By Rev. Dr. Dale G. Tremper, Travis Park United Methodist Church
Trinity Sunday, June 15, 2014
I can’t promise you that this will be the best sermon you have ever heard. I can promise you that this may be the most important sermon that I have ever preached, in this regard: it is the first one in which my deeds match up directly with my words. In this message, I am calling myself out into a new dimension of costly discipleship.
Prayer: Holy God, take these words and the deeds that follow them and use them, use me, use us, for your purposes in the world. I pray that we will be faithful in the task of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, through the power of the Holy Spirit in us. Amen!
For more than 5 years now, this church has been home for me and Sherron. TPUMC is family. It has been almost 5 years that I have served as a member of the church staff in several different capacities, mostly as an Associate Pastor. I understand that my primary role here is to be supportive to the Senior Pastor and to do those things that enhance the mission of the church. An Associate Pastor is generally not called to make waves or make trouble or make headlines. That is just fine with me; I came here having already technically retired as an Elder from the Oklahoma Conference. This vital faith community has been a safe place for me. You have accepted me, trusted me and allowed me to continue in my role as a Servant Leader: nurturing, guiding, teaching, assisting, encouraging, keeping myself in line and sometimes keeping others in line.
One of the things that has always been difficult for me is to find an appropriate label for my theology, my perspective and my stance as a servant of God. Early on, I considered myself to be an Evangelical, but never a Conservative Evangelical. These days, I would not be offended if you called me a Progressive Evangelical, however the Right Wing in American politics has taken the theological term “evangelical” hostage and made it into an abomination. Where I come from, I never would have labeled myself as a Liberal; that word would have been the “kiss of death”. Sometimes I used to think of myself as a Radical, but never having gone to jail, except to visit, never having greatly disturbed my supervisors or superintendents, not being temperamentally suited to making waves, I am not worthy to be called a Radical. I would hope to be worthy to be called a “Christian”. In spite of my agreement with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s maxim, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”, at almost 67 years of age, I feel very much alive. I suppose that I have been far too willing to work within channels and to Do the Right Thing.
This church is my safe place. If I say something that sounds a little bit unusual, you are not going to challenge my right to say it. But there are others listening who will not be so accepting. Today is a day for Coming Out. Today is a day for what in Family Systems Theory is called “differentiation”. While I have no intention of becoming a lone wolf, here I am and I want you to hear me clearly: The United Methodist Church has been on the wrong side of truth, the wrong side of history and even on the wrong side of the Gospel for the past 42 years in its official declaration that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”. Based on the last minute addition of those words to our Social Principles on the floor of General Conference in 1972, our LGBT brothers and sisters have been forced into second class membership in the church. It gets worse: The General Conference has declared, “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church”. Since 1996, all United Methodist clergy and congregations have been held accountable to an absolute ban upon affirming LGBT people who were ready to enter into covenant relationships before God with one another, with these words: “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” On the one hand, the church says, “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift.” On the other hand, LGBT persons who decide to commit themselves to one another to celebrate God’s “sacred gift” in them in a life-changing relationship are turned away from their very own churches.
So, here I am today. The following words were released to the world two days ago on Friday. I wrote them. They cannot be taken back:
A significant and fulfilling part of my ministry at Travis Park has been officiating at many weddings in our historic downtown sanctuary. It has always struck me that while we claim to value sexual fidelity, as United Methodist clergy we have been prohibited from celebrating the spiritual bonds of same sex couples. We have used liturgies to bless people’s homes and pets and sometimes have even been asked to say prayers over automobiles. While our culture and our church struggle to comprehend the mystery of our creation as sexual and relational beings, my faith compels me to offer the blessing of the Church to people who are prepared to make a lifelong commitment to each other in the context of their faith, desiring “…to love and to cherish, as long as we both shall live”, mutually promising, “I will serve you with tenderness and respect, and encourage you to develop God’s gifts in you…” My baptism, my ordination and my faith in God through Jesus Christ move me to extend God’s grace to all who seek life and wholeness through Christian commitment. In a time in which laws and social attitudes toward same sex marriage are rapidly changing, I am stepping forward to affirm those special LGBT couples who are ready to enter into a spiritual covenant with one another that will transform their lives and be a witness to the world of their integrity and their faith in Christ.
Jesus sent his disciples out of hiding in Jerusalem, out of their homes in Galilee to make disciples out of all the nations of the earth. No discrimination. No exclusion. In making relationships, making friendships, being in servant ministry with people in diverse cultures, new languages, new eras, new situations, disciples learn new insights. The Gospel itself takes on new flavors as it is passed along and received among new peoples in new places and new generations. Do you remember our baptismal vows? The candidate is asked, or the parents are asked on behalf of the child, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” Just as we have learned that discrimination against people because of their race or ethnicity is against the Gospel, just as we have learned that excluding women because of their gender is dishonoring the God who made us in God’s image, male and female, so we are now learning that excluding LGBT people because of their God-given sexual orientation is contrary to God’s good purpose for humanity.
Before he was elected to serve as a Bishop in the church, Melvin Talbert was appointed to the Commission that was given the task of developing Social Principles for the church. In those days, as in these, people were struggling to understand the reality of homosexuality. Talbert writes that his group was influenced by the notion that “mother dominance” was the primary cause of what we today call “homosexual orientation”. They were prepared to write that theory into the Social Principles of the Church. Then, all of a sudden, just before the 1972 General Conference, the New England Journal of Medicine published its findings after extensive research, giving scientific proof that homosexuality is a far more complex and subtle reality than the medical community had previously acknowledged. Just in time before General Conference, the Commission gave up its false, exclusionary certainty about human complexity and wrote instead, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.” But the majority at that General Conference voted instead to exclude some people, not accepting the sacred worth of some because of the fear and ignorance of many.
This past week, speaking at a forum in San Francisco, of all places, our esteemed Governor proposed his own theory to account for human diversity. He affirmed that people may have a tendency to become alcoholics because of their genetics and that they can overcome that tendency and live clean, sober and fulfilling lives. Rick Perry then proposed that in the same way, LGBT people can decide to go against their tendencies and become Happy Straights through what he calls “reparative therapy”. Sorry Mr. Perry, but your idea is wrong, it is demeaning, it has been tried, it does not work, it has caused great harm. I think that our governor may understand a lot more about alcoholism than he does about homosexuality. An entire organization called Exodus International existed for more than 25 years, telling LGBT people that if they wanted to be good Christians they needed to change their orientation and be straight. Many suffered through bogus “therapies” including electro-convulsive shock treatments, aversive therapy, etc. and were not able to change their God-given attraction to their own gender. Finally the President of Exodus International a few years ago admitted that he had been wrong, apologized to many whom his group had harmed and dissolved the organization.
Repentance and change are possible. Repentance and change and new life happen every day. Repentance and change and healthy Christian living are hard and joyful work, with God’s constant help. Today is a day for Coming Out. Come out with me for the sake of all people. Come out with me for the sake of the church we love. Come out with me for the sake of our children, our brothers and sisters, our hurting world. Come out of hiding, come out of exclusion, come out of fear, come out of ignorance.
Whenever the moment comes that the first LGBT couple comes to me to bless their relationship before family and friends in the context of their Christian commitment, I will be honored to celebrate with them. I am ready to risk my ordination, which has been a central part of my identity for my entire adult life. In doing so, I want you to know that I have Pastor Monte’s blessing and the blessing and encouragement of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee of this church. My brother retired pastor Fred Kandeler stands with me in this readiness to serve. We hope that we have your prayers and your blessings, too. My bishop in Oklahoma will probably be interested in dragging me through a church trial, as will Fred’s bishop in North Texas. While I am not eager to stand before people who would be motivated to dishonor me, with your prayers I can stand tall and give honor to the God whose Word has always transcended human understanding. The human words that are found in church law are fallible. Some of them need to be changed. Some of them need to be resisted. Some of them must be defied. This is Faithful Obedience. So, help me God.
Dr. Rev. Dr. Dale G. Tremper’s bio can be found by clicking HERE.
Image photographed by Steve Snodgrass, via Flickr Creative Commons.