What it feels like to be a problem

Dr. Dorothee Benz

September 7. 2014

West Hills UMC, Model of Hope vesper service

Acts 10: 9-16

I became a Methodist by accident.

Let me explain. When I was two, my family immigrated to the U.S. from Germany. My parents were of course good German Lutherans, and when they got here, they headed right to the Lutheran church in town. Problem was, they hated the minister. So they tried the next Protestant church they could find, which happened to be Methodist. And they stayed.

And so I was raised in the United Methodist church, confirmed in it, and as a young adult had dreams of one day servicing as a minister in it.

Even though it was a fluke that I ended up a Methodist, I was – I am – a real Methodist. I love potlucks. It’s the only church I’ve ever known, and the more I learned about Wesleyan theology, with its emphasis on grace and social holiness, the more I loved the United Methodist Church.

I went to college with plans of going to seminary afterwards. But the year that I came out as a lesbian was the exact same year our denomination’s General Conference, its governing body, voted to bar gays and lesbians from ministry.

I was outraged.

But the degree to which I was utterly stunned at this door being slammed shut in my face said as much about prejudice in my life that I had not experienced as it did about the prejudice that I came face to face with in that moment.  A white, suburban kid from an upper middle-class background, I did not at that time have a clue about racism or classism, and the fact that I made it to 18 without experiencing discrimination says a lot. It is only since then, for instance, that I have come to understand that the only difference between me and thousands and thousands of DREAMers, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, is that my parents happened to have papers when they came. So I am a documented immigrant by accident as well as a Methodist by accident. I had nothing to do with my parents’ decisions in either case.

The General Conference vote that instituted blanket discrimination against all gays and lesbians was a defining moment in my life. The outrage has never left me, but the awareness of my own privilege that grew out of it has allowed me to expand my outrage in response to oppressions that do not affect me personally.

I gave up on the dream of ordained ministry and went on to do other things in life. I was so angry at the church that I couldn’t even set foot in a church building for 20 years. Yet I never gave up my membership. Without being able to articulate it, somewhere deep inside I knew that this is my church, too. I shouldn’t have to leave.

I even paid a pledge during those years I didn’t go to church. You see, my father was the finance chair at the church I grew up in, the church where my membership was. And one day he explained how apportionments work to me, how the congregation pays money to the annual conference based on how many members it has. “You’re costing me money,” he said. So I filled out a new pledge card and pledged just enough to cover the per capita cost that my membership added to the congregation’s apportionment bill.

I could have resigned my membership instead. But somehow I just couldn’t. Something in me knew this is my church, too.

This brings us to today’s scripture.

We really only read a snippet of it, and I want to talk about the whole chapter for a minute so you can understand it in context. The passage we read is the central image in the book of Acts that summarizes the early church’s struggle with who should and shouldn’t be included in the church, and eventually the decision that everyone should be included.

At the beginning of the chapter we are introduced to a man named Cornelius, who we find out is a Roman centurion and a devout believer. That description contains a lot of important information. Centurion is the title of an officer in the Roman army. The fact that he was a Roman soldier meant that he was not Jewish, he was a Gentile. It also meant that from the point of view of the Jews and the early Jesus movement – which, remember, was a Jewish religious movement -- he was a member of the occupying army. But the writer of Acts goes on to tell us that he was a devout and God-fearing man, and that he gave alms, in other words, he gave money to the poor.

Cornelius has a vision. An angel appears before him and says that his devotion and his service to the poor have been recognized by God, and he is to send for Peter and ask Peter to come see him. So he sends a group to go get Peter.

And this is where we picked up the story. Peter also has a vision, described here as a trance, in which he is shown all these animals and told, “get up, Peter, kill and eat.” And Peter instantly recoils at the suggestion because the animals before him are forbidden for eating by Jewish law. He basically says, “I’m an observant, religious man, I’ve kept kosher my whole life, I would never offend God by eating something unclean.”

The kicker is the voice saying back to him, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And for emphasis, we are told that this happened three times.

Meanwhile, here come Cornelius’s men down the road towards Peter’s house. The verse after the portion we read brings them to his doorstep. In fact, we’re told in verse 19, “While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them.’” So of course that’s what Peter does.

He goes back with Cornelius’s men to Cornelius’s house, where the Roman soldier has gathered together a large group in anticipation of Peter’s arrival.

And here’s when it all clicks for Peter. This is what he says to them: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

Boom. Suddenly Peter understands that the exclusiveness that he had been taught his whole life was devout and faithful to God was in fact not. That the opposite was true: that inclusiveness was faithful to God, that God’s love and God’s message are there for everybody – even Gentiles, even occupying Roman soldiers.

One of the things I love about this story is how God orchestrates the whole thing. First God sends a vision to Cornelius to go fetch Peter. Then God presents this image to Peter about traditional Jewish law. It’s about the dietary laws, but we soon see that these are just a stand-in for the laws separating people. And then when Cornelius’s men show up, there’s this direct nudge from the Spirit saying, “I sent them, go with them.”

It’s like God’s a matchmaker, putting the Peter and Cornelius in the same room, and whispering to Peter, “he’s such a nice boy, give him a chance.”

You know, I wish it were always that obvious or that easy. Or that church leaders heard the Spirit saying “go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them” and then did it, the way Peter did.

Because I am quite certain that the Spirit is saying that. Unfortunately, the history of church leaders since Peter has been that most of them are far less responsive. Far too few of them have said, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

This chapter in Acts, Acts 10 (and I urge you all to read the whole thing when you get a chance), this is the moment when the early church gets it right. It’s where Peter the church leader translates the radical inclusivity of Jesus’s teachings – you know, healing and touching lepers, talking to women, washing his disciples’ feet, eating with Romans and tax collectors, the Good Samaritan story, the parable of the sheep and the goats, preaching love your neighbor and then demonstrating that everyone is our neighbor – this is the moment the early church gets it and says we should include Gentiles and Jews equally. Understood in historical context, this is a profound radical move. In fact, it would be impossible to overstate how radical it was in the society of first-century Palestine.

Alas, the history of the institutional church since that day when Peter stood in Cornelius’s house and said, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” is that the church has more often than not gotten it wrong rather than right – persecuting minorities or excluding them, replicating the hierarchies and inequalities of the society around it. But in every age there have always been those who saw the larger picture, who grasped the radical nature of God’s inclusive love and fought for the inclusion of whatever category of people was excluded.

In the Methodist Church, that struggle over an inclusive vision has had many chapters. Let me mention just a few. The church split in 1844 over the issue of slavery. In 1939, it came back together, but the condition of unity was that Black churches and Black annual conferences would be segregated into the Central Jurisdiction. It wasn’t until 1968, after decades of struggle, that the Central Jurisdiction was at last abolished. Women in the Methodist Church also had to fight long and hard to be treated equally. In 1956, they were finally granted the right to be ordained as elders.

In our own time, it has been lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT people) who have been fighting to be included in the church.

Let me be clear. We are the shellfish in Peter’s vision. LGBT people are the ones that God is saying to the church, “what I have made clean you must not call profane.” Like the Gentiles of Peter’s day, like the African Americans and women in the 19th and 20th centuries, we are the ones saying to the church now that it must not mirror the social prejudices of the society around it but rather rise up and embody the awesome, expansive, radical and all-transforming love of God that leaves no one – no one – behind.

Unfortunately, very unfortunately, the United Methodist Church has not responded as Peter did. The institution has, in fact, dug in its heels.

Since 1972, the church has labeled us as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Since 1984, it has bared gays and lesbians from becoming ministers. Since 1996, it has forbidden “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions” in its churches or performed by its ministers. Later, when legal marriage started to become an option, it added language prohibiting clergy from performing same-sex weddings, just in case someone though that “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions” might not cover that. Along the way, the United Methodist Church also barred annual conferences from using funds to “promote homosexuality” (whatever that means – it seems to mean any tolerance for our existence is deemed “promoting homosexuality”).

How do these oppressive and prejudiced rules in our denomination get established? I don’t want to turn this into a seminar on Methodist polity, but let me give you the short version. Every four years the General Conference of the United Methodist Church meets to make policy and debate changes to church law, which is embodied in the Book of Discipline. General Conference is the only body in the UMC that can change church law.

LGBT people and our allies have gone to every General Conference for the last 40 years – 40 years of spiritual wilderness, of exclusion and condemnation – we have gone and advocated for change, pleaded, begged for our dignity and humanity. All for naught. There is a solidly an anti-gay majority at General Conference, a combination of U.S. and international conservatives, led and whipped into a hateful frenzy by southern white Americans, that has steadfastly refused to consider our humanity. We are told we are prostitutes, pedophiles, murderers. These are literally things that have been said by General Conference delegates to other delegates who are LGBT. All efforts to change the language in our Book of Discipline are shot down. Similarly, efforts to change the structure of the church to allow some regional autonomy that would permit parts of the church to treat LGBT people equally, are shot down. To opponents, structural reform proposals have become a proxy for approving of our existence, and they are voted down by the same majorities that hold codified discrimination in place.

The situation is so bad that in 2012, nearly half the General Conference delegates (44%) voted against a motion to include the sentence “God’s grace is available to all – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”  in the Book of Discipline. They voted against that! They were ready to reject the most fundamental tenet of Wesleyan theology because they could not bring themselves to say that God’s grace extends to LGBT people.

This is the hateful state of our denomination.

So what’s a gay United Methodist like me to do?

So many others have left the church already, for good reason.

But what if I insist that this is my church, too, and I am staying? What if I can’t bring myself to leave and condemn countless thousands of other LGBT United Methodist throughout the world to permanent abuse and discrimination? What if I can’t live with the knowledge that our church’s official declaration that we are “incompatible with Christian teaching” contributes to violence and discrimination against us everywhere – that it holds up the edifice of state-sanctioned discrimination, that it provides moral cover to parents who throw their kids out when they come out, that it contributes to the hate that has unleashed an epidemic of lethal violence against transgender people, especially trans women of color, that it is why 82% of LGBT youth are verbally harassed at school and 65% feel unsafe in school, and why we had to invent a new word – bullycide -- bullycide – because kids from good Christian homes torment their classmates to death? What if I can’t live with that – what if we can’t live with that – and we insist that changing the United Methodist Church is not optional – it is necessary for LGBT survival? What do we do?

The answer, or an answer, is in our scripture for today.

You remember that moment when Peter has arrived at Cornelius’s house and there’s this big group gathered there to hear what he has to say? He starts by saying “y’all know I’m not supposed to be here, right? It’s against the church’s rules for me to be associating with Gentiles like this.”

And then what? He says, “I’m going to do it anyway.” Why? Because “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”  Peter’s new understanding of the inclusiveness that God intended for the church immediately – immediately -- translated into his willingness to ignore the rules of the existing church.

I want to take you through the rest of Acts 10, because I think it points the way for what we need to do in the United Methodist Church right now.

So here’s Peter and he has just told the crowd at Cornelius’s house he’s there with them in violation of the laws of his religion and that he’s OK with it because God has led him to understand that’s where he needs to be. Then in verse 29, he asks them “Now may I ask why you sent for me?”

This line cracks me up. This whole time he is faithfully following God’s call, God’s line-by-line instructions, but he doesn’t know what exactly he should be doing. He just knows where he’s supposed to be.

And then Cornelius tells him the whole story about the vision in which he was told to send for Peter, and he ends his explanation by saying “So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”

It’s like God has brought them together – the Jewish leader of the church and the outsider Gentile believer – but not told either of them why. In contrast to the very specific visions and instructions that brought them together, this is the part where God is not directing each move.

What happens next is magic. The Jew and the Gentiles, the church leader and the outsiders, the straight United Methodist clergy and LGBT parishioners – together something happens in that room.

Peter begins preaching. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in any nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God,” he says in verse 34. He goes on from there to testify to Jesus’s ministry. And the writer in Acts observes, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the LGBT people” – I mean “even on the Gentiles.”

Then Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And the whole evening ends with Peter ordering his people to baptize them all.

Wow.

You see what happens when you bring those who are deemed “incompatible with Christian teaching” right into the church and you have church leaders who are willing to minister to them? THIS is what church is supposed to be!

The religious rules of his day were the last thing on Peter’s mind at this point. His eyes had been opened, and he let the Spirit lead where faithful ministry demanded that he go.

Those of us in the United Methodist Church who understand that its rules against LGBT people are but another chapter in the sinful history of exclusion that must one day be removed, we must do the same thing. We must first declare that “what God has made clean we may not call profane” or unclean or “incompatible.” We must set aside the rules of exclusion and go minister to those on the margins and say “here I am, why did you call me, what do you need?” And when LGBT people in our congregations, faithful Christians, are in need of ministry – whether it be baptism for their children, marriage or anything else – we must say, along with Peter, “How can we withhold ministry from them?” How can we withhold ministry from them?

The amazing story of Peter and Cornelius ends with the end of the chapter. Our story is still being written. Together, let us make sure the ending is just as good.

Amen.