St. Michael and All Angels
May 13, 2012
“The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles…”
“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
“The love of God is this, that we obey [the] commandments…”
“Abide in my love…”
“Love one another as I have loved you…”
“You are my friends…”
“I chose you…”
“Bear fruit that will last…”
The word love dominates the gospel and I John today. Love is not so simple. The words that accompany love in these texts are: obey, commandment, abide, and lay down one’s life. Love is a verb. The scriptures aren’t telling us what to feel, but how to act.
Peter speaks to the astounded believers proclaiming that God’s love was given to the Gentiles in the form of the Spirit. Who are they to withhold baptism? The call here is to act in line with God, rather than their own limited understanding of who is in and who is out.
I’m guessing very few of you followed the United Methodist General Conference that finished in Tampa last week. Every four years, the United Methodists come together as a whole and make decisions that affect the larger body of the church. One of their big decisions was not to change the language that says, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The suggested change would have simply stated that United Methodists disagree on that issue. Most people will likely shake their heads and go on, but I find it very disheartening. The gift of the Holy Spirit has been poured out even on the lesbian gay bisexual transgendered community. The United Methodist stance is that LGBT persons can worship in most churches, but not have their love blessed and certainly not have their call affirmed and be ordained.
The United Methodist Church is talking about me. My parents met in a United Methodist Sunday school class. Instead of a three-legged stool that the Episcopal Church uses to discern God’s will, I was born into this church that talks about a quadrilateral…scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. I was baptized and confirmed in this church. I experienced a powerful call to ministry on a youth retreat with my United Methodist Church. I was educated at a United Methodist college and seminary and it was there that I met amazingly gifted gay and lesbian people who had been called to ministry just like me. Back then I thought I was straight, and it never occurred to me that I was “one of them.” I simply couldn’t understand that the church would deny ordination to people who were so gifted, just because of their sexual orientation. At that time, I decided that I would stand in solidarity with the folks who were denied ordination by the United Methodist Church and not seek ordination myself. This didn’t work so well. The call was strong and eventually I realized that if I wanted the United Methodist Church to become more inclusive, I would have to work from the inside. I moved to Oregon and was ordained. The congregation I served was a Reconciling Church – a safe place for LGBT folks - and it was clear that God was moving among us in powerful ways.
Life became more complicated when I moved to New Mexico and fell in love with a woman. This was news to me! I really had no idea that my passion around the issue of an inclusive church had anything to do with me. It also left me with some hard choices. I could not be open about my life with Anne Marie, Max and Maya as a minister in the United Methodist Church. Coming out at age 40 really changed the direction of my life. I felt a deep resonance with the Episcopal Church and struggled with a call to be ordained here, but the time wasn’t right in this Diocese. I became UCC and was welcomed without condition.
I am only one person. There are thousands like me. Years ago, I had the poignant experience of witnessing the Shower of Stoles project. This project is a collection of stoles from over one thousand LGBT clergy and leaders from thirty-two denominations. The stoles represent the gifts of so many that have been excluded from leadership because of their sexual orientation. It is powerful to stand before each stole and the person it represents.
It may seem too personal to describe my own experience this morning, but I cannot read these texts about pouring out the Holy Spirit, being chosen, bearing fruit, obedience to the commandment to love one another and forget where I came from. And the news this week reminds us that this is not just my story. It is the story of LGBT folks in North Carolina and throughout the country. The texts are about love in action: Don’t just treat love as a feeling and love when we feel like it; don’t think of love as an intellectual exercise and love those we deem worthy. It is a call for us to understand that love is a verb… it is what we DO as God’s people in the world. We simply love and continue to extend welcome to all… even the Gentiles, even the LGBT community, even those who stand at stoplights asking for money, even the ones who vote differently than we do, even the ones who live with disabilities, even the people we despise, even us.
The Episcopal Church has struggled with this issue as well. I don’t know where all of it will come out, but I know there is a great desire to share Christ’s love with all of God’s people. As we broaden our questions about who is our neighbor at St. Michael’s, I wonder where we need to extend our love. We are listening to those around us and seeking God’s call to love our neighbor in new ways. God’s Spirit has been poured out on people beyond our peripheral vision. Who are we to deny them love? Instead, we are called to look beyond our comfort zone and extend love into the farthest corners.
Passages about love often call forth a sweet, almost nostalgic response from us. But love isn’t always sweet and it certainly isn’t always easy. There is this word obedience that shows up today. Can’t we just talk about love and leave it at that? We all know we are supposed to love. Isn’t that enough? We aren’t slaves. Can’t we just be reminded that love is what we are about? Obedience is not something we care to add to the mix. Our culture doesn’t place a high value on obedience. But there is an invitation in these passages to see ourselves in relationship and the truth is obedience is part of being in relationship to one another. We are subject to one another.
“Perhaps love without obedience is not really love. Perhaps this is what Jesus is confronting us with in his own life—that love is never love on its own terms. Love is always tied to obedience because obedience is tied to hearing, recognizing and bending ourselves into the will and desires of the one who’s before us.” Brian Bantum, Christian Century May 2, 2012)
The phrase “bending ourselves into the will of the one who’s before us” isn’t telling us to be dominated by another. It calls us to really be in relationship with one another. Jesus’ image of friendship is comfortable for some and a bit too intimate for others. Maybe that is because we remember that a friendship is not one-sided. We have been chosen for a friendship with Jesus. A loving friendship bears fruit. That will require obedience to the one who has chosen us. In some strange way, that obedience sets us free. I have asked myself many times who I am obedient to… is it the United Methodist Church? Is it the Episcopal Church as I seek ordination in this denomination? Is it to the One whose call has sustained me for thirty years? I found a way to bend my will to the United Methodist until it required me losing my soul. My call is alive and it seeks a home to love and bear fruit.
The call to love and bear fruit is for all of us. The fruits of love and compassion naturally grow out of a life grounded in God. I believe that they are contagious and not limited to the giver or the receiver. Somehow they make their way into the very culture we inhabit. I pray that it is so. As we move further into this election year names are called, fingers are pointed, and lines are drawn in the sand. Jim Wallis says that the 2012 election will be the ugliest one in many years. It is sad that the political process often involves trashing other candidates more than looking around at the needs in our world and asking how we can be part of the solution.
Who is speaking about abiding in love? What fruit is born of this form of politics? We are asked to see one another through the eyes of love. We cannot do that when we are too busy showing that we are right, we are entitled, and it is others who should bend to our will.
This text calls us to abide in a love more generous than we can imagine. Abiding in this love bears tremendous fruit. If we are abiding in God’s love, we don’t catch ourselves counting the cost of giving. We open our hands freely and find that there is more than we dreamed. For John there is only one measure of our place in the community of faith – to love as Jesus loved. When we do that, a whole new world opens up to us and we begin to glimpse the world as God sees it. As we see the world through God’s eyes, we treat the world as God treats it, and we bear fruit that lasts.