Ecclesiastical Disobedience


Sermon by Donald Fado, St. Mark's United Methodist Church, Sacramento, CA

World Communion Sunday, October 4, 1998

See also: California Holy Union ("Sacramento 68").

I've heard that Will Rogers said he never met a person he didn't like. - he obviously never met some of the people I've known. He didn't go to Shasta High School in Redding where our rival was Red Bluff. We didn't like our rivals. I played basketball and we knew that the Red Bluff team consisted of immoral dirty players. When Red Bluff ever beat Shasta High it was enough to make one question the fairness of the universe. How could there be a moral God, if an immoral team like Red Bluff could beat a fine upstanding Shasta High team.

I went on to Shasta College in 1951 and played on the basketball team. Lo and behold, there were a couple of guys on the team from Red Bluff. We became close friends. It was amazing how just coming to Shasta College changed them. No, they hadn't changed. I changed. I learned in that experience how pride and prejudice can distort our perspective of others. Pride, theologically speaking, is not just feeling good about ourselves, but it is refusing to see our own faults. Prejudice is refusing to see others as they really are. Pride and prejudice distort reality.

When I was in elementary school, I recall bringing a black classmate home to play after school. Our landlord told me that I shouldn't do that. "They live in their part of town and shouldn't come here. You can't trust them; they steal from us. They are different." I never invited Laverne back to our house. Pride and prejudice. Today I have a son-in-law and two granddaughters of African American descent; believe me, they are always welcome at our house. And Laverne, wherever you are; you are welcome too. Through the experiences of life we learn that our pride and our prejudice distort reality.

When I was in college at The College of the Pacific, I ran for student body office seeking changes in our big time football program. I had an ugly confrontation with a football player; we didn't like each other. Fifteen years later he joined the church where I was pastor. We became good friends before his untimely death. I am so grateful the he challenged my pride and prejudice.

When I was a child during World War II, I hated our enemies. All the Germans and Japanese were evil and deserved to die; they were sub-human. Pride and prejudice. Oh, how life teaches us and challenges our smallness. My closest friend in seminary was of Japanese descent. We hosted an exchange student in our home: Marin was from Germany; she is still a part of our family.

In World War II Russians were our friends and I thought them to be good. Then they became our enemies and I thought them to be evil. Then they became our friends again. It can get downright confusing. And it's the same way with in our personal lives. People we don't like become friends; some friends stab in the back and become enemies - and maybe friends again. It happens within our families. There are times when we just don't like some people: what they do and who they are.

I don't know of anything in our faith that says we are supposed to like everyone all the time. Jesus obviously did not like what the Roman soldiers were doing to him as they crucified him. He would not have been drawn to their crass hatred of Jews. But he prayed for them: "Forgive them....(Luke 23:34)" While we do not like some people, we need to be reminded that our judgment is not the final word on their worth. They are loved by God every bit as much as we are loved by God. It is possible not to like someone and still love them, still will their well being. "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..."(Matt 5:44) Our pride and our prejudice usually stand in the way of our being able to do that. Pride and prejudice distort reality.

In our gospels, reality is described as the Kingdom of Heaven or the Realm of God; it is the way God intends life to be. And how does God intend life to be? It is like a wedding banquet; eat, drink, and rejoice. Being alive is itself a feast. In our scripture reading this morning Jesus tells us that when we come to the banquet to be sure and take the lowest seat. I cannot assume that I belong ahead of anyone else in God's realm. My pride tells me I belong in a more important place, closer to God than some others I know; but that is a dangerous and destructive assumption. I am to take the lowest seat and be humble; let God decide where I belong and place me wherever God chooses. Pride exalts myself. But it is those who are humble who will ultimately be exalted.

The second part of our reading deals with prejudice, our relationship with others. We are told that when we host the banquet to be sure and invite everyone - and not just those who like us and will return the favor: "...invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you." The lame and the blind were not even allowed in the temple in Jesus time. They were not considered to be whole people; they were considered sub-human. Jesus says to include them in. No one is left out; everyone is welcome to God's realm. Everyone.

The word "all" appears over 5,000 times in our Bible. The Gospel begins with an angel announcing "...great joy for all the people.(Luke 2:10)" Jesus invited all to come to him who are carrying heavy burdens.(Matt 11:28)" "Jesus... cured all who were sick.(Mat 8:16)" and sent his followers to make disciples of all nations. (Matt 28:19) Whether or not we like people is not the issue. They are to be welcomed and included.

At our Pastors' School last week, Fred Craddock told about hearing Carl Sandburg interviewed on the radio. When Sandburg was asked what he considered to be the ugliest word in the English language, he responded, "The ugliest work in the English language is... is... exclusion." And we know how ugly it is whenever we have been the one who has been excluded from somewhere or someone that we passionately desired. Do you recall Edwin Markham's classic poem?

He drew a circle to shut me out,
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout,
But love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in.

That's the good news of our faith. God draws a circle that includes us in. Our religion is not one of exclusion, but rather inclusion. All are welcome at the table of Christ. As Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, wrote in his hymn we often sing at communion,

"Come sinners to the gospel feast.
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bid all humankind."

And as John Wesley, Charles' brother, put it, "The world is my parish." No one is excluded. All are welcome to the table where Christ is the host.

However, gays and lesbians have good reason to question whether we really mean that. The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church declare that "homosexuality is incompatible with the Christian faith." When I was young there was no debate about homosexuals in the church. They were queer people who were subhuman misfits. "Homo" was the most derogatory thing we could call another kid. Pride and prejudice. I didn't really have that view seriously challenged until I was in my forties. Bob Cary, who was our Annual Conference Youth Director, retired and came out of the closet announcing that he was a gay man. He said he had tried to deny it; he even was engaged once. Bob helped mold my style of ministry. I do not know of anyone more Christlike in loving spirit. I had to examine my pride and prejudice.

Many of us have had our pride and prejudice about homosexuality challenged when somebody we know and love tells us they are gay or lesbian. When this was all kept secret the only thing we knew about homosexuals was what we read in the papers. Can you imagine the view we would have of heterosexuals if the only thing we knew about them was what we read in the papers? Billy Graham is among those who have changed their perspective. Recognizing the evidence that sexual orientation is a matter of our birth rather than a choice, Graham reminds us we must not call what God has created as sin: "Being a homosexual is not a sin..."

Just as we have to face the anti-Semitism within our New Testament, we must confront the anti-homosexuality. Saint Paul was living in port cities when he condemned homosexual acts. I do not believe that he was referring to two people who love each other in life-long commitments. After all, he affirms that "... there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) Paul welcomed all to the table of Christ.

United Methodism has its base in more theologically conservative sections of the country than California. Our Annual Conference has long been on record opposing the condemnation clause in the Social Principles. United Methodists are allowed to disagree upon the Social Principles. Its prelude states that the principles "are intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit." There has been no attempt to coerce anyone into unanimity on the principles; lockstep theological thinking in Methodism is unthinkable.

As the theological wars over homosexuality have heated up, General Conference in 1996 added the following sentence to the Social Principles "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." Since our denomination has never shied away from controversy in the social principles, I considered this to be a part of the dialogue and I publically declared, as I shared with you before, my disagreement and that I would continue to be available to conduct services of holy union.

Then a minister in the First Church of Omaha, Nebraska, by the name of Jimmy Creech, was brought up on charges for performing holy unions. People wanted him out of the church; they wanted him defrocked. There was a trial, and by a very narrow margin, he was found not guilty. When that happened, United Methodist Churches across America started withholding their money to the church and threatening withdrawal rather than be part of a church that sanctions vows between homosexuals .

I told you earlier about the turmoil in our own Annual Conference. The follow-up to that, as you probably know, is that our church in Kingsburg voted to leave the Annual Conference. They no longer are a United Methodist Church. Our minister in Oakdale also left the conference over this issue. They don't want to belong to a church that would perform a service of holy union for gays or lesbians. These two ministers who left our conference wrote an article for the Good News Magazine, which is a publication representing the view of the more conservative/evangelical wing of our denomination. The article was called, "What We Believe Went Wrong In California-Nevada." This is what they write: Judging from our interactions, many of our clergy colleagues are personally unpleasant, limited in thinking, lazy, and extremely broken people. If we were lay people, we would not choose to follow 90% of the pastors in our conference."

They also state, " the standards of Christian orthodoxy, the majority of our California-Nevada clergy hold sub-Christian theologies. Pride and prejudice. These men are my brothers. Their statement reflects more upon their hurt than the other ministers in the Conference.

The Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church, which is our "Supreme Court," met in August to make a ruling on this part of the social principles, and they closed the floodgates. They ruled that in this single instance the Social Principles are binding since the word "shall not" is used. Therefore, any United Methodist ministers that do not obey the principles on this issue can have charges brought against them. If found guilty they will no longer be United Methodist ministers.

I find their decision to be incredibly narrow and out of keeping with what The United Methodist Church has stood for over the ages: an inclusive ministry that welcomes all. My denomination now says to me that I am to minister to anyone and everyone; the world is my parish - but leave out the gays and lesbians. Leave them out.

As a United Methodist Minister, I'm free to do a wedding ceremony for any heterosexuals. It doesn't matter if they've been married 755 times, and only married a day at a time. They trust me to use my good judgment. They let me have the decision of whether to utter prayers and vows for any group I want, unless it happens to be two people of the same sex who wish to have vows of fidelity. I can come to your home and offer prayers of blessings for the house. I can even bless your place of business, regardless of what it is. I can even bless your automobile. I can bless your animals. But I cannot bless you if you are two people of the same sex who want to make a vow to God of fidelity to each other. There is no other such exclusion in my ministry. It is clearly a case of homophobia and contrary to our tradition. In no way should any minister be required to offer such vows of holy union; but likewise in no way should such ministry of inclusion be forbidden by our church.

I cannot remain silent in face of such an injustice. I have a choice between two options, it seems to me. I can leave the United Methodist ministry, or I can protest. I choose the latter, and the way I will protest is that I will do such a service, as an act of civil disobedience - well, that's the wrong word because this is not "civil", this is not against any of our state laws - I will conduct a service of holy union, as act of ecclesiastical disobedience. I will not do it in secret. I will do it in the spirit in which Martin Luther King, Jr. did his disobedience. I will do it openly in order to challenge the law. Most of the ministers in our conference, including those on the staff of your church, feel the outlawing of our vows to gays and lesbians to be unjust. My hope is that we can get fifty to a hundred of us to co-officiate at one service. Many of us are on e-mail together, talking about it. It will have to be a unique couple that will want such a ceremony and be willing to put up with all the publicity that will accompany it. We must demonstrate to the General Conference the folly of the exclusion.

I should say "I", not "we." I'm sharing with you my decision which need not involve you. I will not do a ceremony on the grounds of this church unless this church votes that it too wants to challenge the law. That will be up to you. Each will need to make your own decision about this ruling of the church. Some of you won't agree with my decision, and that's okay. We're United Methodists. We can disagree and still love and respect each other. I want you to know that I do this out of my commitment as a minister of Jesus Christ. I believe this is what Jesus would have me do.

Pride and prejudice. It's strange how life changes and shows our distortions of reality. But you know, sometimes life doesn't change us. Sometimes it just entrenches us in these distortions. So what is it that keeps us from the pride and the prejudice? I suggest to you that it's the table around which we regularly gather where Christ is host.

"Come, sinners, to the gospel feast. You need not one be left behind." Tear down the walls of exclusion, and let's build more tables where everyone is welcome.

This sermon has been reproduced with the permission of Don Fado. See also St. Mark UMC's homepage.

CORNET, a program of Affirmation, is a grassroots network that seeks to continue the tradition of hosting worship services that celebrate and witness to same-gender covenant relationships in United Methodist churches and resists actions that try to withdraw this means of grace from same-gender persons. Sermons, poetry, news releases from other sources, personal statements, and other resources represent the individual's or group's view point and do not necessarily represent official postiion Affirmation or CORNET.