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Gentiles For This Time

Our scripture lesson comes to us from the New Testament book of Acts.

The followers of Jesus are having to figure out how God is calling them to move forward into the future, in light of what has happened… the death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus.  Are they still Jews, following Jewish traditions and laws that require all males to be circumcised? That instructed them to not associate with Gentiles (non-Jews) who were considered unclean?

It was a time filled with change, challenge and uncertainty.

Cornelius is a centurion — a Roman soldier commanding 100 men.  He is a Gentile. Peter has a vision that challenges what he has always believed.  

And then, their lives intersect.  

SCRIPTURE:  Acts 10:1-11:18   “The word of God for the people of God…”

The United Methodist General Conference 2019 wrapped up their meeting in St. Louis this past Tuesday and I want to share with you a brief overview of what happened and where things stand at this point.  This Special General Conference was a gathering of 800+ United Methodist lay and clergy delegates from around the world.  The UM churches in Indiana were represented by 16 delegates (8 lay, 8 clergy) that were elected by representatives from each of the Indiana churches.  The number of delegates allocated to each annual conference in this country and around the world is based on membership in that annual conference, and therefore it is significant that membership in the United States is declining, but outside of the U. S., it is increasing by leaps and bounds, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, which represents approximately 40% of the delegates and where the culture is significantly different with homosexuality being a capital offense in some areas.  The United Methodist Church is now a 12-million-member global church, representing very diverse cultures and values.

So what was decided in St. Louis?  The United Methodist News Service summarized it this way: “Bottom line: More than 53% of the multinational denomination’s top lawmaking body supported the Traditional Plan that reinforces the church’s bans on same-gender unions and ‘self-avowed practicing’ gay clergy.  Still uncertain is how much of the legislation will take effect—or whether it will change the dynamic in places where a number of United Methodists, including entire annual conferences, openly defy these rules. Late afternoon Feb. 26, delegates requested a declaratory decision by the Judicial Council on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan.”

Much of the Traditional Plan had been deemed unconstitutional prior to the conference, some portions of it were amended at the conference (some not) and at the end of the day, all of it (although legislatively passed by the conference) was referred to the Judicial Council (church’s Supreme Court) to determine constitutionality.  The Judicial Council will meet the end of April and the parts that do pass constitutional muster will not take effect until January 1, 2020. What we can say is that nothing changed the current restrictive language in the church’s Book of Discipline. Legislation was also approved to permit “a gracious exit” for those to leave the denomination with their buildings and assets, who cannot in good conscience abide by the decisions made.  And because the regular quadrennial General Conference meets again in 2020, those on both sides of the issues are considering whether to leave the church or stay and continue affirming their positions… working to impact the election of delegates at annual conferences in June of this year, who will attend 2020 General Conference, which will have the authority to hash it all out again.

In our lesson today, Peter was wrestling with “tradition” and how it can get in the way of a new thing God is doing.  Do new believers have to be circumcised–the way we have always done it?  Is it proper for a Jew to associate with a Gentile?  But he had a vision from God…  In some ways, I find it interesting that the plan approved is called the “Traditional Plan”, because I am not so sure our tradition has always been maintaining the status quo.  

In our Methodist tradition, we find:

  • Wesley shaking his fist at the religious establishment as he headed out into the fields to preach instead of staying in a pulpit, and as he disobeyed and ordained bishops for this new country after the Revolutionary War.   
  • Indiana United Methodist Bishop Richard Raines bringing Methodist pastors to Indiana from Mississippi during the civil rights unrest of the 1960s, where death threats had become too much for them and their families as they spoke against segregation and for equal voting rights.  Yes, sometimes we must leave the place where we have always been to enter into the Promised Land that God is offering.
  • In 1968, with the merger of the Methodist Episcopal and the Evangelical United Brethren churches into the United Methodist Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church had to do away with their Central Conferences in the United States—which had maintained institutional racism and segregation.  
  • Although clergywomen have been part of Methodism since John Wesley licensed Sarah Crosby to preach in 1761, it was the May 4, 1956 General Conference vote that gave women full clergy rights and forever changed the face of ordained clergy.  
  • New understandings are part of our tradition.  It is our tradition to have the courage to be faithful to God’s call to do a new thing.  Even when it is to do something that feels uncomfortable and with which not everyone will agree–like bringing together two churches in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  One of them giving up their beloved church to move down the street. The other tearing down the old sanctuary to build something new that would better serve the mission.  That is our tradition.

I have been asked what I think about the whole thing.  Where do I stand?  The first thing I will tell you is that there is not an opinion out in this congregation today that I have not had at some point in my faith journey.  I have always tried to be sensitive to leading in a way that embraces the fact that we do not all see things the same way… that we all come out of different experiences that impact our bias (and yes, we all have one).  I believe that every person, regardless of their opinion is seeking to be faithful to scripture and faithful to God.

I grew up in a rather insulated, small family.  If I had known anyone who was gay or transgender, I didn’t know it.  No one in my small family was gay and the reality was, we just didn’t talk about it.  As a young person, still at home, we had a neighbor that was “different”, but my parents said he was nice, friendly and kept his yard just fine.  I guess that was the litmus test for being “OK”… but the value was implanted that he was “different”… somehow outside of the correct norm.

Years later, I would attend seminary hoping to learn all the “right” answers because somehow, the Bible had to be black and white so that I could put everything in the right or wrong category.  But in seminary, my eyes were opened to more than one way of interpreting scripture. I was shocked to discover that people of faith could come to different conclusions about what scripture meant, how we apply it to our lives, which words were God’s and which ones were people of faith sharing their story (the good, the bad and the ugly), which scriptures were expressing a universal truth and which ones could only be faithfully understood within the culture of the time and had to be understood anew for our own time.  My head was spinning… and I rebelled. I wrote my senior statement of faith on why homosexuality was not consistent with our understanding of scripture. In hindsight, I realize that it was a knee-jerk reaction to the challenge I was feeling to my own theological underpinnings. And yet, as I wrote, it forced me to really think about why I believed what I did. A professor once said you can only authentically stand on your own opinion, if you are also able to make the strongest argument possible for the other side. God was taking me on a journey of reflection.  Over twenty years of ministry I have studied, I have prayed, but as much as seminary was an education, I have learned even more as a parish pastor, entering in small ways into the lives and stories of those living the LGBT experience… as gay persons, as transgender persons, as parents and family members and friends of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons

For me, it was more than basing my thinking on a few specific verses of scripture and came down to thinking through the overarching story of the Bible… and seeing God and God in Christ, faithfully seeking the one who is lost, the one who is oppressed, the one who the religious establishment called “unclean” and welcoming them into the fold.  Loving them and calling them children of God.  

I am always taken aback when folks say “Don’t you read the Bible?”  Yes, I do… every day. But I am always drawn back to Jesus’ words: “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” and the fact that Jesus was betrayed and sent to the cross not because of non-believers, but because of the existing religious community, who could not see the new thing that was happening in their midst.

I am drawn to the way the Bible can argue with itself … saying that women are to remain silent and not to teach and yet, Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene and instructs her to go and tell the others… that he meets with a Samaritan woman (another Gentile) and instructs her to go into the village and tell others about the “living water”.  Could it be that those with a different sexual orientation could be the Gentiles for our time?

I say all of this not as a judgement on others, who may see things in a way that is different, but to simply say, “This is my journey, this is where I stand and maybe my theological journey is either helpful to you as you think things  through or at least helps you understand me. I decided that I would rather stand before Christ some day and have him upset with me for being too inclusive, than to have him weep because I put up barriers for others to be loved and to be fully included in the life of his church.  But please never doubt my resolve to continue being faithful to Jesus in the best way I know how.

Today, there are those who are pleased with the outcome of the Special General Conference and there are those who are heartsick.  

Today, there is grief in most places regardless of where we stand because there is a sense that the church is floundering, that we are not being effective in fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples, that there has not been resolution to this situation, that hearts are broken, that folks are continuing to leave the church, and many are feeling excluded.

And we do not know where this will ultimately lead…

But this is what I also know.

First Wayne Street United Methodist Church is still here.

We are still a congregation that loves each other…

Today we can make a decision to stay and support one another, acknowledging our differences.  You have always had them.

But loving one another has always been a non-negotiable.

Welcoming all people has always been something you do well.

Christ is still here and God is continuing to work in our midst to bring hope and healing.

Let us continue to be in conversation — both speaking and listening.

Let us continue to pray for each other …

Let us continue to model compassion for each other to the world around us …

Let us continue in our commitment to share Jesus.

Let us pray.