Annual Conference 2019 Sermon

Sermon    June 23, 2019  Scripture: Luke 8: 26-39

      When Andra and I talked about our report about Annual Conference, she asked me to give some history.   So, I want to give you a little background.  The General Conference of our denomination meets every four years to adopt and revise the Book of Discipline which is the regulations and official stances of our denomination.   General Conference is made up of delegates elected by the different Annual Conferences based upon their membership. In 2020 our Conference will have two voting delegates.   In the 1970’s for the first time words were added to our Book of Disciple by General Conference that stated that the practice of homosexuality was incompatible to Christian teachings.    Our Bishop Elaine was a youth observer at one of those General Conferences and remembers that there was debate about whether the Bible actually condemns the homosexual relationships we know today.  So it was decided to say incompatible with Christian teachings because, as Albert Outler  the professor of Wesley studies who proposed the language suggested  Christian teachings do change over time.    But since that time the language of our Discipline has become rather set in stone.  Attempts at each General Conference since then to change, modify or overturn this language and the language that prohibits ordination and marriage of GLBTQ persons have not succeeded.    

      Some Annual Conferences over the years have decided to adopt different understandings of Christian tradition and teachings and include the experiences and ministries of LGBTQ persons. Our Annual Conference has been part of that movement for a long time.  I can remember many heartfelt discussions and sharing around the topic over my 30 + years.    Other Conferences in the Western Jurisdiction have also taken this stance. The movement in our denomination has been called the Reconciling Movement.  Many local churches across the country and in our conference have decided to become Reconciling Congregations who are open to full inclusion of GLBTQ persons in their ministries and practices.    

      At the 2016 General Conference in Portland the conference decided to ask the Council of Bishops to come up with a plan for how the church could best work through this controversial issue.  The proposal was to hold a special General Conference in 2019 to look just at the issue of human sexuality and the inclusion or not of the LGBTQ community in the life of our denomination. 

     There was a Commission on the Way Forward made up of a wide range of points of view and perspectives who worked on some plans to present to this Conference.  One of our clergy members Donna Pritchard worked long hours on this commission.  The Council of Bishops endorsed one of the plans presented called the One Church plan.  This plan would have allowed there to be different approaches to homosexuality in different contexts throughout the denomination.   These plans did not have a full hearing at the General Conference.  A Traditionalist plan was presented by a group which has been working to keep the Discipline the same for the past 30 odd years.  They knew that they had the votes to pass their plan and it wasn’t until the very end of the Conference that persons representing the Way Forward and other plans had any voice.   On the last day Donna was given a chance to speak.  Many folks who attended this General Conference were not only disappointed in the Traditionalist plan but in the process that did not allow for dialogue. The Traditionalist plan did not just keep the current language in the Discipline but created a more punitive response for those who want to live out their beliefs in a different way.    

     As you may have noticed I have not preached or talked a great deal about homosexuality, but the actions of General Conference 2019 and the responses and stories I heard at our Annual Conference from those who attended have lead me to realize I cannot stay in the shadows, I have to come out as a supporter of the full participation and acceptance of LGBTQ+  in the life of my church.   The new rules say that if I chose to preside at the marriage of my gay or non binary relative, I could be charged, tried and lose my job for a year without pay.  If I chose to preside at a second ‘ gay marriage” and am tried and convicted I will be kicked out of the clergy. Those are the rules that the 2019 impose upon our conferences and clergy.   They also included rules to “ tighten up” the discretion of Bishops about what to do about complaints.  It is likely that because of this more complaints will to come to trial etc.    I and many others think that these rules are there to try to get rid of clergy who are open to ministry with gay persons or who are gay themselves. 

    Our Bishop Elaine shared in a sermon at Annual Conference that there has been quite a response to these harsher measures.   She reported that “ Clergy and church members who had stayed out of the fray for decades, letting the controversy pass them by, rose up to say in a thousand ways, this is too much. This is too harsh. This is mean- spirited.   This hurts people. Too many people, people in our churches.  Good people, people we know and love. We can’t put up with these harsh rules, cruel punishments. It happened in Georgia, Texas, Michigan, Missouri, New York, California, Germany, Denmark ,even here and there is Eastern Europe, Africa and the Philippines.  And conversations began immediately about what a new Methodism might look like that is open to the new ways God is at work in human relationships. Even ways that may require that we stretch and reform the content of our “ Christian teaching.”     Our Annual Conference voted to form a study commission to look at what it would mean for our Annual Conference or Jurisdiction to leave this denomination which has enacted these rules.

         Break   Sharing by Andra Smith

    What does this story of Jesus about the healing of a man filled with demons tell us about the situation we face as a church today?  Frankly, I can more easily apply it to our ministry with unhoused persons than the situation of Annual Conference.   It reminds me that when I see someone who is struggling with the demons of homelessness or mental illness or addiction and their behavior disturbs my peace and the peace of our neighborhood- they are still persons who Jesus cares about.  They are the very persons Jesus reached out to heal and sent his disciples out to bring hope and healing.  We do not know when our consistent loving presence in someone’s life will make the difference.  We do know that Jesus wants to heal and free us all from whatever demons of addiction, illness, prejudice, hurt, fear or suffering that afflict us.   This is the direction of God’s kingdom toward human and community wholeness- shalom or peace with justice.  

       Peace with justice, that gives inclusion, healing, opportunities for growth and voice to people suffering or on the margins is part of our ministry as followers of Jesus Christ.  We do it by attending the community meetings and advocating for and listening to the voices and needs of housed and unhoused neighbors.   It is the value behind many of the persons at Annual Conference who want to see the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in our church.   

       Jesus knew that the changes he brought to that tortured man were fearsome to the people of that land.   ( OK killing their herd of swine didn’t help either.)  He respected their request to leave but he commissioned the healed man to stay and be a witness to what He and God had done.  He trusted that eventually the community would learn to trust and receive this changed man into their midst.  He trusted that his healing would not be in vain. ( I want to be clear that in my experience healing for a LGBTQ + person is about realizing that God loves and accepts them as LGBTQ +persons and their lives and relationships are respected by their community.)   I think that although today we don’t really expect to instantly rid someone of their demons- we do still have the power and love and healing presence of Jesus in our midst, in our hearts.   Can we listen to Him and his love for us all? Can this help us deal with our fears of change, our differences, our personal struggles?      His grace and love for us makes all the difference!

         One big change that many of us have seen in our lifetimes is the coming out  and acceptance of Gay and Lesbian persons or in today’s terms  LGBTQ+  in  US society.   Young people even those in conservative churches do not understand our worry and fears about LGBTQ persons and relationships.  They have seen “ out”  LGBTQ+ persons all their lives and understand them simply as persons like themselves.   When we put strict and punitive limits on the church’s ability to accept, welcome and fully include LGBTQ  persons, I notice that we alienate ourselves even further from the younger generations, even those who grew up in our churches.   I found it interesting that even in Mexico which is usually a very traditional culture, some of the movies and media I witnessed were about the increased visibility and acceptance of gay persons in the society.  Recently, one of the children of my sister informed us that they are gender non binary and would like to have us use the pronouns they and them for them.   This is confusing for their parents but my son who is the same generation doesn’t bat an eye.  This young person is very talented and has grown up in the church, gone to camp, and been nourished by church relationships.  Today they are not interested in a church that discriminates against them. 

         I don’t expect everyone here to agree with me, but I have discerned in my life that to accept fully and welcome LGBTQ persons and their relationships in our church is not a violation of scripture or ethics.  Jesus says nothing about homosexuality in the gospels and accepts eunuchs, a sexual minority of his day.  I look to the letters of Paul for theological insight but would not be here today as your pastor if I followed all his ethical ideas.  I love scripture, I have reflected upon and written about scripture most weeks for the past 34 years, but scripture does not compel me to discriminate against LGBTQ persons based solely on their sexuality or who they love.   Scripture can be used to discriminate and support ideas that we today know to be untrue or even unethical such as discrimination against women, and slavery.  We see in Acts that the Holy Spirit helped the church to open itself to Gentiles who were seen as outsiders.  The Holy Spirit didn’t die when the Bible was written down. It is still at work opening doors of welcome and bringing new understanding.

      We have been a big umbrella church- a congregation with a variety of points of view about homosexuality and the church and Christian faith.   We have discovered that we can feed the hungry, sing in a choir, study the Bible, care for each other in times of crisis even though we have different points of view of this issue.  I had hoped that the 2019 General Conference would find a way to affirm this “ Big Tent” reality that many of our churches live out week after week, but for a variety of reasons,  many of which I do not understand they did not.  So, we are left with a church that is even more fractured than before.  I pray that we might be in respectful conversations together so that we can keep true to our love for Jesus and each other through whatever happens.   As our Bishop reminded us, we are still crossing over into where God will lead us.

     After service today, Andra and I invite you to  get some snacks and join us in the basement for an opportunity to begin conversations about our report and what  questions you have and what you think the impact is for you and our congregation.  ( We decided after the first conversation to continue these conversations in July after church.)

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