Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sermon, "A Way Forward: Which Way?" Acts 15:1-31

Sermon 2/24/19
Acts 15:1-31

A Way Forward: Which Way?*


This morning, as we gather for worship, delegates from the United Methodist Church around the world are gathered in St. Louis for the Special Session of General Conference. The Conference officially began yesterday, with delegates and bishops and visitors coming together for a day of prayer. Today, the legislative session will begin. They will do their work from today through Tuesday, the 26th. The Special Session is meeting to hear the report of a body that the last General Conference, General Conference 2016 created: The Commission on a Way Forward. Delegates who gathered in 2016 expressed to the Council of Bishops their desire to find some way to move forward as a denomination in light of our enduring disagreements over same-sex relationships and church practices. And the Council of Bishops, in turn, created the Commission to present possible plans for action to this specially called General Conference.
Here’s what the Commission on a Way Forward has had as part of their vision statement as they’ve worked together over the last few years: “The Commission will design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible. This unity will not be grounded in our conceptions of human sexuality, but in our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition.
Their vision really captures my attention - their hope has been to guide us in a way forward that allows for both “as much contextual differentiation as possible” and “as much unity as possible.” That’s a pretty tall order! Contextual differentiation is another mouthful - we seem to be pretty fond of those in The United Methodist Church. But what it means is that we want to allow people to adapt the way of being church as much as possible so that it makes sense in our own setting. Think about the two United Methodist Churches we have just in our community. I’m the pastor of both North Gouverneur and First UMC. We’re both United Methodist congregations, and we both function under the same guidelines, but we don’t do things the same way. It wouldn’t make sense! We don’t have lots of committee meetings in North Gouverneur when we, a small group, can take care of most of our business on a Sunday morning before or after worship, meeting when we need to. At First UMC, we have to pay for some services that at North Gouverneur we accomplish through volunteers, because of the different scale, different size we’re talking about. We often sing the same songs in worship, but sometimes we sing different music that better suits each congregation. Our order of worship is similar each week, but adapted to reflect each setting. That’s “contextual differentiation.” So the Commission on a Way Forward set as part of its vision the idea that maybe there is a “way of being” related to same-sex relationships and church practices that is contextual. Maybe it doesn’t make sense for there to be only one way of doing things that works for congregations that are big and small, diverse and homogeneous, in countries all around the globe.
At the same time, the Commission has worked with a vision of “as much unity as possible.” Unity doesn’t mean sameness. It means that we’re not whole unless we’re together. It means that we have a shared purpose, values, and vision. For example, at both First UMC and North Gouverneur, and in United Methodist Churches around the world, we share the same mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The Commission on a Way Forward has worked, then, to craft a plan that has space both for contextual differences, and the unity of the whole church. A tall order!
As a result of their work over the past few years, three primary proposals came out of their work. I want to share with you very simplified details of each plan. One plan is called the Connectional Conferences plan. In this plan, the denomination would separate into three groupings, based on our theological point of view. We’d be either part of a “progressive,” “traditional,” or “unity” conference, that shared some resources, but were mostly independent of each other. This plan requires a lot of amendments to the Constitution of the church, and hasn’t gained a lot of traction.
The Traditionalist plan keeps the current language of the Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church’s book of rules and order, which prohibits same-sex marriages in the church and performed by United Methodist Clergy, and which prohibits openly gay and lesbian clergy from serving as pastors. The Traditionalist plan focuses on increasing accountability to these rules and increasing the penalties for violating them. It also provides a pathway for those who feel they are unable to comply with the rules to form a separate network of churches outside of, but loosely connected to The United Methodist Church.
Finally, the One Church Plan would allow individual pastors to decide whether or not they would officiate at same-sex weddings, individual congregations to decide whether or not they would host same-sex weddings at their churches, and individual clergy sessions of an annual conference to decide whether or not they will recommend the ordination of gay and lesbian persons as pastors.
After studying these three plans, the Commission on a Way Forward presented them to the Council of Bishops and the Council of Bishops voted to present all three plans to the General Conference, with their noted preference that we adopt the One Church Plan. Now, during these next few days, delegates will have an opportunity to perfect and vote on these plans. There are two additional plans, presented by other groups: The Simple Plan would remove all language from the Discipline that restricts same-sex relationships and related church practices, and another plan calls for the dissolution of the denomination - deciding that we have no path forward that is together as one body. It is also a real possibility that delegates will not be able to agree on any of these plans. If that is the case, delegates will meet again on the regular schedule in 2020, and probably consider similar legislation all over again. Whew. Are you all still with me? I know it is a lot to take in!
So, where is God in all of this? How are we carrying out the work of Jesus in the midst of this? How is the Spirit moving among us? Is there some good news to share? Thankfully, there’s always good news from God, and to find it, we turn to the scriptures. Today, we find ourselves in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, the collection of stories about the first leaders in the church that was birthed after a resurrected Jesus returned to God’s home, and the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to give them the courage to spread God’s message to everyone. But as we talked about last week, the new church quickly realized that they had some things to work out. They didn’t have a common understanding of how to proceed given that some Gentiles - folks who weren’t a part of the Jewish faith - were hearing about Jesus and wanting to follow him too. And so the church leaders, like Peter and James and Paul, had to ask some hard questions: When should the gospel be adapted to these new settings they were preaching in? What was essential to the faith to maintain? Which traditions and practices should be enforced and which were merely contextual? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
We see this question come up repeatedly in the book of Acts. Peter, in Acts 10, has a vision of the God calling him to eat foods normally considered unclean by Jewish law, and then he is brought to the home of a Gentile centurion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, he baptizes the entire household… even though it was forbidden for a Jew to share at the table with Gentiles. In Acts 11, Barnabas goes to minister to the Gentiles who have become Jesus-followers, and Paul joins him, and many are converted. In Acts 14, Gentiles are converted in Iconium and Lystra, but tension grows between Jews who follow Christ and those who do not. Some who reject the message of Jesus stir up conflict between new Gentile converts and Jewish Christians. And “to complicate matters, other missionaries began to visit some of these places and the messages being shared about which practices must be followed as a part of the faith were different.” One particular question seems to emerge after all these incidents that sort of encapsulates the whole tension: Do new followers of Jesus have to be circumcised in order to be part of the new Christian community? Circumcision was, since the time of Abraham, an important marker of identity. It was part of the cohesiveness of the Jewish identity, a way people marked their devotion to God. And now suddenly, some people were arguing that it wasn’t necessary. Jesus was Jewish. Jesus was circumcised like other Jewish men. He never said you shouldn’t be circumcised. But some followers of Jesus are interpreting his teachings and the freedom they’ve experienced through God’s grace in Christ and concluding it isn’t necessary for new followers of Jesus.
The new church, the Jesus movement, finds itself needing to make a decision. “Someone had to make an official decision about this so that the conflict among communities might cease. Local churches in these far flung places were confused about what was required and what wasn’t and it was hurting their ability to convert new followers to the way of Jesus. And so the apostles and elders of the faith gathered together in Jerusalem in the year 48 to consider this question. They heard testimony from people like Paul and Barnabas, and disciples like Peter and James made pleas. And together, the Jerusalem Council made a decision for the whole church.”
So, testimony is given by a variety of people. James, the brother of Jesus, is one of the primary leaders of the young church, and he seems to hold a great deal of responsibility in his hands. After hearing what everyone has said, he reflects on some of the writings of the prophets that speak about Gentiles responding to the word and work of God, and he concludes, “I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.” But, he says, they should be encouraged to follow certain provisions - not circumcision, but things like abstaining from meat that has been sacrificed in rituals of religions outside of Judaism.” The group chooses several leaders to be sent out to the surrounding areas to share the results of the Council. Remember, no facebook live streaming, so people were waiting to hear the news. And we read that when the gathered congregation in a Gentile region heard the news, that space was being made for them in the church without them converting to Judaism, they rejoiced.
The folks who attended the Jerusalem Council didn’t leave all sharing the same opinion about how to do things. Instead, they left agreeing that they could make space for each other to be in ministry in some very different ways, and yet still be part of the same one body of Christ together. This was not the end of disputes over ministry to Gentiles. Paul was fighting for the legitimization of his ministry to the Gentiles and getting pushback right up to the very end of his life. But it was a turning point certainly, the allowed the gospel among the Gentiles to thrive.
In our study group’s book Holy Contradictions, one of the essay we read was by Rob Fuquay, a pastor in Indianapolis. He wrote an essay called “Multiply or Divide?” In it, he poses several questions: “What if we just show grace to one another and assume we all want to see people brought to Christ, grow in their faith, and transform the world? … What if we approached our current divide in United Methodist not as a right or a wrong, but as an opportunity to expand our mission? What if we gave room for all sides … to coexist as one church and welcome the change to reach more people for Christ? What is this potential schism has arrived not to divide us but to help us multiply?” What if? What if we decide that we don’t want to trouble people who are longing to turn to God, but instead, we want to encourage them, build them up, help them grow in faith? What if we bless each other do to this in very different ways - ways we don’t always understand, or even agree with, but we bless because we are one in Christ? What if? Maybe God’s grace is multiplying our impact, not dividing us. After all, that’s just the upside-down kind of thing God is fond of doing!
Friends, like with the Jerusalem Council two thousand years ago, regardless of what is (or isn’t) decided at General Conference, we won’t be finished with these conversations. Because everything about our life with God and living out our faith is always up for conversation. The early church found a way to move forward  and still do God’s work together. Can we?
Yesterday, I was watching snippets of the day of prayer at General Conference. As folks came back from lunch, some people started singing, and eventually many joined in. They were singing words from a song called “I Need You to Survive,” written by Brooklyn pastor and gospel musician Hezekiah Walker:  I need you, you need me. We're all a part of God's body. Stand with me, agree with me. We're all a part of God's body. It is [God’s] will, that every need be supplied. You are important to me, I need you to survive. You are important to me, I need you to survive. I pray for you, You pray for me. I love you, I need you to survive. I won't harm you with words from my mouth. I love you, I need you to survive.” These words are my prayer today. My touchstone. My offering to you. Friends, you are important to me. I pray for you. Pray for me. Pray for each other. I love you. Let us love each other. We need each other - we need each other to survive. Amen.



* This sermon series draws on the themes, structure, content, and excellent work of Rev. Katie Z. Dawson, and the sermon series of the same title featured on her blog, Salvaged Faith. Used with permission. Direct quotes from Dawson’s sermons are so noted. Her series can be found at: http://salvagedfaith.com/2018/09/02/a-way-forward-which-way/

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sermon, "A Way Forward: Essentials and Non-Essentials," Roman 14:4-12

Sermon 2/17/19
Romans 14:4-12

A Way Forward: Essentials and Non-Essentials*

I’ve known for a while that we would need to spend some time preparing together for the Special Session of General Conference this February - we’d have to find a way to talk about complicated, difficult, things that are close to our hearts, that impact people we love, and that can sometimes cause pain and division in the community of faith. I was blessed, then, to come across a sermon series preached by one of my colleagues in ministry last year. Katie Z. Dawson preached a beautiful sermon series on A Way Forward for The United Methodist Church, and I’m thankful for her permission to use her work to help me shape this sermon series.
The Special Session of General Conference begins on Saturday. Delegates from United Methodist Churches around the world will meet for four days to look at different proposals for structuring our denomination based on our significant ongoing disagreements when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and the life of the church. As I mentioned last week, we’ve had a study group going, reading a book together (Holy Contradictions, Brian K. Milford, editor) that focuses on this question: “How might United Methodists bear witness to graceful and mutually respectful ways of living in the Wesleyan tradition amid the enduring disagreements about same-gender relationships and related church practices?” And last week, we talked about how as we seek to answer that question for ourselves, we turn first to scripture, but then we use the tools of tradition, experience, and reason to help us interpret what we find in the text.   
Today, we’re asking more questions, as we reflect on a statement oft-quoted by United Methodists. “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity” or sometimes, “In All Things Love” - love and charity were used somewhat synonymously when this phrase was coined. The quote has been misattributed a lot over the years, and is sometimes wrongly assigned to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. But actually, it was written by a German Lutheran theologian named Rupertus Meldenius in a tract he wrote on Christian unity in the early 1600s. (1) However, in the way things work over time, these words, never spoken by Wesley, have become tied to our understanding of who we are as United Methodists. This phrase “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity” was even the theme of General Conference in 1996. Certainly, I think they express a sentiment Wesley would support.
So, today we’re thinking about what it means that we Methodists cling to this motto, that we’ve made it our own even though it doesn’t come from Wesley. What do we mean when we say, “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity”? The general sense of these words is that when we talk about the main things of faith, we should be unified in our hearts and understanding. When we’re talking about non-essentials, things that aren’t critical for right relationships with God and neighbor, we should allow people freedom for their own expressions of faith. But in everything, we should interact with charity and love. It makes a lot of sense, this approach to disagreements, doesn’t it? “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.” I can support that. But...what is an essential of faith? What things are not essentials of faith? How do we decide? And what if you think something is an essential, but I think it isn’t? And above all - do we really have charity, have love in all things? In the midst of all disagreements? I know that I’m not always feeling very charitable when I’m not seeing eye to eye with someone! How can I change my heart?  
One of the essays we read in our book study quoted Wesley’s sermon called “On Schism.” Wesley was preaching at a time when many churches were experiencing divisions, when groups were breaking apart and forming new faith communities. Wesley was part of the Church of England, and he very much never meant to start a new denomination. He remained an Anglican priest his whole life, in fact. For Wesley, the idea that you might break apart a faith community over theological disagreements was an extremely serious matter. In his sermon, he wrote, “To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together, and the greater the love, the stricter the union. And while this continues in its strength, nothing can divide those whom love has united. It is only when our love grows cold that we can think of separating from our brethren … The pretences for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause.” (2)
What things are essentials? What things are non-essentials? Are we wanting in love for our siblings in the body of Christ? The very first Christian faith communities faced some of these same struggles, as we see in our reading today from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul writes, “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall … Let all be fully convinced in their own minds … We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s ... [E]ach of us will be accountable to God.”
Katie Dawson writes, “In Paul’s time, the conflict he saw in the Roman community was a clash between Jews and Gentiles – people who followed the laws of the Old Testament and those who had never lived under that law but who were accepting Jesus Christ. At this point in time, Christianity was not really a separate thing from the Jewish faith…  It was a movement that had begun within the Jewish community, but it was also quickly taking root in Gentile communities who had no knowledge of or cultural connection with the Jewish faith. This created all sorts of problems:
“Should someone be circumcised into the Jewish faith before being able to follow Jesus? Did the Jewish dietary laws have to be followed? What are the holy days that must be honored? When you got to a cosmopolitan, diverse place like Rome, you had folks in the same community who held vastly different opinions about how the faith should be practiced. People who ate meat and people who didn’t. People who were circumcised and those who weren’t.” In general, keeping in mind that we should always be wary of generalizations, Paul and his contemporaries answered these questions in two ways. Some thought that of course you would continue to follow all of the laws of Judaism as Jesus-followers - why wouldn’t you? And some thought that of course, being followers of Jesus set you free from some of the laws that seemed impossible to live up to. Salvation came through God’s grace, not through earning God’s love with obedience. So, Jesus-followers should have freedom from oppressive religious laws. In general, those were the two “camps,” and they played out in a big way in the diverse context of Rome, home to many peoples and cultures.  
Again in general, and being mindful that generalizations oversimplify things, we have two schools of thought in The United Methodist Church right now as well when we start talking about same-sex relationships and the life of the church. Folks we might call “progressives,” who read the scripture, faithfully interpret what they read, and reflect theologically conclude that the scriptures do not condemn LGBT persons. Dawson writes, “They believe that some these passages refer to culturally bound understandings of holiness that no longer apply in Christian community. These passages are not talking about loving, mutual, relationships between two persons, but instead about exploitive violent actions and abuse or cultic sexual practices. Progressives would call us to look for the fruit in the lives of all persons who claim the Christian faith – do they love God and their neighbor?  And for those who have experienced the call of God in their lives to serve, it wouldn’t matter if they were gay or straight … Progressives also would point to the marginalization of LGBT+ persons, not only in history but all around us today as well. They see current prohibitions in church law as harmful not only to our witness, but to the actual lives of LGBT+ persons.”
Other folks are “traditionalists,” who read the scripture, faithfully interpret what they read, and reflect theologically conclude “that scripture is clear about the prohibition of homosexual acts.” Dawson writes, “While justice might be a key word to describe progressives, covenant might be a key term for traditionalists. They believe that these passages, along with others, describe what personal holiness looks like within the Christian community and that if we interpret the meaning away from these scriptures, [then] all of our understandings of personal holiness might be compromised.  God has created us in a particular way, man and woman were designed for one another, and only within the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman are sexual acts pleasing to God. When we choose to follow Christ, traditionalists would argue, we reject the ways of this world and allow ourselves to be conformed instead to Christ. That is the covenant under which we now live. Traditionalists believe we are called, in community, to hold one another accountable to this covenant.” You might find yourself connecting to one of these points of view more closely than the other, or find yourself somewhere along the long spectrum inbetween. I believe strongly that progressives and traditionalists love the church, love Jesus, and love scripture.
When we turn back to our text for today, I think Paul has wisdom to share with us. Paul appears to be saying something like, “These practices, these convictions, they are not essential to what it means to follow Jesus. If you are celebrating particular holy days in the Lord’s name – great! If you choose to refrain from participating in the Lord’s name – great! Because you are doing it all in the name of Jesus. Whether or not you keep kosher laws or are circumcised or whether you prefer pew chairs or pews – as long as you are focused on your Lord – that’s all that really matters. Paul goes on to say that we should not judge one another for our various convictions.  Each person will stand before the Lord in their own time. We are not to force our own convictions about practices upon one another, nor are we to be a stumbling block to another person’s faith by allowing our practices to interfere with those of others.” (Dawson) Sounds good, right? But that last sentence - that’s such a hard balance to strike: Neither forcing our own convictions on each other, nor allowing the way we practice our faith to interfere with the faith of others. As I’ve mentioned before, Jesus speaks clearly, definitively about being stumbling blocks that keep others from getting closer to God. Sometimes, in the midst of the divisions we’ve been facing, I feel like we are just stumbling all over each other. How do we live into Paul’s words?
Thomas Lambrecht, one of the contributors to the book we’ve been studying together, talks about “compatibilists” and “non-compatibilists” - two “mouthful” words that I think are actually easy to understand in meaning. We’ve talked about progressives and traditionalists. Within each of those groups, there are those who “understand [that] people who have been wrestling with these questions arrive in different places.  These folks also don’t believe that the answer to this particular question is essential to our faith. Lambrecht … would refer to these folks as compatibilists. Compatibilists are willing to remain in community with those who disagree with them.” They focus on “what unifies us as United Methodists …. [W]hat IS essential is our understanding of grace, our focus on personal and social holiness, and the connection that allows us to be in ministry across this globe.” (Dawson)
There are those within each of the progressive and traditionalist groups, however, who believe that how we view human sexuality and faith is an essential. “They would argue that what Paul is talking [in today’s text] … practices like what we eat and wear – [are] truly non-essential things.  But values like justice and covenant are not something you can compromise. Traditional non-compatibilists believe that our call to covenantal holiness requires us to maintain these standards across the church … Progressive non-compatibilists ... want the church to be faithful to what they believe are the obvious cries for inclusion within scripture.” (Dawson) These perspectives bring us to the crossroads we find ourselves at in The United Methodist Church today.
Essential, or non-essential? Progressive or traditional? Compatible or non-compatible? Nothing is quite so black and white, so either/or as that, but thinking about these groupings helps us understand the perspectives folks are bringing to the table when General Conference begins this week. The proposals delegates are considering reflect those points of view, and if you want more information about the proposals, I encourage you to check out the link in your bulletin worksheet, or talk to me and I can share some details with you. And we’ll hear a bit more in worship next week.
So, “Is the question of human sexuality an essential of our faith? Will our response divide the church? Or is it a non-essential? Is it a place where we can respectfully disagree and create space for one another?” How would you answer these questions? My take: how we love people is essential. How we act as neighbors is essential. How we fulfill the commandments of loving God and loving neighbor is essential. So, to the extent that our divide is impacting our ability to love - to the extent that we’re displaying a want of genuine love like Wesley talks about? We’re indeed talking about essentials. But to the extent that we’re talking about differences in faithful interpretations of scripture, perhaps we’ve lost sight of the main thing. Jesus - following Jesus - is our main thing. I hope, I believe that we have room for lots of people and lots of ways in the body of Christ of doing just that, as we build each other up for the sake of God’s kin-dom.  Helping people meet Jesus, follow Jesus, serve Jesus? Our main thing.   
In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things - in all things - love. "May God continue to lead us as hold fast to the essentials of our faith and respect differences in non-essentials, and may love be the source of all that we do." (Dawson) Amen.

(1) Ross, Mark E., https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/essentials-unity-non-essentials-liberty-all-things/.
(2) Emphasis mine. Wesley, John. “On Schism,” Sermon 75. 
(3) Dawson, Katie Z., http://salvagedfaith.com/2018/08/26/a-way-forward-to-each-their-own-convictions/

* This sermon series draws on the themes, structure, content, and excellent work of Rev. Katie Z. Dawson, and the sermon series of the same title featured on her blog, Salvaged Faith. Used with permission. Direct quotes from Dawson’s sermons are so noted. Her series can be found at: http://salvagedfaith.com/2018/08/26/a-way-forward-to-each-their-own-convictions/

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sermon, "A Way Forward: A Quadrilateral," Philippians 4:8-9, Matthew 22:34-40

Sermon 2/10/19
Philippians 4:8-9, Matthew 22:34-40

A Way Forward: A Quadrilateral*

Some of us have been gathering each week to read and reflect together on a book called, Holy Contradictions: What’s Next for the People Called United Methodists (editor: Brian K. Milford.) The book is a collection of seventeen essays, all written in response to this question: “How might United Methodists bear witness to graceful and mutually respectful ways of living in the Wesleyan tradition amid the enduring disagreements about same-gender relationships and related church practices?” As part of our time together, we started by going over some guidelines for having holy conversations. After all, we see “unholy” conversations at work in the world all the time. We live in a world right now where we feel like we can’t talk to each other. We assume things like “if you believe this, then you must also believe that,” and that means you must be such and such kind of person, and I can’t possibly be friends with that kind of person.
Can we talk about things differently in the church? In a world where we’ve started to disengage and close ourselves off when we disagree with someone, or alternately when we shame and degrade anyone who doesn’t share our point of view, is it possible to do things differently? I think we can. And so in our study group, we’ve set some guidelines for holy conversation. We’ll try to listen, and not always jump to speaking, and to listen carefully to what others say, and not misrepresent their views. A good way to check this is to say, “I heard you saying” and then try to rephrase your conversation partner’s point of view. And then if they say that you didn’t quite hear them right, listen while they rephrase it. Make sure you understand, even if you don’t agree. We’re trying to use “I” statements when we share. Instead of saying, “You said this” or “They think that,” we’re trying to see, “I believe, I feel, I think.” We’re owning what we say. And we’re remembering to speak with love and kindness about people, and to remember that we’re talking about “people” and not “issues.” When we talk about “issues,” we can sometimes speak in careless ways. When we remember that when we’re talking about same-gender relationships we’re talking about people who are beloved to God and us, we remember to speak with care and love.  Hopefully, the church is a place where we can talk about things that are hard, things that make us uncomfortable, things where we know we might disagree with the folks sitting near us in the pews, and talk differently than folks elsewhere might talk.
In this sermon series, we’ll be thinking together about The United Methodist Church and same-sex relationships and the future of the denomination, but it is really about more than that. It’s about how we understand God, how we read scripture, how we figure out what God is saying to us, and how we live as beloved community when the way we do those things - understand God, read scripture, and hear what God is saying - differs significantly. We’re talking about this now because at the end of this month, delegates from The United Methodist Church around the world will gather in St. Louis for a special session of General Conference. General Conference usually happens every four years, and it is where we make decisions as a denomination about what we believe and how we structure our church. But this month is a special session of the General Conference, meeting for the soul purpose of figuring out if there is a way forward for us in light of the fact that we have, across the denomination, some significantly different understandings of scripture, and how we interpret it, and what conclusions our interpretations bring us to in relation to same-sex relationships, inclusion in the church, marriage, and ordination.
We have to be able to talk about hard things sometimes. In a way, we are endeavoring to answer for the congregation the same question as the book from our study group poses. “How might United Methodists bear witness to graceful and mutually respectful ways of living in the Wesleyan tradition amid the enduring disagreements about same-gender relationships and related church practices?” This sermon series isn’t about trying to convince you of a particular point of view, or telling you the “right” answers. Instead, we’re going to be focusing on better understanding how we interpret scriptures, and how we relate to each other, and love each other when we don’t see eye to eye. I do want to be clear, as we talk, about some things that I think are “givens,” things you can count on for sure. I love you, and God loves you. God loves you no matter what your “side” is, and no matter whether your side is “right” or “wrong.” God loves you if you are gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, and God loves you if you are heterosexual. God loves you if you can’t wait to talk about these things for the next few weeks, or if you wish we never had to talk about things that make us uncomfortable! And, importantly, the church - this church, and the church universal - the church belongs to God, and God will continue to have a task for us, for the world, will continue to call us to make disciples and be disciples of Jesus regardless of what is decided at General Conference.
So, where do we start, as we seek to understand our own hearts and minds, each other, and above all, what it is God is leading us to know and do? One of our tasks as disciples, according to our Book of Discipline, the book of order and rules for structuring our denomination, is to ask: “What can I say that is faithful to scripture as it has been passed down through tradition, and that makes sense in light of human experience and reason?” (paraphrase of Book of Discipline, 81, by Dawson) In our Wesleyan heritage, that is, following the teachings of the founder of the Methodist movement led by John Wesley, we United Methodists say that we turn to four sources to help us articulate our faith - a quadrilateral. Wesley never used the word quadrilateral, but students of Wesley’s over the generations have turned to this model as a way to help us remember and think about the sources of our theology. We believe that “the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illuminated by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” (Book of Discipline, 82) Scripture, tradition, experience, reason.
Along with Wesley, and with other Christians, we believe that scripture is our primary source for understanding. In other words, we start with the Bible. That’s our first place, the first place we look to understand what God is saying to us about how to be followers of Jesus in the world. So, studying the scripture is really important. But how do we figure out what the scriptures are saying? People have wrestled with this ever since there were scriptures to read, or even since there were sacred stories to listen to. How do we know how to understand what we read in the Bible?
“First, scripture is interpreted by other scripture.” (Dawson, emphasis mine.) We learn that it isn’t helpful to take a single verse out of context. We’ve talked about how knowing what comes before and after a verse or passage helps us make sense of what we read. And knowing when and where stories take place helps us understand. We also understand better when we see how a passage fits in with the major themes of the whole Bible. In our gospel lesson today from Matthew, the lawyer, a Pharisee, who asks Jesus a question asks Jesus to “interpret and prioritize scripture” for them. (Dawson) The lawyer’s motives aren’t the best - the Pharisees want to call Jesus out and somehow prove him wrong. But the results are good, for that audience and through the millennia. Jesus gives us a rule of thumb to guide us as we interpret scripture. When we read texts that are confusing, we can ask, “How do these words help us to love God and love neighbor?” John Wesley, you’ve heard me mention, talked about looking at “the whole scope and tenor” of scripture when trying to figure out what verses mean. For him, a guiding principle was that “God is love,” and so when he read other passages that were difficult to understand, he would hold them up against that guide - “God is love.” Any interpretation of the scripture that contradicted that guiding principle he felt was off-base. We are theologians, interpreting the scripture we read, using guides like the rest of scripture, and the way Jesus teaches us to prioritize the greatest commandments and read everything else in light of these teachings - love of God, love of each other.  
Another source for our understanding scripture and God’s call to us is tradition. The Book of Discipline describes tradition like this: “Christianity does not leap from New Testament times to the present as though nothing were to be learned from that great cloud of witnesses in between … Tradition is the history of that … environment of grace in and by which all Christians live.” (85) Tradition is a guide for us in that it “represents a consensus of faith” over time. (86) So, one way we figure out what God is saying to us is by looking at how followers of Jesus have interpreted the scripture over the years. We read in the Bible what the gospel writers and apostles had to say about scriptures from the Hebrew Bible. We can study what theologians in the early church from the 3rd and 4th century had to say about the scripture. We can read John Wesley’s notes on the entire Bible, and see his verse-by-verse comments from Genesis to Revelation. And we look to the tradition and wisdom of our own context too - what did we learn from grandparents and parents in the faith about God?
A third source is our own experience. When we read the scripture, we bring ourselves - we are one of our own sources for understanding scripture! We’re shaped by everything that’s happened in our lives. We’re shaped by where we live - whether in a small town or a big city or in the US or in South Africa. We’re shaped by our economic situation, by our genders, by our emotions, by our experience as children, or parents, or grandparents, by our occupations. Our experiences are why we “can read the same passage of scripture repeatedly over time and discover something new with each reading.” (Dawson) God can speak to us in new ways through our experiences, and help us understand the scripture. For example, John Wesley started supporting the licensing of women as preachers in part because of his experiences with strong women in his lives whose call by God he witnessed personally. His experience helped him read the scripture in a new way, and thus he shaped the direction of the church.
Finally, we interpret the scripture using the source of reason. We recognize that we can’t fully know God. God is beyond “the scope of human language and reason.” (Book of Discipline, 88.) But we also believe that God gave us sharp minds that we might carefully use reason to better understand God and the scriptures. We use reason to ask questions about faith and scripture. We use reason to organize our understandings. We use reason to test our findings. We use reason to making connections between scripture, tradition, and experience. We use our reason to help us bring science, philosophy, and nature to bear on our reading of sacred texts. The scriptures themselves prize sound reason. In Proverbs we read, “Turn your ear toward wisdom, and stretch your mind toward understanding. Call out for insight, and cry aloud for understanding.” (Proverbs 2:2-3, Dawson)
The Book of Discipline, reflecting on these sources for understanding the scripture, concludes: “United Methodists as a diverse people continue to strive for consensus in understanding the gospel… while exercising patience and forbearance with one another. Such patience stems neither from indifference toward truth nor from an indulgent tolerance of error but from an awareness that we know only in part and that none of us is able to search the mysteries of God except by the Spirit of God. We proceed with our theological task, trusting that the Spirit will grant us wisdom.” (89)
We have not yet been able to come to a consensus in our denomination when it comes to how we approach human sexuality and in particular same-sex relationships. We draw on the same sources of understanding, but some of us are drawn more to tradition, and some to experience. Our faithful reasoning leads us to different conclusions, both in the church at large, and here in this congregation. When we think about LGBT persons and the life of the church, I may have a different perspective than you, and you may think differently than those in your family, or in your study group, or in your pew. “We are all theologians after all, all tasked with using scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to weigh what we believe to be faithful responses in the world today … My prayer … is that we would continue to lift up as our number one priority” the very things Jesus lifted up for us:  “the love of God and the love of one another – and that includes those who don’t agree with us. Our call as people of faith after all is to provide a welcome so vast and so radical that all might come to know and experience the saving grace of God lives.” (Dawson) Let us seek to be followers of Jesus, who, through our love of God and neighbor, are always inviting others to journey with us in grace. Amen.

* This sermon series draws on the themes, structure, content, and excellent work of Rev. Katie Z. Dawson, and the sermon series of the same title featured on her blog, Salvaged Faith. Used with permission. Any direct quotes from Dawson’s sermons are noted as such. Her series can be found at: http://salvagedfaith.com/2018/08/19/a-way-forward-25-cent-words/

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Sermon, "Disney and the Gospels: Beauty and the Beast," Acts 9:1-22

Sermon 2/3/19
Acts 9:1-22

Disney and the Gospels: Beauty and the Beast

Today, we’re wrapping up our sermon series on Disney and the Gospels with a look at a classic - Beauty and the Beast. Ok, so, Acts isn’t one of the Gospels, but we’re talking about the literal meaning of gospel here today - good news - so I figure it’s ok. I’ll admit: Beauty and the Beast isn’t one of my favorites. The animated version was released in the fall of 1991, when I had just started junior high, and I think in my head that meant that I was too old to really love cartoon movies. My childhood favorite was - is - The Little Mermaid, released just two years before when I apparently considered it still acceptable to enjoy a Disney film. But I still enjoy it - I took Sam to see it when it came back to theatres again some years ago. I really should have made Hannah Kingsley help me write my sermon today - she wrote her whole honors thesis for college on Beauty and the Beast, so if you’re a big fan, talk to Hannah ask to read her project.
The story of Beauty and the Beast begins with an enchantress disguised as a beggar seeking shelter from a selfish, cold prince, in exchange for the rose she offers him. He refuses, and when he does, she curses him and his servants. She turns him into a beast, and his servants into household objects, and says that unless he learns to love someone and earn their love in return before the last petal falls from the rose and he turns 21, he and his household will never return to their human forms.
Eventually, the Beast meets Belle when she exchanges herself for her father, who has been captured by the Beast. He starts out very angry at Belle when she tries to figure out what the enchanted rose is all about, but after he’s injured, and she helps nurse him back to health, he starts to develop feelings for her. As he tries to make Belle happy, and as she pushes him to do caring, thoughtful things that he’s shunned for so long, his heart begins to warm. Belle and the Beast share a romantic dance as we hear Mrs. Potts, the teapot, sing the song the choir shared today: “Tale as old as time. True as it can be. Barely even friends Then somebody bends Unexpectedly. Just a little change, Small to say the least. Both a little scared, Neither one prepared. Beauty and the beast. Tale as old as time. Tune as old as song. Bittersweet and strange. Finding you can change. Learning you were wrong.”
At one point, Belle realizes using the Beast’s magic mirror that her father is stranded in the woods, trying to rescue her, and the Beast, who has fallen in love, lets her go to try to save him. Belle takes her father home. In the meantime, the townsfolk, scared of the Beast and riled up by the vain villain Gaston  make their way to his castle to attack him. The Beast doesn’t defend himself, too sad that Belle has gone until he sees that she, too, has returned to the castle to try to protect him. He fights off Gaston, but Gaston stabs him in the back. The Beast seems to die, and Belle, distraught confesses her love for him, just as the last petal is falling from the rose. But she’s in time. The curse is broken, the prince and his servants return to their human forms, and of course, they all live happily ever after.
I’ve been thinking about the Beast this week, and how he changes. It takes him a long time, doesn’t it? Even with the threat of a permanent curse hanging over his head, he makes it all the way to within a year of being permanently cursed without seeming to make any effort at learning to love or be loved in return. The fact that he has a whole household of people who are suffering because of his behavior doesn’t seem to impress him. But finally, when an opportunity to change falls into his lap, he reluctantly, even half-heartedly at first, takes it. “Just a little change, small to say the least … finding you can change. Learning you were wrong.”
What about you - have you changed? For the better? Have you had a time where you had to turn your life around? Where you’d gotten off track, but were able to bend, to learn, to grow - to change? Someone posed a question to me in a message this week. “Can people change?” Maybe you wonder that too - is it really possible for us to change? After all, we make commitments and resolutions and promises ourselves to do better in all sorts of areas of our lives, only to find ourselves falling into the same old patterns. Can we really change? For a while, when I was on Sabbatical, I was working regularly on surveys that paid a dollar or two to earn some extra money. And I often encountered some standard questions, some measures that are used in lots of psychological tests to provide a kind of baseline understanding of someone. And one set of these questions asks whether or not we believe people can change who they are, or whether we believe that people are immutable, incapable of really changing the core of who they are.
I’m not sure I always answered the questions the same way. Depends a bit on how I was feeling that day. But if I was thoughtful with my answer, I would always respond: Yes, yes we can change. Thank God, we can change. Because if we can’t change, I’m really not sure what life is all about, seriously. If I am bound in, locked in to never being able to break free from the ways I fail to be what I think God is calling me to be, if I am forever bound in sin, if I am forever bound to repeat the same mistakes and never truly learn anything, if I can never be impacted enough by the experiences I have and the people I meet and the love I experience, and above all, if God’s grace can’t change my heart - what is the point? Why try? That’s not to say that changing our hearts and lives isn’t hard. So hard. We know it is. But possible? I believe it. I rely on it.
One of the most dramatic stories of change from the scriptures comes from our text from Acts today. It’s the story of the conversion of the apostle Paul. When we first hear of Paul in the book of Acts, the book that describes the stories of what the followers of Jesus did to start what we know as the church after Jesus’s resurrection and return to God, we find Paul being called Saul. He’s a Pharisee - an expert in interpreting the laws of of Judaism, and we find that he means to enforce the laws at any cost. He’s been particularly pursuing folks who are followers of The Way, one of the first names for Jesus’ disciples. We see him in Acts standing as witness to the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of the church, who refused to renounce his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, even when it cost him his life. As Stephen was stoned to death, those who executed him threw their cloaks at Saul’s feet. This background makes Acts 9 all the more stunning.
Saul is on his way to Damascus to get permission that he might capture anyone he finds who is part of this Jesus movement and bring them to Jerusalem to stand trial. And as he travels, a light from heaven flashes, blinding him, and he hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asks “Who are you?” And the voice responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Jesus then tells Paul to get up, get to Damascus, and await instructions.
For three days, Saul can’t see anything. He doesn’t eat or drink. At the same time, a man named Ananias has a vision, telling him that Saul is having a vision of Anananis laying hands him to restore his sight. Ananias is skeptical. He knows the reputation Saul has, that he has been hurting the followers of Jesus. But Jesus says to Ananias: “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles … I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias does as directed, and tells Saul he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he prays and lays hands on Saul. As he does this, something the text describes as “like scales” falls from Saul’s eyes, and his sight is restored. He gets up, gets baptized, and regains his strength, and immediately begins to preach a message of Jesus in the synagogues - that Jesus is the Messiah. And everyone is astonished.  
Why does God reach out to Paul in the way that he does on the road to Damascus? Jesus never, at least as the scriptures record, never speaks to anyone in this direct way again to start their journey of conversion, of changing a heart.. So why Paul? Certainly, God working in Paul to change his heart and then to use Paul to spread the message of Jesus is a powerful testament to the life and work and ministry of Jesus. Who better to use than a totally changed, totally transformed Paul? But I think we can envy Paul’s experience a little, when we think about trying to change our lives. It feels so easy for Paul in some ways. I mean, we could change our lives, turn around, go God’s way completely and wholeheartedly too if Jesus knocked us down on the road and spoke to us directly from heaven, right?
But here’s the thing. First, I think God is really going easy on when God helps us change our lives and hearts gradually, step by step. Most of us aren’t ready to completely give up control to God all at once, and God doesn’t require that of most of us all at once. God calls to us, nudges and lures us, is patient with us as we take one step forward and two back, loving us all along until we feel God’s love deep in our bones and let God’s love motivate the transformation of our hearts and lives. Paul’s own faith journey goes in fits and starts even with his dramatic beginning. He struggles with his faith, struggles with his ministry, struggles with discouragement and failure and setbacks too. But he knows that his new life is a promise from God he’s experienced because of Jesus at work in him, and because of that, he perseveres, and continues to let God shape him long past the road to Damascus.
Can we change? With God’s help, we can. Sometimes God’s help comes like a blinding light that causes the scales to fall from our eyes. Sometimes God’s help comes and helps us make the little changes, like the Beast did with Belle, slowly making room in his heart to give and receive love and kindness. Either way, any way, our job is to seek to live in a way that keeps us open to God’s transformational work in us, ready to participate with God’s power to change us, ready to nurture what God does in our lives, to tend to our tender, freshly changed lives.

Can we change? I’ve been keeping a journal since I was in fifth grade. And sometimes, when I feel discouraged, I’ll read through some of my entries from over the years. Sure, some things I struggle with I’ve been struggling with since my first entries. But I can also find in the pages my journey into ministry, my faith maturing over the years, my growing to understand who I am and who God has called me to be, the times that I’ve taken risks and had God see me through, or times that I’ve failed but been loved by God and community anyway, and been able to keep at it, keep working to grow into who God knows I can be. Friends, God is at work in you too, and I know that the hand of God on your life has changed you. We can’t help but be changed by God’s touch on our lives. Trusting that, the more we open our hearts to God, the more we’ll find the new life we seek. Amen.