The Dance of Discernment


Rev. Sarah Buteux
April 7, 2013
Acts 5:27-41
John 20: 19-31

Certainty is missing the point entirely.” ― Anne Lamott

You all might remember that a few weeks ago there was a little production taking place over at the Academy of Music that had a bunch of people’s, (oh how shall I say this in church?), undergarments uncomfortably twirled, small clothes all a’coil, lingerie a loop de looped.

It was the Pioneer Performing Arts School production of the Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, a biblically inspired and gay affirming satire staring Adam, Steve, Jane and Mabel rather than Adam, Eve, Cain and Able – and it caused something of an uproar amongst people here in the valley. 

The PVPA received over 3500 e-mails and letters asking them not to proceed with the performance and word on the street was that local churches were going to come out en-masse on opening night to protest the use of “tax payer dollars to mock the Bible.”

Well that’s when a bunch of folks over at First Church in Amherst got the idea to stage a counter protest of sorts. They sent an e-mail around to their fellow Congregationalists and invited us to join them in affirming the creative freedom of the students as well as the GLBTQ community.

We didn’t want to stand idly by and watch our friends and neighbors be further hurt and alienated by yet another group of Christians holding up hateful and demeaning signs in a public forum, so we went with different kinds of signs.

Our mission was to be a positive Christian presence rather then a negative one. We carried placards that said things like, “Jesus loves GLBTQ” and - my personal favorite, a sign that simply said, “God loves Plays.” The good folks over at Edwards Church, right across the street from the theater, changed the words on their wayside pulpit to read: "God loves us all, gay and straight." Our gospel choir came and sang their great big hearts out. And I saw at least half a dozen of my colleagues there - “all collared up” so people would know we were ministers- standing with their congregants. They were present and holding their church banners high, not just in support of the performance, but so that people could see a different face of Christianity.

And I have to tell you it was a really powerful and positive experience. It was great to see the look on people faces go from wary disapproval to full on joyful surprise when they read our signs and realized that the people singing: “Jesus loves the little children, ALL the children of the world,” actually meant it.

It felt so good to hug the students and high five the parents who kept coming back out of the theater to thank us for our support. And it was deeply moving when folks who were part of the GLBTQ community came over to stand and sing with us, because they knew all the words by heart.

I got the sense that many of them had grown up singing these songs, but that they most likely hadn’t sung them in a good long time because they no longer felt welcome in the church. To see them come over and sing the old familiar hymns with tears streaming down their faces as we joined them in reclaiming those words of unconditional love and inclusion felt…. well…. I guess I’d have to say it felt holy.

Contrary to everyone’s expectations, although there were a handful of Christians who had come out to protest the event, it turned out that the majority of churches present were actually there in support of it.

The protesting Christians stood their looking pained and disapproving. Our group, on the other hand, was overflowing with joy.  No one was rushing over to hug those folks. I, on the other hand, got to sway and sing in line with the arms of a gorgeous 7 foot transvestite draped over my shoulders. I was in heaven; the other group, not so much. They were there to make their displeasure known. We ended up having kind of an impromptu party, a party to which everyone was invited.

As they prayed for the souls of sinners we sang Amazing Grace, and there is no doubt in my mind which side of the picket line I would rather have been standing on, which folks I would rather have stood with.

But there was also a part of my heart that went out to the protesting Christians and even a part of my heart that could respect them in spite of our disagreement, because had that performance taken place 20 years ago, I most likely would have been found standing with them.

I was raised Conservative Baptist, after all. I was raised to think that homosexuality was a sin and that if I really and truly wanted to show love to people caught in that “sin” then I needed to let them know that they needed to repent and get right with God… get right or else my all loving savior was going to do unspeakably horrible things to them for all eternity.

The cognitive dissonance of that way of thinking thankfully and eventually wore me down such that I could consider other view points, but back when I was young, it wouldn’t have phased me to hold signs like that outside the Academy of Music, not even in a town as gay-affirming as Northampton.

In fact, it would have propelled me all the more, because I was raised with the example of Peter and the apostles held ever before me, the example of those brave men who went against the grain and stood up to the powers that be and refused to be silent, proclaiming for all to hear: “We must obey God rather than human authority.”

I would have stood out on that sidewalk with my “God’s gonna get you” sign and prayed my little heart out for all the unsaved and unrepentant souls walking by. I would have been horrified by all those U.C.C. clergy, not just because of their rainbows but because of their women ministers.

In fact, I kid you not, the first female minister I ever met, I met 21 years ago in the lobby of Edward’s church. I walked in, she introduced herself as the pastor, and I backed slowly out of the building wondering what sort of dark devilry was afoot in that church.

I was so sure of myself back then. So sure about what was right and what was wrong, what was permissible and what was verboten. To be honest, I was as sure of myself back then as I am sure of myself right now, so sure that I’d stand up in public and proclaim it no matter what the consequences.

All of which has got me wondering: how do you know when you’re right? How do you know what’s true? How do you know when you’re standing up for what’s good and obeying God’s authority or just standing up for what you think is good and obeying nothing more objective than your own conscience?

I know many people who would simply tell you to read the scripture. If the Bible says it that settles it…right? But I know a whole host of other people, myself included, whose love and knowledge of scripture has brought them to a place where they can in good faith say that they take the Bible too seriously to take it literally.

For you see the Bible says a whole lot of stuff, stuff that doesn’t always agree with other stuff it also says, stuff you wouldn’t follow now because it’s quite simply and thankfully illegal to behave that way, stuff that - I can almost guarantee you - would make even the most die-hard Bible belt fundamentalist think twice before they went along with it.

Like the author of 2 Timothy, I firmly believe that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” but I also know that none of us comes to that scripture with a pure mind or a perfect understanding.

I know that it’s not always easy to distinguish between the letter and the Spirit or know when to read a certain passage as being simply descriptive (telling us what happened) rather than prescriptive (telling us what we ought to do).

I know that these scriptures were written over thousands of years, by dozens of different people reacting to circumstances incredibly far removed from the world I live in now. And I know that the process by which many of those words came to be chosen as scripture was often as much about power as it was about discernment. I have every faith that God inspired those words and guided the process by which they became scripture, but I also believe that God has enough faith in me to trust that I will look at the big picture, take all of this into account, and read the scriptures with not just my heart but my brain working on all cylinders.

Which is a rather long way of saying that just following scripture is not as easy as many people would like to think.

So how do you know? How do you know when you’re standing up for what’s good and obeying God’s authority or just standing up for what you think is good and simply obeying your own?

It’s really not an easy question to answer. I would think the next best place to look for answers would be an honest examination of yourself and your intentions. I think you need to ask yourself: are you speaking your truth with love?

Are you seeking to help or harm, enlighten or shame, lift up or grind down those who disagree with you? Are you using your power to impose your will upon others or are you using your voice to empower those who can’t speak for themselves?

I think intentions count for a lot, but even as I say that I also know that my intentions, even 20 years ago, were good. I may have hurt people back then, but I know, at least in my own mind that as awful as this might sound, I thought I was hurting them for the right reasons.

As I looked over at the protesting Christians the other night at the Academy of Music I couldn’t just dismiss them as backward or bigoted. I actually think they were as sincere as I was; that as diametrically opposed as our messaging may have been, that they too were operating out of love for the world and hope for the future.

We have very different ways of showing that love and the future we are hoping for is dramatically different, but somewhere underneath all our disagreements, there was still love and hope at work.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I can respect the intentions of a person while still fundamentally disagreeing with their ideals and their behavior, which brings us right back to square one.

How do you know? How do we know if we’re speaking for God or just speaking for ourselves?

As you can hear, I‘ve been thinking about this all week and honestly, I think the real answer is…you don’t. Not always. Not completely.

I still believe we, like Peter and the apostles, are called to speak our truth and speak it boldly, but when we do, we need to speak it with humility as well; with grace and kindness attending our every word and action.

Like Peter we need to search the scriptures and search our hearts with equal diligence, never failing to ask ourselves why we’re doing what we are doing?

Are we using our voice, our energy, and our power to invite people into the life Christ offers, extend the forgiveness he brings, and demonstrate his unfailing grace?

Or are we simply using our voice to shame those with whom we disagree, burn those whom we disdain, and make ourselves feel superior? Jesus didn’t do that, nor did Peter, and neither, my friends, should we.

We can’t always know when we’re right, truly right. All we can do is step out in good faith, recognizing that to do so is just that…an act of faith.

The truth is that for all your knowledge and understanding and good intentions, you can stand up and speak out, be completely sure of yourself and completely wrong. You won’t know for sure until, like Thomas, you stand before your risen Lord.

So till then, err, if you must, on the side of your Lord, a savior who took us at our very worst and still returned to us with his very best.  Be willing, like he was, always willing to give those “other” people the benefit of the doubt, to see beneath their behavior and their rhetoric, and find a way to love them in spite of it all.  Be open to the possibility that even the hardest heart can change.  And be ready to listen and give an account for the hope that is in you, a hope you have because Christ loved you first and is counting on you to love others just the same.

Let us pray: O Lord, grant us the grace to act with the boldness and conviction of Peter and the Apostles while still sharing in the mind of Christ, who being in very nature God, with all the powers of the universe at his beck and call, still came among us to serve rather than be served, to love rather than be loved, to be in every way an instrument of your peace. Grant us the grace and the discernment to speak the truth in love, as did he while he walked amongst us, that the world might be changed by your truth and come to know your love on every way. Amen