As worship began at First Presbyterian Church of Hudson, WI two ruling elders who serve on the session, Sheldon and Attie Kay, reported to the congregation a decision that had been made a special meeting of the session the previous morning, April 11, 2015. The action taken at that meeting approved the following statement.
“Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. At First Presbyterian Church of Hudson, WI requests for Session consideration of marriage will not be denied based upon sexual orientation.
 Language from PC(USA) General Assembly Amendment 14-F (approved by a majority of PC(USA) presbyteries for inclusion in the Book of Order as of March 17, 2015)
I want to begin this morning by thanking Sheldon and Attie Kay for their careful sharing of the news that came out of the special session meeting yesterday. I imagine that decision, whether it is one you personally celebrate or question or maybe even mourn, has not moved far from the front of your mind as we have worshiped together this morning. It hasn’t moved from mine nor, I imagine, the minds of the session members here this morning even though we have been sitting with the decision almost twenty-four hours longer than the rest of the congregation.
And I don’t think it necessarily should because it is a decision that carries great weight for many in our church and community. It is a decision that came after months of intense session discussion and really two years of congregational study in a variety of different formats and venues. It has been an emotional discussion for many, and yesterday it was an emotional decision, in some way or another, for every person
sitting around that meeting table.
As the meeting drew to a close, following almost three hours of discussion and prayer, sharing and wondering aloud, discernment, but very little, in fact absolutely none of what I would categorize as antagonistic debate, I knew my original thoughts on Jesus’ Great Commission would have to be set aside. I knew what the Spirit was calling me to talk about instead was the decision we had just made. The question that remained, however, was “*What* was the Spirit calling me to say?” I guess in that sense the sermon title I had picked for entirely different reasons five or six days ago still fit. Now what?
For a very technical answer, “Now what?” can be answered with the statement that any two people who can legally obtain a marriage license in the state of Wisconsin can request to have their wedding held at First Presbyterian Church, and their request will be considered by the session whether it is made by a man and a woman, two men, or two women. The session will then decide whether or not a particular worship service for the purpose of uniting to two people in marriage on the church property is an appropriate use of our facilities.
Absolutely nothing has changed in this regard. The session has always approved each and every wedding held on our property, because as Presbyterians we believe that a wedding service is a service of worship. The session, as the elected spiritual leaders of the church, has the responsibility for oversight of every service of worship whether it happens on a Sunday morning, Ash Wednesday, Christmas Eve, or a Saturday in July involving a wedding party, family, and friends.
What has changed is the possibility that such a service of worship might unite people of the same sex in marriage. The session has agreed, and agreed unanimously, that it will not refuse consideration of a wedding request based on the sexual orientation of the couple making the request.
That’s the technical answer, one about which you may have more questions, one about which session members and I are prepared to hold conversations when we hope and pray that you ask your questions and express your thoughts. There are, however other non-technical answers to this same question that are just as important, if not more important, for us to consider today.
Now what if I want to celebrate this opening of the church’s ministry to all people?
Now what if I’m worried?
Now what if I don’t agree?
Now what do we do if there are a variety of opinions across the congregation?
Really, there’s no “if” about that last one. There are a variety of opinions across this congregation. The conversations we have hosted over the last two years about sexuality in general, marriage in particular, sexuality and marriage, General Assembly decisions related to ordination and marriage, how we interpret Scripture in general, what specific Bible passages say specifically, all witness to the fact that we are a blessedly diverse congregation, a congregation made up of disciples of Jesus with varied backgrounds and knowledge and a variety of understandings about how we are individually and collectively called to faithfully follow the Risen Christ. There is no question we have variety of opinions across the congregation on the issue of same sex marriage and number of other topics of faith and life.
The session is representative of that diversity. Throughout these several months of discussion and even yesterday as a we searched together to find language that felt like a faithful following of the Spirit there have always been present and welcome at the table positions across the spectrum of what could be described as very conservative to very liberal. As we have lived with this question for several months some people have moved along that position in different ways, but the presence of diversity has never changed. The body has not been of one mind on personal, individual opinions of same sex marriage. “Now what?” we asked ourselves more than once when a discussion seemed to leave us in a place with no clear way forward.
“Now what?” It’s a fantastic Easter question. When we left Jesus’ disciples last week two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had gone to see the tomb. It was sealed when they arrived, but just as they came on the scene and could begin to make out the shape of the huge stone in the first light of the day, a massive earthquake shook the ground. An angel of the Lord descended to roll back the stone, and the women learned that “He is not here; for he has been raised as he said.” As instructed the women left quickly to tell this good news to disciples and deliver the message to them that they should go to Galilee to wait for him. In their fear and joy the met the risen Jesus on the road and like the wise men who worshiped him to mark his birth, they took hold of his feet and worshiped him to mark the new birth of his resurrection.
So this morning when we come back to see what has happened we find the eleven disciples, Judas notably missing, at the mountain to which Jesus had directed. We might assume as the first verse is read that in Jerusalem they heard the news of Mary Magdalene and Mary and simply got up and went back to Galilee without hesitation. Their movement seems fluid, that of a cohesive group of similar thought. They seem to be a faithful lot, of one mind and one heart. Together they left Jerusalem. Together they arrived in Galilee. Together they went to the mountain to find Jesus. Together they saw him. Together they worshiped.
But then there’s this phrase that changes the picture a little. “But some doubted.” Some doubted. OK, for me that changes the picture a lot! Some doubted. Some were unsure. Some were all in with their whole heart, mind, and soul. Some had questions. Some were uncertain. This band of eleven disciples, these men, and I have to imagine the whole entourage that accompanied them, including the other men and women who were faithfully present throughout all of Jesus’ ministry, these witnesses to his life and ministry and miraculous resurrection were not of one mind. They were not united, it seems, in what they thought happened. They were not united in their reaction. They were not united in their certainty. Even as they all worshiped him together they were not of one mind about what was going on.
I love this image we have been given. I love this blessing of real life. I love the way the diversity of faithfulness within the earliest Christian community is acknowledged and not swept under the rug. We can see that they didn’t ignore it. We learn that they didn’t try to smooth it over or pretend it didn’t exist. We can see that they didn’t exclude people who in good faith and prayer and struggle came to different understandings of things, even things as crucial as the resurrection of Jesus. Those who doubted, those who wondered, those who may have held a different opinion or lived a different way were not excluded, but included in the life and community of the first followers of the resurrected Jesus.
And they must have felt welcome enough to talk about their doubts and differences or we would never have even known they existed. I think that’s huge! It is so tempting to keep our differences of opinion to ourselves to avoid the discomfort of disagreement. It is tempting to only ever talk about a few big picture commonalities instead of the places where the rubber meets the road and individuals may prayerfully, with faithful study and interpretation of Scripture, and relying on their own and communal experiences of the Holy Spirit still understand matters of faith in different ways. But in the end that’s not helpful.
In his letter to the Ephesians Paul calls the church to “speak the truth in love.” My friend, the Rev. Brian Ellison, preaching on this passage a few weeks ago at a national conference on the morning of what ended up being the day marriage equality came to Presbyterian Church in the form of an amended definition of marriage, told us that the loving thing to do is not to hide our understanding of truth. The loving thing is not to stay silent where there are differences. The loving thing, the faithful thing, the way of discipleship of Jesus is to speak into the space that is created by our differences, to speak truthfully as we understand truth, to speak lovingly as we have experienced God’s love.
The disciples didn’t all understand what was happening in the same way. They didn’t all believe in the same way. But they were together in community. They were together as they worshiped Jesus. And they were together when they received his great commission. Even though they weren’t of one mind, they were still together. Even though they didn’t share the exact experience of faith and understanding they all received the same commission, the same blessing. Jesus didn’t wait until they agreed on everything call them to ministry in his name. He didn’t ask them to sit down in a room and figure out exactly what was going on and get everyone on the exact same page before they moved into the world in his name.
He said “Go!”
“Now what?” the disciples may have been asking. “Now what?” we might also be asking as Jesus’ disciples today. The answer is “Go!” The one to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given tells our blessedly diverse church to go. Go and make disciples of all nations. Go to all people of all places, all kinds. Leave no stone unturned. Leave no group out. Go to all the world and offer to them what you have known, what you have experienced,
the blessing of baptism – – of the unconditional welcome of God and a place in the community of faith;
the teaching of Christ’s commandment – – the commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself;
the fellowship of other disciples on the Way – – the fellowship the reminds us daily in good times and times that are difficult that just as he promised, the Body of Christ is with us always, even to the end of the age.
As I have said, and Sheldon said, and Attie Kay said, we had a variety of opinions within the session throughout these several months of discussion and even yesterday as votes were being taken and decisions were prayerfully being made. But what was at first astounding to me and now is one of the most comforting things I can imagine is that even in our diversity of opinions there was unanimity in the discernment of a way forward. The Holy Spirit, I do believe, led us to a place where we can fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus to go into all the world, offer a way of discipleship forward in the covenant of marriage for all people, and experience the reality of Christ’s promised presence – – even in the middle of our diversity.
“Now what?” the disciples asked as the reality of the resurrected Jesus was becoming clear. “Now what?” we ask as, for many of us in many different ways, our experience of the world has changed. Well, now we move forward in love, in compassion, in welcome, in worship, in discipleship, in community, in our beautiful diversity to share the good news of new life, to share the good news of Easter, Jesus is with us always, to the end of the age. Amen.