By Robert Garrett, Special Contributor…
Editor’s note: On Feb. 10, Mr. Garrett gave these remarks in moving that his church, First UMC in Austin, Texas, join the Reconciling Ministries Network.
Years from now, no one will remember what we say today. A few, though, may remember what we do.
If we are true to ourselves, to the spirit of the gospel, to the example of John Wesley, we here in this Great Hall can deliver a blow for justice.
Maybe it’s a small blow. Maybe, in a noisy, busy world, few will notice. Maybe you see things differently, and if this motion passes, that will disturb your peace.
Still, even though we are not entirely of one mind, even though our title “First Church” means first in Austin history, not foremost in Austin reach, this is important. Although we must be humble, and realists, and admit that a First Church shout-out to the cause of gay equality and inclusion will not exactly rock the continent—still, I say, this is a moment of real consequence.
Listen closely: We are not upending our church and trying to make it something it isn’t. But we ARE, if this motion passes, doing two very consequential things:
1) We are saying we will not remain silent—and let our silence be construed as assent—to reckless statements that were thrown into the Discipline in the last 41 years. These basically tell gay people they’re defective, and the only way they can be godly is to be celibate. Oh, the words are nicer than that. But their result is to set thinly veiled disapproval and a demand for celibacy as our conditions for accepting gays fully. I don’t know about you; I want some distance between me and those sections of the Discipline. I dissent! That’s what a “yes” vote lets us say.
2) We are acknowledging Christian malpractice, here at our beloved church and elsewhere in the ordinary moments of our lives. Every time we were silent, as others snickered. Every time we were cautious and said, “Don’t push this on us.” Every time we worried more about not upsetting people in our cozy circle than about people—people we don’t even know who are out there and who feel we have judged them and won’t be troubled to open the circle.
I waited too long, years too long, to confront church teaching on homosexuality. Frankly, I was intimidated. I thought it an absolutely un-breachable fortress of Scripture and doctrine. My Baptist theologian father and his acres of bookcases, I thought, could not be argued with on their terms. Why try?
Let me tell you something I’ve learned about that impregnable fortress. It’s shakier than you think!
Some argue, “God’s intentions for sexual behavior are expressed throughout the Bible in a unified voice starting with the creation story.”
But when I search the Holy Scriptures for that unified voice, I keep encountering static—patriarchy, polygamy, women treated as property, extramarital sex with slaves and concubines, guys that must marry a brother’s widow.
Now that medicine, psychiatry and zoology have actually created the notion of sexual orientation and found evidence that homosexuality is all around us in nature and probably innate, biblical literalists have performed some acrobatics. They go back to Leviticus’ proscription on a man’s lying as a man with another man, then make strained interpretations of the Genesis creation accounts to suggest heterosexual monogamy was God’s template at the beginning of time.
Never mind that for thousands of years in Scripture, it wasn’t the practice of God’s chosen people. And then these literalists tie it off, mangling Paul in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory.” And the literalists ignore that Paul’s reference to Gentile sex practices in some of the mystery religions was a rhetorical device on his way to making the point that there are no distinctions. We’re all sinners.
The literalists want to de-legitimize our modern concept of homosexuality, and say there’s no godly sex that isn’t hetero and monogamous. But this is a selective reading of a few, stray, culturally conditioned and mystifying passages, a reading born of fear. We don’t have to buy it—not least because, in the Good Book, on this subject, Jesus remains silent.
The theological underpinning in the Discipline is this: Any same-sex sex act is inherently warped and life-denying. This, though, is an argument discredited by our very eyes. Most of us know vibrant gays whose lives are a blessing.
Shouldn’t we all be more like John Wesley and work his Quadrilateral: 1) Scripture? Conclusion: Few verses, far between and muddled. 2) Tradition? Wow, this is no fortress but a tent blowing in the wind. We’ve had church fathers say men having sex with men is worse than murder. And at other times, we’ve had them signal: Live and let live. And we know they and Jesus forbade divorce, and yet we’ve worked our way to make exceptions and fully include divorced people. Conclusion: The Christian church keeps coming to new understandings on sex. 3) Experience? Trust your eyes. Did the gays you know really choose the path they’re on? 4) Reason? As the prophet said, come, let us reason together.
I close with two reflections that I pray will touch, first, your funny bone and then your heart. One is from that profound philosopher . . . Kinky Friedman.
When Kinky was running for governor of Texas in 2006, a year after voters approved a ban on gay marriage. he was asked his views. Mr. Friedman responded: “I support gay marriage. I believe they have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us.”
That line allows us straights to laugh at ourselves while subtly pressing the case of the outcasts. A little humor and a lot of reversal—that’s what we need because for too long, we’ve highlighted difference, when most of us want the same thing: To be close, to love and be loved. We quickly learn that the “other” isn’t so different from us.
So today, let’s face our fears on these uncomfortable subjects of sex and difference and the other. Let’s reaffirm what we learned as children, so that someday, we can look back and marvel at how we could have unlearned—in ways that must have displeased our Savior—the words almost all of us were taught:
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white—and no matter what they grow up to be like —they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.
Mr. Garrett is a journalist and member of First UMC Austin. The church voted by more than a three-fourths margin to join the Reconciling Ministries Network, which works to change the UMC’s position that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.