"On Amendment 10-A"

January 16, 2011 

The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen Leviticus 11:1-12, 19:19 and Mark 7:14-23 Deuteronomy 5:17-18, Matthew 5:21-22 & 27-28

My grandfather was a physician in Peoria, Illinois in the 1940s and ‘50s. Once someone from one of the taxi companies in town called him and asked, "Do you treat black people?"
And my grandfather said, "No. I treat sick people. If that man is sick, bring him to me. If he's not sick, don't waste my time."
I have known that story all my life. My mother tells it with pride and so do I. I find it relevant this morning because I will be discussing a proposed amendment to our denomination's Book of Order. Sometimes people ask me, "Should the Presbyterian Church ordain homosexuals?" And I say, "No. We should ordain people called by the Holy Spirit through the voice of the people who have the gifts of energy, intelligence, imagination and love which the church needs desperately."
I have been an ordained minister of the word and sacrament nearly 20 years. The whole time I have been in ministry the question of the leadership of homosexuals in the church has been a topic of controversy. I am weary of the controversy. My mind has not changed a bit since I was ordained in 1991. I do not believe that homosexuals, whether celibate or those in committed relationships, should be excluded from ordained office in our denomination. I know there are ordained homosexuals serving in other congregations. For all I know there could be some in this congregation. When the Session examines the incoming elders each year, we have never asked whether they are homosexual or celibate in singleness. And I might as well confess, I personally do not have what people of my generation call "gay-dar." I can tell story after story after story about embarrassing moments I've had with classmates because I have assumed that they are heterosexual. My mind has not changed, but I do view this topic differently than I used to-I'll explain more about that toward the end of my remarks.
I need to touch on some basics for Presbyterians as I start this morning. In order to be a member of this congregation one must be baptized and one must affirm one's faith in Christ. To serve in one of our ordained positions, one has to be elected by the congregation, and only members can stand for election. The only exception to this is I, as your pastor, am not a member of this congregation, I am a member of the presbytery. Still, I was elected to serve as your pastor November 15, 1998. Now if you're thinking, "Hmm, maybe we need term limits around here, if the pastor hasn't been re-elected for 12 years..." in a sense I have been re-elected each year at the annual meeting, when the congregation approves the terms of my call here. You'll get to vote on February 6.
Presbyterians elect our own leaders. Other Christian traditions assign leaders to specific churches. A bishop, in some traditions, can move a pastor around like a chess piece. We do not operate that way. We elect our own leaders. And that means that other Presbyterian congregations elect their own leaders. This makes sense because who but the members of the congregation could know the gifts, skills, and abilities members have-and the congregation needs? No one outside this congregation has any business dictating, or even trying to influence, whom we should elect to lead us.
One more basic bit of background information: Presbyterians elect and ordain lay people to positions of leadership. "Ordained lay person" is a contradiction to most other Christians. We elect people to positions of leadership and service, offices we call "deacon," "elder" and "minister of Word and Sacrament." People in all three of these offices are considered ordained, and each answers nine questions during a public service of worship. Eight of those nine questions are common to all three offices. We value very, very highly the call and gifts of lay people to church office.
Take a look at this grey insert. The second paragraph is from our Book of Order that has been in effect since 1997:
Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament. [Book of Order G-6.0106b]

Note that The Book of Order does not forbid homosexuals from ordained positions of leadership, but they are required to be celibate, as we also require single people to be. It also lifts up one requirement among many-fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness. The part that I find most difficult is that last sentence. I have a list here, 15 pages long, of practices the confessions call sin. Anyone who refuses to repent from: stubbornness, disobedience, pride in prosperity, envy in adversity,... anyone who "lightly esteems the word of God, bears hatred, disobeys any whom God has placed in authority," anyone who makes an image or picture of God, who fails to attend church or participate in the sacraments, who desires revenge or exposes him or herself...to danger, who misuses and wastes God's gifts. Anyone who twists another's words, who gossips, who slanders, who condemns anyone lightly without hearing...anyone who resists and grieves God's Spirit, who is discontent and impatient with God's dispensations or who charges God foolishly for evils inflicted on us...anyone who is weary of performing the duties of the Sabbath or who engages in ‘needless works, words, and thoughts about our worldly employment and recreation on the Sabbath'-this afternoon our church's youth group is going bowling-is your pastor leading our youth to sin?
Another practice the confessions call sin is ‘simony.' I had to look this up. It means making a profit out of sacred things. When I order a Bible from Amazon.com, am I leading them into sin if they profit from that transaction?
Question 139 of the Larger Catechism says, "undue delay in marriage" is a sin, as are gluttony and idleness. Now I'll be honest, the Confessions also call murder, adultery and robbery sins, and I cannot see a church ever electing and ordaining an unrepentant murderer to serve on the Session. Still, this standard, in effect since 1997, is one that we have never enforced, and in all honesty one I cannot see ever enforcing. One of its effects-and I believe one of its intentions-is to keep homosexuals from positions of leadership in the church, but it also sets forth conditions that are completely unworkable. As a presbyter I have ignored these requirements for nearly 15 years.
The proposed amendment also appears on the insert.
Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation establishes the candidate's sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.
I prefer this wording, and intend to vote for it next month. I like that it mentions Jesus. It reminds ordaining bodies that Presbyterians elect their our own leaders, without stressing the importance of any one particular facet of one's life of faith, over any other. That is Christians and leaders in the church should strive to be faithful in all ways.
Perhaps you've seen the bumper sticker that reads: "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." I want to spend a few minutes today calling attention to some things the Bible says. The Bible says in Leviticus 19:19..."you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials." I stand before you guilty of violating one of the Lord's statutes. Every Sunday I wear one of three white shirts I own. All three of them are a mixture of cotton and polyester. I have worn one of these three shirts every Sunday I have led worship here. And our garden at home...we have basil growing right next to spinach. And the tomatoes are right next to the strawberries. Our garden is in violation of God's statutes.
The Book of Leviticus is filled with rules about daily living. Rules that were about honoring God, and living a life that kept the Israelites from being impure or unclean. In some ways Leviticus is a fascinating book. One can see how the laws and customs of a culture shape it and give it an identity. The Bible says that we are not to eat pork or shrimp. There is a huge number of other dietary prohibitions, for example eating meat that still has blood in it and mixing a dairy product with a meat product. So a rare bacon cheeseburger would violate at least three different prohibitions in scripture. No one is saying that people who wear cotton polyester blends or eat shellfish or porkchops or cheeseburgers should not be deacons, elders or ministers. We could set those standards for our officers here at First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but we have not. Why not? On what basis can we say that the Holiness Code in Leviticus is not binding on us?
Here's one idea, we can turn to another part of the Bible. The "answer" reading to the reading from Leviticus is Jesus explaining that what one does, that is, what comes out of one's heart is of much greater importance that what one puts into one's body. A person is not defiled or rendered unclean by what he eats, but by what he does. Has Jesus redefined sin? Or has Jesus led us to see what it means to be holy in a new way? It is very difficult to bring Bible readings into the present age. That culture, language and worldview are so different from ours. Be honest, are any of you disappointed that the Bible forbids you from eating rock badger or camel? Did you even know?
Take a look at the second set of readings. The two sentences from Deuteronomy ought to be familiar; they are two of the Ten Commandments. Compare them to what Jesus says in Matthew's gospel. After looking at the first pair of readings one might be tempted to think that Jesus makes things more lenient for his followers, because he says the dietary code found in Leviticus is not important. But in this case, Jesus takes two familiar commandments and says we are all guilty of them. "If you say,'You fool!, you will be liable to the hell of fire." OK, let me put a local spin on this. You know the roundabouts that were constructed over the summer? Twice I have had to turn sharply and stamp on my brakes because motorists on my left simply have not been clear on the concept. I have shouted, "you fool!" and other words that I will not speak in a service of Christian worship. I have not murdered, but I confess to having been angry, I confess to having insulted a fellow motorist. I am guilty of murder. Oh, and so are you. So are all of us.
Remember 30 years ago when President Carter admitted that he'd lusted in his heart? That sounded quaint then. He was using words straight from Jesus' mouth to say that he knows he's guilty. And by this standard, every one of us is guilty. And I'll go even further. I expect the next time a fellow motorist tries to go from the left lane through my car to exit onto Witzell Avenue, I will shout, "you fool!" I am unrepentant. And I do not plan to dig up the garden to separate the green beans from the gooseberries. I am unrepentant. I do not plan to stop wearing this shirt every third Sunday. I am unrepentant. The next time I am at A&W, I expect to order the Poppa Burger, that's the one with bacon and cheese. I am unrepentant. I am a sinner. I cannot foresee a time when I will not be a sinner in need of forgiveness. I cannot foresee a time when I will be able to live up to the standard for ordination we currently find in our Book of Order. And I expect that if those who are currently serving as deacons and elders, and those who will be ordained and installed next week, honestly examined their lives, they would also find that they cannot live up to this standard. This would make for shorter meetings. The fact is...all of us have sinned and fallen short...all of us stand in need of grace, mercy and forgiveness. I do. You do. Everyone does.
I started this morning by saying "My mind has not changed, but I do view this topic differently than I used to." That might sound like double talk, and I do not mean it to. What I see and feel now is the pain that people on all sides of this controversy feel. People I love and respect find it very, very difficult to accept the possibility of gay clergy. They read the same Bible as I and are part of the same denomination and in good Presbyterian style we hold different opinions. Right now I have two colleagues whom I respect who have set their ordinations aside while this amendment process proceeds. One of them was a seminary classmate who sat down with me one evening and helped me write my personal statement of faith more than 20 years ago. He is scholar and teacher of great gifts. And it makes me sad that he cannot retain the status of minister of Word and Sacrament in good conscience.
I also know and love people in this congregation who will find it impossible to stay in our denomination if homosexuals are not forbidden from serving as pastors. For more than 20 years the only time Presbyterians ever get any coverage in the national media is when we have voted on whether homosexuals can hold ordained office. And each vote in those two decades has inched a little closer to that reality. We are in the midst of voting right now. Currently 23 of 174 presbyteries have voted. 6 have voted in favor of this amendment and 17 against. There are 151 presbyteries which have yet to vote. Our presbytery's vote will be Saturday, February 12. At our meeting on Tuesday the Session will elect a delegate from this congregation to attend that meeting. As a minister member of presbytery I will also be allowed to vote on the amendment.
I close by sharing one more foundational Presbyterian belief. We do not allow voting by proxy and here's why. We believe that the Holy Spirit has the power to change anyone's mind. It is our practice to elect delegates who will listen to and participate in discussion and then vote their consciences. We do not instruct people in how to vote. We elect them and trust them. Earlier this morning I said "I intend to vote for this amendment." I do not know how the discussion of this amendment will go, and my homeboy, Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen said "the only man who never changes his mind is a dead man." I am committed to going to next month's meeting with an open mind and listening to the nudging of the Holy Spirit during the debate.
I'm done now, but I am confident that many of you will want to discuss this topic in greater depth. This afternoon, this sermon will appear on our website and I welcome your comments and conversation.