Unity, Harmony, & Diversity (Oh My!)

(This is what I preached yesterday, on Psalm 133 and Romans 12:9-18. It is honestly not a sermon I thought I'd get to preach, at least not so soon. But so much has changed in the last ten years. I am deeply glad to report that I received hugs and words of gratitude from people on all over the spectrum. Oh, that the Church may be One...)

“How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”, the psalmist exclaimed. “Live in harmony with one another,” the apostle Paul exhorted. “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” These are the words that I hope are written on our hearts. These are the words that I pray can surround our congregation, weaving us together into one body, the Body of Christ, a community marked by unity and harmony – even as we are a community marked by diversity.

Before I launch into the topic at hand, I must confess that I have never been blessed with an abundance of courage in the face of controversy. Well – that’s not exactly true. I used to be a bit of a firecracker in my youth. When I argued a theological or political point, I was utterly convinced that I was right, and unafraid to push as hard as I could to persuade anyone who dared to disagree. Then I became a pastor, and I quickly discovered that it wasn’t my job to be right. It was my job to be loving, to be humble, to honor the many different ways the Spirit of God works in people’s hearts and minds – even when those hearts are in a different place than my own, even when those minds are filled with opposing convictions. So, please pray for me in this moment. Pray for us all: to be courageous, to be humble, and above all, to be filled with Christian love.

Most of you are aware that last spring, Illinois joined the ever-growing list of states in which same sex couples may get married. Marriage, as you know, is a unique institution: it is both a legal contract and, at least for people of faith, a religious covenant.
The only time I ever have “power invested in me by the State of Illinois” is when I am celebrating a wedding ceremony. In addition to conferring the blessing of the church upon the happy couple, I also sign the document that makes it official in the eyes of the government.

Many congregations were crystal clear about their stance on this matter. A lot of pastors would never even consider officiating a marriage between two men or two women. Many churches actively lobbied against the change in the law. On the other hand, many churches – particularly in the United Church of Christ, our denomination –declared themselves to be Open and Affirming toward gay and lesbian Christians years ago. These churches were lobbying on the other side of the issue, and their pastors all but raced to the courthouse to offer their services to gay and lesbian couples eager to wed. 

And then there’s us. The First Congregational Church of Western Springs is neither kneejerk conservative nor gung-ho liberal when it comes to social issues such as the marriage equality movement. We’ve never gone through the process to officially become Open and Affirming, though I don’t doubt that we are nevertheless welcoming to all who cross the threshold of this holy place. The thing about our congregation is that we aren’t merely congregational in our governance. We are congregational in our theology, too – which is to say each and every member has the right and even the responsibility to faithfully discern his or her own conscience. We aren’t told what to think, what to believe.

This is wonderful – but it is also risky. It means that you probably disagree with the folks in the pews around you about any number of issues – spiritual, practical, political, theological. For some people, this is too much of a risk. For some people, diversity is taken as a sign of disunity. For some people, worshipping God alongside people who read the Bible differently or interpret the meaning of Jesus differently would cause deep discomfort and even shame. And so it goes that many churches split over issues like same sex marriage.
The people who say yes go this way, and the people who say no go that way, and the Body of Christ is broken. Again.

I long for us to be a people who find our unity in diversity, who practice harmony in the midst of multiplicity. I long for us to be a people who can outdo one another in showing honor even – especially– when we disagree with one another. I long for us to be a church that is truly united in Christ, and whose trademark is love.

Last spring we were approached by a same sex couple seeking to bind themselves to one another in the covenant of Christian marriage. Though they decided to wed offsite, we knew that this would not be the last such inquiry. Now that same sex marriage was not merely a theoretical concept that people could have theoretical opinions about but a legal reality that demanded a thoughtful pastoral response, we brought the issue to the last church council meeting in May.

After a brief but remarkably civil conversation, the church council approved a thoughtful statement affirming their “support of the pastoral staff in our discernment of performing marriages regardless of sexual orientation.” Please note what this vote did not do, which is to make a statement on behalf of the congregation. Rather, the council unanimously entrusted your pastors to respond as we see fit to the couples who seek to marry in this sacred place.

My colleagues and I have been open about our support for marriage equality. I know that any of us would be happy to discuss how we came to hold these convictions. We will not try to change minds, but we will try awfully hard to maintain relationships. And since relationships are dependent upon trust and openness, we wanted to be clear that in the months and years to come, each of us will likely celebrate same sex marriages. I know that this grieves some of your hearts even as it makes other hearts soar with pride. I rejoice with those who rejoice, and I weep with those who weep, and I hope you can join me in doing the same for your sisters and brothers in Christ. I hope we can sing with integrity that old Christian song: and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Lastspring, I read a beautiful, powerful testimony by a writer named Jen Hatmaker.The thing you need to know about Jen Hatmaker is that she and I fundamentally disagree about homosexuality. Yet her words resonate no matter where you stand. In the midst of yet another ugly, public battle about Christianity and homosexuality, she wrote this:

Why homosexuality has devolved into such an isolated war, I am uncertain, but as I lay in bed last night, listening, still, prayerful, God reminded me of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), which Jesus told after a very smart expert of the Law asked how to inherit eternal life.

“What is written in the Law?” [Jesus] replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

… When I get bogged down, I always remember Jesus: Love God and love people. There you are. Do this and you will live.

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

…This is so human. What is the morality clause? Who can I omit? Who gets to stay in? Who are the outsiders and insiders here? What are the categories?

Then Jesus told a devastating story about a man beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road.

As I lay in bed, it was instantly and perfectly clear that the gay community has been spiritually beaten, stripped of dignity, robbed of humanity, and left for dead by much of the church. You need only look at the suicide rates, prevalence of self-harm, and the devastating pleas from ostracized gay people and those who love them to see what has plainly transpired.

Laying next to them, bloodied and bruised, are believers whose theology affirms homosexuality and allows them to stand alongside their gay friends. (Again, you don’t have to agree with this, but there are tens of thousands of thinking, studied people who hold this conviction.) The spiritual gutting of these brothers and sisters is nothing short of shameful. The mockery and dismissal and vitriol leveled at these folks is disgraceful.

Also wounded on the side of the road are Christians who sincerely love God and people and believe homosexuality is a sin, but they’ve been lumped in with the Big Loud Mean Voices unfairly. Painted as hateful intolerants, they are actually kind and loving and are simply trying to be faithful. The paintbrush is too wide, the indictments unfounded.

Boy, this debate has wounded many travelers, hasn’t it?

Friends, let us not wound one another. Let us instead be neighbors to one another, kindred who please God and one another by living together in unity, united by the One who came to redeem us all. Amen.

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