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/