Skip to main content

The Need of the Hour


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.’”[1]

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?

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

C. S. Lewis on Homosexuality

Arthur Greeves
In light of recent developments in the United States on the issue of gay marriage, I thought it would be interesting to revisit what C. S. Lewis thought about homosexuality. Lewis, who died in 1963, never wrote about same-sex marriage, but he did write, occasionally, about the topic of homosexuality in general. In the following I am quoting from my book, Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C. S. Lewis. For detailed references and footnotes, you may obtain a copy from Amazon, your local library, or by clicking on the book cover at the right....
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis claimed that homosexuality was a vice to which he was never tempted and that he found opaque to the imagination. For this reason he refused to say anything too strongly against the pederasty that he encountered at Malvern College, where he attended school from the age of fifteen to sixteen. Lewis did not rate pederasty as the greatest evil of the school because he felt the cruelty displayed at Malver…

A Prayer at Ground Zero

Christmas Day Thought from Henri Nouwen

"I keep thinking about the Christmas scene that Anthony arranged under the altar. This probably is the most meaningful "crib" I have ever seen. Three small woodcarved figures made in India: a poor woman, a poor man, and a small child between them. The carving is simple, nearly primitive. No eyes, no ears, no mouths, just the contours of the faces. The figures are smaller than a human hand - nearly too small to attract attention at all.
"But then - a beam of light shines on the three figures and projects large shadows on the wall of the sanctuary. That says it all. The light thrown on the smallness of Mary, Joseph, and the Child projects them as large, hopeful shadows against the walls of our life and our world.
"While looking at the intimate scene we already see the first outlines of the majesty and glory they represent. While witnessing the most human of human events, I see the majesty of God appearing on the horizon of my existence. While being moved by the ge…

Sheldon Vanauken Remembered

A good crowd gathered at the White Hart Cafe in Lynchburg, Virginia on Saturday, February 7 for a powerpoint presentation I gave on the life and work of Sheldon Vanauken. Van, as he was known to family and friends, was best known as the author of A Severe Mercy, the autobiography of his love relationship with his wife Jean "Davy" Palmer Davis.

While living in Oxford, England in the early 1950's, Van and Davy came to faith in Christ through the influence of C. S. Lewis. Van was a professor of history and English literature at Lynchburg College from 1948 until his retirement around 1980. A Severe Mercy tells the story of Davy's death from a mysterious liver ailment in 1955 and Van's subsequent dealing with grief. Van himself died from cancer in 1996.

It was my privilege to know Van for a brief period of time during the last year of his life. However, present at the White Hart on February 7 were some who knew Van far better than I did--Floyd Newman, one of Van's…

Mentoring

The first of four posts by yours truly is now up on the Next Leadership Blog. Check it out by clicking here: Mentoring.

C. S. Lewis Tour--London

The final two days of our C. S. Lewis Tour of Ireland & England were spent in London. Upon our arrival we enjoyed a panoramic tour of the city that included Westminster Abbey. A number of our tour participants chose to tour the inside of the Abbey where they were able to view the new C. S. Lewis plaque in Poets' Corner.


Though London was not one of Lewis' favorite places to visit, there are a number of locations associated with him. One which I have noted in my new book, In the Footsteps of C. S. Lewis, is Endsleigh Palace Hospital (25 Gordon Street, London) where Lewis recovered from his wounds received during the First World War....


Not too far away from this location is King's College, part of the University of London, located on the Strand, just off the River Thames. This is the location where Lewis gave the annual commemoration oration entitled The Inner Ring on 14 December 1944....


C. S. Lewis occasionally attended theatrical events in London. One of his favorites w…

C. S. Lewis's Parish Church

The first time I visited Oxford, in 1982, the porter at Magdalen College didn't even recognize the name--C. S. Lewis. I had asked him if he could give me directions to Lewis's former home in Headington Quarry. Obviously, he could not and did not. (Directions to Lewis's former home are now much easier to obtain. Just click here for directions and to arrange a tour: The Kilns.)
Things have changed a lot since 1982. Now Lewis is remembered all around Oxford. At the pub where the Inklings met, at Magdalen College, and not least--at his parish church--Holy Trinity Headington Quarry. The first time I visited the church I only saw the outside and Lewis's grave, shared with his brother Warnie.
Since that first visit I have returned to Holy Trinity a number of times and worshiped there. Father Tom Honey is a real gem. Under his leadership the congregation has grown and now includes a number of young families. I was overwhelmed by the number of children who came into the sanctuary…

A Christmas Psalm

Psalm 110
The Lord says to my Lord:
"Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet."

The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion;
you will rule in the midst of your enemies.
Your troops will be willing on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy majesty,
from the womb of the dawn
you will receive the dew of your youth.

The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
"You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek."

The Lord is at your right hand;
he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.
He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead
and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.
He will drink from a brook beside the way;
therefore he will lift up his head.

C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms,
Chapter XII, paragraphs 4 & 5:

"We find in our Prayer Books that Psalm 110 is one of those appointed for Christmas Day. We may at first be surprised by this. There is nothing in it about peace and good-will, nothing remotely sugg…

Fact, Faith, Feeling

"Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods 'where to get off', you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith." Mere Christianity


Many years ago, when I was a young Christian, I remember seeing the graphic illustration above of what C. S. Lewis has, here, so eloquen…

C. S. Lewis on Church Attendance

A friend's blog written yesterday (http://wesroberts.typepad.com/) got me thinking about C. S. Lewis's experience of the church. I wrote this in a comment on Wes Robert's blog:
It is interesting to note that C. S. Lewis attended the same small church for over thirty years. The experience was nothing spectacular on a weekly basis. For most of those years Lewis didn't care much for the sermons; he even sat behind a pillar so that the priest would not see the expression on his face. He attended the service without music because he so disliked hymns. And he left right after holy communion was served probably because he didn't like to engage in small talk with other parishioners after the service. But that life-long obedience in the same direction shaped Lewis in a way that nothing else could.
Lewis was once asked, "Is attendance at a place of worship or membership with a Christian community necessary to a Christian way of life?"
His answer was as follows: &q…