Preachers, are you looking for sermon starters and sample sermons about inclusion in Christ’s church? We’re here to help, and are collecting resources to encourage sound biblical preaching regarding LGBTQ people. If you have a preaching resource that you would like listed, please recommend it to us by emailing resources@roomforall.com.

Out In Scripture provides weekly commentary on the scripture lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary. It is an excellent preaching aid.

Scripture and Moral Discernment is a study released in January, 2013 by representatives and writers from the four Formula of Agreement denominations (United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA) and Reformed Church in America). The document seeks to affirm those things that all four communions hold in common, including what we say about Scripture and how we read it.

Sample sermons preached in RCA pulpits

A Letter to Hannah (John 14:15-21, Peter 3:13-22) - Rev. Sophie Mathonnet-VanderWell

John 14:15-21, Peter 3:13-22

Dear Hannah,

I am writing to you on the most important day of your life! You may be surprised that I am calling it the most important day. I know that there will be many other important, maybe even more memorable days for you and your family—the day you take your first step, your first day in kindergarten, the day you graduate from high school, your wedding day, perhaps the birth of your own child. But as your pastor, I want to remind you that today is still the most important day of your life!

Today marks the beginning of a journey for you. Today, as you and your parents come forward, with the whole church we will publicly acknowledge your identity as a child of God, as God’s beloved. And we will do that as those who have already come to know that we are beloved because of the grace of God for us in Jesus Christ. Today, Hannah, you are joining the company of those who have pledged and been pledged to follow in the footsteps of the one who was crucified and rose again.

As the baptismal liturgy will make it quite clear in a few moments, Hannah,

We belong to God. You may not know it or understand it now, but my prayer is that someday you will. When I hold you, I will whisper in your ear, “Hannah Christine, it was for you that Jesus Christ came into the world; for you he died and for you he conquered death. Yes, for you, little one, you who know nothing of it as yet. We love because God first loved us.” The Heidelberg Catechism puts it in more beautiful words still. Hannah, we are not our own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful savior Jesus Christ.

Don’t be afraid, little one. As you become older, you will discover that there are many things that people fear. As you grow up, there will be times when you are afraid of monsters under your bed, of being lost, or of the dark, but grown-ups can be afraid sometimes too. We are afraid of people’s anger and their rejection, afraid of accidents, of failure, of being alone, or afraid of sickness and death. But you don’t have be afraid little one.

You may not understand it now, but someday I hope you will. In our baptisms, you see, we have confronted our ultimate fear. The Bible tells us that in our baptisms we are buried with Christ in his death, so that we may also be raised to the power of new life, like his. That’s right Hannah—in baptism we die—we die to sin, to our old selves, —and the life we now live, Christ lives in us.

Someone once said that “baptism is God’s music in our lives. It is the melody that calls us back again and again to the knowledge that we are not alone.” As you go through life, Hannah, unfortunately, you will meet up against people and things that will try to make you forget your baptismal identity.

  • When other children tease you on the playground and say mean things to you to make you feel left out and small, when they try to hang another label on you than “beloved of God,” remember your baptism!
  • When you are tempted to do things that are wrong, or hurtful to yourself and to others, remember your baptism!
  • When everything, from the clothes you wear, the friends you hang out with, the jobs you get, the money you earn, try to make you forget that you are first and foremost a Christian (one of Christ’s little ones), remember your baptism!
  • When the world would have you so preoccupied and busy with a hundred different things that you do not have time to come and find life in Christ’s Word proclaimed and at Christ’s table, remember your baptism!
  • When other siren songs promise you what can only be found in Christ; lasting security, perfect peace, enduring joy, undying love, remember your baptism!

The great Reformer, Martin Luther, was himself plagued with great bouts of depression. In moments of despair, the only words that would help him to grasp hope were the words he often repeated to himself, “Remember, you are baptized.”

When Jesus was talking to his disciples at the end of his life, he comforted them in their fear and anxiety by reminding them of the promised Holy Spirit. This was another advocate, a comforter, who be given to them, to be with them forever. God’s Spirit was given to us as a spirit of adoption, Hannah, so that we would not have to be afraid. It is by that Spirit that we are able to call God “Abba”, as Jesus did. It is that same Spirit that confirms that God is for us, not against us. It is because of that Spirit that we have communion with God.

Yes, we are baptized with water, which points to our cleansing from sin, to our death and resurrection. But along with water, today you are also baptized with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit tells us that God does not dwell far off in some infinity somewhere. Jesus is not a historical figure who has abandoned us. Instead by the Holy Spirit, God comes and dwells among and within his people. And it is because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life that you will cling to your baptismal identity. It is only because of the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, that someday you will be able to respond in faith. That you will say “yes” to the “yes” God declares to you today. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Hannah, we believe, we love, we do ministry in Christ’s name. Even now, God’s Spirit is at work in your young life, Hannah, though you can not speak or understand words. God’s Spirit assures you that you are beloved, that you are called, that you belong. Just as that same Holy Spirit is at work in all the people you can look around and see.

For as much as faith is between you and God, it must always involve a community of faith—the Church. The world is full of people who want to talk about faith and God, but who just can’t face up to the fact that it all takes place within the often messy confines of the Church—the unique community formed by the Holy Spirit. In other words, being a Christian is a team sport, it’s like being part of an orchestra, you can’t play alone. Today that community, this congregation, will make a vow to care for you, to be your mentor and spiritual guide, to initiate and welcome you into the this life of being a follower of Jesus Christ.

Hannah, I will close this letter now. I have said enough. Suffice it to use the same words that are spoken at the end of the baptismal liturgy. Hannah Christine, you are a child of the covenant, in baptism you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever. My prayer is that someday, you will come to know and to own this for yourself.

Your pastor,

Sophie Mathonnet-VanderWell

We All Belong (Acts 10:1-35, 44-48) – Rev. Shari Brink

Acts 10:1-35, 44-48
Year B Easter 6

Prayer: Open our hearts, O God, to your presence – to the love and comfort and challenge of your presence.

We’ve already been enjoying and exploring God’s presence in worship today through many different means. We’ve experienced it through music and prayer and confession. And we’ll experience it now through scripture and sermon. But, mind you, God’s presence isn’t something that happens only “up here” in the chancel and pulpit, but also “out there” with all of you. We experience God’s presence when we reflect on our own experience, when we mix and stew and weave and braid our own stories together with music, scripture and sermon.

So let’s take a few minutes before the scripture is read to reflect on and then talk about our own experience. We are going to talk about belonging. Here is the assumption I bring to a conversation about belonging: I begin with the assumption that we have all had times when we knew and felt that we belonged, and that we have all had times when we didn’t. So, what we are about to do might feel a little vulnerable, but, rest assured, we have all had these experiences.

So let’s do this: quietly first (you might want to close your eyes), let’s each think of an experience we have had when we knew that we belonged. What experience comes to your mind? What did it look like? How did it feel? And what about an experience when you were quite sure you did not belong? What did that look and feel like? Was everyone able to come up with 2 situations?

Take 60 seconds and jot down somewhere the words and phrases that come to your mind about each of those experiences.

Now turn to someone next to you and work together to create two lists: one that describes what it is like to belong and one that describes not belonging. Take three minutes to do that.

I did this same exercise not too long ago with another group of people. Let me share what they came up with. First, the “not belonging” list. If you hear something that fits with the general tone of your list, feel free to nod or say “yes” or even “ouch” (whatever comes naturally.)

What does “not belonging” look and feel like?

  • I felt different, like an outsider. I was so self-conscious.
  • No one talked to me. They ignored me. Was I invisible?
  • I felt useless, uptight, uneasy, on-guard, wary.
  • I didn’t know the language (spoken and unspoken). There seemed to be rules and jokes that I didn’t know.
  • I couldn’t help feeling angry.
  • I was an outsider, “A fish out of water.” “These are not my people.”
  • I could see that other people belonged, but we didn’t have any shared experience.
  • Something must be wrong with me.

Phew! Pretty yucky, eh?

Contrast that with belonging. When you hear something that fits with your list, nod or say “Amen” or “That’s right.”

What does belonging look and feel like?

  • It’s safe. I’m cared for. It’s comfortable. I can be myself.
  • It’s ok to take risks.
  • We have shared vision, values, and practices. We’re in solidarity with each other.
  • I’m happy and engaged.
  • People can joke at my expense, and I’m ok with it.
  • Conflict is ok.
  • It’s energizing. Creativity can flow.
  • We have shared experiences and memories.
  • I can see who doesn’t fit… so I’m able to welcome others.

Now, hold all that. Some of it is painful, and some of it is wonderful. All of it is full of important life experience and perspective that will help us understand more deeply the story in today’s scripture.

Acts 10:1-35, 44-48 is the story of an encounter between two quite different people, Cornelius and Peter. Actually, it is an encounter between two quite different groups of people: between people who are like Cornelius and people who are like Peter.

Peter is Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples. He comes from the Jewish people and, as such, he observes the Jewish Old Testament laws. That would include, for example, laws about food, the kinds of animals one can eat, and the kinds of animals one cannot eat and still belong.

Cornelius, on the other hand, though he certainly belongs some places (he’s a centurion of the Italian cohort) is a Gentile. In other words, he is not a Jew. And because Old Testament law didn’t talk just about food, but about people, Peter is naturally inclined to believe that Cornelius is “different,” yes, and that he really should not associate with Cornelius. I said that Peter is “naturally inclined to believe,” but it is more than that. It would be Peter’s “religious and faith conviction” that he should not associate with Cornelius. So this is an interesting encounter!

READ ACTS 10:1-35, 44-48

Peter, a follower of Jesus and a good Jew, comes into this encounter fully convinced that he ought not associate with Cornelius. But then God “messes with him.” God opens up his heart and changes his whole perspective.

There are a couple pivotal moments in the story. One of them is when Cornelius’ people are standing by the gate of the house where Peter is staying. He is “standing by the gate.” Jews were not to let Gentiles into their homes lest they beome religiously unclean. So Cornelius’ people are being respectful; even though they are not Jews, they are respecting the boundary by “standing by the gate.” I find that phrase poignant and painful. Think back to our description of “not belonging.” I imagine Cornelius’ people may have felt some of that. (I wonder if they felt like “unclean animals in a sheet.”)

The other pivotal moment is when the light bulb comes on for Peter. We cannot tell exactly when that is for Peter. Perhaps it is when he invites Cornelius’ people into the house. Perhaps when Peter accepts the invitation to go to Cornelius’ house. Perhaps it is only as he is explaining to Cornelius and his household what has happened: “I truly understand…” [Flash of light?] “I truly understand that the dream I had with all those creepy, crawly, slimy things which God assured me I could eat wasn’t a dream about food at all. It was about people! I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

What is this like? A preaching professor of mine once said that until you have a metaphor, until you can say what it is like, you haven’t really internalized the message. So, what is this like? It’s like a ripple.

This event in the early days of the history of the Christian church is like a ripple. The dream Peter had and the dream Cornelius had and the events that follow is like a pebble being dropped in a pond and rippling out.

Now pebbles create waves, and this one was no exception. But what else do they do? When a pebble drops into a pool of water, it sends out a set of concentric circles and each circle brings more and more into the inside of the ripple. It spreads, reaches, embraces until there is no “outside,” only “inside.” Everything (and everyone) is eventually inside the ripple.

This was a seminal moment for the followers of Jesus, for Peter and the gang. They had to decide whether this church that they were forming and becoming, whether it would be narrow and focused and exclusive or broad and reaching and embracing, a place of belonging for all people. Without this event in the Church’s history – an event that brought Gentiles into the inside – very few of us would belong to the church.

But we do! In spite of how uncomfortable and challenging it had to have been for Peter, he and those who followed after him continued to ruminate and reflect and sort out the meaning of the dream, the meaning of the Holy Spirit falling on those whom they had always considered outside God’s people.

There is a diagram in your bulletin [at the end of this document], two concentric circles segmented up like a pie. So there is an inner circle and an outer circle. We so readily segment our world into the “in” group and the “out” group. For Peter it was Jews who were on the inside, with Gentiles on the outside. Who is it in our time and place?

For example,

  • Rich are on the inside and poor are on the outside.
  • White on the inside and Black (or other persons of color) on the outside
  • Dutch on the inside and non-Dutch on the outside
  • Straight and gay
  • Educated and non-educated
  • Able-bodied and disabled
  • Male and female
  • Educated and uneducated
  • Young and old
  • Thin and heavy

And what about when it comes to our churches?

  • The people who like our kind of music
  • The ones with the right family configuration

And it can be a lot more subtle than that too. Someone pointed out to me recently that at one church, a visitor who carries his/her Bible with them to worship would look like they belong. At another, it is exactly the opposite. Groups can have a million-and-one rules about what insiders do and what they don’t do.

But here is the good news. “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.” That is what Peter had to learn, and that is what the church has to learn over and over with group after group and person after person who represents difference.

And here is one of the really cool things about our church. There are people here in virtually every category we named just a minute ago. And we all belong. So we get to practice being the Church that God has called us to be. We get to rub shoulders with each other and hear each other’s stories. Like Peter, who was astounded that the Holy Spirit was being poured out on those who were so different from him, we too get to marvel at what God is doing in the lives of sisters and brothers who we come to know here at church!

Think back to the two lists you created with a partner sitting in your pew. Experiences of not belonging are so absolutely painful, and experiences of belonging are so powerful. So let us be gentle with each other. There are times when we fail along the way, but we are practicing. We are practicing at sharing the radical and unconditional love of God. And that, my sisters and brothers, is transformational.

But let’s not practice as an end in itself; let’s practice because we need to learn this skill of reaching, welcoming and embracing; we need to “ripple” with a heart for reaching, welcoming and embracing.

The Heidelberg Catechism (a set of simple questions and answers about faith from our Reformed tradition) begins with this question: What is my only comfort in life and in death? And it answers in this way: My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own, but I belong. I belong to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.

My friends, we belong. We belong to our faithful savior Jesus Christ. And, not only that, we belong with God’s people. How will we share that sense of belonging with others?

Let’s pray: O God, may we know ever so deep in our beings that we belong. We belong to you. We belong to your church. We belong to each other. May that sense of belonging change us from the inside out, and ripple out to those we meet. Amen.

LGBTQ (Acts 8:26-40) – Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter, Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn, NY

Year B, Easter 5,
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

The eunuch was on his way home to Ethiopia. He had gone up to Jerusalem to worship God. But when he got to the temple, he was turned away. Because eunuchs were not allowed. The Bible is quite explicit, in Deuteronomy 23:1, that no man whose privates are damaged is allowed among the congregation of the Lord. What could he do? He had been castrated in his infancy, to prepare him for a life of service to the royal court. Eunuchs were supposed to be trustworthy because they could not be seduced, nor would they have families or offspring to embezzle for. This one had made the best of his situation, and he ranked very high. But strange, he was drawn to this God of a different nation. I wonder if he was risking his career. It was a long journey, and at his own expense, and for all that, when he got there, he will have been turned away at the temple gate.

And yet he did not turn away. His heart was still open despite his rejection. God was calling him and talking to him, through the scripture, the way God talks to us. In the chariot he was reading Isaiah, chapter 53. Why this passage? He found himself in it. It could have been describing his own infancy, when he was but a lamb, and they took the knife to him. Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth. His question to Philip is a poignant one, Of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or someone else? In other words, Could this be about me too? Is it possible for me to included here?

Philip answers with the gospel. He shows him that Jesus is in Isaiah too. Jesus is the foremost Someone Else of whom Isaiah spoke. He is the lamb that was slain, who opened not his mouth, whom justice was denied. The apostle helps the eunuch find Jesus, and, in finding Jesus, to worship God. Actually, God has found the eunuch, and included him in the people of Jesus. You see how it works. Jesus and the eunuch are found together and bound together, a lamb with the lamb, a victim with the victim, the eunuch is now included with Christ and ingrafted onto Christ. At last. No more is he a so-called Adry branch, he is a living branch upon the vine. When he sees the water, he asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

His question is not rhetorical. He has reason to expect not-full inclusion. The baptism he asks for is in Jewish terms. He knows that Philip has a lot to consider here. First, baptism is not an act for individuals but an entrance into the covenant community, but in Ethiopia he will be alone, so how can Philip realistically admit him into the communion of the church? Second, there’s still the Book of Deuteronomy, the Word of God, and the very explicit statement against him.

Philip has to make a judgment call. He has to make a decision. He has to act. Well, acts are what apostles do, their job is to make decisions on behalf of Jesus. It is a risk. He doesn’t have the approval yet of Peter and James and John. The Spirit has put the pressure on. He has to measure Deuteronomy in the scales of the gospel and read it in the light of Jesus and in the direction of the Holy Spirit. And with this guy looking right at him. Philip answers the question, in action, not with words. He baptizes him. Then he is spirited away, and the eunuch goes home with joy.

The reason I have called this sermon GLBT is not because the eunuch is gay. We don’t know if he was gay, because he was a eunuch. We do know he wasn’t lesbian, and we know he not bisexual and not transgendered. He wasn’t gay, but his castration will have caused some secondary characteristics that gay men often have, but there are many gay men without those characteristics and many straight men with them. I’m a case in point. I have some of those characteristics, and in high school some people called me a “faggot,” but I am quite straight. We don’t know if he was gay or straight, but, yes, he was excluded because of his sexuality, and yes, the whole question of nature or nurture is shown here as finally beside the point.

But the priority here is the act of the apostle. How the apostle takes the Biblical prohibition and subsumes it under the death and resurrection of Jesus in saying “Yes” to a person who up till now has been hearing “No.” It’s the act of the apostle that has led our Board of Elders fully to welcome persons who are gay and lesbian, without qualification.

There is no denying that there are some verses in the Bible which speak against gay people. True, these verses are few. They are far fewer than the verses which speak against the rich. And they are less clear and direct than the verses which speak against eunuchs. But Philip decided to read the law in terms of the gospel, and not the other way around, of reading the gospel in terms of the law. Our Board of Elders here has done the same.

Philip is our model because he did this not just to make this guy happy. He did it because of the power and presence of the living Jesus Christ, around the scriptures which spoke of Jesus in his death and his resurrection. Jesus was present in this whole transaction, through the scripture and the Holy Spirit. That chariot had four passengers: the driver, the eunuch, the apostle, and the Lord. There were three people in the water, the Lord Jesus was among them too. And that=s what we do here, the Lord Jesus is always at the center, in the Holy Spirit, with his resurrection power. We call each other equally to the Lordship fo Jesus Christ, and the challenge of Jesus Christ to lead lives of discipleship, of faithfulness and morality. We want to be branches on the vine so that Jesus may have his way with us.

Now, why didn’t Philip heal him? The apostles do healings in Acts chapters 3, 5, and 9. Of course, growing back a missing body part feels weird compared to making the lame walk or even raising the dead. In my immigrant church in Ontario, I had one elderly couple from the island of Overflakkee, and the Flakkee people are famous for both their very strict religion and their dry, laconic personalities. Dina was in a wheelchair because her leg had been amputated because of gangrene from diabetes. Once I came to visit them, and the Pentecostal preacher was in the living room. With my members! He prayed, and left. I had my visit, and Fred escorted me to my car, and I asked him if he believed in healing like the Pentecostals do. He said, “Ja, domine, we have to believe in healing, but I never seen ‘em grow a leg back on a lady.”

We tend to think of healing as a restoration to some normal state of nature, as a return to how creation is supposed to be. But New Testament healing is different. It’s not a restoration of the past but a preparation for the future, it’s not a vindication of creation but a sign and wonder of the new creation. The pattern of humanity is not Adam and Eve in a pristine state of nature, but Jesus himself, with the wounds and the scars. As the Epistle said last week, it has not yet been shown to us what we shall be, only that we shall be like Jesus. The Old Testament image of God is found in the man and woman, Adam and Eve, but the New Testament image of God is Jesus himself, and we shall be like him.

And Jesus is single. Jesus tell us that in the new creation we all will be single, like the angels, not be giving and taking in marriage. Heterosexual activity is only temporary. People don’t like this. Even the DaVinci Code wants Jesus to be married and have a wife and kids. But Jesus is single, and the image of God, and what we shall be, and healing is always to bring us closer to the image of Jesus and what we shall be in the new creation. So Philip does heal him, by baptizing him, by including him, as a eunuch. And so our Board of Elders also offers healing to gay and lesbian persons. The healing we offer is the end of hiding, the end of guilt and shame, full inclusion, engrafting onto the vine of Christ. Well, that is true for everyone. It’s the very same gospel for everyone, the very same hope for all.

This story is for everyone. Whatever your orientation or condition, it is for you. Have you suffered injustice? Did they steal your life from you? Did you have to be silent? Could you not defend yourself? Did someone cut off some part of your future and your hope? Have you lived in secrecy or shame? The church can=t make it go away or undo what=s been done to you. But we are witnesses of God’s love for you, and that the word of God has life for you, and this congregation believes you and welcomes you and blesses you, and delights to eat and drink with you.

++
Daniel Meeter is pastor of the Old First Reformed Church of Brooklyn, New York. He has served RCA congregations in New Jersey, Michigan, and Ontario. He has a Ph.D. from Drew University, and has published two books on Reformed practical theology and history. He has served the denomination in many capacities at the levels of classis, regional synod, and general synod. He is married to Rev. Melody Meeter, who is Director of Pastoral Care at the Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn. They have two married children. Daniel is the son of an RCA pastor. He was born in Paterson, NJ, and grew up in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Jersey, and Long Island. He loves classical music, rock and roll, and the Mets.

Seeing and Believing (John 9) - Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter

Lent 4, 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9
Preached on 03/02/08

Spiritual Formation 6: Seeing and Believing

Heidelberg Catechism 88-90

Q88: What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
A: Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the
new.

Q89: What is the dying-away of the old self?
A: It is to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run
away from it.

Q90: What is the coming-to-life of the new self?
A: It is wholehearted joy in God through Christ, and a delight to do every
kind of good as God wants us to.

Lest you think that conversion is always the same, look how different this story is from last week. With the woman at the well, Jesus was very present, you can imagine her looking him over and as she does it he looks into her
eyes. But the blind man never sees Jesus till the end.

Jesus spends most of the story out of sight off stage, and the poor guy’s conversations are with everybody else and the coming-to-life of his new self is against opposition, and he ends up on the street corner having to wonder if it was worth it. Who ever said that the coming-to-life of the new self was going to be all peaches and cream? No wonder people tend to stay with the miserable old nature that they know.

Of course this story is about both sight and insight. The poor guy is seeing things for the first time, and he’s having immediately to see beneath the surfaces in ways he never had to. He’s got to stand on his own two feet now, now he’s got to look out for himself, and he’s got to start making judgments now and sizing people up. It’s one thing to see, it’s another to read what you see. He can see people now, but he’s got look inside them too!

In the story from 1 Samuel, God tells the prophet to look not on appearances but on the heart. I can just hear Samuel say, “I know that, I’m a prophet!” I love the down-to-earth and almost comic interaction between God and Samuel, like God is right there next to Samuel, standing invisibly at his shoulder. Well, the gift and burden of prophecy is to hear the words of God we are deaf to but that are all around us anyway, to see what we in our blindness thought was invisible but is right here anyway.

The community of Jesus is meant to be prophetic, we are to see and hear what the world finds hard to believe, and to be witnesses of that.
This story is comic in that after it tells us to look on the heart and not appearances it also tells us how handsome David was. I wonder is the Bible playin’. I can tell you that if you read the rest of First and Second
Samuel, you’ll see that the Bible is critical of David, showing his underside, always suggesting the self-regard beneath his heroic generosity, but at the same time the Bible always loves him. Like how you might feel about FDR. What a stinker. How we loved him. Like how God must feel about each one of you.

Look, we have to make judgments about each other. We’re primates, after all, like chimpanzees and baboons, and unlike orangutans we are primates of a social sort, so we always have to be judging each other and explaining ourselves to each other. And do we not spend an awful lot of time explaining ourselves to each other? And don’t we expend a lot of energy calculating our behavior in advance of the judgments of each other? But if this is natural and organic then why do we find it problem? I think it’s because among the primates our species is especially spiritual, and we live by ethics, not by ordinary nature. We are the animals that distinguish between the “is” and
the “ought.” We are the animals that have to see behind the surfaces, because we are so spiritual.

In our spiritual conversations, we need to listen behind the words. When we face each other in our small groups, we need to look beyond appearances into each other’s hearts. That is the speciality of religion, to put what seems apparent into parentheses, and to judge each other and the world not by what is now but by what we hope for, and what we believe will be.

That sets up a problem. To do this can be to go too quick to deeper judgement, and to not credit what the other person is telling you. We think we know better. Especially if someone is suffering, because of our religious practices we think we know better. The Pharisees were doing their religious job by judging the guy that Jesus healed, they were getting past the appearances. How could they believe him when they knew better, that the Messiah would scrupulously keep the law of the Sabbath. But what they needed to do was believe him. At face value.

So there is another dialectic here. Like I’ve said in prior weeks, spiritual formation means you have to keep in balance two things which might seem opposite. Here too. In spiritual conversation you have to listen behind the surfaces, but at the same time, you have to believe what the other person is telling you about herself, himself. You will have your own take on what the person says, you question that person’s interpretation, you
naturally use your judgement as a social primate, but you also have to believe what the person tells you. You have to say, “I believe you.” In our small groups there’ll have to be a lot of this: “I believe you.”

We have been conditioned by psychotherapy to think that healing happens when you finally tell the truth about yourself. Not so. Healing starts to happen when somebody else believes you, no matter how troubling or subversive or impossible. Not someone you are paying to believe you, but
someone whose life is not made any easier by the truth of what you are saying. When that kind of person believes you, well, then the healing can begin. When my believing you costs me.

You might have figured out that I prefer to see myself as a conservative. Some of you are aware that at one time I was conservative on the matter of homosexuality in the church. I used to follow the debates about what caused homosexuality, whether it came from childhood sexual abuse or whether it was the fault of one the other of the parents, which, of course, is exactly that response of the disciples to the blind man when they said, “Who sinned that
he is blind.” Jesus has no time for this. For Jesus it’s always: How shall I to respond to you now?

I had to be converted. Not by my speaking or confessing, but by my listening and believing. In my third parish, a man in our congregation came out to me. He was the son of a Southern Baptist preacher. He told me he had
always loved God. But he had hated himself because he loved other men. He kept repenting and begging God to change him and heal him. He told me that at last he came to know that God loved him as gay, and he accepted that. Would I?

When he told me this I felt convicted. Should I believe him? What about my own theological categories, that I should interpret his experience better than he himself? I felt what the blind man’s parents felt, for if I believed
him I could be in trouble with my denomination. (And it is true that I lost the confidence of my closest Reformed Church colleagues at the time, except for my wife, who was ahead of me.)

I decided to believe him. I decided to believe him what he told me about himself, and that he knew his own heart, and that he knew his own experience, and so that instead of my trying to change him, maybe I had better change myself. And I am grateful to him since, especially since I have come to experience the generous love of many gay and lesbian believers.

It could be some other example. A truly spiritual conversation can further your conversion, just in your listening and believing will be another step in your spiritual formation. For isn’t it to love your neighbor as yourself? And doesn’t God listen to you and believe you? Because God loves you.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Crossing Boundaries (Acts 11:1-18) - Rev. John D. Paarlberg, The First Church in Albany

Acts 11: 1-18

You may have seen the bumper sticker that reads: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” I wouldn’t stick that on my car, but I have to admit that I can understand why some people find comfort in those words. In a world of shifting values, often spurious spirituality, and flaky faith claims, we need an anchor, a good, solid, unshakeable foundation on which to build. “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” We need standards. We need a solid foundation.

Contrast that with something 17th century pilgrim pastor, John Robinson wrote: “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy word.” There is something good about that, too. It implies that in and through the pages of the Bible we meet, not so much a set of fixed rules, but a living God who continues to speak to us, to challenge us, and to lead us deeper into faith. We don’t have the Bible all sewn up and buttoned down. God, through his word, still has more to teach us.

Peter knew his Bible. And it was pretty specific and pretty clear. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy include a catalogue of dietary laws and a forbidden food list. They seem archaic and strange to us, but this was an important issue for the Jews and for the first Christians who were also Jews. Obeying these laws was a means of maintaining their distinctiveness. This was one of the ways they remembered that they were a unique and special community, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”

The dietary laws marked the lines of faithfulness in the midst of incredible pressure to forsake the faith, drop one’s particularities and become a good citizen of the Empire. A little pork here, a pinch of incense to Caesar there, and it will not be long before the faith community will quietly disappear and simply blend in with the surrounding majority culture. (William Willimon, Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988) p. 96.

Nor was it simply a matter of what you can and cannot eat. There were also restrictions against table fellowship with those outside the covenant community. One didn’t share a meal with Gentiles. To eat at the same table was a sign of community, of acceptance and affirmation and for many in the early church to lower the bar to include Gentiles meant that they would be moving down the slippery slope of accommodation with the world and in danger of forsaking their calling to be God’s set apart and holy people. There were boundaries, there were standards. That’s part of what it meant to be faithful.

So how did it happen that Peter went beyond the boundaries of what he and many others had always thought were the clear teachings of scripture and the accepted practice of centuries of God’s faithful people before him? And what can Peter’s experience teach us about how we might discern God’s will for the church today? What light and truth is yet to break forth from God’s word today?

First, there was a vision. Actually there were two visions. Peter had this vision of a kind of picnic blanket full of unclean animals descending from above, and then the command to take and eat what had until now been forbidden. And Cornelius, a Roman soldier, also had a vision in which he was told to send for a man named Peter who would bring him an important message. This wasn’t the private idea of a single individual. The Spirit of God was at work, and at work in the life of more than some solitary visionary leader.

Last month I went with several members of our youth fellowship to Washington, DC. We visited the Church of the Savior. That church has a practice known as “sounding the call.” If a member of the congregation has a vision for some new ministry, some mission he or she feels called to undertake, that person is invited to share the vision with the congregation. Then they pray and they wait for someone to “echo the call.” If there is a shared vision the church moves forward. If the vision is not shared the church does not attempt the proposed mission.

Peter’s crossing of boundaries and venturing into new territory was the result of a shared vision – a sign perhaps, that this was not a human initiative, but the work of God’s Holy Spirit.

After the visions there was a visit. Peter did not go off to write a theological position paper on why we can now eat pork and welcome those who are different from us into the fellowship of Jesus Christ. The vision led first to a visit. There was a knock on the door. Peter welcomed visitors from Cornelius into his house. The next day he went with them and stayed with Cornelius. They shared meals together. Peter listened to his story. Peter told his own story and he told the story of Jesus.

And the result is that Cornelius and the others in his household believe and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

And then finally there is accountability. Word gets back to Peter’s colleagues, his fellow apostles at church headquarters in Jerusalem, and there are questions to be answered. “Peter, what were you doing going to those unclean Gentiles? Who gave you the right to eat with them, to baptize them? How can you turn over centuries of tradition? Peter, what the heck are you doing?”

And step by step Peter gives an account. He tells them about his vision. He tells them about his visit to Cornelius. He tells them about how these Gentiles, –just like us– received the gift of the Holy Spirit. “This whole thing wasn’t my idea,” says Peter. “I didn’t go to the evangelism and mission committee and come up with a plan to reach out to the Gentiles. I was just catching up to what God was already doing.” And the church is converted. In fact they are dumbfounded. With a kind of ‘slap-on-the-forehead’ exclamation, they say, “Even to the Gentiles God has given repentance that leads to life!” This news is so startling, so new that they can scarcely believe it. And the church is dragged, sometimes kicking and screaming, toward the wideness of God’s mercy.

I can’t read this account without thinking about how the issue of homosexuality is confronting God’s church today. This, too, is an issue about boundaries and standards, about how welcoming and how open a church should be, about what is acceptable and what is not. It’s an issue that is a difficult and divisive one for many churches including the Reformed Church in America.

But I believe the Bible gives us some guidelines for how we deal with issues that divide us. And this experience of the early church may give us some direction in how to proceed. It is a story of moving from vision, to visit, to testifying to our own experience of God’s grace, to being willing to be held accountable to each other.

There are many in the church today who have a vision for a church that is open and inclusive and welcoming and affirming of gay and lesbian people. A vision for the church where persons who are gay and lesbian are welcomed into full fellowship and participation without first having to turn away from and deny who they are. A vision that holds that neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality is a sin, but is the way God made us, and therefore people, gay or straight, ought to be welcomed by the church; therefore people gay or straight, who are living in a committed and faithful relationship with a partner, ought to be able to have those unions recognized and blessed by the church. It is a vision, not of one or two people, but a vision shared by many, though certainly not all, in the church. We need to listen to it, to pay attention and together seek to discern God’s will for the church.

But we don’t stop with a vision. We also need to visit. We need to be in each others’ homes, share meals together, have face to face conversations. We need a safe place for each of us, and especially for gay and lesbian people, to be able tell their stories, to testify to their own experience, to tell their own faith journey. We need to try to understand each other’s perspectives.

The Reformed Church Women’s Conference scheduled for this summer was planning a workshop on theological and sociological perspectives on sexual orientation. But there was so much negative reaction that the organizers of the conference decided to cancel the workshop.

In many parts of the church there are gay and lesbian persons who are devout, who love Jesus, who earnestly seek to live in obedience to God. Yet they are hidden from us because they are not sure that the church is a safe place where they can honestly share who they are and what their faith journey has been.

We need to practice the ministry of hospitality, to create a safe place where the stranger can become a friend, where we can know each other as persons, hear each others’ stories, and to testify to our own experience.

I used to think, as many Christians did and still do, that homosexuality was wrong. Or at least was not what God intended for creation. My mind has changed over the years —partly as the result of reading and discussing theological and psychological studies–but mostly through meeting gay people whom I knew to be faithful and committed and gifted followers of Jesus Christ. I heard from them about their experience of grace, learned from them about their faith, and then I began to ask, as Peter did, ‘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?’

Not everyone in the church is asking that question, of course. In fact many are asking the kind of questions that were asked of Peter: “What the heck are you doing? What are you thinking?” We need to respond to such questions. We need to be held accountable. As a minister in this church I am accountable to the board of elders, to the classis, and also to you, the members of this congregation. You have a right to ask questions, to disagree, to ask for further clarification and conversation. In the covenant community of the church of Jesus Christ we don’t just go off and do things on our own. Peter came back to Jerusalem, to church headquarters, and gave a step by step account. He testified to his own experience, listened to their objections, answered their questions. Together they tried to learn where God was leading them.

In the life of the early church God led the way and prompted Peter’s change of heart and mind with disturbing visions and visits by unexpected strangers. So we trust today that God still leads the church. Too often our anxious question is, “What shall we do?” The better question, the more important question is, “What is God doing?” Anthony Robinson and Robert Wall, Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) p. 160.

“Faith, when it comes down to it,” someone wrote, “is our often breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God, to keep asking ourselves, “What is God doing? Where on earth is God going now?” (Willimon, p. 99.)

The answers aren’t always obvious. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what God is doing. Discerning that answer is the ongoing task of the church. It takes time and patience and prayer. The important thing is that we keep that question ever before us and that we wrestle with that question together–always willing to give an account of the faith that is in us and to listen and learn from each other, trusting that through that conversation, and in conversation with God’s Word, God has yet more light and truth to reveal to us.

Belonging (Isaiah 56: 1-8, Luke 4: 21-30) – Rev. John Paarlberg

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 1/31/10

Isaiah 56: 1- 8 Luke 4: 21 – 30

“Belonging”

Over the past several months we have been talking about whether we should adopt a statement about being a welcoming and affirming congregation. One result of those discussions is the statement included on the insert in your bulletin:

In response to God’s unconditional love for all people made known to us in Jesus Christ, we are called to be a welcoming and affirming community. The First Church in Albany includes young and old, families, couples and singles, rich and poor, persons of various races, ethnicities, backgrounds, sexual orientations and gender identities, differing physical and mental abilities, believers and seekers. We welcome into the full life of the church all those whom God sends us. Centered in Christ, we commit ourselves to breaking down dividing walls and building a community where all are loved.

 

That’s not an official statement. Consistory has been talking about and will talk about it more and we hope that others will be discussing this, too.

Many of you have asked questions, good and helpful questions, about this process and why we are considering making such a statement, about whether we need to or should say something like this at all. I’m not able to address all of those questions in one sermon, but I hope that this morning’s sermon can be part of the discussion. And after worship this morning in the parlor there will be additional opportunity to ask questions and respond to the sermon.

At the start let me be clear about one thing: The reason for considering this statement is not because we have not been welcoming; it’s not because of something we have done or not done that has made someone feel unwelcome. This is one of the most welcoming and diverse congregations of which I have been a part; which is not to say we couldn’t do better. But the fact is, many different kinds of people have found a home here. This congregation has been very warm and welcoming.

So why say it? Because sometimes it’s good to say who we are and affirm what we already know and already do and want to do.

I love my wife. She knows that; I don’t have to tell her. But sometimes it’s good to say it. And it’s nice to hear. It’s good to remind ourselves who we are and whom we are called to be.

And the truth is, others may not know. Churches, including churches in the Reformed Church in America, have not always been welcoming, especially to gay, lesbian and transgender people. Some have been told, maybe not directly, but pretty clearly, that they are not welcome.

Let me also say that I’ve not heard anyone say that about this congregation. I’ve never heard or sensed that anyone has communicated that people—whomever they are, wherever they’ve come from— aren’t welcome in worship at this church. I think you’ve made it pretty clear that all are welcome in worship. I do think we are less clear about what we mean about welcoming people into ‘full life of the church.’

 

God’s people have often struggled with who is in and who is out. We are God’s “called out” people, separate from the surrounding culture, ‘in the world but not of it’, we live by different values, live for a different purpose, often see the world differently than others. The problem is sometimes that understanding has become distorted and God’s people have come to see their ‘chosenness’ as a kind of privilege or entitlement.

In the Gospel lesson this morning Jesus names some of the ‘outsiders’ who were recipients of God’s grace and participants in God’s plan, while the ‘insiders’ were not chosen. And the insiders got so upset with him they nearly threw him off a cliff.

Through the prophet Isaiah God calls for his house to be “a house of prayer for all peoples” and specifically mentions the eunuch and the foreigner. Why? Because Deuteronomy 23 cites these as the very people who were specifically forbidden to be a part of the worshipping assemblage of God’s people. It is a direct contradiction to what scripture had said earlier. Those formerly excluded are now to be welcomed into the fellowship.

In Isaiah’s time it was eunuchs and foreigners. The first Christians had to face a decision about whether or not to accept Gentiles, and then, on what grounds. For a time in the history of our nation and in the life of many congregations African-Americans were not welcomed into full life of the church. Until not so very long ago women could not be ordained to office in the Reformed Church. And in each of these cases, people mounted biblical arguments for excluding certain people.

Today one of the issues we are debating is whether gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons are truly, fully welcomed into the life of the church.

That debate has taken a lot of energy in our denomination and in others. And in some mainline Protestant denominations the debate has become quite rancorous, threatening to divide the church. I find it distressing that the church of Jesus Christ which has such a vital mission to fulfill in a world where there is so much need, so much hurt, should spend so much time and energy arguing among ourselves about this—there are more important things we could be doing. Thankfully, there are more important things we are doing. Still, this is an important issue and one worthy of our careful attention and prayerful discussion.

Why? Because real people are involved. Real justice is at stake. Real faithfulness to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ is involved in this issue.

When we talk about gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people we are not just talking about people out there somewhere. We are talking about our own brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and aunts and uncles in our own biological families. We are talking about our brothers and sisters in Christ, men and women who break bread with us, who worship with us, who serve Christ in mission with us.

For a long time these people have been told that there is something wrong with them and the church has often been a part of that, making biblical arguments against homosexual behavior.

There are about a half dozen passages in scripture that are sometimes cited. I think it’s safe to say not one of the biblical writers was talking about sexual orientation as it is understood today. And most, perhaps all of these passages are addressing exploitive, abusive relationships, and that is the kind of behavior we ought to condemn, whether it is homosexual, heterosexual, or asexual. None of the scripture passages often referred to address same-gender relationships based on mutuality and respect and love and characterized by faithfulness and life-long commitment.

These scripture passages merit more discussion and perhaps we can talk more during the post-service hour. We also have some Bible study resources available.

The draft statement says “we are called to be a welcoming and affirming community.” What is the difference between just welcoming and being welcoming and affirming?

Let me put it this way: When I was in grade school and high school I played a lot of baseball in the summer– not on any organized team, just a gathering of boys from the neighborhood. Two people were chosen as captains and they began choosing their team mates, taking turns, first one than the other, until all were chosen. The team captains tended to chose their friends and those whom they judged to be the better players. If I was one of the very last to be chosen, I guess I felt welcomed– sort of. But if I was one of the first chosen, then I felt affirmed.

If we say “we are called to be a welcoming and affirming community” we are saying, “We welcome you, not reluctantly or half-heartedly, but fully, eagerly, with open arms. You have gifts to offer in Christ’s service; you enrich our life together; you make us a better team, a more faithful congregation of Jesus Christ.”

 

And in saying that we also say that as followers of Jesus Christ we also have certain expectations of each other in this fellowship.

The word from Isaiah was not quite an unconditional welcome to all eunuchs, all foreigners—but “to those who keep my Sabbath,” says God, “those who hold fast my covenant, I will make joyful in my house of prayer.”

When someone presents themselves before the board of elders for membership in this congregation, we don’t ask if you are straight or gay, we ask you to keep covenant: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Will you be a faithful member of this congregation and through worship and service seek to advance God’s purposes here and throughout the world?”

When you present a child for baptism, or request baptism for yourself, we don’t ask if you are rich or poor, straight or gay, we ask you to keep covenant: “Do you promise to instruct this child in the way of Jesus Christ? Do you promise to accept the spiritual guidance of the church, to walk in a spirit in Christian love with this congregation and to seek those things that make for unity, purity and peace?”

When someone is elected and ordained to the office of elder or deacon, we don’t ask about sexual orientation or political party affiliation or ethnic origin. We ask you to keep covenant: “Will you be diligent in your study of Holy Scripture and in your use of the means of grace? Will you pray for God’s people and lead them by your own example in faithful service and holy living?”

And when a couple asks about getting married in this church it shouldn’t matter if they are a straight couple or a gay couple. What matters is if they are willing to keep covenant together and make vows before God and their witnesses: “Will you love each other, comfort each other, honor and protect each other, and forsaking all others, be faithful to each other as long as you both shall live?”

I know that many, maybe most people disagree with me about this and that’s OK. Some of you may think I’m nuts for even suggesting such a thing. But I hope you can understand that I am not advocating an “anything goes” mentality with respect to marriage, but rather make this argument out of deep respect for the institution of marriage.

Often the case for gay marriage is stated in terms like “marriage equality” and “equal rights.” And it is that, but more importantly I think, it is about marriage responsibility. It’s about keeping covenant.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “The conservative course must not be to banish gay people from making marriage commitments. The conservative course ought to be to expect gay people to make marriage commitments. We should insist on it. We should regard it as scandalous that two people can claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity. When liberals argue for gay marriage they sound like it’s a really good employment benefits plan or they frame it as a civil rights issue. But marriage is not like that. It is going to be up to conservatives to make the important moral case for marriage including marriage among people who are gay. Not making it means drifting further into a culture of contingency, which, when it comes to intimate and sacred relationships, is an abomination.” (Cited by Joanna Adams in a sermon, “The Bible and Homosexuality,” October 8, 2006, Morningside Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, Georgia)

In one of his essays Wendell Berry decries the term “safe sex.” “Sex has never been safe,” he says, “and it is less safe now than it has ever been….Sexual lovemaking between humans is not and cannot be the thoughtless, instinctual coupling of animals; it is not ‘recreation’; it is not ‘safe.’ It is the strongest prompting and the greatest joy that young people are likely to experience. Because it is so powerful, it is risky….It involves the giving away of the self that if not honored and reciprocated, inevitably reduces dignity and self- respect,” and that, he says, is why it involves the whole community. (Wendell Berry. Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Pantheon Books, 1992, pp. 142-143)

“Lovers must not,” he writes, “live for themselves alone. They must finally turn from their gaze at one another back toward the community. If they had only themselves to consider, lovers would not need to marry, but they must think of others and of other things. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and on its own. It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is. These lovers, pledging themselves to one another ‘until death,’ are giving themselves away… And so here, at the very heart of community life, we find this momentous giving.” (Wendell Berry. Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, pp. 137-138)

I know that with regard to same-gender marriage probably most Americans disagree with me. I know that most Christians — intelligent, thoughtful and compassionate Christians — think differently about this. Not that long ago, I thought differently about it. And one of the reasons I felt I could address this issue in a sermon because I think we are capable of having an intelligent, thoughtful and compassionate discussion about it.

However you think about this, I think we can all recognize that the God we meet in scripture is a “gathering” God, persistently pushing at the boundaries, making the circle larger, welcoming more and more people into God’s loving embrace.

The passage we read from Isaiah tells of a God who gathers the outcasts of Israel and who will gather others to them besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:8) Elsewhere Isaiah speaks of a God who will feed his flock like a shepherd; and gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom. (Isaiah 40:11.)

Jesus, heart-broken over Jerusalem, lamented, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” (Luke 13:34)

And when Jesus wanted to tell people what God is like he told stories:

Of a king who sent his servant out into the streets to gather everyone they could find and bring them in to the wedding banquet (Matt 22:10.) “Many will come from east and west, from north and south and will sit at table in the kingdom of God.” (Lk.13:29)

He told the story of a shepherd with a flock of a 100 sheep who leaves everything to go searching for the one that is lost. (Luke 15:3-7)

And of a father who, while his wandering and wayward son was still a far off, sees him and is so filled with compassion that he forgets his dignity and runs out to embrace him. (Luke 15: 11-32)

This is a gathering God, reaching out in love, who wants to gather everyone in the wide embrace of God’s love. This gathering God is always pushing at the boundaries, breaking down the walls, enlarging the circle. God is pushing out boundaries of fear, of custom, of tradition to say, “You belong—whomever you are.”

Not your race, not your past, not your sexual identity, not your mental or your physical ability, not whether you agree with everything said in this sermon, not whether you have it all together—none of this is a barrier to your belonging. So come and keep covenant with us. You too, can belong— truly, fully belong to God’s called out people.

John D. Paarlberg

The First Church in Albany

For Christ’s Sake (John 13: 12-17, 34-35, Matthew 25: 31-40) - Karl Budmen

Sermon delivered at the Reformed Church of New Paltz, New Paltz, NY on April 29, 2012 by Karl O. Budmen as the congregation considered becoming a “Room for All Church.” That vote was subsequently taken and approved by the consistory in May, 2012.

Karl Budmen is a retired English Education professor from SUNY New Paltz; he has served his congregation as deacon and elder, and was president of the Mid-Hudson classis of the Reformed Church in America.

If you have watched sports on TV over the years, you may remember the days when close plays and close calls by umpires and referees were issues of hot debate, more often than not by viewers according to the teams they supported. Then came that marvelous device we have come to know as instant replay, giving those who were charged with making the calls a chance to see the play over and over again and from multiple camera positions. That didn’t necessarily reduce the partisanship of the fans, but it greatly limited the debate and gave legitimacy to the calls.

What we record as humans may not be what we see at any given point in time. Rather, often it turns out we see what we expect to see. This was brought home to me several years ago. For the first thirty years of our marriage, Roberta and I lived at 13 Fairview Avenue in the village of New Paltz. Almost daily, and often several times a day, I would turn my car right from Mohonk Avenue to Fairview Avenue. Moreover, Roberta and I on our frequent walks would pass by the corner street sign. And then one day I got a good concentrated look at that sign and I discovered that for thirty years the word “Fairview” had been misspelled. All those years I had seen what I expected to see.

Something similar happened when the Friendly’s Ice Cream chain had a store on Main Street. At least once a week Roberta and I would eat there. In the summer, Friendly’s featured an ice cream specialty that was designed to look like a slice of watermelon. I was intrigued by its picture in the menu, and then one day I was surprised to see it listed not as watermelon but as “what-a-melon.” Again, I had seen what I expected to see.

If our vision can be distorted by our expectations, how easily can expectations affect our beliefs. Shaped in early childhood by the adults who were responsible for nurturing us, we simply accepted what we were told or taught. Later—especially in our teens, and often under the influence of what we were learning in school and under pressure from our peers—we may have come to challenge some of those earlier assumptions and beliefs. The core values and beliefs that motivate our present behavior reflect all of those past
influences—some rational, some irrational, some grounded in reason, some in emotion. We cannot escape completely the expectations of the past that others laid on us nor ignore the expectations we internalized for ourselves. Ultimately we come to believe what we choose to believe.

Today the issues which make our daily headlines and dominate our political and legislative discussions reflect our divisive polarized positions: immigration, healthcare, contraception, abortion, sexual orientation, gender identities. And our treatment of minorities dramatically proclaims we are not an inclusive society. The current rush of states to institute the use of government photo IDs as a requirement for registering and voting is clearly an example of minority discrimination. Presumably—but deceptively—presented as an effort to prevent voter fraud, the real intent of such legislation is to suppress registering and voting by Afro-Americans, Hispanics, the elderly, college students. Such suppression is akin to the Jim Crow poll tax—literacy tests that characterized the politics of Southern states in the twentieth century.

As long as they remained in the closet and invisible, society in general, and churches in particular, could ignore homosexuals and the issues of homosexuality. Once they became visible, the question of how they were to be treated was one each denomination was forced to consider. To their credit, two of the largest Presbyterian denominations (the Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ) received them into full membership. The Reformed Church in America (RCA), often divided between liberal congregations and conservative congregations, did not do so.

There is no mention of homosexuality in the RCA Book of Church Order, the Constitution of the RCA, or the historical Standards recognized by the RCA. The long-standing restrictions regarding homosexuals dates to 1978 when a Theological Commission authorized by the General Synod declared homosexuality to be contrary to Scripture. That position was approved as policy in 1990 by the General Synod and has not been successfully challenged since. As long as that policy remains in effect, homosexuals are barred from becoming ministers of word and sacrament and RCA ministers are forbidden from sanctifying homosexual couples and challenges could be raised in the local classis regarding the ordination of openly gay elders and deacons.

The denomination’s policy was dramatically tested when Reverend Doctor Norman Kansfield, president of New Brunswick Seminary and professor of theology, was brought to trial before the General Synod of 2005, accused of violating the unity, the purity, and peace
of the church. The nature of this charge was his performing as the officiating minister at the marriage of his lesbian daughter to her lesbian mate. Found guilty by the Synod, he was deposed his office as General Synod Professor of Theology and suspended from his office of Minister of Word and Sacrament. He subsequently was asked to resign his seminary position, as well.

The trial of Reverend Kansfield, and the fallout it created for those who supported him and his actions, led to a movement which calls itself Room for All. Its goal is to encourage and enroll churches, classis, regional synods, and General Synod in becoming open, welcoming, accepting, and affirming, without restricting all who have or would seek membership in the churches of the RCA, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Clearly this movement challenges the interpretation of Scripture advanced by the 1978 Theological Commission and reaffirmed as official RCA policy by the Synod of 1990. That interpretation of Old and New Testament Scripture rested on a literal reading of the Biblical text. It ignored the work of Biblical scholars who long ago established that the Bible is not a single text but rather a collection of texts, written by multiple authors, at different historical periods, and reflecting the culture of the times in which they were written. To use Biblical references selectively and without regard for their historical and cultural context to support a policy excluding homosexuals from full membership and participation in the life of the church is not unlike using Scripture to justify second class Christianity for women and support for slavery.

Such exclusion is in conflict with the concept of discipleship as presented by Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus specifically identifies his disciples as those who fed him when he was hungry, gave him a drink when he was thirsty, took him into their homes when he was a
stranger, clothed him when he was naked, cared for him when he was sick, visited him when he was in prison. Jesus uses this metaphorical language to affirm that those who do these acts of service and love for the least of those they encounter do it for him.
And later, in John’s Gospel, when the disciples were gathered with Jesus in the upper room, he washed the disciples’ feet as an example of what they should do for one another, elevating what was the work of a slave to that of a servant and telling the disciples that they were to be servants to one another. And then Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

Note that the royal commandment of love is not optional; it is a requirement of discipleship. Applying that royal commandment of love should require the RCA to be inclusive with room for all. To love as Jesus loves involves love that is full, open, unlimited, no strings attached. It offers to all the opportunities and obligations of discipleship. It makes one wonder what is taking the RCA so long to recognize that it cannot, must not continue a policy that discriminates against fellow Christians.

Of course, there are reasons for this state of affairs. A major one is the difference among us regarding interpretation of the Scripture. Those for whom Scripture is literally the spoken word of God, a fundamentalist interpretation, ignore the historical fact that while its authors may have perceived the Old and New Testament as God inspired, what they wrote reflected the times in which they lived—the mores and folkways that for them were of central importance, accepted without question, and embodying the fundamental moral views of their social group.
Another significant factor permitting the continuation of this policy of exclusion is the power of homophobia, fear and antipathy toward lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender persons (LGBT). Often we fear what we do not understand. And clearly there is much
misunderstanding about sexual identity and gender identity. These fears are both historic and emotional. To many, homosexuality is perceived as perverse, deliberately chosen, resistant to change, undermining the institution of marriage, and threatening the proper
rearing of children. That point of view is exemplified by those who regard homosexuality as sinful, a kind of disease that can be cured, particularly by large doses of prayer and exhortation. It ignores or rejects the biological and medical findings that recognize the
psychological, physiological, and neurological basis of sexual orientation. It refuses to acknowledge that LGBT brothers and sisters want and need what all of us desire: to be loved, affirmed, respected, to be able to marry, to have children, to be part of a family, to be treated with dignity, to be confirmed as worthy.

Surely another reason this denomination’s policy toward homosexuality persists is that we, the folks in the pews, are largely unaware of it. Until recently, most of us had never heard of Room for All or the reasons for its creation. We thought of the Reformed Church in America as being as accepting and welcoming as we are. For many it is shocking to discover it is not. Those who have joined and supported the concept of Room for All, both individuals and churches, believe it is time to challenge and change that policy—but to do so in a spirit of respect and love and a willingness to listen to one another as we come together to dialogue about our concerns and our differences. We know we can do so in a denomination which describes itself as reformed and ever reforming and whose history, over time, verifies its capacity for reforming change.

There are members of this congregation who remember a time when the greater consistory of this church—all living past elders and deacons as well as current ones—was an all male body, a time when the denomination did not ordain women to these offices. In 1971 the denomination opened the offices of elder and deacon to women—54 years after that change was first proposed! The first woman to be ordained as minister of the word and sacrament was Joyce Stedge in 1973, though General Synod voted to allow the ordination of women as ministers as early as 1958! Reverend Stedge’s ordination was contested, however, at the General Synod of 1974 as were the ordinations of four other women at the General Synod of 1978. Ultimately the issue was settled by action of the Judicial Business Committee of the General Synod of 1979 which officially established that women could become ministers in the RCA! Change and reform may not come quickly or easily to our denomination, but over time both happen!

We in the New Paltz Reformed Church see ourselves as a welcoming body of believers who already offer room for all. So it is reasonable to consider why we need to be involved in the Room for All movement. We need to be a part of this movement because it is pastoral. LGBT folks live in a society that is hostile, rejecting, unloving. Their young are bullied, especially in schools, and they are ridiculed and humiliated by their peers. Adults are considered all too frequently as pariahs—outcasts to be despised and avoided—often victims of attacks, both verbal and physical—even murdered. There are few places in the society where they feel safe, understood, accepted, let alone welcomed, affirmed, loved. Of all of society’s institutions, the religious community, the church, is the logical and moral one in which these brothers and sisters of ours should be able to find safe harbor and welcome.

Unfortunately, many churches are not welcoming and so the dilemma for these seekers is to know in which churches it is safe to risk their presence and identity. By becoming a Room for All member church, our church will be placed on a roster that is broadly advertised on the internet as a church that is committed to affirming and welcoming members of the LGBT community and caring for and about them.

A second reason we need to be a Room for All church is because it is missional. The RCA has a long history of mission as outreach, especially with respect to race and ethnicity. It has recognized and encouraged Pacific and Asian American congregations, Hispanic
congregations, Native American Indian congregations, and African American congregations, embracing these groups and building up the body of Christ. Thus far, the LGBT family has not been so recognized, remaining outside, excluded by denominational policy from full membership and participation in the life of the church.

In addition to the pastoral and missional reasons for becoming a Room for All church we need to join with like-minded churches as agents for change. Recognizing that reform and change evolve slowly over time, the Room for All movement accepts the probability that its goals for the denomination may not be realized until the denomination has fully discussed them, considered them seriously and prayerfully, and worked out its differences about them. While that may take some time, the movement believes it is important to begin that process, to involve churches, classes, regional synods, the General Synod, and the membership of the RCA as a denomination with room for all. Our discipleship requires us to do this—not only for the sake of those in the LGBT community, but for our own sake, for Christ’s sake, in faithful commitment to the inclusive love of Jesus Christ which welcomes all in the compassionate arms of the church.

Amen.

A Sermon on John 15: 26 – 16: 15 - Rev. Eric Johnson

Pentecost Sunday, 2012
Rev. Eric Johnson
John 15:26 – 16:15

26”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

16”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. 2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

 

If it wasn’t so corny, I’d start the sermon by fading into the theme song from the Ghostbusters movie, ending when the singer says, “I aint ‘fraid of no ghosts.” And I’d expose that line for the lie it is, because ghosts, spirits and specters actually scare the crap out of us… including the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost Sunday sermons tend to go in one of two directions, either they celebrate the birthday of the church and God’s sending empowered followers into the world to work & speak on God’s behalf… or they take the opportunity of a dedicated Sunday to talk about the Holy Spirit–who the Spirit is and what the Spirit does, because so many Christian churches pay such a small amount of attention to the Spirit.

This sermon endeavors to do the second, to attend to the Spirit, because I don’t think we do that much and I think it’s because we’re afraid of her. We’re not afraid in the Ghostbusters sense, but in the much more disturbing sense of being unmoored by encountering something outside of our control. Though we hate to admit it, we desperately want to nail down God and we all know that the Spirit blows where she will. It’s not just that, though; the Spirit is active and dynamic in ways that we don’t still think about God being and that bothers us too. In the Holy Spirit, we encounter God who is mysterious, always unknowable at some level and intimate with us… and it scares us so we try hard not to pay too much attention.

As I was preparing for this sermon I was reminded of the novel, The Shack. If you are not among the 15 million people who have read this book, it’s about a man named Mack who lives in what he calls “The Great Sadness” after the murder of his daughter and it’s about his mystical encounter with the three persons of the Trinity who move him toward healing. I was thinking of it because I really like the author’s portrayal of the Holy Spirit in the book as Sarayu, a shimmering Asian woman who was easier to see when you didn’t look at her directly who described herself to Mack as a verb, “I am alive, dynamic, ever active, and moving.” My curiosity was piqued when I got to thinking about this book and this sermon and I looked around on the web for ways others responded to Sarayu’s character. I was really struck by how negatively religious authorities reacted. One Pentecostal pastor responded really strongly to her mysterious portrayal on his blog, asserting that the Holy Spirit is not mysterious!

Yeah, we’re pretty uncomfortable with the Holy Spirit.

But should we be? Probably… yeah.

Jesus is talking to his disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit in the midst of his “Last words” speech to them in the upper room the night of his arrest, the day before his crucifixion. He’s trying to get them ready for what is to come. He tells them that he’s going to send the Spirit of truth, the Advocate. Then he says, “I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” Yikes.

The atmosphere around Jesus that night would have been distressing enough without him saying stuff like that. Maybe they knew this anyway, if they could read the tea leaves and see what a threat Jesus was to the powers that be. But the idea that they were about to become outcasts, that they were about to be rejected by their own people, I think that’s pretty scary. These are devout Jews, a small population in a small nation in a world being overrun by the power of Rome, whose biggest sense of safety and stability is their connection with their people, their families and their communities of faith… and Jesus is saying all that will soon disappear.

Most of us do not know what it feels like to be a pariah in our church, in our community, in our family.[i] Some do, though. The college student whose father, a small-town pastor, has declared he will stop financing her education unless she stops being a lesbian. He’s threatening to out her girlfriend, too, exposing both his daughter and someone she cares deeply for to rejection & ridicule in their homes, churches and community.

Or imagine being a gay man sitting in Providence Road Baptist Church a couple weeks ago when Pastor Charles Worley preached about two men kissing making him “pukin’ sick” and suggested America kill off gays & lesbians by putting them in giant electrified pens until they die out, as though sexuality is a contagion… sitting there just days after your state voted to change the constitution to discriminate against you and your spiritual leader was suggesting from the pulpit to your community of faith that killing you off is the right thing to do.

I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”

When he disturbed his disciples with this reality, Jesus did so in the midst of his speech about the Holy Spirit. It actually started a chapter earlier. In chapter 14 Jesus is already disturbing his disciples by talking about his death. When he talks about the Spirit coming there he says things like, “I will not leave you orphaned,” and, “Peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you.” The NRSV translates the word Jesus uses for the Spirit here as ‘Advocate,’ and others have used comforter, counselor, helper.

Usually in this church and lots of churches around the world, preachers choose their scriptures from the several passages assigned each week in the Revised Common Lectionary, a three year cycle of scripture assignments from week to week. This week’s gospel assignment was the passage I read, but they left out verses 1-4, the ones about the disciples being thrown out of the synagogues and even killed by people who mistakenly believe they are worshipping God through their brutality. I think leaving those verses out is a mistake. The lectionary often does that, goes around distasteful parts of the reading, but by doing so here it takes away some of the power of Jesus’ choice to associate the Holy Spirit with some of our lowest and neediest moments.

In the verses that precede our passage for today Jesus talks about how the world hates him and will hate his disciples, too. Then he talks about the Spirit coming. Then he says that people will worshipfully kill them and recognizes that their hearts are filled with grief. Then he talks about the Spirit coming. Jesus is exposing for the disciples and for us something very important about the Spirit– when we are brought low by pain, by suffering, by sadness… she draws near. Not only that, she speaks in those times. She transforms us in those times.

In this passage Jesus talks about how the Spirit will show the world how wrong we’ve been about sin and righteousness and judgment, that our understanding about them will be changed because of our knowledge of Jesus. He also says that he could go on like this, that he’s got much more to say, but the disciples aren’t ready to hear it yet, it is more than they can bear. And that is something else the Spirit will do, speak more of Jesus’ message to his followers when they are able to receive it.

Think of the many ways the church changed because of Jesus’ ministry & teaching, of how different Christianity was from Judaism just in the first generation after Jesus’ life; there was a radical shift away from primary focus of temple and set-apart lifestyle, the radical inclusion of all people regardless of tribe, the radical shift to being expansive and evangelical when Judaism had previously been so internally focused… and that’s just some of the obvious external stuff. It’s because of Jesus’ message & the early message of the Spirit that the disciples became able to bear what came after Jesus’ resurrection.

In what other ways over the years have the followers of Jesus changed so that they were able to bear other things Jesus had to say? The Protestant Reformation? The development of our individual access to God? Our Confessions of Faith? The dismantling of systems of injustice like slavery, colonialism, apartheid and gender inequality? The Spirit speaks Jesus’ message to the church through time, as time and experience changes us and readies us to hear more. The concept of God’s timing within human history is a very well-established one in the Bible, one we pay a lot of attention to in the season of Advent but also one that exposes the sensitivity and care with which God engages humanity… as we are ready & able to hear, the Spirit speaks and gives us the voice and authority to speak as well.

The reality that the Holy Spirit is drawn to us when life is the most threatening and unhappy, that she comforts us in those times and uses those times to grow us– that reality doesn’t make her movement feel all that welcome to me. The reality that my impulses to nail God down and figure God out are resisted by the Spirit’s persistent revelation of Jesus’ message as life and history unfolds is a destabilizing reality. But these are realities nonetheless. Perhaps we’d be better off making a friend of the Holy Spirit, becoming more acquainted with her and attentive to her. Darkness and sadness will encroach in all of our lives. Jesus will respond by sending the Spirit. May we receive her and join her in changing the church according to Jesus’ wishes. Amen.


[i] So often I hear about Christians who are claiming vindication or claiming to be the righteous minorities accosted by society when they are just the opposite– privileged WASPs who are wont to throw a tantrum when they don’t get what they want. For most established, white, American Christians, we don’t have a context for what Jesus is talking about, so we hear words like judgment and sin from our place of privilege. That is a misunderstanding.

Exegetical Resources

Inclusivity in Luke: The Rev. Dr. Arlo D. Duba is the former Director of Admissions and Director of Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary and former Dean, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. Rev. Duba placed an ad in the Presbyterian Outlook in support of the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life and leadership of the church. An interview in which he describes how his study of scripture led him to this position can be read here .

“Six Big Ones” is a brief document by Rev. Carolyn (Kari) Keith, containing notes on six biblical passages often cited in opposition to inclusion.