For many of us, the United Methodist Church’s decision at this years’ General Conference against full inclusion of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters was a devastating blow. During those early days and weeks, it looked like so many of our prayers lay unanswered; hopes were dashed as we tried to discern what to do with ourselves. It appeared that the future of the denomination was hopeless and it still may be as we have known it.
Still, I was delighted last Sunday morning during our annual conference when our resident Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton ordained Lea Matthews, an openly gay woman as a deacon in our denomination.
There is a risk, you know. And my understanding is that other bishops (at least 9 or so) have also ordained openly gay elders and deacons since General Conference. After all, we Christians like following the rules, at least when it is convenient. We especially like holding others to obeying rules. Isn’t that right?
God, our Creator knew the complexity of obeying rules from the beginning. Jesus was born into the world because rules alone would never be enough. Rules would never replace personal encounters with and understanding of other human beings.
The ordination was a wonderful moment, a kairos moment. Some might say it was a “God moment,” even as a small group mounted their protests and waved little banners in opposition. And that too seemed perfectly fine because all are welcome.
But when Bishop Bickerton called her name, like all the others being ordained, the arena erupted with joy and enthusiasm and I was right there on my feet with my pride arm band shaking in the breeze. It was Pentecost Sunday after all. It was the kind of moment filled with hopefulness about the future Church – whatever it might become. Pentecost is a sure sign that God was still with us and present in that place.
And while we may not all be in 100% agreement, still God was there. This is what we celebrated last week. All of those people gathered from varying backgrounds and experiences, people of difference races, colors, and persuasions, short people, tall people, fat and skinny. Men, women and little children. People with great joys and achievements and others in despair. Immigrants and citizens, people with and people without – they were all there and something happened!
I love it because God takes us with all that we are and brings us together somehow. Now, we might miss the moment but there it is holy and precious waiting to be experienced and received. And God says wherever two of you are, it’s enough. It is as if God says, “One of you YES but two or more of you together, we can have a party!”
Two of you seeing and listening, supporting and celebrating your unique fabulousness, understanding one another, appreciating one another, giving and taking, participating, open and loving; two or more of you in any one place at the same time, “Heck yeah I’m showing up!”
My brothers and sisters imagine if we approached our experience of one another in this way: not trying to change or coerce, use or abuse, compete or impress. What an amazing world it would be!
Someone pulled down our pride flag, we hang another! Isaiah tells me that 10 people showed up at the Theology of Sexuality class Tuesday night and another wants to join this week. Some new friends who saw the sign and said, “I want to come.” We persevere in faith my friends.
Throughout the ages, people have persevered in faith and endured all kinds of hardships and adversity because they believed that a better day was possible for those they loved and for our world.
Faith is neither glamorous nor romantic. It is not touchy-feely, pie in the sky, no. It cannot always be explained nor contained. Good people suffer. The saints get sick and die just like everybody else. Believers are both loved and hated. Our Savior died an embarrassment – a hard and gruesome death. But we persevere because we know that faith is essential and has its place throughout and faith will not disappoint.
The Apostle Paul reframes the social order and the believer’s response:
We are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … And not only that but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that our suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
I cannot explain it but I know it’s true. Suffering produces something in us. It is difficult and crazy and I don’t much like it (and let me add, I don’t think suffering is either necessary or a prerequisite) but nevertheless, even there saving grace is possible. Even there, God can do something with it. There are things to be learned and growth to be obtained.
There are times when we need to let suffering have its perfect work. While we strive for healing and restoration, we need to trust that the all-sufficient One is holding us and the circumstance together. Now, that takes faith.
Here’s what I have learned: when we suffer, when we are hurt, battered and bruised, when we lied and denied, we either rise up and become or crumble and fall. And sometimes that happens, even for the faithful. We discover who we are and on whom we can depend. We learn how to endure and how to press our way. And here’s another thing: we gain character that can only be formed through lived experience. Have you ever noticed that? We take on a whole other layer of empathy when we have gone through something ourselves. We know how to give others hope and encouragement in a whole new way and how to place ourselves in the shoes of another.
It’s not always true, but most people I know who have gone through something and emerged positively on the other side are different kinds of people. Their whole take on life is different. They don’t take so much for granted and don’t feel so entitled. They don’t get caught up on the least little thing – they know how to let go and are grateful for wherever they find themselves – knowing that all things work for their good.
And character produces hope, Paul says to the church, and hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
The question before us this morning on Trinity Sunday as we imagine God as one and three: where is your hope? What are you hoping for and where is your faith?
Theologian, Fred Buechner said:
FOR CHRISTIANS, hope is ultimately hope in Christ. The hope that he really is what for centuries we have been claiming he is. The hope that despite the fact that sin and death still rule the world, he somehow conquered them. The hope that in him and through him all of us stand a chance of somehow conquering them too. The hope that at some unforeseeable time and in some unimaginable way he will return with healing in his wings.
The invitation to know God is the invitation to walk in mystery and the unknown. To walk by faith.