I must say that I was more curious than usual about what the scripture readings were for today because of the timing of our denomination’s special General Conference which is taking place in St. Louis. 864 United Methodist delegates from all around the world; half of which are clergy and the other half are laity are representing our denomination as they re-examine our denomination’s stance on the topic of human sexuality.
Not knowing what will be the result of this specially called conference made it very difficult to plan ahead for this worship service today.
One option would have been to go with a more generic theme and not even touch the subject. Or, I could have just invited a guest preacher to speak or have this be Music Sunday. But the more I reflected on it and prayed about it, the more I thought of how blessed I am to be your pastor and how we can share things honestly and openly no matter how controversial they may be.
The General Conference will conclude this Tuesday so we will know what has been decided. If you’re interested, there are also several post-General Conference informational meetings that will be held on Saturday morning, March 2. The closest one to us will be at The Plains UMC and I’ll share more information about that later in our service.
If you were here last Sunday, you heard me talk a little bit about my personal theological thoughts regarding our denomination’s stance on same sex marriage and the ordination of gay/non-celibate clergy. One of the things that shapes my theological and biblical understanding of who God is and who God is calling us to be is in listening to other people’s faith journeys.
I have discovered that I grow more in my own faith when I listen to how other people interpret the Bible and live out their faith. I’ve always been fascinated how people can have very different perspectives on the same passages of scripture.
For example, last Sunday, I shared about Christian singer and song writer, Trey Pearson and his difficult decision three years ago to come out publicly about being gay. Trey made a surprise visit to our church last Sunday and sang his new song, “Hey Jesus” that describes a little of the heartache and pain that went into his decision to make that announcement.
A couple of months ago, I heard him give an interview about how he was raised in a church near Columbus, Ohio. Ever since a young age, Trey loved Jesus and wanted to know more about the Bible and grow in his faith. He was always taught that being gay was a sin and so when he started to realize that maybe he was gay, he tried to deny those feelings because he didn’t want to disappoint God.
He tried and tried to change his sexual orientation but he just couldn’t do it. And so, he got married and had two children. As his band became more and more popular, they toured throughout the world. As a result of his touring and many concerts, he became more and more acquainted with churches and church leaders who offered him a different way of interpreting the scriptures as it relates to the topic of homosexuality.
After a lot of prayer and struggle about his sexual identity, he decided to announce that he was gay. That was three years ago and that was just before his band was to perform a concert here in our church. The sponsoring group decided to not have his band perform here because of his announcement. His decision to publicly announce that he was gay had a negative impact on his Christian band. Many churches and church leaders would not allow the band to perform because of Trey’s announcement.
Trey now has a solo career and his new CD has a lot of songs about his personal journey in that long struggle to understand his sexuality in light of his faith. A couple of things really stand out for me as I think about his recent interview where he shared his background and what led him to come out, risking his musical career. One of the reasons that he was able to reach that point was because he realized there were other ways of looking at scripture than just the way he was taught in his home church.
Sometimes it’s OK for us to say that maybe we were wrong about a certain way we interpreted the Bible. It’s OK for us to listen to other people’s perspectives. It’s OK for us to hear other people’s faith journeys. It’s important for us to remember that the Bible doesn’t just spoon feed us with simple answers to complex issues. God expects us to have open minds and open hearts in our faith. We’re never done learning and growing as a people of faith. And that’s not an overnight process. Sometimes, it’s a very long and difficult struggle.
One of my favorite bible scholars is Scot McKnight. Scot has written several books on how to interpret the Bible that I have found very helpful in my ministry. In his book, The Blue Parakeet he offers very important things to keep in mind when reading and studying the Bible and I highly recommend it. One of the things this book focuses on is in how the New Testament was written in the context of a 1st century Jewish and Greco/Roman culture which we need to understand so that we don’t take passages of scripture out of context.
In his book, he talks about the issue of women serving in leadership positions in the church. He shares about a time when he was a professor at a seminary (not United Methodist by the way) that believed the Bible taught that women should not serve as leaders in the church. Now, in the United Methodist Church, we have a long history of women serving in leadership positions. The first woman to be ordained in the Methodist Church happened back in the 1950s. We also have several women bishops.
In the seminary where Scot McKnight was a professor, they had a very different biblical view on this. Scot himself had grown up in a church tradition where women weren’t allowed to be leaders in the church. While he was a professor at this seminary and studied this issue more carefully, he came to the realization that he had been wrong about this. He saw how some scriptures which appeared to not allow women to be leaders had been taken out of context.
Even though his view on this issue had changed, the seminary continued to have a strong stance on it. But because he didn’t want to jeopardize his teaching position at this seminary, he remained quiet about his minority view on this whole topic.
In his book, Scot offers a deep regret for not speaking up about this at the time. He also thanks the small handful of professors at that seminary who actually did have the courage to be vocal against’s the seminary’s stance.
So here’s this well publicized evangelical bible scholar who was vulnerable enough to say that he had been wrong on this particular topic. I totally respect that and I’m thankful for people like Scot and Trey who are willing to be vulnerable and say that their understanding of the scriptures has grown over time and sometimes that leads us to simply say, “Wow, I think I was wrong about that. There’s a whole new way of looking at this.”
I wonder how much we would grow in our faith if we would learn to say that more often. “I think I was wrong about that.” And my prayer is that we would always be a church where we feel free to share where we are in our faith journey without fear of being judged by others but also where we in turn, extend an extra amount of grace to each other, especially to those with whom we may disagree.
So, I began this sermon by saying that I was initially reluctant to look at the appointed scripture readings for today when planning for this Sunday. And we still don’t know what our General Conference will decide and what this will mean for our denomination and more specifically for Athens First.
But then, as I got closer to preparing for this Sunday, something jumped out at me from our appointed Gospel reading for today. Of all Sundays of the year, on this challenging Sunday for our denomination, we get these words from Jesus which have become commonly known as “The Golden Rule.”
“The Golden Rule.” Luke 6:31 – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Sometimes, when we get so focused on what we think the Bible says about so many different topics like what the Bible says about same-sex relations we end up forgetting about a foundational bible verse like “The Golden Rule.” Sometimes, in our desire to be right about something, we can get it all wrong because we forget this basic truth. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
As Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the things in the Bible I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the things in the Bible that I do understand that bother me the most.”
How do we treat each other? How much grace do we extend to each other? How much love do you think we should share with people even with people whom we may disagree?”
On that topic, the Bible is very clear. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
We don’t have to be a bible scholar to know what that means. “It’s not the things in the Bible I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the things in the Bible that I do understand that bother me the most.”
That one verse kind of serves as our Faith Oath, doesn’t it? Kind of like the scouts have an oath to remind them of what it means to be scouts. We have this Faith Oath, this Golden Rule to always remind us of what it means to be followers of Jesus.
And when we remember our Golden Rule Faith Oath, it helps us to be gracious, to be kind, and to be loving. And sometimes it means that we become vulnerable enough that we simply say, “I’m sorry. I got it wrong.”
I’ll close with this.
Fred Craddock tells the following story about his family and I’ll share his story in his own words.
“When the pastor used to come from my mother’s church to call on him, my father would say, ‘You don’t care about me. I know how churches are. You want another pledge, another name, right? Another name, another pledge, isn’t that the whole point of church? Get another name, another pledge.’
My nervous mother would run to the kitchen, crying, for fear somebody’s feelings would be hurt. When we had an evangelistic campaign the pastor would bring the evangelist, introduce him to my father and then say, ‘Sic him, get him! Sic him, get him!’
May father would always say the same thing. ‘You don’t care about me! Another name, another pledge. Another name, another pledge! I know about churches.’
I guess I heard it a thousand times. One time he didn’t say it. He was at the Veteran’s Hospital. He was down to 74 pounds. They had taken out the throat, put in a metal tube, and said, ‘Mr. Craddock, you should have come earlier. But this cancer is awfully far advanced. We’ll give radium, but we don’t know.’
I went in to see him. In every window—potted plants and flowers. Everywhere there was a place to set them—potted plants and flowers. Even in that thing that swings out over your bed they put food on, there was a big flower. There was by his bed a stack of cards 10 or 15 inches deep. I looked at the cards sprinkled in the flowers. I read the cards beside his bed.
And I want to tell you, every card, every blossom, every potted plant from groups, Sunday School classes, women’s groups, youth groups, men’s bible class, of my mother’s church—every one of them.
My father saw me reading them. He could not speak, but he took a Kleenex box and wrote something on the side from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. . . .
He wrote on the side, ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’
I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’
And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”
Friends, sometimes we do get it wrong and we need to be vulnerable enough to admit it.
And it’s when we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, that we will get it right most of the time.
Our Faith Oath
Sermon Discussion Questions
February 24, 2019
The Feb. 24th sermon is the 2nd and final part of a two-part series in focusing on the special 2019 UMC General Conference which is meeting in St. Louis, Feb. 23-26. 864 United Methodist lay and clergy delegates are meeting from all around the world to consider issues related to same-sex relations. Last Sunday, Christian singer Trey Pearson made a surprise appearance during our worship services and sang his song, “Hey Jesus” which is a prayer describing his painful faith journey since coming out as gay. To read the sermon from that Sunday and hear Trey’s song, click here.
What are your thoughts about Trey’s faith journey in being a Christian singer and coming out as gay three years ago? Why is it important to hear other people’s faith stories to help us in our own understanding of scripture?
One of the points from this week’s sermon was that it’s OK to change in our views of how we interpret certain scripture passages. Pastor Robert shared the story of bible scholar and author, Scot McKnight who admitted that he had been wrong about his biblical understanding that women should not have leadership roles in the church.
What helps you to have an open mind in how a bible passage is meant to be interpreted? Is there more than one “right” way to interpret the Bible?
Our Gospel reading this Sunday is Jesus’ teaching about the Golden Rule which is to “do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Pastor Robert said that the Golden Rule serves as our “Faith Oath” in how we interpret the Bible and live out the Bible in our daily lives.
What difference would it make if we all remememberd the Golden Rule in how we interpret the Bible?
The special General Conference that is meeting to decide on issues related to human sexuality ends on Tuesday, February 26. We are invited to attend a post-conference informational meeting led by our Bishop on Saturday, March 2, 10 am to 11 am at The Plains UMC to learn about what was decided at General Conference and what this means for our denomination moving forward. This is open to clergy and laity. No registration required.
What questions or thoughts do you have about this special General Conference of the UMC?