Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"A More Excellent Way" -- A Christian Response to the June 26 Supreme Court Ruling

Strive for the greater gifts.  And I will show you a still more excellent way…
(1 Corinthians 12:31)

First, I share my apology to those of you who have been waiting patiently (or perhaps not so patiently) for your new Pastor to share his thoughts (as promised during worship this past Sunday) on the June 26th Supreme Court ruling that all states must allow same-sex marriages.  If you’ve ever moved to a new town and had to start from scratch getting to know new people in a new job, then you understand that the demands on one’s time from the new environment are sometimes greater than anticipated or planned.  Nevertheless, here at long last is my promised response.

I should begin by stating that those who know me well know that I am not easily swayed or impressed by passionate politics or theology, one way or another.  So, if you are reading this blog looking for either a scathing diatribe against the Supreme Court’s decision, or excited support for it, I’m afraid you will be disappointed.  Instead, like what I think you’ll find with most United Methodist congregations (including our own), I find my own thoughts mixed.

On the one hand, the ruling affirms what I hope and pray we all know and understand to be biblically true:  that all persons – gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, black, white, red, yellow, mixed, male, female, transgendered, Democrat, Republican, Independent, conservative, progressive, rich, poor, middle class -- are of sacred worth, and deserve to be treated with respect and justice, especially under the law of our land.  In like manner, the ministry and teachings of Jesus himself affirm that his Church (of which LaGrange 1st UMC is a part) should be a place where all God’s children are welcome.  Jesus did not place limits on whom he welcomed, and neither should we. On the contrary, Jesus intentionally welcomed those who society often shunned and shut out, and consequently, our doors should likewise be open to any and all who seek God through our ministries, regardless of their race, gender, status, sexual orientation, or marriage preference.  Baptism, Communion, funerals, and Confirmation continue to be  open and available to all people.

On the other hand, even though the ruling affirms what two-thirds of Americans now believe about same-sex relationships, it should be noted that Christians do not determine our morals or ethics either by public opinion polls or by court decisions.  The Supreme Court, after all, is charged with interpreting the U.S. Constitution, not the Bible.  The Court is not asked to discern God’s will, or what constitutes moral or ethical behavior for Christians (nor does this ruling profess to do that).  As a practical matter, then, this ruling does not affect current church teachings or practice at all:  all churches and clergy still maintain their First Amendment right to participate in or perform a marriage only if they elect to do so, and clergy in any tradition still have the legal right to decline performing a wedding for whatever reason, as they do now.  The ruling likewise does not change the official stance of the United Methodist Church on these subjects – only our United Methodist General Conference (meeting next May 2016) has the power to do that.  As such, even though same-sex marriages are now legal, UM clergy at present cannot perform them, nor do we ordain “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.”  Though there are many who wish to change these policies in the future, at present they are still church law.

Still, if anything, this ruling has again revealed how divided we are as a United Methodist church and as God’s people over questions such as these.  Deeply committed Christians hold firmly and passionately to both sides of this debate, and demonstrate how it is possible for faithful Christians to interpret scripture differently on these issues.  Within our own congregation, there are those who have strong opinions about one view or its opposite.

So, yes, there are many dimensions about these subjects on which we can disagree.  That is inevitable:  any time one opens up a controversial topic to a roomful of people, you’ll have a roomful of opinions.  Yet, I can’t help but wonder if there is not a better way to address these issues than merely arrogantly asserting our own opinions and the “correctness” of our own positions (quoting from the Bible, of course!), as we are so fond of doing.  I can’t help but wonder if there is a “more excellent way” (as Paul puts it in the scripture above) than fighting and posturing over issues that (while important), may not lie at the heart of Christianity.

Two quotes from John Wesley, the founder of Methodist Christianity, may be helpful here: “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think” (from Wesley’s tract “The Character of a Methodist”); and “Although a difference in opinions… may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works” (from Wesley’s sermon “Catholic Spirit”). Wesley’s point (and Paul’s in his description of love as the “more excellent” way) is that rather than focusing on the things that divide us (the minority of things over which we disagree), as Christians should we not focus on the majority of things which unite us, and “agree to disagree” (or as Wesley said, “think and let think”) about the rest?  In times of controversy, should we not focus on what binds us together, rather than what keeps us apart?

With that in mind, I want to wrap up my own words about this issue with the words from another UM clergy colleague (Rev. Jeremy Troxler of Spruce Pine UMC) whose response to this ruling I found especially helpful – words that I cannot improve upon but feel compelled to repeat here:

“The Bible says that the church is like a family, where we are brothers and sisters with each other.  If your family is like mine, then there are a lot of important things that you and your family members disagree about or even fight about.  But at the end of the day you are still a family; you are still held together by something deeper than whether or not you agree.  You are held together by the fact that you have been made part of one another, and you are held together by stubborn, durable, steady love.

The church is a family like that.  We are a family that can disagree about important things, but at the end of the day we are held together by something deeper than the fact we agree about everything, or even about every important thing:  we are held together by the fact that God’s grace has rescued us and is remaking us and has made us a part of one another. We are held together by love, the love of Christ.

That love does not banish disagreement, but it does join us in a oneness deeper than all difference, a fidelity more enduring than our fights, a reconciliation that outlasts our wrongs.

Perhaps we even need some level of disagreement for this love to grow among us…. Perhaps God has God’s own purposes in putting us very different people, with our dueling Facebook posts and our rival news sources, all together next to each other in the pew.  Perhaps one of those purposes is to learn the meaning of love.  Perhaps it is only by learning to love people we disagree with, only by learning to love people who we know are wrong, only by learning to love sinners that we learn what love, Christ-like love, even, yes, married love, really is.

In 1 Corinthians 12, we find the Apostle Paul writing to a divided church about how we are all part of the body of Christ, a body where the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor can the head say to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  We are a body, where, paraphrasing what the Bible says about marriage, the many become one flesh. Here’s what I think that means:  [And I (Pastor Brian) would affirm these words to those of you reading my blog, as well…]

● If you celebrated on Friday [when the Supreme Court ruling was announced], you belong here and are needed here [at our church].
● If you were upset on Friday, you belong here and are needed here.
● If you didn’t know how to feel on Friday, you belong here and are needed here.
● If you think what I have said here is too wishy-washy, and you wish your preacher took a stronger stand with your side today, you belong here and are needed here.

The only way you might not belong here is if you believe the body of Christ should be a place where everybody agrees with you 100%, and where what you hear from the pulpit every week should just confirm whatever you came here already believing; basically if you think the body should be made up of one part:  your brain. I would say that if that’s what you want, the only way to get it is if you keep your own company….  Perhaps if you searched hard enough you might finally be able to find another group of believers who agree with each other on things like this 100% – but if you do, whatever it is, it won’t be the church of Jesus Christ.

So I guess we’ll just have to accept God’s own mysterious purposes and continue struggling to seek God’s bigger-than-we-thought will with each other. I guess we’ll have to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, even all at the same time, even if it means we try to force a smile through our tears because at least our friends are happy, of if it means we celebrate but with a catch in our throat because we can’t totally forget those who find it hard to rejoice with us because of conscience.
I guess we’ll have to stay together and try to respect and love each other and fail and ask forgiveness and forgive and then try again.” [See citation below]

Amen, Pastor Troxler!  The way of love IS God’s more excellent way.  It’s not easy, and it’s not what the rest of the world would do, but it’s what we’re called to do and be as God’s people.  I look forward to seeking ways we can do this together as your new Pastor!  Always remember that God loves you and I do, too!

[NOTE:  For more reading about this subject, including sources from which my thoughts have been shaped and formed, I invite you to read the articles in the following links:

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