A Sermon on Acts 10:9-16, 15:1-11
The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen
February 12, 2012
First Presbyterian Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin
Winnebago Presbytery seeks to serve God by “Bearing Witness to Jesus Christ, Strengthening and Connecting Congregations.” Our journey in faith is lived out in the unity found in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (II Corinthians 13:14).
The letter to the Ephesians defines the Church of Jesus Christ this way: “we are members of one another.” In his correspondence with the Christians in Corinth, Paul describes the Church of Jesus Christ as being like a human body, in which each part is distinct and important. Throughout our history, Presbyterians have honored and struggled with the tension between unity and diversity. We preach and seek to practice the idea of mutual forbearance, which we find in the Book of Order, described in this way: “…we… believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” [F-3.0105]
In the course of our common life together, there are occasions when a congregation or portion of a congregation believes that for its own good and integrity it must sever its relationship with the larger body. Such a decision must be entered into thoughtfully, prayerfully and with a profound trust and openness to the work of the Holy Spirit. Such decisions are wrenching and painful for all concerned. With deep respect for the gravity of these situations, we offer the following guidelines for congregations and Winnebago Presbytery as both parties discern together whether to separate.
That is the theological statement at the start of the Winnebago Presbytery Disaffiliation Policy, which was adopted yesterday in Shawano. The General Assembly of our denomination has suggested that presbyteries adopt policies for churches and presbyteries to follow when a congregation wants to leave our denomination. At yesterday’s meeting four congregations indicated that they intend to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is a painful and sad time for everyone involved. I served on the team that wrote the disaffiliation policy. We tried to write a policy that could cover every possible situation, one that could be used whether the congregation was large or small, and for any reason they may choose to leave the denomination. But we were not naïve. The suggestion to write a policy came at the same time that the last General Assembly proposed an amendment removing the requirement that ruling elders, deacons and teaching elders “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” This change had the effect of removing the prohibition that had been in place against non-celibate homosexuals holding positions of ordained leadership in the Presbyterian Church. Four churches in our Presbytery have indicated that they want out of the denomination. There may be other churches that will also seek to leave. There may also be congregations that split over this issue. I am certain there are individuals who will leave Presbyterian congregations over this issue.
I think it’s only fair to explain what my position is on this issue. I am not asking anyone to agree with me, but in the interest of clarity and fairness I’ll share my thoughts. To me, one’s sexual identity is a given, in the same way that whether one is left- or right-handed and the color of one’s eyes are given. Most people are born right-handed and heterosexual, but not every one. I further believe, in good Presbyterian fashion, that everyone has been given gifts of the Spirit to use for the common good. Taking that notion a step further, everyone can make a contribution to the life of the church of Jesus Christ. It seems wasteful to me, or to put it in church language, it strikes me as bad stewardship, to exclude the gifts of anyone.
This church did not elect women to serve as what we now call “ruling elders” until 1961. And it was not for another ten years that more than one woman was elected each year. Today, more than half of our ruling elders currently serving are women. This is a typical percentage in Presbyterian churches nationwide. In a little more than two generations, women have come to outnumber men in positions of local church leadership. There was resistance to having women serve on the Session. I understand one of my predecessors in this pulpit was adamant and vocal in keeping women as a distinct minority on Session. But the church of Jesus Christ has gone on. I try to imagine how this congregation would function if women did not serve as ruling elders.
My kids have learned about Rosa Parks in their history classes. They live in a world very different from Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. It’s hard for them to understand why it was so important to have a seat on the bus. We like to sit in the very last row of the bus because that’s where it’s bumpiest! After more than 60 years the world has changed so much that I can’t even explain to my kids what discrimination was like. And I can’t imagine what a Session would be like with only 20% women. Times have changed and the world has gone on. That’s not to say change is easy or pain-free. People guard and hold onto tradition.
That’s what we see in the first lesson from Acts this morning. Peter was alone and hungry. He had a vision of all kinds of animals descending to him on a large sheet. Some of the animals were “clean” – that is, edible according to Jewish law as found in what we call the Old Testament – but many of the animals were “unclean,” forbidden for an observant Jew like Peter to eat. Peter had never violated the dietary laws; he had scrupulously kept the commandments all his life. Even while in a trance he maintained his faith tradition. The voice of God told him three times that he could kill and eat, but he did not. He stayed true to his tradition. He kept himself pure. He did not eat food that his faith deemed unclean. He maintained his tradition.
Yet the Spirit was at work in him. Some Gentiles had a vision and went looking for him, and found him, and he invited them to stay at his house. The next day he went with them, and preached to them at Cornelius’s house, and said, “You know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” [Acts 10:28-29] Then Peter preached to the Gentiles and the Holy Spirit entered them, and he saw to it that they were baptized. Let me back up as bit — he ate with Gentiles, that was forbidden. He let some of them stay at his house. Then Peter and some other Jews who had traveled with him “were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” [Acts 10:45] It was stunning to Peter, but he came to “understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” [10:34-35]
This was not a conclusion that Peter came to easily. He had a kind of security in maintaining his tradition. God used some powerful images to get Peter to see and understand that God loves all people, not just the ones who believe that they are “Chosen” or “Pure.” God loves people who are different from us. God loves people who eat pork. God loves people who wear clothes made of different kinds of fibers, who plant different crops side-by-side in the same field, all forbidden in Leviticus. Peter had to give up his concept of what God wanted from him. He gave that up when he saw what the Holy Spirit was doing among different people. I do not think this was easy for Peter to do. The Holy Spirit pushed Peter to broaden his understanding of religion, faith and tradition, the very things that had told him who he was and who God was. I don’t think it was easy for Peter to do this.
Last week a long-standing tradition that many of us hold dear was in the news. The 9th Circuit Court in California overturned the results of a statewide referendum there that limited marriage to one man and one woman. It was a very narrowly argued decision. The referendum in California had overturned a law that the California legislature had passed that permitted same-gender people to marry. The citizens of the state voted to overturn that law. The court said that a statewide referendum cannot be used to deny a right to a group of people that had already enjoyed that right.
The strongest argument I heard against this decision was that it goes against tradition. That for generations and ages, marriage has been the foundation of family and society. To permit same-sex couples to enjoy the protections of marriage is to abandon that tradition. And it’s hard to abandon tradition. It’s jarring. I listened to a radio program in which callers shared their responses to the Circuit Court decision. It was odd hearing a male voice refer to his “husband.” That will take some getting used to. This is a profound change in the way things have always been. And it is also a slow-moving change. And in this nation it will take place, or not, in 50 different states and the District of Columbia. On Wednesday, the legislature in Washington State passed a same-sex marriage law, and the governor has announced she intends to sign it.
I understand the need for tradition. I understand the desire to protect traditions that have survived for a long time. I understand the pain of seeing traditions upended or changed. I get that; I know it’s painful.
What I do not get, though, is how I, in Wisconsin, am affected by what happens on this issue in Washington State, or in California. I do not understand the argument that my traditional marriage is somehow diminished if a state more than 1,000 miles from me changes their law. In fact, I do not understand what I lose or how I suffer here in Wisconsin because domestic partnerships are now part of our tradition.
Let me get back to this issue as it affects Presbyterians. In Madison in October, Scott Anderson became the first openly gay person to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister since the Book of Order change took effect. Scott had been the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches for almost nine years. Before taking that position he had been a parish pastor in California. He set his ordination aside and left parish ministry more than 20 years ago because he was in a committed relationship with another man. He had to choose between his call to the ministry and his life partner. He chose his life partner then.
It’s not easy to become a Presbyterian minister. When I was ordained there were 17 separate steps to the process. Some involved passing written exams, some involved passing oral exams, some involved completing educational requirements. I thought of the process as an elaborate martial art, with ordination being equivalent to being a black belt. Scott Anderson went through that process a second time, and the Council of Churches was able to call him professionally to work he had already shown great gifts for. John Knox Presbytery voted to ordain Scott Anderson.
I don’t know how Winnebago Presbytery would have voted had he been a candidate for a teaching elder position in our presbytery. One of the guiding principles of Presbyterianism is that we elect our own leaders. Last week you elected a new deacon and in a few minutes we will ordain her. Last fall you elected two elders and in a few minutes we will install them. No one from outside this congregation can tell us who our leaders should be. Someone outside this congregation simply cannot know what our needs are, and what our gifts are. We believe in local control.
We also believe in mutual forbearance. I mentioned that term at the start of these remarks. What that means is Presbyterian congregations allow other congregations to do things that we think are wrong — and we expect them to allow us to do things that others believe are wrong. Suppose a church wants to serve real wine with communion, or worship at 6:00 on Saturday evening, or hold confirmation for third-graders, or spend their whole budget on overseas mission. We might think those people are wrong, misguided, even nutty, but Presbyterians trust that the Holy Spirit is somehow at work in other communities, even if it isn’t what we think is right. To put it memorably, “Presbyterians respect your right to be wrong.”
So here’s what I do not understand about the churches that are seeking to leave the denomination, four of which are right in our Presbytery. How is your ministry and mission harmed another church calls a gay minister? If you believe in local control, if you believe in mutual forbearance, if you respect the right to be wrong, why does it matter to you? As I see it, a Presbyterian church seeking to leave the denomination because another Presbyterian church has done something you think is wrong is like moving out of Wisconsin, because Washington State now allows gay marriage. It just does not address the issue at hand.
Now I know the limits of that analogy. For some people, it is abhorrent that any Presbyterian church would elect a homosexual to a position of servant leadership. To me, it’s just another sign that God’s love is bigger, and God’s love is more inclusive, and God’s love is stronger, and God’s love is more flexible, than our traditions have let us see. Sometimes the most faithful thing to do is to move beyond the tradition of faith.