I was raised in a Bible-believing tradition, the German Evangelical and Reformed Church, which during my childhood merged with the Congregational Churches of Christ in Boston to create the United Church of Christ. Both of my childhood congregations have since left the UCC because they do not accept the liberal teachings of their denominational leadership. The United Church of Christ is one of a few mainline denominations who ordain ministers who are openly LGBT and sanction same sex marriages. We live in a tumultuous time in America in the Church, where pressure from government and society, and voices within the Church, call to overturn the long-held understanding of God’s will on the matter of same-sex relationships. At this point in the United Methodist journey, clergy who are open and practicing a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered lifestyle are being ordained only in conferences led by bishops who turn a blind eye to the stand the denomination has taken against it.
The apostle Paul writes to a young preacher he is mentoring by the name of Timothy. Paul tells Timothy to pass on what he has learned to faithful persons who can then also teach. It seems the key here is that Paul wants Timothy to do for others what Paul did for him; that is to teach the faith. It’s one thing to lecture. It’s entirely another thing to pass on knowledge. I think of the failures of our educational system. It’s not enough to teach or lecture. Teachers must inspire a desire for learning. They must reach a student’s heart if they truly hope to pass on knowledge. Timothy is charged to entrust faith knowledge to the next generation, who are also charged to pass on the faith.
I am a pastor precisely because there were Christians who passed on the faith to me. Primarily my parents passed on the faith to me, but there were many Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders and pastors who also passed on faith knowledge to me. I cannot point to a single person who is responsible for my faith. I was raised in it, but so were my siblings, none of whom are active in church life. So why did it take with me and not them? I raised my children in it and none, as yet, are active in the Church. Have I perhaps failed to pass on the faith to my own children? Time will tell.
Paul is in prison for preaching the gospel, a message that speaks against the gods of Rome and the behaviors that accompany their worship. For we tend to emulate that which we hold in highest esteem. Paul encouraged Timothy to suffer for the sake of the gospel, a gospel that offends the sensibilities of his contemporaries. (1 Corinthians 1:23) Timothy died as a martyr for speaking against licentious behavior during the festival of Diana in 97 A.D. in Ephesus.
The United Methodist Church may be ripped apart by pressure within and without to either maintain or overturn its current stance on the question of LGBT morality. Those in the local church may be forced to decide with which side you will stand. Suffering will be for both sides. I have compassion mostly for those caught in the middle. I have compassion for the lesbian couple who have been persecuted all their lives and found few places of welcome. Some would say they get what they deserve. But that’s not how I know Jesus Christ. Jesus did not condemn the adulteress dragged before him by a lynch mob. I have compassion for the lost and hurting in our world, regardless of the sinful choices they may make. I have mercy in my heart, precisely because Christ has shown me mercy. I have sinned time and time again against God and yet He never condemns me. He acknowledges my weakness and encourages me with His profound and faithful love. I am not worthy of it, and yet I need it so badly.
When it comes to the LGBT issue, I am looking beyond words, whether written in scripture or in newspapers and blogs, and looking to human lives, people with names and faces and stories, people I know. I’m not interested in pronouncements about who is right or wrong, for we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. I’m interested in mercy, for everyone needs it.
During the Vietnam War Special Forces soldiers wore an unofficial embroidered patch which said “Kill’em all and let God sort’em out.” Legend has it that General Westmoreland, the commander of the armed forces in Vietnam, said this. But the phrase goes back to July 22, 1209 AD in Southern France when Pope Innocent III sent crusaders to kill so-called heretics, the Cathars, in the town of Bezier. The soldiers were reportedly told by the priest Arnaud Amalric to “kill them all, for The Lord will know His own.” 20,000 people were killed that day, the entire population of the town, regardless of their beliefs. I have adopted The Anti-Westmoreland Principle, which is “Love them all and let God sort them out.” That may seem theologically lazy to you, and you may be right, but I choose to err on the side of mercy and love, compassion and hospitality, the heart of the Christian witness. If that’s an error at all, then I’ll gladly suffer for it. Jesus told the religious gatekeepers of his day, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.” So before we light the fires and start cleansing our churches of so-called heretics and sinners, let us remember the mercy of God who forgave us all our sins. And let us treat one another with holy reverence, for each person is one for whom Christ died. This is the faith we are called to pass on.
My words may put me in a prison cell in the minds of some, shutting me out as a source of authority, but I am encouraged by Pauls’ words to young Timothy. “The Lord will give understanding in all things” and “The word of God is not chained.” (2nd Timothy 2:7, 9b)