• My childhood hero was Ernie Banks, star baseball player for the Chicago Cubs.  But when I became a teenager, I got a little weird: my hero was Mike Royko. Royko wrote columns for the Chicago Daily News, mostly making fun of the Chicago political machine.  His writings were satirical and biting.  I wanted to write just like him. But I became a pastor instead and had to take the bite out of my writing.  And...society changed, and people became so stressed and worked up over issues that they no longer could comprehend satire.  
  • But as the General Conference of the United Methodist Church meets in St. Louis this week to debate whether or not the church will be open to gay and lesbian persons all the way, or... kick such persons out all the way, I found myself getting back to my roots. Today's essay is more satirical and biting than I usual produce.  But it seemed the right thing to write for this moment.

February  24, 2018
Can You Get Kicked Out of the Church?
The top dogs of the United Methodist Church are going to have a three day meeting this week (in St. Louis) to decide what to do with those they conveniently label "homosexuals."  We all tremble in anticipation of their verdict...wondering if it will be writ in stone, straight from Mt. Sinai itself. It will surely be a word that is conclusive... adamant... final... no more "ifs...ands...or buts about it" ...eternal.  
Whatever the General Conference decides, it will surely offend lots of people.  But alas, it is the role of top dogs to pontificate.  So let no crybabies or whiners slow them down; leave them to their work! After all, we United Methodists are forking over $3.5 million dollars for them to enlighten us.  So let them get at it.  Their stated purpose is to tell the rest of us what to do... with... well--  our children, our cousins, our parents, our neighbors, our friends...the people who sit near us in church... anyone we know who is lesbian or gay.  Yes! Let's spend millions of dollars to bring 864 people to St. Louis, from around the world... so they can tell us how to be Christlike with the people we love.  Want to make a donation? 
Of course, if you want to know what to do with persons who are transgendered, transsexual, queer, or simply beyond pigeon-holing, you will have to fork over money for an 
additional conference.  This week's delegates aren't quite ready to get their heads around this newer stuff.  After all, the politicians have just  recently  started fighting over who can use what bathroom...   so don't expect the church to mosey into the issue for another century or two.  
This whole General Conference is a consequence of our impatience with the Holy Spirit.  Wise people know that when we have a variety of convictions about the meaning of scripture, we simply have to wait for the Holy Spirit to bring us more clarity.  And there  are  various opinions on this matter.  Some think the Bible condemns all gay and lesbian persons.  Yet others think the Bible does  no  such thing. Most are simply befuddled about what the Bible says. 

Sometimes it takes time for the Holy Spirit to make truth plain to us.  After all, ask yourself this:  Is God for or against slavery?  You can't figure it out by merely quoting a bunch of Bible verses.  With the help of scripture, the love of God will seep into our souls, open our hearts and minds, and eventually clarify and answer for us.  But we can't rush the Holy Spirit. 
The Bible is our teacher, not our judge.  This General Conference purports to be our judge, not our teacher.  Thus, it is not qualified to interpret the scriptures for us. Good teachers do not give straightforward answers to life's toughest questions.  Great teachers try our patience by throwing more and more complicated "what-ifs" our way, relentlessly prying loose and undermining our simplifications...our caricatures of people.  The purpose of the Bible is to get us arguing...not to judge or settle our disputes.  Careful readings of scripture give us a variety of perspectives and keep us from making matters simply black and white.  God is love.  And love is 
splendiferously colorful.
In fact, the Bible never straightforwardly condemns same-sex intimacy, as  we know it today .  Granted, the Bible does  condemn male soldiers raping one another, homosexual harassment, pederasty, the keeping of teenaged boys as sex toys for men in a mid-life crisis, and male temple prostitutes. But an honest reading of the Bible (in the original languages...and in context) will find absolutely no prohibitions against what we now know as same-sex intimacy. 
The main verses of the Bible used to judge homosexual persons come in Leviticus and Romans. And because both of these books are among the hardest in the Bible to read through, most people simply take the so-called relevant verses out of context and use them to condemn others. Such judgmentalism comes from being too lazy to read and understand Leviticus and Romans.  If you really want to know what the Bible says on the subject, I've got a paper I'd like you to read...and then we can dialogue...or argue from there.  Just talk to me.
In the meantime, there is this:  legalists in the church are always better organized than liberals.  And I'm guessing that the legalists will get what they want in St. Louis.  And what they want is to ban all gay and lesbian persons from getting married, receiving the full services of a pastor, holding any office in the church, or even joining the church in some instances.  There is also likely to be a new law in the United Methodist Church that any pastor who violates these rules will be summarily fired, terminated, expelled...
It might be enough to make me want to leave the denomination.  But I won't.  I won't quit. I will, however, adopt a new strategy. I'll fade toward the margins...and the people we marginalize.  I'll not fight for my rights as a pastor, or for church buildings, or for money.  

It isn't important whether I can officiate at a gay marriage.  It is more important that I find someone whose denomination 
will allow them to officiate.  It's not important whether a gay couple gets married inside my church building...it's more important that I be there,  wherever , with a gift and a prayer.  

I've spent my whole career in ministry to buildings and budgets and bureaucracies.  A boneheaded decision by the General Conference may be just the thing many of us need to step into an organized resistance and at long last be the church God is calling us to be.  
Having said what I will do about staying in the church (as a white, heterosexual, male pastor, nearing retirement,) I don't presume to advise persons who are LGBTQ+. Each person has to determine their own capacity for stress, struggle, and sacrifice.  If you choose to stay, I'll be here for you. 

And to my clergy colleagues: we can work around this   if we work together...and stay smart. I'll be here for you.  And to all the non-judgmental laity:  we need courageous laity more than ever; there are things we  can  do; and I'll be beside you to assist.   
For those of us who stay in the church, we taunt:  just try to bring us to trial...you'll never find us...because we'll be in the dark places where the hierarchy is afraid to go.  We'll use our connections to stay in the church and form a resistance.  We've been long overdue to do church differently anyway!  LGBTQ+ persons aren't the only ones the UMC has betrayed. We're still laden with sexism, racism, nationalism, and ageism. And that isn't a liberal litany, it's an echo of our ancient prophets and the gist of our old songs and spirituals. 
It would be a waste of energy for me to abandon the UMC, or to fight the hierarchy, or to help start a new denomination.  It is better, like Elijah, for me to simply hike into the desert a bit.  It was in such an out of the way wilderness that the old prophet learned about 7000 others who were keeping the faith (a delightfully apocalyptical number).  I'll not quit.  I'll resist. I'll no longer fight on the weary battlefields of the past, but wait for the new possibilities and frontiers God will surely reveal.  
I suspect that nearly half of all United Methodists, in every county in the U.S., would be open to a resistance movement if we could stay in the church and simply sidestep its dead-end politics and outwit its enforcers.  Of course, we would need to stay in touch, gather occasionally, and covenant to engage the people on the margins of our society.  But that's good.  I've been a Bible-trusting, people-loving, justice-fighter for more than half a century now...most of it as a pastor.  And I'm tired of losing.  I'm ready to have some fun, especially if it means messing with a system that takes itself too seriously.  
Whatever happens my friends, I'm not going to quit.  And if you can hang in there with me, let's meet someplace...call it what you want, a wilderness, or maybe a  big  closet somewhere, whatever the heck our sexual orientation is.  We'll make our presence powerfully felt, but keep our footprints camouflaged. And we won't relax until the Holy Spirit tells us it is okay.

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS


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