Keeping the Faith
Fifth Anniversary Celebration of Jeanne Barnett & Ellie Charlton's Holy Union, St. Mark's United Methodist Church, Sacramento, CA
The following sermon was given by Mary Tolbert on Jan 17th at a large gathering of United Methodists celebrating the 5th anniversary of the Holy Union of Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton. Unfortunately Jeanne died in October but one of her dying wishes was for this day of celebration and renewal to go forward. Their Holy Union was co-officiated by 68 United Methodist clergy in spite of the stand of the UMC on performing holy unions.
When I heard the sad news of Jeanne's death this fall, the scripture verse that came immediately to my mind was 2 Timothy 4:7, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." And that verse has stayed with me through these months since, as I thought about this 5th Anniversary Celebration of the enduring love of Jeanne and Ellie and the remarkable courage of all those who publically blessed that love and witnessed their Holy Union. That event was a clear example of what it means to "fight the good fight," to stand up against the church itself, if need be, in order to proclaim the love of God for all of God's children.
As progressive—yes, perhaps even liberal—Christians, I think most of us have a tendency to want to avoid fights as much as possible. We long for those promised "win-win" scenarios so highly regarded in management textbooks. We don't want the rancor, alienation, anger, and confrontation that fights — no matter how respectful— always bring with them. We really want everyone to live in harmony and peace. But this verse from Timothy reminds us that some fights are "good fights," one's worthy of having, worthy of winning, worthy even of risking one's security, peace of mind, family, and friends. For Paul, fighting for the gospel of Jesus and its message of freedom from legalism, judgmentalness, and exclusion was manifestly a "good fight," one worth devoting one's life to winning, even if it meant he had to go up against Peter the Great Apostle and James the brother of Jesus. Jeanne knew and Ellie knows and the 68 United Methodist ministers who co-celebrated their union know and Karen Damman knows, that opposing the bigotry, homophobia, and ignorance of many United Methodist Church leaders and members is just such a "good fight," one that is essential for the health of the Body of Christ. If hatred, judgmentalness, and exclusion are left unhindered and unchallenged, the gospel of Christ itself will be the biggest loser of all.
I believe that this particular "good fight" is a fight not only for the human dignity and profound Christian worthiness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people, but it is also a fight for the continuing moral credibility of Christianity in the 21st Century.
By supporting—on the basis of ample biblical warrant—the morality of slavery in the 19th Century and the second-class status of women in the 20th Century, Christianity in this country lost many of its finest members, who left in disgust at the literal Bible reading which made some human beings feel completely justified in treating others, who were different from them, as much less than human. Paul's warning to the Corinthians that "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6) was utterly ignored in the rush to justify biblically exclusion, subordination, and hatred. Christianity in this country has still not recovered, I think, from the stupidity, arrogance, and moral blindness of these earlier calls to apply the "letter" of scripture to civil society. And now we are at it again.
Some Christians are calling for the literal application of a couple of obscure verses in the Bible (and I do mean "a couple" and I do mean "obscure") to deny the civil rights and human dignity of LGBT people. Our legitimate desire to have our faithful, long-term, loving relationships recognized by the state and blessed by the church is castigated by some conservatives—in a crazy reverse logic—as a move to destroy marriage itself. (If you want to see who is destroying marriage, you need look no further than many heterosexual couples—like Britney Spears recent fiasco after a night of drinking in Las Vegas.) I truly know that lesbians, gay men, bisexual, and transgendered people will survive all this present ruckus and will thrive, because we are survivors, and we have survived many worse things before. But will the moral capital of Christianity survive the current blatant use of it for political maneuvering, harassment and hate mongering against LGBT people? That I do not know. This particular "good fight" is one that must be joined not only by those who care about LGBT people, but also by those who care about the future of Christianity itself—because I believe that the future is seriously at stake in this battle.
But, you know, I'm sure there are conservative United Methodists out there who believe just as strongly that their battle to drive LGBT people and their allies out of the church is also the "good fight" that must be won to preserve Christianity in all its purity and moral glory. The dividing line between these groups comes down to very different understandings of that last phase in the 2 Timothy verse: what it means to "keep the faith." "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith." What does it mean to "keep the faith"? I think for many conservative Christians, keeping the faith is a matter of trying to preserve some revered past that never really existed, some mythical time of perfect order and harmony. And that harmony for them has now come to require uniformity and unanimity. Everyone must believe and speak and act in the same way, and they or their leaders are the ultimate judges of what those beliefs and actions should be. I fear, in this scenario, that the Spirit that gives life has truly been frozen in amber, preserved there to be admired for its purity and the power that purity appears to give. Questioning, doubting, wrestling with God for that elusive blessing is absolutely discouraged. This "kept faith" must in their eyes be a sure thing, known, dependable, and—rather like the proverbial "kept woman"—completely controllable.
In my world, and let me point out, the world of most of the early Christians, a "kept faith" is not keeping the faith. Indeed, it is not faith at all. Faith is above all risk taking; its messy, noisy, full of human despair and joy. Faith is alive, present, moving; faith is surprising; it confounds the known. Do you think Paul knew when he set out on the road to Damascus that he would be struck down by the words of Jesus? If he had, he would probably have stayed home! Faith is not predictable but surprising, undermining our prejudices and ignorance. To keep this kind of faith, one has to keep moving with it; you have to run that race that 2 Timothy mentions. It is the kind of faith that makes quiet, gentle, private older Methodist women flaunt their same-sex relationship in the face of the church; it makes local pastors throw their jobs, their retirements, and their professional standing into the wind. To keep a faith like this we all have to get in the race; we can't stand on the sidelines as observers. We have to pick up our water bottles and run–just to keep up with what God is doing in the world. To keeping this dynamic faith we have to open ourselves to the unknown, to other human beings, to difference, to disagreement, and to the great gloriously diverse and richly patterned world that God has created. This is the faith Jeanne kept, and it is the race she ran.
This dynamic faith always points us to a new future, a future that is unknown except that God will be there, too. It requires us to risk everything in the present in order to reach that unknown future. Do you remember the story Jesus tells in both the gospels of Luke (19:12-27) and Matthew (25:14-30) about the ruler who left his country after dividing a great amount of money among his servants? When the ruler returned he asked each servant to account for the money entrusted to him. The first one had doubled the money and was greatly rewarded; the second had done the same and was equally compensated. The last servant, fearing to lose the money, had—in Matthew's version—buried it in the ground. That last servant was condemned and cast into "outer darkness." Faith is like that as well. It has to be invested and spent in order to grow, but the rewards for that investment are enormous. On the other hand, if you are so afraid of losing your faith that all you can do is protect it, hem it in by many rules and bury it to keep it safe and unchanging, in the end you lose it and you lose yourself as well. Faith preserved is not faith. Faith must be invested in the world in order to grow.
So, keeping the faith doesn't mean preserving it carefully in amber for others to admire in the future; it means risking faith in the economics of daily life; it means being willing to not be in control of what happens, and yet to act boldly anyway and let the future develop as it will.
Keeping that kind of faith is what all of us are and will be called upon to do in the next months and years. This "good fight" is not over by any means. Indeed, I think that the next year or two will, if anything, be more nasty, more divisive, more violent than any we have seen so far. The apparent desire of the present political administration to make same-sex marriage a central campaign theme, presumably to divert the public's attention from troubling issues like the war in Iraq, the still stumbling economy, and the gigantic deficit, ensures that the rhetoric about LGBT people will continue hot and heavy in civil and church debates. When you consider the enormous financial reserves at the disposal of conservative right-wing organizations (Focus on Family's annual budget is 16 times larger than the budgets of all the national LGBT organizations put together!), you realize that the battle will be mighty and vicious. In the short-term, I think LGBT issues will be facing a terrible and perhaps successful backlash. From national movements for the so-called Marriage Amendment to local California attacks on AB 205, the domestic partnership bill, the meager civil rights LGBT people have won will become hotly contested issues.
In the midst of this backlash, I think, there are two primary points that all of us progressive Christians must make again and again in these coming debates:
(1.) First, in relation to the debate over same-sex marriages, we must work constantly to impress on the public, including our friends, families, and fellow congregants that there are two distinct facets to marriage in this country that must be carefully distinguished from each other: sacred services performed by various faith communities on the one hand, and civil contracts witnessed, ratified, and filed with the state on the other. Same-gender couples, like Jeanne and Ellie, have had the benefit of sacred rites within their faith communities for decades, in some cases. But none of these couples are treated legally as married because those church ceremonies were not accompanied by state ratified contracts of marriage. Making same-gender marriage legal will do absolutely nothing to faith communities. Those who currently perform unions will continue to do so, and those who don't, will continue to be free to refuse. The only difference will be in the legal standing of the couples in relationship to state and national laws. Most Americans, it seems, do not really recognize or understand this distinction between civil contract and sacred rites. Unlike many European countries where couples have two separate ceremonies, one at the city clerk's office and one in the church, in this country we let pastors act as both religious functionaries and civil clerks at the same time. Consequently, many Americans don't realize that the religious service is not what "marries" them in the eyes of the state but instead the signing of the civil contract. Because most Americans don't realize this distinction, they believe that religious groups and church spokespeople should have the right to determine who can and who cannot get married. This lack of clarity about the dual nature of marriage has to be changed, if same-gender marriage is to have any chance of succeeding.
I think many of you who are pastors are in especially good positions to make this important distinction clear. Some of you might even want to consider joining the movement of pastors who are no longer willing to also act as agents of the state by signing marriage licenses, thereby forcing couples to have two ceremonies. But whatever you do or don't do, continually making the distinction between the civil and sacred aspects of marriage is an essential educational effort for these next several years.
(2.) The second point we all need to be making is that Christianity, like other faith communities, does not speak with one voice. The religious right has been very successful in selling their version of Christianity as the only "right" version. We must become ever more vocal and visible as equally "right" Christians who see the teachings of Jesus and the church in very different ways from Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and company. We must work to re-claim the voice of the gospel for social justice for LGBT people. We cannot continue to let Christianity go to the one with the most money or the greatest media access. We need to flaunt our views, our lives, and our loves as we never have before, and most importantly, we need to flaunt ourselves as Christians.
These two points are vital to make in the short-term future of backlash, debate, and political posturing. What happens after that is harder to predict. There is a wonderful quote from Mahatma Ghandi about the course of movements for human liberation. Ghandi said, "First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
I wish I had a crystal ball that would tell me when that "win" will take place for LGBT people and the allies in the UMC, other faith communities, and society-at-large. All I do know is that keeping the faith into the future is always a risk, but it is a risk I hope all of us are willing to take. Many people have run this race ahead of us and many are running it with us still, and many may have to run it after we are gone. When each of us comes to the end of our time, my hope and prayer is that we each may honestly be able to say, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."