Sunday, October 28, 2018
Text: Romans 1:16-17; 3:19-28
So let’s talk about history. Well a little bit. You may know that I did my undergraduate degree in history and also did a Master of Divinity in which History of Christianity is a required course. In all I would say I have covered the reformation four or five times in these courses, so the Reformation itself has lost of lot of the sparkle. It marks the moment when the Catholic Church (up to this point the only church in Western Europe) figured out how to do some things. It is sort of this coming of age moment after a thousand years or so of clumsily trying to figure things out, making a lot of mistakes, and trying to manage getting invaded by Vikings. I like to think we’ve come a long way, but we still have our issues, we still make mistakes, and we have our own white men with power causing problems. So maybe that makes the reformation all the more poignant for our time.
So what was the reformation that we are celebrating on this day? The Reformation was a reaction to injustice. It was a shift away from a view that saw tradition as automatically right and necessary. It was a lifting up of what reformers believed was the true spirit of Christian faith. It has been several centuries but we are still experiencing the effects of the Reformation. The United Church is built on a lot of Protestant systems of belief, but is still very in tune with the desire to meet the needs of the current context and return to the core of Christian faith in order to do so.
Though there are many names associated with the Reformation, the one most people are familiar with is Martin Luther. And one of the things that Luther was reacting to was the sale of something called papal indulgences. These were pieces of paper that one could buy that could forgive the sins of someone who had already passed away. So if you have a parent, or a spouse, or a child that you wanted to be sure was saved from eternal damnation, the church had a paper for you. The money would not be paid for the indulgence, but by donating to Catholic building projects you would receive forgiveness of sins in exchange. St Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt through the sale of indulgences in Luther’s time. The Catholic Church, the only Christian church at the time, was leveraging the fears of its members for its own gain.
And perhaps that is why this text from Romans was so important to Luther. The issue with indulgences was that they upheld a false claim, that works of charity have some bearing on your salvation. But just as Paul was saying in his letter, those who claim that systems like the Jewish Law were necessary to receive salvation forget that Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection has shown that God does not require payment in exchange for salvation. Salvation is freely given.
Paul over and over again tells the reader about God’s righteousness. Stating the actions of Jesus in conjunction with what Paul has gleaned from Christ’s gospel, Paul depicts God as an embodiment of justice to back up his claims about salvation. Not only does God not believe the law to be necessary to salvation, it seems to me that Paul is saying that it is unjust to suggest that the law serves that purpose at all. It transitions this from an existential discussion to a moral one, which is to say that it becomes more tactile when Paul weighs in on what one should and shouldn’t do regarding application of the law.
The church bears a lot of responsibility. For many people who have grown up in a Christian-dominated world, particularly those who are Christians themselves, the Christian church as a whole can have an impact on how anything spiritual is depicted. What I mean to say is, like the church of Luther’s day, if the church does things that are ethically dubious at best and manipulative and evil and worst, it does not fall into line with the God that is supposed to be served by that church. Is what we are doing inspiring goodness, love, and justice in the world, or is it creating conflict, suffering, and confusion? The issue with the church is that, because it has some monopoly on spiritual matters, it can create a problem that only it has the means to solve.
Christianity has essentially never been united under a single banner, even before Martin Luther and the famous Reformation; there have always been different groups and traditions. And in the years since Luther and his contemporaries caused a split in Western Europe, many varieties of Christianity have evolved, splitting and uniting denominations until the landscape in our North American context is one of Christian diversity, drawing on the same text and the same God as the center but coming out of that center to various places.
We live in a world in which many people are not churched, not Christian, or not religious at all. I have heard it lamented that it is hard to do our work as the United Church because the perception that people have of Christianity can often be dominated by more politically and theologically conservative Christian voices that are not in line with the general consensus of our denomination. But in some ways, we have a responsibility in that narrative. It may feel like the things that fundamentalists say are not our responsibility, but we are still one body in Christ. Luther did not intend to split the church, he wanted to reform what was there and make it better. But in order to enter the conversation, we have to understand ourselves. We have to understand what is at stake when other Christians do or say things that confuse and upset us. The question is, how can we reform Christianity to bring it back to God’s founding justice?
Last month in Hamilton there was an event put on by a few churches in the area and Redeemer University College. Though the event was not advertised as such, the speakers invited were aiming to discuss the new brand of conversion therapy, also known more nowadays as reparative therapy, which is attempting to convert people to heterosexuality. These often take the form of manipulating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or other queer-identified people to seeing themselves as deviant and morally bankrupt from a spiritual perspective. Even if the people entering to receive this counselling are able to properly consent, it doesn’t actually work and actually causes additional harm in those it suggests it is trying to help.
NOW before I go on further, I do want to mention that 2018 has been called a watershed year for combatting this practice. In Canada, Alberta has recently taken first steps towards banning conversion therapy. It joins Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia in banning the practice for those under 18, while the city of Vancouver has banned it for all ages. In the United States, in 2018 alone, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Delaware, Maryland and Washington have banned the practice for youth, with New York and Massachusetts working on their legislation. 8 states have banned it between 2012 and 2017, as well as a number of individual cities, the District of Colombia and a school board in Wisconsin. There is hope, but this is still not a relic of the past.
I wanted to bring to you the story of Ellie, a high school student and devout Christian from Florida. This summer she was extremely excited to go to a Christian camp for the first time, really work on learning about the gospel and improving her relationship with God. But Ellie identifies as gay. She doesn’t like to talk about it to many people, but over her first few weeks she made a really good friend. One night sitting near the campfire, Ellie revealed her secret. She wanted her friend to know the real her and not feel like there was this big secret between them.
The next morning, camp counsellors removed Ellie from the camp. They told her that Ellie’s friend had told them about her sexuality and they couldn’t allow her to stay in the camp because there were kids around. Ellie was distraught. But it wasn’t over. The camp isolated her from the other youth, and had her sit through one on one counselling in which she was told that she was not actually attracted to other women and it was just attention seeking behaviour, that the depression and anxiety that she was feeling was a choice she made. When re-telling her story, through tears Ellie says, “They told me I probably wasn’t saved.” She later says, “I lost my relationship with God over this,” explaining her difficulty going back to her church community, knowing that even though Christians were told not to judge that judgment was exactly what would happen and was already happening to her. The experience not only robbed her of the camp experience that she was hoping would be spiritually fulfilling and exciting, but made it completely traumatic. She wanted to be able to stay, but had to leave as the mental and emotional pressure became too much for her to handle.
Keep in mind that Ellie is still under 18. She is a young woman, knows herself extremely well, but is exceedingly vulnerable. Playing on out-dated stereotypes and an exclusivist theology of salvation the camp manipulated her strong spirituality against her, trying to leverage it to change Ellie’s sexuality. But Ellie believes that God made her the way she is and loves her and all people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. She is trying to rebuild her relationship with God, but has a lot of pain in her heart still.
This is still happening. But there are voices that are trying to raise awareness. Not one but two films have been screened based on stories of conversion therapy survivors. The Miseducation of Cameron Post was released in late summer of this year and Boy Erased is scheduled to release to theatres in November. This latter story is by Garrard Conely, who attended a conversion therapy program as a young adult in 2004. He writes about how the program he attended emphasized the sinfulness of humanity, how his family history and his own life had all influenced his sexuality and left him outside of salvation. Their solution was essentially to get participants to cut all of this away and accept only a watered-down version of life that would be more acceptable to their theology. It preyed upon Conely’s missionary Baptist upbringing, playing into notions of purity and impurity that had profound meaning for someone brought up in a tradition of devoted faith life.
I will take this time to note that trans people, people whose gender identity does not match what was assigned to them at birth, are affected by gendered conversion therapy as well but are often not acknowledged. This is an unfortunate fact of LGBT advocacy that there tends to be a separating out of trans issues and a notion of “us first, then we’ll come back for you” even though the trans population is often more vulnerable. There is coverage of trans issues but never enough and never at the volume. The program that Conely went to twisted language of gender identity and designed its program to keep people locked into their gender assigned at birth.
The church creates the so-called problem of sexuality and gender identity. It creates the problem in such a way that it is spiritual. And who but the church can solve that problem? In creating a problem that only it can solve, it maintains a monopoly on the solution. It is full of issues that show a church clinging to irresponsibility: using fear to establish its own existence as necessary instead of being ruled by compassion, isolating particular people to pay for the privilege of redemption. But this isn’t new. There is nothing new under the sun. It’s the same church irresponsibility that Martin Luther saw in the papal indulgences and church corruption of his time. It was the same confusion regarding the law that Paul wrote about.
I do want to be clear that Paul, the writer of the letter to the Romans, is not exactly gay-friendly. The letter to the Romans contains one of the most widely-known anti-homosexual verses of the New Testament. It is one of the many things in Paul that I don’t agree with. But it does make sense in a way: we are separated by two thousand years of history, completely different experiences and cultures that leave us to interpret each other very differently. But what I would suggest to Paul, to the Catholic church of Martin Luther’s day, and to the proponents and practitioners of conversion therapy today is to set aside personal morality and focus upon what the message of Jesus Christ tells us. And I think here is where Paul gets it right: God is righteous, God is just, God does not require us to live or act in any particular way or do any particular thing to receive salvation. We are justified by faith. Salvation is freely given.
I do think there is a bit more that I have to say, considering what has happened over the weekend in Pittsburgh. It may seem fine to say off-hand that the law has been overturned and no longer has any meaning, but to do so it not only incorrect but also has the potential to do harm. This passage is not overtly anti-Semitic, but can be twisted to be so. In our tradition it has become normal to see Christianity replacing Judaism, rather than being a part of it as Jesus wanted. A shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 is a symptom of things that have happened over thousands of years of oppression. That does not do glory to God. That does not reflect righteousness. It is important to be critical of scripture and read it with an open heart.
So do we throw out the law? No, I don’t think so. Neither did Jesus. The law is still useful because it shows us a way to live that is good. When Luther says that faith and not works are the road to salvation, he is not saying that works are useless. It is just a reordering of the things involved.
Do not do works in order to become saved. Do works because you are already saved. Take the love of God that has created and cared for you and reflect it into the world. Show other people the righteousness of God through your words and your actions. To be righteous like God is to understand yourself and all that you are. It is to live and speak truth and justice in all things, not because it is easy or convenient or beneficial to you, but because it is right.
We must live out the freely given grace of God in how we work in the world. Christ told us to do things and they are good things to do, regardless of whether we are saved or not. (And we are.) It is important that we don’t choose to do nothing. Following the example of our Christian ancestors, we choose to reform and make changes. Luther did not sit and let the practice of indulgences continue, he pushed for that to change and the church to be more honest with itself and with its scripture
Fight for the things that you believe in. The United Church of Canada has done some good things in the history of LGBT advocacy. Rev. Cheri Dinovo has been a leading voice in the fight to ban conversion therapy across Canada. There are good things happening.
Know what you believe and why you believe it. Be responsible for your Christian identity and use your voice to combat ideas that you do not think display the depth and breadth of this faith. Know that suffering is a part of life, but God does not want that for us—God’s love is the righteous truth of the Gospel.
Lift up the voices of the marginalized, especially those who disagree with Christianity so that their wisdom might help the church to do more good and cause less harm in all that it does.
But above all, take care of each other. Protect the humanity of every person whoever they are. It is not just the Jew but the Greek also, by Paul’s estimation in his context. People are precious, and are some of the most remarkable things we have. A New Creed says that we are called to love and serve other, to seek justice and resist evil. God and freely offered, righteous grace is with us.