It’ll Teach ’em a Lesson

(sermon 9/17/17)

forgive

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

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When I was maybe five or six years old, I remember a short little animated TV commercial made by the Mormon Church that usually ran on Sunday mornings. The animation was very simple, just a step or two above stick figures. It told a story about a poor, struggling farmer who lived next to a rich cattle rancher. The narrator of the commercial said that one night, out of desperation, the farmer tried to steal a steer from the rancher in order to feed his family – but he got caught. The ranch hands who caught him took him to the rancher, who was in no mood for mercy, and he tells the ranch hands, “String him up – it’ll teach him a lesson.” Then the story shifts, and the narrator explains, “Well that very night, the rancher dreamt that he died, and he stood before his Maker in judgment.” – and at this point, you see the rancher standing there, nervous, hat in hand, fumbling with the brim, a big bead of sweat running down the side of his face – and the narrator continues, “And as he stood there awaiting his fate, he heard a voice say, ‘Forgive him – it’ll teach him a lesson.”

That simple little commercial that I’ve remembered now for fifty years was actually teaching a similar sort of lesson as this parable of Jesus’ that we just heard. This is what’s known as the Parable of the Ungrateful Servant. As you heard in the story, a servant owes the king an astronomical amount of money – ten thousand talents. A talent was a unit of money equal to 70 or 75 pounds of silver – so based on this past week’s price for silver, ten thousand talents would have been a debt of around 200 million dollars. It was an absurd, unrealistic amount, so it’s pretty obvious that Jesus is just making the point that it’s a debt that would have been utterly impossible to ever pay off – and that to forgive a debt like that would show grace and forgiveness of an infinite magnitude. By comparison, the amount that the second slave in the story owed the first slave – 100 denarii – would have been comparable to 14,000, maybe $15,000 dollars today – clearly, nothing like the first slave’s debt, but still, far from pocket change. It was a debt that most average people would be hard put to just let go. It wasn’t something trivial to just write off; to forgive that amount would definitely be felt.

Based on Jesus’ explanation, we can see the king as representing God, and that we’re being warned not to make the same ungrateful mistake as the first slave – that, in gratitude for the full magnitude of God’s living forgiveness of us, we need to offer similar, even costly forgiveness to others.

I know, most times that’s easier said than done. Even though Jesus framed this story in financial terms, I think the people who are the hardest for us to forgive are the ones who have hurt us in other ways. Non-financial ways. Ways that are offenses to our own sense of personal dignity, or offenses against people we love, or offenses against our sense of fairness or justice. Those are the hard things to forgive.

There’s a well-known story told by Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who was a young girl during World War II, and whose family considered it their Christian duty to hide Jews in their home from the Nazi occupiers. They did so until they were eventually caught, and the entire family were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. All of her family died there, and it was only through a miraculous clerical error that she was released. After the war, she wrote about her faith and her experiences, and was a popular speaker. She was speaking to a church group in Munich several decades after the war, and after her speech, a man from the audience approached her. Even though he was older now, she recognized him immediately as a former SS guard at Ravensbruck. He introduced himself and said that he had been a guard there, and that after the war he’d become a Christian. He said that he knew in his heart that God had forgiven him for his actions, but it would mean a lot to him if she could forgive him.

This was a man who oversaw the deaths of her entire family. She was dumbstruck. Even though she’d just given a big speech on the importance of forgiveness, here she stood with this man and she didn’t know if she could forgive him. But, thinking about God’s own forgiveness of her, she realized that as much as she didn’t want to, she needed to forgive this man. She recognized that forgiveness wasn’t a feeling but an act of the will. So she offered a simple prayer, telling God that she would offer her hand, a physical, unfelt gesture, but if there needed to be any emotion or anything else, it was going to have to come from God. So taking all the strength she had in her tiny little frame, she mechanically reached out and took the man’s hand. And when she did, she said she felt an indescribable peace, a warmth, and she was able to let go of the anger and hatred and bitterness that she’d felt for him. The man had asked her for forgiveness so he could have some healing and peace, but in the process, she received healing and peace, too. I think that’s precisely why Jesus stresses the importance of practicing this kind of radical forgiveness – the kind that we don’t want to offer and that the other person doesn’t deserve – the kind of forgiveness described in this parable.

We don’t want to forgive someone when we think it would mean the other person has gotten away with something, or it would make us feel like a doormat, a patsy. Jesus is saying through this parable that forgiving others, especially those that are undeserving of it, as counterintuitive as it might seem, is really the only way that we’ll be able to truly know the healing and peace that God wants us to have.

So sometimes we don’t want to forgive because it would seem to be an affront to our dignity, or justice. But other times, I think we can’t forgive others because there are things in our own lives that we haven’t forgiven ourselves for. Sure, like the former guard, we know that God has forgiven us, but *we* haven’t forgiven us. And because of that, we can’t be gracious and forgiving of others. Or maybe we really can’t imagine God forgiving us for something – some terrible thing we did, or didn’t do; some way we hurt another person.

Friends, we need to accept our forgiveness from God, and to accept that if God has forgiven us, then we have no reason to not forgive ourselves. We need to let go of that guilt or shame and accept that we’re the recipients of God’s love and mercy beyond our wildest imaginations. We need to accept the truth of that bit of the service that we do every single Sunday, the Assurance of Forgiveness – that in Jesus Christ, we are really, truly, forgiven; and that God has forgiven us far more than even the king forgave in this parable. There is absolutely no reason to doubt that. There is absolutely no reason to question that. The only question that I might have in all of this, I suppose, might be just *why* God would choose to forgive us with such illogical extravagance – and when I consider that, the only answer I can come up with is that God must think it’ll teach us a lesson.

Thanks be to God.

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Eugene Carson Blake, Where Are You Now?

eugene carson blake arrested 7-4-63 baltimore

This photo depicts one of my favorite moments in Presbyterian history. I’ve shared it before; the events of recent days have made me think about it again.

This is the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, who was the Stated Clerk – the top church executive –  of the Presbyterian Church from 1951 until 1966. This is a photo of Blake being arrested while protesting a segregated amusement park in Baltimore in 1963.

During his time as Stated Clerk, Blake was a strong advocate for Christian unity, being a major voice of the ecumenical movement and calling for a merger of ten mainline denominations into one body. His focus on church unity led him to also serve as the President of the National Council of Churches while serving as Stated Clerk, and later, as the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.

But his focus wasn’t exclusively on Christian unity, and it certainly wasn’t on unity at any cost. Blake was head of the denomination during the civil rights movement, a time of intense division in the church.  He knew all too well the differing, and often heatedly debated, opinions within the denomination’s membership over matters of racial equality and justice. These were explosive issues, and any statements about them coming out of the head office – regardless of content – had the potential for further division, and possibly even denominational schism.

And yet, fully aware of that reality, Blake took a strong, uncompromising stand in favor of social justice. He wrote and spoke powerfully against racial discrimination and segregation, and calling for civil rights and equal justice under the law for all people. He stood up for racial equality and non-discrimination in the church as well, against many who appealed to wrong-headed interpretations of scripture to defend their impassioned arguments supporting the racist status quo.

It’s funny; I remember being a young boy in the 1960s and hearing my own Presbyterian relatives bemoaning the “radicals,” who were probably even closet Communists, who had gotten control of the church and who were turning it away from God and toward the very gates of hell itself. Only years later would I do the math and realize they were actually complaining about Eugene Carson Blake and his unabashedly progressive anti-racist theology.

It was precisely that theology that led him to protest racial discrimination, and yes, to even be arrested for his beliefs. It was that strength of character that led him to help organize, and to participate in, Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. It was that clarity of prophetic witness that caused him to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day, just a short while before Dr. King gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. He participated in that march, and gave that speech, all the while worried in the pit of his stomach that his participation would lead to further strife and division in the church – and yet, he was convinced that this was where God had called him, and what God was calling him, and the church, to do. There he stood; he could do no other.

For the most part, Presbyterians today are on the forefront of matters of battling racism and white privilege. In fact, our current Stated Clerk and our two Co-Moderators – the top three officers in the denomination – are all direct beneficiaries of Blake’s forward-thinking and uncompromising stance against discrimination based on race or gender.

However, the denomination still has internal divisions, these days largely over the matter of the place of LGBTQ individuals in the church. I don’t have polling data from Blake’s time regarding civil rights to use as a comparison, but with the church membership currently supporting LGBTQ equality in church and society by an approximate 2 to 1 margin (and trending upward), I suspect the division is significantly less than Blake had to navigate. We have, thanks be to God, amended our constitutional documents to permit the ordination of LGBTQ Deacons, Elders, and Ministers of Word and Sacrament, and to permit our ministers to officiate – and be part of – same-sex marriages.

As wonderful as all this is, it’s still only a partial victory. While our constitution allows LGBTQ equality in pulpit and pew, that same constitution permits presbyteries (regions) and congregations to decide for themselves whether to accept it. That means that there are many places within the denomination where LGBTQ people remain unwelcome. This compromise, made in the name of denominational unity, has resulted in a situation within the church where LGBTQ Christians are something akin to the 3/5 of a person that the U.S. Constitution originally considered slaves. Our memberships and ordinations all come with an asterisk – our acceptability for membership or ordination changes not by virtue of our profession of faith, or our preparation and qualifications, but simply by virtue of having crossed a geographical boundary. We are the only group that the denomination allows to be discriminated against by reason of a biological characteristic. To use another historical parallel, we’re living a supposedly separate-but-equal Plessy versus Ferguson existence in a Brown versus Board of Education world. In trying to save the denomination from splitting in two, this compromise has merely established two under one roof.

Would Eugene Carson Blake have supported acceptance of LGTBQ Christians openly participating in the full life and leadership of the church? I’m pretty certain that, in his own historical context, he most assuredly wouldn’t have – in fact, I’d be surprised to learn otherwise. But as firmly as I believe that, I’m just as convinced that if he were alive today, and knew what we now know, that he would be working, and writing, and speaking as courageously for us as he did for others in his own time.

A few days ago, Rev. Dr. Blake’s denomination – my denomination – issued a response to the “Nashville Statement,” the vehemently anti-female and anti-LGBTQ document issued by a number of conservative Evangelical Christian personalities. I’ve addressed the Statement in an earlier post.

Since its release, non-Evangelical Christians, as well as people outside the church, have been issuing an unending flood of denunciations of its backward, hateful content. Really, opposing the content of this theological train wreck is as close to a slam-dunk, no-brainer as things get in the church world – or at least, you would think so. After a couple of days of thoughtful deliberation (we Presbyterians don’t rush into anything), the denomination released a response. Unfortunately, it was an intensely disappointing, dull thud of a response.

There were a number of positive elements in the statement, which can be read here. And it does refer and link to the “Denver Statement,” an excellent and sometimes witty response to the Nashville Statement. But overall, it ended up being just a timid document that shied away from a bold stand for social justice in order to not offend the denomination’s most conservative members, while apparently being less concerned with offending and hurting a large number of others who found themselves once again somewhat under the bus. This was not, you might say, a Eugene Carson Blake moment.

Yes, I hope that someday, we have a courageous, denomination-wide affirmation of LGBTQ people in the full life and leadership of the church in the same manner the we’ve done with women and persons of color. But at very least, the statement could have strongly defended our position that one can be a faithful Christian while holding LGBTQ-affirming views – a position that the Nashville Statement pointedly denies in its Article 10. The Presbyterian response makes ambiguous mention of the Nashville Statement staking out positions “that go beyond anything the PC(USA) has officially taken a stand on.” But this is not one of those things. By our decision to consider both positions equally faithful, we have indeed taken a stand on this particular matter and consider the claim made in Article 10 of the Nashville Statement to be sinful nonsense. The fact that the denomination couldn’t even make a strong denunciation of this point – that it opted for a unity-over-justice position – was hurtful and insulting, and shows that despite the progress we’ve made in the denomination, we’ve still got a long way to go.

I would willingly be arrested defending the civil rights of the current leadership of my church. Given this less than enthusiastic response to the Nashville Statement, I have to wonder if they would they do the same for me.

I have tremendous respect for our denominational leadership. I’m proud of them. I love them. They hold exceedingly difficult jobs, and I’m convinced that they try to do their best to lead wisely, to find the right balance between Christian unity and prophetic witness. And on a personal level, J. Herbert Nelson, our Stated Clerk, rocks an awesome bow tie; not everyone can pull that off. Beyond that, I am genuinely, personally grateful for the strides made in recent years, even if I’d wish for more, which allow me to serve as an out gay ordained minister. But in this case, by way of an overly timid response to this ugly scar on the faith called the Nashville Statement, our denomination has blinked. We’ve missed a major opportunity to do the right thing – to decisively, boldly defend social and ecclesiastical justice for LGBTQ Christians both within the denomination and beyond, against forces within Christianity that would reject and harm us. I grieve over this lost opportunity. Somewhere, I believe Eugene Carson Blake does, too.

Nashville Noise

Jesus-facepalm

You may have seen that a few days ago, something called The Nashville Statement (click the link, if you must) was issued by some group that calls itself “The Council for Biblical Manliness and Womanliness.” Really, I’m not making this up; that’s what they’re calling themselves. It sounds like a secret club started by the Little Rascals after they grew up and the He-Man Woman-Haters Club fell apart, not for lack of woman-hating, but because, well, sex.

gimme the high sign

As silly as the group’s name is, it’s clear that it’s supposed to sound like some respected, august body of religious leaders dripping with gravitas, who, one might assume, somberly gathered together in Nashville to contribute some profound insight into a grave and urgent crisis of our time. In reality, I suspect its list of original 150 signers – which included only a scant few more women than the H-MWHC – was far less such a gathering, and much more something like Tony Perkins having simply texted out the statement to everyone in his phone’s contact list one day, and them texting him back a thumbs-up emoji.

The statement itself is remarkable – but only for its unremarkableness.

It’s really nothing more than a bunch of the usual suspects and self-appointed mouthpieces of so-called Evangelical American Christianity repeating their harmful anti-LGBTQ understanding of the faith, as if people hadn’t already heard those views ad nauseum. The group must have been thinking that they hadn’t gotten enough media coverage lately, so they repackaged their hate and ignorance in the confession format used by many religious groups who were speaking to past historic crises.

In the days since its release, there have been countless responses and counter-statements issued – I’ve read at least half a dozen, and actually signed two. I haven’t had time to offer any thoughts about it until now, because a.) I have a day job, and blogging isn’t it; and b.) I wondered, and frankly still do, if responding to these dead-theologians-walking only served to give them more attention than they deserve. Watching the massive human tragedy unfolding in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey makes me additionally ambivalent about the appropriateness responding to these theological and moral pygmies .

One of the responses that I read was John Pavlovitz’s, titled The Nashville Statement (A Plain Language Translation). I like John’s writing, and this was a good piece, but I have to admit I was thinking based on its title, the article would be more of a point-by-point translation of the Statement’s various Articles out of religious jargon and into plain language that people other than theology nerds could clearly understand. Since he didn’t go in that direction, I thought I’d try to do that now. So here goes. The original Nashville Statement text is in lavender, the definitive gay color, just to tick off its homophobic authors; the translation follows in black.

Article 1

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.

WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.

[Translation] God designed marriage for the purpose of conceiving and giving birth to children – so you gays can’t have a legitimate marriage because you can’t have kids.

Don’t remind us that many heterosexual couples choose not to have children, and we consider their marriages valid. Same with heterosexual couples who can’t have children due to age or other biological reasons.

Don’t tell us that every day, we accept as valid the marriages of heterosexual couples who got married in entirely secular settings, or in religious traditions other than our own, and we consider them perfectly acceptable. We’ll plug our ears and say “LALALALALALALA!”

Don’t point out to us that the concept of an unchanging, universal definition of marriage in the Bible is a complete myth, or that Biblical characters’ marriages were completely at odds with modern American cultural norms, or that there are many Christians even today whose understanding of marriage is very different from our own. Plugging our ears again. Just stop it.

And don’t talk to us about gay couples who adopt, providing homes for the unwanted children of heterosexual procreation. Really, just don’t go there, because it’s better for those kids to grow up without loving parents than to be exposed to gay couples living in ways that will make the kids think we’re crazy when we claim that their parents’ lives are immoral and ungodly. Don’t show us the mountain of research that shows that kids raised by gay parents are just as psychologically well-adjusted as those raised by straight couples. Besides, we really know all those homos just want to have sex with those children, and recruit them into their immoral lifestyle.

Article 2

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.

WE DENY that any affections, desires, or commitments ever justify sexual intercourse before or outside marriage; nor do they justify any form of sexual immorality.

[Translation] Sex bad, except within straight marriage, and as we define it. Any other expression of our sexual selves – man, we hate to even say the word “sex” – is absolutely unacceptable. If we have to live our entire lives saddled with guilt because we went all the way with Tammy with the big boobs in the back seat of our car after our Young Life meeting when we were teenagers; or because we’ve been secretly engaging in sex in department store men’s rooms and out-of-town gay bathhouses in order to maintain our straight conservative religious public image, then we’re going to drag you right down into the guilt-pit with us. And while those of us who are straight at least have marriage as an acceptable avenue to enjoy sex, you gays get no such option. You are, by definition, immoral, so you shouldn’t have any moral or legal way to express your chosen lifestyle. We’re going to keep trying to get you to feel that guilt, whether you interpret the Bible the way we do or not, because we make our livings by setting ourselves up as the authority figures who must be revered and obeyed in order for us to use our special mojo with God to absolve you of all that guilt that we’ve instilled.

Article 3

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image, equal before God as persons, and distinct as male and female.

WE DENY that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.

[Translation] Despite the overwhelming, incontrovertible scientific evidence to the contrary, we still stick our heads in the sand and believe that the allegorical biblical creation accounts first composed by pre-scientific nomadic tribesman is historical, scientific fact that tells us everything we need to know about human origins, biology, and anthropology, and God’s attitude about that in complete detail.

We refuse to accept the fact that every year, in one out of every 2,000 births worldwide, the child is born intersex, with genitals that aren’t clearly either male or female. Beyond so-called intersex cases, we refuse to accept the overwhelming positions of medical, psychiatric, and other professional organizations that affirm that gender identity is not decisively determined by physical plumbing; and that it isn’t an exclusively binary reality.

We believe that the Bible mandates a God-designed system where men are at the top of the pyramid (men must be created most in the image of God, since the Bible calls God “he”), and that women must defer and be subservient to men, and that we can treat women as unequal subordinates in countless ways; while simultaneously claiming that aren’t treating them unequally at all, just differently, and we can claim that this is treating them with dignity. We’re tempted here to use the term “separate but equal,” but that language didn’t work out well for us in a previous attempt to treat another group of people “differently.”

Article 4

WE AFFIRM that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing.

WE DENY that such differences are a result of the Fall or are a tragedy to be overcome.

[Translation] Even though we believe God is omnipotent and that God’s being and image transcends actual sex and gender, we believe that when setting out to create human beings in the divine image, he (see?) is restricted to only two options, despite the scientific evidence previously referred to regarding actual human sexual orientation and gender. It’s just a black and white issue, because of the whole Adam-and-Eve-is-science thing, so don’t confuse us with your so-called facts, by so-called experts who all graduated from godless, secular institutions rather than the good, conservative, Bible-based institutions we prefer.

Also, we have to say that we disagree with the belief that transgenderism is a now a biological reality different from God’s original plan in creation as a result of “the Fall”/the entry of sin in the world; and that we now need to establish new rules to lovingly accommodate this new reality.

We have to say that we disagree with this idea because we know that some of our Evangelical brothers and sisters have carved out this “Plan B/new reality” way to still cling to the idea of biblical inerrancy, while finding a way to justify being more welcoming to LGBTQ people.

In reality, though, we know that most (alleged) Christians who are “welcoming and affirming” to LGBTQ people have long since moved past that position. They’ve come to the shameful conclusion that there is nothing sinful whatsoever about people being, and living authentically, as LGBTQ; that this is simply part of the normal variation seen in the full spectrum of humanity – all of whom have been created in God’s own image. That is unacceptable heresy to us; you cannot believe this and be considered by us to be a real Christian. Refer to Article 10.

Article 5

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.

WE DENY that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.

[Translation] As we said, gender is a black and white thing – and God doesn’t make mistakes. Don’t confuse us with medical reality. And don’t raise the question that if God doesn’t make mistakes, how do we explain any number of birth anomalies, and why do we routinely engage in surgery and other interventions in order to fix these things without denouncing them as second-guessing God’s will. Stop now, or we’ll plug our ears again.

Article 6

[NS] WE AFFIRM that those born with a physical disorder of sex development are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers. They are acknowledged by our Lord Jesus in his words about “eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.” With all others they are welcome as faithful followers of Jesus Christ and should embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known.

WE DENY that ambiguities related to a person’s biological sex render one incapable of living a fruitful life in joyful obedience to Christ.

[Translation] If we have to grudgingly admit to the reality of people being born intersex, then our advice is to just do your best to be a man or a woman – until we disagree with the way you’re doing it. And if surgeons opt to give you the genitals of one gender but you end up feeling like the other, we don’t want to hear about it. Just suck it up and act as we tell you, since it’s all just a choice anyway.

We have to say that a person’s gender identity doesn’t preclude them from living a “fruitful life in joyful obedience to Christ” because a.) we don’t understand that our opponents don’t even remotely believe this; and b.) part of “joyful obedience to Christ” in our eyes is you not living as LGBTQ, since we think that’s a choice that’s contrary to Christ’s teaching. As we said, it’s a choice, and a sinful one that you need to get rid of if you want to be obedient to and accepted by Christ and God, but if you just pray hard enough and live right, God will take away from you. We refuse to recognize the appalling number of suicides of religious youth and adults who, wracked with guilt over being LGBTQ, had tried to “pray the gay away” for years – and when that didn’t work, came to believe that God had rejected them, so they killed themselves.

None of that matters, because upholding our concepts of religious orthodoxy and never admitting that we might be in error trump any evidence to the contrary gleaned from human existence that contradicts our interpretation of scripture. You just have to get right with God, the way we tell you, and God will fix you – and if he doesn’t, it’s your fault.

Article 7

[NS] WE AFFIRM that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture.

WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.

[Translation] Yes, we know we’ve already been making these exact same points in previous Articles. But we had one stubborn person who threw a tantrum and refused to sign the statement unless we used his language, so we threw it in here just to placate him. Plus, if we have more Articles, it makes us look like our argument is more complex and thoughtful than just saying we’re homophobic and want to be able to discriminate against LGBTQ people once and being done with it.

Article 8

[NS] WE AFFIRM that people who experience sexual attraction for the same sex may live a rich and fruitful life pleasing to God through faith in Jesus Christ, as they, like all Christians, walk in purity of life.

WE DENY that sexual attraction for the same sex is part of the natural goodness of God’s original creation, or that it puts a person outside the hope of the gospel.

[Translation] If you feel attraction for someone of the same sex, it’s inherently evil and you must never physically express that attraction. You can live a “rich and fruitful life pleasing to God” just like us, as long as you deny and push down those feelings and never act on them, no matter how miserable, psychologically and physically unhealthy, or even suicidal, it may make you feel.

We uphold this belief, which is at the core of all “Reparative Therapy” programs, which have been denounced by all responsible medical, psychiatric, psychological, and other professional organizations as dangerously abusive and unnecessary; and which have been banned in multiple states as health threats. We still hold this belief because we don’t really trust in any findings based on higher learning or professional expertise when they contradict our own narrow believes about the nature, authority, and interpretation of the Bible.

Article 9

[NS] WE AFFIRM that sin distorts sexual desires by directing them away from the marriage covenant and toward sexual immorality — a distortion that includes both heterosexual and homosexual immorality.

WE DENY that an enduring pattern of desire for sexual immorality justifies sexually immoral behavior.

[Translation] We know that people have what we would call sinful – and others might simply call unhealthy or inappropriate – sexual urges and attractions. We choose to consider homosexuality and transgenderism as merely other forms of unhealthy, inappropriate, sinful sexual expression, because they aren’t part of what we’ve been raised and taught to understand. We refuse to consider that our ways of understanding and interpreting the Bible might be wrong, because that would create uncertainty and anxiety in our lives that would cause us to question other matters of faith that we consider essential. Without that certainty, we aren’t sure what our own lives even are, so we will force you to repress and feel guilt over your reality in order to preserve feeling good about our own.

Article 10

WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

[Translation] Not only is being LGBTQ sinful, being welcoming and inclusive and approving of LGBTQ people is, too. It puts a person outside the pale of being a Christian – you simply cannot approve of LGBTQ people living full, honest, authentic lives and consider yourself a Christian, period, let alone a good Christian.

Article 11

[NS] WE AFFIRM our duty to speak the truth in love at all times, including when we speak to or about one another as male or female.

WE DENY any obligation to speak in such ways that dishonor God’s design of his image-bearers as male and female.

[Translation] Don’t talk to us about “preferred pronouns.” We demand the right to speak to you and about you in whatever way we want, regardless of whether it offends you or isn’t the way you wish to be referred to. We will call you a he or a she, a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, based on what we believe, not what you or health care professionals say. We’ll do it while telling you we love you, and that we’re just administering “tough love.” We’ll do it, with all the smug self-righteousness of saying that we’re carrying out God’s will, and upholding God’s standards in a sinful world, because we know best. And if you don’t like it, too bad.

Article 12

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ gives both merciful pardon and transforming power, and that this pardon and power enable a follower of Jesus to put to death sinful desires and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.

WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ is insufficient to forgive all sexual sins and to give power for holiness to every believer who feels drawn into sexual sin.

[Translation] This is another one of those places where we’re repeating ourselves in order to placate a cranky signatory. We’ve covered this territory already, but yes, to repeat, what LGBTQ people are doing is wrong, and they need to stop it, and God will change them if they just pray long enough, hard enough, and in the right way.

Article 13

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ enables sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions and by divine forbearance to accept the God-ordained link between one’s biological sex and one’s self-conception as male or female.

WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ sanctions self-conceptions that are at odds with God’s revealed will.

[Translation] Really, just rehashing the same point here again. This whole thing masquerading as a confession is really just a sermon filled with red meat for our followers, and we think that the main point of a sermon needs to be repeated several times in order to drive it home, so here it is again.

Article 14

[NS] WE AFFIRM that Christ Jesus has come into the world to save sinners and that through Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness of sins and eternal life are available to every person who repents of sin and trusts in Christ alone as Savior, Lord, and supreme treasure.

WE DENY that the Lord’s arm is too short to save or that any sinner is beyond his reach.

[Translation] And to us, every good sermon has to end with an altar call, so here’s ours. Cue Just As I Am, without One Plea. Or in this case, maybe not that particular hymn.

***

Religious people seem to love putting out these kinds of confessions and statements. Some of them are good. Some of them have been milestones in history. Others, like this one, are just mind-numbingly tired, boring, hateful, and counter-Christian statements made by self-righteous blowhards who want to pose as the defenders and arbiters of the True Faith.

For some reason, we religious folk seem inclined to name these pronouncements after the city that gave birth to them. This time, it was Nashville, a fact not at all appreciated by the city itself. In 1924, a group of Presbyterian church leaders issued the Auburn Affirmation, having been drafted at the Presbyterian seminary that existed in Auburn, New York at the time. The Auburn Affirmation was a scathing denouncement of the beliefs that Fundamentalists and Evangelicals considered mandatory to orthodox, true, Christian belief. The first of those teachings – the inerrancy of scripture – is at the root of modern-day Evangelicals’ harmful attitudes toward LGBTQ people and their refusal to consider what’s become obvious to so many others: that LGBTQ people, in the totality of their being, including their sexual orientation, are created just as much in the image of God as anyone else; that God blesses them in their sexual expression and their committed covenantal relationships equally with heterosexuals; that God blesses and encourages transgender people trying to become the people they were intended to be regardless of the vagaries of merely physical characteristics – and finally, that the beliefs expressed in the Nashville Statement are just reheated nonsense, served up by people desperately trying to shore up their relevance in a world that has left them and their beliefs behind.

Robert, Meet Robert.

robert-gagnon

I saw a news story this evening that, after years of controversy, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Dr. Robert Gagnon have parted ways.

Gagnon, who had been an Associate Professor of New Testament at the seminary, is best known as being perhaps the most strident anti-LGBTQ voice within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and well beyond. He has written – voluminously and passionately – in support of his scriptural interpretations that homosexuality is sinful choice, and sexual perversion. His views are clearly out of line with the overwhelming majority of the denomination he’s part of, whether considering the beliefs of ordained ministers, ruling elders, seminary faculty, or the general membership. What’s surprising isn’t that he and the seminary have split, but rather, that it didn’t happen sooner.

While a student at PTS, Dr. Gagnon was one of my professors, teaching me Pauline and General Epistles. I can say that it was a strange experience.

One of the things that I remember most from the class was that Dr. Gagnon seemed extremely pleasant, kind, generally soft-spoken, and genuinely concerned with the well-being of his students – he was, in short, about the last kind of person that anyone familiar with his writings would imagine him to be. At no time during the class, which included covering epistles containing several of the go-to anti-gay “clobber verses,” did Gagnon seem to push his own interpretations of those verses.

That was important to me, since by that time (it must have been 2009 or 2010), my own study and understanding of the scriptures had already led me to believe that the traditional anti-LGBTQ interpretations of scripture were wrong. From the moment I learned that I’d be in Gagnon’s class, I was concerned that I’d be punished for not agreeing with his well-known anti-gay stance. I worried that either my grades would suffer because of being honest about my beliefs, or that I’d have to hypocritically hew to Gagnon’s hermeneutic in order to pass.

What actually happened was quite different. Dr. Gagnon conducted that class in a way that was entirely appropriate, and taught the material – covering the origins of, and underlying issues being addressed in, the epistles – in a way that did not particularly sell his interpretations regarding sexuality over opposing views. Only once or twice did I sense even a trace of bias, and it was never something that came up in exams.

The only real complaint I had with Gagnon’s teaching was with the nature of the exams themselves. They were designed to be impossible to authentically pass, or frankly, even to effectively study for. They were completely inappropriate for the nature of the course, and as far as I could tell, they only served to reinforce to the students that Gagnon was the smartest guy in the room. Raw exam scores were abysmal, and were then simply curved to bring them up to something actually usable. I specifically remember one exam when I scored a 22%. It was the second-best grade in the class (the best was a 24), and this was not an uncommon grade range for the exams. On that particular exam, Gagnon had jotted a note on its front, complimenting me for my “rigorous scholarship.”

There’s no way anywhere other than Bizarroland that a 22% on any appropriately-prepared exam could possibly illustrate “rigorous scholarship.” I could never understand why he didn’t just design exams that were realistic gauges of the students’ understanding of the actual depth of material that the course was intended to convey.

Other than that, I had no significant complaint with him or his classroom activity.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the whole story with Robert Gagnon. Whatever positive qualities he may have exhibited face to face in the classroom, his other, almost schizophrenic, side was never more than a mouse-click or two away. Everyone sitting in his classroom knew about his writings, which are not merely anti-affirming, they’re vehemently, almost rabidly, anti-gay.

I shudder to think about the scores of LGBTQ students over the years who sat in his classes, being treated civilly in person by someone they knew actually considered them sinful deviates who had no business in his class preparing for the ministry. I think the unfiltered bigot or homophobe who openly expresses his feelings is preferable to the one who smiles to your face while actually loathing you.

Professors are more to their students than just their classroom presence. Their entire public persona is providing instruction and sending messages to them, and Gagnon’s sent a terrible and personally harmful message to a significant minority of his students. It was comparable to having a professor on staff who was able to speak kindly and graciously to his black students in the classroom, while openly maintaining a white supremacist website in his free time.

In this country, we’re currently in the midst of a national debate about statues and monuments honoring the Confederacy and its leaders. A lot of that debate has involved discussion of another Robert – General Robert E. Lee. Lee most assuredly had a number of admirable personal qualities, but the evil that he chose to uphold by force overwhelmed those attributes and ruined the positive legacy he might have otherwise had – something that we’re only now, far too belatedly, coming to terms with. In the same way, the terrible harm that Robert Gagnon’s obsessive anti-LGBTQ polemic has caused overwhelms the professional goodness in him that I personally experienced. That’s a shame – but just as with that other Robert, it’s a shame that he’s caused himself. Unlike my sexual orientation, Gagnon’s anti-gay stance is entirely his choice.

 

Lord, When Was It/When Will It

(sermon 8/20/17)

Karl Barth Desk

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

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On the second floor of the library at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, there’s a big, formal, rectangular reading room. For some reason, it’s filled with an odd collection of reproduction colonial furnishings, mashed up against ultra-sleek, ‘70s-modern seating. Despite the weird furnishings, it’s still a nice, quiet space that offers a more appealing environment than the study carrels scattered throughout the book stacks. At one end of the room is the entry to a large, formal conference room; I suppose the Board of Trustees probably meet there, and at the opposite end of the room, there’s a simple, well-worn wooden desk and chair, with a little cordon between metal stanchions to keep people from sitting down at it. It really doesn’t look like anything important; you’ve probably seen nicer looking pieces of furniture in yard sales and flea markets. But people have been known to travel for miles, even from other countries, to see this desk and maybe get their picture taken next to it – because this used to be the working desk of the great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth; his son donated it to the seminary back in the 1960s, and it’s been there ever since. It was largely at this very desk that Barth wrote more volumes of brilliant, complex theology than most people could read in a lifetime, and few could fully comprehend. When I was a student there at the seminary, I’d drive in from Columbus, usually arriving a couple of hours before the evening classes would start, and I’d spend that time in the library. Sometimes, I’d use the time to finish up some last-minute homework. Other times, I’d just grab a short nap. There was a nice, thickly padded loveseat that sat right next to Barth’s desk that I’d use to try to catch a catnap, but it was just too short for me. So more than a few times, I’d glance around to make sure no one else was around and I’d kick off my shoes and stretch out on the loveseat, hanging my feet out over the edge, and resting them on top of that desk. I was really very lucky; if anyone ever caught me doing that, they’d have probably dragged me out on the quad and burnt me at the stake. But I guess I can admit it now that the statute of limitations has run out.

It always fascinated me to think about that desk, and the history that it had been witness to. I imagined old Karl sitting there, and maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer leaning up against its side, and they each have a pint of beer in a mug sitting on the desk and leaving wet rings on its leather-covered top, while they hammered out the wording of the Barmen Declaration – that amazing confession of faith written to the German churches and people in the 1930s as a witness to Jesus Christ and a denunciation of Nazism, which is now a part of our own Book of Confessions. I imagine the two of them, and their other associates, recognizing that whether they liked it or not, they were living at a critical moment in history.

The ancient Greeks recognized two different kinds of time. There was kronos, which was linear time, clock time, the way we measure hours, days, months, years. And then there was kairos, which was more about the significance of a time rather than its literal measurement. Kairos represented a particularly opportune, critical moment within which some especially important things would play out.  Sometimes, it’s very clear when you’re in a kairos moment; other times it only becomes apparent after the fact, in the rear-view mirror. Working together at that old desk, I’m sure that Barth and Bonhoeffer certainly knew that they were in the midst of a kairos moment, where they had to take a bold, vocal, and even dangerous stand to confess Christ and denounce evil in their society.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus describes the final judgment, and what criteria God used to invite, or disinvite, people to inherit the kingdom of God. As he tells it, those who are invited into the kingdom seem stunned and surprised at being told that they had – or hadn’t – actually cared for God many times throughout their lives, whenever they had cared for the poor, the sick, the oppressed. Over the course of their lives, they’d been in the midst of kairos moments without even realizing it.

Well, you know where this is all going.

I think that we’re in a kairos moment right now, one that has parallels to both Barth and Bonhoeffer’s moment around that desk, and the ones experienced by the people in Jesus’ parable. For the two theologians, the society of the time was in a period of social unrest, uncertainty, and fear. That fear bred racism, nationalism, white ethnic supremacy, homophobia, and fear of the foreigner, as people looked for a scapegoat that they could blame for all of their problems. These evil views were held by many average people, and they were fed, nurtured, even proclaimed at the highest levels of their government as well. At the same time, most of the churches in Germany wouldn’t criticize, and in many cases even supported, the pursuit of these evils, all while wrapping themselves in claims to national patriotism that put the policies of the politicians over the commandments of Christ.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the very real, and dangerous, parallels between that time and our own. It is unbelievable that we’re now living in a time when we actually have to have discussions to explain why Nazis, the KKK, bigotry, white supremacy, and homophobia are evils that always deserve our unflinching opposition – and that those who are the targets of those evils deserve our unflinching support and help.

I want to be clear – for us, as Christians, here under this roof, this is far deeper, and far more important than just a political issue. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing; it’s a Jesus thing. As followers of Jesus, we’re aware of the importance of caring for, and standing up for, those who are suffering. We might sometimes ask “Lord, when was it that we helped you?” but we also know the tragic truth that on the flip side of that issue, there are people continually asking, “Lord, when will it be that you’ll help us?” and that Jesus has called us to be the agents of that help.

For their own parts, Barth and Bonhoeffer responded to being in their kairos moment in very different ways. The elder Barth continued to write, encouraging the German church to turn their focus back to Christ and his teachings, and to boldly oppose the evils of their society. At the same time, Bonhoeffer took a more direct, active role in resistance, taking part in an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Hitler that ultimately led to his arrest, imprisonment, and execution in the last handful of days of the war.

In a similar way, each of us has to listen for the voice of God to guide us in how we’re being called to respond to our moment in time. But make no mistake, every single one of us is called to respond to it in some way. We each have to discern how we’re being called to be the face of Christ. How God is calling us to resist, how to stand against the evils that we saw on parade in Charlottesville and other cities this past week. How to stand for the ways of the Kingdom of God to our families, our friends, our coworkers, our political leaders, whenever they might stray down these evil paths. We have to discern how we’re going to stand with the people who are the targets of all that hatred.

What should your response be? I don’t know – but it’s got to look like something. Maybe it will be writing good, thoughtful letters to political leaders, or letters to the editor. Maybe it will be joining together with Jewish brothers and sisters in an interfaith sign of support. Maybe it will be taking part in workshops that open our eyes to systemic and other forms of racism all around us, and help us understand a better way forward. And maybe it will be a bit bolder. Maybe it will be physically inserting yourself between a Muslim, or a transgender person who’s being abused in some public place by a bully. Maybe it will be taking part in counter-protests wherever the promoters of evil gather to spew their hate.

Our response needs to be something. Your response needs to be something, because these are truly not normal times. And it needs to look something like Jesus’ parable, recognizing that sometimes, caring for those who are suffering might look like offering a food, clothing, shelter – and at other times, it might look like chanting, carrying a sign, serving as a human shield. Because whatever the details, as people of the gospel, as the people of God’s good news proclaimed for all people, we’re called to love and serve the God who is always hiding in the face of the ones who are suffering and in danger.

Thanks be to God.

The Borders of Compassion

(sermon 8/6/17)

ice arrest

Deuteronomy 10:12-22

So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.

=====

A while back, I was online and stumbled across a site that was selling T shirts. One of the shirts they were advertising that made me laugh was one that said, in big, bold print, “JESUS LOVES YOU” – and then below that, in smaller print, it said, “…But I’m His Favorite.”

There’s a little bit of that mindset in this passage from Deuteronomy that we heard today. According to the passage, God tells the Hebrew people that they’re especially chosen; that God loved and chose them and their ancestors alone. I’m going to say right now that I don’t literally believe that for a moment – that God really did only love the Hebrews and no one else. In fact, there’s plenty of Old Testament scripture that shows that to not be literally true. And since I don’t believe that, I certainly don’t believe that Christians have now replaced Jews as God’s exclusively loved and chosen people. That’s a particularly nasty and dangerous theological idea that’s caused unbelievable harm over the last two thousand years, and that we especially need to reject now, in our post-Holocaust world.

But rather than get stuck on that point in this reading, let’s consider the bigger point that’s being made. According to one place in the passage, God is saying, you, Hebrews, are special and beloved and chosen by God, whether exclusively or not – and because of that, you have a special, higher obligation to be attentive to God’s ways, and to do likewise in your own lives. In other words, yes, you’re chosen, but it’s a kind of chosen that comes with homework.

So what is that homework? That they must love the person in need, and the stranger in their midst; the foreigner living within their borders. They need to provide them with food and clothing, caring for their unmet physical needs. They need to do this, God says, because at one time, they themselves were in the same boat – they had been resident aliens in Egypt, exploited and kept in poverty doing hard physical labor for the financial benefit of others. In fact, the entire Old Testament Law, the entire Jewish faith, has this idea of being compassionate to the foreigner, the resident alien living within their borders, as a constant undercurrent. It’s an absolute essential tenet of the faith – and by extension, it’s an essential tenet of ours, too. So when we hear those familiar words of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” that are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore –
send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

When we hear these words, we know that they aren’t just a reflection of some of our most cherished national principles, they also reflect a core, non-negotiable, baseline principle of compassion within our Christian faith.

These days, it’s almost impossible to escape the topic of the stranger, the foreigner living within our borders. It seems like every day, there’s another news story about refugees or immigrants. An ICE crackdown that arrests and deports a dozen men in south Louisville, ripping them away from their wives and children. A proposed federal law that would could legal immigration and refugee entries almost in half. A state law that would prohibit cities, universities, and similar institutions from establishing themselves as safe havens for immigrants, and imposing stiff financial punishment on them if they tried to do so. Almost every night, another public statement of extreme isolationist, white-nationalist, alt-right ideology being spouted; men in suits offering up words that used to be reserved for men in hoods.

Well, this is the pivot point in the sermon. Some people might call it the “lettuce” point – the point where the preacher has laid out some situation, some problem, and then says, “So therefore, let us work harder to [fill in the blank];” “Let us go forth and be even more diligent about [whatever]. But I’m not going to do that today, because I know that you already get it when it comes to immigration and refugees. I’ve seen how this congregation has worked with Kentucky Refugee Ministries for years. I see the mountains of donated good that this congregation collects to help new refugee families get settled in. I’ve seen a Session that had the courage to take a stand against an unconstitutional ban on Muslim refugees and immigrants, and I’ve seen us host thoughtful community discussions on the topic. Every week, I see members of this congregation helping to teach immigrants English as a second language, and helping them prepare for their citizenship exams.

So today, I just want you to think about all those great things you’ve done. Be glad of the fact that together as a church family, Springdale gets it. And you’ve done it all because you’ve known and felt God’s love in your lives. You’ve heard, and lived the gospel – God’s good news of reconciliation and compassion for all people – and you’ve acted out of gratitude for it. And most likely, also because you remember some time when you benefited from someone else’s help, We may not have ever been slaves in Egypt, but all of us have likely known what it feels like to be in need.

So think about all that today. Recognize the good the you’ve done. Own it. Embrace it. Be grateful that you’ve been able to do so much.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that can just rest on our past achievements. We do always need to watch for ways to be just as compassionate in the future. See, I guess maybe there is a little bit of “lettuce” in this sermon after all. We should always be alert to new and unexpected ways we might be asked to show that there’s no green card in the kingdom of heaven; that God’s compassion knows no borders.

In 2003, on my fist trip to Montana de Luz, the orphanage in Honduras, I met Ramon. He was part of the bricklaying crew I was working with. That week, and one week every year for the next five or six years, I got to know Ramon. We worked together, ate together, laughed together. Once, he’d rushed to help me when I was hurt in a little accident. I was a guest in his tiny little home. I met his family. Simply put, Ramon became my friend.

About four years ago, I got a call out of the blue from Ramon. Through his broken English and my broken Spanish, he told me that he’d paid a coyote – a human smuggler – to take him on the very dangerous, and often deadly, trip north through Central America and Mexico, and to get him across the border into the U.S., where he could make enough money to send home to his family to keep them sheltered and fed and his children in school. But when they got to the border, the coyote changed the rules. Now, he wanted even more money to complete the job and get him across the border. Ramon was desperate. He didn’t have any money; he didn’t know what to do. So he called me, and asked if I might be able to send him $200 to help him get across.

I told him that as much as I’d like to help him, what he was asking was illegal, and that we’re a nation of laws, and that whether we like the law or not, we still have to obey it. So I told him no.

And I’ve been ashamed of my answer ever since. Every time I think of Ramon, I think of his face, and the face of his children. And I think of the poverty, and hunger, and destitution, and hopelessness that I allowed him to remain in. For two hundred dollars and so I could say I hadn’t broken the law.

I guess if there’s any “lettuce” in this sermon, I guess it’s this: let us always be on the lookout for ways to show compassion to the stranger, the foreigner in our midst, because it’s a bedrock teaching of our faith. And let us use our words, our voices, and yes, our votes, to keep immoral people from enacting unjust laws. Let us avoid becoming modern-day Pharisees, blindly obeying unjust laws that are already in place. Let us never be too timid to love the way that God has called us to. And let us always remember the great truth of another T shirt that was on that website I told you about. That T shirt was right next to the first one; this one said “JESUS LOVES YOU – But Then Again, He Loves Everyone.” And so he does.

 Thanks be to God.

 

Shape the Future by knowing the Past

I have some advice, from a “later middle-aged” gay man to younger LGBTQ people.

eastwood gran torino

Yes, I know that opening makes me sound like a crotchety, “get off my lawn” old geezer – but really, hear me out.
My advice to you: know your history. Not just world history or American history, I’m talking about your history – our history. Know how we in the overall LGBTQ community  got to the place we are now – by no means having full legal equality, but being far ahead of where this country was just a decade ago, and unimaginable light years ahead of where we were even when I was growing up.
If possible, seek out your LGBTQ elders, in person, face-to-face, and hear their stories. You’ll very likely learn that many of those very ordinary, boring-looking people were actually radicals on the front lines of the gay equality movement, and have stories that will make you laugh and cry, and get excited, and outraged, and energized – and very proud to have gotten to know them.
Just as importantly, learn about the legal and political battles in cultural, civilian governmental, religious, and military strands of our society, that incrementally got us to where we are today. Just as you know the names of court cases such as Roe v. Wade, Brown v the Board of Education, Plessy v Ferguson and others – for God’s sake, I at least hope you know those – that shaped our society, also learn the names and details of the cases that have made particular advances in your own LGBTQ history.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s tweetstorm supposedly banning transgender people from military service, and since it appears that the White House is actually going to try to implement this policy, it’s especially to know our history as it pertains to members of the LGBTQ community serving in the military. Of course, like so many straight allies, you were undoubtedly appalled and angered by this further descent into madness on the part of the President, and you’d be fully justified to feel those emotions. But as you do, don’t just wallow in vague thoughts that this just isn’t right, or fair. Of course it isn’t. But also know based on already-established legal precedent, the justification that Donald Trump has used to justify his decision has already been determined to be illegal and unconstitutional; and when you hear people spouting off transphobic, homophobic nonsense about LGBTQ people in the service, be ready and able to point to court precedent that establishes that they’re wrong.
Here are some people and events you should know about. Much of what I offer here is taken from The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman. I read through this book at least once a year as a reminder of where we’ve been, and I highly recommend it to you, too.
***
Know who sergeant Leonard Matlovich was. He was the very first member of the armed forces who had the courage to legally challenge the military ban on homosexuals – and not only to challenge them, but to win.
Matlovich was the model member of the Air Force, and a decorated veteran of Vietnam with an impeccable and honorable military record.
leonard matlovich - 1
Sergeant Leonard Matlovich
leonard matlovich - 2
Matlovich recovering from his wounds in Vietnam, holding his Purple Heart
In 1975, Matlovitch officially declared to his superior officer that he was a homosexual, which by government regulations made him, by definition, ineligible to serve in the military. In an attempt to challenge that ban, he requested that he not be discharged from the service, but rather, granted an exception to the rule based on his exemplary record – and the fact that the ban was, in his opinion, unconstitutional.
The Air Force discharged him, and Matlovich, with the assistance and guidance of the extremely important gay-rights pioneer Frank Kameny, sued. In Matlovich v. The United States Air Force, Judge Gerhard Gesell ruled on July 16, 1976 – my sixteenth birthday – that the Air Force policy was wrong-headed and needed to change. Matlovich was an outstanding, exemplary member of the armed forces, and absolute proof that being homosexual did not, by definition, make a person unable to serve. Despite that, however, Gesell found that the Air Force policy, while wrong-headed, was not unconstitutional.
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Sergeant Matlovich on the cover of TIME
Matlovich appealed the decision, and the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with him. They found that there were sufficient grounds for the Air Force to reinstate him, using their “exceptions” clause, and sent the case back to Gesell for reevaluation. However, before the case came to trial, the Air Force tried to do an end run around what they saw was likely a losing battle, by removing the “exception” clause from the regulations. Judge Gesell, outraged by the Air Force’s double-dealing, ordered that Matlovich be immediately reinstated.
Instead of accepting the ruling, the Air Force offered Matlovich a large financial settlement, including back pay, reinstatement of his pension, and additional compensation. In financial straits after the protracted legal battle, Matlovich accepted the settlement. Also factoring into his decision was his suspicion that if he was reinstated to active duty, the Air Force would just find another technicality on which they could discharge him, and then he’d have gained nothing.
This was a major moment in LGBTQ history. This was the first time a military service person stood up for their rights, and the courts recognized that there was no legal nexus between being gay and not being able to serve, even to serve with distinction. This was the first time that the courts ruled in favor of an openly gay service person remaining in the armed forces.
This was 1978.
Know about Leonard Matlovich.
See also: The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman, pp. 471-479.
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Leonard Matlovich’s tombstone. He died in 1988, a victim of the AIDS epidemic, and was buried with full military honors
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Know who Vernon “Copy” Berg III was.
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Ensign Vernon E. Berg III
Following shortly after the Matlovich case, Copy Berg (the nickname came from people saying that in appearance, he was a xerox copy of his father, navy Commander Vernon Berg II) was discharged from the Navy in 1976 after an investigators uncovered evidence of his homosexuality. Berg challenged the discharge in civil court. Also heard by Judge Gerhard Gesell, the ruling in his case upheld his discharge, but warned the Navy that they were going to have to update their policies to be consistent with the latest scientific and sociological knowledge. It was strong enough language that Berg was encouraged to appeal the decision. In the appeal, the judges stated that “Broad allegations such as ‘Homosexuality is incompatible with military service’ or ‘a person with homosexual tendencies seriously impairs order, good discipline and morale,’ would no longer suffice.”
But rather than try to sharpen their rationale of why homosexuality was incompatible with military service – sensing that any new rationale would be quickly thrown out anyway – the Navy offered Berg another cash settlement. Berg took the settlement and an honorable discharge, and went on to become an artist and gay rights activist.
The Berg case was another nail in the coffin of the old, misguided, homophobic attitudes in the military. It put the Navy on notice that the old arguments were not going to be accepted any longer, and that they were going to have to get their house in order. LGBTQ individuals could indeed serve in the military without any adverse effect on morale or unit cohesion, and would not have any other negative effect on the military’s execution of its duties. It was also after this case that the military generally stopped giving LGBTQ individuals dishonorable discharges.
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Copy Berg became a well-regarded artist. He died in 1999,
another victim of the AIDS epidemic
Know about Vernon “Copy” Berg.
See also The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle by Lillian Faderman, pp. 479-484.
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Know who Miriam Ben-Shalom is.
miriam ben-shalom

Miriam Ben-Shalom is the first openly lesbian service member to be reinstated by the U.S. Army after she was discharged in 1976 for being gay.

Ben-Shalom took the Army to court over the matter. In 1980 a judge with the U.S. District Court in Chicago ruled that her dismissal violated the First, Fifth and Ninth Amendments of the Constitution.

The judge in her trial particularly criticized the military for the fact that it had shown no nexus between being homosexual and being unfit for military service – a crucial point of law that has reverberations to this day.

The Army refused to honor the ruling. Instead of complying, they offered Ben-Shalom a cash settlement, similar to their actions with Matlovich and Berg – but this time, Ben-Shalom refused, demanding to be reinstated. A subsequent seven-year court battle ultimately forced her reinstatement. The former staff sergeant—one of only two female drill sergeants in the 84th Division of the U.S. Army Reserve—then returned to service until 1990.

After Ben-Shalom completed the time remaining on her enlistment that she’d been discharged from, she tried to reenlist, but the Army refused. In fact, before Ben-Shalom’s attempted reinlistment,  in order to prevent them having to accept people who had openly professed to be LGBTQ, the Army had reworded its regulations to prohibit not only those who were engaging in same-sex activity, but also those who had only stated that they were gay or lesbian. This set off a completely new set of lawsuits. Ben-Shalom won the first trial and the subsequent appeal, which ordered the Army to accept her reenlistment. But she eventually lost another appeal, and the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that case. Even though she lost the reenlistment battle, she won the reinstatement battle, and actually served out that reinstatement.

Like Matlovich and Berg, Ben-Shalom went on to become a gay-rights activist. She was arrested after chaining herself to the fence in front of the White House, protesting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Sadly, in recent times she has been involved in a controversy involving transgender individuals. Ben-Shalom self-identifies as a PERF (Penis Exclusionary Radical Feminist), who opposes transgender women being able to participate in gatherings intended exclusively for what she and other PERFs call “women born of women.” (if this sounds somewhat familiar, the television show “Transparent,” season 2 episode 9, “Man on the Land” dealt with this issue). This position resulted in her being stripped of the honor of Grand Marshal of the Milwaukee Pride Parade in 2016. Regardless of this controversy, Ben-Shalom remains an important person to know in LGBTQ history.

Know about Miriam Ben-Shalom:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miriam_Ben-Shalom

See also The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman, pp. 484-488.

 

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Know who Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer is. Cammermeyer was an outstanding army nurse and officer, a veteran of Vietnam.

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Col. Margarethe “Grethe” Cammermeyer

In 1989 while being interviewed for top secret clearance, Cammermeyer had admitted that she was a lesbian – she didn’t want to lie, and wasn’t aware that in 1981, the Army had issued a new directive that called for the total exclusion of homosexuals in the military, without exception. In a subsequent hearing, her long and illustrious military career was acknowledged, but ultimately, rules were rules, and Cammermeyer was discharged.

She appealed in civil court, and in 1994, the court ruled in Cammermeyer’s favor – declaring the Army’s exclusionary regulation to be unconstitutional and stating that her record showed beyond any doubt that she was a model officer; that sexual orientation has absolutely nothing to do with whether a person could serve capably in the military – that the Army’s exclusionary regulation was based “solely on prejudice.” There was, judge Thomas Zilly wrote, no rational relationship or legal nexus between being homosexual and being able to serve; neither, her case illustrated, did one’s sexual orientation interfere with unit cohesion or a unit’s “ability to maintain readiness and combat effectiveness.” Zilly continued that there wasn’t and must never be a “military exemption” to the Constitution.” Simply put, members of all groups within society had the right to enjoy the same rights, and the military could not simply rule out an entire class of citizens from serving based on false claims and prejudice. The court ruled that Cammermeyer must be reinstated.

As had always been the case before, the Army appealed the ruling. But in 1995, the Ninth District Court of Appeals found in favor of Cammermeyer, upholding the lower court decision. Colonel Cammermeyer was reinstated, and served honorably until her retirement in 1997. Her story was told in the 1995 made-for-television movie “Serving in Silence,” in which Glen Close portrayed the Colonel.

Know about Col. Grethe Cammermeyer:

https://www.cammermeyer.com/

See also The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman, pp. 488-494

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Why is this history important? Because out of a combination of blind transphobia and ignorance, people are trying to ignore or erase this hard-fought history. These historical legal precedents have absolute parallel with the current attempts to throw transgender people out of the service. If and when the President’s tweets actually become official policy, they will be challenged in the courts immediately. And when they are, these precedents are going to be at the center of the arguments.

To summarize, the key legal principles that these earlier cases established are:

  • The military does not have a right to simply exclude any group of the American public from service by claiming that by virtue of being in that group, individuals are automatically incapable of performing their duties, without any actual evidence to support that claim. There must be a provable nexus between being part of said group and an inability to perform.
  • The military has never shown any credible nexus between being a member of the LGBTQ community and fitness, or lack thereof, for military service. in fact, members of the full spectrum of the LGBTQ community are proving, every day, that there is no such nexus at all. In fact, the military’s own research has decisively shown that there are no significant difficulties or expenses related to transgender individuals serving.

The courts will look at these rulings and others. They will also consider the situation where, with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” members of the armed forces were told it was OK, even encouraged, to come out – and now, the current President is trying to pull the rug out from under them. That’s a breach of trust that I doubt any reasonable court would permit.

Still, these are strange times. It’s impossible to predict what the Supreme Court – and it will ultimately end up there – will decide. But if sanity and reason prevail, these precedents should assure that despite the fact that the current tenant of the White House wants to remove them, transgender members of the armed forces will likely remain right where they are – just as they should.

So know your history. And when this subject comes up in conversation, make sure others know about it, too. Now get off my lawn. 🙂