Sermon Originally Preached on August 12, 2018
Kenai and North Star UMC
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[a] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
I want to begin by saying that I do not want to preach this sermon. I believe there’s a lot of power in speaking your truth, and in speaking up when you believe something at your core. I believe there is wisdom in sharing our experiences, even when that means disagreeing. With that being said, I also believe that we are better together, whoever ‘we’ is. So as usual, I’m preaching to myself just as much as I’m preaching to you all.
This passage in Ephesians is titled “Rules for the New Life”. Paul gives us some basic rules, which together, all have to do with the fundamental idea that we are members of one another. He tells us to “put away our bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, and be kind to one another”, for the purpose of imitating Christ better. I tend to have my moments of bitterness, and there are even days where I kind of would prefer to keep it that way. And I think that makes me human.
But there are moments in our story where we need to stand up for something bigger than our own ability to be petty or bitter, or our own need to be ‘right’. There are moments when we need to believe, or force ourselves to believe, that there is something bigger to fight for, and that thing is the people in our community.
I know we aren’t all United Methodist, but there is a debate going on in the United Methodist Church, a debate whose outcome will affect this congregation. And I know some of us believe that the church shouldn’t be political, but guess what? This Jesus guy we talk about was political. His teachings were political. His ministry was political. So we can disagree and talk afterwards about what we should and should not say in church, and I welcome that conversation. But I can guarantee you that this ‘political’ topic does and will change the way we do church moving forward. So it’s important we engage with it now.
Currently, we in the UMC are talking about what we call ‘human sexuality’, but really what that means, is that we’re trying to figure out how we want to handle LGBTQIA+ people- if we want them to be allowed to be ordained, and if we can be allowed to marry them. Where it stands now, our church law says that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”, and that language is cited when people from the queer community are not given permission to be married in the church or ordained. The church is divided on this conversation, and so in 2019, a special conference will be held to vote on what will be new church law regarding human sexuality moving forward.
In 2016, United Methodists gathered in Portland, Oregon for the General Conference meeting, where people from across the world came together to worship together, as well as vote on church business. Think of it as a giant church council meeting. One of those business items was the human sexuality language, but there was too much controversy and protesting on all sides of the issue, so time ended up being too big of a factor, hence why the special 2019 conference was called.
I was lucky enough to go to observe General Conference as part of a class in 2016, and my school’s choir was invited to go and sing and help lead worship for the conference. I remember one of the first nights, the choir was singing at a night celebrating the UMC’s higher education institution, celebrating UM colleges and seminaries. As the singers stood on stage, getting ready to sing for folks at the conference, the director of the General Conference approached the stage, and told our school we needed to remove the stoles we were wearing, which were made by a UMC affiliated group which some might call ‘political’. Our choir director, who is a congregationalist, so he didn’t really understand this higher policing concept, asked the GC director why we couldn’t wear the stoles to sing, and he told us we needed to ‘remain neutral’.
A classmate recently reminded me of this story, and if I put away whatever bitterness and resentment came to me at the time, from being told by that director what I could/could not wear, I am most struck now by the idea of remaining neutral. Neutrality in its usage, seems like it’s less concerned about finding middle ground, and more about avoiding conflict. When we remain neutral, we often are not participating, or are ‘staying out of it’, whatever the ‘it’ is. When we do not participate, we isolate ourselves. Like if you decide not to go to a dinner party, you aren’t becoming more agreeable or community-focused. You’re removing yourself from the community.
This conversation we are having in the church today is incredibly polarizing, and people on any side of it are growing in distance by being unwilling to come together and unite in our shared understanding of church. And with more distance, it’s easier to be hateful and spiteful and resentful to one another. Right? You can’t talk behind someone’s back when they’re right in front of you. Through this history and these actions and reactions, there is talk about what we as a denomination should do. If we can’t agree, do we split up? If we split up, where will the money go? Can we even stay together anymore? Is that even a possibility?
Those questions, I think, are valid, and could very well be ones we need to ask later down the road. But for now, I think we are missing the opportunity to ask about how we can continue to find value in this community, enough value to stay together and be that community Paul talks about in our passage today, the community that can ‘live in love’. And up until now, we as the UMC have done a good job kind of ignoring the problem, turning our heads when a church swings too far right or left, going against the Book of Discipline on this topic or others. We haven’t split yet. And a big part of me thinks that’s because we collectively believe we are better when we stay together.
Paul teaches us in Ephesians, that being community takes work. And while it is good and freeing and ultimately Christ-like, it is also an active process. It takes work. Us sitting and turning our heads when we see potential conflict, or not engaging with the person we disagree with, that is passive, and that is when we become even more divided. Paul’s letter instructs us to act. He tells us to put away falsehood, be kind to our neighbor, to be imitators of Christ. None of those instructions can be done by remaining neutral. The act of doing any of those things is just that, an action. And by acting like Christ, we are coming together. We are moving closer to God. We become closer, by acknowledging our commitment to being more like Jesus, and by believing that we were created by the same God, a God who made us all with goodness in mind.
What I’m asking us to consider today and to wrestle with, is how we are choosing to be in community, and who that community includes. I think we still need to have conversations and keep our convictions, but I want to challenge us to do it together. It’s easy to fall into the habit of being in an echo chamber, with those we agree with.
And it’s seriously difficult and draining to try and help people understand the way you see an issue, to explain your ‘side of the story’. It’s difficult to explain that to someone who isn’t really even reading the same story. But as the United Methodist Church, I see potential for us to do it. I think part of the beauty of the church is its diversity. This is a global church who has been active in so many things, in social justice, in ecology, in human rights. Now is the time for us to be active in our relationship with one another.
So when I told you I didn’t want to preach this sermon, it’s because it’s a tough pill to swallow, for me especially. Because while I believe we are better together, I also know that it would be easier to just have people choose a side and run off to be with people who agreed with them on this topic. But if we were in the business of easy, our neighbors would be easier to love. We would find it easy to forgive people who have hurt us. It would be easy to turn to God when we were struggling instead of thinking we can solve all our problems on our own.
But friends, becoming more like Jesus isn’t easy. And there’s a reason we work our whole life trying to do it. The beauty of the gospel, the beauty of the good news God tells us is that we were made to act, to grow, to move closer to Christ. God allows us to do that, even when we do it poorly or move slower than God ever thought possible. And when we can each allow ourselves to move closer to Christ and further away from being bitter or petty or spiteful, we can experience what one might call “A Way Forward”, our belief that together, we are stronger.
Merciful God, We give you thanks for your grace, your understanding of our humanness. We thank you for the words of Paul, which remind us that faith is an active process, and it’s done best when we can move towards each other in love. Help us to find brave ways to take small steps, not so we can agree on everything, but so we can agree on one thing; that the example of Jesus is an example worth following. In your name we pray, Amen.