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Put People First
August 28, 2022

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto

MARK 3:1-5

The United Methodist Church is splitting. Hundreds of the 30,000 United Methodist churches have left the denomination and have organized a new denomination called the Global Methodist Church. Many more churches are planning to follow.

They are exiting because of only one issue: human sexuality. The current rules forbid pastors to conduct same-sex weddings and avowed homosexuals may not be ordained. The exiting churches firmly support these rules, but they are exiting because they are angry at the bishops and clergy who violate the rules and are not held accountable. Some gays and lesbians have been ordained. Some pastors perform same-sex weddings. And the Western Jurisdiction even elected a bishop who is a lesbian with a partner. Karen Oliveto is Bishop of the Denver Area. In strong opposition to these actions, the Global Methodist Church has been formed, leaving the rest of us with the rules we are intent on changing and are disobeying in the meantime.

Some of you may recognize the following sermon. I preached a version of it here, in three other churches. A few months ago, a member of the Paradise Valley Church in Arizona that she brought a visiting couple to church where they heard this sermon. He was Jewish and they were trying to find a church where they would feel comfortable as they had a gay son. At the end of my sermon, they looked at each other and said, “This is our church.” They went home, found a United Methodist Church and have become leaders.

 I also preached this sermon in a chapel service at Garret-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, where the students not only applauded but cheered! Incidentally, the seminary established the Douglas and Eleanor Norris Scholarship Fund and Jordan Aspiras, granddaughter of Mary Ann Michel, who graduated this year was one of the recipients of the annual awards.

The Global Methodist Church does not publicly proclaim that they are anti-gay. They say they are exiting because of “scriptural authority.” And, of course, their interpretation of scripture is the correct one.

What is the authority of the Bible? How do we understand and apply the Bible to us today? I join with those United Methodists who subscribe to the historic, Wesleyan traditional belief in the authority of the Bible. 2 Timothy 2:16, “All scripture is inspired by God.”

Therefore, because the Bible has authority over us, what about troublesome passages like:

Leviticus 11:2-8 forbids the eating of rabbits and pigs.

Leviticus 12 forbids a woman who has given birth to a son from going into the sanctuary for 33 days, because she is impure. If she gives birth to a girl, she is impure for 66 days!

Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.”

Deuteronomy 12:18, 21, “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother…Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.”

1 Corinthians 11:5, “Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head.“

Psalm 15:1,5, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?… Those who do not lend money at interest.” (Where would America’s economy be if we took that seriously?)

Do you know anyone who obeys all these passages? It is obvious that all Christians use some method by which we decide which verses and passages have more authority than others. Let’s look at some methods of biblical interpretation.

1) “Pick and Choose” is the most popular form of biblical interpretation. Pick out the passages with which we agree and discard the rest. This method assumes the Bible has no inherent authority. Whatever agrees with our biases, prejudices, and what we want to do, is chosen, the rest discarded. Whatever one agrees with has more authority than the Bible. Those of us who believe in the authority of the Bible must reject the Pick and Choose method.

2) The “All or Nothing” method assumes that every word is literally written by God and every word is authoritative. If some passages are questioned, then the entire Bible is in question. Such believers, however, are rarely consistent. Do the women wear head coverings? Do they throw stones at their misbehaving children? Do they lend money at interest? We must reject the All or Nothing method as unworkable, and not even followed by its own adherents.

3) The “Filter” or historical method. God did not write the words of the Bible. God inspired human beings to write down what God inspired them to write, and God did not suspend the humanness of each author. The Bible is the Word of God communicated through the experience, language and culture of humans. In order to understand the author’s filter, we must ask questions of each passage and book: Who wrote it? What was going on at the time? When was it written?  To what situation and to whom was it written? Why was it written?

The Bible covers a period of about 2,000 years--from Abraham through the early church. There are different cultures reflected in the Bible, from the nomadic Hebrews to the sophisticated Greek culture of the Roman Empire.  Many of the troublesome biblical passages can be attributed to cultural filters, and therefore do not have authority over us.

4) The “People First” method. When deciding what is authoritative and what is not, what criteria do we use? Our personal ideas, our cultural bias, modern science?  As Christians who follow Jesus as Lord, who recognize Jesus Christ as the cornerstone of our faith, we attempt to understand and look through Jesus’ filter. Jesus Christ is our ultimate authority, and Jesus PUT PEOPLE FIRST.

Jesus reinterpreted Scripture, and even changed Scripture. He was not bound by the traditional interpretations. Matthew 5:38, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ (Jesus is quoting Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20) But I say to you," Do not resist an evildoer.” Matthew 5:43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies.” There are those in our day who still quote “an eye for an eye”, and ignore how Jesus changed the old Leviticus law. 

Also, Jesus defied the legalists and their literal, strict interpretations of Scripture. Jesus flagrantly disobeyed laws and violated tradition, much to the consternation of the legalistic Pharisees. The criterion Jesus used was to put people first. The needs, hurts and pain of people were more important than laws. When his disciples were hungry and picked grain on the Sabbath, violating strict Sabbath laws, the Pharisees were livid. Jesus replied, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:26) Do you hear the principle, how Jesus interpreted Scripture? People are first.

When Jesus healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees were again livid and immediately conspired against Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) People first! Saving life is more important than observing the Sabbath.

When a woman was caught in the act of adultery, the Law of Moses commanded that she be stoned to death (Leviticus 20:10), nothing about the man! Jesus undermined the authority of the law by turning it back on the accusers. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)

In the current controversy, the Global Methodists are quite passionate about the few Bible verses that condemn homosexual behavior. They are also quite passionate about our denomination’s position, which accepts homosexuals as “individuals of sacred worth” but condemns “the practice of homosexuality.” Accept the person but not the behavior. I don’t understand. It’s as if we accept tennis players, but they are forbidden from playing tennis. Or, we accept swimmers, but they are not allowed to swim. We accept homosexuals, but they can’t act like one!

Also, the official position of our denomination--“fidelity in marriage, and celibacy in singleness”-- is cruel. No sex outside marriage sounds right, but our denomination does not allow same-sex marriages so gays are forever single by definition, and therefore are commanded to be celibate. It’s easy for married heterosexuals to condemn gays to celibacy. Easy and cruel.

Global Methodist legalists are quite passionate about their beliefs, but are either ignorant of or do not care how their beliefs affect people, how people are hurt by the church laws. The legalists are not putting people first.

Jesus was impatient with the legalists of his day.

Jesus cared about the man with the withered hand and healed him, even though it meant violating the Sabbath laws.

Jesus cared more about the need of his disciples to eat than he cared about the Sabbath law.

And, I believe, Jesus cares more about lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, questioners than he cares about the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church!

Do you know what Jesus said about LGBTQ? NADA!

We’re not just talking about laws, principles, biblical interpretation. We’re talking about people—real, live human beings who hurt, who suffer, who struggle with their lives, trying to fit in, trying to belong.

We’re not just talking about people in the news or demonstrating on the street, we’re talking about people we know, people in our families (most families have a gay person somewhere). We’re talking about people in our church.

And, how is our church doing? We are a reconciling congregation which means we welcome everyone. Are we wholeheartedly welcoming lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals, transgenders, questioners? Are we welcoming with open minds, open hearts, open arms?

© 2022 Douglas I. Norris