Let’s Talk (A Testimony on Beliefs about Homosexuality)
Last February, a little over a year ago now, the leadership the General Conference of the United Methodist Church got together in St. Louis Missouri in a special called General conference to talk for three days over the issue of our stance on homosexuality and homosexual behavior. The stated purpose was to attempt to find a way forward together, in unity, between those who believed on the side that was being called a traditionalist viewpoint and those who believed on the side being called a progressive viewpoint. There was three days of conversation. It was tense, it was personal, I would say it was un-Christlike. And ultimately we did not find a way forward together; we doubled down on one side. The next Sunday I said at that point that I did not see a way forward for us together any longer. That this denomination will schism, it was only a question of how. Would we get together like adults and go through a formal divorce and divide up the property, or would it be kind of organic with just a slow drain of people leaving and 20 years from now we look back and say “wow, 40% of the church just walked out the door.” I didn’t know how it was going to be, but I knew that from what I saw it was clear there’s no way forward together.
It would appear that much of General Conference seemed to agree with me as there’s been five or six plans put forward and all but one of them are in some manner or another either complete redesign into a completely different organisational structure or a way to divide up the church into progressive and traditionalist or progressive and traditional and centrist wings. That makes me sad, but it kind of is something that I have resigned myself to for over year now.
But if the one that seems to be most likely to pass right now passes, is that it will force every local church to have a conversation surrounding the question of what we believe about homosexuality. Most local congregations that I have been a part of it or spoken to have the stance that “this will not affect me,” including for the most part both you and Bucyrus. And so what I want to say clearly here is that I am doing this because that is not the case; this will affect every single local church in the United Methodist Church. Unless you just want to put your head completely into the sand, which I don’t want to do. But I will warn you it probably already affected you anyway, you just didn’t realize it.
But we’re going to have to have this discussion. And so I know that discussion is coming, that we’re going to have to have that. And, as I said last week I would rather have it now, or at least begin it now, when we can somewhat be rational, rather than this fall. So we’re going to have that discussion as much as we can during Lent.
And in order to lead that discussion I feel it is important to be transparent. And so today I’m going to give you my testimony surrounding my belief on homosexual practice. And this is a testimony, a story, of where I am and why I am there. The purpose of this is not to change your mind to either agree with me or to disagree with me, the purpose is to merely be transparent and to say where I am, and to get you maybe thinking about where are you why are you there. And if you don’t share my view, to think about how someone might think in a way that arrives at a different conclusion. I ask you to respect me, and I promise to respect you; that if you bring your testimony over to the Bible study in the next couple of weeks as we talk about this very question and begin the discussion together, or if you just come up on your own in the various times during office hours, or if you just call me that I promise here that I will respect you. I only ask if you would respect me.
First, what I’m saying today is my beliefs, my story. And I can’t change that to ensure that God would definitely agree with everything. Which is why I’m down here instead of up there, where I try and be as sure as I can that God would agree with what I’m saying. The reality is that 53% of the United Methodist Church believes one way on this question and 47% believe the other way; how can we be sure that God would agree with us on either side when the other side is just as sure?
So I lived a pretty sheltered childhood overall, which I don’t begrudge in the slightest, but it’s true. For most of my childhood I believed “gay” to be a slur that you threw it something that was stupid. The word gay was synonymous with stupid. People weren’t gay; things were. Somewhere in the back my head I knew that gay was with something a person could be, but that didn’t really click with me in any way. The first encounter that I had with a person being gay was one of my friends in 2004. He was a senior, I was a junior, and in the midst of our conversation with a couple of friends it came out that he was gay. And I don’t know if he meant to or not, but he looked immediately at me and tried to reassure me. I don’t know if it was because he knew I was religious and he had had encounters with religious people before or what it was, but he tried to reassure me by saying “don’t worry, you’re not my type.” And I thought “I don’t know whether to be relieved or offended right now.” That was my first encounter with a person who was gay. And it was a friend. And he didn’t change. He was still a friend after that. I didn’t know it was wrong, and so I didn’t think anything of it.
He had a boyfriend at the time who did not go to Olathe East, and he wanted to bring his boyfriend to prom. And a petition began going around the school, 1500 students, that the administration would not allow same-sex couples to come to prom. And the petition got at least 500, probably about 800, signatures. I don’t remember the exact number, but we got a lot of Signatures and the administration bowed to it and passed a rule that you could not bring a same-sex partner to prom. But remember that I was friends with him, so I got to watch the pain that having at least a third if not half of your peers say that you were an “other” did to him. Now it wound up being that one of his friends who happened to be female did not get a date, so she brought his boyfriend to prom, and so they got around it; but I got to see in that moment that getting around something wasn’t good enough. There still was a pain, even if you had all the benefits of bringing your partner to prom, it wasn’t the same. I saw the pain in his eyes.
I continued on through the end of my high school the beginning of college. I had some more friends that came out as gay or lesbian. And again, my pastors never talked about the subject. I am not being judgemental towards them, I haven’t talked about it in six years either. But we never talked about the subject, so I didn’t know that the Discipline said it was wrong, that it was “incompatible with Christian teaching.” All I knew was my friend he said he was gay and nothing changed. He or she was still my friend and life moved on.
Then I accepted a call into Ministry and I arrived at the campus of Methodist Theological School in Ohio. And early on in my first semester one of my classmates came up and asked me: if we split over this homosexuality thing, which side are you going to go on? This is the big thing in the church and we might divide over homosexuality, so which side are you going to go on? And I thought about it for a little bit, and I told her “I will go wherever my local church goes.” I was saying it won’t affect me, so I’m just going to go wherever my family goes. My local church was my family, and that’s all that really matters. It won’t affect me because I’m not going to let it.
While I was in seminary we had a couple of professors, some of my favorite professors, who came out as lesbians (not together). Several of my classmates and friends came out as lesbian, gay or transgender, the first to come out to me as transgender. They were part of my my inner group, and they were a part of my friends. And I begin to have to wrestle with this question. This was going to be a big question in the life of the church while I am in leadership, so I need to understand it and have a thought on this. So I begin like any great graduate school student; the first thing I did was to begin to study.
I went up to my room one morning and I began to look at what were the church teachings. What has the church taught on this issue over the years? And I began with the Book of Discipline to figure out what the teaching has been. The Discipline of the Methodist church since 1972 has included the phrase “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” And I looked through the rest of Christian teaching, otherwise known as Christian tradition, I came to the conclusion that that is a factually accurate statement. Many places throughout certainly 1800s and early 1900s homosexuality is expressly condemned by Christian teaching. Before then it’s not a gigantic question and so the teachers don’t really teach on it that much, but certainly there’s nothing before 1950 or so that begins to say anything positive about it, and even then it’s not a large segment of Christian teaching until roughly the 1970s or 80s. So I said “OK, that’s the statement. That’s what my church believes.” And remember what is most important to me was that it wasn’t going to affect me, that wherever my church goes was where I would end up. So that’s what my church believed, so it was done.
Then I went to class and listen to my ordained in the United Church of Christ lesbian instructor, and then went to lunch with my transgender friend and my lesbian friend both on path to ordination in the UCC, and I came back to my room and said “let’s rethink this for a moment.” Because and I was still sure at the time it wouldn’t affect me, but it will affect my friends. They can’t run from this, so I need to really think this through myself.
Now, a brief lesson in the way that Methodists interpret Scripture for new things that Scripture didn’t talk about. We interpret using something that is called colloquially the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. What that means is that we have Scripture; Scripture is the thing that we look at first and foremost, and the most important thing for determining what God is thinking on any one given idea. The problem is, of course, a Christian teaching changes over time. I just mentioned already that slavery was OK for 1800 years, and then it wasn’t. So how does a change happen after 1800 years? What we would say is that there are three other things that God uses to enlighten and refine our view of Scripture: Holy conversation amongst the Saints, what we call Christian tradition, both of saints who came before as well as those that we have now; reason and human intellect that God has granted us; and then our own experience. God can work those things in order to teach us how to change our thinking, or to use a more Christian term refine us and perfect us as we move forward through the ages.
What was happening with me was that my experience was not resonating with the tradition that I was reading. So I had to sit down and I had to wrestle with that, and prayerfully consider what God was really teaching me in the mist of that moment. Now, there are six verses that typically the ones that we say deal with homosexuality. Those six verses are three in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament. They are the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where it is said that the sin of Sodom was sodomy, which is another word for male homosexual behavior. Then there are two in Leviticus; perhaps the most famous of which is chapter 18 verse 22: “you shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.” Another verse in Leviticus that states that if you do, if someone does commit a homosexual behavior, that they should be put to death. And then the three in the New Testament are all in Paul’s letters, where he condemns those who practice sexual immorality, and includes homosexual behavior in that definition.
Even then I had long since had to wrestle with Paul, because Paul also is the primary person who has the scriptures that deal with women in leadership, and in particular women in leadership of the church. He’s the one talking about head covering, talking about how women should be silent and should not be teaching men, and all of that stuff. That all comes from Paul. And being a United Methodist, I had long since had to deal with that. Because I had had women pastors. In fact when I went to Emporia we had three clergy at the front of the church and all three were women. So I had already come to the conclusion that maybe Paul says some things that we don’t necessarily still believe. And I already had this idea that although it’s still Scripture and above all other forms of writing, and useful for instruction, that Paul’s letters were the writing of a human inspired by God, but the writing of a human nonetheless. If they are came in conflict with the red letters of the Bible; the words of Jesus, or words that were prefaced by “thus says the Lord,” or the first five books of the Bible, particularly Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Those are the direct words of God, and those would take precedent over the words of a man inspired by God. So putting Paul on the back burner wasn’t difficult.
And I am one who believes that sin of Sodom was inhospitality rather than homosexuality. But there was still Leviticus. The words that are dictated as the words of God in the Scripture saying pretty clearly that this is an abomination. This is not something that should be practiced. And I ultimately just could not get past that. So I began to really settle in on what would be deemed today a centrist opinion, which was “you do you, I’ll do me. But I would not be doing a homosexual wedding. I would not be blessing that kind of thing.” Because I couldn’t get past Leviticus. That’s where I was as we entered the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2012.
Now as I have been saying, this wasn’t going to affect me. But it clearly affects The United Methodist Church. So General Conference all came together, and he’s ugly. We spent two weeks talking through and positioning ourselves for this discussion, and then we had this discussion, and it’s ugly and ultimately nothing gets done. And I don’t just mean on homosexuality; literally nothing got done. And the only significant thing the passed in 2012 was organizational and was promptly thrown out by our Supreme Court.
And I was watching as my Church failed to do any ministry because we’re having this argument. And I was watching my friends that’s part of the United Church of Christ, but still a United Methodist seminary watching this happen. And this would impact them and they’re standing with their school. And I began to ask “how does God let this happen?” 2012 was a pretty dark time in my life anyway, but it was especially marred by this. And for a year I struggled with whether or not to remain Christian. Not Methodist; Christian.
Ultimately I came to the decision to remain Christian, and part of the reason for that was that I began studying the teachings of Wesley himself and I fell in love with Wesley himself. One of the reasons that I am still Christian is because of Wesley. But it was hard, and it was a very real possibility that I could’ve completely fallen away. And part of the reason for that is watching the church argue over this question. But I really wasn’t swayed one way or the other. And as I walked out the doors of seminary in 2014, I was still in the centrist mindset of live and let live you do you all do me, and it won’t affect me. I’m not gonna let it affect me. Surely they’ll get together in 2016 and they’ll figure it out and I won’t have to worry about it.
My first year I went up to one of our youth and I asked if he was wanting to join the church, if he wanted to go through confirmation at least and find out more information. He said “let me think about it,” so I said OK. It was one of their fundraising meals, and so I went to the office when I was done eating. And he walked in with his mother and asks “before I can go to confirmation I need to know what the church’s stance is on LGBT issues.” It won’t affect me… I gave the church’s stance: “that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and we don’t have a stance currently on transgender.” And he said OK and he walked out the door of the office. And he did not come to confirmation. And I think he showed up five more times the next two years to church. By the end of the year he would tell me that he was Buddhist now.
You see, that’s what happens with this. When people don’t like our stance on this, they don’t leave the Methodist Church, they leave the church. They don’t wind up in the UCC or another more liberal denomination; they leave the church. Earlier I said that I think this has impacted you and you just don’t know it. How many of your children are here? How many of my generation are here? A few. Hi. Welcome! How many of your children are in church anywhere? They don’t just leave the Methodist Church, they leave the church. And if you firmly believe that the only way to Heaven is through Christ, that should scare the living daylights out of you. It does to me. It should make you stop and think at least. You don’t have to come to the conclusion that the stance should change, but it should make you stop and think. Why is the millennial generation leaving church? I would contend the number one reason is we do not accept their friends, and too many Christian teachers are up on TV telling them that their friends are an abomination that deserves to be stoned to death. And they’re wondering why they should give the God that tells them that the light of day. That’s my experience with my friends at least.
When pastors think about issues, not just this one but any issue, it’s not abstract for us. Nothing is abstract for us. Every question, every issue, everything that you talk about amongst your friends has a face for us. It’s the face of the one who has to come into the office crying, the one that we stop our day for in order to listen to and minister to. Everything has a face. When we think about what we should do, we’re thinking about what it does to that face. At least I am. And as I’ve had to deal with this question the faces the keep popping into my mind are the face of my friend from high school, the face of this young man from Quinter. He ultimately came out of transgendered, a transgender male, to the high school. And he watched as his peers formulated write a petition to not allow him to use the bathroom he wanted to use. The same face, the same pain. Now there was a law that said the school had to accommodate, so they said “you can use the locker room that sports teams change in.” A special bathroom just for you! Again a workaround. And again that wasn’t good enough. It still causes pain. He still knew that his friends and peers didn’t respect him enough that they formulated a petition to force him to do something. To declare him an other. And ultimately he had to leave his mother and move to his aunt in Lawrence, a more liberal town, in order to have some semblance of not being an abomination. And when I heard that he had slit his wrists it crushed me. He was lucky; his mother was lucky. She didn’t have to bury her son. But a lot of people do.
For me this question has a face. In Edgerton, three years ago now, there was a pastor who came out after 25 years of ministry, and was put on trial for it and ultimately kicked out of the church. It has her face too. And the pain that I’ve seen in their faces. And I couldn’t be centrist anymore. My experience, my reason, was saying that it’s not important enough; that this one verse is not large enough to warrant people killing themselves. Literally killing themselves.
But what ultimately solidified myself in my opinion on this particular question was a trip through Scripture a couple years ago. And something that struck me and answered the last lingering question I had, which was what do you do about Leviticus? Peter is an interesting character. In Acts, Peter has this vision of a bunch of animals that were declared unclean by Leviticus descend in front of him. And a voice from heaven says “Peter, take and eat.” And Peter says “no Lord, I know I cannot eat bacon. Bacon is completely unclean and nothing unclean has ever touched my lips!” And this repeats three times before he finally gets up and eats. And then the vision disappears. And there standing in front of him is a man from Joppa saying “I have been sent by God from a Roman leader, a Roman general in Joppa, that I need to come and find a guy named Peter because he had a story to tell us. That he had good news to be brought to my master.” Peter goes with him, and he baptizes the Gentiles.
Now Leviticus is very, very clear: you can’t bring a Gentile into the family. If you do, you and the Gentile could be consumed by fire for having brought the unholy Gentile that close to the Lord. That was a very clear thing that they were certain of at the time. And so when Peter gets back, the Church brings him in and puts him on trial. Peter has to explain. And this is the Scripture I was reading: Acts 11. Peter says, “I went with the man. I had just had this vision where God said ‘what God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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?” It was an argument that wins over the church, and they accept Gentiles into their midst. In spite of Leviticus. And thanks be to God for that, because almost everyone in this room would not be here if they didn’t.
And I looked at the ministry of my friends from seminary who were homosexual and ordained in another denomination, and I saw the spirit moving within them. I looked at how it was this lesbian professor who taught me the most about how to be a Christian out of and all the professors that I had in seminary. And I wondered how the Spirit could move in an abomination. I looked at Edgerton; 25 years of ministry in the United Methodist Church, never had a problem with the bishop before, always had a placement moving on up the ranks so to speak. Then she comes out as gay. And she’s been gay for all those years of Ministry. The Spirit knew that, right? And all of a sudden she was a problem and she has to be removed. And I said, “you know what? I think I see the fruit of the Spirit in the ministry in the lives of these homosexual people, these people engaging in homosexual activity. And if the Spirit doesn’t have a problem with it, how can I? If the spirit has said something is clean, how can I call it profane?” So today I firmly stand on what’s been called a progressive side, that God is using our reason and our experience in this generation to challenge the teaching of the last 200 years on consensual homosexual behavior. And should there be a divide, I will go with the side that believes that. Regardless of what my local church does.
You don’t have to agree with that, but again I ask that you respect that. And that as we engage in this conversation together, and as we enter into what promises to be the most contentious and ugliest presidential election since the mid-1800s at least, I want you to understand how to have a respectful discussion. Because this is my story, this is my experience, this is the way I have encountered the world. And you have encountered the world differently. And maybe that leads you to another place. And that’s OK. I can still hold your hand and feed the poor. I can still hold your hand and do ministry.
When I walked in the door on that snowy morning a year ago and said that I do not believe that there is a way forward any longer for the United Methodist Church, that’s because of what I had seen. I had seen that the leadership of General Conference was no longer able to treat each other with respect, was no longer able to have a discussion like adults. And so we couldn’t move forward together. And I still believe that. But I do think that we might still be able to have a special discussion, that we might still be able to talk like adults listen to each other here. Listen to listen, not to respond. Respect one another. And if we do that, and that is certainly what I as the pastor of this local church am going to try and foster here. If we do that, there may yet be a way forward for our local church together in unity. Wherever we might go, that is my goal. That is the only thing I’m going to ask you to believe walking out of here: we can do this. We can have a discussion, and whichever way we wind up going, we can do so together.
Ultimately, that is the wish of Jesus Christ. On the night which he was betrayed, he instituted a meal together, a meal that has been brought to signify and call for our unity, to say that we are one even though we are in different places physically, theologically, mentally, or emotionally. That we remain one because Christ is one. So on this day especially, I ask: will join me in the practice of the Eucharist? Amen.