded from his faith community. But, all best intentions aside, I live in that periphery; I have embraced these margins, and here I stand before you today, in this sanctuary, this holy place, an outsider.
I was about thirteen when I dealt explicitly with the issue of homosexuality for the first time. That was the year that my cousin Tim, twelve years my senior, came out to my family as a gay man. When my mother sat me down to tell me that Tim was gay, to my young eyes, she seemed bewildered, confused, uncertain how to think about this news, especially religiously. The conversation ended, I remember, despite confusion and bewilderment, with my mother affirming her and our love for Tim and for each other. And I resolved, walking up the stairs to my room, that nothing would cause me to stop loving my dearest cousin. I sat against the wall at the foot of my bed, thinking about what I had just learned. Why did it seem necessary to even make such a resolution to love my cousin Tim, I stewed. What was so terrible that he was experiencing in his life that would even draw our love for him into question? These tough questions swirled in my thirteen-year-old mind and mingled with questions and uncertainties and fears about my own budding sexuality. Hugging my knees to my chest, struck with fear, I offered up the first of many anguished prayers to God: “Please God, don’t make me gay. Whatever you do, please don’t make me gay.” The dusky light of the late afternoon streamed through my window, blanketing my bed with a cold wintry sunlight, as I contemplated rejection and prayed in fear.
The next four years brought with them confusion and at times immense emotional turmoil surrounding my sexuality. I worried and often agonized over my lack of physical attraction toward women, despite many wonderful friendships we shared. At the same time I didn’t have the words or the perspective to adequately describe, much less make sense of, my feelings toward other men. For an otherwise typical teenage boy, raging with new hormones that were at once scary and exciting, the intense emotional relationships that I had with male friends at school were a garbled and confusing mix of friendship and emotional and physical longing. They were, however, all tinged with an instinctive and ever-present fear that I would ultimately face rejection if I got too close.
And so I retreated: I was able to bury myself – and my feelings – by throwing myself into classes and schoolwork, marching band and concert band, high school chorus, high school variety show, Garrison Players shows, church handbell choir, church youth group, the piano.. It was, in a sense, my academic and religious and musical passions that protected me in high school from confronting my sexual passions. I look back on that time in my life and think how undeserving I am, but by the unmerited grace of God, that I was so protected, so shielded from confronting my homosexuality until I was in a more hospitable environment, and by the very things that I loved and about which I am still passionate. Others are not so lucky. Too, too many closeted and out gay high school students bury their fears and passions in drug and alcohol addictions, and, yes, even bury themselves in the muzzle of a gun.
When we Christians have little to no personal connection with the topic of homosexuality, that is, when it is just that: a topic, an idea, a social principle, it is so easy to forget or not even realize in the first place that there are real people, not just out there, but right here in our midst who are gay, and that these people are listening intently to every word we say about them. We Christians have a steep challenge indeed: our words, our actions, our very lives carry the weight and authority of Christ Himself. People expect to find God incarnate among us. When we speak, when we don’t speak, people are listening, especially our youth. Unfortunately, what we think we are saying and what our questioning youth are actually hearing and perceiving can often be two painfully different things.
At church my ears were sensitized. Homosexuality didn’t often come up, but when it did, I was listening. And I learned very quickly not to expect Christians to talk very lovingly about gay people. I learned to expect that many Christians were all too willing to allow my cousin Tim, for example, as a gay person, to be crucified, and that it was his cross that I would often have to carry during Christian discussions on homosexuality. I learned that the words “Love the sinner, hate the sin” fall all too easily off the Christian tongue, when we want to believe that if we just create an imaginary person to love in place of the gay person and love that person, then it is okay to continue to foster attitudes and echoes of hatred, yet feel good about ourselves because at least we love someone.. I learned that, where gays and lesbians are concerned, Christian love seems to have been redefined as “the absence of active hatred,” and so love for gays and lesbians turns out really to be ambivalent silence about gays and lesbians. If we don’t talk about them, they will go away; and if we don’t talk about actively loving them, and certainly don’t use the adjective “unconditional” to describe that ambivalent love, maybe God will just forget about it and let us off the hook.
This is a harsh indictment, I know, but I have a reputation among my friends of being brutally honest. And sometimes we do need to take a good, hard, cold look at ourselves – at what we say and what we do, and at what we don’t say and what we don’t do. The fact is that for me, silence on the issue of sexuality allowed for other, clearer voices to be heard louder than ever: voices that said that homosexuals were abominations and should not even be allowed to enter this sanctuary (yes, friends, I was told that right here at St. John’s). There were voices that decried homosexuality as a disease, a perversion, an intrinsic evil; indeed, Christian voices that claimed (as we have witnessed last year by picketers outside our own Dover High School) that God Himself Hates Fags. These voices from within our Church grew louder and louder as time passed, each condemnation piercing my own soul like a sword, as it became clear to me that condemnation of homosexuals and homosexuality was in a very real sense a condemnation of me. As graduation from high school came and went, and I prepared to leave for college, I was confronting my sexuality head-on, not with agonizing questions like “Whom should I date?” or “When should I ask so-and-so out?” but “Are my very desires, which seem to strike deep to core of my being, are my desires evil? Am I an abomination because of who I am?”
Friends, Christianity was an awful place for me my first year of college. I pored over the biblical texts usually cited to condemn homosexuality, praying to God that it would say something different this time around. I offered up more anguished prayers, asking God what I could possibly do to change myself, to fix my desires, to become someone else. I vowed to “become straight,” to decide to desire people to whom I was not attracted, all with the goal of becoming someone, I prayed, whom God would not hate.
There did come a turning point, during my freshman year of college, four Februarys ago. I was enrolled in a religious studies seminar focusing on contemporary spirituality. It was there that I heard the gospel for the first time in months. One of the authors we were reading had us grapple with the idea, first, that God was infinitely greater than our images or expectations of that God, and second, that this God asks us to lead lives that (often fearfully) surpass our wildest dreams, and that indeed we cannot escape the call of this unconventional deity in our lives. What if God were actually working in my life as it is? What if my life were actually a product of God’s own hand? What if the point was not to become someone else that God (hopefully) would not hate this time, but to live and grow into who I already was, because God had made me and had indeed loved me into existence from my mother’s womb, and loved me still? What if the God who was Love Itself, who had created me, was also the God who was ready to redeem my hurtful images of God and myself and sustain me in life-giving love?
Slowly I realized that above all I needed to be honest with myself, my friends and my family. I came out to Pastor Ron Moss, my unabashedly loving and supportive United Methodist campus minister. I came out to my friends at college, to my father and mother, and eventually to my friends and family at St. John’s. I began to date a friend of mine, who had come out a short while earlier. His name was Carel. It was the first time either of us had felt comfortable expressing our feelings, our desires, our longings, sharing our vulnerability, and just being ourselves, honestly and intimately with another person. And, for the first time (as my mother can attest) I was head over heels in love.
I cannot let this moment pass without acknowledging my parents. They have never wavered in their love for me and have been a constant source of strength and support for me, as I have in the last four years sought to discover who God has created me to be. Our relationship, I believe, has only grown stronger through this, as have all of my relationships, and I thank God that, by God’s entirely unmerited and abundant grace, I have been blessed with two such beautiful individuals as parents.
It has taken me several years to feel comfortable calling myself a Christian again, associating myself with and indeed naming myself as a member of a religious tradition that, by what it has done and by what it has left undone, has contributed to much spiritual pain and hurt in my life and the lives of many other gay and lesbian persons. It was my friend and spiritual mentor Charlie Hawes, an Episcopal priest, who got me to embrace my Christian baptism again. “Brett,” he said, “whatever you do, don’t give the Church the satisfaction of seeing you leave.” I realized that there are those in church and society who would make me an outsider; and I decided that I would be an outsider, in the sanctuary. I would embrace these margins. I would live in this periphery.
It was outside the Church that I learned again what it is to live: among my gay friends, who dance and laugh and play, who cry and comfort and mourn, who celebrate their lives together and live life to its fullest, because they know what it is to live half-lives and half-truths. It was outside the Church that I learned again what it is to love and to love generously, indeed wastefully: among my gay friends, who love, as family in the face of all-too-common familial rejection, as lovers and life-companions and life-partners, and as friends, who would lay down their lives for each other, because not many others would. And it was outside the Church that I learned again what it is to be who I am: among my gay friends, whose trial-and-error honesty in trying to figure out who they are and what their place in life might be, leads them down difficult paths that are often blocked by those who would claim to know better than they, who God has created them to be.
Friends, we have much to learn. Listen to the outsiders in our sanctuaries, our holy places. Embrace the margins and the marginalized. Live for a while in the periphery. Let’s not be afraid to let the Church be the leader in love for a change. What if the Church were the model by which the world judged what it is to live fully, to love wastefully, and to have the courage to be all that we are and all that we are created to be? What if another gay member of St. John’s were to stand up here in twenty-five years and say, “The Christian witness at St. John’s United Methodist Church was for me the pinnacle of God’s love. Here is a community where the love of God is alive and active”? And active, my friends, is what we need to be in our loving, because silence is simply no longer an acceptable option.
Sisters and brothers, this is my story, or at least part of it. It’s long, it’s complicated, it’s full of hills and valleys, moments of craggy clarity and long stretches of blurry and blustery uncertainty, but in it are the echoes of all of our stories, of a people trying to figure out how to live, how to love, and how to be the people God is creating us to be.
May we all pray for the humility and grace necessary to live into our sacred stories together and thereby become more fully and genuinely Christ’s Body to each other and to the world. I offer up this Word and these words to you in the Name of God, Who made us, Who saves us, and Who will not leave us alone.
© 2003, Anne Robertson ("Opening the Conversation")
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