Sunday, February 17, 2019

We All Belong to God - Sermon manuscript, February 17, 2019

We All Belong to God                           February 17, 2019 - Year C: Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Romans 14:7-12
Sermon idea: The source of Christian unity is not us (our beliefs, practices, thoughts, opinions); the source of Christian unity is Christ - we belong to Christ.
Series theme: A Holy Mess: Christian Unity in the 21st Century
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I usually outline my sermons and then preach by following that outline. But this morning I have done something a little different; I wrote the whole thing out, word for word. I did it this way because I want to be particularly careful with my word choices today, and also because I want to make sure I say the same thing at all three services this morning. (Most Sundays, my sermons are a “holy mess,” and you never know what you’re going to hear from one service to the next, as Pastor Adrienne can tell you!)

It feels like there is an extra significance to this sermon, because it is coming just a few days ahead of a specially called session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which is the global meeting of 864 delegates tasked to set policy and doctrine for our entire denomination. Normally, the General Conference meets every four years; the last one was in 2016 and the next one will be in 2020.

One of the reasons the United Methodist Church is having a special called session of General Conference next week is simply this: we have been trying to have two very different conversations simultaneously, and that, predictably, has not been very productive.

For some (and I put myself in this group) the conversation is about ecclesial practices, specifically marriage and ordination. These two practices of the church are significant, meaningful, and important aspects of the church’s identity. For our Roman Catholic siblings, they are sacraments.

And so for this group of United Methodists, the questions on the table are, “Will we marry same-sex couples?” and “Will we ordain people regardless of sexual orientation?” Much of the conversation is defined as a dialogue about allowing for differences in the practices of ministry. It is equivalent to a conversation about whether to baptize infants by sprinkling or to baptize teenagers by full immersion. A significant, meaningful practice of the church, done differently in different contexts.

I am able to define the conversation this way, but others are not.

For others (and I have many friends and colleagues in this group) the conversation is about sin and salvation, specifically the church’s response to and inclusion of those they believe are unrepentant sinners. This group embraces the idea, “Love the sinner; hate the sin,” and would say that gay people are welcome to be a part of the church, on the condition that they not be married or ordained here.

For this group of United Methodists, the questions on the table are, “Will we condone sin?” and “Will we be disobedient to Scripture?” It is deeper than just a different way to do ministry, because it speaks to a reality of all human experience, namely our sexuality. For this group, the conversation is visceral, and fundamental to our Christian faith. It is equivalent to a conversation about the nature of God or the divinity of Jesus.

Granted, this is an over-simplification, an artificially binary viewpoint that does not adequately describe the nuance and subtlety of the situation. But I think this is a fairly accurate illustration of the holy mess that lies ahead of us. How is it possible to even converse about a way forward, much less discern one, when we are stuck having two such dramatically different yet simultaneous conversations?

And there are some who have already answered this question, deciding, “No, we cannot talk about this any more. It’s time to go.” Indeed there have already been members, pastors, even entire congregations who have left the United Methodist Church, in part because we do not agree on the parameters of the conversation itself. After next week, there will undoubtedly be more who leave, no matter what the outcome of the General Conference may be.

I want to say that I do not begrudge anyone’s decision to leave one congregation for another, or to leave one denomination altogether and connect with another, when that decision is about discipleship. When you join a church, you join a group of people with whom you want to follow Jesus. A group of people who will encourage you and hold you accountable to your Christian discipleship, and for whom you can provide similar encouragement and accountability.

Joining a church is all about choosing a certain group of people to walk among in your Christian journey.

And many factors go into that decision, among them location, size, style of worship, theology of the pastor, even whether or not the congregation hosts same-sex weddings. The point is to follow Jesus, not what particular church you are a part of.

Different congregations and different denominations are expressions of the diversity of the Church, one body with many members. The Church’s unity is not dependent upon our understandings, but rather depends on God. As Paul wrote,  ...to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. (Romans 14)

Christ is Lord of all of us. Resurrection means that each and every one of us belongs to God, and to God alone. If Christ died and lived again for all of us, if we actually believe that we all belong to God, then can we not commit to be united in the hard work of honest, respectful, and gracious dialogue about our differences of opinion?

Or will we insist that our unity comes not from Christ, but from a uniformity of belief? A uniformity which, when absent, thereby erodes our essential spiritual unity. I for one do not equate Christian unity with doctrinal uniformity. Granted, uniformity is tidier than unity, and we do like things to be “neat and tidy.” But unity can actually be quite messy, and it does not even imply lock-step uniformity.

 In fact when Jesus himself discussed unity, he did not describe uniformity of specific teachings. Rather, he prayed for unity in profoundly relational terms, expressing his desire in John 17: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Notice, Jesus asks us not to believe in a list of particular ideas, but rather to believe in him. It is our relationship with Jesus that unites us, not our beliefs about Jesus. And the reason Jesus unites us as one body is so that the world will know. Our unity is a witness to the world, a testimony to the power of God’s love.

I have heard some criticize “unity for unity’s sake.” They ask, “Are we to remain united at all costs? How much disagreement is enough, and how disagreement much is just too much? Are we just wanting unity for the sake of unity?” My answer: “Yes, in a way.” Unity in diversity is inherently a witness to the power of God’s love, and to the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we are united in spite of disagreement, we are announcing to the world that Christ is bigger than us, that God’s love is more powerful than our disagreements, and that the Holy Spirit is alive and well within and among us all.

This profound, relational unity is accomplished not by us but by the Holy Spirit, whose unifying power on Pentecost gave all who gathered the ability to understand, in spite of their obvious linguistic diversity. This spiritual unity is not something the Bible says should happen, it is something the Bible says does happen.

Unity is described in many places, including Ephesians 4:1-6. Paul writes, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 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.”

This passage asks us to “maintain” Spiritual unity, not create it. This passage says there “is” one body, not there should be. Spiritual unity is assumed in the Bible. Relational unity in Christ is a given in Scripture. Galatians 3:26-28 emphasizes the point this way, “...in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Unity is described, taken as a given for followers of Jesus. The Bible doesn’t say “You should be one.” The Bible says “You are one.”

We who are called “Methodist” should understand this more deeply than anyone. It is in our theological DNA, so to speak. The founder of our movement, John Wesley, seemed to get this better than most. Wesley understood Christian unity and was able to talk about it in powerful, articulate ways.

He said, “Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions, than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, ‘Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? … If it be, give me thy hand.’”

This is a quote from Wesley’s sermon titled “The Catholic Spirit.” Every United Methodist ought to read the full sermon at some point; this week would be a pretty opportune time to do so. Because, as I may have mentioned before, we have a pretty significant meeting coming up this week.

Friday evening, I’ll head to St. Louis. Saturday the delegates will convene for a day of prayer together. Sunday we will focus on prioritizing the various proposals. Monday is scheduled for legislative work, amending and perfecting the plan. And then Tuesday, final debate and vote. At least that’s the idea. We’ll see how things go once we get there. It may get a bit … messy.

I’d like to share my personal position with you, knowing that there are people listening to this right now whose position is different than mine. So please don’t get mad and leave - this is me being honest about me.

I do not believe the Bible directly blesses same-sex relationships, nor do I believe the Bible directly condemns same-sex relationships. I believe that, in order to bless or condemn them, one has to interpret what the Bible truly says.

So I interpret the Bible to condemn relationships that are idolatrous, abusive, objectifying, and degrading, no matter the gender of the individuals in the relationship.

On the flipside, I interpret the Bible to bless relationships that are loving, respectful, grace-filled, mutually affirming, and committed to a lifelong covenant, no matter the gender of the individuals in the relationship.

And because of how I interpret Scripture, I would like the United Methodist Church to change our policies that restrict marriage to only heterosexual couples and restrict ordination to only straight people.

But I know that others interpret Scripture differently. And so I would like for the United Methodist Church to also include an explicit statement that says pastors are not compelled to marry any couple, nor are bishops compelled to ordain any person, if their conscience does not permit them to do so. For the record, that makes me a fan of what is known as the “One Church Plan.”

And along with that change, I want us to stay together, as messy as that may be. I want us to recognize that unity is not uniformity. I want us to honor Christ’s life, death, and resurrection by affirming the truth of our spiritual unity, in spite of our diverse theological perspectives. The source of our unity is not us, not our beliefs, not our practices, not our thoughts and opinions. The source of Christian unity is Christ.

The United Methodist Church seems to be at a tipping point, and the old structures of the connection are rapidly eroding. It is a theological Gethsemane moment for us - And if we believe in resurrection, this is not a bad thing.

Rather than worry about who might leave the denomination after next week, shouldn't we be excited about who might join? Shouldn't we celebrate the new life emerging from the tomb? I, for one, commit to a resurrection redefinition of our beloved connection, and I hope the other delegates will too.

We are all, each and every one of us, a beloved child of God. We all belong to God. That is a stronger bond than any we could ever create ourselves.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Why Give?

This is the letter I included with the 2018 statements of generosity that were sent to the people of Campbell UMC this year...


Instead of the “usual” in this giving letter, I want to pose a question … “Why do we give?”

Pastor Adrienne has recently asked this question a couple of times in worship, and it is worth pondering, isn’t it? Every single week, we talk about how important it is to give a proportion of our income, with the goal being a tithe (10%) of what we make. We talk about how giving is an act of Christian discipleship. We talk about how our giving as a church resources the mission and ministry of the congregation in exciting and meaningful way.

And that is all well and good, but it leaves the answer to the question as an abstract form. That’s more about “Why do we give?” But have you ever sat down and prayed over the question of why you give? Have you ever made it personal?

So, why do I give? I give so that the first grader who doesn’t quite fit in at school has a place where he feels welcomed unconditionally. I give so that the family who has adopted three kids with previous traumatic experiences has friends that surround them all with encouragement and support. I give so that the young adult who was hurt by her previous church experience has a community in which to encounter the living presence of God again. I give so that the retiree who cannot get out of her home safely anymore has people who reach out to her to let her know she has not been forgotten.

You will find enclosed a statement of your giving for 2018. This statement shows what you gave; only you know why you gave. If you are not sure of your particular “why,” give me, pastor Adrienne, or pastor Jim a call so that we can help figure that out together.

I know that you will use this for tax purposes, but it is also a gauge for you to measure your own discipleship, and check yourself to see if you fulfilled the promise you made at our last “Discipleship Promise Renewal” Sunday. And as I say every year, this statement is for you only. No one is looking over your shoulder when it comes to your tithing. This is between you and God. And so I ask that you pray over this statement, treat it as more than just another tax document, and allow it to shape your giving into 2019 and beyond.

Know your why!



The question of "why do I give" is so important for the follower of Jesus. Do you have an answer to that question? Is it connected to your discipleship? Is it transactional, or is it relational? Does it reflect the level of your gratitude to God for God's abundant generosity to you? Does it feel obligatory, or is it a joy and a means of grace for you?

I'd love to hear your "why" for giving - feel free to comment here on the blog, or on the facebook or twitter shares...

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Impact of Non-Hateful Words


It is not true to say that all of the Christians who oppose same-sex marriage are hateful and homophobic.

It is not true to say that none of the Christians who oppose same-sex marriage are hateful and homophobic.

So let’s just cut that out, shall we? It doesn’t get us anywhere.

I wish that my “marriage equality’ colleagues would clearly and unequivocally affirm that it is indeed possible to interpret the Bible in a way that does not condone same-sex marriage, and that doing so does not necessarily make you hateful or homophobic.

I wish that my “traditional marriage” colleagues would clearly and unequivocally affirm that it is indeed possible to interpret the Bible in a way that condones same-sex marriage, and just as clearly condemn hatred and homophobia, instead of pretending it isn’t present.

If we could do that, then maybe we could get to a deeper level of dialogue. Because we need to be deeper than we are. We really need to be past the “yes it does” / “no it doesn’t” naiveté that predominates our sermons, our blog posts, our presentations and conversations these days.

We need to be talking about how hatred and homophobia are doing severe harm to LGTBQ+ people everywhere. We need to be talking about how to counteract this hatred and homophobia, which leads to discrimination, bullying, assault, suicide, and murder, rather than just turning an ecclesial blind eye.

Literally, lives are at stake. And here’s the deal … (buckle your seatbelts, y’all) …

The words, spoken and written, of non-hateful, non-homophobic “traditional marriage” clergy are fuel for the words and actions of hateful, homophobic people. And the words and actions of hateful, homophobic people are literally destroying lives.

Please consider the following questions:

What are the implications of saying (in a very non-hateful and non-homophobic way) that gay people are welcome in your church as long as they do not want to be married or ordained? What fuel does that provide a hateful, homophobic person? How would they interpret that?

What are the implications of saying (again in a non-hateful, non-homophobic way) that nobody who believes that the Bible blesses same-sex relationships will be allowed to hold a leadership position in your church? What other forms of discrimination will that implicitly condone in the mind of one who is in fact homophobic?

What are the implications of saying in that same non-hateful and non-homophobic tone that you simply cannot even be a part of a church in which same-sex marriages are permissible but not mandatory? How might that fan the flames of other, more sinister and blatant expressions of divisiveness and exclusion?

And flip that around …

What are the implications of telling someone who is gay that they are non-hatefully and non-homophobically welcome in your church, as long as they do not actually demonstrate outwardly in any way that they are gay? What does it say to the gay teenager in your youth group that they can be a part of the Body of Christ as long as they stay in the closet? How will they apply that limited and conditional love and acceptance to their understanding of who Jesus is? How will your condition that she or he remain closeted at church compel him or her to remain closeted elsewhere; how will it affect his or her mental health, self-image, and ability to function in daily life?

These are the questions that we need to be asking, and that requires us to go beyond where we are. That requires us to go beyond what the United Methodist governance system is designed to do, to be honest. These questions require personal relationship, deep trust, covenant accountability that goes beyond following the rules, and an unrelenting commitment to speaking the truth in love.

I am not accusing anyone of being hateful or of being homophobic. I am just asking us to confess that there are people who are. And furthermore, to consider how our words might be fuel for the fires that drive them.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

A National Trigger


The incident at the Lincoln Memorial over the weekend was a national trigger.

What we saw in the widely circulated videos depended on what we were looking for. I have very little interest in conflicting opinions currently being shared about “what really happened.” I have little interest in berating “the media” for bias or decrying viral videos shared on social media. The interactions among three very diverse groups of Americans triggered us, and I have a lot of interest in that.

The malevolent spirit at work in our nation lurks just under the surface, and it doesn’t take very much at all to unleash it. And this surreal malevolence doesn’t care about “what really happened” or the current realities of how we consume our information. The only thing on the agenda for this spirit is to keep us all mad at each other. And this week we got triggered.

This weekend, the malevolent spirit got exactly what it wanted.

By and large our leaders have also succumbed to its influence. At the federal and state level (at least) our elected and appointed leaders seem to do nothing to alleviate our anxiety. Caught up in the bizarre malevolence themselves, they seem to be helpless against its power. Instead of defusing, they add fuel. Instead of compromising, they double down. Instead of seeking common good, they seek reelection.

I have written about this phenomenon before, of course. And yet I am stymied. I continue to believe that the only force at work in the world capable of overcoming this malevolence is love. As I said back in September, “resisting the surreal malevolence at work in the world requires us to announce, advocate for, and embody true love.”

By "true love," I mean “a deep, bold love that is brutal in its honesty and equally brutal in its graciousness. A love that insists on authenticity and vulnerability. A love that is at the same time both pliable and unyielding. A love that is at the same time naked and wearing the full armor of God. A love that is the paradox of the deepest pain and the most ecstatic joy.”

Three diverse groups of people interacted in front of the Lincoln Memorial last weekend, and we were all triggered. As Lincoln gazed on, I wonder what he would have said, how he would have responded. Perhaps with something like…

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Beyond "Right" or "Wrong" - Thoughts on Interpretation


My dear progressive friends, of course it is possible to interpret the Bible as condemning same-sex marriage. It isn’t even very hard to arrive at that interpretation.

But, my dear conservative friends, a claim that the Bible itself directly condemns same-sex marriage is not supportable. It just doesn’t.

For someone who takes the Bible very seriously as a moral code intended to govern human behavior, this is the interpretive lens through which the entire book is read. And for one with such an interpretive lens, obedience to God is a matter of applying the text directly to personal behaviors. And sometimes you make a few interpretive steps to get there. And all of that is fine; we all do that.

So, in order to go from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to a belief that same-sex marriage should not happen in the church, you have to go through several interpretive steps.
- You have to interpret the Biblical euphemism “lie with” (the typical interpretation is “have sex with”).
- Since the passages only mention men, you have to interpret the passages as applying to both men and women, unless your claim is that same-sex marriage is only condemned for men but for women it is okay.
- You have to interpret sex as either synonymous with marriage or the only or primary reason someone would get married.
- You have to interpret the “as with a woman” (NRSV) part of the phrase from a heteronormative perspective. That is, you have to interpret it with the assumption that all men would in fact lie with a woman. (The truth is that gay men would not, so the strictest literal reading of these lines does not apply to a homosexual man.)

In order to go from Romans 1:27 to a belief that same-sex marriage should not happen in the church, you have to go through several similar interpretive steps.
- You have to interpret the “Therefore” in verse 24 and the “For this reason” in verse 26 in such a way that does not directly connect verse 27 to what has come before. (The previous verses are a description of idolatry.)
- You have to interpret words like “degrading,” “unnatural,” and “shameless” (NRSV) as applying to loving, mutually respectful, life-long, covenant relationships (i.e. marriages).
- You have to interpret marriage as consisting of being “consumed with passion for one another” (NRSV), or otherwise interpret degrading and shameless sex as synonymous with marriage or a primary reason for marriage, or have a preconceived notion that homosexual sex is inherently shameless and degrading.
- You have to interpret the “exchanging” and “giving up natural intercourse” from a heteronormative perspective. (For a gay woman for example, sex with another woman is in fact “natural.”)

And finally, in order to go from either of the other two scriptures frequently cited in this conversation, you have to interpret the practice of pederasty as being equivalent to marriage between two consenting adults who love each other very much and want nothing more than to spend the rest of their lives together as a married couple. The word “homosexual” is often used to translate the Greek in these two passages, even though the word wasn’t invented until the late 1800s and did not appear in translations of Scripture until the mid 1900s.

And the truth is, you can absolutely take those interpretive steps to arrive at the conclusion that same-sex marriage should therefore not be allowed in the church. The ample evidence of this truth is simply that a lot of people do.

However, what is unsustainable is to say without qualification that “the Bible condemns same-sex marriage.” The best you can do is say, “My interpretation of the Bible leads me to personally condemn same-sex marriage.”

And honestly, I do not begrudge my more conservative friends their belief. I just wish they would be honest about the interpretive steps they took to get there. Widespread unwillingness to do so has done great harm to people.

(And by the way my more progressive friends, same-sex marriage is certainly not directly blessed in the Bible, either. One must take some interpretive steps to arrive there as well. My own interpretation of the passages cited above involves condemnations of idolatry, promiscuity, child abuse (pederasty), and sexual violence – all things that I am glad the Bible condemns. And my own interpretations of numerous other passages lead me to a belief that a mutually respectful, gracious, loving, covenant relationship between two consenting adults is a beautiful thing, and one that the church should indeed celebrate and honor with marriage vows.)

Furthermore, I wish we could all be honest about the fact that there are indeed hateful and homophobic people in the church. It is infuriating and exhausting when every time hate and homophobia are pointed out, then begins the inevitable protests of “But not me! I’m just doing what the Bible says.” Okay, not you, dude. But can you at least acknowledge that it’s there, and speak up when you see it?

And finally, the very last thing I want to do is push someone away from a relationship with God. I lament that when there are differing interpretations of scripture that lead people to very different places, some Christians choose to double down on their own perspective even when it is hurtful, which inevitably builds barriers between people and Jesus. I personally would choose to err on the side of love and grace, offering a connection instead of severing it altogether.

In the United Methodist Church, we are far, far beyond arguing over whose interpretation of Scripture is “right.” There are a variety of interpretations of Scripture in our denomination. The discussion has shifted to, “What are we going to do about that?”

That conversation requires honesty, humility, and integrity. I fear the supply of these qualities may be too short in this present season to make any difference.

Friday, December 14, 2018

I Love My G-Man

We recently learned that our son Gabriel has a chromosomal deletion that will make it difficult for him to learn the same way other kids do. It will present itself in behaviors that are typically associated with autism. It can be hard for him to focus on a given task. It affects his balance and coordination and vision and muscle tone.

He’s going to struggle with a lot of life.

Recently Gabe told us that sometimes he sits by himself at recess because nobody at school wants to play with him. “On the outside always looking in, will I ever be more than I’ve always been?”

But here’s the thing - also recently, Gabe sang “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods, perfectly on pitch and able to recall almost all of the words.

His mind is beautiful. He is always creating, or watching videos about people creating. He likes to cook, and to prepare his meal with as many condiments as we will allow. No Lego brick is safe from his imagination; his constructions are legendary. To be outside under a tree digging in the dirt for hours would be his idea of the perfect afternoon. He does not like to throw things away, since they could be building materials for the fabulous machines he invents on a regular basis.

Gabe’s creativity helps him cope with his social anxiety. Kitty is Gabe’s constant companion, his very best friend. Sometimes when somebody asks him something, Gabe answers with a “Meow” that is so soft and subtle that it is really hard to hear. When Kitty gets lost, the world comes to a screeching halt until he is located. As Hobbes is to Calvin, Kitty is to Gabriel.

And he sings. His pitch memory is remarkable, his tone is angelic. Gabriel can hear a song one time, and then twenty minutes later we overhear him humming the tune to himself while he plays Legos. His best singing is done this way, when he is by himself, busy with some other task. There is music within him that bubbles up in not quite random ways.

Last week I saw this video, and it captivated me. Please give it a quick watch…


Our Gabe is the little mountain, gazing up at the strength and confidence of the big mountains, wanting what they have, not realizing that he has so much of his own beauty to offer.

Every kid has something to offer. Every kid matters. The ones who learn and think and see the world a bit differently than most of us have gifts that are beautiful and unique. It may not be strength or wealth or power as the word defines those things, nevertheless each and every kid needs to understand their inherent worth.

Please be careful, grown-ups. Just because a child isn’t acting like you think they should act, basically being smaller versions of you, doesn’t mean that they are being “bad” or that something is “wrong” with them. They don’t need to be fixed; they need to be seen, to be heard.

They need encouragement, enrichment, and support. They need patient teachers and compassionate friends. They need families who love them unconditionally.

They need to know that they matter.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"Strange and Stirring"

I could be wrong, but ...

I have noted some resonance between the Methodist church of the reconstruction era and the United Methodist Church of the marriage equality era. I wonder if the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States in June of 2015 might just be as significant a moment for the church as emancipation was in January of 1863. Certainly not in the particulars, but a pivotal moment theologically nonetheless.

A phrase has been recurring in my mind just lately - “The Times Were Strange and Stirring.” It’s the title of a book by Reginald Hildebrand about the history of the church in the time just after the Civil War. In it, he summarizes Methodist responses to recently liberated slaves. In the introduction, Hildebrand writes:

“The emancipation of black southerners was both conventional and radical. It was conventional in the sense that, in their quest for freedom, the freedpeople did not try to alter the commonly held understandings of what that term meant. They did not challenge the fundamental political, social, or economic ideals of the American republic. Southern blacks wanted to direct their own lives: they wanted to have secure families, to be educated, to own property, to be protected by the law, and to participate in the political process. In short, their aspirations were very traditional. On the other hand, emancipation was radical in the sense that it challenged the omnipresent, multifaceted ideology of white supremacy which posited that blacks should be subordinate to whites in all areas of life. Some emancipationists tried to finesse that ideology by allowing freedom to be mediated through white paternalism. Others insisted on confronting the ideology head-on through a kind of black nationalism. Still others believed that the ideology of white supremacy could be transcended, and they tried to construct a new social order in which color would play no significant part.”(Hildebrand, p. xiv-xv, underlines are mine)

In many ways, marriage equality is also both conventional and radical. It is quite conventional in that same-sex couples want to raise families, to have jobs, to live equally under the law, to have a say in the way their communities function. And in another way, marriage equality is similarly quite radical in that it challenges long-held beliefs of heteronormativity that assume the exclusive validity of heterosexuality and the duality of complementary gender roles. I hear a definite resonance with Hildebrand’s observations around emancipation.

Further, Hildebrand notes three Methodist ecclesiological responses to emancipation. In his terms they are “white paternalism,” “black nationalism,” and “a new social order.” I see more connections here with the way churches have responded to people who are gay in the “marriage equality” era.

There is a kind of “straight paternalism” in churches with an ecclesiology that says that gay people are welcome because all sinners are welcome. And if we all will confess and repent then we will be saved. A church with such a theology can claim to be acting in love for people who are gay, out of a desire to save them from God’s punishment. The most drastic manifestation of “straight paternalism” is conversion therapy.

Secondly, it isn’t nationalism, but there is a distinct ecclesiology in churches whose theology is focused on issues pertaining to homosexuality to the exclusion of any other concerns. There is a perfectly understandable righteous indignation born of years of oppression, discrimination, and violence. The confidence, aggression, and energy of this theology will not rest until there is complete liberation from even the smallest hint of homophobia.

And finally there is a “new social order” type of ecclesiology that seeks to completely transcend homophobic ideology and to be a church in which sexual orientation plays no significant part. Churches with this theological perspective may address questions of marriage and ordination of people who are gay very selectively, if at all. Full inclusion is assumed, but not advertised.

It must be said that there is an obvious and crucial distinction to be made. The Methodist movement had already splintered into multiple denominations by the time emancipation came, and examination of the ecclesiology of that time consists in comparing different denominations, among them the AME, AME Zion, CME, ME North, and ME South churches. In the post-marriage-equality era, we are mostly talking about differing ecclesiologies within one denomination, in my particular case within the United Methodist Church.

If I had more time, I would love to be able to research more fully, and write more extensively about the post-marriage-equality church. The thoughts I have jotted above are really just ideas rumbling around in my noodle, and still very much in the early stages of development. It seems to me that there is something there, but I could be wrong.

If you have managed to slog through this far, please help me tune these ideas with your comments. This post was really one of those where I was writing mostly to get the ideas out of my head and onto the page, so I could see them and reflect.

One thing that I know for sure, we are once again living in times that are “strange and stirring.”