I See A New Church
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess, June 2019
The following is the text of my brief part in the LGBTQ led worship service at the 2019 session of the California-Pacific Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. I was grateful to be there. Many others could have offered testimony longer fought and much more deserving to be heard than mine.
The humor in the moment was intended to disarm fear, namely mine. There was, however, strong intentionality to the sermon. My concern is that wesleyans will continue to argue polity when the primary need is to return to the Bible with renewed theological vision and rigor. Without this, I fear, our conferencing is futile.
“Witness” is, I believe, the primary genre of the Bible. My own witness here was intended to be an example of a gay man taking scripture very seriously. As John Wesley admonished his preachers — “speak as the oracles of God” — in a brief space I make a number of allusions to the speech and stories of the Bible, both obliquely and directly. In order to read the biblical witness well, one must also be aware of the way the ancients pulled the stories of their ancestors into their present in order to comprehend and interpret God’s action in their lives. I conclude by doing the same: interpreting my own story of “coming out” to renewed vision told through the lens of Jesus’ encounter with the beggar born blind (John 9).
I have come to believe that the original sin of the Western Christian tradition — so deeply imbedded as to be indistinguishable from the way we do theology — is our obsession with universal truths which in the end are the universals imposed by those with power. Universal truth is God. God created a world of astonishing plurality. The incarnate Jesus was not a universal human being, but a particular one. Unique. In becoming this Word made flesh God hallows the peculiar dignity of each and every one of us. We are being called, today, to a conversion of sorts: from seeking purity in conformity to beholding the holy in the astonishing beautify of otherness and in the universal God who greets us hidden beneath the face of each and every human soul.
As noted in the text, I am significantly indebted to several authors who have guided me to these thoughts: Emmanuel Levinas as read through my teacher Dr. William Greenway, The Reasonableness of Belief: Why God and Faith Make Sense (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015); and the brilliant commentary of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who has essentially retaught me how to read the Torah, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, revised (London: Continum, 2003). I am confident that Jesus had something to do with it too.
I See A New Church
I see a new church. A new church must be built upon a renewed biblical, theological foundation. God gathers us.
After my first Annual Conference 17 years ago, my plan was to not speak on the floor of Annual Conference until my retirement. I’m here early, unless this goes badly. I am grateful to be here — and grateful to that generation of queers who came before me who made this possible — but this was not the plan.
I am a Presbyterian preacher’s kid from rural Missouri — note, Methodist not the plan; preacher, by no means! When I completed my undergraduate study in Chicago, my plan was a lucrative tech job, loving wife, nice house in a tree lined suburb, and two and a half kids. I remember saying to self, “Self, I’m willing to pursue this dream anywhere, but please not California.” You see, Midwesterners look with a great frown in this direction: “land of fruits and nuts.” We are a people willfully, even proudly, different. Yet, here I am: Californian, Methodist, gay, single at 50, no children, and the only asset to my name is this peculiar work.
I am not willfully different: I am just God given peculiar. We all are, though, aren’t we? An ancient rabbi said that when a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they all come out the same, but when God creates in God’s image each and every one is different (Sacks 60). Each person is unique, a unique universe of experience and story. Each one of you is irreplaceable. This is the gift of God we are called to behold in a new church.
Each and every move of my life challenged my world view, a world view formed in the idea that one should strive toward universal ideals: some Christian, some American, all certainly right. That view was challenged by my life, a life far more complex and beautiful than any labels I had for it. Chicago was not Higginsville Missouri; and then, my first employer in Chicago sent me to this God forsaken land. In any given visit to a Southern California mall I overhead more languages in one place than I’d heard my whole life. It was Pentecost at Macy’s! This terrified me.
The first wedding I attended with my Latina fiancé was that of her best friend, a second generation Mexican wedding a black man from South Central Los Angeles in a Baptist Church. It was the tensest wedding I’ve ever attended. Soul food on one side, Mariachis on the other, neither family pretending it was their choice to be there; and me, cowering on the edge of God’s great wedding banquet: one piece of bologna on Wonder Bread. Those two families warmed to each other, eventually. You know what it was? It was the first grand child: it was a child who strangely warmed their hearts. God does so often save us by reaching up out of the manger of our humanity with a tiny, vulnerable hand.
Our God, made vulnerable to us, gathers us.
As it turns out, our “isms” — our prejudices and fears of difference— are not healed by abstract talk, or logic, or obedience to a book. In reality, we don’t learn to love the Other in general, we learn to love by first being loved by someone unique and special before we have the good sense to resist (Sacks 55, Greenway 149f, 1 John 4:10).
A child reaches out to hold your hand. A tearful, courageous son comes home and pleads, “Dad, please use the pronouns she and hers.” . The challenge before us as a church is to behold the image of God in the person not like ourselves (Sacks 60). [If you cannot love the person you have seen, you cannot love the God whom you have not (1 John 4:20).] Even in this place when you look to your East or West, North or South — you will see a person, a fathomless irreplaceable mystery very different from yourself; and that person is, in the light Christ shines upon the world, holy. This is after all the heart of John Wesley’s theology. When I became a Methodist, I actually read Wesley. Have you read Wesley? In Christ, Grace heals the heart so that it may behold the image of God in every soul that has breath.
The Bible predicts our behavior in a tower called Babel. We have a tendency to desire to gather all people into one place, or one language, or one book of discipline and impose unity on God’s given diversity (Sacks 51f). When humanity gives birth to an “ism,” we put one particular image of ourselves at the top and rank all those lower on the tower as lesser. Colonial racism puts the white male at the top; rationalism puts secular reason at the top; fundamentalism puts certainty at the top; homophobia puts reproductive sex at the top. Every once in a while God comes down, laughs, and throws the whole thing to the ground, which is exactly where we are supposed to be because that’s where our God, our universal God, walks, hidden beneath the particularity of each and every human soul.
God gather us.
When I came out, I finally did meet the love of my life. It was unexpected. Not my plan. He was no one’s ideal, but a universe to me. Many middle eastern men are tall, dark and handsome. He was not. He was shorter than most, didn’t bathe enough, unkempt, his body wasn’t born of a gym, but of the poverty of a day working family. And when they crucified him it wasn’t a heroic death. He died quickly. His arms weren’t strong enough to hold him for long. The soldiers didn’t need to break his legs.
I wish it wasn’t something I could see, but he had walked by me one day, touched me. I had been blind from birth, but now I could see. I could behold a new world of astounding beauty and grace and senseless suffering. I beheld a new world and a new church. Annual Conferences all over the world argue that I shouldn’t exist. Yet, here we are. It’s not my plan.
God Gather us.
The only thing I’ve got, the one thing I know for certain is that once I was blind and now I see.
Shepherd us O god, beyond our fears, beyond our wants, from death into life.
[the refrain is sung]
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess