I created this blog to share passages from sermons that my father, Rev. William L. Newcomer, preached during the course of his twenty-two years of ministry in the United Methodist Church. Forgive me for straying from that format to share instead remarks I gave last week as a guest speaker at Paoli United Methodist Church, where my father served as pastor from 1983 until his death in 1989. I chose to speak about the recently announced proposal to split the United Methodist Church over the issues of same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy. Here's what I had to say...
By now, most of you must have heard the latest news in the United Methodist Church. It’s both good news and bad news. The good news is that last week, a diverse group of church leaders announced an agreement that, if approved in May at General Conference, will end decades of fighting over same-sex marriage and the ordaining of LGBTQ persons as clergy. The bad news is that the agreement (which is called the “Protocol for Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation”) would end the fighting by splitting our denomination. Under the Protocol, traditionalists who want to continue our current bans on ordaining openly gay clergy and on officiating or hosting same-sex weddings would leave to form a new, conservative Methodist denomination, while progressives and centrists would stay in the United Methodist Church and change our rule book, the Book of Discipline, to allow for same-sex marriage and for gay clergy. This Protocol would have to be approved by a vote of delegates from around the world at the UMC’s next General Conference, which is being held in May in Minneapolis, MN.
Since I saw the news of this Protocol on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer last weekend, I’ve felt horribly conflicted. On the one hand, I feel profound sadness for what I will be losing if the United Methodist Church splits. The United Methodist Church is home for me – literally. Because my dad was a UM pastor, I grew up living in church-owned parsonages, including this church’s parsonage during my college years. And thanks to my wife’s calling as a UM pastor, I still live on church grounds in a parsonage – now as the pastor’s spouse instead of as the pastor’s kid. The United Methodist Church is home for all of us figuratively, but it may soon be a broken home.
In some regions, entire annual conferences may choose to leave the UMC. Some local congregations will decide to leave the UMC as well. Some people undoubtedly will leave their local congregations to find another congregation that more closely aligns with their views on gay clergy and same-sex marriage. All of this depresses me, frankly. There are no winners, only losers, in a church split. Our Bishop, Peggy Johnson, put it so well when she said, “When we go to our respective ‘corners’ I believe we will soon discover that we are ‘less than’ we could be without the other.” Something is wrong with us when our common faith in Jesus Christ is not strong enough glue to bind us together.
But on the other hand, I feel a surprising sense of hope because of this Protocol. Ever since our Book of Discipline was amended in 1972 to say that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”, we have been debating, then arguing, then fighting over the treatment of LGBTQ persons in the UMC. Many people have been and continue to be hurt by our current rules and by the fight over changing them. The fighting must stop. Everyone deserves a church home where they are welcomed, supported and loved, and where they can follow their conscience and their good faith reading of Scripture. This proposed split would free us all – whether liberal, conservative, or somewhere in-between – from our divisive, draining, and self-destructive fighting so that we can re-focus our energy, our resources, and our passion on the true work of the Church: making and equipping disciples for the transformation of the world. That gives me hope!
Before I go any further, I want you to know where I stand on same-sex marriage and gay clergy in the United Methodist Church. I have been on both sides of the issue. When I was a younger adult, I held the traditionalist view. Scripture appeared to clearly and consistently testify that homosexual sex was sinful, so who was I to argue with the Bible? I believed that same-gender sex was sin – and I didn’t take that position because I was a bigot or because I was homophobic. I took that position because it was the conclusion I sincerely drew from Scripture at the time. I wanted to be faithful to God’s Word.
But my view has changed. In the time since my wife has been a pastor, I’ve found that in every congregation she served there were gay and lesbian members who were pillars of the church. They were living lives of dedicated service to Christ and his church. Jesus said in Matthew 7 that we know people by the fruit their lives produce. These gay and lesbian Methodists were producing good fruit! This caused me to re-examine Scripture. What I learned with more study surprised me. The few passages that address same-gender sexual relations are anything but clear. What is clear is that Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to treat others as we would want to be treated. My marriage is the source of abundant blessings in my life; it is the most important and enriching human relationship I have. I can’t imagine not being married to Dorry! I love my wife! I love being her husband! And if I am to love my gay neighbor as myself, if I am to treat my gay neighbor as I want to be treated, then I should value my gay neighbor’s marriage as I do my own. I should honor my gay neighbor’s call to ministry as I honored my wife’s call. In a nutshell, that’s why I now think the Book of Discipline needs to change to permit same-sex marriage and to permit gay clergy.
Having been on both sides of this great divide, I want to talk with you about where we go from here… or, more importantly, how we conduct ourselves from this point on. I was drawn to 1 Corinthians 13 as our Scripture for this morning. These are Paul’s famous words about love. We usually hear them read at weddings. But Paul didn’t write these words as advice to newlyweds. He wrote these words to the people of the church in Corinth, who were struggling to get along with each other. Paul was reminding the Corinthian church what the point is of all this church stuff. The whole point is LOVE. Without love, our words are as annoying as a clanging cymbal. Without love, our knowledge means nothing. Without love, our faith means nothing. Without love, our generosity means nothing. Love is to be our defining characteristic as followers of Christ. In 1st John (4:8), we read that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” In our Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the twelve disciples at the last supper: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” When we are dealing with each other, love is to be our Protocol. Love is to be our rule for living. Love is how others will know we are Christians.
So with love in mind as our reigning value, let me humbly suggest 3 simple rules that should guide each of us as we face the uncertainty that 2020 brings in the United Methodist Church (and here at Paoli United Methodist Church):
Rule #1: Treat those with whom you disagree as you would want to be treated. Paul tells us that love is patient and kind. Love is not arrogant or rude. It is not irritable or resentful. Love doesn’t insist on its own way. Then that is how we should be. We need to treat those with whom we disagree as we would want to be treated. This is a straight-forward application of the Golden Rule. If I don’t want others to say I’m a secularist sell-out who doesn’t believe in the Bible, then I better not call them bigots or homophobic. We may laugh at these extreme put-downs, but if you stop and read the comments people have been posting on social media about the Protocol and this possible church split, it won’t take you long to find folks who claim to be Christians lobbing these kinds of insults back and forth at each other like hand-grenades. We live in a society that is polarized. Shouting and coarse language and insults have taken the place of civil discourse and respectful disagreement. What if our lasting legacy as United Methodists were to show this nation and the world how to disagree without being disagreeable? “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Rule #2: Be Humble. After all, what if you’re wrong? I read in the bulletin that your adult Sunday school class is studying a book called “The Sin of Certainty.” I love that title! If certainty can be a sin, then both sides of this debate in the UMC have much to repent of! Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13 that, right now, we only know in part. We only see in a mirror, dimly. So why do we act like we have it all figured out? Why do we treat fellow Methodists who read Scripture differently on this issue like they are heretics or un-Christian or unwelcome in our fellowship? Again, this is the Golden Rule in action. If I want someone to be open to the possibility that they might have it wrong, then I must allow for the possibility that I may be the one who is wrong. What if our lasting legacy as United Methodists were to show this nation and the world what looks like to live together in humility instead of hubris? “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Rule #3: Don’t let the “perfect” be the enemy of the good! The “Protocol for Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” was negotiated by Methodist leaders who were progressive, conservative, and moderate. The effort was initiated by a Bishop from Africa, and it was hammered out with the help of Kenneth Feinberg, a renowned mediator who is known for his work administering the 9-11 Victims Compensation Fund. The Protocol is the end product of tough negotiations. It is akin to a legal settlement. Any judge will tell you that the sign of a good settlement is that everyone leaves unhappy. That’s because each side has given up something meaningful to gain something meaningful. It is a compromise. But compromise is a dirty word in our society these days. As a nation and a people, we seem to be losing our ability to compromise. Just take a look at Washington, D.C.
If a good settlement makes no one happy, then the Protocol must be a great settlement. When I read reactions, I find conservatives who grouse about having to leave the denomination. “Why should we leave?” they rant. “We aren’t the ones who want to change the rules!” Then I find progressives who grouse about the $25 million in church funds that the conservatives will be paid to start their new traditionalist denomination. “Why should they get so much money?” they rant. “It’s like we’re paying them to continue discriminating against the LGBTQ community!”
No matter what your perspective, if you read the Protocol, you will find something you don’t like. It’s not perfect. It never will be. That’s the nature of compromise. What if we stopped picking apart this Protocol, stopped putting ourselves first and our fellow Methodists last? What if we showed this nation and the world that people can still compromise for a greater good than their own self-interests? What if that were the lasting legacy of the United Methodist Church? “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share this with you today. As I said earlier, the United Methodist Church is home for me, in part because congregations like Paoli UMC always made me feel at home. Your love helped grow me up! I pray that you will continue to let love be your protocol in the challenging months ahead. In the name of Jesus, Amen.
Sermon: "Our Protocol of Love"
Preached by: Philip W. Newcomer
January 12, 2020 @ Paoli United Methodist Church