The following is the text of a sermon delivered at Epworth United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City. I address the problem of heterosexism and the need to change the systems and structures in the United Methodist Church that are making us passersby in the make or break century. I use the language and symbols of my Christian tradition, but I think the message can be applied beyond a Christian context as well.
I would like to begin my reflections this morning by reading from the words of some of my favorite saints who I believe express in a powerful way the truth our Gospel lesson this morning.
The first words come from the 13th Century Saint Francis of Assisi whose words point to what we are all called to do as we love our neighbors. Francis says, “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”
And then hear these words from one of my favorite neighbors from my childhood, who I appreciate even more now that I am an adult – the Presbyterian minister Rev. Fred Rogers, more commonly known as Mr. Rogers, whose words remind us not to pass by the other side of the road when we encounter a neighbor in need. Mr. Rogers said, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”
And then from the 20th Century Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, who points to how love of neighbor might be more effectively expressed during our time with these words, “What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”
And finally a quote from Martin Luther King who in 1967 wrote these words “We have inherited a big house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other.”
Sometimes when we read today’s Gospel lesson and the story of the Good Samaritan, I think there may be a tendency to focus on what our response as individuals ought to be in relation to other individuals who are our neighbors. I think this is definitely part of the story: we should all love God and love our neighbors through acts of kindness, acts of care, and acts of healing. Acts of charity are key components to loving God and neighbor. But as we reflect on the Gospel lesson, I would like to suggest that Jesus is pointing us to something more than only acts of charity as the way of loving our neighbors. If Jesus simply wanted to make a point about being kind and loving to other individuals through acts of charity, he could have been very straightforward about that when the lawyer with whom he is speaking asks the question “And who is my neighbor?” by simply responding with something like “everyone is your neighbor, and you should show acts of kindness to all of them.” Instead, Jesus tells a story that points not only to the need for acts of kindness to our neighbors, but he also, and perhaps more importantly, tells a story that points to the inherent injustice in the system of the society in which they were living. Jesus highlights the injustice of religious and cultural practices that keep people from reaching out and caring for those in need. Both the priest and the Levite who pass by the man who had been badly beaten by robbers on the road to Jericho were perhaps more concerned about issues of impurity from being in contact with a half dead man than they were about actually caring for this man as their neighbor. Their participation and adherence to their religious and cultural system contributed to their not being a good neighbor to the dying man. Jesus is not just criticizing their individual choices to neglect this dying man; he is also criticizing a system that helps the priest and the Levite to justify this act of neglect of their neighbor. Jesus’ criticism of the system that contributes to non-neighborly action is brought home even more strongly with his choice of a Samaritan as the one who acts as a loving neighbor to the dying man on the roadside. An unclean Samaritan, a social outcast, a religious heretic is the one to whom Jesus is pointing the lawyer to see as a model of the good neighbor in this story, and this goes against everything the lawyer had been taught about being a good and religious person in his culture. Jesus is basically saying to the lawyer that the things the system has taught him and inculturated him to believe about being a good person are actually things that are getting in the way of his being able to fully love God and fully love his neighbor. The system is creating people who become passersby rather than persons who will engage the cry of those who are in need of help and in need of healing. Through this story, I think Jesus is saying there is a problem when religious, cultural, and political systems get in the way of our loving our neighbor. Jesus is calling for systemic change, not just a change of individuals’ hearts. This is the kind of thing that made Jesus dangerous in the minds of the religious and political elite in his culture.
You see, Jesus was not executed by political authorities in first century Israel by the Roman Empire because he told people that they should love God and love each other. Rome had no reason to kill someone who was telling people to love each other and to be involved in acts and charity and kindness towards each other. If that is all that Jesus was doing, Rome might have thanked Jesus for his work to make a more stable and well-ordered society. But Jesus was calling for more than charity, Jesus was calling for justice, he was calling for turning over the tables of injustice in the religious, economic, and political systems of his time that were barriers to God’s love and justice in this world. Jesus’ work for love is not what got him killed; Jesus’ work for love and justice is what got him killed.
We continue to live in a world where religious, economic, and political systems create barriers to love and justice in our communities and in our world. Even in the very church that you and I love, the United Methodist Church, we have created systems that inhibit us from loving and accepting each other fully as neighbors. We have systems of injustice in our church that treat some persons unequally. One of the most glaring examples of this are those unloving and unjust words of exclusion in our Book of Discipline that state that “sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage, ” and that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” And that “no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals1 are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church,” and that “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” And, let us not forget, if you are a minister who does perform such a union or marriage ceremony or if you are a minister who is a self- avowed practicing homosexual that these are chargeable offenses that could very well lead to being removed from the United Methodist ministry. These are words and systems within our own denomination that create passersby like the priest and the Levite who could rest assured that the risk of impurity justified their neglect of the man by the side of the road. United Methodist Bishops and ministers can point to the Book of Discipline and their covenant to follow the Book of Discipline as justification to continue perpetuating systems and actions that keep us from fully loving and accepting each other. “I have no choice” some of the bishops say “but to enforce the book of discipline” in relation to that particular gay or lesbian minister, even though he or she may be involved in the loving and just ministry of the Samaritan of caring for those on the side of the road that so many others are passing by because of a system that is a barrier to both love and justice.
Jesus says not one thing about sexual orientation, but he says a whole lot of stuff about systems that get in the way of love and justice, and if the United Methodist Church is going to bring needed transformation in our world in what may very well be the make or break century for the human community, the United Methodist Church must give up its obsession with favoring one sexual orientation over others and instead become obsessed with bringing love and justice into the world for all of our neighbors, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, culture, or country. Jesus calls us to transform the system so that we might not only see all persons as our neighbors, but that there also not be systemic barriers that keep us from expressing that love. Jesus is basically saying there is to be no systemic profiling of who is to be considered our neighbor and who is not to be considered our neighbor, and there will be no systemic profiling in relation to how love and care are expressed to our neighbors. How might things de different in the world this morning if when we see someone who is different than we are that we always think of them first as our neighbor rather than as someone who is not a part of our neighborhood of love and care?
The depth of the challenges of our time related to violence, social justice, and the pressing ecological crisis we are facing, lead many, including myself, to believe that we are living in the make or break century for our human community. I would even say we are living in the make or break part of the make or break century. Loving God and loving our neighbors in the make or break or Century in which species are becoming extinct because of human activity at hundreds of times faster than the normal background extinction rate and where we are entering into the sixth great extinction on the planet means that we have to transform systems that keep us from loving all creation as our neighbor so that future generations will have the same opportunities for love, justice, and community that we do. Loving God and our neighbors in the make or break century requires that we find ways to live together in peace and that we transforms systems that perpetuate war and other forms of violence in our human community. Loving God and loving our neighbors in the make or break century requires that we transform systems that perpetuate poverty and equality in our society and throughout the world. Loving God and our neighbors in the make or break century calls for interfaith cooperation and service rather than the perpetuation of fear of persons from other faiths. Creating peace, alleviating poverty, caring for planet earth and cultivating justice must be the work of all the members of the human community if we are going to make human community rather than break human community during the 21st Century. I believe that we need to recognize that the United Methodist Church’s heterosexism is a systemic barrier to its being what the world needs us to be. It is making us passersby rather than the Good Samaritans of the make or break of century. May we have the wisdom and the courage to repent from this systemic excuse and this systemic failure to fully love our neighbors and to be fully engaged in transforming our relationship with each other and with all creation through both love and justice. Amen.