Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My Sins of Omission

Here is my sermon from Sunday:

One of the advantages of going down to Sacramento Methodist Assembly is that because it’s in the mountains there is only very limited cell phone coverage, and their Wi-Fi access is not very good, so even if you want to be distracted by the world, it’s very difficult. And so last weekend we were cut off from the world. My phone will occasionally get a good enough signal that I would get an update on the final score of the Yankees game, they won once and lost twice, which about sums up their season, but that was about the extent of our knowledge of the outside world.  So it wasn’t until we stopped for lunch coming home that we were able to do anything online, and Linda went onto Facebook, and saw a bunch of posts asking for prayers for Orlando, and so I looked up on my phone to see there had been a shooting that had killed 50 people.

I’ve said before that one of the things with which I struggle as a preacher is when to change my message versus when to lift something up in prayers, but still say what I was going to say. Unfortunately, there is not any hard and fast rule that can be applied to this situation, and the truth is I could talk every Sunday about some tragedy or even triumph that had occurred in the last week.  Just two weeks ago when reporting on Annual Conference we brought a request from the mayor of Roswell that we pray for his city and the violence they are experiencing, and so it wasn’t just the shooting in Orlando, there was also the shooting in Roswell in which a man shot and killed his wife and four daughters, ages 14, 11, 7 and 3. Every day in the United States an average of 39 people will be killed by guns and another 76 will be injured. Every day.

But simply dealing with guns won’t do anything unless we also try and deal with our obsession with violence in this country, we might also call it hyper masculinity. The need to strike back if we feel victimized, or strike out against someone has attacked us, or even to just call us a bad word.  And unless that begins to change, and we actually hear what Jesus says to us about forgiveness and turning the other cheek, and I do think he was serious about that, then we aren’t going to change anything. But even more importantly than our obsessions with violence, we also need to move past this obsession we have with making people the “other”, someone different, someone not like us, someone to be looked down upon, or deemed or to be less than human, or perhaps even not human at all, because when we do that then it becomes really easy to strike out and attack and kill.

The last time I changed my sermon was at the shooting at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charelston which happened a year ago last Friday. I changed that time not only because of the atrocity of the crime, and the fact that they were killed in a church, but because the victims were targeted and killed because they were African-American.  I felt the need to address the racism that still exists, and the need by some to identify them as the “other” who needed to be eliminated, made to pay for whatever slight it was the shooter thought they had done. For many people the fact that the sanctity of the church had been violated was one of the things that made this crime so shocking, but as I said then, violence happening to the black church was nothing new.  But, for the African-American community, even with the knowledge that violence was always a possibility, the church was a place to be safe, a place to be protected, a place where they could be themselves and be supported and uplifted against what society is doing and saying to them the rest of the time. The church is their safe place.

For the LGBT community the gay bar acts the same way. Now I’m guessing that most of you have probably never been inside a gay bar, but I have, and it’s very different than any other bar. It is a place where people can be themselves, where they can feel like they belong, where they can feel safe and they can be surrounded by other people who know exactly what they face on a daily basis and be free so they could be built back up so they could face their normal lives. Gay bars are also not immune to violence, but they still provided a safe zone, and so the attack in Orlando was not just an attack on a bar, it was an attack on a community. And while motive is still being worked out, I think there is little doubt about why this location was chosen.  This was not just a random shooting, these victims were intentionally targeted and killed because they were and are the “other.” The excluded, the demened, because they are, after all, an abomination in the eyes of God aren’t they? So anything that happens to them is justified, right?

In the movie Mass Appeal, Jack Lemon, plays a Catholic priest who has a seminary student assigned to him to try and bring him into correct alignment with proper behavior and thoughts for a priest, to try and get him to fit into the church’s mold. But as Lemon works with him, Lemon comes to realize that perhaps it’s not the intern who needs correcting, but instead it is him, that he has become complacent, has kept him mouth shut, has gone along in order to get along.  As he comes to this realization, he really struggles to tell his congregation what is going on, as well as to stand-up to his ecclesiastical supervisor, but he can’t, until finally his intern is kicked out of the seminary, and then as he prepares for communion, he calls his congregation to make an examination of their conscience for their sins, including their sins of omission, and then he pauses as he realizes his own sins of omission and says to his congregation: “I have baptized you, I have counseled you, I have married you and I buried you. But I never really cared enough to run the risk of losing you. That is my sin of omission.” He then goes on to express his desire to for the church to help him fight the decision to expel the intern from the seminary, and then says “Up till now, my need for your love has kept me silent, inactive, this is the first time I have ever said what I wanted to you. Only now is love possible.” <

That film has always been important in my understanding of the ministry, and I’ve thought of it a lot this past week as I thought about the shooting and how I believe the church should think about and approach our LGBT brothers and sisters, and about my sins of omission, because I have not been honest with you, or at least not openly honest. Because while I have said repeatedly that God’s love extends to all, and that when God says love all that God means all, I have never been explicit about what I believe that means. I have been open with those who have come to me and asked, and some of them even left the church because of my position, as well as the fact that I welcomed a lesbian couple into our congregation, just as I have welcomed everyone who has come through those doors. But I have never said to you that I believe that lesbians and gays and transgendered persons are beloved children of God and that they are not an abomination in the eyes of God, but I am doing so today.

In the newsletter a few months ago I wrote about seeing the movie Spotlight about the clergy abuse scandal in Boston. It is the only movie I think I have ever seen in which the entire audience sat in complete silence at the end of the film and no one got up until after the credits were finishing. One the things that the film makes clear is that the clergy abuse took place for so long not just because of the sins of commission, but more importantly because of the sins of omission, of people not speaking up, not doing anything, even when they could see and knew about the problem. That got me really thinking about the areas in which I have been silent, the areas in which I have not stood up, sometimes for the best of reasons that I could think of, but for really no other reason than fear. I have been too busy seeking love, and being accepted, to busy being accommodating, that I have been unwilling to risk not only losing you, but of losing this church, and that has kept me from truly being able to do my job and it has kept me from being honest with you. It has been plain and simple fear. And so I began this week praying hard for the strength to overcome my fear to say what I think needs to be said, but then something else happened that made me realize how ridiculous I was being.

I was meeting this week with a member of the church, and totally off topic, she told me about her son who was gay and she said “I loved him the day before he told me, and I loved him just as much the day after he told me. Nothing changed.”  And then I realized that it’s not brave of me to come forward, it was cowardly of me to be silent. There are others who have done much braver things then this, including nearly everyone who comes out to family and friends, because the worst that will happen to me is that I might lose this job, a reality faced by members of the LGBT community, but they also run the risk everyday of losing so much more, not just the possibility of losing those friends and family, but of even losing their lives. It’s not just Orlando; this happens every day. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which studies hate crimes, the LGBT community is more than twice as likely to be the victims of hate crimes than are the next two highest targeted groups, African-Americans and Jews. And the reality is I have already lost a church because of this position.

As Linda and I were looking to come back New Mexico from New England I kept being told that the cabinet wasn’t sure there was going to be a church available for me to be appointed to. Then someone I worked with, and who I trusted enormously, said to me “maybe you’re not supposed to go to New Mexico, and so you should be open to other movements of the Spirit.” Sure enough the next day, the district superintendent from Albuquerque called and said, there isn’t anything in New Mexico, but would I consider taking an appointment in northwest Texas. I hate it when God does that.

So Linda and I talked and said we would do that, and I was appointed to a church outside of Lubbock. All the meetings and conversations had taken place, and then someone’s nephew, a Methodist minister in Missouri, decided to look me up, and saw that the congregation I was serving in Boston was a reconciling congregation, which means they had taken a formal vote to be welcome and affirming to everyone.  So the church in Texas called the bishop and told him they did not want me to serve their congregation, that I would not be welcome there. And so I was appointed to Melrose which then led to my appointment here.  They didn’t know anything about me. They didn’t know who I was or what I could do with them to proclaim the gospel message. All they knew was that I served a welcoming congregation, a decision made by the congregation before I was even appointed there, and so they didn’t want me there.

When we look at Jesus, whom did he rebuke? Was it the people others thought were sinners? No, it was those who thought they had scripture all figured out, and had God all figured out and thought they knew exactly who God was and what God thought and what God wanted, and of course God was in complete alignment with their own thoughts and actions. It was those that Jesus called self-righteous.  In talking about this self-righteousness, CS Lewis said “The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred.”

So here is where we are. I do not have the time here today to give an interpretation of the Biblical passages dealing with homosexuality, and there really aren’t that many, except to say that I don’t believe they say what people think they say, and that includes Sodom and Gomorrah which has absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality, and even if they do say that, I think there are ways to see them in a different light, the same way that we see passages about slavery and women in a different light.

Now one of the claims that some might make is that I am just picking and choosing which scriptural passages to follow and which not to. And to a degree that is true, but it is true for everyone regardless of whether you are conservative, liberal or in the middle. So for example, just in the passage from Leviticus, it says that anyone who lies with man as with a woman shall be killed. We don’t try and enforce that rule, even though it’s part of the same thing, and when anyone does try and bring it up, they are promptly, and rightly called out. So even in the same passage we pick and choose. Let me give you just two more that we conveniently overlook.

In Matthew and in Luke, Jesus says “give to anyone who begs from you.”  So all those people looking for money on the corner, that’s them. Or this, from Leviticus, “When an alien resides with you in your land,” we should hear that as immigrant, “you shall not oppress them. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.” (Lev. 19:33-34) We all pick and choose.

I also know that some people may say “if you read scripture this way, in opposition to what I see, then I can’t trust you on other things.” But here is what I hope you will hear me say, so please listen. The first is that you don’t have to agree with me about everything. First, I said it on my first Sunday here, and I continue to say it. You don’t have to agree with me and I don’t have to agree with you. And if fact, if you agree with everything I say, then there is something wrong, and one of us is superfluous in this relationship.  Second, most of you have been here for the three years I have served this church, and so in that time you have heard more than 150 different messages from me, although sometimes they were the same message said in different ways. That equates to more than 2000 hours of sermon study, prep and writing, or 1 year of my three years dedicated to these messages.

My theology has not changed. If you trusted me in the past, I hope that you will see that you can continue to trust me. Third, I would ask why this is the passage we want to make our line in the sand about? I think there are much more important passages for us to draw lines in the sand on. And finally, you should know that I used to believe that homosexuality was wrong, but my position has changed over time. Much of that has been through my interactions with gays and lesbians, in coming to know them, and hearing their stories.  And because I did not arrive at this position overnight I also recognize that those who have a different opinion you are not going to get to a different place overnight, or that suddenly because I say something you’re all change your position.  And that’s okay. But what I hope might happen is that we might begin a dialogue, a genuine conversation on this topic, and that, if nothing else, we might come to the place where we can agree to disagree, which is at the heart of Methodism because as far as can be determined by those who study such things, John Wesley the founder of Methodism was the first person to ever use the phrase agree to disagree

But here is what this statement does not mean. The United Methodist Book of Discipline currently says that United Methodist clergy cannot marry same sex couples nor can those ceremonies take place on the grounds of a United Methodist Church, and that will be upheld by me as the church itself continues to debate this issue. It also does not mean that I am going to be talking about this issue all the time from the pulpit, because I am not going to.

I take what I do as a minister very seriously, more seriously than most clergy I know, and perhaps sometimes too seriously, but I do so for a very simple reason. I approach my salvation with fear and trembling, as we are told in Philippians, and in James we are also told that not everyone should become a teacher because they will be held to a higher standard by God, which I interpret to mean that clergy will be held accountable for what we do and don’t do with our congregations.  So I worry about what I say and do here and what I will say to Jesus when I meet him face to face for judgment. I ask my myself all the time “what if I am wrong?” What will I say if I am wrong on this issue? And I do admit there is always that possibility. But I have done lots of prayer and study and have my answer ready. So I will ask those who hold a different position, what if you are wrong? What will you say to God if God says you were wrong or says “why did you persecute my people?”  As the Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes has said “The most profound of all religious sentiments should not be certainty, which leads to arrogance, but modesty, which because of a generous God leads to mercy and forgiveness.”  There are no winners or losers here, unless we refuse to get along, refuse to talk, refuse to continue to be in relationship with each other, because then we are all losers.

In the disciples we had both Matthew, a tax collector, and also Simon who was a zealot. Do you know what zealots thought of tax collectors? They were traitors to their people and their faith, and as a result, zealots would often kill tax collectors, and yet there they both are, selected by Jesus, and learning to live together. That should be our example.  I thank you for allowing me to serve here the past three years, and I hope I get to continue to serve here even after today, but I can no longer choose to remain silent. If you disagree with me, please know I respect that, and I am open to conversation, but please don’t come quoting scripture at me, because I can quote it right back, and that’s not going to get anyone anywhere.  Instead let’s engage in honest and open conversation, and regardless of where you are, I invite you all back next week as we begin a new sermon series on the gospel message we find in the films of Pixar and we’re going to look at Toy Story, and how threatening can that be? May God bless us all my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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