February 4, 2001
Eagle River (Alaska) Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Dianne O'Connell
I Corinthians 15:1-11
Good Morning. It is good to be back at the Eagle River Presbyterian Church. I want to warn you right up front that this morning's message may be viewed as a bit controversial. It concerns our church, our denomination, and the direction our ministry to the People of God may or may not be allowed to take into the New Millennium. I'm not certain about your congregation, but I know that in many congregations, national church issues are not uppermost in the minds of parishioners; but today, I hope to alter that just a bit.
My thoughts on the issues may not correlate with yours. In fact, opinions in this room may not be unanimous, even without my presence. But we are called together to discern the Word of God for our lives and our church, not in a vacuum, not solely among people who we already know hold the same opinion as ours, but rather we are called to discern the Word of God in a world of many perspectives, persuasions, and perplexities. As an occasional visiting pastor, I can address some of these issues more directly than a permanent pastor normally would because, frankly, I can preach and get into my little silver bug and go home.
I should note that if I didn't believe that this congregation contained thoughtful, gracious people who struggle with issues from many perspectives, I would not have answered the Call to come visit with you again.
In fact, answering the Call is the theme of the Lectionary readings today.
The Gospel Reading from Luke describes the calling of the First Disciples. In it, after Jesus finishes preaching to the crowd on the shore of Gennesaret Lake, he tells Simon to pull out the boat from which he has been teaching, and to let down the nets to catch fish.
Simon answers wearily, "Master, we've worked hard all night and haven't caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets."
He did so, and the time was right, and the nets were full. More fish than the disciples had ever imagined. And Jesus said, "This is just the beginning. Don't be afraid. It's now time to become fishers of men."
One might say it is all in the timing. The last time I was with you, we spoke of Jesus' assertion to his mother, "Woman, my time has NOT yet come." But we learned that his time HAD come. As a sign, he provided some 180 gallons of wine for the Wedding at Cana, and his ministry began in full force less than a week later
Timing is the core of the message from Isaiah, as well. As well as patience.
The Call of the Lord came upon Isaiah in the Temple and Isaiah cried out,
"Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…"
About that time, one of those not-so-common, six-winged, red-breasted seraphs swoops down, touches the lips of Isaiah with a burning coal and caws in a door-post-shaking voice, "Your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for…so stop babbling and hiding behind about your sinful nature. The Lord has a job for you."
Then the Voice of the Lord Himself booms, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"
And Isaiah finds the courage to respond, "Here am I. Send me."
"Go and tell the people," the Lord answered back. But we aren't told the exact content of the message. The reason being, I think, is so that we can insert our own Call and the Lord's assignment for us in our time and place.
This would be a pretty simple command, if the Scripture ended there. One either accepts the Call or does not. But the passage goes on to predict several things: Isaiah would, indeed, Tell the People, but they would never understand. They would see, but never perceive. Their hearts would become callused, their ears dulled, and their eyes closed. The message would be there, but they would never experience it, nor never be healed by it.
Rather depressing. An assignment doomed from the beginning to be unsuccessful. Yet an assignment from the Lord not to be ignored.
One can either look at it from the perspective of "doomed to failure", or experience the message's freeing nature. Yes, preach to the people, Isaiah, but you are not responsible for their conversion. Your job is to just lay out the message. I will do My part in My time and My way, saith the Lord.
And that is exactly what the Lord tells Isaiah when he asks how long with the peoples' eyes be closed, hearts be hardened, ears stopped up.
"For a long, long time," comes the Response. "Until the cities lie ruined, the houses left deserted, and only stumps remain where trees once stood."
The Lord's timing is tough sometimes.
I'm going to stop here and tell you a story told to me last weekend by a friend of mine who had recently been bumped off an airplane in Salt Lake City. Having nothing to do for several hours, she accepted an invitation to take a tour offered by several gracious ladies from the Mormon Church.
My friend was intrigued by the history of the Mormons. She deeply respected the message that one boy with a dream - Joseph Smith -- could be the impetus for such monumental deeds as these people have accomplished, often against the incredible odds of nature and society.
But some aspects of their theology troubled her. So after the tour, she asked the ladies about the church's historic ban against African-Americans having full membership in the church. We, of course, know that the Mormons have since reversed this position and that Blacks ARE now accepted into membership. Had God changed His mind about these people?
"Oh no," the women responded, "God didn't change His mind. God always loved Black persons every bit as much as any other person. However, God had to wait until our hearts were open, and our eyes could see, and our ears could hear His message. When He knew we were ready, He revealed His message that Blacks could and should be members of our church."
"That's wonderful," responded my friend. "That is very hopeful. And how long will it be before the Lord finds that the Mormon Church is ready to accept His message that women should have full rights and authority within your church structure?"
The gracious ladies were aghast, and quickly responded that they were quite content with their place in their church.
"Well, then the time is not right," my friend agreed. "But how long will it be before the Lord God finds that the Mormon Church is ready to accept His message that gays and lesbians should be treated as equal with other people in the Mormon Church?"
The women were dumb struck. The conversation was turned aside, never to resume.
My friend and I agree that there was much helpful and hopeful theology contained in this exchange. The women realized that it was not God who changed His mind. It was the people who changed their ability to perceive, understand, feel, and heal. In time, in God's time, the time would be right.
Which brings me to this time. And this place. I don't know if the time is right. But I did get the Call - in this case, the telephone call from the church secretary inviting me to be your guest preacher this morning. The lectionary readings sparked my crickety brain about the same time I realized that I would not be able to attend the upcoming meeting of the Yukon Presbytery, February 16 and 17 in Fairbanks. I will be out of state on business.
Perhaps this is good. Because meetings of the Presbytery are not always good for my emotional or theological health. You see, I hold a minority opinion on many things and am often voted down. It's depressing at times. But I have often harkened back to this passage in Isaiah. "Your job, Dianne, is not to WIN, but to keep the message out there. That's all. It's easy."
Sure, it is. It would be a little easier if one were absolutely sure that one's message was correct - for this time and place. All comes to pass in the Lord's time, not ours, I remind myself.
The difficult and controversial issue for this Presbytery meeting will be the support or non-support for something called Amendment "O" - what some of us call the "ban on pastoral prayer" or the "ministry gag order."
Those might sound like unnecessarily inflammatory words. And there are other ways of describing Amendment "O". But first, I should probably read it to you. It is short.
The 212th General Assembly (2000) directs the Stated Clerk to send the following proposed amendment to the Book of Order to the presbyteries for their affirmative or negative votes:
Shall new "W-4.9007" be added to the Book of Order to read as follows:
"Scripture and our Confessions teach that God's intention for all people is to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or in chastity in singleness. Church property shall not be used for, and church officers shall not take part in conducting, any ceremony or event that pronounces blessing or gives approval of the church or invokes the blessing of God upon any relationship that is inconsistent with God's intention as expressed in the preceding sentence."
If we are absolutely sure what God's intention for All People is, perhaps on first reading this amendment sounds okay. Many of us realize that the original intent of this Amendment was to ban ministers from taking part in any ceremony or prayer service which would "bless" the relationship of a same sex couple. If you are not in a same-sex relationship, perhaps it doesn't effect you. Right? Wrong. Amendment "O" would effect us all, ministers and members alike.
I should note that Amendment "O" has no guarantee of passage. It is being thoughtfully and sometimes hotly debated, as we speak, throughout the Presbyteries of the country. As of January 30, sixteen presbyteries have voted YES on Amendment O and forty-one presbyteries have voted NO. It is my prayer that in two weeks Yukon Presbytery will become the forty-second Presbytery to vote No on "O".
And we would be in good company. Opposition to the Amendment comes from across the country. One commissioner has written,
I will tell my colleagues in North Alabama Presbytery that I do not intend to debate homosexuality, which is not at issue in this overture. The overture is not about how you feel about homosexuality, it is about how we treat homosexuals; it is not about how you feel about sex before marriage; it is about how we treat those who have sex before marriage. It is about the right to pray for people in need, the right of sessions to control church property, and the reputation of the Presbyterian Church as warm and welcoming or rigid and rejecting.
This Amendment is unnecessary -- every session already has the right to say how property is used; marriage is already defined as between a woman and a man; we are already instructed that we may not perform same-gender union services if they are seen as a form of marriage. No one will ever force you as a minister to perform a same-sex union; no one will ever force your session to open your church to a ceremony of which your session does not approve.
The Amendment is intrusive. It intrudes into the right of pastors to pray with and for parishioners and to perform other ministerial services, and the rights of session to control the use of church property.
We aren't as isolated from one another as we once used to be. Thanks to the Internet and the miracle of e-mail, ministers and lay persons have been communicating with one another almost on a daily basis. Many ministers fear that if the Amendment were strictly enforced it would
- prohibit them not only from blessing and/or praying for persons in same sex relationships,
- would also forbid them from officiating at weddings of those opposite sex couples who live together before marriage.
- And what about funerals for those who are members of a same-sex couple?
- What about funerals for those heterosexual couples who are unmarried, one of whom dies?
- What about blessing a house or apartment where two gay men live?
- What about baptizing adopted babies who are the children of unwed mothers, or babies who arrive less than 9 months after a wedding?
- What about an elder's offering a prayer at the funeral for one of her children who has been in a committed, long-term same-gender relationship?
The pastors suggest that the real purpose of this overture is not to purify the church's practice, but to purify the church's leadership. It is no less than "ethnic cleansing", says one, "an effort to drive out those with a different view of scripture and a more accepting attitude toward differences in sexual orientation."
And I must say that Amendment "O" would strike very close to home for me, personally. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister associated with Anchorage's Immanuel Presbyterian Church - the state's only More Light Church. A More Light Church, among other things, is an open, welcoming and affirming congregation which seeks to minister to all people and all families, including gay and lesbian people and their families.
Immanuel's session has taken the position that it will remain within the bounds of Presbyterian Polity as it seeks to broaden, deepen and strengthen its ministry. Immanuel plans no ordination of gay or lesbian elders at this time; they have scheduled no same-sex marriages. However, what they HAVE done is open their church to members of the Metropolitan Community Church to meet and worship on Sunday afternoons. The MCC church's ministry focuses primarily on gay and lesbian congregants.
This is an action of the Immanuel Session. A rental agreement is in place. Should Amendment "O" be included in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA, the national church would effectively be driving this small, but faithful congregation from the denomination. Immanuel - which means "God is with us" - would not die. It would survive and thrive in or out of the Presbyterian fold. But the Yukon Presbytery and the Presbyterian Church USA would lose a vital force, an important point of view from its fellowship and its ministry.
Immanuel's voice may not be that of the majority, but it is an important voice nonetheless. Immanuel, like Isaiah, is called to offer a message - a message whose time may not have yet come - but a message worth considering. Immanuel has a calling. The job of the people of Immanuel is not to convert the entire Presbytery to their way of thinking. The People of Immanuel's job is merely to faithfully be who they are and speak out when called to do so. Their job is not to WIN, but just to BE.
Lest someone say that all this would never come to pass, let me say that in conversations with at least one of our Presbytery pastors, I was told point blank that he would seek to take Immanuel's building from us if he ever learned that we were giving it to the MCC church free of charge. I assured him that there was a rental agreement in place. With the passage of Amendment "O", I'm not sure the rental agreement would protect us.
So, that's why I am called to speak out today. In two weeks, delegates to the Yukon Presbytery will vote as to whether to support or not to support Amendment "O". I can't be there. But at least two of you will be. Ministers and elders from 21 congregations will cast their vote - not on how they conduct their own ministry and how they authorize the use of their own church facilities. No, they will be voting on how the 22nd congregation conducts its ministry.
I received an e-mail sometime back from a ministerial colleague in another part of Alaska. He told me that while he could not support my position on gay and lesbian issues, he was grateful that I was out there ministering to these people. I appreciated his comment. I only hope that he votes to allow me, and others, to continue to do so under the banner of the Presbyterian Church.
I want to close with a reference to the third Scripture reading that the Lectionary offers for today - the letter to the Corinthians that Paul writes concerning what is really important in the gospel. There is a lot of proof-texting going around on Amendment "O" and related issues, but I want to remind you that I'm only referring to the Lectionary readings for today.
"Now, brothers and sisters," writes Paul. "I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you."
And what was the gospel message of which Paul was reminding the people at Corinth?
"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins…" It was the message of Isaiah's seraph: "Your guilt is taken away, your sin atoned for." It was the message of Jesus to Simon Peter when he fell on his knees and said, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" Jesus said, "Don't be afraid; from now on you will become a fisher of men."
And Paul reminds the Corinthians, "For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am… I worked harder than all of them (to be a sinless man) - yet not I, but the Grace of God is what has saved me."
The point being is that we are saved by the Grace of God, period. Not by holding the right positions on various issues; not by being celibate or not celibate. Not by being sinless or by being sinful. But by the Grace of God alone.
That is the message for all of us, whether we be Conservative, Progressive, or More Light Presbyterians. Paul tells us that our salvation is not up to us, it's up to God. Somebody else's salvation is not up to us, either. It's between God and that individual.
As we struggle with the issues facing humanity today, don't place a ban on our prayer for ourselves or for others. Don't gag our ministers as they search their hearts and minds for the best ways to bring God's message of love and forgiveness to all. We don't bless anything by ourselves. We ask God to bless - our house, our family, our day-to-day and as well as our deeply personal relationships. We only ask. God does the rest.
We are saved and we are blessed by the Grace of God alone. How Long, O Lord, will it take for us to hear that message?
In God's time. In God's time.
Amen. And thank you.
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