Romans 6: 1-14
1 What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness (justice). 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
More Light has been working for over 35 years for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender inclusion in the Presbyterian Church, (U.S.A) and in society. Alex McNeill was hired as the executive director of More Light almost two years ago. When he started in this role in 2013, General Assembly was just 9 months away where we were hoping to bring forward an amendment to the Book of Order that would update the description of marriage as between “two persons” and pass an authoritative interpretation to give ministers the ability to marry same sex couples in states where it is legal. It was a daunting task to be sure, but one of the the first things he heard when he began was that many outside of More Light thought the amendment to update the language of our Book of Order was too risky because it would need to be voted upon by a majority of the 171 Presbyteries if it should pass at General Assembly. Many people Alex spoke to were afraid that putting marriage equality to a national vote within the denomination spelled disaster. Quite simply, many thought that the vote within the presbyteries would contribute to more churches leaving the denomination or an outright schism.
To read anything about the future of the church these days mostly feels like reading the cardboard signs of your downtown doomsday prophet: Churches are in decline, millennials are leaving the church, the mainline establishment has rejected change, and our old historic buildings are crumbling around us. To many, it feels like the end of church times might be lurking just around the corner, finally catalyzed by the next church to shut its doors. However, these doomsday intonations are nothing new. Those of us who have been involved in the work for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender inclusion in our churches and in our denomination have heard from those that oppose LGBT inclusion for years that opening the doors to LGBT people in our churches might just be the event to usher in the end times. We’ve heard over and over again that LGBT inclusion is going to split our congregations or even destroy the Presbyterian Church, USA. Those that oppose LGBT inclusion are so afraid of the death of an institution they know, that they haven’t even considered what resurrection might be waiting for the church on the other side.
What Alex has come to realize over the course of his first two years as executive director of More Light Presbyterians is that those of us who affirm that God created and loves all of us, including LGBT people, have already experienced a death and resurrection in Christ. We have let die those old assumptions that we believed or were taught that God’s love was limited, that inclusion had borders, or that we didn’t fit in God’s beloved community. We have let die the sinfulness of believing that we could ever be separate from God, that who we are or who we love could ever take us from the love of God. I have witnessed parents who have let die the belief that their child’s gender transition wasn’t part of God’s plan. I have spoken with ministers who let die the belief that if their church became a welcoming place for LGBT people that it would wither and fold. I have heard from LGBT people who let die the assumption that the scriptures were a place of condemnation for who they are. What I have seen on the other side of that death is a new life full of the awareness that we are all God’s beloved creation. Choosing the life which affirms this truth is to be set free from the fear of following God’s call for justice.
When the amendment to the Book of Order achieved a 71% Yes vote at General Assembly, we at More Light believed that the conversations the 171 Presbyteries were going to have about the amendment in the coming months was an opportunity for a new life to take hold within the denomination. We believed God was calling the church to a new life where we were unafraid to engage openly and honestly with each other about marriage within the church. If the fear of death no longer has dominion over us, we are free to follow the Gospel.
We believe we are at a new crossroads in our call towards justice and inclusion in the church. The temptation is to say that because institutional barriers to LGBT inclusion in our denomination have changed, that the work for LGBT welcome is finished. However we believe we are called to choose to usher in a new life for the denomination and for our congregations that puts justice-seeking inclusion at the center of who we are. The question we are called to answer now is how can our congregations live into our welcome. Or, as Paul might have us ask, how can we choose life and continue to live into it. What is our congregation called to do to make welcome real for LGBT people in our church or community? While our denomination has eliminated some barriers to inclusion for LGBT participation, our country and our cities continue to be a place where LGBT people are still suffering from discrimination, disenfranchisement, or despair. What is your congregation called to do to bring life and light into these dark corners?
What might you do if you were free from any fear of failure? In the next era of the work to bring God’s love into the light, each of us and our churches are called upon to discern where the Spirit is leading us. For some congregations that has been into the creation of an LGBT youth group. For other congregations the discernment has been to work for a state-wide non-discrimination law. For another congregation their discernment was to support an LGBT asylum-seeker. Each of these congregations chose this life in the face of statistics that the church is dying, that our message is irrelevant to millennials, or that our actions might split the denomination. In choosing life we follow the call for justice and trust that God will hold us along the way, because we know the resurrection we will encounter is greater than any of the assumptions we have held that might die along the journey.