Foundry United Methodist Church

 

Rev. Tiffany Steinwert, Guest Preacher

Pastor, Cambridge Welcoming Ministries

 

 

 

Sowing a Harvest of Hope

Sunday, July 8, 2007

 

 

Galatians 6: 1-16

Luke 10: 1-11, 16

 

Steinwert


Rev. Tiffany Steinwert

 

There are bleak times in the course of human history. Aren’t there?

 

And the 1980’s surely seemed liked a bleak and hopeless epoch in Latin America. Many of you may remember the stories of war and violence, poverty and oppression that surfaced from the South during that time. Fear swept the region as oppressive military dictatorships silenced those who clamored for justice. Those who spoke out against the government were rounded up, swept off, and simply disappeared. People lived in daily fear of the policia and guardia, never knowing when they would be caught up in the secret raids. Many fled their homes and hid in the hills, seeking refuge from impending arrest. Without food or shelter, these fugitives depended solely on the compassion of a group of priests and nuns who under the cover of night would sneak out to provide them with food, clothing and supplies.

It was in this context that my colleague, Rev. Rick Black, came to understand more fully the nature of the struggle for peace and justice. During one of his many trips to Guatemala, Rev. Black had the opportunity to meet Padre Miguel. By day this priest ran an elite private boys' academy for the children of the dictatorship, but at night he served those his patrons hunted in the hills surrounding the city.

Rev. Black was amazed by Padre Miguel's work in the midst of such a dire and seemingly hopeless situation and so he asked Padre Miguel, “I’ve come down here every year and all I see are more arrests, more deaths, more poverty, more pain. It seems like things are only getting worse. It is so hopeless. How do you continue?”

Padre Miguel laughed and said, “All you North Americans are alike! You want instant everything...instant food, instant cameras, instant gratification.”

 

And it’s true, isn’t it? There is a part of us that wants to see change instantaneously. When the change we seek is delayed, it can be easy to grow weary and disillusioned. I don’t know about you, but there are days when I am weary and worn beyond words.

 

In the United Methodist Church, every four years we get our hopes up as yet another General Conference rolls around. Yet for the past 37 years, it seems we find only disappointment as the Church continues to promote policies of exclusion and discrimination. It can seem a bleak and hopeless time in the history of our Church and we, in the Reconciling movement, can understand Jesus’ words to the disciples, about feeling like lambs in the midst of wolves.

 

In our own struggle for peace and justice for LGBT persons, what often wearies me is the persistent onslaught of the same questions over and over again. How many times do I have to exegete Leviticus or talk about the sin of Sodom?? Sometimes it feels as though we can spend our whole lives focused on only six isolated texts. I can’t tell you how many times I have listened to the shower of biblical bullets shot at me, proof text after proof text. What answer can we give to the proverbial, “but the Bible says so”?

 

I confess, at times, I fantasize about how I’d really like to answer back

 

“But, Rev. Steinwert, the Bible clearly says homosexuality is a sin.”

 

Fantasy #1: The Bible says a lot, doesn’t it? I suppose since you take the Bible so literally that you never eat shrimp or lobster, have burned all your poly-cotton blends and regularly employ stoning as a means of punishment for your children? Oh…I’m sorry, you only want to talk about the New Testament. Okay, well then I suppose that means you’re okay with banning divorce, encouraging the return of slaves to their masters and ensuring women remain silent and refrain from teaching. Gee, we need to get some new Sunday school teachers!

 

“But, Rev. Steinwert, biblical marriage has always been between a man and a woman.”

 

Fantasy #2: Well, if you truly support the idea of marriage as recorded in the bible then we need to draw up a sales receipt for your wife and any other concubines or secondary wives you would like to take. As you know biblical marriage not only regarded women as property, but also allowed for polygamy. Shall we invite your wife into our conversation? Would you like to tell her or shall I that she is now your property and subject to your will?

 

“But Rev. Steinwert, gay people are more than welcome to church but they certainly shouldn’t be able to be married or, God-forbid, ordained!”

 

Fantasy #3: That’s right, because we in this nation and this church know how well that whole separate but equal thing works don’t we? We understand the merits of having second-class citizenship.

 

While these answers may make us laugh or perhaps give us a temporary sense of smug self-satisfaction by getting even text for text, I’m not sure they further the cause of peace and justice. In fact, I’m not sure they are even Christian.

 

These sarcastic answers do not allow for authentic engagement, dialogue or growth. Rather they are like juvenile “burns” of middle school, aren’t they? Remember the sharp tongued, verbal battles of the playground? When someone came up with a particularly biting retort, all the children would yell out, “Burn! Oh, you sure burned him!” I think perhaps today the new burn is the diva snap. Entertaining perhaps, but neither educational nor ethical.

 

This type of caustic biblical battling not only fails to resolve the divisions in our denomination, it also prevents us from embodying and moving toward that vision of peace and justice we are called to as Christians…God’s reign or Commonwealth or kin-dom.

 

But it’s hard not to resort to the same type of biblical burns of others, particularly when we find ourselves assailed in our own denomination, demonized by the destructive propaganda of caucus groups at both local and national levels. Isn’t it?

 

Paul understood this temptation to wound one another with words. After all, it was the constant bickering between church members that often occasioned his letters to the Churches. This morning in the letter we heard to the Galatians, we find Paul admonishing the community for the way they have been treating one another. Listen to his words of advice:

 

“If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore them in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted…”

 

Take care that you yourselves are not tempted…

 

Paul continues his admonition, warning the feuding congregants that we reap what we sow. He worried what would become of the Church when its members continued to sow bitterness, prejudice, and division.

 

You see, things in Galatia were not so gentle. Recently new Jewish Christian missionaries had arrived preaching a different gospel. These rival missionaries were not trying to lure the Galatian Christians from their belief in Christ, but rather were trying to persuade them that circumcision was essential for full inclusion in God’s covenant community.

 

This new gospel was based on a strict, literalist reading of the Mosaic law that created two classes of church members, dividing the community into separate factions, the circumcised and the uncircumcised, first class members and second class citizens. At its root this was a struggle to define who was in and who was out. And coincidentally, it seems this particular test for readiness for membership was based on gender and genitalia. Sound familiar?

 

For Paul this two tiered system of church membership was nothing less than what he called in his own words, “a perversion of the gospel.” Divisions and distinctions between members in the Church violated the Gospel proclamation that in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male and female. In Christ all had been made one. This new message of the missionaries that made grace dependent on human law not only divided the community, but also tore asunder the very Body of Christ itself!

 

In this letter, Paul urges the Galatians to put aside their differences of opinion, differences that don’t matter in the larger journey toward God’s kin-dom. “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation is everything!”

 

Paul desperately tries to show the community how destructive their ecclesial infighting is. These caustic quarrels over social norms not only prohibited the Galatians from living Christian lives, they also threatened the very nature of the Church. You can’t be Christian when you are abuse holy scripture by using it as a weapon against others and you certainly can’t be the Body of Christ when you callously cut off members.

 

Paul understood that sowing the seeds of bitterness and division would never reap a harvest of hope.

 

Take care that you yourselves are not tempted…

 

This debate in our church over sexuality is not really about scripture or sin, or in the end even sexuality. Rather, it is a debate about the very nature of the Body of Christ and our common mission to bring forth the kin-dom of God. When we exclude persons from the Church based on a gospel of law, we abandon the gospel of grace and wound Christ’s body.

 

How can we be the Body of Christ when we cut off members solely on the basis of socially conditioned norms of gender and genitalia? Paul certainly didn’t think so. In fact, he called that type of two tiered membership a perversion of the Gospel.

 

When we give in to the temptations of those who would taunt us to respond to mean spirited debates text for text, word for word, we sow seeds of bitterness and division and give up any chance of our own harvest of hope.

 

We are called to sow the seeds of gentleness, compassion, mercy and love. Those values can never be known in intellectual arguments, hermeneutical debates or struggles over stale doctrine. Rather, we are called to till the soil of the Church with gentle tellings of our own stories and life experiences.

 

Rev. Mel White of the MCC once said people don’t change their minds until they know people’s stories. And it is true, isn’t it? Very rarely does anyone change their mind based on detached, rational arguments. People change because they come to know and love other people.

 

Ray was lay leader and president of the Gideonse bible society in the first church I served. As a leader in the church Ray spoke frequently from the pulpit and each time he preached he never failed to warn the congregation against this new minister who urged us to accept “those homosexuals.” Ray would remind the congregation that he knew the bible by the back of his hand and the Bible was clear. Homosexuality was a sin.

 

Now, Ray and I would go rounds about this. I would try to help him see the historical context of the scripture and he would recite verse upon verse. Needless to say we got nowhere.

 

One day Ray came into the office and said he wanted to talk to me about homosexuality. Oh boy, here we go again, I thought. Ray said, “Now Tiffany, you remember Lesley, right?” Yes, I did. Lesley was the home health aide that had worked with Ray and his family through the illness and eventual death of both his mother in law and his beloved wife Priscilla. I had heard many a tale about Lesley and her softball team. Lesley’s visit had been the highlight of their small family. She and her friends from the team would come and give the family play by play details of every game. How they loved it!

 

“Well,” said Ray, “you know that since Priscilla passed Lesley has continued to take care of me. Well, yesterday she and Nancy, one her friend’s from that softball team came to see me. Nancy said, ‘Ray, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I love you and I think you love me too. And, well, I’m, I’m a lesbian and I am getting married to my partner. But the problem is that my father won’t come to the wedding and stand up for me. So, I wondered, I hoped, that perhaps you would be my father that day.’”

 

And Ray said, “And you know, Tiffany, God broke open my heart in that moment and made me see what a bigot I have been. How could I look at Nancy and Lesley and say no to such an honor and privilege? Lesley changed my mind and my life.”

 

People change because they know people’s stories.

 

We create change in our church and in our world by telling our stories. Stories communicate our values through the language of the heart. Rather than antagonizing a spirit of divisiveness and polarization by engaging in fruitless debates, telling our stories foster relationships by creating empathetic links that bridge the cultural and ecclesial divides.

 

Our own Bishop Jack Tuell has said, “What are we to do… to change the mind of the UMC to make it more inclusive to all of God’s children? We change its heart. We help all of our people to experience the hurt, the pain, the trauma, the rejection which our present policy inflicts on good and faithful Christians…changing the heart is a prerequisite to changing the mind.”

 

We are not called to the nasty tactics others may use against us, but rather we are called to sow a harvest of hope by telling our stories, connecting to one another and living in and through God’s love. We sow a harvest of hope with gentleness, meekness and compassion. Remember when others transgress against us, we are called to bring them back to God with a spirit of gentleness…a spirit of gentleness.

 

This was the strategy of Jesus and the first disciples after all, wasn’t it? Remember Jesus sends the disciples in mission to go and live among the people, proclaiming the gospel through their very lives. Jesus’ missionary plan was rooted in shared hospitality and a way of life that centered around fellowship and love. The invitation to the Jesus movement was an invitation to an alternative way that began at the table through shared meals, shared stories and shared lives.

 

Shared meals. Shared stories. Shared lives. And this takes time…a long time.

 

Padre Miguel that day long ago in Latin America helped my friend Rick come to see the road to peace and justice was a journey and not a destination. Padre Miguel explained, “The struggle for peace and justice is a long one. We in Guatemala have been living under a colonial regime since 1523. We have been struggling for a long time now, but we are convinced that peace and justice will come. Isn't that the promise we read in Scripture? God's promise of liberation and freedom for all people?”

Then Padre Miguel sat back and paused, he stroked his beard and placed his broad hands on his rotund chest.

He said, “When I die, I hope I go to heaven. And when I get to heaven I hope I meet Jesus. But I don't think Jesus will ask me, ‘Miguel, did you accomplish peace and justice in your life?’ No, I think instead, Jesus will ask me, ‘Miguel, in the struggle for peace and justice, how did you live your life?’ Hermano, Ricardo, it’s not about when we get there, but how we take the journey together.”

 

Our struggle for peace and justice is not ultimately about who burns who in the biblical battles of our time, but rather how we live our lives. Walter Rauschenbusch, renowned theologian and social reformer reminds us that “The kin-dom of God is always coming, but we can never say it has arrived. It is always on the way.” (Theology for the Social Gospel, 227).

 

If we faithfully sow the seeds of compassion, love and mercy, we will reap a harvest of hope that will carry us through the bitter biblical burns to a new way of living and loving.

 

What Rev. Black could not see at that moment is that we continually have a harvest of hope awaiting us…not at the end of time but here and now. Each time we opt to stand on the side of peace and justice, each time we sow the seeds of gentleness and compassion, each time we tell our stories, each time like Ray we allow our hearts to be broken open by God, each time we choose love over hate, we glimpse God’s vision of peace and justice and know just as Jesus proclaimed that the kin-dom of God is indeed near!

 

Amen.

 

             

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