This past week the frailty and humanity of this thing we call the United Methodist Church was put on full display in the media throughout the world. The story was the church’s trial of a clergyperson who had disobeyed the official teaching of the church in presiding at the same-sex wedding of his son and his partner. The story was full of things designed to encourage attention in the media — conflict, sex, religion, family, and legal drama. And the verdict came down quickly — guilty — with the strong possibility that this pastor will be removed from ministry.
For some, the trial, verdict, and penalty reaffirmed that the order of the church was firm and in control, and that the traditions held closely to the heart were protected. For others the same things confirmed what they already thought — that the followers of Jesus aren’t really serious about this love thing, and that we are more in love with our rules than with the lives of our neighbors.
Through it all, as I watched from afar, I found myself again and again wanting to say I’m sorry.
- I’m sorry that the church that welcomed me with open arms when if felt like I had no place to go seems to be unwilling to do the same for others.
- I’m sorry that our form of governance has more concern for rules and regulations than the personal struggles of real people’s live.
- I’m sorry, because I know that the events and decisions of the past couple of weeks creates great pain and turmoil for people that I love and value.
- I’m sorry because I am the public face of this divided and broken group in my community, and this represents another way that we fall short in offering Christ’s love to people who deeply need him.
Last week, as a part of their rebuke of Bishop Melvin Talbert for a similar action, the leaders of our church, the Council of Bishops, finally admitted what we’ve all known for many years — we as a people are divided on human sexuality. Within our broader church and the congregation in which I live and service, there are divisions regarding sexual ethics and boundaries, as well as the means by which we discern God’s will on these issues. These differences are a jumbled mess of different approaches to how we approach the scriptures, muddled and confused theological reflection on the issue of sexuality by the church over the years, our own personal experiences of persons from across the spectrum of sexual identity and practice as well as our own struggles in dealing with our own personal sexual ethics, and even little bit of left wing or right wing politics thrown in for good measure. All of these things conspire to create a conflict that is not easily resolved, and very frankly, I make no claims for finding an easy way out of the morass we are experiencing. There are very real possibilities of schism for our church.
While my ability to affect change in the tribe that I claim and has claimed me is minimal at best, what I can do is reiterate my commitment to offer God’s love as best I can to every person that I meet. While the UMC is a muddled mess when it comes to inclusivity, it continues to proclaim that ALL persons are of sacred worth. If I understand Paul’s teaching to the Galatians correctly, that means that ALL includes oppressed AND free, male AND female, black AND white, old AND young, liberal AND conservation, gay AND straight, and every permutation over and under and in between. If I understand Paul’s teaching to the church at Rome correctly I have little choice but to believe that ALL of us stand in need of God’s grace, that we are ALL guilty and in need of redemption, and that NOTHING can separate us from God’s love. If I understand Jesus correctly, I’m compelled to understand that the mark of discipleship is love; that the rule that is most important to Christ is the call to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. It seems to me that ALL really does mean ALL.
I’ve been around too long to make any promises on behalf of my congregation, for we (like all of humanity) come from different places and experiences. What I can say is that this pastor will embrace any person who is searching for God’s presence in the world. What I can say is that any table I preside at is open to all, for I believe that God’s grace given through the Holy Spirit is likewise open to all. Our denomination may be confused, but I am perfectly clear that God’s desire is that ALL are redeemed and restored, and it’s my calling to be an instrument of that redemption and an agent of God’s love.
I, like many United Methodist clergy, walk a fine line. I have promised to uphold the order and discipline of the church. I have willingly submitted myself to the discernment of the community, and that vow is not easily cast aside. While other clergy friends and colleagues have chosen a more prophetic stance, I continue to try to work within the system, as much to facilitate reconciliation as any belief in the sanctity of the covenant. That may be a failing on my part, and I ask God’s mercy on my soul if it is, but until God reveals otherwise, I currently choose to abide by the letter of the law in the Discipline (and not one iota more).
I continue to be troubled about where we find ourselves today. Both sides in the debate in our church are drawing lines, and creating demons out of others who are simply trying to live out their faith. While the tactics of evil sometimes rear their ugly head, the persons behind them are not the devil, in fact they TOO are people of sacred worth, worthy of God’s love.
Our goal must be to love them all, and then let God sort it out.
To live otherwise is to border on blaspheming the very nature of God.
Author’s note: I know there will be some who will read this and throw out all sorts of comments about my lack of faith and obedience to the scriptures. I am not asking you to believe as I believe, nor am I making any claim as to the rightness of my belief. However, after studying and reading the scriptures again and again, and living in the community of faith for many years, the lens through which I interpret the Christian story . . . actually ALL of God’s story . . . is one of love. You may have a different lens, and if so, our ability to see alike is pretty limited. So, if you love me and love our church, I’d much rather you pray for my soul and transformation than you trying to convince me of the wrongness of my beliefs. I respect our difference, and as I said above, I choose to honor the covenant we United Methodists live under, and I hope you will respect those differences as well.
We may never agree on anything but this: We both worship Jesus and God has led us to the United Methodist Church. Maybe that’s enough…