THE ULTIMATE QUESTION
February 17, 2019
A Message Dealing with the UM Church’s Debate on Homosexuality
If you’ve ever sat through that tedious 1993 movie Groundhog Day, a flick that chronicles Phil Connors (Bill Murray) endlessly reliving February 2, then perhaps you can sense my personal frustration in discussing the United Methodist Church’s debate on homosexuality. It is an issue that has dogged our denomination throughout my nearly 40 years of ministry.
Every four years our General Conference, representing some 8 million United Methodist Christians from the United States as well as overseas, has met to reaffirm and set the rules that govern us as the second largest Protestant group in the world. These rules are catalogued in a volume known as The United Methodist Book of Discipline. And every four years much of the oxygen in the convention hall has been consumed by the ongoing debate over how our UM Church should be in ministry to and with persons of a homosexual orientation.
Yes, the countless accounts of how our Church has brought the life-changing grace of God to bear upon God’s children in all corners of the globe have been relegated to the page 16 as this often-ugly dispute over sexuality has captured the headlines in religious and secular news outlets. Our disunity, our fractured-ness in a world seeking healing and hope has grieved God greatly!
Following the last rancorous General Conference in 2016, our Council of Bishops felt enough was enough, that it was time to bring resolution to this issue once and for all. They chose 32 UM laypersons and clergy from throughout the world, representing various stances on the debate surrounding homosexuality within the UMC. They were given the mission of developing a path that would help the Church move forward through this difficult issue. In fact, the group came to be known as the Commission on the Way Forward. In a few moments, you are going to hear the highlights of their work – three potential plans that will be considered at the upcoming special called General Conference that will convene in St. Louis next weekend.
But before we delve into that, I believe it would behoove us to frame our conversation today with the words of Jesus. It’s interesting to note that our Lord had nothing to say about homosexual orientation. However, on five different occasions, he did voice this admonition:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” - John 13:34-35
In echoing these words of Jesus, John Wesley, our United Methodist forefather, once asked, “If we cannot all think alike, can we learn to love alike… Can we be of one heart even if we are not of one opinion?”
That, my friends, is the ultimate question I want you to ponder today…
THE CONUNDRUM THE UM CHURCH IS WRESTLING WITH…
In our Book of Discipline, we acknowledge all persons are of sacred worth. All persons are eligible to attend our worship services, participate in our programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any of our local churches.
And yet, in that same Book of Discipline, we find this statement: we consider the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching. There are also prohibitions against self-avowed homosexuals being ordained as clergy. United Methodists pastors are not allowed to officiate same-sex weddings, nor are such services permitted to take place in United Methodist churches.
As you might surmise, there are many United Methodists who see nothing wrong with this dissonance in the Discipline, and desire that the prohibitions remain in place. They believe such statements reflect sound biblical doctrine and tradition.
However, there are others in the Church who view these prohibitions as promoting second-class citizenship for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters – essentially saying “we welcome you as long as you sit at the back of the bus.” They would argue our society has become increasingly more open to the notion of same-sex relationships over the past 50 years as our understanding of homosexuality has evolved, and that it is time for the church to reflect this tolerance as well.
So there you have the conundrum our Church is struggling with…
THE PROPOSED PLANS GENERAL CONFERENCE WILL BE CONSIDERING…
The Commission on the Way Forward has highlighted three options for resolving this long, acrimonious impasse in our denomination:
The Connectional Conference Plan
Remember back in high school when the history teacher told you choose up teams in order to debate a particular viewpoint, and you chose to align yourself with a group of fellow students who thought the way you did?
Well, that’s kind of what the Connectional Conference Plan is all about. It would replace our current geographical jurisdictions and conferences with three large groupings –
- A Traditional Conference representing churches who prefer to adhere to the current prohibitions regarding homosexuality.
- A Progressive Conference made up of churches who would abolish such prohibitions.
- A Unity Conference that would be a middle ground for those who simply don’t see what the fuss is all about, and are willing to live and let live.
Now, while this sounds simple and logical on paper, the implementation of it would present tremendous legal and logistical hurdles, and thus it is unlikely to be given serious consideration at the General Conference next weekend.
The Traditionalist Plan
On the other hand, this option will be given much attention. It represents those United Methodists who would say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
It would keep unchanged the current restrictive language in the Book of Discipline regarding the practice of homosexuality. And it would add severe penalties for clergy who disobey the Discipline prohibitions against performing same-sex weddings, resulting in suspension and then expulsion.
Churches who believe they could no longer abide by this traditional approach could make a graceful exit from the denomination, and given the opportunity to purchase their buildings at a fair market value.
The One Church Plan
This alternative, which has been endorsed by the Council of Bishops, would represent the sentiment that the United Methodist stance on homosexuality is broken, and it does need fixing.
In order to accomplish this, all restrictive language regarding gay and lesbian orientation in the Book of Discipline would be eliminated and replaced by this simple statement: When it comes to the issue of homosexuality, United Methodist Christians are not of one mind.
Then, most decisions regarding the practical application of this would not be handed down from a distance, but instead would be delegated to each local church and its pastor to wrestle with. For example, the members of Vision of Hope would take a vote on whether or not same sex marriages would be permitted in our facility. Also, should I retire, you would need to voice a consensus on whether or not you would receive a gay or lesbian clergyperson as your pastor.
This is just a brief synopsis of the plans that will be hashed out next weekend in St. Louis by the special called General Conference. We will certainly be in prayer for the delegates as they deal with this daunting task of helping our Church forge a unified future forward for Christ.
I now wish to spend the last portion of this message having us consider what shapes our individual viewpoint on homosexuality…
OUR PARTICULAR STANCE ON HOMOSEXUALITY IS INFLUENCED BY…
If we take a moment to scratch beneath the surface, we discover that much of our thinking about this issue has to do with
Our approach to Biblical interepretation
There are six passages in the Bible which reference homosexual practice: Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 in the Old Testament. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:10 and Romans 1:26-27 in the New Testament. All of these passages denounce homosexual behavior.
If you are in the camp that takes a literal approach to understanding the Bible, then you assume that all homosexual behavior is a sin. The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. The Word of God is a level playing field from Genesis to Revelation.
At the other end of the continuum are folk who take a more nuanced approach to biblical interpretation. If you are in this camp, you would say that, while the Bible is authoritative, we have to always strive to understand the scripture in its original context. There are certain passages that are eternal truths – such as loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, providing hospitality for strangers. These are timeless in their application to all generations.
However, other passages are focused on a more narrow context -particular times, people and places, and we no longer believe they govern our actions today. For example, we don’t stone people to death for adultery, or wipe out entire nations with extreme collateral damage in war. We no longer practice slavery, nor do we condemn persons for divorce and remarriage. Women are no longer forced to be silent in the church. They teach and they preach. Most of us eat shrimp and bacon….lots of bacon!
Those who take the nuanced approach to scripture would say, yes, certain homosexual practices as described in the Bible – such as Genesis 19 depicting homosexual gang rape – and the writings of Paul that reference pederasty (the practice of Greek men violating young, pre-pubescent boys) these are indeed sin in any generation.
However, those who hold to this nuanced approach would also affirm that not all homosexual practice is to be viewed with condemnation. They would say that two persons living in a loving, faithful, monogamous same-sex relationship are to be encouraged, not condemned.
Yes, our particular stance on homosexuality is influenced by our approach to biblical interpretation. And it is also influenced by
Our association with gay or lesbian persons. or lack thereof
I am reminded of a quote by the late Henri Nouwen:
“We spend an enormous amount of energy making up our minds about other people. Not a day goes by without somebody doing or saying something that evokes in us the need to react. Strangers and people different than we are stir fear, discomfort, suspicion, and hostility. They make us lose our sense of security by just being different.”
– Ronnie McBrayer, May the Road Rise Up to Meet You, p. 314.
I confess to you I spent much of younger years avoiding and judging gay and lesbian folk. I saw them as labels – derogatory terms that I am now ashamed to say I uttered with such callousness.
It’s funny how all that changes when you get to know people as simply people, not labels…when you begin seeing them not through the lens of prejudice but rather through the lens of a Christ-like heart. God’s Spirit chips away at the layers bigotry and replaces it with compassion.
Yes, over the years God has placed persons of a homosexual orientation in my life. God has forced me to step outside my comfort zone, and has created enduring friendships. I’ve heard their gutwrenching stories, their unimaginable struggles in coming to terms with their sexuality. And through such relationships I have discovered brothers and sisters in Christ.
May I share such a soul-altering experience with you? I’ve changed the young man’s name in order to respect his privacy:
When my son Tyler was in middle school, he and his homeboys had a friend named Zachary. Zach was a bit more reserved than the other kids, but was always extremely respectful. Seemed like a super-nice kid.
Over the course of that school year, Tyler told us how Zach would be absent for days at a time. Then, on one occasion, when Zach returned to school, and they were getting dressed for PE, Tyler noticed bruises and welts on Zach’s back–like he had been beaten with a belt or something.
Later that week I stopped for coffee one morning at the convenience store near the school…I saw Zach’s stepfather Robert in the parking lot…I had every intent of confronting him about what I perceived to be abuse…when he beat me to the punch.
Robert began tearfully telling me about how he and Zach’s mother had discovered that Zach was “queer.” They had been spending hundreds of dollars taking Zack periodically to this religious, cult-like, gay de-programming camp in Western NC where they sought to convert Zack to normalcy, using boot camp-style methods. Robert said the de-programming had not worked, and that he was a failure, and he was convinced his stepson was going to go to hell for being gay. And yes, he had lost his temper and tried beat it out of Zach.
I honestly felt both rage and pity as that man sat there sobbing and pounding his steering wheel in total frustration. On the one hand, it was obscene what he had put Zach through. Totally unacceptable. And yet, I knew that I would probably be feeling a lot of the same pain if my own son had confessed to me that he was gay. Robert asked me what he should do…and I told him he needed to pray for forgiveness, and then go read the gospels and try to discover how Jesus would deal with all he and his son were going through.
Fast forward four years. Zach was still quite gay. Robert was dying of a malignant brain tumor that had not responded to treatments. Unfortunately, the tumor had left this man even more bitter and malicious toward Zach. And yet, this teenager stood by his stepdad the entire time, taking the meanness, praying with him, lifting him, turning him, feeding him, giving him pain medicine, holding a pan for him to puke in, changing his diaper, cleaning up the diarrhea-soaked bed linens.
Zach cared for his stepfather with Christ-like, sacrificial love till the day the man died. And somehow in the midst of all his dementia Robert came to a recommitment of his life to Christ just a week before he died. And, yes, he found forgiveness from his stepson for all the hell he had put Zach through.
I’m proud to say Zach has grown up to be a tremendous young man. After a few years of managing businesses after college, Zach felt called to go into law enforcement. He completed his training last year and is now serving as a deputy.
I share all of this with you because it made me look deeply into my own heart. I realized that if God would exclude a young man with a forgiving faith like Zach from His eternal Kingdom, then I certainly was not worthy to enter that Kingdom either. For I have seldom seen such Christ-like love demonstrated in the face of such nasty persecution by anyone of any orientation.
Yes, if I were to pin any label on Zach, it would be the label Christian.
In wrapping all this up, let me say that, after living 60 years upon this earth, of which 39 years have been spent in pastoral ministry, I have reached a place where I find myself fully convicted and convinced of one eternal truth–that all God’s people, regardless of their race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, whatever–all God’s people are worthy of His love–for God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son to die on a cross to prove it! God exhibits, not prohibits, grace!
Know that no matter who or what you are, you are welcomed by God.
And you are welcomed by this Vision of Hope Church Family.
God has done so much good through Vision of Hope over these past 16 years, and also through the Mt. Sinai foreparents who birthed us, whose legacy dates all the way back to 1870!
Wouldn’t it be a heartbreaking shame to see us divided and destroyed by an issue that Jesus himself did not even consider worth mentioning?
However, Jesus did say this:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
I close with the statement of John Wesley that echoed these words of our Lord, “If we cannot all think alike, can we learn to love alike… Can we be of one heart even if we are not of one opinion?”
That, my friends, is the ultimate question I invite you to ponder.
To God be the glory… Amen!