Sunday, 2nd November 2008 at the Metropolitan Community Church of North London
Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
“I’ll admit that when I saw tonight’s reading my first thought was one of academic panic. This is my first time preaching and I approached the lectionary with caution like one of my old academic handbooks, or an unseen exam paper, terrified that the set text would be that passage that I forgot to revise. I graduated from UCL a month ago, and was quite happily resting on my degree and thought myself quite the academic.
They say that pride comes before a fall, and as soon as I opened my Bible at tonight’s gospel reading my face fell. What could I say that was interesting about yet another rant about the Pharisees? Where was all the witty banter I’d imagined delivering effortlessly? I was immediately downcast and convinced that I’d over-estimated my own abilities, and that I should just give up then and there.
In the midst of all this, a wise friend of mine asked me why I hadn’t prayed about it. I didn’t have the answer so I mumbled something about “oh, it’s fine, I’ll go away and read it in Greek and something will come to me”. That academic pride again. So I filed away the reading and got on with my day job.
So I let it be for a week or so, then one day I realised what I was doing. In my haste to get it right, I was doing exactly what Jesus was warning his disciples not to do. I was so scared that I would get it wrong, that I would seem stupid, that I completely missed the point. And how often do we do that?
Whilst I was thinking this, a friend in my office caught my attention to show me a newspaper article. It was October 6th, forty years to the day after MCC was founded, and the Rev. Peter Mullan of Cornhill was plastered all over the papers having announced on his blog that gay men should have health warnings tattooed on them. This brought home to me a feeling that there is more to being humble before God than simply not exalting ourselves, and that is that we have to learn to exalt God, and dare to speak the name of Jesus in public.
It upsets me when bigoted people like Rev. Mullan can get their message all over the tabloids, when LGBTQ people and our allies have to fight for our right to reply. And, when that reply comes, it all too often slams religion and claims that in order to have faith one must be homophobic. This leaves us feeling that we are too queer for other Christians, and too Christian for the LGBT community. It won’t do, and we have to learn to tackle it.
There is a problem here of learning to recognise “head-thinking” and “heart-thinking”. I don’t think people who condemn the LGBT community with such vehemence do very much “heart-thinking”. In my own experience, when I joined a so-called evangelical church near my home town at the age of 15, I very quickly found myself torn between two conflicting realities. The world of church was, apparently, very straight-forward. The leaders told us how we could behave to honour God, and we prayed constantly about it, for ourselves, for each other, and for our families. There was something very comforting about thinking that I had a strict moral code to adhere to – which, initially, did not conflict with the principles on which I was brought up – and also this wonderful feeling that we could be forgiven when all didn’t go according to plan.
The problems started to come later – you may have noticed that I no longer hang out in the evangelical anglican community. I knew by the time I started going to church that there was something about queer about me, but I realised very quickly that this was not a good thing. As soon as I told a friend at church, I was pushed to telling the youth workers. I was a bit taken aback by their attitudes. Maybe I was naïve, but I’d read so many conflicting discussions on queer theology, and I was well aware that there was a debate. I expected that this would be acknowledged and that I could work through the difficulties I was having to reach, alongside the leaders, a clear decision on what direction my life was taking. However, what I came across was an impenetrable wall of dogma. There was no way, I was told, that you can be gay. You just think you are, because you’re fifteen and you have hormones all over the place. And if you were, you would not be welcome in the Dominion of God so you’d better get it out of your system now. I was shocked. It was the first time I came across such a close-minded attitude first hand.
Of course, in fairness, I was never asked to leave St. James’, and people continued to be friendly. It was probably my most solid support throughout my late teens, but it was destructive. But with 5 years’ hindsight I can see something now that I couldn’t as a teenager. What I can see now is that the theology employed to criticise the queer community comes from a place of fear, where it is easier to close of the heart and think purely from the head. In many people this will manifest as it did in my old church, where people did their best to continue to support me – so long as I left my sexuality at the door. But sometimes this can go one further, when people are so scared that if they open their hearts up to the LGBT community that they will have to sacrifice God, that they close themselves off enough to convince themselves that we are somehow a force for evil in the world. I hope it is pure head-thinking; I can’t understand it any other way, and I cannot believe this comes from the heart.
And I do believe that it is the head-thinking of these people had has made us so desperate to justify our faith that we cloak it in terms of theology. We’ve been so hurt by evangelical churches that we allow Christian Voice to be the only people speaking the name of God at events such as Gay Sunday at the Zoo, where they condemned the “depravity” of the “homosexual” visitors in offensive pamphlets handed out in Regent’s Park. We have been so hurt by people calling themselves evangelists, people who claim to speak the Good News with love, that we are too scared to emulate them and so we stay quiet.
I’m not trying to condemn this fear; it’s perfectly natural to me. I’m scared to be associated with the evangelical movement, scared of being tarred with the brush of their homophobia, and mostly scared to be thought weird. I need to take a leap of faith, to say with St. Paul that we are not ashamed of the gospel, and to tell people – as Jesus does in our reading tonight – that we have one Parent, one Leader, and one Teacher and that is God. Not only that, but that God is perfect, and God loves us.
Nor must we preach this message – as others do – in a way that diminishes our family in God. I may disagree with Christian Voice, and I may worry about the dangerous impact that they have on our community, but on some things we should be united. We should be able to stand, side by side, and say that whatever our differences may be we stand together, as one in the sight of Jesus. We are loved by God, we love God, and we should share a desire to let as many people know their place in the family of God. Instead of worrying that we’ll be treated with revulsion for telling people they are loved we should hold our heads up high and know that we are speaking the truth with the highest authority. Instead of letting the bigots take centre stage, we must reclaim evangelism and be at the forefront of letting our queer family know how cherished they are. Because, as people like Christian Voice and Rev. Mullan show all too clearly, if we don’t I don’t know who will.