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Equality in the Body of Christ

Sermon - 1/20/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Galatians 3:23-29

The text that I chose is from Paul's letter to the Galatians, the third chapter.  I think a fairly familiar text:

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

 

We have heard this text so many times before that I think we do not often grasp the radical nature of it in the first century.  The idea that men and women, Jew and Gentile, especially slave and free, could be equal in that society was absolutely absurd.  And perhaps it still is.

Paul's basic message that comes to us today is simply this:  the unity we have in Christ breaks down all the societal barriers.  Class, gender, race, whatever keeps us from being a true community where all are welcome to share faith in God.

One of those barriers, which has been just as damaging to Christian community (as well as all community) as any other barrier, is sexual orientation.

I have previously made the case for why homosexuality is not a sin.  I have copies of the sermon I gave back in 2000 on the table in the back for any who would like to see that.  It's also on our web site, May 28, 2000.

But I'm not going to repeat all of that this morning.  I can sum up the entire sermon with this one quote that someone gave to me this week, knowing the topic that I was going to preach on.  It says:

"The Bible contains 6 admonitions to homosexuals and 362 admonitions to heterosexuals.  That doesn't mean that God doesn't love heterosexuals.  It's just that they need more supervision. J"

I think that's nervous laughter I hear out there J.

As many of you know, I served on the Governor's Equality Task Force, which spent most of 2006 working on recommendations to the Governor [Ted Kulongoski] which were then enacted in 2 bills:  The Oregon Equality Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate in the state of Oregon on the basis of sexual orientation, and the Family Fairness Act, which allows same-sex couples to register as domestic partners.  That full report is contained in a long document, I just want to share the conclusion of the task force on the latter issue.  They said:

"The task force is persuaded by the public testimony it heard, and by analysis performed in other states that concluded that the rights, benefits, and responsibilities that flow from governmental recognition of domestic partner relationships are fundamental and deeply important to all persons in such relationships -- both heterosexual and homosexual.  These rights often provide critical protection to people in times of crisis.  The task force heard compelling testimony about the difficulties and great expense incurred by same-sex couples in their attempts to obtain these rights, benefits, and responsibilities by contract or through other legal procedure to the extent legally possible.

There is no substitute for governmental recognition of the relationship".

 

Those two bills that passed the Legislature with considerable bi-partisan support were to become effective January 1st this year.  The Oregon Equality Act (that prohibits discrimination) did take effect on January 1st.  But the Family Fairness Act (that provides for domestic partnerships) has been held up in the courts -- federal court -- pending a review sought by an out-of-state organization that does legal work for conservative Christian causes.

As a result, there was a vigil, very quickly organized -- the decree was issued on Dec 30th -- over the holidays, and they asked if they could come here and use our chapel.  I suggested the chapel might be a little too small, and so we held it here in our sanctuary.  And indeed, we had over 350 people here for that vigil, including many of the Soromundi Chorus who are here singing with us today.

Coming together to show support not just for that bill, but more importantly for all those couples who thought that they were at long last to gain that legal standing in our community, and then for whom that has (hopefully) temporarily been postponed.  But nevertheless was a significant setback for those who were looking forward to that day.

And I told the group gathered here that evening that it was especially important for me as a religious leader, when religion has too often been used to condemn and to judge gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans-gendered persons, and to deny basic rights to same-sex couples, that it is vitally important to speak out not in spite of my religious beliefs but precisely because of them.

For at the heart of my faith as a Christian is the belief in the equality and dignity of every person as a child of God (as Paul states in this letter), created in God's image, whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, young or old, black or white, gay or straight.  The point is that we are all human beings endowed with certain inalienable rights, as Thomas Jefferson penned, including the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

When the laws of our government inhibit that pursuit, when they deny that liberty, when they devalue that life, they must be changed.  That's what these two laws seek to do.

We have come a long way in our society.  The attitudes on this issue are rapidly changing.  And the church, as Martin Luther King Jr. liked to say, needs to be the headlights, not the taillights, leading the way forward.

When I came to this congregation, now nearly 17 years ago, there was not a single openly gay or lesbian person in the congregation.  Over the last dozen years I am pleased to say that we have had 3 different gay members on staff, a number of gay, lesbian, and trans-gendered members in the congregation, and several same-sex couples in leadership roles in the life of the church.

And our story is not unique.  It is being repeated in congregation after congregation across this country.  Witnessed by the fact that there are over 100 congregations in Oregon alone that are celebrating this 'Equality Sunday' this weekend or next.

So to make it more personal, that we might all see how important it is for us to be a welcoming, open and affirming congregation, I invited two couples to share their story with us.

[Two couples came forward to share their stories.  The first was a heterosexual couple who's adult son confided to them he was gay roughly 8 years ago.  The second was a lesbian couple that is active in leadership committees at First Christian Church]

Dick and Ginny Busic spoke first -- Ginny started, followed by Dick:

Ginny Busic:

Dan asked us to share a little bit of our story today. He gave us five minutes! We’ll talk fast.

Our son Mike is gay. As he was growing up, he was just like the other boys in our family, having lots of girlfriends and into school activities. He made friends easily and talked about the girls he met at school. When he graduated from college and moved to Portland, he would often bring a “girl friend” to family events. I remember one girl in particular whose name was Molly, and we thought they would be such a great pair….Mike and Molly. When he called us one day, I asked him how things were going with Molly and he said: she is getting really weird Mom”. When I asked him how, he said she calls me every day. My comment was, She likes you Mike.” We began to wonder why this happened with most of the girls he dated.

He worked in Portland for a while and then moved to Atlanta for a job. He came home for Christmas party about 7 years ago and had a good time with the family. He called us when he got home. He asked me if Dad was home because he had something to tell us. When I told him Dick was not home, there was this long pause…….Finally he said, “I have something I need to tell you both. I tried to find a time while I was home but the opportunity didn’t occur. I need to go ahead and tell you. I’ll call dad later.” I knew in my heart what he was going to say.

After he finished telling me he was gay and had found a partner, I told him that he was our son and we loved him no matter what. I will never forget his response, “I knew you and Dad would love me no matter what, but it is always harder to tell the ones you love the most.” I remember saying to Mike, we always wanted you to have someone in your life – we thought it would be a woman – but we are happy that you have found a soul mate.

I think our only concern at that time was that he be safe. There had been so many stories of terrible things happening to those who were homosexual. We worried about the violence toward gay people.

We took these concerns and other feelings to Dan first, as our pastor. We found him very helpful and understanding.

Dick Busic:

We have three grown sons, two that are married and have wives who bring balance and blessing in their relationship and our whole family.

Our middle son has a partner of nearly 8 years, now.  We can see the balance in Michael’s life and the blessing that David has brought to their relationship and to our whole family.

As a pastor I received opportunity in seminars and conferences from early on in my ministry to reflect on my own sexuality, how I would counsel individuals and couples, and how scripture speaks to healthy and unhealthy sexuality. One experience I have never forgotten was the chance to view a film of parents who learned that their grown son was gay.  The father turned his back on his son, disowning him and shutting him out of his life. I vowed that if I had a son who was gay, I would not be like that father.

When Michael told us he was gay, the response that came from within me, was – “I love you, son. Nothing can change that.”

Some things did begin to change, however, when Michael was able go tell us he was gay on that February day just after the dawn of a new century.

You remember he had moved away, geographically, from us – clear out to Atlanta, Georgia.  We had also begun sensing some distance in our relationship as well, especially when we kept bugging him about dating and working at finding a wife.

That distance disappeared with that phone call.  We not only gained our son back; we also gained another loving son into our family, whom our grandchildren affectionately call, “Aunt David.”  Made sense to them, “Uncle Mike, Aunt David.”

Another change for us was to be introduced to a number men and women with same-sex orientation.  We have gained new friendships and the privilege of listening as they shared their stories, insights, hopes, and faith with us.

Does this mean I have all my questions about homosexuality answered?  NO! I do have a growing file on the subject and added another shelf to the bookcase.

It does mean that I have been motivated to comb the Bible, which I hold to be the authentic record of God’s people before me and their expressions of faith and God’s will for their lives.  It does mean that I have explored the maximum of 10 passages, a minimum of references, which can even be construed to refer to homosexuality. Dan Bryant helped in this study through a series offered a few years ago.  It does mean that I have concluded the Bible speaks very little, if any about sexual-orientation, but a whole lot about how we treat each other.  And the greatest message – the good news – is God’s love for all.  There is the wrath of God in the Bible, but it comes when we forget the main message of God’s love for all.

I’m still learning about and need your help in confronting my own prejudices and projections I place upon others.  And the more I discover, the more I confess, the more I long, and the more I work for a just world where we stand together with our differences, learning and growing in God’s love.

Ginny and I are grateful for the invitation and opportunity to share our story with you today.  And we want you to know that if you have questions or want to explore our story further, we are open to conversation.  We promise to respect your points of view, just as we anticipate your respect of ours. It is characteristic of the balance and blessing of life and work in this church family.

Thank you.

 

[Janet Anderson and Evelyn Anderton spoke next]

Janet Anderson:

Twenty-two years ago on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1986, I attended a celebration and fair at the Presbyterian Church in Eugene. I was leading citizen diplomacy trips to the former Soviet Union at the time … and was trying to find women to join me on a Women’s Journey for Peace. Organizing the event for Rape Crisis Network was this articulate, beautiful woman that I’d noticed in the community before, but had been too shy to approach. Her name was Evelyn and I was immediately smitten.

We talked, found a mutual interest in working against nuclear weapons and I invited her to join Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament or WAND. For the next six months we worked together on WAND projects, organized booths and events and carried on lengthy conversations in the parking lot after meetings.

Finally, that fall, I asked her out . . . Our first date was dinner and a romantic evening at the crowning of the Slug Queen J.  A year later, we moved in together and have been together since. My parents, who lived in Portland and had a wonderful marriage, had often worried that their only child wouldn’t marry or find a life partner. I think they breathed a sigh of relief when I brought Evelyn home with me and it became evident that I’d found the love of my life.

But, of course, we couldn’t marry. And, in fact, I never said the “L” word in front of my father. So the way we told them that we were in a committed relationship was that we got our wills written and left everything to each other, filled out the forms for medical power of attorney naming each other as primary caretakers. Then we shared the documents with my parents over drinks before dinner. Soon my mother took to introducing Evelyn as “Janet’s Partner” or “my other daughter” – and she did so for the rest of her life.

I’m one of the lucky ones. Every day I’m grateful to God for giving me the love that Evelyn and I share. I’m grateful all that we have together, our laughter, our tears and our growth and exploration, including our return to the church.

I was raised in the Episcopal Church. My parents were lifelong churchgoers. But after leaving home, religion took a backseat and I only attended when visiting my folks. A couple of years after my dad died, Mother moved to Eugene to be closer to us. At that point Evelyn and I started attending church with her regularly and discovered a spiritual aspect to our lives that hadn’t been touched for years.

What we love about First Christian Church – about all of you – is that you provide an oasis not only for gays and lesbians, like ourselves, but for all of God’s people – be they homeless or housed, rich or poor, ducks or beavers, black or white or brown. In this congregation, all worship side by side, the lives and gifts of everyone are gratefully received and all loving relationships are acknowledged and nourished. There are no outsiders here … all who desire to be so are family. This gives us hope for the church as a whole and for the future.

We thank God for our blessings.

 

Evelyn Anderton:

Like Janet, I was raised in a church – in my case it was the Roman Catholic Church.  After graduating from my catholic high school, I also stopped going to church and gave it very little thought for decades. Then, I got to a point where I felt there was something missing in my life. I had friends who meditated and became involved in Eastern religions, but that wasn’t a draw for me. I kept going back to Jesus’ message of peace and love.  It was so simple and so right.  Was there any place that I could go where that could be the basis for my spiritual journey and not the old sin and guilt of my early years?

It took a couple of false starts before we discovered First Christian Church. We weren’t sure what the teachings were, but we had gotten to know Dan through our work in human services and figured if there was any place that might work, it would be with Dan.  We have never been sorry.

The idea that each of us is on our own spiritual journey and we can interpret the words of Jesus in whatever way works for us was revolutionary.  It was clear from the beginning that this was a congregation that would accept us as a couple and have no judgments.  Then we found out that it wasn’t just this church, but the leadership of Disciples of Christ is encouraging all congregations to declare themselves open and affirming church to gays and lesbians.

This is a very exciting and scary time for us as lesbians.  It is exciting because it feels like the acceptance of our life style by more and more people is growing.  It is scary because we know from history that the backlash against oppressed people can be so sudden and devastating.  Being part of a community like First Christian Church gives us hope.  It’s proof that there is a strong Christian presence in this country that is based on love and justice for everyone.

We want to thank you and tell you how proud we are to be a part of such an accepting congregation.

 


Thank you for sharing with us today.  I have to make a confession.  When I was thinking about this Sunday, I actually invited someone else to speak.  And that is Senator Frank Morse, who is a good friend.  I invited him for two reasons:  number one, he was author of SB-1000 that pre-dated the two bills that were approved in the last session, that would have done the same thing but a little bit differently.  And secondly, because he's a Republican, and would provide political cover for me J.  Former chair of the Board at Northwest Christian College, we actually sang in the church choir together at First Christian Church in Albany, so I've known him for a long time.  I thought he'd be the perfect person to speak.  But the stories and testimonies these couples have provided us are so much more powerful because it comes from within the congregation, and I just truly want to thank you for that.

In the first service, another member had to tell her story at the end of the service, and I want to share that story with you.  She was told that she could not give birth due to some defect, I don't remember what it was.  She gave birth to a child who died 3 days after birth, and that's when she learned that it was dangerous for her.  A year later, she became pregnant again, and gave birth a second time.  Her son revealed to her as a young adult that he was gay (her only son).  In her previous church, someone told her that God does not love homosexuals.  And she said:  "How could God not love this child, who is such a miracle, who wasn't even supposed to be?".  That's how she came to us.  Just an incredibly powerful story.

My concluding thoughts about all of this comes back to this revolutionary idea we have in this church that every individual has the freedom to believe as they see fit within the very broad parameter of the person of Jesus Christ.  We do not a creed, we do not have a doctrine, we do not say you have to believe all of these things.  That allows for all of this incredible freedom, which means that you can disagree with everything that has been said this morning, and still be a good member of this church.  And indeed, many people do disagree with things that I say and are good members of this church.

But if we are going to unite around that person of Jesus Christ, then I truly believe that at a minimum it means this:  that the time has come for us to say without hesitation and without equivocation, that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, male nor female, straight or gay, all are one in Christ in the love of God.

For that we give thanks.  May it be.

 


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