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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, February 19, 2006
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to the Parents, Siblings and Friends of GLBT persons who have worked and walked beside their beloved ones on this journey of life, faith, and dealing with the church. May their "coming out" bring further strength to all around them in this process and always to the glory of God!
Homosexuality and the Church: A Way Forward

Part VI of VI in the sermon series: "We Believe: God in American Life"

Ephesians 4:1-6, 14-16; Mark 4:35-41

Last Sunday, I addressed the Bible and Homosexuality. I said it is not Holy Scripture that creates hostility to homosexuality, but rather hostility to homosexuality that drives all too many Christians to cite a few passages from the Apostle Paul and otherwise discarded Jewish law codes as a way to push gays out of the church. Like slavery and women's issues before them, the current conflict over homosexuality is a cultural, not a Biblical one. It is an intellectual, spiritual, psychological, and scientific conflict which has found a home among those who call themselves "Christian." Since the Church Universal has decided to bear the burden of this war, please allow me a little more time today to explore a way forward from war to peace. It is a way which involves each of us.

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.

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She was a gifted Christian minister. She was intellectual and spiritual. She was great preacher, teacher and pastor. The top student of her seminary class at The Methodist Theological Seminary in Delaware, she was approaching ordination in our United Church of Christ. In her final year of seminary, she served as a supply preacher in a small UCC congregation in Central Ohio. They loved her sermon and leadership of worship. They loved everything about her. After the service, the congregation pulpit supply committee offered her the job of "Student Minister." But, before she could sign the covenant agreement a few days later, they discovered that she was a Christian who happened to be a lesbian. They tore up the agreement. In the "sweetness of Christian love," this United Church of Christ congregation told her not to bother coming back.

He came to me asking to be baptized. I found this request rather odd. He was in his mid-30's and had been a deacon and leader in his Pentecostal church "back home" in NW Ohio. He had been married, a father of three, and was very popular in his former church. He taught and even preached in the congregation at times. He told me his pastor had called him "one of the most gifted spiritual role models for the men in his congregation."

Why then, I wondered had he not been baptized? The answer was: he had been baptized by immersion as an adult. When someone discovered he was gay and "outed him" to his pastor, the pastor had him stand during a worship service and come forward. In front of his wife and children (to whom he had not "come out") and the whole congregation, the pastor admonished him, saying: "It has come to my attention that you are gay. I revoke your baptism. You are not a Christian. You are a terrible sinner. Leave and never come back." In tears, he asked me again, "so, will you baptize me, pastor?" I did.

They were a gay couple who had visited the church several times. Following one visit, they asked if I could answer some of their questions about our church and this denomination. We set up a time. I listened to each one tell church stories of rejection and judgment. Their pain brought tears to my eyes. We closed our time by holding hands and praying together. As we embraced and they prepared to leave, one of the men, turned to me and spoke through his tear, "Today, I kept waiting for you to tell me I was hated by God, but you never did. All I feel is the love of God for the first time since I discovered I was gay."

"The Love of God . . . " - isn't that what we as the Christian church should shine forth? Today, in every church in America and throughout the world, there are GLBT men and women. Some would say 10% of every church is gay (which matches the percentage of GLBT persons in the culture) . In spite of this fact, somewhere in the world today, someone is listening to a sermon that is judging them and is spiritually cutting them off and casting them out from the body of Christ. This Christian man or woman may be a church musician, a deacon, the leader of the women's fellowship or a young teenager who is just discovering his or her own sexual orientation. In each case, they will leave church today wondering how and when they will return. They are seeking to breathe, having come out of a suffocating encounter within their own community of faith. They may act out or retreat deeper into the closet of their fears and anonymity. Coming out may seem like an impossibility - especially in the church. As Mel White records in his autobiography, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America (1994), "As a teenager, since I couldn't convince my Baptist parents that it was all right for me to go to a dance, how was I ever going to tell them that I was gay?"

There must be a way forward for more than one billion Christians on Earth. Although we are as diverse as the human family which God has created, we also share much in common, beginning with our baptism in Christ. As Paul says to the Ephesians and to all of us: "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:4-6). God is Creator of ALL - above ALL, through ALL, and in ALL - not some, not most, ALL who have baptized into the one body and one Spirit. That is our hope. The majority excluding a minority is not the promise of the Gospel to ALL who repent and believe, says the Lord.

I humbly offer you five foundational principles we can apply in finding a way forward. First, we need to bear with one another in love. Second, we need to confess the arrogance of our certitude. Third, we need to find common ground by seeing each person as a beloved child of our Loving God. Fourth, we need to break the code of silence and secrecy. Fifth, we need to identify the pain of exclusion that others feel when left out, cast out, and shut out of the church.

The congregation of Olin T. Binkley Baptist Memorial Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina applied these and other principles when John Blevins was presented as a student minister to their Southern Baptist Church's Deaconal Board. John was a student seminarian seeking a license to preach the gospel and ultimately ordination in their church. He was presented as a Christian who was openly gay. Immediately, the church was torn by two things: their love for John and their long-standing belief that homosexuality was a sin. But, rather than believe they were right about their long-standing beliefs, they extended a "temporary" license to John and they began to pray together, study scripture together, and discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in this matter. In time, they came to believe the church was wrong on homosexuality the same way it had been wrong on women and slavery. John was granted standing and he was ordained. The people of Binkley Baptist believed that no one should dictate to them how to read scripture. They were Baptist and as such, they were congregational in their approach to faith and life together. With their decision a firestorm of response came at Binkley Baptist from other churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. Instead of becoming defensive, members went out and met with their opponents. In Christian love, they extended their way and their principles to other churches. Some listened. Some changed their views.

Unfortunately, for every Binkley Baptist story, there are nine or ten others in which a church chooses to insulate itself from conversation and exposure to these and other issues. Especially the code of silence and secrecy is more important than any other code in the church and there is no identification with the pain of exclusion.

A way forward must mean practicing all five of these principles in an attempt to move out of the past and into the future. Since Christendom is congregationally based, eventually this way means that congregation by congregation, leaders would agree to talk open, pray together, reason together, and agree to disagree, always seeking to work through their differences. You and I need to engage our friends and other pastors, people, and congregations with these loving principles. No matter where someone goes to church, we need to give them a chance to move out of the despair of judgment - which denigrates both gay and straight Christians.

Consider the life of one who challenged the issues of his day in his church. John Woolman was a Quaker abolitionist. Woolman set out in the 1830's to convince every Quaker that it was wrong to own slaves. Although this journey from church to church and then from person to person took Woolman almost 20 years of his life, eventually there were no slaves in America held by Quakers! How powerful is that?! Not only that, but the Quakers stood alongside the Congregationalists to become the greatest leaders in the abolitionist movement.

Woolman's approach was simple. John sat down with people, one-to-one and prayed with them, listened to their struggles, loved them, grew in relationship with them and then, through the power of God's Holy Spirit, encouraged each man to change his ways. We live in a world where we want instant results and instant gratification. Email or e-message won't change hearts and minds. Your friends and family won't change because I preached this sermon today (or last week) and you sent it to them. Only the power and presence of God working in you and through you WILL change hearts and minds.

I believe a lot of people are closer to acceptance and affirmation than you believe they are. In Jeremiah, God says to His people, "I spit you out because of your sins." A few chapters later, God says, "It is you I long for. I think about you all day long." This reminds me of growing up during the Vietnam war era when fathers would say the same of sons who fled for Canada, thus dodging the draft. They disowned them, but then thought about them all day long. This mirrors the experience of families faced with family members "coming out" - painful expulsion and constant lament. There are a lot of people in our lives who fit this description beyond these questions. Although they are not a part of our daily lives at this point, we think about them all day long - and they think about us, too!

It's often the men or women we have written off as reactionary, cruel and cold who are in fact the folks most willing to listen! Remember that these principles call for you to confess the arrogance of your certitude, not to proclaim the arrogance of someone else's! You need to see one who resists you with your Open and Affirming beliefs as a beloved child of a Loving God. That is the nature of Grace. Then, go out and share the good news of what you have come to know here at First Church. Share your enthusiasm and our story - one person at a time. Talk to pastors, priests, bishops, and people. So many of you have told me stories of friends, neighbors, and family members who are great people - except they can't see how to love unconditionally those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered. Spend time with them. Love them and listen to them. Listen to their pain if you wish for them to hear yours. And remember, this is not a journey for those who are GLBT only. This journey is for each one of us and all of us together.

One more consideration before I close. The question of gay marriage is one the Senior Ministers of First Church have embraced for the past 12 years. I believe we need to stand up and make a theological stand for gay unions based on our theology of Sanctification. Sanctification comes from the Latin word "sanctus" which means Holy. Sanctification is the process in which new life is imparted to the believer by the Holy Spirit and through which he or she is released from the compulsive power of sin and guilt and enabled to love God and serve neighbor. A sanctified life is one growing closer to God in holiness. A sanctified union is the discipline of giving ourselves to another in love for growing in holiness - more precisely, growing together for the sake of God. Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. makes a powerful argument in his Christian Century article of June 15, 2004, that "given that we as Christians exhibit faith, hope, charity, and love in community" and in relationships with one another, we should be encouraging the unions of gay and lesbian couples in the church and through which these virtues of life and faith are learned and grow in sanctified relationship with God. I have always believed that GLBT persons who commit themselves to Christian community - to church and to one another as partners - do so to seek greater good, contribute to a greater discipline of faith and a to contribute through God's beloved community to the improvement of the social fabric of society's life together. They do so, like heterosexuals, for their own healing and strengthening of faith.

Therefore, it is right for the church to not only include such believers and God seekers in the community of faith, but just as important to bless and sanctify their unions in the sight of God and through the name of our Savior Jesus Christ. Often opponents will say it is morally dangerous to bless such unions. I believe, in the sight of God, it is morally dangerous not to bless such unions. To push people away from God and one another is to refuse to celebrate love as real.

In all these things, we should awake from our slumber on this sea of tumult. Listen to Jesus asking us still, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" There is hope in every storm of life when our Savior is by our side. This storm in the church's life is no different. I believe that through faith, not fear, the church will emerge stronger and more loving. This, I believe with everything that is in me. Amen.

Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church