Blessed are you who trust – Pastor Robert’s sermon for Sunday, February 17

At first glance, it would seem that this morning’s scripture readings offer a clear choice on how to have a strong faith. Both Jeremiah in our Old Testament scripture reading and Jesus in our Gospel reading offer us the option of either living a life that will lead to being blessed or a life that will lead to woes.

Jeremiah basically says, “Hey, what sounds better to you? Would you rather live your life like a struggling shrub in the dry desert or as a strong, flourishing tree with deep roots by fertile soil? Take your pick.”

Jesus pretty much is doing the same thing when he says, “If you want to have a blessed life, then here’s who you want to be. And if you don’t want to be blessed than just do the exact opposite.”

When I was first reading these scripture passages, it seemed like this would be a really easy sermon to preach. This isn’t a trick question. Pick the tree! Pick the tree! Who wants to be a dried up bush?

But that’s until I noticed a very, very important word that almost goes unnoticed in the Jeremiah scripture reading. In the middle of what seems like a straw man argument over which you would rather be, the strong tree with deep roots or the bush that is super dry and struggling to survive in the dessert, it throws in a very important word that I can’t stop thinking about and that word is “trust.”

     “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.”

Trust. That’s a word that needs to be unpacked.

Trust means that WE play an active part in this thing called faith. To learn to trust means that not everything is so clear-cut where we don’t have to struggle, question, or doubt.

To trust means that we need to live moment by moment where we follow God in the best way we know how. And sometimes, that might mean spending some sleepless nights, second guessing ourselves, setting aside our long held preconceived notions, being good listeners and life-long learners, and yes, learning to be patient.

Our whole life is about learning to trust and learning to reach our fullest potential. It truly is a life-long process, a never ending process. It’s really at the heart of what it means to be human.

So yes, of course, we want to be the tree and not the bush, but learning to trust doesn’t always happen overnight. Sometimes, it’s a very annoying and slow process. It involves dying to our selves and always being open to where God is leading us.

Maybe this is why Jesus offers blessings on those who are poor, those who are hungry, and those who weep. The blessings come when we are open, vulnerable, humble, and receptive. And that takes time.

Speaking of a long time, for the last forty-seven years, our United Methodist denomination has been wrestling over the issue of human sexuality as it relates to same sex marriage and the ordination of those who are openly gay and non-celibate.

This week, 864 United Methodists, half clergy and half laity from all around the world will meet for an historic special General Conference meeting in St. Louis to decide on these two issues.

A recommendation called “The One Church Model” has been presented to this special General Conference for consideration. The One Church Model basically says that in order to maintain the unity of the denomination since we are not of the same mind on this important issue of human sexuality, we should allow each pastor and each church to decide on whether or not they will allow same sex marriages in their local church settings.

Likewise, this One Church Model would allow each annual conference to decide on whether or not to allow the ordination of someone who is openly gay and who is non-celibate.

The reason that this special General Conference has been called is for a number of reasons. The first reason is that whenever our General Conference meets every four years, they have a lot of church legislation covering a variety of topics and they don’t have enough time to focus on this one issue with so many other things on the agenda.

The second reason for this special General Conference is because our denomination is at a stand-still on this issue. Even though we have an official stance as a denomination which does not allow same sex marriage or the ordination of openly gay and non-celibate clergy, there are many United Methodists including lay and clergy who feel very strongly that our current official policy is unjust, discriminatory against those who are gay, and a misinterpretation of scripture.

A third reason for this special General Conference is because the delegates who vote at the regularly scheduled General Conferences are from many different countries who represent unique cultures and contexts. Some of those ministry settings are in cultures where same sex marriage would not be acceptable inside or outside of the Christian faith compared to other parts of the world. This makes the issue complicated as well.

And a fourth reason for the need of this special conference is because our current stance on this issue is not practical to continue for such a large denomination of people.

More and more clergy are ignoring the Book of Discipline on this particular church law because even though they strongly disagree with our denomination’s stance, they love the United Methodist Church so much that they don’t want to leave it over this one issue.

Now, keep in mind that you are hearing just my perspective on why we are having this special General Conference. Other pastors might frame it a little differently, but I’m trying to be fair in offering a little context for why this special meeting is happening this week.

The reason I mention all of this is to invite you to be informed as much as possible and to be in prayer for the delegates throughout the world who will be coming to represent our denomination at this very special conference being held in St. Louis. I also share this with you because I think this connects with our scripture readings today on trusting God.

Like I said a little bit ago, trusting in God often involves a slow process of wrestling, struggling, discerning, praying, debating, and then arriving at a new place where you probably wouldn’t have gone without God’s spirit leading you. That to me is the meaning of trust.

And so beginning tomorrow and through Tuesday, February 26, the last day of this special General Conference, I’m inviting us to pray this daily prayer at 9 am. This prayer is slightly adapted from our 4:57 prayer that we pray everyday. I invite us to pray this, “O God, baptize the United Methodist Church afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus. Amen.” Let’s pray that together now. “O God, baptize the United Methodist Church afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus. Amen.”

So, if I may be vulnerable with you. I have shared little bits of my thoughts with you on this issue in previous sermons but I want to share a little more since this special General Conference is close at hand.

About a year and a half ago during a Leadership Board meeting, someone asked me my thoughts about this important issue and what we can do as a congregation to continue to be a welcoming congregation for all people especially during this uncertain time facing the United Methodist Church.

My response was two-fold. As an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, I have sought to uphold the Book of Discipline, because it’s part of the covenant I made when I was ordained back in 1991.

And then regarding the question about helping our church to continue to be a welcoming congregation for all people, we drafted this inclusive statement about our church that you may have seen in our weekly newsletter and on our church monitors from time to time.

Here it is. I invite us to read it together.

I have no doubt that we will continue to grow in what it means to welcome all people regardless of what our General Conference decides when they meet in St. Louis this week. What is decided there will not detract our commitment to be the welcoming community of faith that God has called us to be.

So, keep on being the big-hearted welcoming people that you are already are. And thank you for being that kind of congregation!

And then, I just want to leave you with this story of faith that I recently came across which has a connection with Athens First. Trey Pearson was the lead singer and founding member of a well known Christian band, “Everyday Sunday.”

The band had a very successful career with five #1 singles and twenty top ten Christian hits. They have toured throughout the world and their music is incredible.

Interestingly enough, a campus ministry group here at Ohio University invited “Everyday Sunday” to perform at a concert here in our sanctuary in the spring of 2016, just three years ago. It was right before we remodeled our sanctuary. Because of the popularity of the band, they were expecting a large crowd which is why they asked our church to host the concert.

Not too long before the concert, we received some phone calls from various pastors and church leaders who heard about the concert, warning us that this band’s lead singer had just come out publicly that he was gay and they were concerned that our church was going to host this concert.

The ministry group who had invited the band to play here decided to not have the group perform because of the news of the lead singer.

A couple of months ago, I was reminded of this concert that was supposed to be held here in our sanctuary because I came across a recent interview with the lead singer of “Everyday Sunday,” Trey Pearson. In this interview, Trey shared the heartache and pain that he has felt from the wider faith community who have not approved of his coming out. I was incredibly moved by his story of faith.

In this recent interview, he said that he grew up in a conservative church near Columbus, Ohio where he was raised in the faith. He had a personal relationship with Jesus, went to church every Sunday, read his bible, and wanted to be the best Christian he could possibly be. But he also knew during his teenage years that he might be gay.

He tried to suppress those feelings because he knew that his church and his parents would disapprove if he came out. He also tried really hard to change his sexual orientation but he just couldn’t do it. He also spent a lot of time trying to reconcile who he was with what he read in scripture and how his home church taught that homosexuality was a sin.

And so he went on with his life the best he could, continuing to struggle with all of this. He started the band, “Everyday Sunday” back in 1997 which became very successful. He also got married and he and his wife had two children.

But he reached a point where he couldn’t continue to be someone he wasn’t, and so he came out that he was gay not too long before the concert was to be performed here at our church.

During the recent interview, he shared how his wife had encouraged him to talk to somebody about his struggle in coming to terms with his sexual orientation. He also said that during that time, he was worried how his father would respond to this news since he believed that homosexuality was a sin. He shared how his father hugged him when he publicly came out.

Trey’s band discontinued soon after he came out because in the evangelical world of Christian concert venues and festivals, they would not be welcomed to perform. He also lost a lot of Christian friends because of his announcement.

Trey’s faith journey has been a painful one, but the good news is that he has also received a lot of support from new Christian communities. He also was blessed to have spiritual mentors who were able to offer a different way of interpreting the scriptures when it came to the issue of homosexuality.

As I listened to Trey’s interview, his faith is as strong as ever, but not after several years of intense inner struggle and pain in coming to terms with his sexual identity. A lot of that pain came from well meaning Christians and not so well meaning Christians who were disappointed in his decision to come out.

But in his interview he says that his faith is stronger than it ever has been as a result of his challenging journey. He says that he loves Jesus more than ever.

After I listened to this recent interview, I immediately thought of our scripture reading this morning. Trey is like that tree planted by the water. His faith is stronger than ever because he has learned to trust in the Lord through the good and the bad.

It’s because of people like Trey, people who love Jesus like I do, that I have changed my views on what I thought was a biblical understanding of human sexuality. Their stories of faith have helped me to have a much stronger faith as well and for that I am incredibly thankful.

Trey is back to singing and he has a new CD called, “Love Is Love.” The songs on this new CD are about his long and painful, but also fruitful journey of faith.

I’d like to close this sermon by playing one of the songs from his new CD. I cried when I heard it because it’s not just a song. It’s actually his prayer to Jesus since coming out. The song is called, “Hey, Jesus.” Let’s listen.

Oh, wait! Even better, Trey Pearson is here with us today to sing his song, “Hey, Jesus!”

Please welcome, Trey Pearson!!

Blessed Are You Who Trust

Sermon Discussion Questions

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; & Luke 6:17-26

February 17, 2019

The Jeremiah reading invites us to think about if we prefer being a healthy growing tree planted near fertile soil or a dried up bush in an arid desert. The answer seems obvious. Who wouldn’t want to be the tree? But Jeremiah goes on to talk about the importance for us to “trust in the Lord.” To trust the Lord is not an overnight process. Trusting often involves a long process of having an openness to learning, discovering, discerning, and wrestling in our faith.

What does this understanding of what it means to “trust in the Lord” mean to you in your faith journey?

This week, the United Methodist Church is meeting in St. Louis for a special General Conference to vote on the “One Church Model” which says that each pastor and each church should be allowed to decide on whether or not to officiate same sex weddings and to allow each annual conference to decide on whether or not to allow openly gay and non-celebitate clergy candidates to be ordained. For the past forty-seven years, our denomination has debated, struggled, and wrestled with this issue. Pastor Robert shared in the sermon that as we await the decision of this special General Conference we should continue to be the inclusive and big-hearted welcoming people that we have always sought to be. This is why we drafted this inclusive welcoming statement for our church.

Read this statement out loud & share your thoughts about what it means to you for us to be a welcoming congregation: We celebrate the diversity of the human community, and affirm and believe in the sacred worth of each person as a recipient of God’s love and grace. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we declare ourselves to be an open and inclusive congregation. We welcome all persons regardless of gender, race, national origin, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, marital status or economic condition.              

We are also inviting people to pray this daily prayer beginning Monday, Feb. 18 through Tuesday, Feb. 26 which has been adapted from our 4:57 prayer: O God, baptize the United Methodist Church afresh with the life-giving spirit of Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Robert concluded the sermon by telling the story of Trey Pearson, former lead singer of the popular Christian band, “Everyday Sunday.” After a lifetime of painful struggle and wrestling in his faith as it relates to his sexual orientation, Trey came out that he was gay almost three years ago. He says how his faith is stronger because of his decision to come out and he loves Jesus more than ever. Trey is an example of someone who has learned to trust in the Lord over a long period of time. He is an example of what it means to trust in the Lord and be like a growing tree rather than a dried up bush. His new song, “Hey Jesus” tells about his journey in seeking to trust in the Lord and at the same time being true to himself. Listen to this very moving song by Trey Pearson. Click here for our interview with him.

Pray for the special General Conference that is meeting this week in St. Louis to consider the “One Church” model related to the issue of human sexuality. Pray for the one thousand delegates to trust in the Lord by having open minds and hearts in decisions that are made on behalf of the denomination. To watch the live stream of General Conference February 23-26, click here. For more information about the proposed “One Church Plan” that is being recommended to the General Conference, click here.