Transfiguration Sunday – March 3, 2019 – Luke 9:28-43a
Audio will be here when uploaded.
In 2016, the global gathering of United Methodist lay and clergy delegates known as the General Conference gathered in Oregon for their quadrennial meeting. While dealing with the business of the denomination, they reached an impasse on matters regarding the marriage and ordination to ministry of LGBTQ persons. The result was twofold: a special, called meeting of the General Conference was scheduled for February 2019, and the Council of Bishops created a task force to work towards a resolution to this issue, a task force called the Commission on A Way Forward.
The Commission on A Way Forward developed legislation they called the One Church Plan, a plan supported by the majority of our United Methodist bishops. This plan would have allowed congregations like ours to decide whether or not to allow same-gender weddings in our churches and by our clergy, and conferences like the Virginia Conference to make decisions regarding the ordination of LGBTQ persons. The One Church Plan was an attempt to allow United Methodist congregations and conferences around the world who think differently on these issues to act differently on these issues.
However, a conservative caucus within our denomination put forth competing legislation called the Traditional Plan, which preserves the existing denominational strictures against the marriage and ordination of LGBTQ persons, strictures in place since 1972, while adding swift and severe punishments for clergy who violate these rules. Last week, the One Church Plan was defeated and the Traditional Plan passed with a great number of votes from more culturally and theologically conservative parts of the world, especially Africa and the Philippines. This decision is what you have been reading about in the news and on social media for the last few days.
As of today, we do not know exactly what the medium and long-term impact of this vote will be on United Methodism. Some say the Traditional Plan, as passed, will be overturned by the Judicial Council, our denomination’s supreme court. Some believe that United Methodists on either side of the spectrum will leave the denomination and form a new one. Some believe that there will be parts of the United Methodist connection who will, as acts of civil disobedience, refuse to abide by the outcome of last week’s General Conference altogether. Put simply, there is still much uncertainty in the United Methodist Church, which is heartbreaking, for it means congregations like ours who have waited so long for this decision to be made are being told that there is more waiting ahead.
What I can tell you, however, is to reiterate what I said in my pastoral letter to the congregation this past week: Reveille will continue to minister to LGBTQ persons, their families, and their children as we always have. Baptism, Holy Communion, membership, and leadership in our church remains open to these persons. There have never been prohibitions against such things in United Methodism.
All of which brings us to today, Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, a Sunday where all of us are certainly wondering what this all means for us, for the people we love, and for this little corner of God’s kingdom known as Reveille United Methodist Church.
I am aware that there are those who have gathered here this morning who are some mixture of heartbroken, angry, embarrassed, and afraid as a result of last week’s decision, and I am aware that there are those who have gathered here who believe that, at long last, everything is in its right place and it is time to move on to other things. As such, I stand in this pulpit at this historic moment knowing that there are things that some of you hope I will say, and that there are things that some of you hope I will not say. Chances are, you will both get, and not get, what you want from this sermon.
Today, I am going to speak about the matter before us and how today’s particular gospel reading, a reading chosen well over a year ago, has everything to do with how we live in our present landscape. Yet to do so, I have to say a word about my position on this matter, as well as how I as a United Methodist read holy scripture, and to do that, I want to tell you the story of how my mind was changed on this issue.
When I was a child, there were two hard, fast, unbreakable rules in the Forrester household: if you are going to give away valentines to your class, everyone, everyone gets one from you. Everyone. In the same vein, if my brother or I was going to have a birthday party, every single child in the class was to be invited. No exceptions. I can still remember those noisy December and March birthdays with two dozen elementary school children running up and down the steps to our living room.
When I was a teenager, my father, who worked as a corporate executive in Ashland decided to use his virtually non-existent free time to coach my Tuckahoe Little League baseball team for one reason and one reason only: he was offended by a system where every young person did not receive playing time in every game. This was more important to him than winning. Come what may, every boy was going to go home dirty.
This is a large part of what formed me into the man I am today. I am the guy who will hold the door for one more person to board a packed elevator. I am the guy who will invite the last-minute attendee to a party when I already know there is not enough food. I love inviting people to church, and I love serving a church who receives everyone as Reveille does. It is what I love about the church: there are clubs that will not receive me, there are schools who will not let me in, there are jobs that would never hire me, and people who will never be my friend.
But the church is different. At its best, it is the place that receives us all as we are, in all states and stages of disrepair, a place that receives us, welcomes us to table, extends measure after measure of God’s grace, and then teaches us how to do the sometimes difficult work of extending this gracious welcome to others.
And yet, in my mid-twenties, as I had just finished seminary, was ordained, and began practicing ministry, the one place where I could not seem to fully apply this “the more, the merrier” ethos of mine was the church. The United Methodist Church, the church my family has been a part of for well over a century, where my parents were married, where I was baptized, confirmed, sent into ministry, educated at two institutions of higher education, ordained, married, who baptized my children, and where I found my life’s vocation, the only non-minimum wage job I have ever had, was a place with a preexisting stance on what was then simply called “homosexuality,” and I simply adopted it as my own, and I reasoned that I had both the church and scripture on my side. As such, there was, in all likelihood, a time in my life when I, had I been a General Conference delegate, could have cast a vote for that Traditional Plan.
But then this happened: I realized that things I was vehemently against also had scripture on their side, things like genocide, infanticide, the subjugation of women to second-class status in the church and the world, slavery, and all manner of prejudice, all also had scriptures on their side, and I began to ask myself if I was reading scripture unevenly, if I was holding LGBTQ persons to a standard that I was not holding abolitionists, suffragists, workers for civil rights, or people in peacemaking ministries. I wondered if I was reading some scriptures as though they were heavily informed by the culture of the ancient world, while reading scriptures on sexual ethics as though they were written today, for today alone.
And yet, it was somewhat difficult for me to change my worldview. Not only was a more inclusive view of reading scripture on this issue foreign to my experiences up to that point, I was deeply formed by a very different culture than the one my children know. When I was a young man, I told the homophobic jokes, and used the homophobic slurs. And I was wrong, and it somehow never occurred to me how anything I said, that my misuse of the gift of words God has given to me, tore people down instead of building people up and for that I will never stop being sorry.
If you are someone here today who has seen the culture change around you in ways you cannot appreciate or even understand, I hear you. I have been that person, and like you, I have at a point in my life grieved for the passing of a world that I recognized, that was easy for me to understand. If you are someone who believes the General Conference got it right because you love holy scripture, I hear you, because I love holy scripture too. If this talk is difficult for you because you love the church and care deeply about its future, and you desire to honor God by getting things right, I get it, because I do too, albeit differently.
It would be easy to assume that my somewhat over-the-top inclusive upbringing or some level of acquiescence to the culture around us made my thinking change on these issues of inclusion, and I do not believe that is really true. As I grew older, I just found myself falling deeper and deeper in love with Jesus and the gospel message; Jesus, the world of God made flesh, as the Gospel of John tells it. Jesus became the lens through which I began to read all of the Bible, and as such invited me into dialogue with scripture, which enabled me to start asking hard questions of the hard texts that asked hard questions of me, questions such as whether or not a particular scripture represents the timeless will of God, or if a text was an expression of the important people in the Bible who were all, to some extent, products of their environment as well.
As I grew in my faith, I started realizing just how beautifully annoying Jesus can be, how every time faith stopped challenging me and stretching me and making me grow, it was probably because I was ignoring who Jesus is.
Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus was always making people deeply uncomfortable with who he included in his circle of friends, until he was crucified for it. It started with his mother— pregnant out of wedlock, the shepherds at his birth— people considered unclean, women—whose testimony could not convict the guiltiest of men, the sick—people whose illness they believed was caused by their sin, the demon possessed—people who were believed to be in cahoots with the devil, Samaritans—people for whom the disdain was so strong we can barely perceive it today, tax collectors—corrupt and greedy men who funded the oppressive, pagan, occupying force that was the Roman Empire, and the list goes on, Gentiles, women of ill repute, not to mention including his mandate to pray our persecutors, those who speak ill of us, to love even our enemies.
Jesus’ message of love is more difficult to live than we think it is, because he always inviting the least deserving, orneriest sinners into the fold, people like you and like me, like all of us. Too often today, we mistakenly think that the gospel message is about telling us we are fine like we are. Instead, as scripture attests, it is about a God who loves us in spite of ourselves enough to come to earth and be scorned, rejected, and crucified for us out of that unconditional divine love for us, in ways we could never, ever deserve.
I love being your pastor. I just do. You took me like you found me and you helped form me into the man, the husband and father, and the pastor, I am today. I also love you because as General Conference after General Conference met and debated issues of inclusion and exclusion, you welcomed same-sex couples into your membership, baptized their babies, invited LGBTQ persons into leadership, put them in your church directory, worshipped with them, and grieved alongside them, and in so doing, you helped make a space that, even given the limitations placed upon our ministry, you did what you could, so that “they” could become “us.”
This is who we are as the people of God called Reveille United Methodist Church, who we have been for a long time, and no General Conference can or will ever change that. If you are on the progressive side of things, I know this is not enough, and I know your heart is broken, and I know you are disappointed and angry and I know you join your voice with the psalmist in asking “How long?” and nothing I can say could ever be enough. If you are on the conservative side of things, I know this has been a difficult journey for you as well as you have felt like you found yourself pressing against a changing culture, and yet I encourage you to minister to and abide with your grieving friends and fellow church members, for they need you right now, your loving compassion and your persistent grace.
Regardless of where you stand, I want to say to you what I have said from this pulpit before. Throughout the last two years, when asked how I would respond to a General Conference decision that ran counter to my values and beliefs, my response has always been “I love my people more than my position on this or any issue.” That has not changed. Even with a broken heart, I love the church and I love Reveille United Methodist Church, its people, its mission, and its ministry too much to give up now, and on this day of Transfiguration, I am asking you to do the same, to love Christ’s imperfect church, just as you are loved by God amidst your imperfections.
I ask that you abide in the hope articulated by my wonderful old Duke theology professor, the late Dr. Thomas Langford who used to teach his students “When it seems to you the church is too human to succeed, remember it is also too divine to fail.”
I do want to say unequivocally that if you are struggling with who you are, especially if you are a young person, and life is hard, and school is hard, and social media is hard, and no matter where you go, it feels like day after day, week after week, you just cannot find refuge from the burdens and the bullies of this life, I want you to know this: we call our largest space on this property a sanctuary for a reason. This is a safe place for you to discover the life meant for you by the God who scripture attests made you “fearfully and wonderfully” in nothing less than God’s very image. People here love you, they will care for you, give of time and treasure for you, just as they have done for my two children, just as they promised to do for you at your baptisms, when you were very small and just starting your journey in this world.
If you are person in the LGBTQ community who is feeling harmed, wounded by the church for its very pointed rejection of you last week and beyond, I want you to know that I see you, all your clergy staff sees you, and that we grieve alongside you, and that we earnestly pray for the day when you fully experience the loving welcome Christ wills for all God’s people into God’s fold.
All of which brings me, at last, to today’s text. In it, Jesus takes his disciples Peter, John, and James to the top of a mountain to pray when Jesus is suddenly transfigured: Luke says his face changes and his clothes become dazzling white and Moses and Elijah appear. Then, Peter says, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” It was a great day, and Peter apparently did not want it to end.
And yet scripture tells us it only lasted for a day, that the next day, Jesus and the three disciples he took with him came back down the mountain, and this actually might be the pivot point for today’s reading. You see, when they were atop the mountain, the disciples were divided, some on the mountain, and some in the valley. When they were atop the mountain, they were not in unity, not together. When they were atop the mountain, Peter wanted to stay because he had just experienced that was good and amazing and transformative personally, for him. I do not find it to be a coincidence that Luke tells us that when the disciples where split between mountaintop and valley, the disciples at the foot of the mountain could not work miracles.
So Jesus, and Peter, and John, and James come back down the mountain, and when they do, a great crowd meets them, and friends, this is why Jesus always leads us from our high personal mountaintops back to the valley: it is where the crowds are, where people need us. It is where the demons need to be cast out. It is where a desperate father pleads for a son he fears he has lost forever. Even when leaving the mountaintop brought him yet another step closer to the cross, Jesus comes down to where the people are, crowds of people who needed him, people like you, like me, even people who live in places like Honduras and Swansboro and beyond.
Jesus still calls, and he is calling each of us to join him, even in our grief, even in our sin, even in our brokenness, even in our anger, even in our heartbreak, to join him together as one body at the foot of the mountain, even with our different experiences of God, even with our different opinions and perspectives and passionately-held beliefs. Christ, crucified and risen, is calling us to come down, down, down to the deepest valleys of this world, to where the people are, to where the rest of his disciples are, so that we may be one, and so that we may join him in his kingdom work, casting out demons, healing the sick, bringing good news to the poor and the hope of salvation to even the most difficult circumstances, for he has chosen us, as we are, to crucify the things that divide us so that they can be resurrected into something wonderful and new, so that you and I together can be his co-laborers in Christ’s salvation of this world.
In a few moments, we will celebrate Holy Communion at the table of our Lord. This meal brings us together. It reminds us who we are, and who God is. It is a meal for all people, which means it is a meal where God meets us as we are, whoever we are, a little foretaste of heaven when God’s great day arrives and all will be one. Each time I serve Communion, I am struck by just how gracious and merciful, loving, accepting, and forgiving Christ is, to allow me of all people, the grace and privilege the breaking the bread of life with you.
As I do, what never fails to remind me of God’s immense grace happens right at the end of the prayer of Great Thanksgiving, when I hold up the sanctuary’s big brass cup of salvation as I remind God’s people of Christ’s sacrifice, and as I invite God’s people to dine with the Lord. As I do, I see my own reflection in that large brass chalice, and as I do, I see an educated, ordained, ornately dressed sinner looking back at me. Our God will continue to call imperfect people like us into all facets of ministry, both as clergy and as laity, for it is who our God of grace and lovingkindness has chosen to work with. (1)
Thanks be to God for ministry and for the opportunity to do it. Thanks be to God for the church, a little embassy of God’s kingdom on earth. Thanks be to God for all of God’s people, fearfully and wonderfully made. Thanks be to God for Reveille, and for all you enable us to be for God, for each other, and for all the world. Thanks be to God for abiding with us, even in the midst of uncertainty, even in the midst of what we cannot understand.
Back down the mountain, church. God’s people are waiting in great need, and our Lord meets us there.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.