Rev. Herb Miller
June 29, 2008
Park Slope UMC, Brooklyn, NY
Psalm 139, Mark 2:1-12
This is a difficult day to preach. It’s always hard for me to preach on Pride Sunday, Christmas, Easter, and all those celebrations that come round every year. How much do I have to say! Although even if I’m dull or repetitive you still have two pleasures to look forward to – you can sleep during my sermon and bitch about it afterwards.
It’s a difficult day to preach because the United Methodist Church, at its General Conference, voted last month to retain the church’s stand that “ homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” How do we talk of pride in the face of that?
It’s difficult to preach today, because we are not all here. Many of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are not here because the church has let them know too often, in too many ways, that they are not welcome. Who wants to attend a party to which you have not been invited?
It’s difficult to preach because our more conservative brothers and sisters, with whom we differ, are not here. Martin Luther King Jr. once described 11:00 Sunday morning as “the most segregated hour in this nation.” It tragically remains so. When we gather to celebrate our oneness in Christ we are segregated by race, sexual identity and theological spectrum.
Soren Kierkegaard once characterized what happens in most churches as a small huddle of people gathered together, very convinced of their own favor with God, while scolding a bunch of others. But the people being scolded are not present and are not likely to ever be. Hence, the message is hardly more than gossip, one group talking about another. Christ came for all people. We always have to be careful, lest our worship and our preaching to every person be replaced by circles of mutual admiration and common opinion. It is what happens most often today in these discussions. We meet in separate huddles.
It is important that we all be here because as Jason Byasee said, “Diversity is not only a matter of all people having the right to present in or lead the church, but diversity is also about the church needing all kinds of people in order to hear its diverse scripture aright.” (The Christian Century, Feb. 20, 2007, pg. 42)
Now, I’ll proceed from scripture because we are people of The Book. But at the outset it is important to note that none of us comes at the issue of LGBT issues just from scripture. I would venture to guess that most conservatives, liberals and everyone in between have mostly made up their minds before they even open Bible. There is no reading of the Bible that is completely free of ideological pre-conceptions. We all bring our thoughts, opinions, passions, and convictions, fears and hopes to the scripture every time we read them. It’s important to recognize the baggage we bring to the text so that we are bit more free to be confronted by it.
Take divorce as an example. Jesus clearly forbids it. The last time I checked we accept divorcees as members and ordain them. If we accept divorcees, why not homosexuals? We are obviously bringing something to the text other than a simple willingness to what it says at face value. We all come with our hopes and fears and prejudices. We all come with an interpretative lens, which is our life.
The second important thing to note is that none of us are literalists, no matter how much we may want to argue otherwise. Nobody takes scripture literally; if you did, we’d be living in totally unrecognizable ways.
In an article from The Christian Century summarizing a book entitled, The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs describes trying to take the Bible literally for one year.
On day 62 he experimented with capital punishment. In the Bible you can be killed for adultery, blasphemy, breaking the Sabbath, and perjury among others. A rebellious teenager could be sentenced to death. I know the thought sometimes sounds appealing to some!
The most common form of execution was stoning. So Jacobs figured he’d try stoning. Luckily the Bible doesn’t specify the size of the stones, so he grabbed a bunch of small pebbles from Central Park and stuffed them in his pockets. Now all he needed was a victim. He realized that the guy down at the Avis car rental was a Sabbath breaker so he zeroed in on him. The problem was, even with pebbles it’s surprisingly hard to stone someone.
He thought he’d just nonchalantly walk past the Sabbath violator and chuck pebbles at the small of his back. After missing a few times he realized no matter how small, a chucked pebble doesn’t go unnoticed. So he decided he would clumsily drop the pebble on the guy’s shoe. Which he did. But then bent over and picked it up saying he was sorry. It was probably the most polite stoning in history.
The point is that none of us are literalists. We all take the breath of scripture, put emphasis on certain verses, and relegate others to the circular file. Just look at the simple fact that there are all sorts of rules about sexual behavior but by general agreement we only pay attention to a few of them. Clearly we don’t believe that the Bible has absolute sexual guidelines that are universally valid in every time and place.
What I think is most conspicuously missing is an honest discussion on what basis we are making those choices. Until we can honestly look at how we do use scripture we will not get any further than hurling a few isolated verses at one another.
The primary issue isn’t the 3- 6 verses that may or may not refer to homosexuality but the broader issue of how we use scripture. That is a tougher issue that’s not going to be settled with quotes thrown over the fence, but will require sustained dialogue over a period of time – but it holds the key to resolving this issue
We all know it is a very dangerous thing to go to the Bible and pick out a verse or two. If you want to hunt and peck for a few select verses you could justify just about anything. You could justify the marginalization of women, you could justify maiming someone.
When the woman caught in adultery is dragged in front of Jesus, he could have opened his Bible concordance and found the verse that says she be stoned to death. But Jesus didn’t. And there were people in Jesus’ day who stood up in synagogue and said, “Look what is says here. Read this verse. The slippery slope you know.”
Jesus took scripture seriously, but he didn’t take it literally. He knew that scripture always has to be interpreted through the eyes of a gracious, merciful and forgiving God, and that when you do that, some specific verses evaporate into insignificance and irrelevance.
New Testament scholar Fred Cradock said, “If in reading the Bible you find justification for abusing, humiliating, disgracing, harming, or hurting, especially when it makes you feel better about yourself, you do not know how to read the Bible.”
We are Christians, which means we read everything through the interpretive lens of Jesus Christ. We read what is more obscure in the light of what is clearer.
We can’t read the Bible aright by scouring the book for snippets. What is required is long term commitment to the text, approaching it in good faith, allowing oneself to be slowly shaped by its convictions.
But if you insist on picking a verse, how about trying to live by the simplest most clear-cut and all encompassing command that Jesus ever gave, “Love the Lord your God with al your heart soul, might and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:37) How about that one? If we picked that verse we’d be very busy serving the deeper needs of the world and would have little time left for arguing about a few other verses.
We always look at scripture as a whole, allowing some parts to interpret others. There is a line from Martin Luther King Jr. that is often quoted in this church- that, “the arc of history is bent toward justice.” The arc of the Bible is bent towards inclusiveness, and anything else I read and wrestle with in the Bible is read in that context.
Just look at the story- tax collectors, Samaritans, lepers, little children, the hemorrhaging woman! Jesus took all those un-welcome due to years of religious tradition and scripture and welcomed them in. That is the arc of the story. The trajectory of Jesus’ ministry was an ever widening circle, and extending of love, even when Scripture specifically warned against it. The Bible’s plot, before anything else, is about liberation.
What finally enabled the church to make a huge shift on the issue of slavery? At one point slaveholders and supporters easily quoted the Bible, which convincingly seemed to be on their side. But today, if you ask whether the Bible sanctions slavery, almost everyone would agree, no way! What happened? Are those verses are still there? Of course, they are. But the church was finally able to look past the quoting of an isolated verse or two and look at the deeper message of scripture and the story of exodus and liberation.
Just look at the story. The whole Biblical narrative begins with the magnificent creation of diversity. In rapid succession land is differentiated from water, light from darkness, trees from bushes, swimming things from crawling things, man from woman. Creation is rife with difference, with diversity, intentionally so.. Brother John of Taize says, difference isn’t imperfection that needs to be healed or overcome. “The ideal state of being is a chorus of different voices that sing in harmony.” (I Am The Beginning And the End, pg. 10) Diversity is the fundamental law of the universe. Abolishing variety in the name of unity is against the fundamental law of the universe. The point of the story isn’t that God created a man and woman for each other but that God created people with differences, yet for each other, because we need the diversity of what each of us offers to be whole. No one of us has all they need to survive or thrive. We need ones different form ourselves who supply what we are lacking so that each of us can become what we truly should be. Why do we insist on uniformity when God clearly rejoices in diversity?
I think of the amazing gifts that our LGBT brothers and sisters have brought the church that I would not want to live without. I think of the Rev. Paul Abels, a gay UMC pastor who came to speak to us at Camp Epworth when I was a teenager. He shared with the 100 teenagers gathered some of the exciting work of his church and then shared that he was gay, awakening us to the issue of discrimination in a way we had never comprehended. I think about the one Sunday school teacher who actually seemed to care about whether I showed up or not or the organist who first encouraged me to sing.
I think of the amazing gifts that our LGBT brothers and sisters have brought the church that I would not want to live without. Many LGBT people have been an exemplary example of how to live a Christian life under threatening conditions. They are here in this denomination, or eager to be, if only we had a place for them. I’m amazed that they remain committed to community, remain faithful to a very limited church that doesn’t even want them here. The “official” church doesn’t want to hear it, but our LGBT brothers and sisters keep on telling us the great story of the working of God’s love in their lives. I am awed by their righteous anger that refuses to settle. I am impressed by the unceasing trust that God will have the final word. I am overwhelmed by their confidence that the church will some day be true. I can think of no better signs of faithfulness and discipleship that what I see LGBT folk bring to the church even in the face of very adverse conditions.
The Psalmist has it right, “You are fearfully and wonderfully made, God knit you together in your mother’s womb, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Known from the beginning as a child of God (Psalm 139).” And we will not be whole until the church recognizes that.
Jesus has come to make us all whole. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus offers healing to the paralytic man. Jesus doesn’t ask him who he loved or what he did in bed. Jesus welcomed and healed- no conditions attached. The religious leaders criticized and grumbled and complained that Jesus wasn’t following all the rules but Jesus went on healing just the same. God’s love is not going to restricted by our rules or theology. You know that. You know that.
Soren Kierkegaard regarded the transmission of information as one of the lowest forms of communication. The highest form is the communication of the ability to feel obligated -so here goes…
The crux of the story here is that the paralyzed man wasn’t healed on his own. He had to be carried by his friends and lowered on a stretcher through the roof by his friends. We all need others who will extend themselves to bring us to the source of healing. None of us can do it alone. The LGBT community cannot do this alone. Will you be a friend we can count on to carry us on stretchers when we can’t do it alone? Will you fight the very sickness that has put us on stretchers so that we can be made whole enough to get up and help the next person who needs our help?
You see, the church is a human institution which means it will grow, albeit slowly. But it only grows at all if it is it confronted over and over again by the brave, the bold and the beautiful among us. Will you join me in making this congregation a living sign, a living sign of an alternative community where all are welcome?
Will you join me in making this the best damn church we can be – serving the poor, working for justice, caring for one another so that they will know we are Christian by our love and strong and faithful service?
Will you join me in cultivating deeper, sustained dialogue on the issue of sexuality, rather than just hurling stones?
Will you share your stories of how it feels to be broken and those startling moments of feeling healed?
Will you join me in being disloyal to church laws that discriminate knowing that disloyalty is often real obedience?
Will you celebrate with me that each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made?
Will you get up from your stretcher and accompany me on the magnificent journey into God’s love and welcome?