Sunday 14th October 2018 Acts 10:9-16
LIVING WITH DIFFERENCE
Being a member of the very early church was no mean feat: you were living in fear of your life and, more to the point, you were living amidst great controversies. Could a person who was not a Jew become a Christian or did he or she have to become a Jew first? And on top of that came all the food regulations about what you could or couldn’t eat.
Peter, along with the other apostles, was faced with so much controversy it’s a wonder that the church ever came into being. Councils were held and individual apostles and members of the church were questioned.
Peter told about the vision or dream he had had on the way to Joppa. This almost caused a spectacular split between those early apostles. Could they, should they, really eat food considered by the Jews as unclean? What would people say?
But as we know, in the end it came right and because the apostles and members of the early church were able to accept one another’s views they were able to live together with difference.
It wasn’t until much later in what had become the Christian Church that controversy caused massive splits to occur simply because church leaders and church people could not accept each other’s views and live together with difference.
We are all living with difference day out and day in, no two of us think the same. Indeed, many of us ministers within the same denomination live with difference over the very wide panacea of theological views and ways of conducting worship Sunday by Sunday. No two United Reformed Churches are the same, but because we agree to disagree we can live together with difference because of our respect for each other’s views and because we are loved and supported by a God who in his love for us sent his only son to be one of us.
Today at our church meeting we will be discussing a subject which can be divisive, upsetting, hurtful and, for some people, a subject which should never have been put on a church meeting agenda.
When the United Reformed Church, in General Assembly, discussed the subject of Same-Sex Marriage it was anticipated that this was something which would divide our church right down the middle. Many were upset by this discussion but in the end, to keep the unity of the church, people began to realise that they could live with difference. Instead of resignations and talks about seceding and walking away to perhaps another church, people and ministers, after discussion and prayer, felt they could live with their sisters and brothers who held opposite views.
So let me for a few moments reflect on what may happen if this church votes to apply for the registration of same-sex marriages.
Well firstly the roof will not be hit by a bolt from above, secondly there will be no difference in our worship and activities Sunday by Sunday and week by week and thirdly there will not be any noticeable change to our outreach programme.
This church has as its strap line to ‘Share God’s Love in the Community’ and that community, just as the congregation of this church, is diverse and made up of all sorts and different beliefs.
My friends, 40 years ago people, friends and family told me that my proposed marriage to Joan would NOT work. I was preparing to enter our ministerial training college in Manchester, Joan was not a regular church goer and would find life in the manse totally foreign and of course there was the age difference. BUT WE PROVED THEM WRONG and they came to admit that they were wrong in trying to dissuade me in taking this big step.
Yes, we had our differences as all married couples have, yes we had our arguments sometimes over very petty things as well as more serious issues, but we worked through them and understood each other better once we found a solution over what we were arguing about and if no solution could be found we decided that we could live with difference.
The question of same-sex marriage has been for me a journey of discovery, a journey not without pain. Yes, I agreed with Civil Partnerships and had had the privilege of conducting two thanksgiving services following civil ceremonies at the registrar’s office in Weybridge. But marriage! This was a different question and one which really did tax my thoughts and reasoning.
Wasn’t marriage for the procreation of children? And yet in my marriage to Joan I knew that we would never have a child of our marriage, no one to call me daddy. And that was my starting point in the consideration of this whole question and the journey that I have been on over the past 5 years since this subject was first debated at the URC General Assembly in Cardiff.
This journey has not been an easy ride, I have listened to various sides in the debate, and I have read various articles and listened to many speakers; talks, sermons and writings which have spun round in my mind faster than a spin dryer. It was on this journey that I began to discover and realise how the church had hurt so many people because of their rejection and the judgement on them due to their sexuality.
I spent time at that General Assembly with a young man who was in tears because of one person whose speech bordered on being homophobic! That young man when he came to Surrey University found a home in this church—his name—Nick Booth! Here he found a welcoming church, a church where he was loved and respected.
And this was my turning point, this was my Archimedes moment and from that time on I began to consider if I, as a Christian minister, could conduct a Same-Sex Marriage Ceremony. I looked at various liturgies from denominations which had accepted same sex marriage, lastly lighting on the liturgy as proposed by the United Reformed Church and constructed largely by a former member of this church, the Revd Dr Susan Durber. After a careful study and questions I decided that I could take this step.
My friends, at our church meeting I hope we will all express our opinions in a full, frank and sensitive way and I request this because we do not know the thoughts or family issues the person sitting next to us may be feeling or dealing with at this time.
A URC minister who consistently preached against same sex marriage suddenly had to change his mind when his son, and I use these words advisedly, “came out” as gay! This really turned his world upside down. Could he remain preaching in the same way? If he did he would lose his son and any meaningful relationship with him. He looked at the story Jesus told of the prodigal son and suddenly he felt like the selfish and angry elder brother. He worked through this and, in his words, “through prayer and exploration of the issues came to accept the situation” he un-expectantly found himself in. To quote him again, “this was like a second conversion experience!”
My friends, in our everyday lives we all live with tension and recognise that we all live with differences, but as mature people we can accept this. So why can we not accept it within the church? I believe we can. I believe we can be a stronger more inclusive church where all are truly welcome and where none are judged because of their lifestyle or sexuality.
Earlier I reflected on what would not happen if we decided to go down this route, but let me say a few words on what may happen.
I believe that people could come to see this as a church to which they will want to belong: a church which proclaims and lives in very real terms the message of the Gospel, the good news that they are loved and accepted by God; a place full of welcome and love; a place to feel safe and enable them to worship God when other churches have rejected them.
My prayer is that, no matter what decision is reached, we can live together with difference as a fellowship of God’s people, worshipping here within this church on the Portsmouth Road safe in the knowledge that we are held in the arms of a loving and understanding God who still has more light and truth to break forth from his word.
So, let us build a house where love can dwell, let us build a house where love is found, let us build a house where hands reach out and, above all, let us build a house where all are named, their songs and visions heard and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word. Built of tears and cries and laughter, prayers of faith and songs of grace, and again, above all, let THIS CHURCH proclaim from floor to ceiling: ALL ARE WELCOME, ALL ARE WELCOME IN THIS PLACE.