They crowd around the table, clamoring for a little more. They cannot get enough, and who can blame them? Grace tastes amazing. I smile as the children run and youth coolly walk down the aisle as soon as the Postlude begins. Worship is over and the leftover consecrated Communion elements are free to an open stomach. Some of the youth stand with a hunk of Hawaiian bread, breaking off pieces and dunking them into the chalice. The younger children devour their over-sized piece, smiling with a mouthful of a tangible sign of God’s grace for them. I think to myself, “This is what the Kingdom of God looks like: joy in gathering at the Lord’s table and enjoying what God has richly given to us as a family.” Sometimes I can hardly get to the table, and I am glad that there will always be sufficient space at the table for all who desire to join in the Kingdom to Come.
So what do we, who are called to service in Christ’s name, do about making space at the table here and now? We exclude, and for this I and countless others mourn. We allow our sinfulness to build gates through which some will never have the key to enter. We set up passwords that require people to hide themselves and create false images in order to be acceptable, but not accepted for the imperfect people God loves in spite of ourselves. There should always be an open seat at the table. There should always be Christians willing to scoot down and crowd together so someone new can fit in. Church should be a place where we serve up grace in an endless buffet, but how many find this resonating in their personal experience? It is the sinfulness of humankind that wants to hold others back, keep them out, and refuse to see Christ in them. It is our corporate sinfulness that prevents us from setting aside everything that we consider a reason for denying someone the grace of the Lord’s Table and his transformational Supper. Lord, forgive us.
Yesterday, I and hundreds of other United Methodists gathered together to do the work of the Church in holy conferencing at the Annual Conference of the Virginia United Methodist Church. Clergy and laity from all over the Commonwealth of Virginia descended upon the city of Roanoke, and set about prayerfully considering what God would have us do. Some discussed, some stayed silent, but I choose to believe that we in our own ways discerned. Three resolutions were being considered and voted upon for submission to the General Conference, that world wide gathering of United Methodists which takes place once every four years. It is the forum for doctrinal change, and homosexuality is the hot topic. One resolution sought to remove a single line from our Social Principles, statements on controversial issues, but not church law, not doctrinally binding. It says, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” This one line has been used as a chain to lock doors, a velvet rope to deny access to the sacraments of God, and whip to beat those who are no more sinful than anyone else. There is no hierarchy of sin; it is all equally harmful, against the will of God, and able to be overcome by the selfless offering of God in Jesus Christ upon the cross. God boldly proclaims that the blood of Christ is sufficient to cleanse all sin, and save every sinner: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NRS). Who are we to place an asterix there?
As clergy, I was asked to cast my vote, and thus take a stand. I have struggled with this issue since I was fourteen and my first, but certainly not my last, beloved friend told me they were gay. I know what Scripture says about homosexual sex, the act not the personal identification and identity. I know that many things are prohibited there as well. Things I have done. Things I continue to do. Things that I struggle with every day. Why do we single out this one thing? Why do we villainize one group so voraciously and vocally, and remain sinfully silent about other acts that cause irreparable damage, suffering, and brokenness? As someone whose life has been irreparably damaged by sinful heterosexual sex, I lament that the Church is all too quiet about the sin that destroyed my family, stole the future promised in a covenant before God, and will forever cause suffering for my son, but is all too eager to pounce upon homosexuals. Even to the point that just admitting you are homosexual, whether you practice that sexually or not, can be cause for persecution, exclusion, and disdain that borders on unholy hatred. Lord, forgive us.
I found myself, in a moment of movement in my heart of the Holy Spirit, that same Holy Spirit that has resided within me since the day of my baptism as an infant, recalling that the Law of the Old Testament came from God, the Father. It was good, as it was holy, but we sinful people took it to a dark, sinful place. We perverted it to hurt people and make them suffer for their sins, rather than find grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God. This culminated and was embodied in the people of the Pharisees in Scripture. They took the Law to such a dark place that healing those that had suffered a lifetime was evil in their eyes, even if the healer was God God’s self. So it was that Christ came to us to help us see another way of understanding what God was doing in the Law, as Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17 NRS).
I pondered if we had become modern-day Pharisees, if we had lost sight of the people of grace we had always understood ourselves to be as United Methodists. If our core theology is that God is a God of grace, limitless and overflowing for all people who desire it, then is that reflected in what we say, what we do, and how we conduct ourselves as servants in the Houses of God we keep in our communities? I thought to myself, “No, it is not. We have singled out one group of people. We have enlarged the speck in their eye, and denied the log in our own.” For that passage in the Social Principles never explicitly mentions much less condemns adultery. We all sin. Every human being whether heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual, or asexual, sins: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23 NRS). However the text goes on: “They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3:24-25 NRS). By faith we are healed, receiving the grace God has promised, and faith is not limited to our sexual expression or lack thereof.
And so it was that I found myself voting in a way I had not anticipated. I want to make space. Space is for relationship with others and their relationship with God. Space is for giving the Holy Spirit room to move, speak into our hearts from which come evil intentions (Matthew 15:19). Space is allowing time for God to work in and through people to transform us, all of us, even those who already bear the name of Christ and the carry the Holy Spirit. Space is for helping all people lost or wandering to find their place at the table. I know what Scripture says. I know that there are places where I could and have been denied fulfilling God’s call to preach the Word. I know there are places where my beloved bacon and shrimp are off limits. I know there are places where a multitude of actions are condemned. But I also know there are places where there is no division in Christ. I also know there are places where what pollutes this temple, my body, is what I allow to come forth, not enter in. I also know there are places where all the actions are forgiven through Christ. I was being challenged, would I stand so another could sit at the table? Would I release my grip a little, and allow for more space? God help me, so I did.
Maybe I did the wrong thing. I do that a lot, even when I am trying to do right. Maybe God will not be pleased. I know I have displeased God innumerable times and I’m only thirty-four. But I cling to the cross, the promise of grace. I recall the smell of honey on that Hawaiian bread transformed through holy mystery into the body of Christ. I remember the taste of fruit of the vine that is the blood of the new and everlasting covenant in Jesus Christ. I shrink before the recollection of being one of those who pours out water on the heads of those who seek to be baptized, as God simultaneously pours out the Holy Spirit and grace prepared upon a cross two millennia ago. God help me, I tried to embody that grace. I tried to let the Holy Spirit work through me. I don’t have any idea if it will make a difference. I do not know if I will succeed at making space for all people to gather in Christ’s name, experience his salvific touch, and taste the grace of God. I just have this hope: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6 NRS). I did what I did out of love: love of God, love in Christ, and love of all people without distinction. The vote is taken, the motion passes. It goes on to General Conference for consideration in 2016. I can only sit back and wait to see what will unfold. I, this sinful, imperfect person who wants to be a faithful disciple of Christ, continue to pray and seek to love…
“And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool. I am silent; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it” (Psalm 39:7-9 NRS).