Saint John’s United Methodist Church
June 5, 2016
Dr. Dorothee Benz
Galatians 5: 1, 13-14
Stand Firm in Your Freedom
Dedicated to Greg Dell
I’m so glad to be here this afternoon with all of you, and honored by your invitation. Carol and I have been soaking up the Texas hospitality since yesterday… the Broken Spoke, Dale Watson, two-steppin, biscuits and gravy…
But most importantly, it feels so good to be among people who welcome us unequivocally as we are,who believe we should be part of the United Methodist Church, who celebrate the awesome mystery that is the diversity of God’s creation. It feels good to be among people who know, as Lady Gaga put it, that “God makes no mistakes.”
It’s a welcome relief from the way I felt for two weeks at General Conference, where God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer children are very much treated like “mistakes,” or in the infamous words of the church’s Book of Discipline, “incompatible with Christian teaching.” And as I voted in vain to overturn the discriminatory rules of the church; as I watched General Conference business continue as usual while hundreds of us protested; as I listened to church leaders implicate Jesus in their bigotry by praying in his name after they had voted to deny us sanctuary – I began to feel queasier and queasier about today’s scripture.
For the last month I’ve kept a post-it on my computer screen with these verses, a constant invitation for me to wrestle with the lived meaning of the scripture. And the word “freedom” stuck in my craw. Exactly what kind of freedom do queer people have in this church? How can I “stand firm” in something I don’t have? “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” I thought.
And boy, let me tell you, General Conference really did feel like “nothing left to lose.”
All efforts to undo even one iota of the church’s discrimination – against ordination of LGBTQ people, against marriage, against using church funds to defend our human rights – were rebuffed. The compromise proposals that so many moderates and institutionalists had set their hopes on went down in flames. At the sub-committee level we even voted against an anti-bullying petition because it included queer youth; some of the speeches against that resolution were an open call to child abuse. We debated the merits of conversion therapy – outlawed in several states but still legitimized in our church. The Judicial Administration Committee voted to impose mandatory sentences on clergy who dare to minister to queer parishioners by officiating at their weddings (later thankfully overturned by the Judicial Council).
And it wasn’t just LGBTQ people who lost at this General Conference. We celebrated the 60th anniversary of women’s ordination by voting against comprehensive healthcare, family planning and reproductive choice for women. We glorified God’s creation in worship and then voted to continue wrecking the planet by refusing to divest from fossil fuel industries. We also refused to divest from investments in illegal settlements in occupied Palestine, even though the UMC is already on record in opposition to them. We said nothing about the epidemic of police violence against people of color or the Black Lives Matter movement; we said nothing about the rising tide of anti-Muslim hate in our nation; nor about the crisis of immigrants and refugees fleeing violence and seeking refuge on our shores.
And when it was all over, the Southern Baptist Church issued a press release praising the UMC.
What more is there to say, really?
Some folks have looked with hope to the proposal from the bishops, tabling further harmful legislation at this General Conference and setting up a special commission to revisit the church’s teaching and policies around LGBTQ discrimination. It’s true that worse things would have happened without the bishops’ proposal, but a quick look at the history of the previous three commissions set up to study “the issue” should put to rest any hopes that the outcome will be different this time around.
But as bad as all this was, I have to tell you, the hardest part of General Conference for me took place away from all the votes and speeches and protests, in a private meeting.
There was a moment when I got up to speak in favor of a motion and started to explain that my reason for supporting it was that I thought it would help deepen the conversation about how the church treats lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. And the moment I said those words, I was ruled out of order by the presiding bishop. It was clear that the very mention of our existence was considered so controversial, so toxic, that in the name of unity we were just to be erased from view altogether.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my delegation was so incensed by this treatment that they filed a formal complaint and demanded an apology to me and to the body. In the aftermath, the lay leader of our delegation, Fred Brewington, suggested that the bishop meet with me and for us to negotiate an apology statement together.
And so Fred and I spent over two hours talking with this bishop, asking her to make a simple statement that named lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people as a part of the United Methodist Church. “I can’t do that,” she said, “because that would make some other people angry.”
Of everything that happened to me in those two weeks, that happened to LGBTQ people, this was the lowest moment. To sit across from one of our episcopal leaders, the supposed shepherds of the United Methodist flock, and hear her say that she was unwilling to even mention us by name because it would upset other people, was enraging.
But it also turned out to be the moment that started to bring the meaning of today’s scripture for queer United Methodists into focus for me. I became aware of just how relevant it is for us here and now.
To see what I mean, we have to step back from the three individual verses and look at the struggles of the early church that Paul was caught up in and that he was addressing here in Galatians.
Paul is writing to the Galatians during the first big crisis in the early church, essentially an identity crisis about how the Jesus movement understood itself in relation to its Jewish roots. Jesus was Jewish, so were his disciples and the first adherents to the new movement. But then the movement grew and soon it included non-Jews, Gentiles in the language of the Bible; and some people, Paul in particular, understood their call as one to bring the Good News specifically to non-Jews. This in itself was controversial, but by the time we get to this point in the story – when Paul is writing to the church in Galatia – that ship has sailed. Now there are non-Jewish members of the church and the question is, How do we deal with that reality? What does it mean? Who are we now?
This debate played out against the backdrop of the Roman Empire, the brutal, dominant reality for people throughout the early Christian world. Holding onto a stable identity is even more important in the face of foreign occupation; it’s a way to define yourself on your own terms and not just in relation to a subjugating power. So the struggle became one about whose vision of the church could claim the true mantle of Jewish heritage, and the particular question it centered on was the status of Jewish law. Did the new non-Jewish converts have to observe Jewish law?
This is where the letter to the Galatians enters the story. It’s Paul’s take on the question of whether the new converts have to follow Jewish law, in the context of his mission to the non-Jewish world.
Paul is not some neutral observer here, some dispassionate commentator. He is in the middle of this controversy as the strongest proponent of one view in it. And it really is the middle of the story; we’re coming in here in Galatians not at the end of the controversy, but right in the thick of it, right in the middle of the crisis. It’s a picture of the church in transition, a dynamic situation.
In the United Methodist Church in 2016, we also find ourselves in the middle of a crisis, a controversy, a church in transition trying to figure out who we are. And while the particular historical circumstances are quite different, and we need to resist facile comparisons, the lessons of Paul’s advocacy here are extremely relevant and they speak directly to us.
Let’s start at the back of the three verses from today’s scripture. “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” Paul says. It has a familiar ring, right? When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… and the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus spent his whole ministry living that out – healing people, feeding people; eating with, talking with, touching those his society deemed not respectable or acceptable. And when people asked him, “who is my neighbor?” he told stories that made it clear everyone is your neighbor. “As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me,” he says.
And when it comes to putting “love your neighbor” in perspective to the law, here’s Jesus saying to his critics among the religious authorities, “the sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath.”
So what’s it going to be, United Methodist Church? Are we going to love our lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender, and queer neighbors and offer them pastoral care, let our ministers officiate their weddings, let them follow their call into ministry, defend their rights in our society and our world – or are we going to stand on some crusty old piece of the Book of Discipline that says we can’t do that?
Jesus’s answer seems pretty clear.
And so does Paul’s. What I love about Paul here is that he brings the analytical and philosophical angle to it. It’s not just that “love your neighbor” is the right thing to do, or trumps some other smaller commandments, or is part of “the greatest commandment,” as Jesus says – no, Paul is telling us “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment.” “Love your neighbor” is the very essence of the law.
You want to know who we are as a people? Paul says, What’s our way forward now that we have Jews and non-Jews in our movement and we’re not sure what to do with the Jewish law? It’s not about 600-something specific rules, it’s about how we live, how we treat each other. That is our heritage, that is what makes us church. Amen?
And do I need to even say it? What makes us Methodists, let alone Christians, isn’t that we follow every dot and tittle in the Book of Discipline, that we take all six special Sunday offerings every year, that we keep membership records offsite and secure, and it’s certainly not that we fire queer ministers and bring charges against ministers who perform weddings for their queer parishioners.
What makes us Methodists, and Christians, and followers of Jesus is that we love our neighbors, all of them, everywhere, and we take care of the least of these.
I don’t care how many times Good News and the IRD and Bishop Scott Jones say the word “covenant” and say that we are “breaking the covenant” when queer pastors speak with integrity and authenticity or straight pastors offer ministry to LGBTQ people, they have no idea what the word covenant means. Covenants are about relationships, and relationships are about how we treat each other, and the Bible tells us over and over we are supposed to love one another.
Denying people like T.C. Morrow the chance to answer her call to ministry isn’t about any covenant.
Nor is hounding people like Cynthia Meyer out of her pulpit. That’s not called “loving your neighbor.” It’s called persecution.
Paul knew a thing or two about persecution. And he knew what it was like to be in the middle of conflict. To have people he was working with in the same movement tell him he was wrong, that his vision of the church was wrong.
Here in Galatians, he’s in the middle of this big fight in the early church, with folks on one side saying, we have to follow the law, that’s our tradition, that’s our roadmap, that’s how we know who we are; and folks on the other side – led by Paul – saying no, that’s not what defines us, it’s not the specifics of the law that make us us, and those specifics don’t make sense any more with the way our movement has grown. We have to find a new way to understand who we are, it’s just as rooted in our tradition, but it’s a new paradigm and to move forward and grow, we have to change and we have to live into this new vision.
Friends, does this sound familiar? We are in the middle of a fight for the soul of the United Methodist Church.
On the one side are conservatives desperate to hold onto an archaic view of human sexuality, rejecting all modern scientific and medical knowledge of how sexuality works, and insistent on prosecuting and punishing those of us who understand that the Bible is no more textbook on biology than it is a textbook on astronomy. It took the Catholic Church 364 years to admit Galileo was right, perhaps not a hopeful sign for us. For now, the conservatives have church law on their side, and have insisted that legalism is central to the vision of who we are as a church.
On the other side, we have a different vision. One that accepts modern science, rejects selective biblical literalism; but more importantly, one that believes that the essence of the law is summed up in the commandment to love your neighbor. It’s a vision of a church that is dynamic and changing, a church that responds to new knowledge and new circumstances with a new paradigm that is rooted in the foundational understanding of our faith as centered in love.
Paul defines this new vision in the language of freedom. Given that we’re on the short end of the prosecution stick in our own struggle, I know it doesn’t feel much like freedom. But let’s look at what Paul is saying.
Paul isn’t talking about freedom to do whatever you want; that’s clear from the text and also from the rest of the chapter.
But in saying that Christ has called us to freedom, and trying to understand Paul’s choice of that word, note that Paul isn’t saying that we should wait until the church authorities get together and decide to formally stop following the old Jewish law, or change the Book of Discipline. No, quite the opposite. He’s saying not only that we can, but that we must live into the new understanding now, we must claim that freedom now. It’s what Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now.” It’s the freedom to live as we should, as we ought, and live into it now.
And isn’t that exactly what we have been doing as a movement?
Across our denomination there are thousands of clergy who are living into a new understanding of their ordination vows to “seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people” by pledging publicly to marry all couples, gay and straight, on an equal basis. They are heeding Bishop Talbert’s call to “perform marriages for same-sex couples and to do so in the course of their normal pastoral duties.”
In the New York Annual Conference, 15 LGBTQ clergy came out and issued an open letter to the people of the United Methodist Church, calling on queer clergy everywhere to come out; calling on boards of ordained ministry to declare policies of nondiscrimination in their evaluation of candidates; calling on bishops to refuse to prosecute complaints based on bigoted church law; and calling on United Methodists across the country to come to General Conference and protest.
And what happened?
A week later, 111 queer United Methodists clergy came out.
And then 2,300 straight clergy allies signed a pledge saying, “If a clergy person is removed from their charge for being LGBTQI, we will refuse to fill their pulpit.”
The boards of ordained ministry in New York and Baltimore-Washington, and then in Pacific Northwest and then Northern Illinois all publicly declared that sexual orientation and gender identity will not play a role in their decisions.
Hundreds of people descended on Portland at the General Conference, and they stood in protest with their hands bound, they mouths duct-taped, their feet hogtied; they lined the outside of the convention center; they marched across the floor of the conference; they sang, they chanted.
We are called to freedom, my friends. We are called to live into a new vision of what it means to be a church, to take up Paul’s challenge to leave behind the safety of old structures and old rules and be the living, breathing, growing, dynamic church of Jesus Christ.
Now I’ve saved the toughest part of this scripture lesson for last. You’ve come with me this far; I need you to go all the way with me.
Paul says, “Stand firm… and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” That’s some pretty strong language. Stand firm in your commitment to the new vision of what church can be, stand firm in your freedom. Backsliding into the old way, Paul says, is tantamount to slavery.
It’s the language of resistance, and it’s strong language. Because Paul knows that the church is in the middle of this struggle and there is pushback. Oh so much pushback. But we have to stand firm. We have to resist those messages that say you can’t do this, it’s too scary, you have to follow the old way, we’re not ready for the new way, be patient, follow the rules. Stand firm in your freedom.
Because there are those who file complaints and bring charges and threaten trials when we live into the new vision, when we do weddings or refuse to be silent any longer. Stand firm in your freedom.
There are those who criticize us, say that we’re just picking and choosing whatever rules we want to follow, we’re breaking covenant, we’re bringing chaos to the church. We have to stand firm, take that heat, and keep moving forward. Stand firm in your freedom.
There are those who say they agree with us but we need to be patient, change will come, but we have to follow the rules. They will tell you you are alienating allies, that the new way is counterproductive. Stand firm in your freedom.
There are those who say we are causing conflict and tension and threatening the unity of the church.
People who, in the words of Martin Luther King, prefer order over justice, “a negative peace that is the absence of tension to a positive peace that is the presence of justice.” We have to stand firm and say to them, with King, we are not afraid of the word tension, there is a constructive tension that is necessary for growth. And I say to you, to move forward we need more and not less of that constructive tension. Stand firm in your freedom.
There are bishops who will say “I can’t do that because that would make some other people angry.”
Oh yes, we need to stand firm in the face of that!
Let me tell you what I said to that bishop. I leaned over, looked her in the eye, and said to her, “Bishop, you need to understand that you have two choices in this situation. You can placate the majority that holds power in this church and that keeps in place a set of oppressive rules, or you can offer some small solace and pastoral care to the oppressed minority. You cannot do both, and your silence is a choice.”
She made her choice. And we made ours. We stood outside the bar of General Conference and lined the exit with rows of people with rainbow duct tape covering their mouths while the New York and New England delegations stood together at the mic as Fred denounced the bishop’s censorship.
These are our choices: Stand firm, or submit to a yoke of slavery. Live into a new vision of what the church can be, or cling to old structures. Stand with the oppressed, or placate the majority in power.
Work for a just church, or work for an orderly church.
Those are the choices. There are no other ones. Stand firm in your freedom.