17 January 2021

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Sermon - 5 November 2006
Bible Verses: Ruth 1:1-18, & Mark 12:28-34
(click the verses above to read the passages online)

Sexuality Working out our Faith

Ruth 1 Mark
Naomi and her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah have had three funerals, they are now destitute and non people, there is no one to protect them.

So Naomi, a Jew, decides to take the dangerous journey from Moab back to Bethlehem where her family came from. Naomi instructs Ruth and Orpah to remain in Moab and begin a new life among their own people. But Ruth and Orpah follow Naomi. , Before they have travelled very far Naomi reminds them again that if they follow her. they will have no future, for they have no sons no prospect of sons

Orpah kisses Naomi and returns to Moab. But Ruth clings to Naomi and says, "Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.". Although this is read at weddings it is a woman to woman pledge. An like Abraham setting out into an unknown future, but without Abrahamís family and riches, Ruth stays and walks step by step with the sad and empty Naomi.

We tend to interpret this passage as an instance of free choice. Ruth could either stay in her homeland or leave with her mother-in-law. We understand the passage that way, , because in our culture we see life as a flowing array of choices. You see it in the supermarket, but also in more significant matters. We choose whether to marry, whom to marry, whether to stay married, whether to have children. We choose our religion, our profession, our social relationships. In our culture, we prize individualism so highly that we assume that choice is the governing principle of life.
Ruth's declaration that she will follow Naomi is so immediate, so unyielding, so matter-of-fact, that we begin to recognize that she doesn't see it as a choice at all. Staying with her mother-in-law is simply the thing to do, she is not letting Naomi go alone. After all, the two women were thrown together by circumstance. Ruth happened to marry Naomi's son, a marriage that was probably arranged. If there were choices involved, they were made by other people long ago.
Family relationships are filled with living reminders of the limits of choice. We do not choose our parents or who our children are. And we cannot choose to change them in any fundamental way, either. We are stuck with them.
In ways that we donít always recognize, this lack of choice extends to the person we marry, we might think we know what we are doing . but, no one knows what they are doing when they get married. Circumstances change. People change. Marriage is a promise to remain with someone long after the time of decision has passed.

The Session of this parish has openly expressed our disagreement with the new ruling made at the General Assembly, This ruling is designed to stop any people who are in a sexual relationship outside of faithful marriage being made leaders of the church,. elders or ministers.
We have not debated the rights and wrongs of such relationships that has not been our question.
But this ruling seriously violates us as seeing ourselves as being part of the family of God.
It changes the rules, it says we no longer trust each congregation, as in the past, to make decisions on their leadership out of their own Christian understanding of whom is suitable to serve in leadership in differing situations.
In making this ruling we have not stuck by our brothers and sisters in Christ, who have been called in good faith by their communities into leadership in our church, some of whom exercise creative and specific ministries in the places where they have been called, but happen to also be gay, lesbian or living in committed relationships which fall outside this ruling for many different reasons. Things have changed and happened in their lives which no-one could have foreseen. and God has used them
We have lost sight of what it means to be family, to be called by God into being church and find the most amazing mix of other people are journeying beside us. and we forget it is Godís perogative to change people, including us.

We have judged in advance, and without knowing who may be needed for work yet to be done, we have decided that a whole group of people will be unsuitable for leadership, based entirely on their sexuality. In doing that we have stereotyped and labelled as marginal a whole section of the community and their committed relationships as somehow second rate, without even knowing them..

The rest of Ruthís story tells of how she went to glean the field of Boaz for food. Naomi was worried about Ruthís safety. A lone foreign woman without a man to defend her was at risk.. Rape and assault was real then and still is today for those perceived to be marginalised, you only need to read about what happens in some countries to women and children who have no legal standing and no one to speak for them.. We read how Boaz said ďKeep close to my young women. I have ordered my young men not to bother you.Ē That was giving real protection to Ruth. We find that this foreigner has made her mark in that little community because they have got to know her. [Ruthís later approaches to Boaz in creeping into his room at night also raise some questions about how our take on sexual relationships often have more to do with culture than morality]. When face to face with Ruthís compassion for Naomi and the way in which she worked so hard to provide for herself and her mother- in law , Boaz, and the villagers, found that Ruth had broken the barriers of prejudiceĖ they saw a person not a stereotype and that is what Jesus did..

In the debate in our Presbytery last year, I pointed out that if people were concerned about those in leadership living in ways which were considered to be conduct unbecoming, sinful or scandalous our Boo provided for a complaint being made against that person.
A colleague, replied, that if he did that people would think they were persecuting a person and he would be ostracised. So we condemn a group of people unseen because we donít have the guts to confront them face to face!. Facelessness, anonymity is a mark of our culture and prevents us being challenged by our own prejudices. God deals with us person to person.

At the Assembly It was clear that some of the speakers for this ruling did not understand that every parish can exercise choice on whom they call and there is a complaints process which can deal with the behaviour of any church member which is considered to be immoral or unsuitable. They were so concerned to get sexual purity into the leadership to help the mission of the church. And to do that you have to eliminate people. Its a way of thinking that has biblical precedence. .

The consensus of scholarship says that the book of Ruth was written for a purpose at a time much later than its setting. When the Jewish people were returning to Jerusalem after being two generations in Exile in Iraq, there was a move to purify the people to return to how they were before. There is an horrific story in Ezra , we read ďSeparate yourselves from the peoples of the land and of all who had foreign wives present them selves in every townĒ Ė it took a month for them to work through all the men who had married in exile into foreign families - to send away their wives and families. It says that only Jonathan, son of Asahel opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levites supported them. The story of Ruth was written at this time, reminding those who were being so holy that King Davidís great grandmother was a foreigner and a Moabite woman. The Moabites at this time were among the hated enemies of the Jews.

And what is achieved by this ruling? Nothing but pain. The only people it impresses are the conservative churches as they see us moving toward their exclusive stand,
People in open committed relationships are condemned without trial while any who hide their relationship or play around are able to come into leadership.
The ruling does not stop unsuitable leadership. In my present role as convenor of the Complaints Commission on sexual misconduct for the Auckland, South Auckland and North Shore presbyteries, sadly, I must say all the cases we have dealt with [at great expense to the church] have involved married heterosexual men in their pastoral duties. The very group which is apparently suitable according to this ruling.

It is important for any leader in our church to be sexually responsible. That is why we have had police checks done on our youth leaders and the elders and your minister, making sure we do not have anyone in leadership who has been convicted for sexual crimes. This community here at St Johns should be more aware of the pain that can be caused when things go wrong than most , but this ruling would not have prevented that tragedy.

Grace is suffocated by principle and tolerance severely wounded. We have lost confidence in our ability to know the characteristics of a true leader, characteristics that apply in anyone of any colour, creed, race, or orientation.

What are the consequences?
 Ministers who have spouses who use a different surname have been phoned and a prepared statement being read to them about leaving the church.
 The message sexuality is the most important test of faith. The NT by the way mentions our use of and attachment to,, money as being far more important sign of our commitment.
 We are concerned that the only thing this does is give a message to the world that some people are not good enough.

I donít know how many of you here have children or relatives living in a relationship without benefit of an official State marriage document but why would they want to come to church and hear the good news when all it sounds like is that they are going to be judged and condemned for having a loving relationship?. In the publicís eyes there is no difference between restrictions of leadership or that of membership.
Our task is to live the good news of Godís acceptance, it is the work of Godís spirit to convict people. each of us, about what we need to let go of to live more fully.
Godís grace is offensively undiscriminating

Families of Gay and lesbian people and those Christians who are Gay and lesbian, and there are many inbetweens and transgendered people, you know people donít fit into neat categories, are being sent a message that their children are not welcome in our church and that they need to be ashamed of their own family.

 It sends a message to the world that we think that we are perfect, and there is an ďother ď category who are not perfect or holy enough. And they arenít going to venture in because they might just be rejected.
We need to remember too that those who are Ďotherí to us are also people we havenít met before, someone who wears different clothes, someone who follows a different sporting code, or someone who finds Sunday services at 9.30am an hour too early, in a pew too uncomfortable.

Session, acting from who they are and whom we are as a congregation in Papatoetoe did not debate whether sexual relationships out of faithful marriage is right or wrong. We are aware that in our diversity people will have differing views and that is important to stress.
This is not a test of faith, it is not wrong to want to not talk about this, or challenge what is sinful and what is not. It is part of our ongoing work of understanding of what it means to love oneís neighbour .

The historical precedents for the Church changing its mind over issues are many -- over slavery, over divorce, over the role of women in the Church, over segregation, over human rights, to name the most notorious. Each of those changed perspectives had been resisted for generations on the grounds of biblical proof texts and Church tradition before gaining enough support to overturn the old thinking.The irony of these arguments is, many of us think, the presence of many texts in the Bible itself which demonstrate changes of mind and heart (and exceptions made to the received tradition) attributed in the scripture to God's own self, and more rarely (because the time span of his ministry is so short) attributed to God's Revealer on Earth, Jesus Christ. These changed attitudes and exceptions are usually made in favour of individuals or groups who represent a category of persons who have been ritually excluded from the circle of the holy -- gentiles, women, the physically ill or impaired, the poor, the demon-possessed, those who fall outside of the sexual purity laws either anatomically or behaviorally, and those marginalized by virtue of their occupation

Session understands that we are a people who endeavour to reach out and welcome people as a loving and accepting community where no one is rejected because of who they are.

And the Session has stated that choice of leaders will continue to be exercised as it has in the past 150years.
Which will not have as its primary condition a reference to a personís marriage certificate, but be based on calling and on character and doctrine as always have the opportunity for members to exercise their choice and discernment.
We long for our community to know that this is a church where people are welcome to participate as appropriate, and we do not judge but keep on working through what loving oneís neighbour means
Why? because God in Godís mercy has called us here and we are commissioned to love our neighbour and demonstrate that love by our actions.

Rev. Margaret Anne Low


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