OF THE SPIRIT by
Rev. Chris Glaser
But, after reading about what happened and what didn’t happen at General Conference in Fort Worth, and anticipating what will happen and what won’t happen at my own Presbyterian General Assembly in San Jose in June, I’ve gotta say:
There are times when a pastor is no longer a pastor who is not also prophetic.
And, in the spirit of the prophets and in the Holy Spirit I say to you that what most of the church is doing to its lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members, ministers, and marriages is incompatible with Christian teaching. In fact, it’s incompatible with Jesus Christ.
The church’s response is to the LGBT community what the Bush administration’s response was to the victims of hurricane Katrina: too little, too late too long!
And I can only think the reason for the failure of the church to reach out “to the least of these” is because it is afraid of the Holy Spirit. We have less to fear from homophobia than we have to fear from Spiritphobia. Because Spiritphobia is at the heart of the church’s failure to reach out to ALL strangers, not just LGBT strangers, but all whom we fear might be sitting next to us in our pews or proclaiming the gospel from our pulpits. And that’s a pretty extensive list. Because Spiritphobia leads to xenophobia, the fear of all things strange and foreign and “not us”!
What a strange and foreign scene is described in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It begins friendly and homely enough. The disciples are gathered together in one place, probably remembering the good ol’ days when Jesus was with them. How we too love it when we are gathered together in one place remembering Jesus, whether in this chapel or at the Ft. Worth convention center. Sometimes we get so caught up holding hands in our circle singing Kum-ba-yah that we forget to look around and see who’s missing! We so enjoy breaking bread together we do so without—as the apostle Paul warns—without discerning the body of Christ being broken again and again by our ignorance, inattention, and injustice.
The first disciples may also have felt safe and secure in their little room, tending their wounds. They just took control of things by holding their first congregational meeting and electing the new disciple that would replace Judas, and Jesus had told them to sit tight in Jerusalem waiting for further instructions—perhaps some hoped this might be his second coming. And then the strangest thing happened.
“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” A FLAME!
What a frightening visual! I’m sure many attending General Conference were hoping the same would happen to its delegates, though perhaps wishing the flames might hit a little lower, say, under their seats.
Then, scripture says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”
What happened to that nice little comfortable room they were meeting in? What happened to its walls? Are they now on the streets? How else could multicultural Jerusalem hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power? And what were these strange tongues they were speaking, and who were these strangers who could understand them?
The disciples’ nesting period is over—like baby chicks kicked out of the nest, it’s fly on the wings of the Spirit as apostles or perish. Their small church in Jerusalem was to become a congregation that would have no worries about the graying of its membership or fears about being an inner city church or concerns about becoming a queer church. They had strangers to welcome, speaking in their language, proclaiming that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Everyone. No litmus test, no qualifying exam, no entrance requirements. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Everyone.
And so later verses tell us, thousands would be added to their number in a very short time. Now here’s a lesson in church growth: suffer the little ones to come unto Jesus, forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
In her book, Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor pines for the Episcopal Church before it was divided by what I call Spiritphobia over Bishop Robinson’s confirmation. She remembers it fondly as the church of common prayer, not common belief.
That middle ground was the content of the majority report that was voted down by a slight majority of General Conference delegates. The majority report honored that there were differences of opinion—one could say, several languages being spoken within United Methodism about the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. But the slight majority of delegates couldn’t even agree to disagree. They insisted on peace where there is no peace, on silence when the Spirit is still speaking, to paraphrase the U.C.C. slogan. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a struggle for rights we would remember the silence of our friends longer than the arguments of our opponents.
In their view, there had to be a winner, and the winner had to be the conservative position that homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching. We must all speak heterosexuality. Just as Latin was once regarded as God’s tongue, just as Jesus only spoke in King James English, heterosexuality has been named the only language of God, of the sacred, of the holy. Essentially a multilingual and multicultural General Conference said God could not be mulilingual or multicultural when it came to sexuality and gender identity. There were limits to God’s abilities, and the abilities of the people of God. “Heterosexuality only” spoken here.
And so, instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to build up God’s church by welcoming strangers, by reaching out to the least of these, by allowing the little ones so long refused by his disciples to come to Jesus, many of our denominations are taking the matter away from the Spirit into their own hands, building the church themselves, a stumbling block to so many, devising their own walls of hostility and division, erecting their own Tower of Babel to reach into God’s heaven on their own terms, without regard to the rainbow of diversity God has created: the spectrums of sexual orientation and gender identity.
That’s why our ability to speak to one another about the wider mission of the church in the world is being confused, because until we get this one right, many of our churches in urban areas will languish, our witness among younger generations will be viewed by them as hypocritical, our prophetic witness to the global church will be diminished, and our outreach for social justice even for LGBT people will only reveal the beam of injustice in our own eye and piercing our own heart.
In our pastoral roles here and elsewhere we have been called to bring healing. But we cannot distribute bandaids and remain faithful to our vocation. We can no longer keep trying to kiss it and make it better. Nor can we go off to lick our wounds in defeat, letting the opposition have their way. The most effective way of healing the church and society is truth-telling, the prophet’s role.
Henri Nouwen, who is quoted in our liturgy today, became known through his early book The Wounded Healer, in which he described ministers—and by this he meant every Christian—as wounded healers. But this Roman Catholic priest who secretly suffered his church’s repeated condemnation of same-gender-loving people because he was one, finally realized in his book released on the day he died, The Inner Voice of Love, that others can “hook us in our wounds,” pointing out our differences and limitations in their “attempt to dismiss what God is saying to them through [us].” This is roughly the equivalent of those at Pentecost who feared and derided and dismissed the Spirit in the first apostles by saying they must be drunk!
We cannot let their attempts to dismiss what God is saying to them through us dissuade us from our vocation, from our calling. Our truth telling and our vision of justice will bring healing to the wounded Body of Christ and the wounded Body Politic. As healers, we proclaim our vision of an inclusive, reconciling, welcoming and affirming church, our dreams of an inclusive, reconciling, welcoming and affirming society.
In the very mean while, the Holy Spirit will not wait for the church. Just as Mordecai warned Esther, “If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your family will perish” (Esther 4:14). The reason there are so many alternatives to the church today, both as a source of spirituality and a shaper of social justice, is because the Holy Spirit will, with or without the church, fulfill the prophecy of Joel that Peter quotes to explain Pentecost to the Spiritphobic:
Copyright © 2008 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit circulation with attribution of author, occasion, date and venue. Other rights reserved.
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