Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
that I thought I would use for this Sunday, which we've designated as
equality Sunday, is Paul's letter to Philemon, which Paul wrote on
behalf of Philemon's slave Onesimus. Reading from verse 8 through 22 of
reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to
command you to do your duty, 9yet I would
rather appeal to you on the basis of
love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and
now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10I
am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus,
whose father I have become during my
imprisonment. 11Formerly he was useless to
you, but now he is indeed useful both to you
and to me. 12I am sending him, that is, my
own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep
him with me, so that he might be of service
to me in your place during my imprisonment
for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do
nothing without your consent, in order that
your good deed might be voluntary and not
something forced. 15Perhaps this is the
reason he was separated from you for a
while, so that you might have him back for
ever, 16no longer as a slave but as more
than a slave, a beloved brother—especially
to me but how much more to you, both in the
flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if
you consider me your partner, welcome him as
you would welcome me. 18If he has wronged
you in any way, or owes you anything, charge
that to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing
this with my own hand: I will repay it. I
say nothing about your owing me even your
own self. 20Yes, brother, let me have this
benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my
heart in Christ. 21Confident of your
obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that
you will do even more than I say.
thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for
I am hoping through your prayers to be
restored to you.
once again, I find myself this morning saying 'huh?'. How did we end up
with this theme, on this particular Sunday, quite unintentionally?
Sometimes it's just the coincidences of history and lectionary, like
last Sunday -- for those who were here, the lectionary text was the
story of the woman at the well, you all remember, the woman who had 5
husbands, and now living with a 6th man. And wondering what illustration
can I use for that, and lo & behold, Elizabeth Taylor in the news, and
made for some interesting reflection. And bless her for her wonderful
life in so many ways.
This week, that strange a coincidence that occurred was neither due to
lectionary nor history, but rather two different events within the life
of our congregation which have converged on this Sunday.
The first came through our open and affirming task force, which wanted
to find a Sunday when we could recognize our new status as an open and
affirming congregation. That fell to this Sunday simply due to a
combination of factors that made it the only available Sunday between
now and Pentecost. Then, some kind and good people (that I did not
bribe, cajole, or coerce :), decided that this would be the Sunday that
we would recognize our 20 years of ministry together which we have just
Although I thought the plan was that we were going to do it last
Sunday, at least that was the first word that came to me, although I'm
quite thankful that it turned out to be this Sunday because I'm just not
quite sure how that would have worked -- of any comparison that might
have been made to the woman at the well or Elizabeth Taylor. At least I
wouldn't make that comparison in my ministry, you might :). And I'm also
thankful that it was this Sunday because I couldn't be more pleased to
share this Sunday as equality Sunday.
In a broad sense, that
really has been a focus of my ministry -- equality. And justice. I'm
pleased to say that it's not just my ministry, that it truly is our
ministry. So let me say a little bit more about how we got to where we
are and what I believe it means for us today.
First, I have to make a true confession. When Judy and I came here 20
years ago, we never dreamed that we would still be here today. It's not
that we wanted to go somewhere else, I just didn't know, growing up in
the mansion of the pastor, that you could stay that long. Because we
always moved every 7 or 8 years. It wasn't until Dad went to Portland
that they decided to stay around for more than 10 years.
any rate, here we are, 20 years later. And I never had any intent, 20
years ago, of leading us to this particular point. Never crossed my
I was curious as to what I preached on 20 years ago -- even though you
may remember it well, I don't :). So I pulled out my notes from that
Sunday. I don't use a manuscript (you may have noticed that's why I
stumble around a lot), and we don't have a recording from that Sunday,
so all we have are these notes. Bless Glen Campbell who
transcribes my sermons and
puts them on the web. But this is how that sermon began: Army
reservist; woman loses husband; teenager leukemia; worker laid off;
student new school; family new town. I have no idea what I said about
any of these things!
It was Easter Sunday, by the way, March 31st, 1991. I thought it was a
great Sunday to start a new ministry. The gospel story was the gospel of
Mark, the resurrection story. The theme was hope in the face of hopeless
situations. I figured that was a good way to start my first Sunday here
-- you didn't know me, I didn't know you :).
The illustration that I used later in the sermon of that was the
experience Judy and I had living in Germany, and in particular 10 days I
had studying and working Auschwitz. 10 days in Poland, and then in a
week in Auschwitz. I noted in that sermon that Jews, Gypsies, Communist,
Homosexuals, and other 'undesirables' were sent to the gas chambers. Gas
chambers in which I stood 40 years later. Let me tell you, you do not
have that kind of experience without it changing you. Plus the fact that
I was there with Germans, it was part of their working through their
history and coming to terms with all of that. Incredibly powerful
I went on in that sermon to quote Paul Tillich, the great theologian of
the last century from this country, who in the height of the civil
rights movement in the mid-1960s said "the belief in the original unity
of all human races has become a matter of genuine hope. That hope leads
to progress from injustice to more justice, from hostility to more
peace, from separation to more unity, is exactly what the kingdom of God
is about". And so Tillich said: "For the kingdom of God does not come in
one dramatic event sometime in the future, it is coming here and now in
every act of love, in every manifestation of truth, in every moment of
joy, in every experience of the holy".
That's what we're about. That's creating those moments. Creating that
place, that visible, tangible manifestation of the kingdom of God at
work, transforming this world into that world desired by God, practiced
by Jesus, proclaimed by Paul, that is what we are about. It's what we
have been doing all these years. It's why we took that step to become an
open and affirming congregation as one piece of that larger picture.
Affirming the gifts that all people have, and including all in the life
of our ministry, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation and
But why make such a big point out of this one issue? People have asked
us that. And the reason is quite simple, as Tara Wilkins told me (who is
the head of Welcoming Congregations, a parachurch congregation that
works with congregations on these issues). We were conversing this week
about a possible future workshop on marriage and what that means in
light of all of this. And she said to me: "If you're gay, lesbian,
bi-sexual, transgendered, queer, questioning, the one message you hear
over and over and over again, from Christians and churches, is that you
are a sinner and you are not welcome, unless you change".
And we saw that last
week, in the incredible editorial in the Register Guard on Sunday,
written by Desiree Bone. Desiree is a daughter of lesbian mothers. She
writes: "Through the years, although the country may seem to be
accepting homosexuals more, the people around me have started to reject
and hurt homosexuals more and more". She goes on to write about her
experience in school, and the ridicule endured by her gay friends. When
one of her friends confessed to her some suicidal thoughts, she learned
about how suicide rates among gay and lesbian youth are alarmingly high
-- much higher than any other population. And she says, "Knowing this,
it only makes it worse when children ask me stupid questions in front of
their closeted peers. It could be as simple as 'How were you born?', or
as cruel as 'Don't you know your parents are going to hell?'. And my
homosexual friends around me start to put up walls. These children, and
remember they are still children, already are vulnerable enough without
people preaching hate to them".
Desiree is an eighth-grader. She writes with the wisdom, and the
courage, of someone three or four times her age.
This is the predominant experience that we have heard from all of our
gay and lesbian friends in this congregation. It is the experience of
almost all homosexuals. And often includes on top of that the rejection
by their own family and their own church. I know of no other group that
experiences that kind of prejudice and discrimination, and that's why
it's important for us to talk about it and to lift it up.
Three years ago, our Vision Team developed our future story and our
Strategic Plan. The bulk of that was written while I was on sabbatical.
It was a lay-led process that was guided by our consultant (Dick Hamm).
It including in it a goal to form this task force for the purpose of
exploring the possibility of becoming open and affirming. Dr. Hamm had
advised us that the time was right to do this, and we did. And I mention
that, because we're all too familiar with those strategic plans that are
so finally written, and then are immediately 'implemented' by putting
them in a file cabinet never to see the light of day again. But we have
been working on that plan for the last three years. And we implemented
that one step (although we were one year late).
That process of becoming open and affirming, like the strategic plan
itself, was lay-led. It including input from over a hundred of our
members through surveys and listening gatherings with every possible
group of the Church. The task force worked incredibly hard to get as
much input as possible, to offer opportunities for everyone to express
themselves, and a variety of educational events. And the one major
concern that seemed to be the theme they heard over and over again was
the fear of dividing the church. We don't want to take a vote on this,
because votes just create winners and losers.
And so we developed the
consensus process that we used at our Annual Meeting that involved more
listening, and sitting at tables and listening to each other. And
opportunities for everyone to participate. At the end of the day, we
came up one voice short of consensus. One person not willing to stand
aside, who was brand new in the church, had not gone through that
process with us. We thought we had failed, and were beginning to
strategize with what to do next, and when that person found out they
were the only one, graciously then agreed to step aside. And so we
Now, please know that consensus does not mean everyone agrees. Indeed,
people still have questions, doubts, concerns, maybe disagree. And all
are welcome here. Consensus means that those who are not in agreement
are willing to stand aside and will not undermine our sabotage the will
of the body for the good of the whole.
So throughout this whole process, while obviously I have been in support
(as April is as well), I intentionally did not devote a sermon to the
topic. I did not want to use the pulpit as a campaign tool, so that the
process would remain as something owned by the congregation.
Now that we have made our decision, do you think it's OK if I share with
you my views? Can I speak freely? :).
Let me approach it this way. Thursday I had an editorial in the paper,
on behalf of workers at McKenzie-Willamette hospital who have been
working without a contract for almost a year (I spoke at their rally
that night). Friday, I was back up in Salem for the Caesar Chavez event
for farm-workers, in the Governor's office, a proclamation by the
Governor declaring last week 'Farm-worker Awareness Week', that was read
by Kate Brown (they had asked me to come up and 'MC' the ceremony).
Yesterday, Eliza had that
wonderful article in the Heart-to-Heart column
in the Register Guard, very gracious, quoting many of our interfaith
Eliza Drummond delivering gifts to Dan on his
20th anniversary with First Christian Church in Eugene.
It may not
be obvious, but you see these are all connected for me. They are all
part of that same issue. And it goes back to those gas chambers in
Auschwitz, where all of those undesirables were equal in death. Executed
by the state, just as was Jesus.
Equality. Justice. Unity. Fairness. Civil Rights. Human Rights. All
these things that stand against racism, and sexism, and xenophobia, and
homophobia, are central to the gospel It is summed up in that vision for
the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. You simply cannot profess
belief in the love of God for all people and then condemn some to hell
for who they are, or require them to change their most fundamental
identity as a prerequisite for receiving that love.
And I don't care if you're talking about gay or lesbian, Jewish or
Muslim, documented or undocumented, it's all another form of
works-righteousness if we say 'you have to change before you can be part
of us', before you can be like us and can receive that love of God. That
is contrary to the core of the gospel.
So here are the three
principles that guide my beliefs and actions, clearly evident (I think)
in Paul's letter to Philemon.
First of all, spiritual equality leads to social equality.
Onesimus, a slave, is a brother in Christ, says Paul, and concludes
therefore that his status as a slave of Philemon is incompatible with
his status of being equal in Christ.
Second, voluntary action based on love is always preferable to
involuntary action base on coercion.
It would be much better for Philemon to free his slave by his own will
than for Paul to command him to do so.
But third, when voluntary action is not sufficient, justice may require
outside intervention for the common good.
Justice is the social form of love. And Paul makes clear he expects
justice to be done in the case of Onesimus, because if Philemon does not
act freely, Paul is coming to visit, he will intervene.
Now, keep all that in mind as I remind you of that verse I use so often,
and in many ways one of the themes of my ministry, of Galatians 3:28:
"In Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male
and female, all are one in Christ".
Now, we're not sure in what order Paul's letters were written. They
didn't number them for us, right? There are no dates for them. So I
wonder -- did Paul's grandiose vision of unity and equality in Christ
come before or after his encounter with Onesimus?
Could it be just as Paul argued before the elders in Jerusalem
(described in Acts 15, and a slightly different version in Galatians 2),
that the work of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles (which Paul argues
was sufficient evidence for their inclusion into the body of Christ
without any need of any other requirement, in this case circumcision or
observing a kosher diet) so too, I suspect, he learned from his
experience of working with slaves, and with women. That the holy spirit,
present in them, was evidence of their full equality in Christ.
So there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that if Paul read that
editorial from Desiree, if Paul heard that testimony that we heard from
our own gay members and their family members at our Annual Meeting, if
Paul knew the people that we knew -- fine, Christian, devout, people who
just happen to be gay lesbian -- if Paul knew that, then he would have
also said "In Christ Jesus there is neither gay or straight, all are
And once you accept that spiritual equality, then social equality is no
longer optional. It is required as a fundamental matter of justice. So
whether we're talking about justice for racial or religious minorities,
justice for low-paid hospital or farm workers, justice for hetero or
homosexuals, it is the same issue.
we dare to open ourselves to listen to the pain and suffering of others
because of their sexual orientation, or because of their immigration
status, or because of their race, or because of their religion, and we
discover that they are good, decent people, who have the same hopes and
fears, the same joys and grief's, the same beliefs and doubts as we do,
how can we then deny them the same privileges and benefits that we have
in the kingdom of God, or in society on earth?
This is my belief. It's the conviction I've tried (however imperfectly
or inadequately) to put into practice these 20 years. That here in this
place, we are called to live out that equality in Christ, working for
God's justice in the world.
Amen? Amen. [Applause from the congregation]
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