July 20, 2014
Written and Preached by Patrick and Christine Nafziger
Sit back and get comfortable, because we have a lot to say this morning! 🙂
We have a hard task…not just this morning. We’ve been given a hard task over the past several months as we’ve broached the topic of homosexuality within this congregation.
We feel the exhaustion from it. We are drained. We are spent emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
We hope that you are willing and able to let down your defenses this morning and be open to what the Holy Spirit wants to say to you through our sermon. We have sought the Spirit’s guidance in our preparation, and we seek to be faithful to pastoring you in the way God is leading us. But we are not perfect. And so we ask for you to extend God’s grace to us.
We’re going to start by following the format we used on Wednesday evening, sharing some of our experiences, stories, and thoughts about homosexuality.
One experience I remember from my early 20’s took place at a Christian ranch I was volunteering at in CO. There was a game of football going on, and all I remember is that the man who was one of our leaders made some joke about homosexuals. I remember that it bothered me. I have always had (for lack of a better term) a “traditional” understanding of homosexual behavior (believing what the church has traditionally believed), but I felt that this person’s comment was not Christ-like and it was a bad example for those of us who were part of the staff there.
When I was in seminary, there were many conversations about homosexuality between Christians who believed differently from one another. I was part of a human sexuality class where we discussed this as well. One of the professors for that class was Mark Thiessen Nation, whose commitment to the scriptures and to God have led me to deeply respect him. Mark believes that the most faithful interpretation of scripture does not support homosexual behavior as part of Christian discipleship. But for Mark, that was not the end of the conversation. He would express the struggle he knew that his homosexual friends lived with, and the need for us as Christians to offer an alternative for fulfilling relationships to those Christians who are homosexual. He acknowledged how we fall short of that in the church. I was made more aware of the struggles that homosexuals deal with and the complexities within it.
I remember sitting through a debate between Mark T. Nation and Ted Grimsrud, who was a professor of mine from undergrad at Eastern Mennonite University. They are both theologians whom I respect, and they both have a high regard for scripture, but they come out at different places on this topic. While I respect both of these men, the interpretation of scripture and understanding Ted and others like him come to is not one that is convincing to me. My understanding of what the scriptures say, the context of various scripture passages and the overarching message of the Bible lead me to the conclusion that homosexual behavior is not congruent with Christian discipleship. (By this, I’m not saying that those who engage in homosexual behavior cannot be Christian. While I see this behavior as sinful, I recognize that every single one of us engages in sinful behavior in our lives.)
But the conversation cannot stop here. “It’s sinful and so that’s that.” There is so much more to this conversation. I have a friend who has a close family member who is in a same-sex committed relationship. And I have learned a lot from sitting with her and listening to her story.
The struggle that Christian homosexuals face is agonizing. They experience great confusion and a war within themselves. The messages they have received from the Church have not been messages of Christ’s love, but messages of condemnation. They feel ashamed about who they are, and I don’t know the statistics, but my friend told me that the percentage of Christian homosexuals who commit suicide is higher than in the secular world.
That tells me that the Church has been failing our brothers and sisters who are homosexual.
Towards the end of our time in seminary, one of our classmates had been asked by the professor I referred to earlier (Mark T.N.) to share her story. She is a lesbian who had been married to her husband for many years, hiding her same sex attraction and having raised three children with him.
After sharing in class, she approached Patrick and me, expressing a desire to share her story with us. We sat in a coffee shop with her and listened as she shared her struggle with homosexuality and her journey with God in the midst of that.
I believe that we as the Church need to create a safe space for people to be honest about their sexuality. I’ve heard story after story about people who are homosexual and try to become heterosexual or commit in marriage to a heterosexual relationship, all the while living a divided life within themselves (as Patrick talked about last week) because they cannot name the honest truth about this area of their lives.
I do not understand the complexities of biology, or why some people are born homosexual, or how much of it is biology and how much is related to environment, experiences and culture. But the church has too long preached a damaging message of hate and shame and simple solutions. And we have been too quick to demonize homosexuality as the worst of sins, all the while not recognizing the log in our own eye.
Each one of us is broken and sinful, and each one of us is called by Jesus to give our lives to him and to be made whole.
My story is slightly different than Christine’s…but we’ve arrived at a similar place.
Let me begin by just saying if you know my dad…then you know he’s not the most conservative guy you’ll ever meet. He was a social worker for something like 27 years in a school system in southeast Iowa, so he’s seen a lot of brokenness, and he’s had to navigate his own set of challenges because of his work.
Don’t get me wrong…he seldom talked about his work at home. In fact it was just a year or two ago when I think I heard him tell one of the only stories I can remember him telling about his work. All that to say, I inherited a more liberal bias on social issues such as homosexual relationships.
I’ll confess I made the same jokes about homosexual people that probably most males in my age group made during my junior high and high school years…but I never really connected the jokes to the people, because I didn’t know anyone who was homosexual, or at least openly homosexual.
That began to change in college and in Seminary. During those years, the pattern seemed to be that I would hear about someone I had known who would “come out” after our lives had gone separate ways.
I started to think the issue was a little more complex than simply naming it a sin, or simply accepting the reality and blessing homosexual unions as if there was no difference between a homosexual and a heterosexual couple.
Like Christine mentioned, our friend from Seminary (and no, Theda Good, the pastor who was recently licensed by Mountain States is not this particular friend…we’re talking about someone else) shared with us a heartbreaking reality. She was in her 50s, married with adult children, but her whole life had been organized around hiding the fact that she had always been physically attracted to other women.
I wonder how her life might have looked, had she had a place to acknowledge her same sex attraction, and receive encouragement and support to live a celibate lifestyle rather than trying to cover it up through marriage and bearing children. Sadly, I’ve come to learn that her story is not that uncommon.
The homosexual people I’ve gotten to know in recent years…they are just as broken as anyone else in this room, and just as beautiful, if not more isolated, lonely, and wounded.
I’m not at the point where I feel I can exchange the traditional teaching of the church.
I’m not compelled by arguments that reinterpret the scriptures to allow for the church’s blessing upon homosexual behavior.
But I sure think we need to do more than simply calling it sin and thinking our job is done.
I don’t think same-sex attraction is a choice. I don’t think anyone would choose to experience the kind of stories I’ve heard from people who are attracted to their same sex.
They are stories of isolation, pain, and being made the targets of the cruelest jokes.
In my high school years, I participated in those jokes, and I think I was wrong to do so.
I didn’t understand homosexual orientation then, and I still don’t.
The difference is that today I’m willing to learn. I’m willing to stay in the room and hear their stories, their perspectives, and I’m even willing to hear their interpretation of the biblical story and their understanding of God.
I wish homosexual people could find the church to be a place where they could finally be open about their same sex attraction, lose the need for secrecy, but also to be called and held as accountable as any of us are for the ethical choices we make.
As your pastors, we are doing our best to be faithful to the calling God has given us to minister alongside you. But what I’ve learned is, position statements do very little to foster the kind of conversation where transformation of any kind can actually happen. In fact, it’s been more my experience that position statements lead to entrenching, because it puts people who differ from the position being stated on the defensive.
Position statements tend to set up sides and can stem from a place of anxiety. If only I know your position on this topic, then I know whether I can trust you or not.
Positional statements have a tendency to stem from a place of fear. And I want to be clear that I am not talking solely to people on one end of this debate. I am speaking about everyone—those who see homosexual behavior as sin and those who don’t believe homosexual behavior is a sin. I hear people from both these places expressing their desire for statements to be made and stands to be taken.
But starting by defining our position on a topic, especially this topic during this present time in our denomination, divides the body of Christ even further. It’s a way of “taking sides.” So here we are taking up so much precious time and energy fighting against each other within the body of Christ, when really we are on the same team and ought to be using our energy to fight against the Evil One of this world, the powers of darkness. We are the bride of Christ and we are to be offering healing and hope to the world and here we are chewing each other up and spitting each other out. God forgive us.
I have noticed that when the church has difficult conversations where there are differing beliefs and strongly held beliefs and high anxieties, that the seeds of distrust grow very rapidly.
We who are brothers and sisters in Christ, and all a part of Christ’s one body, we begin to distrust each other, and this distrust leads to misunderstandings and wrong assumptions.
Perhaps most importantly, distrust of each other leads us to not being able to truly SEE each other. We become suspicious of one another and all of the sudden, we begin to question the heart and mind of people we’ve known for years.
We quickly forget who we’ve known them to be and we begin making judgments that are not true.
This distrust comes from fear. Fear that this person may not really be who we thought they were. Fear that they may not believe what we believe so strongly. Fear that decisions will be made that are out of our control and different than the way we believe things should go.
Fear is what the disciples faced as they were in the boat, being battered by the waves and the wind. All of the sudden they saw a figure walking toward them. They were terrified, the scripture tells us. Filled with terror. They thought it was a ghost coming at them. And they cried out in fear.
Jesus, coming to them in the storm, sees their fear, and he responds, telling them that it is him.
They do not need to be afraid.
But that was not enough for them. Peter apparently was not convinced. He answered Jesus, saying, “Lord, if it is you…”
By this time the disciples had heard Jesus teach about what it means to follow God, including topics from adultery to divorce to judging others to being salt and light to loving enemies.
They had heard Jesus proclaim the good news of the kingdom and watched him heal the sick, the blind, and the lame.
They had already been with him through one storm where they learned that even the winds and waves obey him.
They had even watched him raise a young girl from the dead.
Yet the disciples fear was what guided them instead of who they knew Jesus to be. Their fear skewed their perspective so that they could not see clearly.
This is what these conversations on homosexuality have done to all of us. Instead of relating to one another within the reality of who we know each other to be, we have let fear distort our images of each other. We are not truly seeing each other. (both here at Millersburg Mennonite and across the larger denomination).
We have served among you now for 7 years. Seven LONG years. (just kidding! 🙂 …although certain times feel longer than others.
We have noticed your trust in us grow. Trust is never immediate. It takes time and it takes opening ourselves up to each other and it takes caring for each other. We are grateful for the trust this congregation has put in us.
But for some of you, this difficult time of conversing about homosexuality has caused some of you to begin losing trust in us because (until today) you have not heard us make a “position statement” on homosexuality.
The Elders and Christine and I had intentional conversations about the process we would go through here at Millersburg Mennonite to talk about this topic in the short amount of time we have (because of the impending resolution that needs to be voted on). I’m going to share briefly what we had in mind, in hopes that it brings clarification to some of the misunderstandings that have come to light.
We decided together to first have the adult S.S. classes study the document “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love” as a foundation for more in depth conversations in July. For the first 3 Sundays of July, we would do a three part series during S.S. and worship called “Can We Talk?”, which was a resource offered from Ohio Conference and which we thought looked like a helpful way to approach things. The themes would be “Can we talk about the Bible?,” “Can we talk about healing divisions?,” and “Can we talk about human sexuality?” We would also offer a Wednesday evening gathering for people to share the stories of the experiences they’ve had that have informed what they believe about homosexuality, and then end with a July 27 after church meeting to gain a sense of how we felt about the resolution.
We did our best to keep the congregation informed about all these things through bulletin announcements, verbal announcements, and the phone tree.
So this Sunday, July 20 would be the Sunday we would focus specifically on speaking about homosexuality and sharing what we as your pastors believe.
Unfortunately, some of you did not give us the chance to get to this point. You assumed that because we did not yet say what we believe, that we were not planning to.
I don’t say all this to point the finger. It’s merely an example of the difficulty Patrick and I feel with this congregation at times. You all are a diverse group of people! Very diverse. And that’s a real strength of this congregation. The fact that many of you think very differently from one another, and yet you have been able to remain in fellowship with each other. It is a beautiful example of the body of Christ.
But because of your diversity, there are times when we feel pressure to lead in a certain way. And there are times when we feel like you don’t allow us to lead.
So there are times when we feel our leadership is being distrusted because we are not leading in the specific way some of you have in mind. And there are other times when we feel as if it is not recognized by some of you that we have something valuable to offer as the pastors of this congregation.
You are a difficult group to lead! But you are an exceptional group to lead as well!
These are difficult times in the Church (with a capital “C”).
And in the midst of these difficult times, the church’s trust in God has wavered. We have become unable to see God as he is. We grasp for control, any type of control we can get over this chaotic situation. We are the disciples in the boat, being battered around by the waves and the wind, and we are scared. And we have forgotten that Jesus sees us, he sees our fear and he is walking towards us on the water, coming to us. We are like Peter, walking toward Jesus, seeking proof that this person walking toward us is truly who he says he is. But the wind has picked up and we have become frightened, and have taken our eyes off Jesus.
We need to cry out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” “Lord, save us!” Because he’s the only one who can.
We at Millersburg Mennonite are not alone. Neither is MCUSA alone.
For Jesus is with us, walking alongside us as we navigate these stormy seas, this time of chaos and fear.
And our hope must be in God alone.
I am not afraid of what may happen in our denomination, because the Church is Christ’s body.
I am not the Savior. Our conference and denominational leaders are not the Savior. You are not the Savior.
Jesus is our Savior. And I choose to trust in God, in Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit to do more than we can ask or imagine.
Our prayer for each of you remains the same as Paul for the Philippians, “ this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.