Sometimes I get to the point where I’ve had enough. I’m done. I just want to walk away, not look back, and shake the dust off my feet.
I’m talking about the church. On the one hand, I would not be where I am today without the church. It’s my home, especially this church called the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Try saying that five times really fast.) It’s my family, and as I’ve said before, to disown my family would be in a significant way disowning myself.
But… ugh… does it have to be so hard??
I was given my first church appointment in 2001, and since then I have served 4 congregations as pastor. I have worked with many more as a consultant and coach. In every situation, I walked into a declining congregation, or a congregation on the verge of decline and was charged with helping them to grow.
That’s the expectation. Grow the church! Bring more people to Jesus! Help the church get healthier!
Since 2001, I have taught, preached, coordinated, planned, visioned, pleaded, and even cajoled congregations to do what it takes to grow and thrive. I’ve read books and attended countless seminars on how to lead the church towards revitalization.
Nevertheless, aside from some anecdotal instances here and there of bold, Holy Spirit-led effort and times of growth, I can’t say that I left any of my congregations noticeably numerically larger or more financially solvent.
There may have been marginal instances of numeric growth, and there was always expansion in other areas than the number of people in the pews, such as the renewal of dying ministries, new, more diverse leaders, a new worship service, and new missions. Yet looking at the big picture, I still feel like I left those congregations in their trajectory of numeric decline, no matter how hard I worked to bring about the kind of change necessary to reverse the patterns I inherited.
I’ve known all along that everything always boils down to the heart.
Who do we love? What are our motives? Who or what do we trust? What are we willing to do to love and include people? What are we willing to give up? How receptive are we to change? What do we really want, and can we be honest about that?
All this came to a head recently when at a Church Council meeting someone asked the question, “What can we do to get more people into the church?” As soon as the question was asked, I inwardly groaned, and then braced myself for what was to come. Slowly, the tension and frustration began to rise in the room and within me. And then the same kinds of playbook questions got asked:
“Why don’t we do [this and that] anymore? That used to work.”
“That church down the street— they do [this and that]. Why aren’t we doing that?”
“We need to do things to get the young people here. How do we do that?”
“If we don’t grow the church, how can we keep solvent?”
“If all you do is focus on those outside and don’t pay attention to the folks inside, you’re going to lose the people we’ve got. And they pay the bills.”
So… after 20 minutes of spinning our wheels over questions we can never answer, I tried to make the case I have repeatedly made: we’ve got to get ourselves out of the “attraction” mindset, worrying about trying to attract people to our worship services and our events. That’s not to say that we stop trying, but we’ve got to accept the reality that a growing majority of people just aren’t interested in Sunday morning religion and church life. So we must focus our efforts on going to our neighbors and relating to them where they are, as they are. Don’t go with a self-serving agenda. Just go to love, bless, and be community with them.
I was met with blank stares.
Of course, I get it, and I can’t really fault them for it. The kind of “missional” mindset and behavior I’ve been espousing by no means resembles the way we’re used to thinking about church. For so long we lived with the expectation that if we build it, the crowds will come. Advertise the event, and folks will check it out. Hang up the welcome sign out front, and people will come. Yet that’s not the world we live in anymore, and church folk are having a hard time accepting that.
As expected, the whole discussion went nowhere.
And there I was, once again beating my head against a church wall, something I’ve done far too many times now. My head is aching, my heart hanging heavily. Trying with all the wisdom and creativity I can muster to change the culture and heart of the church, I’ve come to see that I simply cannot do it.
That leaves me with four options: 1) Keep trying new tactics and strategies to bring about change while exacerbating my pounding headache; 2) Shift my role to hospice chaplain for a dying church; 3) Walk away to find something more fruitful to do with my life; or 4) Do something I have never seriously considered during all my struggles to change the church: change myself.
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It’s hard to believe that 20 years ago, the groundbreaking film The Matrix hit the big screen. It was a movie-making breakthrough whose philosophical implications were riveting. (I can’t say that about its two sequels, but I digress.)
There’s a scene in The Matrix where Neo, the lead character, goes into a strange living-room style waiting before his fateful meeting with the Oracle. There on the floor in front of him is a boy who appears to using telekinetic powers to bend spoons.
Neo sits down with the boy who hands him a spoon.
“Do not try and bend the spoon,” said the boy. “That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.”
“What truth?” asked Neo.
“There is no spoon,” said the boy. “Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
From The Matrix (1999)
Perhaps I’ve spent the better part of 20 years doing the impossible task of bending spoons, when all along I could have been bending myself. I’ve been kicking the same immovable goad of trying to change the church. Now I think it’s time to apply that same effort towards changing myself.
In the contemplative world, how we choose to see reality defines everything. Changing how we see God, the world, and ourselves awakens alternative forms of consciousness, and that in turn alters the behavior and the relationship between the seer and everything else.
So, what if my presupposition that the church is a problem to be solved was the wrong way to begin seeing the church? Instead of trying to fix people and things, what if I shifted my motives to loving people and things in their entirety? What if the church is simply a people to be fully loved, not an institution to be fixed?
What if my self-imposed expectations of trying to meet the expectations of my supervisors while simultaneously trying to keep the congregation happy with me have been poor motivations? What if it’s more about seeing God within the people I serve and the community in which I operate, doing all I can to connect with God all around me and within myself, subject to subject, heart to heart, mind to mind, soul to soul?
Lastly, what if I trusted more fully that the health and the wellbeing of the church is Christ’s primary concern, not just my own? If Christ the Good Shepherd is truly head of his church then I am simply following his lead by asking all these contemplative questions, seeing with his eyes, and then living obediently to him.
It’s taken me nearly 20 years to learn that bending spoons is impossible. But now, hopefully, prayerfully, I can learn to bend myself. It’s all in how I choose to see. It’s always been that simple, and at the same time, unlearning is always so difficult!
I am a heterosexual male, legally married to one woman. We were married by an ordained pastor in a church. I made a vow to God and to my wife to remain her faithful husband until we are parted by death. Nearly 12 years later, I have honored and kept this vow.
Nevertheless, the Bible clearly condemns my marriage and fitness for ministry as a pastor of Christ’s church. This is something we should all take quite seriously and soberly.
In May of 2006, after a two-year separation from the woman who is now my ex-wife, I filed for and was granted a judgment of divorce. There was no adultery or abuse committed by her or me. In the legal language stated in our divorce decree, the grounds were “irreconcilable differences.”
Some time after that, my (current) wife Blairlee filed for and was granted a judgment of divorce from her now ex-husband. They had been separated for well over 4 years, and the legal grounds for their divorce were similar to my own.
The Bible has some explicit things to say to people like us about our choices, the consequences of our choices, the condition of our lives, and my ministry.
In regards to those serving as priests/clergy,
“ ‘The woman he marries must be a virgin. He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a virgin from his own people,’
As to the harm of divorce,
“The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.”
The above verse from Malachi can also be translated this way:
“For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel…
Malachi 2:16 (NRSV)
As for the grounds of divorce and remarriage, Jesus said,
“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Yet in another place, Jesus said,
“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
Pertaining to a church’s overseer [clergy],
“Now a bishop [overseer] must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher,”
1 Timothy 3:2 (NRSV)
These are just a handful of the 33 times divorce is mentioned in the Bible. While the Bible has a number of things to say about divorce, and at times metaphorically uses divorce to depict God’s relationship with his people, divorce is never cast in a positive light. At worst, divorce is flatly condemned as a God-hated practice and at best offered as a concession to human hard-heartedness (Matthew 19:8).
Yet just a cursory reading of the Bible verses I’ve cited above would lead us to the following conclusions about my life, marriage, and ministry:
By divorcing my ex-wife, I have done violence to her while also, by biblical implication, having demonstrated some degree of hate.
God hates our divorces.
Because my ex-wife did not commit adultery, I have made her a victim of adultery.
My wife Blairlee has committed adultery by divorcing her ex-husband, making him a victim of adultery.
By marrying my current wife under the grounds of our divorces, we are living in adultery.
Since my wife— if I could even call her my wife under these circumstances!— and I are living in adultery, we are not legitimately married in the eyes of God, which means our son Jacob was conceived and born out of biblical wedlock, making him, in the eyes of God, illegitimate.
As a pastor, I am expressly forbidden from marrying a divorced woman.
As a pastor/overseer of the church, I am only allowed one wife. (I have had two.)
For these reasons, it is clear that the Bible condemns not only my divorce, but the legitimacy of my marriage and my ordination.
Other than the personal anguish from enduring a separation and divorce (which Blairlee and I will never face again), do you know how many consequences I have faced as a result of being divorced and remarried to a divorced woman? Zero consequences.
Let me say it again: the church, specifically the United Methodist Church, has not condemned me for my divorce and remarriage to a divorced woman. My divorce did not disqualify me from being remarried in a United Methodist Church by a United Methodist pastor, and there was no prohibition in place to prevent me from marrying a divorced woman. The church has not barred me from being ordained a Full Elder. No church I have served has ever refused to receive me, a divorced man married to a divorced woman, as their pastor. In fact, I have never been interviewed, questioned, or interrogated over my divorce and remarriage by any Staff Parish Relations Committee, District Superintendent, Bishop, or Board of Ordained Ministry.
There’s one simple reason for all this. While the UMC discourages divorce, calling it “a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness,” there is nothing in our Book of Discipline that forbids me from getting a divorce, remarrying a divorced woman or being ordained, even though, biblically speaking, my divorce and remarriage are clearly “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Where does that leave me?
If we were to fully adhere to clear biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage, then one must conclude that I am unrepentant, living in abject rebellion and sin, deserving to have a millstone tied around my neck and drowned in the depths of the sea (Matthew 18:6). For I am leading others into sin through my sinful example and tacit endorsement of divorce, remarrying a divorced person, and living in adultery… with an illegitimate child, too! In fact, why not condemn and drown the whole United Methodist Church in the depths of the sea for allowing and condoning sin that God has quite emphatically said he hates?
So, to my sisters and brothers who vigorously argue, based on six biblical passages, that the “practice” of homosexuality is a sin, while condemning same-sex marriages and “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from becoming clergy, I ask you to be just as vigorous and as intellectually and morally consistent in your condemnation of my divorce, remarriage, and ordination.
Furthermore, I ask you to submit to our 2020 General Conference:
…a petition deeming it a chargeable offense for clergy or laity to divorce, unless it can be absolutely verified that there was sexual immorality or adultery. (Keep in mind, however, that this would still violate the Mark 10:11-12 prohibition on divorce. I’m not sure how you would settle this discrepancy except to prohibit divorce for any reason.)
…a petition deeming it a chargeable offense for clergy to marry people who have been divorced for any reason.
…a petition deeming it a chargeable offense for a clergy person to marry a divorced person.
…a petition that would bar divorced persons from being received as candidates, licensed, recommended, commissioned and ordained as Elders or Deacons, or consecrated as Bishops.
…a petition setting the penalty for violating any of the above restrictions as a year of suspension without pay for first offenses, and a termination of conference membership and revocation of credentials for licensing, ordination, or consecration for second offenses.
If you are not willing to exercise due diligence in submitting these petitions, then I ask that you withdraw your support for maintaining our Book of Discipline’s restrictive language concerning homosexuality.
The late commentator Charles Krauthammer once said that in the newsroom there are always some favorite stories of historical figures that people love to tell, and everyone knows the origins of these tales may be somewhat apocryphal, but we dare not check! They’re that good.
The same is probably true of this famous quote often attributed to St. Augustine:
“The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”
It may be a misquote of something else Augustine said, or it could be totally apocryphal, but I dare not check. It’s that good… and timely, especially in this moment. (By the way, if you are more scholarly than I am and are tempted to dispel the myth, please don’t spoil it. At least not right now!)
It’s a timely reminder for me and for many fellow United Methodists as we watch the proceedings of a special General Conference Session that is focusing on THE major issue that threatens the future of our church’s unity: homosexuality. I’ve written about this elsewhere, just in case you’re not familiar with what the hubbub is all about.
For me, this season of the church’s life is gut-wrenching, heart-breaking and demoralizing. Many of us, who make up almost half of the United Methodist Church, want to see a church in which all perspectives on homosexuality can be honored. Just as importantly, we want a church in which those who are LGBTQ could finally have a full seat at the Lord’s Table, especially in terms of marriage and ordination. At the same time, those of us who cannot accept that kind of inclusiveness would also have a full seat at the table. We want one United Methodist Church with enough room for all of us.
Well, the chances of this happening are not looking very good right now. From what I can surmise, we’re either looking at 1) a far more conservative-leaning church; 2) an ideological split, leading to separate denominations; or 3) no major decision of consequence leading to more angst, uncertainty, and a nasty splintering apart of the church.
Our problems are manifold and maddeningly cyclical:
People of different views are talking past each other, don’t really understand the other, and fundamentally don’t want to be associated with the other.
Ideological factions are fighting for the power to “own” the namesake, spirit, direction, and resources of the church. It’s truly a struggle over power.
We’re insane. We keep using the same means and tactics to solve our problems, each time expecting a different, elusive result.
I have to confess, I have given serious thought to throwing in the towel and giving up on the United Methodist Church for good. I’ve even had fleeting thoughts of giving up on church altogether, at least this manifestation of it. My reasoning: after spending all this time and money for nearly 47 years, all the while doing great harm to people who are LGBTQ, why bother anymore? Surely, I could offer my gifts and graces as a pastor to something that is more functional and less harmful to people I love.
Yet… yet… just tonight, I had three conversations with non-Christian friends and family members of mine. Amazingly, they all said the same thing:
Keep on keeping on.
Be the shepherd and mentor God has called you to be. Don’t give up.
Shine the greater light. Keep yourself open to truth and growth. It will serve you well.
Keep in mind, none of that came from the church. All of it was said by non-Christians, my wider “church family.”
So, I’ve consigned myself to that wonderful, perhaps apocalyptic reflection of St. Augustine: the church is a whore, but she is my mother.
The United Methodist Church, with all her ugly warts, terrible inefficiencies, and gross inadequacies is far removed from the kind of faithful church I want her to be. Yet she is my mother. Admittedly, if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I’m far removed from the kind of faithful son of God I should be, too. Perhaps she’s a reflection of me, and I of her.
Still, the United Methodist Church is my mother. She is the church who birthed me through the waters of baptism when I was 18-years-old. God used her to call me into ministry. She’s nurtured that call and has had a huge hand in shaping me into the person I am today.
There have been times when being a disciple of Jesus has meant rejecting the aspects of this mother I can’t stand. On a few occasions, I’ve even had to shout a clear “Hell no!” (literally) to some of her tendencies, attitudes, and values.
But this mother of a church still loves me. (Now I really, really wish she loved some of my other siblings in Christ as much as much as she loves and makes room for me! However…) She’s still here. There’s lots of good in her. I can keep doing some real good with her. Even when she’s got her priorities and focus out of whack, she still does great things. Somehow, the world is a better place because of her.
Oh my Lord, she’s a whore! And yet the Lord knows that and still insists on calling her his bride. There’s no doubt about that. So yes, the United Methodist Church is my mother, and I’ll always be her child, even if that means the possibility of one day striking out in a different direction. But for now, I will continue to struggle with her, for her sake, mine, and for the sake of the world that Christ died to save.
At this moment we stand in what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap.” It’s that long expanse between cold reality and the desired future we know exists. In the end, when all is said and done, the struggle will have been well worth it. That’s God’s promise. And as hard as it is to say right now, she, this sordid church mother of mine, is worth it, too.
One of my Facebook friends asked a provocative question.
To place his question in context, in case you’ve not heard, the United Methodist Church is at a schismatic loggerheads over the issue of human sexuality, specifically on whether or not openly LGBTQ persons can be married in our churches by our clergy and licensed or ordained as ministers. We’ve been at this debate now for nearly 47 years, and in less than two weeks, delegates from our worldwide church will meet to (hopefully) decide our collective fate. In any case, we’re more than likely looking at some degree of fracturing over this issue.
So, my friend made an observation and asked me to comment on it:
Presumably you did not just one day decide that being a pastor would be a cool profession but believed that God called you to the vocation. Given that God has called you to that vocation, what is your response if the church tells you that you are not fit to be a pastor? The Bible is replete with references of God using what others might consider broken to do His work. Indeed, from God’s aspect, we could all be considered broken vessels.
Very good point. I’m assuming, hopefully not in error, that my friend is making the case that we are all imperfect, broken vessels, and God makes use of our lives anyway. I can certainly vouch for that. So, his case continues, why then would we single out someone’s sexual orientation as an absolute litmus test for ministerial fitness. (That’s presuming, of course, that a sexual orientation other than “straight” is an area of brokenness. I’ll address that below.)
In response to my friend, I wrote the following, and modified it a bit for this post: I know that nothing I say here will change anyone’s mind. The lines are clearly drawn and most everyone is well beyond reasonable dialogue. But since you asked…
I’m first and foremost a student of the Word made flesh, Christ Jesus, and the written Word (our Bible). I discern truth by asking how Christ and the timeless truth of Scripture play themselves out through our long tradition, through the filter of sober reasoning, and within the scope of our experience. (That’s the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.) I state all that to lay the groundwork for what follows.
You originally asked what I would do if the church told me I was not fit to be a pastor, even if I was called, gifted, and graced to serve the church in this role. I honestly don’t know how to answer that question because up until this point, the church has never invalidated me or my call. And if the church ever did negate my call or fitness for ministry, I’d have to evaluate those circumstances then.
However, I do know some folks who have been forced into this terrible dilemma. They are authentically Christ-like, gifted, graced, called people whom I would be honored to have as colleagues. But because of their sexual orientation, they are denied commissioning and ordination in the United Methodist Church, under our current code of church law. I know what the Bible says about sin and homosexuality, and I have made the case elsewhere that what the Bible condemns as sexual sin on the one hand, and the lives of our LGBTQ Christian brothers and sisters on the other hand, is NOT the same thing. I honor both the truth of Scripture and the personhood of these folks, without violating either one, at least in my mind and heart.
Some of these folks— a few are gay and a few are lesbian— have chosen to be ordained by another faith tradition that would honor their call. They are happily and effectively serving congregations who value their faith, graces and gifts. Praise God for that!
Other folks have chosen to stay with us as United Methodists and struggle on for change. They’re not angry zealots, at least the ones I know. They are patiently, persistently working towards change by sharing their living witness. I must say, rarely have I found their kind of graciousness and courage mirrored by most other Christians I know.
(As for the issue of same-sex marriage… I’m supportive of clergy celebrating them and churches hosting them per se, but I don’t think our progressive/liberal friends have done enough biblical and theological homework to demonstrate how marriage can be so radically redefined. The issue of same-sex marriage is far more than a matter of equal rights and equal access. We’re really talking about the redefinition of marriage as an entire institution, and I don’t feel that we have done nearly enough deeper, higher level biblical and theological work to understand same-sex marriage as a celebration or sacrament of the church. So far, we have been content to dig in to those tired, entrenched arguments— equal rights vs. “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”— and fight it out. Not good.)
So… all this to say that yes, I’m in support of the One Church Plan, and firmly so. It’s our best option to move forward together. The One Church Plan would allow clergy, congregations, and Annual Conferences the latitude to decide for themselves how they will be in ministry with our LGBTQ neighbors, and would allow Annual Conferences to determine if they will or will not license and ordained LGBTQ persons for ministry. It recognizes that we are all United Methodists, and choose to remain together as one church while giving each other some contextual breathing room to be in ministry, in the ways we discern the Holy Spirit is leading us.
Some may stop me here and ask, “How can the Holy Spirit guide one group of people a certain way, and another group in a very different way? Isn’t that pneumatological confusion?”
Ultimately, God and God’s church is so much bigger and expansive than we try to make it. That’s always been the case. Look at how Jesus operated in the gospels, and you’ll see what I mean. Just as in Jesus’ circle there was room for Pharisee and sinner, zealot and tax collector, men and women, Samaritan and Jew, there’s room for all of us, conservative and liberal and all in between, because we all hold to Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Eph. 4:5). Jesus and the ancient church never demanded uniform conformity on much of anything except in our allegiance to Jesus as Lord and Christ. (Credal conformity was a much later development.)
Yet here we are, and tragically, we have elevated this issue of human sexuality to the forefront of everything else as the make or break item, and because we have, we are irreconcilable in our differences. The conservative and liberal extremes have brokered our church’s unity into an all or nothing paradigm, between biblical integrity and justice, as if one could ever be separable from the other. We need both things held in dynamic tension within one church. Too few, however, want to hold this tension for long, meaning that ultimately, in one way or another, we’re going to split.
And we’re all going to pay for it, no matter how “gracious” we intend to be while parting ways.
To the prospect of a split, I say without apology: shame on us. We’re only damaging ourselves, our witness, and our ability to live out the Great Commission. The ideological golden calves we have fashioned and worshipped for the past 47 years have distracted us from our worship and trust of the One God who has made us all, gay and straight, conservative and liberal, in his image. But one day, those golden calves will be burned and ground up, and we’ll be forced to repent by drinking the bitter water of our idolatry. Or we will cease to be the church.
That said, no matter what happens, the Church Universal will go on, and as a pastor of the Church, I will, too, in one way or another. And thankfully, no one has disqualified me from living out God’s call on my life… at least not yet.
Toddlerhood. I think it is the most magical time of childhood. I use the word “magical” quite intentionally. For figuratively speaking, magic can result in amazement and wonder, laughter and joy, or wholesale destruction, all at a moment’s notice and with nary a hint of warning.
Toddlers, fueled by wellsprings of energy have the wide-eyed curiosity of a thousand cats, empowered for the first time by upright mobility, the beginnings of fine-motor dexterity, language and their first inkling of independence. They’re unpredictable, moody, perpetually playful, and offer us adults the gift of re-experiencing the world with fresh wonder. (I’ve often said that toddlers and teenagers are strikingly similar, but that’s a subject for another post.)
So imagine centering a toddler within the sacramental rite of baptism. Baptism is an orderly, highly scripted, predictable ritual. For babies, youth and adults- no problem. For toddlers? Well…
When some parents from my church approached me with a bit of cautious trepidation about baptizing their almost two-year-old son Graham, I told them, “You know, we’ll make it all work somehow.” Inwardly, however, I was nervously wondering how adaptable and flexible the parents, congregation and the ritual would be to the temperament of a toddler. That was the big question.
Yesterday, Sunday morning, came, and the parents arrived with their son Graham, their pre-school daughter (who was insistent that her little brother should not be getting wet for this whole baptism thing), and a whole gaggle of family and friends. Graham was the epitome of cuteness- a white dress shirt, tan-colored vest and slacks, a tie and black shoes. He seemed to know something big was afoot, so he was extra primed with nervous, curious energy, toddler-style, of course.
I’m not always the most conscientious pre-planner, but something told me to make a few strategic adjustments. So first I switched out the cold, room temperature water in the baptismal font with warm tap water. Granted, that wouldn’t make Graham’s big sister any happier, but perhaps warm water would soothe his nerves a bit more. And then I gave Graham’s parents the baptism certificate before the service began. That way, if a quick getaway was needed after the baptism ritual, his parents wouldn’t leave empty-handed.
Well, the moment we had all anticipated arrived. Right on cue, as soon as we had gotten underway with the baptism ritual, the game of “Pass the Fidgety Child” commenced between the boy’s mom and dad. That game quickly lost its charm, and then Graham’s impatient chattering and complaining ramped up, quickly accelerating towards a 5-alarm nuclear meltdown.
Now I’m pretty calm in a storm, and that includes being in the presence of crying or screaming children. In a worship setting, I just carry on as if nothing is happening, trusting that the child and parents will work things out. My operational value in all this is let children with families be themselves. But when Graham’s protests were clearly distressing his parents while my congregation stirred with uneasy laughter, clearly it was time for a tactical change on my part.
My paternal instincts kicked in, and in a split moment I asked myself, “What would Pope Francis do?” He’s an amazing example of allowing children to be children, and in unprecedented and impromptu moments of grace, he unflinchingly finds ways for children to be included in his leadership of highly ritualistic Roman Catholic liturgy. So, in Pope Francis style, I improvised.
I found myself stepping closer to the father who by then had broken out into a visible sweat and was hoisting his son at the waist in one arm. Graham was facing out kicking and protesting. I showed Graham my hymnal and the words of the liturgy I was reading, and instantly, he stopped fussing, followed my finger in the text and went back and forth between looking at me and looking at the words of his own baptism liturgy.
I then adjusted my voice a bit from my normal boomy “this is the Word of the Lord” public speaking voice to a quieter, side-by-side reading inflection. I’m sure he had no idea what I was talking about (or maybe he understood more than I give him credit for, especially the all important non-verbal stuff of communication.) At any rate, for the first time in that service, I think Graham felt included in what was going on, and during the next several minutes of liturgy, he was as well-behaved as any watching adult.
It’s ironic. This was the church’s and his rite of baptism, and yet we were about to unwittingly leave this highly aware toddler completely unengaged in it. Why shouldn’t things be such that a child like Graham could fully involve himself and have his own sense of ownership of this tremendous gift of God’s grace that he was being given?
Then the time came for the administration of the water. By then, it seems I wasn’t a threat, so Graham came willingly into my arms and enjoyed the gift of his baptismal waters. It was truly one of those authentic, natural moments of grace for Graham, his family and his new congregation of brothers and sisters in Christ.
While I suppose there are many lessons to be learned from an instance like this, one stands out for me. Be fully present in the moment. Being fully present allows for maximum connection with those around us and the greatest opportunity within our connection for God to show up and do things that clearly demonstrate God’s power, God’s grace, and God’s amazing love.
And yes, as we all learned, that can even include a toddler.
[This a sermon I shared with Trinity UMC on Sunday May 13, 2018. The biblical text was Romans 1:18-2:5.
I’m sure some of us are asking why we are talking about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people and issues on Mother’s Day of all days. Well, in some ways, it’s quite fitting. Ultimately we’re not just talking about issues, beliefs, and rules. We’re talking about people. And each of these people has a mother— a mother who has gone through on a much deeper level the struggle we all have of learning how to love, understand and include other people.
A Tale of Two Mothers
Today, I’d like to honor two mothers I know very well. (To safeguard their privacy, I’m keeping their names anonymous.) These mothers are very different women, yet they both have two things in common.
First, they both have a child who is homosexual. One has a daughter and one has a son. Here’s the second thing they have in common: they unconditionally love their children— one who is gay and one who is lesbian.
They have both been fully involved in their children’s lives and the lives of their respective partners. They’re proud of their children and fully support them. Indeed, these two children have wonderful mothers whom I would be privileged to have as a mother, too.
As I mentioned, these mothers are also quite different. One mother embraces her child’s sexuality with no condition and with full acceptance. The other mother has found her child’s sexuality to be unbiblical therefore sinful.
But here’s the beautiful thing: just watching these mothers unconditionally love their children, we would never know they had any kind of ideological difference between them. They are mothers who love, nurture, and fully support their children. They remind us that when it comes to loving and nurturing our children, ideology rarely comes into play.
What’s the Controversy All About?
So, back to the issues… A lot of people ask me what all the controversy is about. Why are we as a local church and denomination caught in a debate about LGBTQ people, homosexuality in particular?
Right now, the future unity of United Methodist Church sits on a knife’s edge directly over the matter of homosexuality and three questions in particular:
1) Is homosexuality sinful or not?
2) Can same-sex marriages be performed by our clergy and in our churches?
3) Can people who are LGBTQ be licensed and ordained as clergy?
The United Methodist Church has been locked in this debate since 1972. (Not to make you feel old, but that’s longer than I’ve been alive!) In 1972, the UMC took a stance on homosexuality, stating that it is incompatible with Christian teaching. Through the years the rules have gotten more specific, stating quite explicitly that self-avowed “practicing” homosexuals cannot be licensed or ordained as clergy and cannot be married in our churches or by our clergy.
The UMC has not clearly addressed how we understand people who are bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning. This morning, I don’t have time to explore all of this here. Yet by and large the debate has been around homosexuality.
Ideologically, there are three main camps of people.
In one camp are those who want gay and lesbian people fully included in the church. They want to see marriage and ordination completely opened to people who are gay or lesbian.
To make their argument, they say several things. They state that all people are made in God’s image, and that some, for no fault of their own, have been born as gay or lesbian. That is their God-given identity. They state that Jesus never taught on homosexuality, and that Jesus challenged social norms that excluded groups of people from the faith community.
Furthermore, the few places where the Bible addresses homosexuality do not apply to people who are gay or lesbian living in covenanted relationships.
In the second camp are those who uphold and are striving to protect our Book of Discipline’s teachings and standards on homosexuality. They believe the Bible clearly teaches that all homosexuality is sinful. God made marriage for one man and one woman. Thus, people who are in homosexual relationships are living in sin and should not be married or ordained.
In the third camp are those who feel caught in the middle of this massive debate without strongly holding any particular ideological view. These people are more interested in loving and not judging, and they want to move on from the debate to just being the church.
As you can see, there is a lot of divergence on the issues related to homosexuality. And once again, it’s over a range of issues including biblical interpretation, the definition of marriage, and our standards for ordination.
From My Non-Religious Friends
So, once again I turned to my non-religious friends to get their reaction to Christians and the LGBTQ community. Let me tell you, I was not prepared for the Pandora’s Box of highly emotional responses I got. Clearly I touched a raw nerve within these friends.
Their response reminded me of studies conducted with non-religious young adults. When these young adults were asked what they think about the church, typically their top answers have been: hypocritical, judgmental and anti-gay.
I’m going to share a few things folks said. In all fairness I’ve had to edit them quite a bit without losing the essence of their thoughts. As always, by hearing these folks, I’m not asking you to agree with them. I am asking you to listen and to try to understand them. We can offer that to anyone, regardless of how much we agree or not agree.
One friend who has a child who is transgender said,
The problem stems with the Bible. I realize that it’s Old Testament and a lot of folks discount much of what’s in the Old Testament, often touting the New Testament as being the kinder, gentler portion of the Bible. And while it’s often argued that “being gay isn’t the problem, acting gay is” … in other words, you can be gay as long as you act straight … that argument is idiotic. It’s a bit like telling a cat that it’s okay to be a cat, as long as you can bark like a dog.
And it leads to oppression and persecution, because it allows, or in fact, demands, that homosexuals, and other members of the LGBTQ community be persecuted. It is, to me, one of the most heinous parts of the Bible, and the Christian religion. And it’s unforgivable to me. I know those are very strong words, and I usually try to temper my words with as much understanding as I can. But this part stirs me up so much that I find myself being angry and resentful.
Another friend who identifies as queer— in other words, not having a definite sense of sexuality or even gender says,
I’m queer and there are many parts of this country I don’t feel safe in. If god created all things, then god created me and other LGBTQ people. Sadly the more Christian the environment the less safe I feel. I work at a suicide prevention hotline and we have many callers who have self harmed or have thought about killing themselves for something they have no control over. It is heartbreaking to hear stories of parents abandoning their children for being honest about who they are. You have not failed as a parent if your kid is LGBTQ. You have failed as a parent and as a Christian if you abandon your child for being who they are. People are literally dying because of the archaic views perpetuated by the church. Before you speak out and criticize someone for who they are, remember that what you say has an impact and can cost someone their life.
When I asked my friends what they would like to see the church do better, one friend replied,
In my rosiest day-dreaming, the churches would own up to what they have done and take a stand for change. “Just like scriptures were once used as an excuse for slavery,” they would say, “we have also used them to justify misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other despicable attitudes. No more! We must now admit that Jesus never spoke about sexual orientation, and that even Leviticus has so much more to say about drunkenness and food restrictions than about homosexuality. We should have not used these few words to ruin the lives of so many people. We are sorry and we will try, for the rest of our lives, to make up for our mistakes.
So… where do I personally sit with these issues regarding our LGBTQ neighbors?
First let me say that I have not addressed these issues very much with you because literally no one has ever asked me what I think. And I’ve been okay with that, actually. I have not wanted these issues to become a distraction for us. We have a mission to fulfill of becoming like Christ and sharing his gospel with the world. I don’t want anything to take our eyes off of Christ and the mission he has put us on.
I have not wanted— and I still don’t want anyone— to hear what I say and use it to justify and strengthen their own hardened position.
Worse yet, I have not wanted to share what I believe and have someone come to the conclusion that if I believed all that then they could no longer have me as their pastor and Trinity as their church, especially since there are far larger and more important things we do agree on.
I share with you today, asking that you receive what I say as my personal, biblical convictions. I’m not asking you to agree with me, but I would like you all to take a step back and listen, not only to what I say, but also to why I say it.
To get at that, let me tell you a bit of my journey with these issues.
Before becoming a Christian when I 18-years-old, I had no opinion one way or another about gay and lesbian people, other than the typical stereotypes most of us had.
As I came into the church, I heard my pastor teach from the Bible showing quite emphatically that homosexuality is condemned as a sin. One of the main passages he used was our passage from Romans. So, I took that as my point of view, quite stridently. I didn’t hate gay or lesbian people. I did not reject them. For me, it was simply a matter of upholding the integrity of the Bible as the Word of God and upholding its teachings.
As I continued to grow, I began to meet and get to know gay and lesbian people. The first thing I began to see is how extraordinarily complex this whole issue is. It’s not just a matter of whether or not homosexuality is a sin, as important as that is. It also has to do with the very complex nature of how and why people are gay and lesbian in first place. And it has to do with how we Christians relate to and minister with gay and lesbian people.
I also heard many, many stories of gay Christians who grew up knowing that they were somehow different. They prayed and prayed for God to make them straight and take away these feelings towards people of the same gender. Many even tried straight relationships. After causing immense pain to themselves and to others, they came to accept themselves for being gay. In other words, it was not a choice to be gay. While they would have rather been straight to avoid all the stigmas of being gay, they came to the conclusion that they are who they are. More importantly, they came to realize that God loves them for who they are.
I have spent countless hours reading Scripture and getting to know gay and lesbian people better. All along, my desire has been to be true to Christ and true to the Bible’s teachings. I have wanted do so in a way that meets the reality of the gay and lesbian people I know.
I believe the strongest, most applicable passage from the Bible that addresses homosexuality is the passage in Romans 1:18-32. In a nutshell, it says that the very humanity of people has become corroded and corrupted by our turning away from God.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. Romans 1:18-19
Since we have turned away from God, Paul says,
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
God’s punishment for turning away from God is to give us over to very worst of ourselves.
From there Paul gives a whole list of things that illustrate the worst of humanity turned away from God. He says,
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Then it gets worse. Paul says,
They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.
In other words, we are made by God in God’s image. So when we purposefully turn away from God, we turn away from the source of our humanity. Then we become sub-human and animalistic. We even embody evil itself.
We see this kind of awful sub-humanity all the time, don’t we? We see it in the news. We see people we know acting this way. Sometimes we even see it in ourselves.
A prime manifestation of sub-human evil in Paul’s day was temple prostitution. Men and women would go in to pagan temples and do unspeakable, lust-filled things with both men and women, even when they were heterosexual. That’s what Paul means when he says that men and women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, lust-filled relations, all with the intent of merely using other people for their own desire and pleasure.
So the question is, does this awful picture of humanity describe all gay and lesbian people?
The answer for me, quite clearly, is NO!
There are certainly heterosexual and homosexual people who act out of lust and use other people for pleasure. Young people today call this “hooking up.” That is a terrible travesty of the gift of sexuality God has given us. Adultery, hooking up, one night stands, and any other kind of sexual activity outside the covenant of a firm, lifelong commitment between two people is always a degrading of our bodies. It degrades God’s gift of sexuality and is therefore sinful.
But this doesn’t at all describe the relationship between two people of the same gender who make a lifelong commitment to one another, and now within the bond of a legal marriage.
In other words, the kind of homosexuality the Bible condemns does not describe gay and lesbian people who are committed to a lifelong monogamous relationship. These people are not degrading, abusing, or lusting after each other. These folks are committed to mutually nurturing love, commitment, and respect, just like heterosexual couples.
I don’t understand same-sex orientation and attraction. Because you and I have been raised in a culture which has shunned and closeted same-sex relationships, it all does seem strange to me.
But I’ve come to learn two things: first, same-sex relationships are authentically loving and nurturing. Secondly, the kind of degrading, lustful, abusive, coercive homosexuality the Bible describes does not fit the gay and lesbian people I know.
There is certainly homosexuality and heterosexuality that is degrading, abusive, and lustful, but in the case of two people committed to a lifelong covenant of love, it is not.
So that said, doesn’t the Bible establish marriage and sexuality as between a man and a woman? The answer that is yes- most definitely, yes. In the beginning were Adam and Eve. From there, the Bible celebrates the love and commitment between a man and a woman.
Yet that does not necessarily exclude the loving fidelity and commitment between people of the same gender.
Surely then, with this kind of open-armed invitation, God makes room for gay and lesbian people who are striving to be God’s holy people.
I know many people who are gay and lesbian who have given their lives to Jesus Christ and are baptized and Holy Spirit-gifted. They clearly demonstrate Christ-like love, holiness and leadership. Their lives are exemplary. They often far exceed straight people in the their ability to offer grace and love.
To say that gay and lesbian people do not have an equal share at the table of Christ with us is a travesty to their humanity, an insult to their baptism, and a blatant denial of the fact that they are made in God’s image and are restored by grace, just like you and me.
So as a human being and as a pastor, I am committed to embracing and fully including my LGBTQ neighbors as fellow sinners along with me. They are just as much in need of God’s grace as I am- no more and no less.
I’d like to switch gears now and address three important questions some of you may be asking.
Some may be asking: “Do you or would you conduct same-sex marriages?”
The answer is no. Our Book of Discipline outlaws this. Purposefully going against the Book of Discipline is a very serious matter, and at this point, I have not felt convicted to break this critical standard of our church.
Some others may be asking: “Do you support someone who is gay or lesbian being ordained?” If they meet all of the qualifications set forth in the Discipline, if they exhibit outstanding Christian character and are single living in celibacy or faithful in marriage, then yes.
However, this is difficult, too. Our Discipline outlaws gay and lesbian people becoming clergy. As I just mentioned, intentionally breaking our church’s Discipline is a grave matter. It’s something I take very seriously.
Thirdly, some may be saying, “All my life I’ve been taught that homosexuality is sinful. Now you’re trying to tell me that it’s not?” I’ve tried to show us this morning that it’s not simple.
As I’ve said, there are forms of homosexuality that are every bit as sinful as some forms of heterosexual sex. (In fact, the Bible has far more to say about heterosexual sin than homosexual sin.)
But a covenanted monogamous relationship is not the kind of homosexual sin the Bible was talking about.
And just because we’ve been taught something all our lives doesn’t necessarily make it true.
For example, many, many people have been taught that Bible establishes black people as inferior to white people. People have used Genesis 9:25 to make their point. And from a very basic reading of the Bible, it would seem that over and over again the Bible upholds slavery.
But we know full well that slavery is evil. We know full well that black people and white people are intrinsically equal in every way.
So to read the Bible in a way that merely affirms our prejudices is bad biblical interpretation! Let me say that again: Reading the Bible in a way that merely re-affirms our prejudices and our stereotypes of people, especially our LGBTQ neighbors, is a terrible misreading of the Bible. Where Do We Go from Here?
Now, with all that said, where do we go from here?
I fully recognize that many of us here don’t see things the way I do. I want you to know, that’s okay.
This is a difficult issue. So, I do not look down on people who believe differently than me or read the Bible differently than I do on issues about human sexuality.
The simple fact is, there is an enormous amount we already do agree on- very important and more important things. As it says in book of Ephesians:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
That is just as true, no matter how we come down on issues of human sexuality.
Not only that, but right after Paul laid down that awful picture of humanity without God, he says to God’s own people,
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
In other words, when we judge and condemn other people for any reason, we judge and condemn ourselves. We forget that we are messed up sinners, too- people in need of continual repentance and forgiveness of our sin.
As a congregation we do not see the same on these issues. Many of us passionately believe different things about human sexuality. We are deeply conservative, very liberal, and everywhere in between.
I respect that because I respect you.
I do believe we can make room for each other because we’re all disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as Christ laid down his life for each of us, we can put our differences aside to love and lay down our lives for each other.
We have our differences, yes. Yet you and I decide what to do with those differences.
If we allow our differences to divide and distract us, then we’re letting the devil have his way. The devil wants us to take sides, divide, fight, and walk away from each other.
But if we commit ourselves to humility, to respect and to Christ-like love, then we can continue on, committed to Christ’s mission of taking his good news to all people. After all, at the end of the day, everything I’ve mentioned here boils down to God and to people.
I worship a God who sent his son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for all people. That means I am committed to loving, serving and including all people— all of you and all of our neighbors. I hope you’ll do the same for me, for each other, and for all of our neighbors, gay or straight.
In that way we will continue to crucify the unChristian tendencies within us to judge, make and choose sides, to exclude, to hate, to gossip and slander.
Then we become fully like Christ who died on the cross and was risen for us and for all people everywhere. Amen.
Tara “T.C.” Morrow is a Certified Candidate for Deacon in the United Methodist Church, and for the last two annual sessions of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, our clergy session has considered her candidacy. In 2016, T.C. did not receive the required vote majority of our clergy session to be elected into provisional membership as a Provisional Deacon. This year, our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry did not forward her candidacy to our clergy session for consideration. Still, her candidacy was a central topic of discussion, even with no formal vote taken.
Why all the fuss? What’s so terribly wrong with T.C. Morrow?
In the past, I served on our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry, and in that time I considered many candidates for ministry. T.C. stands out as a uniquely qualified, exemplary candidate for Deacon. She has demonstrated outstanding Christian character. She is deeply committed to Jesus Christ and his church. T. C. is already a model of what Deacon ministry is all about while serving as a leader in her local church and working for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in Washington, D.C. T.C. graduated from seminary and passed through the rigorous District and Conference candidacy process with flying colors. As a Deacon, she would continue in the call God has already given her.
Ordinarily, T.C. Morrow would be a person any Annual Conference would enthusiastically commission and ordain into ministry.
But there’s just one thing…
T.C. is a woman married to another woman. And in our Book of Discipline, recently clarified by Judicial Council decisions, this one thing disqualifies her from candidacy, commissioning, or ordination as a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church. This one thing. If we were to put aside T.C.’s sexual orientation for just a moment, I would be writing about the Rev. T.C. Morrow. Yet church law has made this impossible. To quote the former Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman, it’s “bad church law.”
Our inability and unwillingness to commission and ordain someone like T.C. Morrow is a glaring example of an entrenched injustice propped up by poor biblical theology.
Now before I go on to explain my claim, let me say that I have traditionally stood right of center on the issues surrounding gay and lesbian people. This is for no other reason than the fact that I take the Bible– the whole Bible– seriously. I do not dismiss scriptures that make me uneasy or challenge my assumptions. It’s all God’s inspired Word to be read, believed, and lived out. That said, the few times that the Bible does mention homosexuality, it’s always a condemnation. Meanwhile, the Bible consistently lifts up heterosexuality as the established norm.
I have spent countless hours reading and rereading the Bible to understand what it has to say about homosexuality. I have spent many hours in dialogue with others whose views are different from my own. I have spent time getting to know people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians. The overwhelming conclusion I come to is that the kind of sexual deviancy the Bible describes and at times calls homosexuality does not reflect the character and life of people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians.
Case in point: let’s take another look at one of the strongest biblical condemnations of homosexual sex in the Bible.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Writing to the church in Rome, Paul was describing the full impact of turning away from God to engage in idol worship. God’s wrath against idolaters is to “give them over” to the worst aspects of human depravity. Among the worst examples of human depravity was men and women, inflamed with lust, who exchanged natural sexual relations with one another to engage in “shameful acts” of orgiastic sex with people of the same gender. Most likely, Paul was referencing Greek and Roman temple prostitution in which it was not uncommon for visitors to engage in cultic sexual acts. It was another form of leisurely entertainment.
Then Paul lists off a whole litany of acts resulting from a depraved mind void of “the knowledge of God.”
I fully agree with Paul’s assessment. Any people or society who abandons God and God’s ways devolves into the worst of sexual and moral depravity. They are allowed to ruin themselves, and we see clear examples of that all around us.
Back to T.C. Morrow and other lesbian and gay Christians. Only the worst of biblical hermeneutics would suggest that somehow they fit the mold of human depravity Paul was describing in Romans 1. T.C. is a worshipper and servant of God, a baptized member of the United Methodist Church and a disciple of Jesus Christ whose life emulates the best of Christ-like character. In terms of her sexual orientation, she is legally married. She and her wife foster children who otherwise would not have a home. In the midst of the controversy surrounding her candidacy, T.C. has carried herself with a gracious courage embodying the very character of Jesus when he faced opposition and persecution.
Still, let’s say that the Bible does not outright condemn T.C.’s marriage, does it make room for gay and lesbian marriages, especially since the commended, normative form of human sexuality is heterosexual? My short answer is yes. First, there are many things we do and believe that the Bible does not specifically commend. Most Christians hold to creeds and traditions that are not commended in Scripture. For example, the Bible does not mention Lent, and yet most Christians adhere to that tradition. The Bible never mentions or spells out the Trinity, and yet where would our theology be today without the classic Christian doctrine of the Triune God?
Yet the Bible does commend faithfulness, loyalty, purity, and covenant- qualities which so many married gay and lesbian Christians uphold and model.
Furthermore, the overall trajectory of the Bible is towards an inclusive community, a community in which those who were previously denounced as unclean or unworthy are brought into the community of God’s people as valued equals. Jesus shared table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. The Apostle Paul asks his friend Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16). In a beautiful passage from Isaiah,
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
For someone like T.C., a woman in a married relationship with another woman, a disciple of Jesus who exudes Christ-like qualities, gifts, and graces, how could God not embrace her as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s church? Whether we acknowledge it or not, God already has.
And if God has accepted T.C. as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s body, then let’s be done with bad church law and commission her as a Provisional Deacon in the United Methodist Church. Until that day, I stand with T.C. Morrow and others like her who are being unjustly barred from God’s call to a life of ordained ministry in Christ’s church.
(The following is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday January 22, 2017.)
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
Matthew 23:1-13, 15, 23-28
As I thought about today’s topic- the claim made by many non-religious skeptics that the church is filled with hypocrites- I could not avoid this passage of scripture. It’s harsh. It’s very difficult to read, and believe me, it’s even more difficult to teach and preach. And yet, the jarring parts of the Bible which perplex and disturb us are most likely the things we need to hear the most.
The more I read today’s passage, the more I’m convinced that this body of Jesus’ teaching was preserved very intentionally to admonish the whole church. Jesus allows us no room to sit in idle condemnation of other people, whether it’s the Pharisees of yesterday or today. This passage stands as a mirror to the Pharisee ensconced in each of us. It’s a warning, a gut check, a spiritual reality check.
Even then, Jesus was not condemning or writing off these fellow Jews. Of the major Jewish sects in his time, Jesus was most at home with the Pharisees. Jesus shared the Pharisees’ commitment to faithfully live out Torah in the world. Jesus shared their theology, especially the Jewish belief in the resurrection and the kingdom to come. So Jesus was not addressing the Pharisees as an outsider rebel rouser railing against an evil establishment, but as a likeminded Jew. This was very much an in-house confrontation.
As Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, I don’t hear stern anger or harsh pulpit pounding. I hear despair and deep disappointment. I do see anger in Jesus’ words, too, but it was anger from a broken heart rather than righteous indignation.
Hypocrisy… In essence, hypocrisy is claiming to be something I’m not. It’s a deception, a living lie. I become a hypocrite when I insist on a virtue I do not possess while hiding behind a plastic mask of righteousness.
Hypocrisy is driven by one thing: fear. It’s the fear of confronting my whole self- both the good and bad, my angels and my demons, my purity and my impurity. It’s the fear of others seeing and confronting the real me. It’s the fear of being unloved, under-valued, and under-appreciated.
And when it comes to the world of spirituality and religion, hypocrisy is particularly ugly and all too easy to find. It’s our most costly liability. We people of faith hold up very high standards of values, virtue, and righteousness. At times we prophetically challenge evil and unrighteousness in our world. So when we act in contradiction to the life of faith and righteousness we profess, especially when our duplicity wounds other people, our hypocrisy becomes terribly egregious.
When Jesus called out the egregious hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he pulled no punches. He accused the Pharisees of showboating their religious practices and adornments to impress the masses. He chastised their scrupulous interpretations of religious law while flatly ignoring more pressing issues of justice and mercy. Jesus called out their painstaking efforts to fulfill every public religious obligation while blinding themselves to their inner corruption.
Look at that list. Little has changed! Today’s people of faith can be just as showy and pompous with their religious practices while typifying that old adage of being “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” People of faith often excel in outward appearances of religious dedication while relegating the brokenness within them to the back closets of denial.
Worse still, most people rarely own up to their hypocrisy. That’s because an honest confession of hypocrisy is an admission to living a lie. The illusion has been delusion. Feigned substance has been a wispy shadow. That’s why the typical reaction to a charge of hypocrisy is to lob the accusation right back at the accuser with an incensed retort of “Who do you think you are to judge me?”
Other than a denial-infused response, how can we disciples of Jesus Christ best respond to the skeptics’ charge of hypocrisy? It’s very simple, actually: own it.
It’s been my experience that the harshest critics of the church, those who readily point out our hypocrisies, have been significantly wounded and deeply disappointed by the church. For many of them, I’m sure it’s cathartic. It’s also a way to mobilize a resistance against our malevolence.That said, we make matters worse when we respond to our critics by saying things like:
“That doesn’t describe me or my church.”
“That happened a long time ago. It’s time to move on and get over it!”
“You are talking about those other Christians who give a bad name to good Christians like us.”
Those kinds of statements are simply other shades of denial.
Non-Christian skeptics keenly see something about us that we sometimes fail to see about ourselves. They know that Christians everywhere and from every era are bound together as the church. And they’re right. We would also say that each of us are a part of the living body of Christ, a body that encompasses everyone who has been baptized into the faith of Jesus. That would include saints and villains like St. Francis of Assisi and an American South slaveholder, Dorothy Day and Fred Phelps, Sojourner Truth and Pope Urban II (who called for the First Crusade), the many Christians who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and the Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop who risked his life housing hundreds of Jews escaping Nazi persecution. All of these Christians and all the rest of us share in one church, sharing both our great good and our terrible actions and inactions.
We must therefore listen to those who hold grievances against the church, acknowledge them, ask their forgiveness and God’s forgiveness, and commit ourselves even more fervently to be like Jesus.
Every year Reed College holds a weekend of unbridled revelry called Renn Fayre. On the last night, they lock out any authorities to spend the entire night partying, getting drunk and high with the option painting their naked bodies blue while running around campus.
Donald Miller and his friends decided to be there for that final night and set up a booth with a sign that said “Confess Your Sins”. There was a catch, however. If any students approached the booth, the participants inside the booth would spend time confessing their sins and the sins of the church to these students. A student named Jake gave into his curiosity and visited the booth. Donald Miller shared with him who they were and why they were there. Once Jake expressed an interest, Miller confessed his sins to Jake:
“There’s a lot. I will keep it short… Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There’s a lot more.”
“It’s all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.
“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all that.”
“I forgive you,” Jake said. And he meant it.
“Thanks,” I told him. (Miller, Blue Like Jazz, 123-4)
Miller recalled that most of these confessionals ended in tearful embraces. Indeed, God melted hearts, most especially those belonging to Donald Miller and his friends. That night was a major turning point in their lives.
This kind of humility and authenticity is the perfect antidote to the poison of hypocrisy. It is strikingly unusual. It’s an uncanny abasement of ego and arrogance that defies reason. But this is indeed the kind of selfless love- the only kind of love- that has the power to change hearts, beginning with our own.
It’s my prayer that we who claim the name of Jesus would be a people of his cross-shaped grace, that in the face of criticism, we would offer an attentive ear and an open mind. I want us to be a people who utterly reject pretentiousness and defensiveness to claim an honest heart that remains open and ready to offer God’s love and grace to anyone. I want us to be disciples of Jesus who, instead of merely wearing a cross, choose to bear his cross, thereby being transformed into a new creation of humble servants who love and bless all people with God’s uniquely selfless, self-giving love.
We see that love most perfectly in Jesus Christ. May others perfectly see him in us.
Yesterday I published a blog post about a fictional visit from Jesus to Liberty University. I was exposing the absurdity of asking Christian students to purchase guns for self-defense by presenting a Jesus who retracts his teachings on non-violence and promotes the “kill them before they kill you and others” attitude we heard from Jerry Falwell, Jr. I was trying to create a Jesus who would affirm Falwell’s thinking and take it to its logical conclusion.
The conclusion: if Jesus adopted Falwell’s approach, he probably would have bypassed the cross. Jesus would have destroyed the people trying to kill him and established a new political dynasty which would not differ too much from any other regime of his day or ours.
I tried to use humor, wit, and biblical theology to create a satirical response to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s reprehensible call to action, exposing how unfaithful it is to the teachings and example of Jesus. And yes, it was a lot of fun to do.
But the response was rather… muted. Maybe my post wasn’t all that good. That’s always a distinct possibility. Or maybe I offended people into stunned silence. But that hardly happens on social media these days.
In the meantime I’ve been waiting for angry people and church members to call or email me, complaining about how blasphemous I was. How dare I mock Jesus like that?? That’s usually the response to satire that involves some aspect of our faith.
When Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released, it created a massive firestorm of protest from Christian groups who lambasted it as anti-Christian blasphemy. Bring it up today, and it still gets the ire of many. It was satire! And it wasn’t mocking Christian faith or Jesus. It wasn’t even mocking religion in general, although some used it as such. Life of Brian was a satire of the sorry state of organized religion and how we often (mis)represent the gospel.
So why do Christians have a hard time with satire these days, especially when it invokes Christian motifs and figures? I think there are several reasons, and I’m sure you could list off more:
Being culturally marginalized has got us defensive. The church is in a tough spot. For 1,700 years, we found ourselves at the epicenter of culture and government. Now, we’re increasingly on the margins of both, and we don’t know how to handle that. Whenever the culture jabs us or we even perceive that they’re jabbing us, it rubs salt in our wounded pride.
Humor and religion don’t often play well together. Let’s face it. Dealing with God is serious business. It requires our very best and our utmost devotion. Humor, however, is a distraction. The very nature of humor is to knock us down a peg, to enjoy our imperfections, our limitations, and the things that would normally shame us. In fact, humor is an antidote to shame. But… humor is also an antidote to pride. High-mindedness is a pathway to pride and arrogance. Humor- and yes the Bible contains humor!- has a humbling effect. It invites us to avoid the extreme of taking ourselves too seriously. So humor can and should play a role in our life of faith.
People are hyper-sensitive these days. Sorry. I’m sure someone just got offended by that. It seems as if there’s a cultural weed infesting our First Amendment right of free speech: freedom from being offended. Very little can be openly discussed and debated without things devolving into ad hominem attacks. Disagreement is the new scandal. Words must be weighed very carefully to make sure some segment of an audience doesn’t feel belittled. (Warning: raising this point will garner a Scarlet I for being insensitive).It’s hard to say anything of consequence without issuing qualifying statements to soften the blow on people’s sensibilities. In this climate, humor and satire have become the greatest casualties.
Given all this, is it any wonder that Christians have a hard time recognizing and understanding satire? There’s a good deal of satire in the Bible, including from people like Jesus and Paul. It serves a purpose in getting our attention and encouraging us to think and do differently, more faithfully, more Christ-like.
So… on that note, fellow Christians: lighten up, will ya?
This just in! A stunning revelation that Jesus Christ- yes, the actual Jesus of Nazareth- miraculously appeared at a scheduled National Rifle Association rally at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. Upon inspection of the wounds in his hands, feet, and side with residual scarring on his forehead, Jesus’s identity was confirmed.
In the words of Liberty University’s President Jerry Falwell, Jr, “We had been praying for some time that the Lord would show us how to better protect our students from the kinds of violence we’re seeing on other college campuses. The Holy Spirit convicted us that we must meet potential violence, especially from Muslims, with the strength of arms. Every student must be armed and ready to defend themselves and their classmates from any violent threat. Well, that led us to the National Rifle Association’s assistance and… to our great amazement… our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who was kind enough preach to us. Although I have to admit, I’m somewhat puzzled by the conclusion of his address.”
I, Pastor Chris Owens, have attained an exclusive transcript of Jesus’s keynote address to the NRA and Liberty University. The following are his remarks:
[Jesus walks onto the stage wearing two gun holsters with a rifle slung to his shoulder.]
“Thank you, thank you, one and all for having me here today. I bring you greetings and blessings from my Father in Heaven and the Holy Spirit who has been trying to get your attention recently. I’m grateful that you have now heeded the call and have gathered together for this momentous occasion.
“Back in my day we didn’t have guns and rifles. We had swords, and I want you to know, my friends, that I would have been a proud, card-carrying member of the JSA, the Judean Sword Association.”
“Yes! Yes! Those Romans were a severe threat to our people and to me. They oppressed us. They terrorized us. They certainly were not good Jews like us. And so the night before I died, I encouraged my disciples to sell a cloak and buy a sword. That’s right. I was beginning to come to my senses and I realized that the only way to fend off those heathen Romans was with a strong show of force. If any of those pigs dared come near us, they’d find a blade in their belly.”
[several minutes of applause]
“Now it’s true that I rebuked poor Peter for cutting off the ear from one of the guys arresting me in the Garden of Gethsemene. He was only trying to protect me with the sword I commanded him to buy. But I told him to put his sword away. Then I warned him that all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.
“However, I have had a few thousand years to think things over. So now I say unto you:
Whoever takes up the sword will LIVE by the sword. And whoever carries a gun will LIVE by the gun!”
[several minutes of rapturous applause with multiple refrains of “Hallelujah!! We praise you Lord Jesus!!”]
“Yes, thank you my friends. You know times change. Things that were good for people a long time ago are not relevant for us today. Your esteemed president Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr. led me to see that.
“It is a matter of common sense and even a good American duty to protect ourselves from the threats of people who hate us and want to harm us, especially those Muslims. In fact Donald Trump is spot on. Don’t even let them into your country anymore. You never know when one of them will turn on you.
“And when they do- and believe me, they will!- I want you to do the responsible, moral thing, and shoot them down where they stand. Then there’ll be fewer Muslims to terrorize the world.
[several minutes of applause and shouts of “USA! USA!”]
“Now, I know many of you remember my teachings about turning the other cheek and not resisting an evil person. Those teachings of mine have bedeviled you for 2,000 years, and I am truly sorry for that. Please forgive me for I did not know of what I said.
“How naively irresponsible I was for commanding you to be a bunch of pathetic wusses. How are we to stop evil people if we don’t take ’em out? Isn’t a bullet in the head of an aggressor the most loving, compassionate thing we can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones? No more bad guys means peace and prosperity for us!”
[several minutes of applause, shouting, and gun shots into the sky]
“Absolutely not, my friend! Loving our neighbors and our enemies are timeless principles which must be freshly applied to your context.
“Who are your neighbors these days? Aren’t they good Christians like you?
“And as for loving your enemies, the guiding principle is this: live to love another day. I mean, how can you be good, nice, loving followers of mine if you’re dead?? How can love prevail if evil people kill the true lovers?
“So I say this: love your enemy with an AK-47 at your side. Love ’em with all your heart. And the moment they begin to threaten you, show them the full force of good Christian love! Live to love another day, my friends!!”
[several minutes of applause, praises, shouts, and gunfire with a burning effigy of Mohammed.]
“Friends, I must leave you now. There is one more thing to be done. I am going back in time to correct a few errors. I am God, after all. I can do that.
“Those nasty religious leaders who had me arrested and that fellow Pontus Pilate who condemned me to die– they’re dead men now. Yessir. How can I continue to love the world and bring about the kingdom of God unless those bastards are filled with lead?
“Greater love has no one than this: that he should take up arms to protect his friends. Crosses are for defeated weaklings! Sin, death, and evil– mow ’em down with everything you’ve got!!
“Farewell, my friends! Keep your ammo well stocked!”
[Jesus leaves the stage, and there is stunned silence. Suddenly a voice from the crowd says, “Does that mean we can sleep in on Sundays now?]