This is an edited transcript. Listen to the sermon here.

Before we read the scripture, I wanted to share about a way we can wrestle with who God calls us to be. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a way of working out our understanding of God using Scripture as our primary source, and also uses reason (how do we use our heads), Tradition (what has the church had to say), and experience (what are our own and others’ life experiences). I also use a fifth tool, creation (what is God saying through the world around us).

I JOHN 4:7-19 (The Message)

7-10 My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. This is how God showed God’s love for us: God sent God’s only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent God’s Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.

11-12 My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly

ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and God’s love becomes complete in us—perfect love!

13-16 This is how we know we’re living steadily and deeply in him, and God in us: He’s given us life from his life, from his very own Spirit. Also, we’ve seen for ourselves and continue to state openly that the Father sent his Son as Savior of the world. Everyone who confesses that Jesus is God’s Son participates continuously in an intimate relationship with God. We know it so well, we’ve embraced it heart and soul, this love that comes from God.

17-18 God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.

19 We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He (Christ) loved us first.

 

I have struggled with what I think about human sexuality on a number of fronts…there’s a lot that I don’t understand about sexuality…I have been thinking about and working on this for over 25 years… and so have many of you.

Adam Hamilton, a United Methodist pastor at a large church, said

“Homosexuality is one of the most divisive issues within churches and across our country today. The issue has become, for some, a litmus test on fidelity to God and the scriptures. The divide is not just between the progressives and conservatives. It is also a generational divide, with younger Christians generally seeing this issue differently than older Christians.”

It’s certainly divisive. And I believe one of the primary reasons for this divisiveness is that we often don’t do a very good job of listening to each other’s story. In The UMC our members are at very different places. I am thankful to be a part of a church that allows us to be at different places and we can still be one church. But I have a real concern about how we share our differences with one another. At times we demonize those who do not hold our views… both “sides” can be guilty of this.

I am convinced we need to continue to learn how to be in respectful and loving conversation when we are at significantly different places! I have friends across the board… But I want to tell you my story and encourage you to work on yours. My story is intertwined with other stories, part of my brother’s story, and a word from my mom, and another part is with my church.

I was asked by one of you last week “So you are going to talk about sexuality next week? If I invite my gay friends to come…will this be a safe place for them?” 

In this sanctuary…in a sanctuary the question of safety was asked (please let that roll around in your head for a minute…the question has haunted me!) It was also bothering me because I answered yes and upon further reflection realized that I could only answer for myself…because all of you play a part in the real answer.

This week was an interesting week:

Michael Sam is the college football star who “came out” in an interview with ESPN and the New York Times. He graduated in December and will be drafted in the upcoming NFL draft. Sam was the Southeastern Conference’s co-defensive player of the year and a first-team all-American. He came out to his Missouri teammates before the season started and at the end of the year they voted him their most valuable player.

How many of you know someone who is gay or lesbian?

  • 87% of Americans know someone who is gay or lesbian. 20 years ago that number was 61%.
  • About half (49%) have a close family member or one of their closest friends is gay or lesbian.

That is where my story picks up… I grew up in Brazil—my parents were missionaries and we moved to Wylie, Texas when I was 12. At that time 40 years ago the culture was a bit different. And I began to learn some things that I had not learned before:

  • I learned that men had final say and made all the important decisions.
  • I learned that because my skin was white I was better than those whose skin was not white.
  • I learned that homosexuality was really bad, and so bad that you should do harmful things or condone harmful things.

I used all the gay slurs and told all the jokes, I used hateful language, and I am pretty certain that had I been given the opportunity (especially if I had been with a group) I would have gone beyond condoning violence…I would have used it.  I was also raised in a church that was very silent. The culture of that Texas town was shaping me, the church was silent, and that is where I came from. It was a “line ‘em up and shoot ‘em” mentality.

25 years ago, my younger brother Mike, came out as gay. Here is what I found… When you line ‘em up, and your brother is in the line-up… it is hard to pull the trigger.  

That is where my journey with this began and I am sure I would not be where I am today on this if not for my brother coming out.

It’s been an interesting journey, because some of my extended family began not only cutting my brother off, but cut me and my parents off…treating us as if we had a disease  …something they could catch, if they just hung around us. Families have been torn apart.

Our sexuality is so much a part of who we are when different understandings arise we do not know what to do with them. And so there is tension…there is struggle…and there is pain.

I talked to my brother the other day and I want to share with you a few things he said:

I was 9 or 10 when I began to notice that I was different from other guys my age. I had figured it out for sure by about 13. When I got my driver’s license at 16, I drove to the Nicholson Memorial Library in Garland and read Dave Kopay’s book about being a gay NFL player (1976). I was too afraid to check it out so I read it all in two or three visits, sitting at a table with the book down flat so no one could see what I was reading.

Unlike any other minority group, gay people are sometimes rejected by their own families because of what makes them different. Remember, almost all gay people come from straight parents. The growing awareness that you’re different from the rest of your family is something that gay people usually go through all alone, often starting at a very early age.

Until I came out to the family, there was a deepening gap between us. There was this big part of who I am that I just couldn’t talk about. That gap started forming when I was about 13 and just got bigger and bigger with each passing year.  When you get a deep cut, the only way that wound can heal properly is if you bring the cut sides together, by closing the gap. Once I came out to you all, that allowed for the healing to start and has brought us all so much closer together.

My memory is kind of fuzzy, and so I asked Mike to tell me how we his family did when he shared with us that he was gay. He said:

When I came out to you, the thing I remember the most clearly was that you told me you would never want to meet someone I was in a relationship with. Fortunately I had done a lot of reading about how to come out to family members and I was prepared for that one. Basically, I told you that you didn’t need to make that decision at that time. 

I was not a pastor at that time…that would come in a few years in Greenville, Texas. It was 20 years ago. I remember receiving a request to do a funeral for a family. The mother called and said, “My pastor won’t hold my son’s funeral.  My son was gay and died of AIDS.  Will you do it?” I did the funeral.

People of faith struggle to find a faithful response.

Us United Methodists, for better or for worse, address social issues every four years at our General Conference where we vote on our stance. For years the debate on homosexuality has revolved around these few words, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

At the last General Conference 2012, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, who both service large churches, proposed an amendment to the debated words.  The amendment stated:

 “Homosexuality continues to divide our society and the church… The Bible is our primary text for discerning God’s will… The majority view through the history of the church is that the scriptures teach that same-sex sexual intimacy is contrary to the will of God. This view is rooted in several passages from both the Old and New Testament.

A significant minority of our church views the scriptures that speak to same-sex intimacy as reflecting the understanding, values, historical circumstances and sexual ethics of the period in which the scriptures were written, and therefore believe these passages do not reflect the timeless will of God…United Methodists will continue to struggle with this issue in the years ahead as a growing number of young adults identify today with what is the minority view…

It is likely that this issue will continue to be a source of conflict within the church. We have a choice: We can divide, or we can commit to disagree with compassion, grace, and love, while continuing to seek to understand the concerns of the other. Given these options, schism or respectful co-existence, we choose the latter.  We commit to disagree with respect and love, we commit to love all persons and above all, we pledge to seek God’s will.” 

The amendment was defeated 56-44.

For years the vote has been about 60-40 to keep the existing language. And we become more and more a global church. United Methodism is made up of about 12 million people. 7.5 million are from the US. If we had just voted among US delegates, the amendment would have passed.

Some of my colleagues do not see any other way forward than to work outside the Book of Discipline to offer the ministry of the church to all people.  I will continue to work for change within our system, within the rules of our church, but I do have colleagues who I deeply respect who will be working outside the rules.

Friends, we must learn to listen to each other’s stories.

A few years ago I asked my mom for her story… here is what she said:

I will always remember the day Mike, our younger son, “came out” to us. He had come home for a visit after his move to Seattle.   I had suspected that he was gay, but didn’t want to admit it because I didn’t want it to be true.  I was so positive at that time that homosexuality was a sin, and I certainly didn’t want that for him. Mike was a tremendous help to us during this time of adjustment, being patient with us, not pressuring us, and providing us with reading material to help us understand where he is coming from.

He had explained that because we had “lost” the son we thought we had, we would probably go through all the stages of grief—denial, anger, unbelief.—and we did.  But, because of our love for Mike and our strong desire that he not feel rejected nor unloved by his parents we never turned our backs on him, telling him we would always love him no matter what.  That was the best we had to offer at that time. However, since then, and this all took place about 25 years or so ago, we have done a lot of praying, reading, and seeking God’s guidance. 

One thing that has changed for us during this period is that homosexuality is no longer an issue. It is a person—our son!  We now sincerely believe that this is not a choice Mike has made, and that perhaps one reason our son is gay is to help us learn to grow in our understanding of God’s creation and God’s grace, and to help us be open to new things God might be wanting to teach us.  A number of Mike’s gay friends have parents who have rejected them, even disowned them in some cases.  And, as you probably are aware, the suicide rate among gays and lesbians is quite high.

We have come a long way through the years.  We are very proud of Mike.  He is a fine person and is highly respected by his peers.  He has been with a very reputable law firm in Seattle for almost 20 years and is the firm’s top paralegal.  We are proud of his commitment to God and to his church which is a United Methodist church in Seattle, known as a “Reconciling Congregation.”  Many, although not all, of its members are gay.  It is quite refreshing to attend a worship service in his church, which Bob and I have done several times.  Mike and his partner, John, an attorney, own a home in Seattle.  We are very fond of John and consider him part of our family.  We (Bob, Rob, and I) attended Mike’s and John’s Covenant Ceremony several years ago.

I imagine many of you read Steve Blow’s column in The Dallas Morning News.  If you do, you may remember one he wrote several years ago when he said, “I don’t think homosexuality is immoral. Or a sin. Or a choice. Or contagious. I think it’s something deeply ingrained in a small percentage of people, like being left-handed. Yes, I know what the Bible says. And I wish I had room for a full discussion. But suffice to say, we don’t keep slaves or stone disobedient children just because ‘it’s in the Bible.’”   That pretty well states our feelings as well.

One of the books I have read which has been helpful to me contained a statement from the mother of a gay son.  What she said, as well as I can remember, was, “If I am going to make a mistake [in my attitude toward people], I’d rather make it on the side of grace than of judgment.”

We thank God for both of our sons.

–Jane Spencer, May 2010

 

I am very thankful for loving parents. Our journey has been hard, but it has also been healing…I continue to struggle and at times I am uncomfortable, and there is a lot that I don’t understand…but I love my brother…and I love John. And John is a part of our family.

I am also incredibly thankful for Wallingford UMC, a Reconciling congregation in Seattle for providing a church home for my brother and his partner!

Our text today says, “The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know God if you don’t love.”  In other words we cannot be Christians and hate, we cannot even hate those who hate.

Haters showed up at the Mizzou Basketball game yesterday Michael Sam and his teammates accept the Cotton Bowl trophy. Westboro Baptist Church came to picket the game. Not a very loving group.

Students heard Westboro was planning to come, and thousands of them, students, faculty, and alumni, organized a “Stand With Sam Human Wall.” Former Tigers offensive lineman Max Copeland was one of the people making up the human wall, and he had some thoughts on the occasion:

This is one of those things where it’s a way to stand up for our brother while still communicating peace, love and acceptance. No one gets to attack our family member but, at the same time, the spirit of this whole week has been accepting others and loving others, whatever that means. It’s a cool way for everyone to show that love for our family member. It shows Mike is very loved, and love for not just Mike but love for people. Also, I think it’s cool to see people take a stand against blatant hate instead of turning a blind eye.

They did the loving thing.

I believe it’s important to learn how to handle differences and disagreements…to hear and listen to each other’s stories with respect, love, and without demonizing or condemning. I will be a pastor to ALL people…even when we are not on the same page…that should not stop us from being able to be the church. I welcome all views and diversity within our church. But I do not want people hurt by what the church does.

I believe that even with different viewpoints and understandings we can be one church…we can continue to be in conversation and learn how to live as a united church even with our differences.

Christian love is that quality of relationship that desires the total well-being of the other. It is caring and compassionate, reflecting the boundless love of a Creator God who continues, in Christ, to offer the grace that saves and redeems us. God gives us that love and calls on us to share it no matter where we are…you and I don’t get a pass on being loving…

I am convinced that we can find a loving way forward in the midst of out differences, but I have to tell you that the question from last week still haunts me… “Will this sanctuary be a ‘safe’ place?”

My hope that it is much more than just safe…it is my hope that it is also a loving and caring place that helps ALL of God’s children know that they are loved!

The students standing together in the human wall keeping away Westboro Baptist and I saw two students wearing the same t-shirt that I believe with all my heart is true!  The t-shirt said, “My God Loves Tigers of ALL Stripes!”

. . .

If this story moved you to take action to make The UMC a place for all God’s children, pledge now to be a Reconciling United Methodist.

Rev. Rob Spencer

Rob is a fourth generation Methodist pastor who was appointed to First Paris in July of 2013 after having served at Ridgewood Park UMC in Dallas, Texas. Previous churches he has served include, First Rowlett (associate), Westview Greenville, First Lancaster, and Whaley in Gainesville. He grew up in Brazil where his parents, Bob and Jane Spencer served as missionaries in Rio and Recife. He believes strongly that the church can be one of the best ways to help all people experience the love of God that we know in Jesus Christ.
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