January 17, 2016
So that was a rough scripture. Especially if you are a lawyer, right? A few weeks ago when I preached, we got to experience a scene of what I call snarky adolescent Jesus, and this week, we’ve got a snippet of what I might call the I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore Jesus. This is the picture of the Jesus who so angers the religious authorities that they eventually conspire to have him killed.
Right before the verses we heard today, Jesus just got done giving the Pharisees what for, telling them that they are all about outward signs of piety, that they have forgotten to actually love God and that they have abandoned justice, and what they really want is to be recognized and honored as important religious figures when they are out and about. He really tells them off.
And then in our verses, the lawyers have heard this. Now, I have good news for our contemporary lawyers. These lawyers are not civil lawyers; they are religious officials. And these religious officials are particularly concerned with making sure that people obey religious regulations. They too are concerned about outward signs of religiosity, and maybe they too liked to be honored for their own power and piety.
And so they say to Jesus here, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.” I kind of imagine Jesus turning on this poor guy—this guy who’s expecting Jesus to be all like, “You’re right. Outward piety is important, and people really should respect you.” But instead, Jesus says, "Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them."
Jesus is angry because both of these groups of religious leaders – the Pharisees and the lawyers – are more concerned with ensuring that people follow the letter of the law than they are concerned about people. They have made the law a burden to the people when in fact, the teachings of Moses, the Torah, are meant to be a blessing and not a burden. They are meant to enable people to live and thrive in covenant with God and be a community that cares for its most vulnerable members.
It is hard for me to hear these words of scripture and not think about what is currently happening in The United Methodist Church regarding its position on same sex marriage and gay or lesbian clergy. We are a United Methodist faith community, and so it’s important for us to talk about this and be clear. The United Methodist Church is guided by a document called The Book of Discipline. Sounds fun, right? Well, in the 70s and early 80s, that Book of Discipline was amended to create the current rules stating that UMC clergy may not perform same sex weddings in our churches because homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” (their odd language – not mine) may not be ordained in the UMC. Those are the rules.
And there are many people in the UMC that think it is very important to follow the rules, even when those rules “load people with burdens hard to bear.”
Most recently, a clergywoman named Cynthia Meyer in Edgerton, Kansas, came out as a lesbian after 25 years of ministry in the UMC, and charges were promptly brought against her for being a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
I want to tell you right now that I stand with Rev. Cynthia Meyer. I believe she should be allowed to keep her clergy credentials. I believe that defrocking someone because of their sexual orientation or telling someone they can’t get married to a person of the same sex is a legalistic and burdensome religion, and it is a burden that no person should be made to endure.
So, you might be rightly wondering then... Pastor Chris, if you feel so strongly and clearly about this issue, why are you a part of The United Methodist Church? This is a legitimate question. I am a huge Methonerd, which you know if you’ve ever heard me preach or talked to me for any length of time about a theological topic. But more compelling than that, to be honest, is that I have prayed and discerned carefully about it for a long time, and I am convinced this is where God has called me to be.
And so, here I am a Methodist, part of a denomination still struggling with how to be fully inclusive. I have friends and colleagues all over this country and some around the world who are engaged in the democratic process of changing the restrictive rules in the Book of Discipline, something the General Conference will be voting on in May. And I am deeply grateful for their work.
For my part, I am not going to let someone else’s religious legalism stop me from being where God is calling me to minister. In this United Methodist Church. And with queer people, particularly with college students who are in the midst of exploring their sexual orientation and gender identity, and long to have a space where they can be people of faith, and be named as beloved by God as well.
Of course, this is risky business in The United Methodist Church. Sometimes I think that maybe it would be better to wait. I mean, I’m still a provisional Elder. I still have to be considered for ordination in another year. And campus ministry is funded by the conference – we wouldn’t want to put that funding in jeopardy. There are reasons to hesitate.
And yet then I hear the words of our modern prophet who we celebrate this week. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. calls to task those white moderates and white church leaders, who are telling him and others in the civil rights movement to be patient, that change will come, that they just need to wait for the government to act. He responds with a variety of arguments, but in one section, he writes about the injustices that African-Americans have experienced, and that “there comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and [people] are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.”
I too have seen injustices and despair among LGBTQ people because of the moral condemnation they receive from the church. I have seen hopeful young queer people called into ministry only to have their hearts broken when their call is received not as a moment of celebration, but as a “problem” because of the Methodist system.
I have seen people severed from or routinely verbally abused by their families who believe they are going to hell for being gay. I have seen the tears and heard the stories. I have heard the tales of bullying and hurt.
And so, the time to wait is over. The time to make a queer-affirming space for college students to explore faith identity is now. As I spoke with college students this fall, I found a great need for queer students to have a place to integrate sexual orientation, gender identity, and faith identity. And so, with the encouragement of students in the Urban Abbey campus ministry, I am leading an initiative called QueerFaith on campus. We can be that space of exploration and inclusion, even if our denomination is still trying to catch up.
We can be a community that welcomes young people who have been told they are incompatible. We can move beyond wrestling with the same tired old scriptures that have been used to condemn. We can talk about the great gifts of queerness: the gift of being in community with people who have something important to teach us about God. People who show us what it means to risk everything to love who they love, and who embody the beauty and diversity of God’s good creation.
Jesus said, Woe to the lawyers. But we are not called to sit around and condemn lawyers. We are called to lift the burdens of the oppressed. So let’s lift burdens. Let’s be the place and space of hope and inclusion and openness. Let’s become a space where Jesus would say, "Blessed are you Urban Abbey! For you ease others’ burden and help them carry their loads."
Now maybe some of you are hearing this, and you are all in. You’ve got a rainbow flag in your trunk that you’ve been saving for just this moment. But maybe some of you are worried. Maybe you’re not the kind of people who usually march in Pride Parades, maybe you’re not certain about the right pronouns to use, maybe you don’t know what all the letters mean, and maybe you are slightly uncomfortable with using the word “queer.” That’s all okay. Even if you’re unsure, we love and need you for this work. God’s kin-dom can only be God’s kin-dom when everyone is included and when everyone participates in Jesus’ way of liberation.
There is a great story that Nadia Bolz-Weber told in an interview about her response when her very quirky church that was full of edgy, urban young adults started having visitors who were…well… normal. She had this period of angst about it. She was worried that these really normal people who could go to any Protestant church in the city were going to ruin the beautiful, unusual community they had created. And she tells the story of a meeting she had with her congregation to decide what to do about this problem. And she said this is what happened:
“And we had the meeting…And then everyone went around in a circle and [a church member named] Asher said, "Look, as the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on the record as saying I'm glad there's people who look like my mom and dad here, because they love me in a way my mom and dad can't."
We all have a role in easing each other’s burdens. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ words make clear, that the law, our covenant with God, the real yoke of God, is not a burden. It is safety, and it is love, and it is rest for our weary souls.
28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
This is a promise, a covenant, that frees us to love the world into wholeness.
May we embody this promise for each other.
Will you pray The Wesleyan Covenant Prayer with me?
I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee. Exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.