Who Do You Say/How Do You Say (sermon 8/24/14)

Middle East Study Seminar 2012-01-10 030small

Visit to the cave and spring at Caesarea Philippi/Panias, 1/10/12

Wow – this has been an incredible week of change and upheaval for me. From the great farewell service at the Worthington church last Sunday, to having my younger daughter leave for university studies in Switzerland the very next day, to packing up the car and leaving Columbus the day after that, almost 30 years to the day that I first called it home, and then starting work here the very next day, planning today’s service and starting pastoral care work and meeting more people and trying to get the email to work right, and getting settled into the farmhouse and doing some grocery shopping and trying to figure out where I packed my black socks, and a bunch of other things as well, I’ve barely had time to catch my breath; which is all my long-winded way of saying… don’t expect a heck of a lot from this week’s sermon.

Seriously, it has been a time of real transition for me. And it’s a time of real, important transition for all of you, too. And in an important way, transition is an important part of today’s gospel lesson, too.

This is the story of Jesus and the disciples visiting Caesarea Philippi, a city in the north of modern-day Israel, near the Golan Heights and the border with Syria and Lebanon. Herod the Great had tried to kiss up to his boss, the Caesar, in Rome by renaming the city it in honor of him, but for centuries before, and since, the city was called Panias, named for the Greek god Pan. In the city, there was a large, impressive temple built in honor of Pan, built over the outlet of a massive natural spring that gushed out of the mouth of a small cave there. The temple was designed so that the spring flowed right out the front of the temple, down a spillway in the center of the marble steps, and out into the countryside, actually going on to form the Jordan River beyond. People would come from miles round to worship Pan and other Greek gods here. It was a very important hub of ancient religious activity. So it makes sense that Jesus and the disciples would get into this kind of discussion as they were visiting there, asking what the people thought of him.

So what’s the transitional aspect of this story?

Well, it’s important to recognize that this same story is told in one way or another in all four of the gospels. Each one of them was written from a particular viewpoint, with a particular purpose, and to a particular audience. And when we get multiple versions of the same story, we can compare the different ways each writer tells it – what parts of the story did they all keep? What did they emphasize, or de-emphasize? What did they leave out? What did they add? When we do that, we can get a lot better picture of what point or message the particular writer was interested in getting across. And when we do that with this story, there’s one thing that Matthew includes that the others don’t, that ends up sticking out like a sore thumb: this is the only version of the story that talks about the Church. In fact, there are only two places in all the gospels where Jesus is quoted as talking about the Church, and they’re both in Matthew’s gospel, and this is the first of them. And that’s the important transitional piece here: it’s right at this point that Matthew’s story shifts, from being about Jesus’ wandering earthly ministry, to now becoming about his final journey to Jerusalem, his crucifixion and resurrection, and what Jesus’ followers are supposed to do after that. It’s right here that he story starts to become directly about the Church. The Church, and what it’s supposed to be like, how it’s supposed to act, is very important to the author of Matthew.

So with that in mind, let’s look again at Jesus’ words. First, Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, and Peter blurts out that he’s the Messiah, the Son of God. Now according to Matthew, Peter’s a day late and a dollar short in this big announcement, since all the disciples had already said the same thing a couple chapters earlier. You can almost imagine the other disciples looking at Peter after he’d said that, and saying “Well duh, where have you been, Captain Obvious? Welcome to the party.” Or maybe they thought that Peter was being a bit of a brown-noser, trying to score points with the boss.

But whatever the disciples might have been thinking, Jesus compliments Peter for his profession of faith in Jesus. And he says that it’s this faith in him that will be the bedrock, the very foundation, of the Church across all time.

And then, Jesus talks about what the Church built on that kind of faith will be like. He says that the gates of Hades won’t be able to prevail against that Church. It’s a subtle, but very important distinction he makes here. Some people see the Church as a kind of fortress, a fixed thing with strong, thick walls that’s supposed to stay put and protect its holiness and truth from the onslaught of the forces of evil in the world trying to attack it. But to Jesus, according to his words here, the situation is actually the exact opposite: it’s Hades, the forces of evil, that’s the fixed, static thing, and the Church is supposed to be the one on the move, prevailing against it. Did you catch that in Jesus’ words?

According to Matthew, Jesus says that the faith of the Church isn’t just about words spoken, but if the words that we speak about our faith are true, then they’ll result in real, concrete action. It will result in a Church that’s constantly on the move – a Church that doesn’t rely solely on its past, but one that’s always looking forward. A Church that’s always trying to determine what of its past is still valid, and what has to change, based on where it finds itself, here and now. A Church that’s always trying to understand how, and where, and in what ways, God is leading it, as it tries to proclaim God’s message of love, and mercy, and justice to all, until the very gates of Hell are rattling and giving way on their hinges. That, according to Jesus, is the whole mission and purpose of the Church. So for us, the question isn’t just “Who do you say that I am?” but “How do you say it?”

Well, Christians have been trying to figure out the answer to those questions since before Matthew’s gospel was ever put down to papyrus; probably since the very night of Jesus’ arrest. And now, all of us here are dealing with those same questions. In this transitional time for WPC, we’re called to reexamine how we’ve been the church, and how we’re being called to be the church into the future. We’re supposed to think about our mission, but it’s probably more helpful for us to think about that in terms of what is God’s mission – where is God already at work, in Auburn and in our congregation, and how do we best tap into that and help it along? We have to come up with the answer to “Who do you say/How do you say” for our time, here and now.

The problem is that we can, and often have, gotten the answer to that question wrong. There have been times in the past, and the present, when the Church, even with the best of intentions, has really messed up the answer to the question of how we’re supposed to be the church. We’ve messed up in the past, and we’ll certainly mess up again.

But despite the possibility of getting things wrong, God still calls us forward, and to keep trying to find that answer, and so we will. Together, you and I will work together, pray together, live, love, and laugh together, probably cry together, as we try to live out our faith and discern where God is leading us. And we can do it with hope and joy, because God has promised to be with us, and guide us, and help us every step of the way – and even, when we make a wrong turn and fall, to pick us up and point us in the right direction again.

That’s the challenge that God has given to you, and to me, and to the entire Church. Even though sometimes it can be a little uncertain, and even a little scary, it’s still a great challenge. Greater than the Ice Bucket challenge, even. So together, let’s see where that challenge, God’s challenge, is going to take us next. I’m ready. Are you ready?

Thanks be to God.

Out

ncod-haring

OK, as I’m about to go to bed for the last time in Columbus before starting the next chapter of life in New York, it’s time to finally kick the closet door the rest of the way open, once and for all. Friends, if you didn’t already know it, I’m gay.

Many of you already know that. Some of you have known it for quite a while. Others of you may have put the pieces together for yourselves, or at least been curious, based on personal conversations, Facebook posts, and various other bread crumbs I’d dropped along the path in the past few years. The fact is, I’ve been gradually coming out to an ever-increasing number of friends, classmates, seminary professors, pastoral colleagues, coworkers, and parishioners. I started with people who I knew would be accepting – mostly those who were openly gay themselves. Then, I nervously came out to those who weren’t gay, but who I thought were most likely to be supportive. While I know the streak won’t continue forever, I’ve been remarkably blessed in that to date I’ve received only acceptance and support from every single one of the friends and associates I’ve come out to.

That positive experience gave me the confidence I needed to finally come out to the people I was most worried about losing – my closest family members. It was becoming increasingly difficult to remember who I was out to and who I wasn’t, and I began to worry that my family would hear I was gay through the grapevine before I could tell them in person, and that would have been terribly unfair to them. I’ve now come out to them, too, in a series of face-to-face meetings in Columbus and Pennsylvania interspersed with traveling back and forth for pastoral onboarding meetings in New York. Of course, a few family members still found out before I could tell them myself, and I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to tell them in person. With one painful exception that I suspect will still resolve with a bit of time, I have received love, acceptance, and support – even when there wasn’t complete understanding – from all of the family members I’ve spoken with. That doesn’t mean there won’t still be some rough edges to smooth out, but I’m truly blessed, and very grateful, for the love that they’ve shown as I’ve come out to them. Unfortunately, I can’t come out in person to every family member or friend, and this combination blog/Facebook post will have to suffice for a lot of people. I hope that you can all understand that, and that you’ll forgive me if I didn’t speak with you in person.

Everybody’s coming-out process includes some challenges unique to their situation. Mine had an added dimension of complexity because I was working my way through it while simultaneously going through the pastoral search/call process. As you might suspect, that resulted in several interesting experiences, but sharing those right now wouldn’t be relevant to this announcement. I’m sure that I’ll share some of those experiences later. For now, though, what’s important is for me to live with integrity – being honest with God, honest with myself, and honest with all of you.

Frankly, to come out in such a public way as this seems odd to me for a few reasons. First, I’m not a famous actor, or athlete, or other public figure that everyone is interested in. I’m just me – a very normal, very average, often boring, middle-aged man, who happens to be a pastor, and who finally put the pieces together, stopped ignoring, denying, and/or repressing, and gradually accepted the fact that he’s gay. Hardly anything to prompt a press conference, a Fox News Alert, or a protest by the Westboro Baptist Church. Maybe at some point I’ll rate a scathing comment in The Layman, calling me a clear sign of the decline of the Presbyterian Church, if not of the very apocalypse itself. But otherwise, this news really deserves little more than a polite yawn.

Second, while I’m certainly not ashamed of my sexual orientation, pastors typically already live within narrower boundaries surrounding their private lives, and I work hard to guard at least those boundaries as they are. Just like anyone else, I expect a reasonable degree of respect for my rights to privacy, and I don’t believe that I need to announce my sexual orientation to anyone as soon as we meet, any more than I feel they need to do so in return.

Third, I have concerns that having come out, people will think that the nature of my ministry will be a one-note symphony; that it will be all-gay-all-the-time. In fact, being extremely sensitive to that potential misunderstanding, I’ll probably raise the LGBTQ issue less than many straight clergy. A large part of my sense of call to the ministry is to work for increased justice in various forms, and while LGBTQ inclusvity in church and society is one of those forms, it is only one.

So given these concerns, why am I coming out in such a public way? First, I’ve already mentioned that doing so gets the information to a lot of you with one simultaneous announcement. But the larger reason is to make a few points that I believe are very important, and to a few different audiences.

To those who know me in the church or otherwise, who hold conservative/traditionalist views which oppose the inclusion of LGBTQ people in full life of the church, including its leadership: many of you have known me for a number of years, and without wanting to blow my own horn, I believe that you’ve seen my pastoral gifts, and you see that I have clearly been called into the ministry. Quite a number of people have made these very comments. If you find yourself in this category, I challenge you to reconsider your position, by seeing that God has called me to the ministry while being perfectly well aware that I was gay, and has given me the gifts to serve in that calling capably, . I challenge you to recognize that a person’s sexual orientation, whatever it might be, is a part of having been created in God’s very image, and that God accepts LGBTQ people into the full life of the church. As the apostle Peter said “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28 NRSV); and that “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17 NRSV). I hope that knowing me will help begin a process within you where your earlier views are challenged, and eventually revised. If you’re in this category, I’d be happy to speak with you in greater detail regarding scriptural interpretations, but now, for you, this is not an abstract theological debate; it has a name and a face – mine.

The second audience that made me decide to come out in a very public way are youth – and adults, as well – who are struggling with their own sexual orientation, or who have recognized that they are LGBTQ – and who, because of that, have feelings that they’re sinners destined for hell; that God doesn’t want them or love them or accept them as they are; and that there is no place for them within the Church. Many in this audience may have struggled for years, praying until they were blue in the face for God to “cure” them, or “fix” them, but God never did – and so, they felt that God must hate them, or is punishing them, or they’re just not praying hard enough or dedicated enough. Some in this audience may have considered, or may be considering suicide as a result of their spiritual crisis brought on by being gay.

To you, my friends in this second audience, I want you to know that I’ve gone through most, if not all, of those same struggles and inner strife. I want you to know that God never “fixed” you, or me, because there was nothing wrong with us that needed fixed. The diversity seen across the whole human spectrum is a collective reflection of the very image and loving nature of God’s own being, and that includes our sexual orientation and sexual identity. God has been with you, and has accepted you, all along, even if many within his Church haven’t figured it out yet. You are a wonderful, remarkable child of God. It’s true that not every church institution has accepted this reality yet. But more and more Christian churches are reaching this conclusion, and living more deeply into God’s message of love and acceptance. If you’re seeking a relationship with God and with a church community, you may have to switch denominations or traditions, but you will find more and more welcoming congregations, all around the country. My friends in this audience, you are a very important reason for my very public coming out. I want you to see, through the example of my life and call to the ministry, that God loves you and accepts you, too.

Having said all this, I want to make it very clear that I have absolutely no desire to be anyone’s “gay pastor.” I just want to be a pastor – who, yes, just happens to be gay, but who is using the gifts that God has given me, in the way that God has called me, in love and service to God, to Christ, to my congregation, and to the world.

I’m sure there will be more later, but for now, the closet door’s all the way open, and that’s good enough for the moment.