Wednesday, May 16, 2012

There's more to the Golden Rule . . .

     A number of people during the week wanted to know what I thought about the President's comments regarding the recent vote in North Carolina to deny GLBTQI individuals the right to marry whomever they choose.  Judging by some conversations afterwards, there were even a few that hoped I would take the time to address the vote, the President's words, and my position during church.  Given that we were celebrating Mother's Day and Rogation and the Healing Ministry, and that I had also been warned many times that people had made plans for brunch with mothers, it made little sense in my mind to use worship time to discuss the subject.  Further, I am really not interested in singling out particular groups during church.  We gather together to worship and give thanks to God for the redeeming working He has done in all our lives.  But, given the discussions, it is clear that it needs to be addressed.
     I cannot claim to have been surprised by the President's announcement.  Similarly, I cannot claim to have been surprised by Governor Romney’s announcement that followed the Preseident’s.  Like all politicians, the candidates for President are motivated to make statements or to withhold them, in order to secure enough votes (or funds) for election.  I have always assumed, given his past work, that the President supported the GLBTQI right to marry.  I always presumed he found it politically inexpedient to state his position clearly, as his position would have repercussions which he and his advisors needed to study.  Apparently, he and they felt that the vote in North Carolina gave him an opportunity to support part of his liberal base . . . sort of.  Some in our GLBTI community have described his support as lukewarm.  He is personally in favor but believes that states should decide.  To them, his statement does not go far enough.  Along those lines, given the President’s statement, Gov. Romney and his advisors felt that the President’s announcement gave them an opportunity to state his “position” and delineate for voters another difference between the two candidates.  The end result is yet another division in American politics.  Some are already lamenting the upcoming presidential campaign which will no doubt cause incredibly hard feelings on both sides of the argument as politicians and their PACs use the stories of the GLBTQI community to raise money and garner votes.  As residents of a so-called "battleground state," we will no doubt be subjected to more vitriol than most of the other 40 states surrounding this and other issues before us.  I, and others in this community, wonder what that will do for the relatively civil debate that characterizes our discussions on this topic in Iowa.
     What I found particularly disturbing about the President's statement was his attempt to couch his decision in Christian terms.  The President rightly reminded everyone that Christ died on the cross to atone for the sins of all.  He then took the step of saying that Jesus also proclaimed the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have done unto you, and it was that teaching which led him and his personal opinion "to change" or "to evolve."  The Golden Rule is a nice teaching, but it is not the entire teaching of our Lord.  The passage which the President cited, Matthew 7:12, actually reads Do unto others as you would have done unto you for this sums up the law and the prophets (emphasis mine).  Separating the do unto others passage from the rest of the sentence removes the meaning which Christ intended.  It is much like separating the instructions to the husband and wife in Ephesians 5 (vv 22 and 25). What Jesus meant in the passage cited by the President and what John describes in his letter this week goes far beyond a "be nice" Golden Rule espoused by our President.  What Jesus commanded and John reminds us is that true love seeks the Godly welfare of the other.  In both their cases, Jesus and John are reminding us that our primary focus is to honor and glorify God.  As human beings, our ability to know how best to honor God is clouded by any number of faults in ourselves.  We see this played out daily in adults and children who make any number of choices which actually harm them rather than benefit them.  Put another way, we could not trust our desires and thoughts, so God gave us the torah as a way of instructing His people what a holy, righteous, glorifying life would look like.  Of course, like us, the people of Israel failed miserably to keep His instruction in their daily lives.
     If you love me, you will keep my commandments should resonate in the lives all Christians.  Yet, how many of us put anything else before Him.  How do we know whether we are doing "right" by God, acting in ways which honor and glorify Him?  By comparing our behavior and our thoughts to His instruction, instruction that was given to a redeemed people at Mt. Sinai and echoed in the teaching by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, the passage from which the President’s citation comes.  As Christians, we are impelled by love to exhort, encourage, support, and do anything possible to help our fellow brothers and sisters live a life that bears much fruit to the glory of God.  Yes, love also compels us to share the Gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected with those not yet a part of His people, but we also have a responsibility to disciple one another in His teaching, to educate ourselves about Him, and to worship Him for all that He has done for us.  That is a far greater responsibility than the Golden Rule cited by the President in his rationale, and that responsibility is what was taught by Christ.  The President may want to couch his evolution in Christian terms, but his choice of this passage simply highlighted his unfamiliarity with the text.
     I will grant, however, that what the President was speaking of was in civil terms.  He believes that the Constitution gives adults the right to marry whomever they want, that marriage between a man and a woman deserves no special recognition by the state.    Yes, he tried to use Christian language, but his intended audience was more secular, an audience which intentionally neglects to remember the rest of the Golden Rule.  I think that ultimately, in the civil arena, the President's position will win in the marketplace of ideas.  People accept that whom they marry is part of the "pursuit of happiness" and that the state needs to quit interfering in that pursuit.  As one who has had to watch partners being separated by family members as one was dying of AIDS and as one who has had to watch two survivors have the life that they built with another stolen out from under them during the disease and death of their partner, I can certainly understand the GLBTQI demand that they be given particular rights and protections.  Some of those who come in to discuss the theology of whether the Church ought to marry them claim that there are as many as 1400 rights granted to married couples that they are denied.  If domestic partnership laws cannot be created to confer the same rights (though, for the life of me I can think of no real reason why they cannot be so crafted), then I expect that at some date in the future, those 30 states that have passed amendments like North Carolina's will find them overturned by the courts.
     As with anything, the law of unintended consequences of these actions will be interesting to watch.  Polygamists and Polyamorists are beginning to organize much as did the GLBTQI lobby, and sets from each group have shown up at church to ask for blessings (that's how I learned that polygamists and polyamorists are different from one another).  Those that participate in shows such as "Sister Wives" claim that part of the purpose of their participation is to show that they are as normal as everyone else.  And, having experienced this in my tenure at St. Alban's, those that want to have sexual relations with close family members are wanting to have incest laws changed as well (one of the two couples that showed up at church asking for our blessing pointed out that modern birth control methods makes the state's concern about genetic mutations obsolete).  If the state admits it has no right to interfere in the personal happiness of consenting adults, how will those and other behaviors be limited?  Hopefully, as this debate continues, serious discussions about the role of the state in marriage will be discussed rather than dismissed, and hopefully neither side will resort to name-calling.  I am certain that the church’s understanding and role will continue to be discussed not only in our church but in many other denominations as well.
     Given my outlook, am I particularly pessimistic?  I do not believe so.  I do try to live in the world even though I am no longer of it, as Christ has already redeemed my life. In that sense, I like to think I am a realist.  One of the benefits of reading the Bible is the reminder that there is, as the author of Ecclesiastes claims, nothing new under the sun.  The Bible is full of nations who reject God, of God’s chosen people who reject His instruction, and of His people constantly fighting or arguing about His instruction.  In that sense, the times in which we live are not unique and not without hope.  One of the testimonies of Scripture is that, no matter how bad, how disjointed, how utterly hopeless things may seem, God is always able to work His will.  We may fight Him, we may pursue anything but Him, but, in the end, ultimately He wins.  So, in all things, I try to be particularly optimistic, knowing the promises He have made to all those who have chosen to follow Him.
     Of course, whatever the state decides about anything, the Church must be guided by her Bridegroom.  We must continue to search God's teaching for His instruction with respect to the question of marriage.  The Episcopal Church has been, in many ways, far ahead of society in these discussions.  In 2003 TEC voted to consent to the election of a sexually active gay man as bishop, in 2009 to a sexually active lesbian woman as a bishop, and in 2009 to collect and recommend blessing ceremonies for those in the GLBTQI community who were wanting to commit themselves to one another within a faith community that supports their commitment.  Although I serve in the church and am guided by my bishop, one of my chief responsibilities and obligations in being a good pastor to those entrusted to my care is to study the Scriptures.  While many of my colleagues believe that the Bible is silent on the question of GLBTQI commitments, I do not find it so.  I accept Scripture to have been inspired by God, who is omniscient.  I believe that for any church to bless such unions departs from the instruction of God.  Our chief job as pastors, and as I said about mothers yesterday and will say about fathers a few weeks into the future, is to help our brothers and sisters to glorify God.  We do that through worship, through the witnessing of His Gospel in our lives, and through, when called upon, in our sharing of His Gospel with others.    Those who claim to be Christian and pontificate about the GLBTQI community and its members’ faults, I believe, are doing anything but honoring God in the words and in their treatment of those who describe themselves in those terms around us.  As Christ would likely tell us, they are worrying about the motes in others when they should be worried more about their own logs.  Do I still think that they are sinners?  Yes.  But in that respect they are no different than anyone else, myself included, and that is why I tend not to make big statements singling out a group (though I recall more than one complaint from this community that I needed to ease up on the words of Christ regarding divorce and remarriage).  Sin is anything that seeks anything other than God's will, and all who have walked the earth but Christ fall short on that account.
      So what is Christian marriage, if you not too concerned about the state's definition?  I believe that the entirety of Scripture teaches that marriage is a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman.  Are there some shocking behaviors in the Bible?  To be sure.  The Bible, among other things, is a collection of real stories about real people.  Contained within its chapters are rapists, adulterers, murderers, those who engaged in incest, men who slept with their stepmothers, and polygamists.  Some of those whose sins are described in the Bible even make the family tree of our Lord (admit it, your Sunday School teachers must have cut out the more juicy bits and now you wish you had read more on your own!)!  Though all those are in there, God makes it clear that marriage is the committed relationship between one man and one woman which He created in the beginning.  It is that relationship which He designed to reflect, however dimly, the mystery we Christians call the Trinity.  
     So what's the upshot of all this? Life will go on, no matter what any President says about anything.  For us as Christians, I think society's floundering has taught us just how poorly we have done in terms of discipling and studying God's word.  I do think that when we focus our energies and efforts upon identifying ourselves as opposed to something, we sell ourselves and God's ability to accomplish amazing things in our midst short.  I feel I should always strive to keep my focus on the things that God wants, rather than pointing out all our and others’ shortcomings.  My discussions this week of the purpose and life of motherhood was not to make mothers feel bad, but rather to give them what I thought God wants from them and to remind them that He has already paid the price to redeem whatever failures of which they might need to repent.  Put in Easter language, a pastor who leads the people entrusted to their need of the cross but does not lead them to the hope of the empty tomb is more of a hired hand than a true pastor.
     Along those lines, I give the same advice about marriage.  Quite frankly, in the midst of our community here at St. Alban’s, I do not think that the effort of the GLBTI community to secure a sanctioned relationship is a danger to the relationship of those that are married and attend St. Alban's.  From my perspective, there are far greater dangers to the marriages of those who attend here or seek counseling here.  God calls women to love their husbands and husbands to love their wives in self-sacrificing ways rather than selfish.  In our relationships, that selfishness can be expressed in any number of ways.  The marital fights into which I have been drawn these almost six years were all more about selfishness than about glorifying God.  All of them.  Yes, sexual promiscuity is a huge danger to our Christian marriages, but what other people are doing in their bedrooms is less likely to impact our marriages than our own unwillingness to turn off the computer porn or eliminate our girlie posters and magazines (and how many of us at St. Alban’s indulge in this knowing that the girls pictured are often as enslaved as those whom we try to reach in some of our ministries at St. Alban’s?) or our Harlequin novels, our all too willingness to look the other way when youth "live together" or "just have sex" without being married, and when we commit sexual or emotional adultery through the social media when we are unhappy or unsatisfied with our spouses.    Those behaviors, I believe, will do far more to undermine the marriages of those in our church than the behaviors of other consenting adults.
     I do recognize that we are not of a unanimous mind on this subject at St. Alban’s.  Such is not surprising to me, given what is happening around us in the Episcopal Church and in the world.  Our teaching about marriage is, in many respects, inconsistent.  The real challenge for us at the local level, just as at the wider levels of the church, will continue to be how we live out those differences.  Early in this process, those arguing in favor of such blessings asked us on the opposite side for “mutual deference,” promising that if we treated them with respect, they would do the same to us.  I have found that request reasonable, beneficial, and edifying, particularly as I have had to deal with those affected by these issues in a number pastoral conversations and situations.  I hope, to the extent that so many of those in the community around us have come back to continue our discussions, that I have shown them the respect and dignity which I believe they deserve as a created child of God.  Although I cannot bless their relationships, I do believe that some of their critiques of the leadership on the “traditional” side of this argument and of the church’s failure to speak into society’s discussion about sex and marriage and divorce with its prophetic, God-given voice has in large part, contributed to this fight in the church and now, presumably, in our presidential politics.  Would we have reached such a level of respect were either of us pontificating in posts such as these or from the pulpit or from some other public horn?  I seriously doubt it.  Neither would invective name calling have helped.  But while such a goal of mutual deference seems lofty and good, I also recognize it will fail in the end.  Both sides, in the current discussion of these blessings in the church, claim that they are inspired by the Holy Spirit to reach their respective conclusions.  One side, however well-meaning, is blaspheming the Holy Spirit in its arguments and actions.  Ultimately, what God truly desires for His church will win out, and the other will whither, trimmed from His vine.
     As I exhaled and began the effort to compose an answer to all the questions surrounding the excitement and anxiety of the last week, I did so with a heavy heart.  I know the extra work it will cause in the future.  Some will feel ashamed that they allowed themselves to become disquieted by the “noise” of the outside world.  Some will be angry that, in light of our President’s statement, I have still not come around in my way of thinking.  Some will think that I went too far in stating my position, and others will state that I did not go far enough.  I suppose, in all fairness, depending on your perspective, you may be right.  In crafting a bit of an answer, however, I also needed to remember and to remind us all that those who are most affected by the President’s statement may also be sinners redeemed by grace.  While I am always excited to share God’s redeeming work in the lives of those in our church and surrounding us, I am usually loathe to share the personal struggles, whatever they are, of the individual’s whose lives intersect the ministry given me by God.  We live in an oversexed culture where our teenage girls accept that oral sex is owed to a boy who deigns to buy her a McDonald’s cheeseburger on a cheap date, where sex is used to sell nearly everything imaginable, and where (mostly) men feel it is normal to pay a thirteen year-old to have sex with them because “she loves her work” or the money.  It is no small wonder that some of our significant struggles as individuals and as a church revolve around the issues of sex.
     Will there be any changes at St. Alban’s as a result of our President’s statement?  I do not expect so.  For the most part, I do not think that we have a problem treating individuals with respect and, ultimately, with a love that supports them in their effort to bear much fruit to His glory.  I will continue to preach and teach that marriage, as revealed by God, is a covenant relationship between a man and a woman.  I will continue to teach and preach that adultery, pornography and other such evils are far more of a danger to the relationships of those here.  No doubt some will continue to discuss the issue or question with me in private or in small groups.  There is certainly nothing to be lost in such discussions and everything, including brothers and sisters in Christ, to be gained (that is a later Matthew reference).  One of the strengths, I believe, of our particular faith tradition is that we are encouraged to read, learn, and inwardly digest God’s instruction.  Sometimes, this means we ask hard questions and, for a time, arrive at different solutions or practices.  Is it neat and orderly as we desire?  No.  Is it a bit messy?  For certain.  We are all sinners redeemed by grace, but we are not yet entirely the new creation.  But just as certain is God ability to redeem even theological differences such as these.  The same God who redeemed the death of our Lord will redeem even these disputes.  
     Christ’s Peace,

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