Omaha, Nebraska, December 20, 1997
| Preaching and Living the Word of God | The Scripture and Hope | Jonah, Jesus, and Jimmy |
Back in 1961, on a sultry evening in the field house of Central Methodist College, Fayette, Missouri, Bishop Eugene Frank placed his hands on my perspiring head and said these words which seemed to me to thunder throughout the whole countryside: "Russell Hawkins, take thou authority to preach the Word of God." Take thou authority to preach the Word of God! I've had many occasions over these 36 years to ponder what he said. And now I find myself pondering what he did not say. He did not say, "Go thou and preach the word of your district superintendent." He did not say, go and preach the word of the Council of Bishops or even the General Conference; He was very specific: "Go thou and preach the Word of God."
Later on in the service I took a vow that I would be loyal and obedient to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church, but I was naive enough back then to believe that if I truly took the Word of God seriously, I wouldn't have to worry about being loyal and obedient to the Church. I thought the two were practically identical.
Now it appears that when we pastors are approached by certain members of our church or our community who just happen to be of same gender, when we are asked to participate in a service involving two people of the same gender who in Christian love have decided to commit themselves to one another for the rest of their lives... a service which, for all the years of my ministry, many of us have considered as blessed by God, as being closely identified with the Word of God, this church of mine suddenly says NO. If you do that you could be violating a law of the church and your vow to be loyal and obedient to that church.
Suddenly, we are confronted with what seems like a dilemma. The word of the church is in great tension with, if not in opposition to the Word of God.
The God I believe in, the God whose Word I was ordained to preach years ago, and whose Word I have tried to be faithful to, is a God of grace, a God who rejoices in the celebration of new life, a God who embraces and reaches out to all people. So, I must conclude that although Jimmy Creech, and all the rest of us pastors who have continued to conduct covenant services may in fact be shown to be guilty of being disobedient to a law of the church, (and may I add that that hasn't been determined yet) just so, we as a denomination, ON THIS ISSUE, must confess our unfaithfulness and disobedience to the Word of God.
I'm encouraged by what I'm reading about what is happening in The United Methodist Church. Talks are under way to express repentance by our denomination concerning its racist policies of the past and present. That's hopeful. And I believe the day will come when we will repent of our policies concerning the gay and lesbian community also.
So there is no dilemma. Pastors throughout this land are continuing to hold up before us as our highest priority faithfulness and obedience to the Word of God, faithfulness, in fact, to the highest calling of our denomination which says that there may come a time when because of conscience we are called to disobey a law. I don't recall any distinction being made between church law and civil law.
Make no mistake about it; preaching the Word of God can be very, very risky. It can be dangerous, and life threatening. I have had times when I wanted to call it quits, let "them" have the church and good riddance; but always a "still small voice" said, "Don't give up hope." Then I would find my way back to the scripture, where somehow again I would find strength, and nourishment, and hope.
I am hopeful today. I'm hopeful, not only because of what I read in the scripture, but because of what I see happening across this country. I'm hopeful when I see statistics that show that Reconciling Congregations are increasing rapidly. Just a few short years ago, there were only 50 across the land, and now there are more than 3 times that number.
I am hopeful when I read about the powerful witness of groups like Affirmation and The Methodist Federation for Social Action, and now CORNET (Covenant Relations Network) which has come on line.
I believe we have reason to be hopeful today. As I have read about our brother Jimmy here in Omaha, and all the other Jimmy Creeches across this land who are continuing to carry on the ministry they were called to, a ministry of justice, and love, and fairness, and compassion, and inclusiveness, I am hopeful. For as that ministry continues and grows, and it will, make no mistake about it, we will see the mean-spirited language that has found its way into the Discipline wiped from its pages. It won't be long. It won't be long--
All through the scripture there is hope being proclaimed. Always, it seems, it is proclaimed in the midst of seeming hopelessness, when people are at the end of their rope. Inevitably that hope is found in a gracious, merciful, loving, gathering God. I would like to give you three examples of oh, so many.
Jonah and Ninevah
I remember Jonah, who was called by God to go preach to Nineveh, that hated city which had been guilty of horrible crimes again and again against Israel, who considered itself God's favored nation. Go preach to Nineveh? Why Jonah would rather have taken a bomb and blown them off the face of the earth. Jonah ran in the opposite direction, trying to avoid God's command. But he found out what God's people have always found out... we can't run away. Finally, he knew that God was not going to turn him loose.
Then Jonah went stomping through Nineveh, shouting his short message. Nineveh repented. God reached out and took them in. Jonah was angry. "That is why I ran," he said. "I knew you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, a God who repents of evil..."
That's the God we preach, is it not? That's a story of hope, don't you think? What kind of hope do some people see in a God who spews forth hate and cruel judgment? What kind of hope could one have in a God who would visit peoples' lives with disease, and havoc, simply because God hates them? What kind of hope can there be in a God who chooses a favorite few and destroys the rest who don't believe a certain way?
Oh, I know, the Bible says many things, and one could paint a picture from its pages of such a hateful God. But they would not be talking about the God who visited Peter on that fateful day that changed Israel's perceptions of the whole world around them.
Peter and Cornelius
Peter, napping on the roof of a tanner friend, falls into a trance, and in that trance a mammoth sheet is lowered, full of all sorts of animals, reptiles, and fowl. A voice says, "Rise Peter, kill, and eat."
Peter is shocked. "What to you mean, Lord? To do that would be violating everything I've been taught since I was a boy. Why, the religious leaders would cast me out of the temple if they knew I had eaten some of these impure and unclean animals."
But the voice said, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."
Then Peter is instructed by that same Spirit to go with some messengers to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile cenurion. Cornelius, a Gentile centurion?! What? It was against Jewish law to have anything to do with Gentiles.
Once again we see a servant of God being asked to do something that is in violation of the laws of his people, of his nation, of his community, of his temple, of his own household. Everything in his background is saying no, you should not go, you could face dire consequences, and yet there is that one voice that is saying "go." But when that voice says, "go," we know, if we have experienced it, that there is... no... choice!
Peter had to go. Entering into the house, he was confronted by a crowd of Cornelius' relatives and friends. Peter's first words were "You are well aware that it is against.. our... LAW... for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But..."
But! Oh, my friends, I thank God for that "but". We are living today on the strength and the hope of that "but." All across this land pastors are saying, "I know it may be against a law of the church, but....!"
"But," Peter said, " God has shown me that I should not call any person impure or unclean." That's the God whose Word I thought I was given authority to go preach 36 years ago. Now I ask you, can you imagine what those words meant to that crowd gathered there? They, who had every reason to feel that there was no hope, suddenly had every reason to feel hope by that affirming, inclusive word. How do you think that couple would have felt if Jimmy had said to them, "I'm sorry. I can't take part in your service because it would be against a law of my church?" I'll tell you how I think they would have felt.
Four years ago I was invited to become part of a weekly spirituality group that met in a Denver church. I discovered that the group of about 14 persons consisted mostly of lesbians. I was one of about 2 or 3 heterosexuals. I was the only heterosexual clergyperson there.
One night the conversation around the circle was focused on the experiences that the lesbian members had had in Christian churches along the way. Bitter tears flowed as they told of rejection after rejection..... persons of my profession asking them to leave the church; members shunning them. I felt shame for my profession.
The realization hit me at one point: If these persons were to treat me as they had been treated by Christian pastors, I would have been asked to leave the group. They would have been perfectly justified, I thought, if they had done that.
Oh yes, that couple [editor's note: his is referring to the two women at First UMC, Omaha, with whom Jimmy and others celebrated their love and commitment with a covenant service] could have experienced great pain and rejection, just as gays and lesbians must be experiencing today when they read the explicit words of rejection in our very Discipline. Now imagine how they must have felt when he said, in effect... Now I don't know specifically what he said, so I'm not quoting him... but his response said in effect, "I may be found guilty of breaking a law of the church but!... God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean or unworthy of my ministry . Of course! I would be honored to take part in your service. In that response peoples' needs were given higher priority than a law!
Well, the gathering there in Cornelius' house was eager to hear from Peter what the Lord had commanded him to tell them. And he started to preach the Word of God. Can you hear it? He started to preach the Word of God. He said, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism..."Even as he spoke, the Holy Spirit came upon those people, and Peter did something he thought he would never do. He ordered that they should be baptized, for Heaven's Sake.
A circumcised Christian Jew baptizing an uncircumcised Gentile. Can you feel the hope? Later, back home, criticism was waiting for Peter. Well, I guess. "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them!" In his explanation of what happened Peter said, "As I began to speak the Holy Spirit came upon them as he had come upon us in the beginning.... so if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?"
Oh, what a rich and wonderful tradition we are part of, my friends, and throughout there is held before us this loving, gracious, kind and compassionate God who is always reaching out to people... all people. A God whose back is never turned on us. A God who calls us to go forth and respond to the needs of people, a priority that is held up as the highest priority of all; a priority which may, in fact, bring us into conflict with the structures and systems of society; but we are called to go, nonetheless.
Jesus and the Sabbath
When Jesus and his disciples picked and ate corn on the sabbath, they were clearly violating a Sabbath law. But we miss the true meaning of that event if that's all we focus on. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of violating a law, Jesus pointed to their own scripture which told how David and his men ate the presentation loaves in the temple, blatantly violating the law. Jesus asks, What is more important, the mechanical application of the regulation, or the hunger of David and his men? The technicality of the law or the personal needs of my disciples?
The answer was perfectly clear: The needs of persons come before legality and tradition, before theological or ecclesiastical correctness, before the requirements of society and culture. "The Sabbath is made for people, not people for the sabbath", he said. Laws are not ends in themselves, they are a means of serving persons, and when they do not do that, but in fact demean persons, and diminish their lives, then, I believe, we are called to disobedience.
Let us not allow the issue to get established on whether or not a law is broken, for in that question the law becomes the ultimate concern. Jesus places the issue in its proper perspective when, in the synagogue, he asks the man with the withered hand to come up and stand before everybody and Jesus says to the crowd, "I'm going to ask you a question: Does the law command us to do good on Sabbath days or to do harm... to save life or destroy it?"
Again, the primary concern, the concern that is above all others, is, what happens to persons. In answer to his question, there was silence. They were not listening. They were too busy with their own agenda. And then, note this: Jesus knew what was going on in the heads of the Pharisees, standing there with their notepads, getting the goods on this living threat to their very existence.
Jesus was angry with their hard heartedness. Then, with full awareness of the potential consequences, with clarity of mind and with unwavering intentionality, he healed the withered hand. What Jesus is saying to us is that we and our personal needs are of greater value than all the laws and institutions and traditions of our society. He does not say they are of no value, but that human needs are of greater value.
When we look back at Jonah, and Peter, and Jesus himself, what is the thread throughout, if it is not that underlying concern for people. The question our faith continues to hold up to us is.. Do we care about people. Why do you think it is that we celebrate today what Jimmy has done? Oh, I can tell you what some are saying... that he is a headline grabber, that he is a manipulator of the press, that he is one of those "church busters," even that he is part of a Satanic plot to destroy the church.
WELL, I SAY PRAISE GOD! for such accusations put him right in line with this great tradition of ours, for such things were said of the Noahs, and the Jeremiahs, and the Jonahs, and the Peters, and the Pauls, and Marin Luther, and John Wesley, and Martin Luther King, and on and on.
Concerning Jimmy, we know better.... We know better.... We know better, because we have experienced that God of Grace, whose arms continue to reach out...and reach out, and we have seen in Jimmy's courageous action that Word of inclusiveness and love for people, for all people, acted out.
I hope and pray that, whatever may be the ruling of the Judicial Council, that we will never turn away from following that Word that is always including, never excluding; that Word that always speaks of kindness, and love, and compassion for all people
As we come to together this morning to participate in Holy Communion, let us come, not only as a group of individuals, but as that gathered community brought together and united by God's Love and held together by faithfulness and obedience to God's Word. Therein lies our hope. Amen
The Rev. Russ Hawkins is the pastor of Kairos United Methodist Church, Kansas City, Missouri.