Rev. Dr. Diana Brown Holbert is pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Dallas who has participated regularly in our Good Friday Walk, providing a beautiful sending for the first walk. She delivered this sermon on May 17, 2009 in response to a sermon by First Baptist Church of Dallas pastor Dr. Robert Jeffress.
I would like to share a blessing that one of our members sent me on Tuesday, which is my sermon-writing day. As I read it today, let it be for all of us:
My prayers are with you as you prepare your sermon. May God's word open hearts and minds, removing bricks from walls of hatred and stones from the hands of prejudice and fear. May you find peace in standing with the Holy One; strong in Him and one with His divine words. Amen.
When the marquee outside First Baptist Church on November 8, 2008 displayed the sermon title, "Why Gay Is Not OK" I knew that I wanted to respond. I had no wish to argue or even defend. Instead, I resolved to champion biblical teachings that offer the opposite message, e.g. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)
The Bible has often been used to attack gay and lesbian persons. Let's put a stop to that. Let's take time this morning to consider our scripture for today from Acts 10 to show how the Bible actually gives us a positive claim about how we relate ourselves to one another and what it means to be accepted by God.
Okay, so here it is:
Cornelius has a vision to send for Peter. Peter is preaching. The Holy Spirit interrupts and Peter has a vision about what's clean to eat that is repeated twice more, a vision that questions the tradition he has known, loved, and followed about "unclean" dietary restrictions. Peter is puzzled.
Three "unclean" (Gentile) men come to Peter's door, interrupting him further. They have been sent by Cornelius. The Spirit sends Peter to answer the door and to offer lodging and food to them. Big deal in the ancient Middle East. I think Peter is beginning to understand that the mission of the church is to offer hospitality to strangers.
Peter leaves Joppa to go north along the coast to Caesarea where Cornelius lives. Cornelius has gathered friends and family around to hear him. Peter begins preaching, "God has shown me not to call anyone profane or unclean."
The Holy Spirit is making it clear to Peter that salvation isn't only for the Christian Jews, but for everyone. Even people who are "different" from him: the Gentiles. Gentiles don't have to become Jews to be accepted. They can be who they are.
He ends by asking, "Can anyone withhold water from baptizing?" And the answer is apparent, "God's actions have priority." Of course you can't withhold water, love, acceptance. Even when things appear unclean, or were taught that they were unclean, the church must not participate in labeling it such. God teaches differently.
If you had to make a map of Cornelius, the Gentile centurion, and Peter, the disciple who was given the keys of the kingdom, it would be one of coming closer and closer to each other. I like that map. It doesn't mean it was easy. It means that when the Holy Spirit intercedes, our lives get interrupted, our thoughts get interrupted, our words get interrupted, and we began to move towards each other, not away. The way becomes clearer. We don't go down blind alleys and dead ends. That is the interrupting work of the Holy Spirit: when "out of many" God moves us toward each other and makes us one.
God often moves beyond our boundaries, guiding us to accept and to include those on the margins. We see Jesus doing that over and over with the company he kept, especially as he shared a meal, caught in the act of radical hospitality with the discards of society.
God doesn't discard or discriminate. "The Holy Spirit is no respecter of persons," I often heard at Hamilton Park. "If you're not careful, the Holy Spirit might just jump on you!" It's a scary thing, this Holy Spirit that interrupts. Scary until you realize that the Spirit is motivated 100% by love, sent by a trustworthy God to a people who think they have all the answers. I like the interruptions of this Spirit that draws us in its tether.
Okay, so back to the issue that was raised last November.
Right now, in the beginning of the 21st century our country seems to find this issue of homosexuality urgent and historic. Rev. Adam Hamilton has found that people between the ages of 15-28 are leaving the church because of its view on gay rights. That makes me sit up and take notice.
My question is this: How can we possibly be so stuck on this issue of using the Bible to condemn gay and lesbian persons? We quickly give up, readily give up our allegiance to all the other abominations in Leviticus, like not eating shellfish or not stoning sassy children to death. This "issue" doesn't even make the Top Ten! If we're so stuck on sexual behavior, why don't we look at the commandment about adultery? There's plenty of that going on in this country, but it surely doesn't get the press that this issue does.
And what about the word itself getting caught in biblical interpretation? The word "homosexuality" never occurs once in either Testament. It would appear that this issue is a tempest in this teapot.
What's at stake here?
Are we afraid of The Other? Of what seems "unnatural"? Are we afraid of our own sexual appetites? I don't particularly want to go down that road with you in this sermon, but it is an important question to ask: What is at stake here with this condemnation?
If we're going to be afraid, why don't we focus on being afraid instead of the Holy Spirit and how it grabs us and interrupts our lives? Why not be afraid of the way God can transform even us? Maybe that's at the root of this fear. That those like Peter among us who speak God's truth will question our fear of the other by demanding, "Can anyone withhold water for this baptism? Can anyone deny equal rights, equal respect, or the belief that all manner of people can be faithful Christians?"
Some have come today who have family members and friends you love dearly and want to protect from Hate Crimes, perhaps especially the Hate Crimes of the Church.
Some have come today wearing scar tissue inside your heads and hearts and souls. You have tried to live another life, and you may have been mercilessly scorned and ostracized. I can't think of anyone who would choose such disrespect and pain, so what is this about thinking that being gay is a choice? Who would choose all this scar tissue??
Some of you have come because it's a God thing and your religious belief will not tolerate condemnation. "For God so loved the world, that God gave the only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but shall have eternal life. Jesus came into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him..." (John 3:16-17) Some of you cannot tolerate this condemning any more.
Some of you have come as United Methodists, wanting the Church to widen the Lord's table - that table where Jesus sits and offers his body and blood and blessing to everyone. To challenge the received tradition.
These sound like decent challenges and questions to me. Not knee jerk reactions, but carefully thought out responses. So back to my question: What is at stake here with those who call this an abomination? What is the Holy Spirit trying to interrupt in this world? I think it is how we have used the Bible to promote an agenda of partiality.
I look at our congregation, filled with decent men and women who give their time and intellect to our church, freely. Who take classes on prayer and the Bible, who struggle with finances so they can decrease their debt and begin to approach a 10% tithe. Folks who are working to speak the truth in love and be fruitful in their connection to Jesus, the vine.
Am I talking only about heterosexuals and the celibate in our congregation? Heavens no!
I look at Penny, who is so filled with joy at being with our old folks at the nursing home, that as Mickey and I talked with Marie a few weeks ago, Penny slyly went into Marie's bathroom to clean the bathtub because Marie had totally worn herself out trying. Do I condemn Penny to a burning, fiery hell for being whom God created her to be - a gay Christian?
What is the issue here?? What is at stake??
The verses in the Bible that are thrown my way to say that Jesus condemns gays don't carry any credibility with me. Jesus never once speaks on the issue, so why don't we talk about money instead, since he does talk about that -- a lot?
I'm concerned with how we use the Bible to support our cultural agenda. Many people have used the Bible as a club to attack. For years the Bible supported slavery. For years it was used to keep women silent. It has been used and abused to justify systems that enslave and oppress and judge - so that those in power can justify their power-over. So that they can keep others from seeing the sin we all carry within us - the sin of bigotry and idolatry. Believing that someone else is less than we are. That somehow they are unnatural. It is the sin of scape-goating someone who is different from me and mine. We'll gang up together, pin the sins of the world on him, and propel him outside the walls of the community.
What is the issue here?
I've read what people want me to read about Paul's ideas in the Book of Romans concerning same-sex relationship. Can we please notice that it comes in a list of behaviors that include envy, murder, deceit and gossip? When anti-gay groups will give as much energy, scrutiny, power, words, campaigns, writing, and grief to the destructive power of gossip, the character assassination of bearing false witness, then I might pay more attention.
But for me now, this is a non-issue because Paul is not talking about what we refer to today as homosexuality. Paul knew nothing about that; he knew about the Three P's, and he would have found these reprehensible:
Those have their idolatry wrapped around them like moth-eaten blankets, leading them down a dead end street to cold death. I believe those are sins - actions that separate us from God and each other - actions that destroy community and damage souls forever. I am against the Three P's.
But that's not what I'm talking about here. I am instead talking about long lasting, loving relationship that are the building blocks of any healthy society. Not what Paul was talking about in Romans. He had no concept for long lasting, same-sex relationships that can be building blocks of any healthy society. He's talking about people being out of control. Being idolatrous. Instead, let's look at a world where old divisions like Jew and Gentile, male and female, straight and gay dissolve like Alka-Seltzer in water.
In our Acts passage we see Peter being staunch in his white-knuckled adherence to what he was taught: that some food is unfit to eat because it is called "unclean" in ancient Judaism. He was also taught that people were unfit to tolerate. We see it clearly in verse 28. But the Holy Spirit comes and says, "Uh, excuse me. Let's interrupt this for a second. Let's widen up our understanding. Ummm. It looks to me like there is no room for partiality here, Peter."
Peter is puzzled. He's dumbfounded because he hears from God - the heavens open! - and he knows it's God, but God is saying things that differ from what he was taught.
But watch Peter allowing himself to be interrupted: He allows the Spirit to interrupt him and lead him down a new street. Not a dead end street, but an avenue that glorifies God. He doesn't need to make sense of it yet. He just needs to let go and let God guide him.
Friends, I was sent here to preach a message of reconciliation, transformation, and love. I am sent to be with you to tell the truth in love. In your daily meditations, I pray that you will join me in asking to have confidence in yourself and confidence in God to interrupt your life and guide you on this spiritual path.
How can we help people create a connection with God, not inhibit it? If we preach hate, what are we doing to the people whom we hate? We aren't creating a connection; we're building a wall.
I often wonder why First Baptists and others give this issue of condemnation so much play. I wonder why reporters are interested. I wonder why we give this so much energy.
Why not focus instead on folks who have been tortured and show up at the Center of Survivors of Torture across our parking lot? Why not focus on health care as Big Business? Or focus on catastrophic greed that has occurred recently in trusting, economic relationships? Why not focus on the killing of little children through bombings in the Gaza strip or through Internet porn?
Why are we spending energy and time on this issue when Jesus says to us, "Be about your Father's business!"
Why would we sever our ties with a loving, giving church over this issue?
I hope that we all will find a way to let go of our grip on what we have learned from others that builds walls of hatred, prejudice and fear. I pray that we can move off this non-issue and begin to enjoy those interruptions by the Spirit that lead us down the avenue of glory. I'm saying let's honor and glorify God by our love that doesn't call people unclean but calls them children of God. Just like you. Just like me.
"The voice said to him again, a second time, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'"
My prayers are with you as you prepare your own sermons. May God's word open hearts and minds, removing bricks from walls of hatred and stones from the hands of prejudice and fear. May you find peace in standing with the Holy One; strong in -- and one with -- Him and His divine words.
Let us keep silence...
Holy and merciful God, for the times when we think we know all the answers, thank you for interrupting us. For the times when we have justified our idolatry, thank you for interrupting us. For the times we have built walls and thrown stones, thank you for interrupting us. For the times when we have crumbled in depression or hidden in fear, thank you for interrupting us. O God of love and God of power, unite us by your grace. We ask this in the name of the One who came to make us his body, praying: Our Father and Mother who art in heaven...