I share here an adaptation of the sermon I preached yesterday as a guest of Lawrence First UMC in Lawrence, Kansas, for Reconciling Sunday. Many in the congregation were not familiar with my story, so some of that is recounted, along with an update, and a challenge to more boldly embody the Jesus’ teaching that “does what it says.”
(If you would like to listen to this sermon, it is available here. We recommend starting at the 4:43 mark.)
Mark 1:21-28 (The Message)
“Then they entered Capernaum. When the Sabbath arrived, Jesus lost no time in getting to the meeting place. He spent the day there teaching. They were surprised at his teaching–so forthright, so confident–not quibbling and quoting like the religion scholars.
Suddenly, while still in the meeting place, he was interrupted by a man who was deeply disturbed, and yelling out, ‘What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!’
Jesus shut him up: ‘Quiet! Get out of him!’ The afflicting spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly–and got out.
Everyone there was incredulous, buzzing with curiosity. ‘What’s going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? He shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and sends them packing!'”
A New Teaching That Does What It Says!
I didn’t grow up in the church, but found youth group and soon became very active in my church and beyond. I began to discern a call to ministry during high school. Ordained a full elder in 1992, I’ve tried to follow Jesus in many locations, in churches, campus ministry, and theological education.
January 2, 2016, I preached a sermon, as I felt called by the wild, wonderful Holy Spirit to do.
I spoke to the text of that Epiphany day – Live in the Light. That was my calling as I prayed, discerned…as I wrote, as I met with wise advisors, and preached. Live in the light. Live with authenticity, integrity. Be you! Show up for your own life. Trust God.
I spoke one of the important truths of my life. Here’s the defining moment from that message:
“The Lord has led me here to share my whole truth with you. IT’S TIME! I have been an ordained UMC pastor for 25 years. At last, I am choosing to serve in that role with full authenticity, as my genuine self: a woman who loves and shares my life with another woman. I remained single through twenty years of my ministry. Then, a few years ago, a wonderful relationship began to develop. In the midst of much prayer, at long last, Mary and I decided that the Holy Spirit had whirled us around and brought us together, that our relationship is a holy part of God’s calling on each of our lives. We chose to commit our lives in love and covenant with one another. It was time.”
That statement led to a charge against me, because it could be interpreted as stating that I am a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
Hear now a more meaningful statement from that sermon:
“I am the same pastor I’ve been with you over these past months, the same pastor that has served in all those churches, mentored all those students, sat with families in crisis, addressed tragedies in communities, performed weddings, baptized babies, led meaningful funeral services, and celebrated Holy Communion with you and so many. I’m now simply more fully open and honest, able to share with you about my daily life in a loving partnership, to talk normally about my ordinary life just as you do about yours, able to live my life and live into this new calling fully integrated, open, vulnerable. True. IT’S TIME.”
The next day a charge was filed for violating The United Methodist Book of Discipline–by stating my authentic identity, striving to follow my call–I had crossed a line more significant than nearly any other according to the rules of The United Methodist Church.
My bold action was deeply intentional. I trusted that little Edgerton UMC could handle this challenge. I worked with Reconciling Ministries Network to present my reality as a challenge to discriminatory denominational policies as the 2016 UM General Conference loomed. About 100 more LGBTQ clergy came out before General Conference; much good and faithful activism took place.
General Conference made no positive change. The case against me moved toward trial.
I choose finally to free the church–the conference, faithful United Methodists, from the heartache, disruption, pain, and cost of a trial.
I have been, for two years now, in a sort of limbo, through an agreement that was neither just nor a resolution–still a UMC elder but on involuntary leave, forbidden to perform the duties of an elder in The UMC (to administer the sacraments, order the life of a congregation, perhaps to wear an elder’s stole). For a time, without employment, though several job offers would come.
I’ve continued discerning the most challenging of pop music questions: Should I Stay or Should I Go? Wait for The UMC structure to try again with a special called General Conference, now set for 2019? Let go of this tradition that has shaped my belief, theology, where my spirit made its home?
The Gospel lesson for today recounts Jesus’ confident teaching, calling out an unholy spirit. Boldness bringing healing where there has been pain and harm. “What’s going on here?” A new teaching that does what it says…Jesus teaches love and healing for one whom others judged, called out, ostracized–and then makes it happen, right in front of them. We have not just this story, but the whole of the Gospel, that teaches peace, enacts inclusion, heals the broken–hearts, bodies, spirits, lives, communities–that brings reconciliation, that affirms the outcast. The Jesus we claim to follow brings new teaching–in word, in action.
We must likewise do what he, what we, teach.
It’s good to put a rainbow on our church signs as a mark of welcome. And we’re called to do more. It’s meaningful to provide a safe space for nice, well-educated, willing to blend in people who happen to be lesbian or gay. And we’re called to include those who challenge us more–transgender folks, non-binary, non-gender conforming children of God, struggling to figure it out, who don’t blend in, who question our traditions and challenge our assumptions. These hard parts of love, inclusion, care, and acceptance–that’s what Jesus boldly embodies.
The last part of this Gospel lesson is expressed a bit differently in the NRSV translation: They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority!”
In The UMC service of ordination…among the words spoken to the ordinands are these: “Take thou authority as an elder in the Church.”
Like many others, I have tried to faithfully follow Jesus, yet, because I choose to live authentically, because I value the teaching of the Gospel over that of the Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church has attempted to strip me of my authority–to preach the Gospel, to preside over the sacraments and the life of a congregation, to wear this stole as a sign of my priestly and pastoral role.
Yet here I stand.
I can’t say I’m unscathed, yet I’m undefeated, undeterred, striving with God’s help to live a life worthy of the Gospel. To fulfill my calling. This Reconciling Sunday, I re-present to you your Gospel calling–your opportunity to speak with authority–truth to power, love to the outcast. You have clout, you have power, you have voice. You can be a beacon of the light of inclusion. You can more boldly embody the way of Jesus. Speak up, speak out, in this community, in the Great Plains Conference and the larger UMC. As you strive to follow our bold, authoritative teacher, who says what he means and means what he says–you too can speak out and reach out to ALL who need this Gospel love. You can do holy and faithful work and ministry–following the way of Jesus.
One more thing: I’m here today wearing my worn-out alb–the clergy robe I’ve had for almost 30 years, and an elder’s stole. I can do this now, in a United Methodist Church, because this past week, I was granted full standing as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Today, I will return my United Methodist ordination credentials. I will no longer be in any formal relationship with The United Methodist Church.
It’s time for my call to ministry in a denomination that also includes plenty of diversity of opinion about all this–and who in its leadership, denominational commitments, public voice, and its practices of ordination and marriage–truly is open and affirming, supportive, and inclusive of all–including LGBTQIA people like me.
I hope and pray The UMC will someday choose love, justice, and full inclusion for all God’s beloved children. I leave with appreciation and dreams for the denomination that has formed, yet rejected me.
I’m not suggesting that any of you should leave The UMC! Hear my discerned need to make this choice as your call to action.
Change The UMC! Be bold and courageous–join the voices speaking out for love and justice. Teach with authority the loving way of Jesus. What would Jesus call you to do? Live and enact a teaching that does what it says!