This is the sermon I preached today at Stowe Community Church in Stowe, Vermont....
Today, as a church, we come to a very important place of decision. In our Annual Meeting this morning, you will decide as a congregation whether you will allow same sex wedding ceremonies to take place in this building, whether you will allow me as your pastor to perform such weddings wherever there is opportunity, and whether you will become an “open and affirming” church.
In the sessions that I taught this summer on various Bible passages that impinge on this issue, I shared where I stand on this issue and why. I do not want to go over all of that again. But I do want to remind you of how we have arrived at this juncture today….
When I interviewed with the search committee of this church I was informed of the church’s position on same sex marriage and I was asked how I would handle the issue in this church.
I informed the search committee that I was raised within a family and church tradition that took a conservative view of this subject but that within recent years, through a process of study and knowing gay Christians, I had come to a different view, and that I was open to performing same sex wedding services.
Secondly, I told the committee that I was prepared to lead a church-wide dialogue on this issue.
Thirdly, I promised that I would offer teaching on the subject from the Bible.
Fourthly, since this is a church with a congregational form of government, I told the search committee that I believed this matter should be voted on by the whole congregation.
Finally, I told the search committee that I would abide by whatever the whole church decided in this regard and that I would serve as this church’s pastor regardless of the outcome of such a vote.
Over the course of my first months in this church, I listened to many of you share your concerns with me regarding same sex marriage in the church. In reporting these concerns to the board, it was decided that we should proceed with a church-wide conversation on this topic. Having done that, the board further decided to survey the congregation to see where we stood. And having done that, the board reviewed the findings of the survey and decided we should move to a congregational vote on the matter.
That brings us to today…. I would like to speak with you about what I believe is the greatest need of this hour as we prepare to vote on the issue of same sex marriage in this church. I believe the need of this hour and every hour are the same. The greatest need of every human being is to love and be loved. I learned early on in ministry that the number one sign of mental health is the ability to give and receive love freely.
I believe Jesus made love the central message of his ministry when he said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
I know we know these words, but I wonder: have we truly taken them to heart, and do we fully realize how they might apply to this situation we are facing as a church?
During our discussion of same sex marriage this summer, I shared this story in one of the sessions….
There was a young man named Travis whom I led through Confirmation in a previous church. Travis contacted me by email some years after I left the church and he had an important question he wanted to ask me. Travis was 19 at the time and a virgin. He shared with me that he knew he was gay and then he asked, “Will God still love me if I act on the feelings that I have?”
How would you have answered Travis? I am sorry to say that I hesitated in my answer and I don’t even remember, fully, what I said to Travis in my email response. But I do know that Travis acted on his feelings and entered a relationship with another young man. So far as I know, Travis is no longer involved in church.
The way we answer that question: “Will God still love me if I am gay and act on it?” probably won’t change anything about the way that people act on their sexual orientation. But our answer probably will help to determine that person’s attitude toward God and the church.
Similarly, I have found in my many years of performing weddings, that when I say “no” to doing a wedding, it does not change the fact that the couple in question is going to get married. What my answer does determine is whether I will have the opportunity to be a witness for the love of Jesus in that wedding ceremony.
As Pope Francis said, not too long ago, in a press conference, “… in my life as a priest and bishop, even as Pope, I have accompanied people with homosexual tendencies, I have also met homosexual persons, accompanied them, brought them closer to the Lord, as an apostle, and I have never abandoned them. People must be accompanied as Jesus accompanies them, when a person who has this condition arrives before Jesus, Jesus surely doesn’t tell them ‘go away because you are homosexual.’”
The important thing to me, as a pastor, is being able to accompany people on their spiritual journey, even on the part of their journey that includes marriage.
But let me return to John 3:16. We must ask: what kind of love does God have for human beings anyway? There are other words that the Apostle John could have used to describe God’s love, but when recording this statement of Jesus in John 3:16, John uses the word agape. Agape love is unconditional. God does not say, “I will love you if you do this or that. I will love you if you are this kind of person or that kind of person.” God loves without conditions.
Who does God love? “For God so loved the world…” Do you reckon you are part of the world? How about gay people? Are they part of the world? I believe that God loves everyone. No exceptions.
How did God love the world? He loved the world by becoming one of us, by identifying with us as human beings.
Is there anyone in the world who completely understands sexual orientation, where it comes from and how it works? I doubt it. Do scientists understand it? I know they are trying to understand but I think the ones who are honest will admit that we do not yet completely understand sexual orientation.
Do theologians or pastors understand it? Again, I think anyone who claims to fully understand the human psyche is deluded.
There is one person in the universe who I believe perfectly understands us as human beings; in fact, he understands everything about us. And that is God. The God who I believe in, the Triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, understands us completely. God not only understands us because he is our creator; he understands us because he became a human being himself. God understands us completely and he loves us anyway. That’s amazing, isn’t it?
What do we have to do to receive God’s love? Jesus tells us we must simply believe. We need to believe in Jesus, trust in him, and we will receive a life that will never end, a life full of his love.
When giving a talk in a school, church, or other location, my favorite time is the question and answer period after the official talk. People’s questions always bring out, I think, the most interesting and thought-provoking ideas. My friend, Douglas Gresham, likes Q&A so much that when he is invited to give a talk somewhere he usually speaks for only five minutes or so and then immediately moves into question and answer.
However, Q&A is not always friendly. Any of us who have been in the church for any length of time can probably think of times in our church life when someone’s pointed question in front of a group seems intended to get someone else into trouble.
Such was the situation with Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. During the last week of his life, Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers in the Temple. The religious leaders asked him by what authority he did this. Then Jesus proceeded to tell various parables as a warning against them. The religious leaders disliked this so much that they immediately set about trying to get Jesus in trouble with his words. In fact, the Pharisees enlisted the help of the hated Herodians, the Jews in league with the Romans. And even the Sadducees, the religious leaders who were responsible for overseeing the Temple worship, and who didn’t agree with the Pharisees in their theology, even they got in on the act. So, the Q&A during the last week of Jesus’ life was not very friendly at all. In fact, it was deadly.
It was in this heated context that Matthew tells us Jesus was asked one of the most important questions ever. In Matthew 22:34-40 we read…
When the Pharisees heard that he [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now, to understand the amazing wisdom of Jesus’ response to this question, we must remember that there were hundreds of commandments in the Torah, the Jewish law, contained in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. How could Jesus pick just one of them and exalt that as the most important? Even out of the Ten Commandments, how could Jesus pick just one and leave aside the others?
When one considers this context, one can see how masterful Jesus’ response was. He quotes two commandments from the Torah which sum up all the others. The first comes in Deuteronomy 6:5 and is part of a statement called the Shema, which means “hear”. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” That statement is recited daily by many Jewish people down to this day.
Notice that Deuteronomy has the words “heart…soul…strength”. Some manuscripts of the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint, add the word “mind” to the text. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus brings all four together: “heart, soul, mind and strength”. In other words, we are to love God with everything in us. That, says Jesus, is the greatest commandment. And no one could fault Jesus for saying so.
Jesus adds that the second greatest commandment is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That comes from Leviticus 19:18, also part of the Torah.
This past summer we looked at two Scriptures from Leviticus, 18:22 and 20:13, that talk about a man not lying with a man as with a woman. But Jesus does not quote these Scriptures. Nor does he quote any of the other myriad of laws in Leviticus he could have quoted. Rather, he says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That is the second greatest commandment.
How is this command like the first? When we love our neighbor as our self then we love the image of God in our neighbor.
Jesus says that all the Law and the Prophets, in other words—the bulk of the Hebrew Scriptures, hang on these two commandments.
However, the big question is: who of us has ever fulfilled either of these commandments? Other commandments in the Scriptures might be fulfilled on our own power, but not these two: for these two require a disposition of the heart, an attitude of love toward God and neighbor. At all times, we must do what is best for God and our neighbor. None of us have ever done this. And this, I think, shows us our need for a Savior—someone who can rescue us from the sin of not loving God, not loving neighbor, not loving ourselves, someone who can enable us to do these things. And that someone, I believe, is Jesus.
Therefore, in these two passages, John 3:16 and Matthew 22:34-40, I believe we have enough wisdom to guide us in the decision before us as a church. Who does God love? Everyone. Whom does God call us to love? God calls us to love him with everything in us, and he calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That means loving the image of God in our neighbor.
Is everyone made in the image of God? Yes, everyone. Is everyone our neighbor? Is the gay person our neighbor? Yes. God loves everyone and he calls us to love everyone, including ourselves.
Unless we have received the love of God, I don’t believe we can truly love ourselves or anyone else. But once we have received God’s love we will be able to do what Jesus commands. We will be able to love God back. We will be able to love ourselves. And then we can love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Now, what exactly does it mean to love our neighbor as ourselves? I believe that when we love ourselves, we work for our own greatest good. Therefore, when we love our neighbors as ourselves we will be working for our neighbor’s greatest good.
What is our neighbor’s greatest good when it comes to same sex weddings in our church? That is the question we must answer. And when it comes to voting today, that is the question I believe we must each answer in our own hearts.
Now I realize that each of us may answer that question differently. I know that some of us are going to vote differently than others on the question that is before us today. I know we are not unanimous as we go into this vote.
And that leads to another way we are going to need to learn to love. We need to learn to love one another, even when we disagree strongly with each other. What does such a love look like? I think it looks like listening. I think it looks like seeking to understand each other. I believe that when we have real love for one another we will not demonize those with whom we disagree, but rather we will speak lovingly to and about those with whom we disagree. If we have God’s love in our hearts, we will not say or even think: “You must not be a Christian because you disagree with me about this issue.” If we have love in our hearts, we will respect one another. I believe that when we have God’s love at work in our hearts we will each work for the greatest good of our whole church.
Of course, anytime we have a question about love, we know where to go with that question. In Jesus, I believe we have the greatest model of love who has ever lived. If we want to know how to love, we can look to Jesus. All we must ask is: what would Jesus do?
That is the question we must ask and answer as we come to vote on the question that is before us today: what would Jesus do?