What’s a Nice Boy Like You Doing in a Place Like This?

I did not preach this past Sunday. It was our children’s and youth Christmas program. I thought I would post a sermon I preached awhile back – May 6, 2007.

Scripture Readings: John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18

After church one Sunday morning, a boy suddenly announced to his mother, “Mom, I’ve decided I’m going to be a minister when I grow up.” “That’s okay with us, but what made you decide you wanted to be a minister?” “Well,” the boy replied, “I’ll have to go to church on Sunday anyway, and I figure it will be more fun to stand up and yell.” (Pretty Good Joke Book, 106)
I was born at St. Luke’s Hospital here in Duluth in 1959. For my first six years of life I lived in a duplex on 43rd Avenue East. Then we moved to 5430 Avondale St. I attended Lester Park Elementary, Ordean Junior High, East High School, UMD. The first thing I remember wanting to be when I grew up was a police officer. That was in third grade. It was in eighth grade that I first though about becoming a minister – and that idea came and went a few times before it stuck.
When I came here to interview with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee in late March of 2005, as the person the Bishop wanted to appoint to First United Methodist Church, the committee told me that this was a Reconciling Congregation and asked if I could be supportive of that. A Reconciling Congregation is one that has publicly declared that it will be open to, welcome and affirm gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons – GLBT persons. The official position of our denomination is that all persons are of sacred worth and yet we believe the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching. As a reconciling congregation we have said we stand in opposition to the last part of that and we will welcome GLBT persons and let them participate fully in our congregation, as fully as our denomination allows.
Thankfully, I knew that when I was asked about it by the Staff-Parish Committee. I’m not sure what would have happened had I said, “a reconciling what?” I told the committee that I could and would be supportive of the church’s reconciling position. What I could not honestly say was, “You know, ever since I was a kid I aspired to be the pastor of a Reconciling Congregation.” I just could not say that. And sometimes I even wonder, what’s a nice boy from Lester Park doing trying to talk about such matters in this setting? How did I get here? I want to say a few words about that today, because it has everything to do with the Scripture readings for this morning and I’ll make that connection shortly.
When I was growing up, I never knew much about GLBT persons or issues. I did not have a closeted uncle or aunt. My siblings are straight – divorced, but straight. In junior high and high school, we used to throw the term “fag” around kind of loosely. When a few of us looked up the word in a dictionary and found it could also mean a “bundle of sticks” we used to tease each other by calling out “you bundle of sticks.” Who can explain adolescent boys? But to be honest, though I would sometimes use such words, and probably sometimes in anger, I never really thought that anyone I ever called a bundle of sticks really might be different, really might be gay. It just never crossed my mind. I do remember reading some Christian literature that talked about the issue. David Wilkerson a pastor and author of The Cross and the Switchblade, wrote about the issue. Homosexuals are not “queers.” They are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters from all walks of life involved in a serious problem…. So-called homosexual Christians can never be acceptable in the eyes of God if they live in their sin (Jesus People Maturity Manual). I read the words, but what did they have to do with me?
In college I guess I became more aware that there were really GLBT people, but again, what did that have to do with me? I wasn’t one, and did not care much if they were who they were. I don’t recall my pastor ever talking about the issue – and about now some of you may be wishing for the same thing. We don’t need to hide the fact that we get a little uncomfortable talking about human sexuality.
When I got to seminary, however, I came face-to-face with GLBT issues, because for the first time I came face-to-face with gay and lesbian persons. This was unfamiliar territory for me, and uncomfortable. Some of the words I had read in the past remained a part of my thinking, no doubt. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. I also became much more aware of how difficult and divisive an issue this was for the church.
There were those Scriptures of our faith that seemed to present a pretty negative take on GLBT persons – Levitcus (two verses), for instance. But it became puzzling to me that we could take a verse or two from this book so seriously, yet let others slide by so easily. In the same chapter of Leviticus that seemingly condemns a man lying with a man as with a woman, the Israelites are told to put to death those caught in adultery and those who curse their mother or father. In the very next chapter, the following types of people are prohibited from becoming priests, or serving as priest while these conditions persist: one who has a blemish, the blind or lame, one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, one who has a broken hand or foot, “or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs, or crushed testicles” (Leviticus 21: 18-20). Our Conference Board of Ordained Ministry does not ask clergy candidates about such things.
And in a few places Paul writes rather disapprovingly about same-sex relationships. He looked around his culture and saw things he disapproved of, but we are not sure just what it is Paul was concerned about. In the words of theologian William Placher, in his book Jesus the Savior: “We are not sure why Paul condemned what he saw…. Would very different forms of homosexual activity have seemed wrong in the same way to Paul? We cannot summon him up from the dead… and find out what he would have thought” (100). Placher, in fact, makes a strong point in his book. It is hard to imagine how anyone, reading the Bible through, could come up with homosexuality as one of the central topics it lays out for ethical reflection (96). Texts that address GLBT issues are very few, and are open to genuine interpretive differences.
At the same time I struggled with Scripture, I was hearing stories like one shared by Parker Palmer. Stuart Mathis was a gay man who grew up in a religious community that regards homosexuality as a sin. His church insisted that he “change his sexual orientation,” and when he found it impossible to do so, he committed suicide, leaving these words behind: [My] church has no idea that as I type this letter, there are surely boys and girls on their callused knees imploring God to free them from this pain. They hate themselves. They retire to bed with their fingers pointed to their heads in the form of a gun. I am now free. I am no longer in pain and I no longer hate myself. As it turns out, God never intended for me to be straight. Perhaps my death might be a catalyst for some good. (A Hidden Wholeness, 41)
I was also meeting people who were wonderful Christians, and gay. It remained rather uncomfortable territory. Even as a senior in seminary I confessed to a friend that I still found something about all this a bit “unnatural.” Yet something continued to simmer inside of me.
Peter could not imagine less unnatural a thing than that God’s Spirit might be at work in uncircumcised, non-Jewish people – Gentiles. Jesus had been Jewish. He taught in synagogues. He worshipped at the Temple. He was a rather faithful follower of the law, even as he criticized some of it. While he often told stories that made heroes out of non-Jews, and seemed at times willing to reach beyond his people, his first followers were all Jewish and it seems they expected that those who would follow Jesus would be Jewish too. But a wild dream experience compels Peter to reach out to Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort. When he goes to see Cornelius, he finds that God’s Spirit was also present. Peter, in giving his report to skeptical believers in Jerusalem says, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Peter moved by the Spirit of God, compelled by the words of Jesus himself (I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.) Peter goes beyond his comfort zone. Love brought him to a new place. The Spirit took him into unfamiliar territory. His mind was changed about who was acceptable to God and to whom God might give God’s Spirit.
I have had no wild dream like experience and I cannot even tell you when exactly I came to this point, but love and God’s Spirit brought me to a new place – at first uncomfortable, unfamiliar, but a new place. I say in Peter’s words, if God is at work in the lives of GLBT people, and I have witnessed that time and again, who am I that I should hinder God?
Now I don’t have to say that everything any GLBT person does is o.k. just as I would not say that everything a heterosexual person does is o.k. The Christian faith has consistently maintained that all persons are vulnerable to sin, and that may include sexual sin, and in fact, all have sinned. But at its best our faith knows that the essence of sin is a violation of the command to love. It is refusal to love. I don’t see homosexuality in itself as sinful.
So here I am, a kid from Lester Park, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Duluth, a Reconciling Congregation. And I am proud to be here. And I also want this church to be a place that welcomes those who may not be in complete agreement with our reconciling stance, who may be at a different place on the journey. How hypocritical it would be for me, who took a journey himself to say, “if you are not where I have arrived at, you are not welcome.” For above all, a Reconciling congregation should be a place that takes seriously the idea that God’s Spirit moves in surprising ways, invites us into unfamiliar and sometimes challenging places, but always in service of God’s love. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. And who knows where love may take us? Amen.