The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. – Jeremiah 31:31-34
Every so often, ministers have step into their pulpits on the Sunday after some big event that has some major and lasting effect on the church that has to be addressed. Maybe think of the Sunday after 9/11, or the Sunday following “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. Or maybe not something that big and bold; maybe think just from our own Presbyterian viewpoint, the Sunday after our very own Presbytery voted to ordain Margaret Towner as the first female Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church, and the uproar that caused – even leading to the formation of a new splinter denomination of Presbyterians who thought ordaining women was contrary to the clear teaching of the scriptures. I’m sure that there are at least a few members of our congregation who have personal memories of that.
Well, maybe this is another “Sunday after the Big Event,” at least as far as Presbyterians are concerned. Our denomination has been voting on a proposed amendment to our Book of Order that would affirm that Christian marriage isn’t limited exclusively to one man/one woman, but that it also includes same-sex couples, too. By now, most if not all of you have seen in the news that although the Presbytery voting is still going on, there have been enough Yes votes that the amendment has passed. The voting will continue, but all along the measure has been passing by more than a 2 to 1 margin.
This is very big news, for our denomination and for our society at large. This change, and the one a few years ago that permitted ordination of LGBT deacons, ruling elders, and ministers of Word and Sacrament, is the culmination of a debate about the place of LGBT Christians in the life of the church that’s been going on in our denomination for more than thirty years. It might not seem to be quite as big a deal to us here at Westminster. We’ve been welcoming to the LGBT community for several years. Our wedding policies were already revised to accommodate marriage equality. And you showed you weren’t just paying lip service to inclusivity when you welcomed a gay pastor to serve the congregation.
The whole issue of full inclusion and acceptance of LGBT Christians is obviously something that I have a personal stake in. Of course, I believe that these recent Constitutional changes in our church are a good thing, a great thing – a thing that moves us all as the church closer to Christ’s message and the truest meaning of the scriptures. This vote makes me want to forget about this dreary, penitential purple stole that I’m wearing for Lent, and to slip on my spiffy new rainbow stole, and get out of the pulpit and laugh, and clap, and jump up and down and pump my fist in the air and say “YEAH BABY, YEAH!!!”
But I can’t do that – well, not much, anyway. I can’t, because I know that as happy as I am, and as happy as many of you are, celebrating this as a great step forward for the church, I know that in other congregations, and in this congregation, there are brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with this vote. People who think this is going in the wrong direction. Good, decent, deeply committed Christians – people we worship with; fellowship with; serve with. People who don’t hold their views out of hatred for LGBT people, but who are just trying to be faithful to God and the written scriptures to the best of their understanding.
I know these brothers and sisters don’t harbor hatred in their hearts. I know that because for most of my life, almost up until the time I realized my own sexual orientation, I shared their understanding, and I knew that my beliefs weren’t based in hate; they weren’t intended to be hateful. I know that there are good, sincere brothers and sisters on both sides of this issue who just disagree. So what do we do with that? How are we supposed to continue moving forward, united, as the body of Christ?
I think that today’s text from Jeremiah gives us a clue. It was a message sent to the people of the nation of Judah, whose country had been overrun, who were living in captivity in Babylon, and who had lost all hope for their future. They thought that even God had deserted them. They didn’t think there was any way forward from the dilemma they were in.
But through Jeremiah, God told them to take heart; that a day was coming when God would make a new covenant with them, when God’s Word wouldn’t just be written on tablets of stone, but directly in their hearts, Everyone would know the heart and will of God, and want to live into it. As Christians, we believe that we’re living at least partially in the time of this new covenant. That the fullest and truest revelation of God is seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and that through God’s Spirit, this same Word is written onto our hearts.
So what do we do when we disagree about God’s Word that’s written on stone tablets, or on high-quality paper with gold leaf edging? We look to God’s Word that has been written onto our hearts. But what happens when we disagree about what God’s even written on our hearts? When people are equally convinced that what God has written on their hearts are two totally different things?
Maybe the answer in times like that – times like these – is to focus on the part of God’s Word, written on our hearts, that we agree on. The part that says we’re called to love and accept and be in unity with one another, even when we disagree. That through the work of the Holy Spirit, we’re supposed to share peace, goodwill, and hospitality with each other, treating each other with the love, dignity, and respect that we want for ourselves. Doing this in spite of our differences – and hopefully, not even spiting differences at all, but rather, celebrating them as being a witness to the incredible greatness, and diversity, and wonder of God’s creation.
He was a gay man who had quietly listened to the rejection offered by the church for years. He disagreed with all of those church positions and doctrines directed against him and others like him, but he still stayed faithful because he loved God and felt called to serve God, and called to love and serve the people of Christ’s church. And that included this man. He knew that this man strongly disagreed with the idea of gays and lesbians in the church, and same-sex marriage, and especially the idea of them serving in ordained positions. But as much as he disagreed with the man, he knew that his heart was in a good place. Together, they’d served meals at the soup kitchen, stocked shelves at the food pantry, cleaned up debris in the wake of a flood. Prayed together at the bedside of a dying friend. This man was a good and faithful servant of God, and he felt blessed to know this man. And as the two of them stood together, he felt God’s Word written onto his heart, and he stretched out his arm and held out the plate in front of him and said, “The body of Christ, broken for you.”
As the man took the bread, he thought about the man who’d handed it to him. For the life of him, no matter how much he tried, he just couldn’t get his head around how he could interpret the scriptures to say that being gay isn’t a sin, and same-sex marriage is okay, and that gays should be eligible for ordination. It just didn’t compute. But as much as he disagreed with the man, he knew that his heart was in a good place. In a huge leap of faith, he’d begun preparing for the ministry at a time when the church still banned him from ever being ordained, but he’d trusted in God and moved forward trusting that somehow, it would all work out. Together, they’d served meals at the soup kitchen, stocked shelves at the food pantry, cleaned up debris in the wake of a flood. Prayed together at the bedside of a dying friend. This man was a good and faithful servant of God, and he felt blessed to know him. And as the two of them stood together, he felt God’s Word written onto his heart, and he stretched out his arm and held out the cup, and said “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”