Note: Before starting her sermon, Rev. Yarborough asked Music Director Mark Miller to say a few words about his experiences at the recent United Methodist Church General Conference.
Reflections by Mark A. Miller
Every four years the United Methodist Church gets together to decide its rule book. That's our polity. We have something similar to the US government. We have the bishops who are the Executive who don't get to make the laws. Instead delegates are elected every four years to meet and make up the law book -- the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.
For the last four General Conferences I've been elected to that body to represent New Jersey along with 10 other people. Since the year 2000 that I've been going, we've been dealing with a whole host of issues, but the issue that seems to be the most contentious and the one that most divides us is that of human sexuality and specifically homosexuality.
In 1972, forty years ago, the Methodists passed a law in our Discipline that says that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Since 1972 we have added more and more layers onto that. We will not ordain gay people, we will not bless same-sex unions, and so on. So as places like Christ Church in Summit and the UCC have become more accepting and open, places like the Methodist Church have become more reactionary.
At the beginning of this particular General Conference two weeks ago in Florida we had conversations in small groups of delegates – there were 1,000 of us. We met in groups of around ten to talk about these issues. Many of us, the openly gay delegates, and our allies and friends, found a lot of these conversations disturbing. The language used to describe people was… less than Christian, let us say. Unfotunately it seems like in the places where we should be expressing God's love the most in Christian churches, people are sometimes the cruelest.
After speaking with several of my delegate colleagues about this we decided to raise the issue on the floor of the general conference, which hadn't been done before by any openly gay delegates. And so they said “Mark, why don't you go ahead and speak up…” And so I did. I was recognized from the floor and said that this process has been very harmful to some people, and harmful specifically to the people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender brothers and sisters who are elected delegates here at his body, and we would call on all of us to look for a way forward that doesn't harm people, but respects people even through our differences and disagreements. People using language of spiritual violence doesn't help. People came away from conversations where they were compared to animals, or others wanted them to be exorcised of the demon that is in them – all of the language that is causing a lot of violence in our society today, as you know.
My first impulse is never to lash out back and say “we hate you” or “you hate us, so we hate you”. I never have that feeling in my heart. I just feel that we need to show more love, and understand somewhat where the other person is coming from, but try to engage in dialog and continue to show that if we return judgment and hate for judgment and hate, then there's no way forward.
So I appreciate Julie giving me the time to speak this morning. I hope that you will pray for the United Methodist Church and its 10 million members, that we would find ways to meet one-on-one and dialog in a way that asks the hard questions and shows that the right way is love and acceptance, somehow, and not judgment and hate. Thank you.[Note: You can view a video of Mark's statement on the floor of the UMC General Conference here: http://youtu.be/vKTP7IEBjJk, and you can read an account of the event here: http://www.unyumc.org/news/detail/1118.]
In his marvelous book, Tattoos on the Heart” , Father Gregory Boyle, or “G” as he is known on the streets of LA, offers stories of his work with gang members. Each page of the book offers glimpses into what G calls, “the No-Matter-Whatness of God.” God's love is so expansive and inclusive that it surrounds us and welcomes us no matter what we have done in our lives or who others say we are. G's ministry is all about communicating the message of God's “No-Matter-Whatness” to those who need to hear it. Gang members are not the only ones who need to hear that message. There are many people in this world who have been told over and over again that they are not worthy of being loved for who they are. They've received messages of negativity and hate most of their lives, and they desperately need to hear of God's grace and love, and be welcomed into Christian community.
In this morning's passage from Acts we heard a story of God's “no-matter-whatness.” Philip was not one of the 12 original disciples of Jesus, but he was in the second wave, chosen by the twelve to serve the early church. We know from scripture that he was an effective evangelist, teacher and healer. He was also an eager servant – as soon as the Holy Spirit told him to go toward the South on the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza, he did so at once. And when prompted to approach the chariot of the Ethiopian Court Official, he didn't just walk over there, he ran to it! When invited to get into the chariot, Philip hopped right up and began to offer instruction about the scripture. While others might have been reluctant or fearful of approaching, Philip, grounded in the Spirit and responding in love, didn't hesitate.
You see, the Ethiopian Court Official was a eunuch. It was common practice in those days for young boys to be castrated before puberty in order to serve in the Queen's court and inner chambers. Although eunuchs served in the court and had opportunities to advance, they were relegated to a lower class in general society. Unable to get married and father children, they were considered sexually immoral. Levitical and Deuteronomic law excluded them from participating fully in the assembly of Israel. The eunuch was an outsider, used to messages of negativity and scorn. And yet, this man had risen quite high in the Ethiopian Queen's court. He was in charge of the Queen's entire treasury. He had a chariot, and was returning from a personal trip to the Temple in Jerusalem (where, incidentally, he would not have been welcome into the inner courtyard with all of the other men).
Perhaps even more surprising, he had access to a scroll of Isaiah which he was reading aloud! In the ages before the printing press, it was rare to be able to read, much less own your own scrolls. Most teachings about scripture were passed down orally. The Court Official was clearly a learned man, yet humble enough to ask for help interpreting the scriptures. He needed someone to guide him – someone who knew not only about the ancient texts, but also about the love of God. He needed someone who was familiar with the exclusive Deuteronomic texts which forbade eunuchs to gather in the assembly, as well as the more hospitable texts of Isaiah, which proclaim that eunuchs who “hold fast to God's covenant” will be welcomed and given “an everlasting name that will not be cut off.” 
The scripture the Ethiopian happened to be reading was that of the suffering servant – often seen through the lens of Christianity as referring to Christ, though written much earlier as part of the Hebrew Scriptures. I can imagine that the scripture spoke deeply to this man, who heard a description of himself in the passage as he read the following words:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
“About whom did the prophet write?” The Ethiopian asks. “Could this possibly be written as a message for me?” He implies. And the answer is yes, and it is written for us as well. God is still speaking! In this passage, God is speaking a word to all who know suffering, to all who have experienced humiliation. As Tom Long says, “The biblical word is never merely about 'back then.' It is always a word to us, to this moment, to these circumstances.” 
Philip takes this opportunity to explain the scripture and to talk about Jesus, another suffering servant, who was led to the slaughter, shorn and humiliated, and for whom justice was denied. When Philip is finished, the Court Official asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
“Actually,” Philip could have responded, “there are many reasons to prevent you from being baptized.”
The Ethiopian Court Official was a castrated male; he was an outcast; he was a foreigner, from the edge of the known world, so he was geographically cut off from Israel; and he may have been a Gentile. (The text is not clear, and scholars are not in agreement on this point.)
Yet, Philip acts in accordance with the “No-Matter-Whatness” of God. It's as if he hears the Spirit whisper, “Absolutely nothing!”  There is nothing to keep you from being baptized! There is nothing to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! You are a child of God. “…Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  God's love is all inclusive, no matter what.
In the book of Acts, the community of Christians is growing in surprising and unexpected ways. The disciples and early followers of Jesus first baptized Jews in Judea. They were later led to baptize Jewish followers in Samaria. The baptism of the Ethiopian court official in Acts 8 represents the ever expansive inclusion of people into the Christian community. In Acts 10, Peter baptized Cornelius, the first known Gentile. God's acts of inclusion are ever surprising and unexpected. They continue to be so today!
One of the helpful things I learned in my introductory Bible courses in divinity school was this: when reading scripture, pay attention to how many times a word or phrase or concept appears in the text. The more a word appears, the more important it is. In 1 John 4:7-21, the word LOVE is mentioned 28 times. There can be no doubt that this is a very important concept for us to grasp.
The scriptures tell us that those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. Loving our neighbor and treating others with respect even when we disagree is essential for living a life of faith.
There is so much hate and fear in our world, and much of it is targeted at those we don't understand. You cannot love God if you do not love others - ALL others – queer, straight, judgmental, accepting, friends, enemies. We are called to live a life of love, even in the face of hatred.
Perfect love can cast out fear. We are far from perfect. We need God's love to help us love others; we cannot do it on our own. We must root ourselves in the love of God, by loving others as we love ourselves. Only then will we know the “no-matter-whatness” of God's love, and be able to rise above the fear that lives within each of us, that permeates our society and our world.
Love is an act of courage. We are called to be people of courage, not people of fear. Fear leads to distrust, resentment, suspicion, closed doors, hatred, and violence.
A few years ago, some friends of mine were told, by the pastor of another church, that they would not be able to stand together at their children's baptism because they were gay men.
Just this week, (as Mark has told us) gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons were told, once again, by the United Methodist General Conference that who they are is not compatible with Christian teaching.
And just this week, a Baptist preacher in NC told his parishioners to punch their male children, or break their wrists if they appear effeminate, and many in the congregation shouted “Amen!” as a response.
In all of those cases people were acting from fear, not love. That is why it is so important that we are an Open and Affirming church, and that we proclaim that identity boldly and courageously. That is why we need to continue to draw the circle wide. Gays and lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people are being told that they are not fully human, that they are not welcome at the table, that the circle of God's love doesn't include them. Yet, the scripture says that EVERYONE who loves God is born of God and knows God. No matter what!
We need to be bold in proclaiming to those who have been disenfranchised, “There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God – absolutely nothing. God loves you no matter what.”
No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here.
 Tattoos on the Heart:The Power of Boundless Compassion, Gregory Boyle, Free Press (A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc), New York, 2010