December 06, 2006

Sermon by Rev. Dale Irving on our Affirming Service

Breaking Barriers
Reign of Christ Sunday, November 26, 2006
Scripture: Revelation 1: 4-8, John 18: 33 - 38

Is anybody puzzled by the use of the scripture from John’s Gospel this morning? It actually seems like it is better suited to Good Friday, or Passion Sunday, doesn’t it? However, today is the last Sunday in the long season after Pentecost that is often called “Reign of Christ Sunday” or “Christ the King Sunday”. When I first looked at it, it didn’t really seem appropriate to our celebration of becoming an Affirming Congregation; but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to be exactly the right lesson for today.

Jesus is before Pilate. Here we see the meeting of two empires. Pilate the procurator embodies the power of Rome. Jesus, the prisoner, embodies spiritual power. Pilate, powerful in his official capacity, is personally a weak and insecure person. Jesus, a prisoner without any political or official power, is entirely in control, not only of himself but of the entire situation.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” asks Pilate. The reply he receives must have been startling. "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” It shows no sign of fear or subservience. The question is from equal to equal. The conversation goes on and then Jesus says: “I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” “What is truth?” asks Pilate.

“What is truth, indeed?” Since the earliest days of the Church, the Spirit has continued to teach the Church, and to empower it for witness to the Gospel in a changing world. Once, we accepted slavery, concluding from the Old Testament that people of colour were clearly the sons and daughters of Ham, destined to be hewers of wood and carriers of water. But the Spirit had more to teach us, and that which we once justified from Scripture, we now repudiate. “ What is truth?”

When Sharon and I were at St. Andrew’s United Church in Sydney, there was an honorary elder, who used to tell me whenever he got the chance that the church started to go downhill on the day that women were permitted to become elders, members of the session. There was a day when women were not permitted to attend Church meetings, and most certainly not to hold office and their exclusion was justified on the basis of biblical teaching that the man was to be head of the woman as Christ is head of the Church, and that women are to be silent in church. The Spirit had more to teach us! “What is truth?”

For centuries the Church required in marriage that wives obey their husbands. But the Spirit had more to teach us. Similar justification was later used for the exclusion of women from the Order of Ministry until Lydia Gruchie was ordained in 1936. But it was more than 20 years later that married women were permitted to be in active ministry and be married. The Spirit had more to teach us. And today we welcome women to all aspects of Church life. “What is truth?”

In 1980, the Division of Ministry Personnel and Education of The United Church of Canada was in a panic. Rumour had it that a candidate for ministry was planning to ‘come out’ and declare his homosexual orientation during the final interview leading to Ordination. How would the church respond to this announcement? I, along with seven others, was invited to become part of a Task Group that was to study this matter on behalf of the church and report to the General Council at its meeting in Morden, MB in 1984. It took until 1988 when the church decided that all persons, regardless of sexual orientation were eligible to be considered for ministry. The Spirit had more to teach us. “What is truth?”

We continue to try to discern what the Spirit is saying to the Church in our context and in our time. In 2003, the General Council spoke strongly in favour of supporting equal marriage in order that loving relationships between same-gender partners could be considered as legitimate as heterosexual marriage. Do we accept the Scriptural texts as being both relevant and binding, or does the Spirit have yet more to teach us through modern science and the cries of yet another minority longing for full inclusion in the body of Christ? “What is truth?”

We need the Spirit to remind us of our history - of the trials and struggles that brought into being that part of the Church we have come to know and love. We need the Spirit to teach us that we are now a multicultural family of independent Churches, and that that calls for respect for a variety of responses to the Gospel in different contexts. We need the Spirit to help us understand how the love of God in Jesus Christ is revealed for our time through the record of Scripture. “What is truth?”

Back in the 1980s homosexual people who were part of the United Church of Canada began to ask that they be considered full members to whom all the offices of the church, including ordered ministry, were open. While most people in The United Church would not admit to having anything against gays and lesbians and it was generally agreed that they were perfectly welcome to sit in our pews, maybe even sing in the choir, as long as they didn't draw attention to themselves and make trouble.

When people who are a part of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Communities decided they would no longer settle for this kind of "don't ask, don't tell" toleration, our benevolence was severely tested. We ought never to forget what it cost many people to force us to think about what we did not want to think about and act when we would rather have done nothing.

Gradually the church has started to recognize that the social conventions of the Biblical ages are not the unchanging Word of God. Throughout the years, whenever we have discovered new possibilities for human liberation and for more abundant life, we have eventually embraced them. The Bible prohibits lenders from charging interest, assumes that government is led by kings and that slavery is part of the way things are, that women should be silent and obedient, and that divorce and remarriage are forbidden. But we've seen new possibilities of grace and over time we have been able to change our traditions; however, it has not been without struggle.

We've had conflict and disagreement at every step. Good, sincere, faithful Bible-believing Christians have lined up on both sides of these issues -- Can Gentiles become Christians? Can eunuchs be baptized? Can we allow economic activity fueled by borrowing at interest? Do only kings have a divine right to rule? Shall slaves be free? Shall women serve on Sessions, read the lessons in church, become ministers? Can divorced people be remarried? Shall black people be equal? Can people of diverse sexual orientations be fully a part of our churches?

I believe that the full inclusion of gay people in the life of our church and our society is as inevitable and as God-energized as the full inclusion of the uncircumcised, slaves, women and people of color has been. I believe it is the work of God’s Spirit and it is ultimately irresistible. “What is truth?”

I look forward to the day when children who are different are no longer teased, but are accepted. I foresee a time when all people can date and fall in love and give themselves to another person regardless of their sexual orientation with the full support of their church and an understanding society. I look forward to living in a society when we no longer oppress lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people and people of other sexual identities, so that they feel they must live in closets. I look forward to a day when we draw a wider circle and cross a line that will allow all people regardless of their sexual identity to commit themselves to the church's values and participate fully in all aspects of the church’s life.

Today, in Mill Woods United Church we have crossed a line. Today, old barriers lose their power, old wounds lose their sting. Today, as we gather our collective courage and our good will, healing is possible because we gather to celebrate something larger than ourselves.

Today we celebrate not only that Mill Woods United Church has become an Affirming Congregation within The United Church of Canada, but the love of our God that invites us all to cross the line, to stay back no longer, to step into healing, and into hope and into joy.

Today, we cross that line. Yes, the Spirit still has more to teach us. We will continue to struggle with Pilate’s question “What is truth?” and in so doing we will open ourselves to the possibility that even more barriers can come down and we can more fully become the people God intends us to be in our time and place.

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