REFORMATION SUNDAY 2002    October 27, 2002
Held at Dobbs Ferry Presbyterian Church, NY
Sponsored by:
- Presbyterian Promise Southern New England
- Dissenting Churches of Hudson River Valley
- Presbyterian Welcome New York City
With further participation:
- More Light Presbyterians
- That All May Freely Serve
- Shower of Stoles

Rev. Harold Porter, preaching


Isaiah  56 (Selections)
Matthew 13:24-30

It is a joy to be with you! What a great gathering.  I wish, if it were still possible, for all of you to sail down the Hudson River and then on to the Ohio River and share your witness with us in Cincinnati. We need more dissenting churches in the Midwest - but on to my assignment.

No one is quite sure who first authored that wonderful guide for church order that evolved out of the Reformation of the 16th Century,

In necessary things – unity.
In doubtful things – liberty.
In all things – charity.
But unity, liberty and charity, placed dynamically together, was the reforming response of those of that era who could no longer abide by their church’s authoritarian teachings and dogma.

Certainly this simple guideline has served the Presbyterian Church (USA) well because it acknowledges that none of us has the whole truth, and that we must continuously seek more light. It reminds us to “exercise mutual forbearance” knowing “persons of good characters and principles may differ.”  It calls us to seek agreement, to subject ourselves one to another, because we are one body, of one mutual covenant of faith.  And it reminds us that beyond even the faith we hold, and beyond what hope we have in our hearts, our ultimate relationship together is based on love.

A unity-in-diversity tempered by Christ’s love. This is what we seek to celebrate on this Reformation Sunday 2002.

But we, too, are saddened by our church today and have a lover’s quarrel with it.  We certainly acknowledge that our church is not the authoritarian monolith that Luther and Calvin faced.  We Presbyterians have are the beneficiary of both The Reformation and The Enlightenment.

Our Presbyterian government is democratically representative, surely very orderly, and we have sought to be continuously reformed. In many ways, unity, liberty and charity are richly celebrated within our ecclesiastical life and we have sought to shape the governance of our country and the world by God’s justice and compassion.

We Presbyterians have tried in progressive ways to witness to the new reality in Christ, to be faithful to his calling, and to trust in God alone as the author and giver of life.  And, in obedience to Jesus, the head of the Church, we have felt free to live in the “lively, joyous reality of the grace of God.” G-1.0100d

It is just because of this joyous reality in Christ that we have gathered today – to protest, to bear public witness of our dissent from the teachings and policies of our church in its treatment of homosexual persons.

We do so because we find they are antithetical to the Spirit in Christ who has shown us the more excellent way, the way of love that Jesus himself lived – the way, the truth and the life that  sought above all else to serve God who is love.

Yes, we dissent because of God’s love, which is not mine or yours or even ours, but God’s.  Love, the ultimate ground which is God’s own being, the fundamental character of existence out of which we are continuously being forgiven and re-created – a love that is never turned away from us.

Yes, God’s love, apart from which we know we are not fully human, not whole, and will not be reconciled to ourselves, our neighbor and to God’s own self.  And if that love, the unmerited grace of God that gives us life, is not present in this worship service as we offer our protest,  the sound we make will ring out only as a “a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.”

What is that teaching that we dissent from and the policies based on it?

In 1978, our General Assembly concluded a study of “Homosexuality and the Church”.  The Assembly received it, but did not approve it, and then proceeded to promulgate its own “Policy Statement and Recommendations” regarding homosexuality.  I hold in my hand the six pages of that approved document.

This official report stated, “…that what is really important is not what homosexuality is but what we believe about it…(and) we conclude that homosexuality is not God’s wish for humanity…it is neither a gift from God nor a state nor a condition like race; it is a result of our living in a fallen world.”

This document lists passages from both the Old and New Testaments that describe same-sex behavior as sinful, concluding that “the New Testament declares all homosexual practice incompatible with Christian faith and life.”  And, finally, seeking to offer definitive guidance, later hardening into ecclesiastical law, the Assembly said unequivocally that “unrepentant homosexual practice does not accord with the requirements for ordination.”

This is the absolute teaching, and the policies derived from it, to which we dissent. Instead, we choose the more excellent way, the way of love that does not insist on its own way, with all persons, which includes gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons.

As Martin Luther on December 10, 1520 received and then burned the Papal Bull than would excommunicate him from the church, we likewise repudiate this document, with its false claims, as being outside the grace of God.

We are conflicted by these teachings of our church for several reasons.

First, what was so significant about Jesus was that he was convinced, that from the beginning, God created and endowed every person with the inalienable rights of being. That’s how Jesus understood Genesis Chapters one and two – that all humanity is a part of God’s good creation; that all of us are made in God’s image. And as Jesus rightly called us all to seek and serve God’s reign first in our lives, we are convinced that Jesus would not repudiate sexual behaviors of mutual love and fidelity from anyone who first sought to serve  the priority of God’s reign in their lives.

Second, as a pastor these some forty years, one of the most compelling statements of Jesus for me has been what he said when he entered Jerusalem for the last time. We recall that he stopped first at the temple, the spiritual center of his community.  Sadly he saw what it had become - a lucrative religious business. Even worse, it was a place of segregation.   People were branded, controlled, segregated and excluded there by at least nine different degrees of holiness – with gentiles having no purity status at all.

Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us of this segregated legacy of the temple when he said in the 1960’s that the most segregated time of the week is at 11:00 on Sunday morning.

Jesus, confronted by this religious apartheid in the temple, described in all four Gospels, caused a ruckus in the temple which soon led to his arrest.  But behind his disturbing demonstration was his primary and penetrating rebuke,   “God’s house shall be a house of prayer for all the peoples!”  No one was more tolerant than Jesus, but never did he tolerate the denigration and exclusion of other human beings.

Actually Jesus’ rebuke was a quote from the scriptures, which he knew well, and quoted well, because he only quoted scripture that truly reflected the grace of God.  He was highly selective in his use of scripture, as must we, if we are to be led by the Holy Spirit.

His temple quote came from Isaiah 56. In that chapter, Isaiah makes clear that justice and righteousness are what God desires and that we should quit the self-regarding practice of thinking we are more pure, righteous and special than others.

Isaiah reminds his listeners, who thought they were God’s only chosen people, that God will include in the promised land, just and faithful foreigners, gentiles, and even eunuchs, who are prevented from having any heritage by child bearing.  All people who respond to God’s grace, and would mirror that grace in their lives, are the chosen people.  God’s “house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” shouted Isaiah!

Jesus was in complete sync with that text.  How else would he dare say, “Whoever comes to me I will not cast out.” John 6:37b  Search the scriptures. Jesus never limited participation in his community.  Only the church has done that.

Actually, I believe Jesus gracious welcoming spirit, “Whoever comes to me I will not cast out,” is largely reflected in the Presbyterian Church. Our Constitution makes it clear: “The congregation shall welcome all persons who respond in trust and obedience to God’s grace in Jesus Christ…Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the gospel.” G-5.0103

Yes, all are welcome – if they are heterosexual persons. That is our scandal today and it constitutes a rejection of Christ himself. We are here today to say this exclusion of homosexual persons will not be so in our congregations.

St. Augustine once told one of his clever critics that he was “running well, but off the track.” Today, it is the Presbyterian Church that is off the track. We have, for these past 25 years, been sorely confused and conflicted over how we are to love our homosexual members, and they certainly have not felt loved by us, only rejected.

The primary reasons they feel unloved, beyond the homophobia we know is wrong, is that our General Assembly in 1978 declared that all homosexual behavior is sinful.  That is, no matter how mutual, how committed, how monogamous, how Christ-like, their love is sin.  The only remedy our church offers homosexual members, in order to be fully received in our church, is that they must either become heterosexuals, or remain celibate.  This, of course, is about as intelligent as telling heterosexuals to become gay, or to tell a bird not to fly.

Regarding this categorical judgment by the General Assembly, I am reminded of what Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer remarked regarding the selling of indulgences.  “Oh, the folly of it!  The crass, unmitigated stupidity of it all!”  That is what must be said today of this absolute judgment that all homosexual behavior is intrinsically sinful.

There is no wiggle room in the General Assembly’s judgment – even though we voted at the same time to work for the equal rights of homosexuals in society, which rightly smelled of hypocrisy, something the church could ill afford.

So the Assembly gave us its definitive guidance, which was hardened in to ecclesiastical law.  We should embrace homosexual persons, but not fully - with one arm, not two.

Why else would we demand homosexual persons conform to our nature and not their own?  Why else would we exclude them from God’s good creation as if they had a different Creator than we?  Why else would we demand they bear burdens we ourselves do not bear? Why else would we grant them righteousness only if they seek a lobotomized spirituality that separates their body from their soul – offering them wine but no bread?  We don’t love them!  Our conflict remains, and will remain, because we have placed a limit on the great commandment to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

It is a terrible thing to declare something a sin which it is not a sin.  But our General Assembly has done just that. We must ask: when did the General Assembly claim infallibility for itself?  How does it dare stand in for God on our behalf?

The Protestant Principle is the protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality – be it religious pride, ecclesiastical arrogance, or secular self-sufficiency.  This arrogance is where the Assembly got off the track.

But gratefully, we can take some solace that our Constitution’s Book of Order does not call all homosexual behavior sinful.  And we should remind our churches that the Assembly’s categorical judgment, that all homosexual behavior is sinful, cannot be an essential tenet of our Reformed theology, for it has never been approved by the whole church.  Further it is not Presbyterian of the General Assembly to seek to bind our conscience, to speak for us without engaging our minds, our voices and our votes!  So we need not be ruled by their popish pronouncement.

The Assembly’s judgment was actually developed apart from the other great principle from the Reformation, the Priesthood of all Believers.  That is why those opposed to homosexuals’ full membership pushed that stealth Amendment B on us, seeking to bar their ordination because of our church’s marriage rubric, rather than to dare place in our Book of Order that gays and lesbians who act out their sexuality are not fit for the Kingdom of God.  Nevertheless, it is this absolute dogma, that all homosexual behavior is sinful, declared by the General Assembly, that has biased all our attitudes and policies towards homosexuals in our church.

Because of it, the Presbyterian Church by limiting ordination to only celibate  homosexual members, denying them the promise and benefits of marriage, declaring their condition not God’s wish for humankind, and failing to aggressively seeking their equal rights in church and society, has failed to fully serve the Reign of God and has caused a “scandal to the gospel.” G-5.0103. That is what we seek to repair.

Yes, our Book of Order states that we as a church are entitled to declare the terms of our membership and the qualifications for church leadership.  But we must determine what are the essentials of Reformed faith and polity through our constitutional process, and this the Assembly failed to do.

The good thing is that all Presbyterians or congregations do not believe that all homosexual behavior is sinful.  They accept gays and lesbians as equally made in God’s image.  That they are a part of God’s good creation and they, no less than heterosexuals, are meant to enjoy God’s gifts of love, joy and intimacy. Because these churches refuse to limit the grace of God – and we gathered here are among them – gays and lesbians are welcomed as full participants in our congregations without having to deny or hide their sexual orientation or be forced to live by a double sexual standard.  In these churches there is no second class membership.

I have been fortunate to be a part of church like that.  And, at Mt. Auburn, as a straight, married, grandfather of eleven, I experience the unity, depth and grace of the gospel I had not previously experienced before.  What great joy it is to be a part of a congregation that fully embraces one another with both arms.  And what a moving thing to hear a gay person come to your office and say, “I never thought of joining a church even though I love Jesus and will serve him, knowing the church feels I am a disordered person.   But here I am standing before you, and I want to join.”

So the continuing problem and crisis in the Presbyterian Church that has tied us up in ecclesiastical knots, is just this.  The General Assembly was wrong to declare that all homosexual behavior is sinful. It erred. Labeling all homosexual behavior intrinsically sinful cannot be sustained either by reason or from the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Certainly we are out of step with the American Psychological, Psychiatric, Pediatric and Medical Associations, all who are seeking to remove the immoral and unhealthy stigma that has been unfairly and too long associated with homosexual orientation and behavior.  Reason alone, and our own personal experience of gay and lesbian persons, their faith and Christian commitment, their wonderful gifts of the Spirit, ought to convince us they are not intrinsically different from anyone else.

On this score it is good to remember what Martin Luther King said. “Never should Christians fail to realize they have a moral responsibility –  not to be stupid.”  We are called to love God with all of our minds.

But more importantly we are out of step with Jesus himself.  What do we do with his full embrace, “Whoever comes to me I will not cast out”?

Jesus’ original parable of the wheat and the weeds growing together in the field was probably reformulated by Matthew, and used by many since, in order to warn that in the church there will be the faithful and unfaithful, the righteous and the unrighteous, the pure and the impure.   But, rest assured, God is on our side and, in the end, God will cast out the weeds at the last judgment.

But what the parable clearly meant was what Jesus said the wise farmer suggested.  Don’t try to remove the weeds because you will damage the wheat.  Let them grow together until the harvest.

Alfred North Whitehead, surely one of the finest minds of the 20th Century, said of this parable’s teaching, ‘Let both grow together until the harvest,’ that it was perhaps the most impressive statement ever made regarding tolerance in the history of religion.   Yet, Whitehead thought it more than curious, since it was given by the highest authority, Jesus himself, why Christians so often fail to act on it?

But the General Assembly in 1978 failed our highest authority, Jesus Christ, when it pronounced its absolute judgment of intolerance.  In doing so they said they were troubled by it, but decided anyway – as if they could speak God’s final word on this matter.  In doing so they forever branded gays and lesbians to be inferior, and their behavior always outside the grace of God.

All of our confusing and foolish policies regarding the treatment of gays and lesbians stem from this first absolute assumption, and we must repent and apologize for it.  It has not only caused enormous harm to gays and lesbians but has caused many – gays and straights – to no longer believe in the church’s integrity.  Even a majority of our Biblical scholars in our seminaries disagree with the Assembly.

And so does the Stated Clerk of that Assembly of 1978, William P. Thompson, who declared then that definitive guidance was binding - but does no longer.  Thompson was Stated Clerk for 18 years, a man of the deepest integrity and faith, and an important leader in world-wide ecumenical Christian concerns.  But it was this same Thompson, having served the church so well, who was arrested, along with many of us, outside the General Assembly’s meeting in Long Beach a few years ago.  Our purpose was to demonstrate that the worship service being held inside the Assembly did not have a communion table set for all.  I remember thinking in the police van as we were driven away, looking across at this dignified man who had I had admired for so many years, this man whose primary task had always been to keep our church running “decently and in order,”  now handcuffed and now off to jail, just how far, indeed, the Presbyterian Church had truly gotten off the track.

A wise theologian once said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  Thompson is such a person, but let me, too briefly, tell you of another such fully alive person, Camilla Warrick, a member of Mt. Auburn’s congregation.   She taught us all what the full embrace of the Gospel meant, and why she didn’t want to be a part of a “church with mildew.”

Camilla, gentle as she was, became angry only with those persons who excluded others, who made others bear burdens they themselves did not bear.   She wrote recently in disagreement to a Presbyterian minister who believed Jesus would not support homosexuality.  Responding to her, he warned her of Jesus second coming. I am sure he was comforted in believing Jesus would soon return and clean up the weeds in Mt. Auburn.

Camilla wrote back telling him she thought Jesus first coming was sufficient and that we ought only own up and act on his original message.  But if there ever was a second coming, she laid out what that would mean.  It’s a gem of a response, albeit given with a touch of hyperbole.

    “I predict: (she wrote)

    On the first day of the Second Coming of his Lordship -- Jesus the Christ -- our returned Savior will laugh & weep at the way we have stumbled over his parables, turned his metaphors into stone, picked them up and hurled them at each other.

    On the second day he will demand that all stoning cease.

    On the third day he will ritually burn all dogma, doctrines, creeds and church constitutions, including the Presbyterian Book of Order.

    On the fourth day he will put an end to all denominations established in his name and ask that no one call him "King" any longer.

    On the fifth day he will restore his one great teaching -- to love God with all your heart, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.

    On the sixth day he will cook.

    On the seventh day he will rest -- when he is not eating and singing and dancing with strangers.  But rest assured she ended, even though we have soiled this planet and alienated ourselves from each other and forgotten that prayer and breath keep us alive, it is still wonderful to be a child of God.”

Oh, I could go on for hours about Camilla’s gracious witness.  No one worked harder than she to make sure there was  place set for all at Christ’s table.  Sadly, Camilla, fully alive, died just a few months ago of breast cancer at age 47.  She left behind her husband and her two sons, and a congregation and a host of others in Cincinnati who loved her deeply.  But she left us all a legacy of compassion and the full embrace of all persons, that has forever changed us.

We need to get back to basics.  After all, we Presbyterians have stated in the first chapter of our Constitution that Jesus “is the head of the church.”  And only as we willingly bind ourselves to his authority are we “free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God.” G-l.0100d

But where is the grace in our whole scale judgment against homosexual persons?  Where is Christ’s compassion and his warning against absolute judgments?  Where is lively, joyous reality in that? Where is the tolerance that Jesus taught in his parable of the wheat and weeds and his other teachings and actions that demonstrated a radical inclusion of others?

Where is humble truth our Constitution requires warning that our pronouncements may be in error, such as it was with women in the church? Where is its call for mutual forbearance?  Where is its warning against making laws and policies that bind the conscience of others by virtue of our own authority when we know that God alone is the Lord of conscience?  Where is our Constitution’s reminder that the church is called to be a community of diversity and inclusiveness “as a visible sign of the new humanity” in Christ?

When the General Assembly declared all homosexual behavior sinful, it acted with a different spirit than the spirit described in our own constitution!  Oh, the folly of it all!

We need not and cannot abide by such shallow and restrictive teaching voted by the General Assembly.  We cannot be ordered by the Presbyterian Church to be prejudiced or to limit the terms of who is our neighbor.    In a world that demands attention to diversity and inclusiveness, we have become an embarrassment to our highest authority, Jesus, himself.

Re-examining the Reformation, one realizes that what Martin Luther was searching for was a gracious God.  He thought he had to earn salvation. That is why he became a monk.  But no matter how hard he tried, God always seemed to be more punitive than gracious. “If a monk ever reached heaven by monkery,” he said, “I would have found it.”  But he did not.

Only when Luther gave up his attempts to be deserving of righteousness, did he find God, who loved him as he was.  By grace alone was he justified, the gift of God, received in simple, child like trust.

Today, on the other hand, with hate on a crusade, it is obvious that the world needs to discover a gracious neighbor.  That is everyone’s need, especially those who are not heterosexually constituted.  Luther thought being Christ to our neighbor was our most significant ministry.  He was right in that, but we as a church have failed to be the homosexual person’s  gracious neighbor.

Probably most of us have been ignorant of homosexuality or have not wished to acknowledge its reality. But our ignorance no longer can be excused nor can we excuse the injustice, the abuse we have imposed on these persons both in the church and in society.

So in summary, we must declare, in word and in practice, that we cannot abide by any teaching or policy in the Presbyterian Church, or in society at large, that demeans or abuses homosexual persons as being in any way less worthy than heterosexual persons.

We must protest, declaring that we will not treat them other than equally made in the image of God, or to be outside of God’s grace in any way.

We must renounce the General Assembly’s official guidance, unconfirmed by our Constitution, that homosexual behavior is intrinsically sinful, for we find it not Christ-like, not Scriptural, not Reformed and not Presbyterian. And we will no longer tolerate their second class membership in our churches.

Not to do so is to fail in our love of God, our ministry in Christ’s name, and as responsible members of the Presbyterian Church.

Eleven years ago, Mt. Auburn declared for the full inclusion of homosexual persons in the life and leadership of that church.  And even though I am no longer its Pastor, (but pleased to be its Pastor Emeritus) such a welcome has been and continues to be unconditional and incredibly wonderful.

But each individual and each congregation must make its own protest, its own declaration, and we must work together.  As for me,  I seek to remain in the Presbyterian Church and subject myself to it and its Constitution.  I will do so even though section G-6.0106b remains in it.  But I will not abide by this new constitutional addition regarding marriage and singleness in so far as it discriminates in any way against gays and lesbians or anyone else.  Many of you and your churches have said the same.

After the recent defeat of Amendment A that would have remove G-6.0106b and the theological teachings of 1978, some, who are especially among the persecuted in our church, now ponder if staying is asking too much.  They understandably have asked, “Why should I be a part of a denomination that rejects me?”  Leaving the Presbyterian Church is an option and no one can fault those who do.  And if our Book of Order is ever changed to say that all homosexual behavior is sinful, I know I would leave.

But that is not presently the case, and I shall lovingly stay.  I will stand with our homosexual brothers and sisters who, too, will decide to stay, and hopefully together continue to be open in our dissent and not comply until our church accepts homosexual persons as equal members – or until we are removed from the Presbyterian Church.

The hope I find, in this new Reformation that is before us, is with those, our homosexual brothers and sisters, who are now serving God so courageously and faithfully after the manner of Jesus Christ.

One concluding thought.  I am convinced that the essential Protestant Principle for the church, and the one that we must always serve if we are to have any vitality of the Holy Spirit, is “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” the church reformed, always being reformed, under the one sufficient revelation of God, Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate.  That is what this Protestant Reformation 2002 service is all about and we rejoice in the presence of the Holy Spirit that has come to us and has moved us in this reform effort.

That is why in this service, we call all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons who have been ordained in the Presbyterian Church to come forth now, as you are willing, and together reaffirm the ordination vows you have made – to renew you covenant with the Presbyterian Church (USA).  May you do so humbly, but unashamed of being a child of God, and as a full member of The Presbyterian Church (USA).

Rev. Harold Porter
Pastor Emeritus
Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church
Cincinnati, Ohio