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Listen… Learn… Love

Sermon preached on Sunday 5th September 2021, introducing the Pastoral Principles of Acknowledging Prejudice and Speaking Into Silence ahead of the Living in Love and Faith course to be run at St James’ Church, West End in October 2021. Using the lectionary readings of James 2:1-10, 14-17 and Mark 7:24-37

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Loving God; creator Father, redeeming Son and sustaining Spirit. Amen

 On the bottom of my emails I have a quotation of Martin Luther King, which says, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter“. Of course, for King the silence was to do with the discrimination of black people, mainly in America, but also around the world, where people’s skin colour was deemed to be the only necessary indicator of sub-humanity and therefore gave others the right to mistreat, subjugate and even kill a black person with no recriminations or sense of guilt.

At some point, someone, somewhere must have pre-judged this human being who stood in front of them, a mirror of shape and form of themselves, but a different hue, and persuaded others that this was the case. They must have had power and authority that enabled them to do this, and took others silence as acquiescence and so it became accepted as the norm which people passively accepted and taught their children and children’s children that this was how it was. If anyone did protest, the power of common psyche overrode any objections, and silence was easier than speaking out. A silence that speaks volumes.

Some of you will have heard me quote the poem from Martin Niemöller about the Jewish Shoah in World War II, ‘First they came for the Jews’ in which a person remained silent whilst the Jews, the communists, the trade unionist were taken without anyone speaking out, until it came to their turn, and they realised that ‘there was no one left to speak out for me’. In many cases this silence was because of fear; fear of the Nazis and the power that they wielded, fear of being the one who spoke out; fear of going against the norm.

One question that is often asked is what were the Christian communities or individual doing whilst both of these unspeakable chapters of human history were taking place? For many Christians their position was actually dictated by scripture. They searched the bible and found passages that supported their stance, particularly when God made a covenant with Abraham in regard to circumcision, ‘Then Abraham took his son Ishmael and all the slaves born in his house or bought with his money… that very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised; and all the men of his house, slaves born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him (Genesis 17:23, 26-27). Here was their evidence that God condoned slavery

Many Christians saw this as meaning that slavery was morally acceptable. In fact, a Methodist preacher George Whitfield said, ‘As for the lawfulness of keeping slaves, I have no doubt, since I hear of some that were bought with Abraham’s money, and some that were born in his house’. George Whitfield himself owned slaves and campaigned for slavery to be reinstated in the American state of Georgia after it was abolished there in 1751.

Maybe we consider it ironic or preordained that it was the Quakers who were early leaders in the campaign to ban slavery. The Quakers, whose worship of God involves sitting in silence, not to prevent anyone from speaking, but to listen, to hear more clearly God’s ‘still small voice’. And of course, Jesus himself exhorts people multiple times in the gospel to listen closely to his message, when he says, ‘He who has ears, let him hear’. It’s the listening to each other that helps us understand more

We know that you can’t claim justification of your actions using snippets of scripture, passages that reflect the context in which the people were living at the time, because you then fail to see the bigger picture and overarching message of God’s love for each and every individual, born and created in his own image. Moreover, prejudice comes when scripture is abused rather than used.

In his epistle, James is writing from a Jewish background at a time when most Christians came from a Jewish heritage. He was also writing in a very partial age, filled with prejudice and hatred based on class, ethnicity, nationality, and religious background. In the ancient world people were routinely and permanently categorized because they were Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, Greek or barbarian, or whatever. His message was that this kind of partiality has no place among Christians.

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point
has become accountable for all of it
James 2:10

When we treat people differently because of their appearance, their background, their lifestyles and their sexuality, we are picking and choosing how we hear and interpret the message, creating prejudices that are taken as up and regarded as the only truth, and if we are perfectly honest with ourselves, many of us won’t even realise it because it has become our norm and excuse to remain silent about these things.

It’s then that we have to make a greater effort to listen to each other, to not make assumptions, but to welcome the opportunity to gain understanding. To apply that knowledge and change things where they need to be changed. Jesus demonstrates this simple fact when his assumptions were challenged. When what he considered the norm, that his mission was only to the chosen children of God, the Jewish people, was set aside when he heard what the Syrophoenician woman had to say. He listened and heard her faith and responded to show that no-one was to be excluded.

One thing that we are being asked to listen to and hear right now is how prejudice and silence have meant that another group of people have also been excluded and suffered at the hands of the church. The LGBTI+ community, and I’ll spell it out for you, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex + community.

Central to our faith is a belief that each of us is unique and that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God… but as a community and as individuals they have been abused by the church, denied inclusion, forced to deny their very individuality and identities, even forced to undergo therapy and medical interventions in silence and in fear… and few people have come forward to speak into that silence.

More often than not it is because people don’t know, don’t understand or don’t want to challenge what they believe is the norm. We mustn’t be those people. The norm is only the thing we want it to be. We need to hear their stories, we need to listen to their injustices, we need to take up the challenge of inclusion, we need to love each other in the same way that God loves us unconditionally.

For the Syrophoenician woman it was her faith that persuaded Jesus that things had to change, for the deaf man it was his inability to make himself clearly heard that persuaded Jesus to step forward and help him. For us it is the recognition that God doesn’t see the colour of our skin or our gender or our sexuality; what he sees is what is in our hearts; he sees us for ourselves and not how others want us to be; he sees us as individuals, his marvellous creation, beloved and precious in his sight.

As an individual I have, over many years, made a conscious effort to listen to LGBTI+ people, to hear their stories, to reflect on my own upbringing, to read the bible, to pray, in order to discern what my response should be, trying to be as faithful to God’s Word as I can. It wasn’t always straightforward; it took time, and I did have to consider the views of others. However, I’m now comfortable with trying to help others to take that same journey.

And so, this October, I urge you to join in the conversations through the Living in Love and Faith course we are running, to understand more, to put aside assumptions and prejudice, to have the courage to start the process of breaking up the silence.

To listen…to learn… to love one another… just as God loves us, wholeheartedly and unashamedly.

Amen

The Living in Love and Faith course will run at St James’ Church, West End, starting on Thursday 7th, and continuing on 14th, 28th October and 4th, 11th November between 7.30pm and 9pm. Each session has short videos and there will be break-out groups for discussion and Bible study. You are welcome to join us.

Coming Out… Into The Light

Does God weep over his creation?

Does God weep over his creation?

Recently, after much prayerful thought I have reached what I believe is a clarity in thinking with regard to something that I have often struggled to express. That is what my stance is, as a Christian and future Minister, towards those, including fellow Christians, who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender men and women

I have often not expressed what my inner heart was telling me, but instead have prevaricated, choosing to be cautious with my public expressions and feeling deeply hypocritical for not speaking out

However, events, both recently within the Church of England and in our world as a whole, have left me with a sense of both shame and despair.

I have struggled to reconcile what I understand to be the most basic tenet of my faith, namely love, and the many interpretations of what that should look like in respect of people whose sexuality differs from my own.

The love that we are called to is quite simple – we are to love God and we are to love each other. For this love to be genuine is indubitable, but in both cases, we have to be wary of discriminating and categorising exactly what this love should look like; how it might be expressed and who may partake of it, whether in long-term relationships, through marriage or through celibacy

I am aware that there are many who look to Scripture and yet only use isolated and often disjointed biblical passages to justify their position and I would affirm that Scripture as a whole contains all truths; but I would have to wonder whether we only worship a God who remains firmly in Old Testament attitudes and early Judaeo-Christian life-styles or a God that lives and is part of the 21st century, with all its challenges, changes and nuances. Has God not accompanied humanity in the last two millennia? Has he not wept and rejoiced, listened and guided? Does he not know what is happening?

Others speak of alternative sexuality as sinful and unforgivable; and again I would be loath to apply this label to what could be considered part of the human condition. Particularly as this is not helpful, especially in light of the message of open-ended grace and forgiveness for all, regardless of any measure of rebellious sinfulness. Who is to say what God does and does not see in us as a whole person – did David (murderer and adulterer) or Jacob (lier and cheat) not receive God’s grace for their devotion to God rather than for what other people judged them by? It is surely our faith that makes the difference

As a professed heterosexual, I cannot begin to say I know what it feels like to have your faith questioned or to be regarded as less worthy because of your sexuality – to know that despite being created in God’s image, that others consider it a tarnished reflection – to have to settle for something less because someone has decided you don’t meet all the ‘criteria’. Yet, I do recognise that the pain and hurt must sometimes be unbearable and for that I willingly offer my support in prayer and in love

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome
but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher,
patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.
God may perhaps grant that they will repent
and come to know the truth
2 Timothy 2:24-25

I know that on reading this, despite my heartfelt attempt to show sensitivity for all concerned, that some Christians will regard what I say as wrong, that they may even regard me in a different light. There will be those who have already made their mind up, who will reject these and other valid arguments completely; and whilst I must respect that decision, whether made on a personal level or as a church directive, at the same time I will be hoping that they too, like many others will be open to a similar journey as mine. When they find that they can no longer sit on the fence or through prayer and soul-searching be ready to admit that when we are called to love as God loves us then we should do so completely and honestly and be ready to treat all equally

Until then may God bless all who love the Lord our God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their strength, and with all their mind; and also their neighbour as themselves. Amen

Brothers and Sisters in Christ