I had an experience last week that deeply shook me.
My dad asked me to come help him move farm equipment as he moved from one set of fields to another for harvest. In essence, I was a chauffeur and would follow the tractor or combine and then take him back to the farm to pick up another.
It all happened so fast. We stopped the car and leapt out and into action. 911 was dialed. We assisted the person the best we could – the wind whipping around us, the cold seeping in, the reality that we really had no unique skills to care for someone in a medical emergency causing anxiety and yet we were there and help was on its way.
After the emergency responders arrived and the statements had been made, and we breathed a little bit deeper, my dad and I made our way back to my car… which I then discovered was still running. We had been so quick to rush into helping, I forgot to turn off the car.
I remember later that day, after I had time to process what had happened, feeling incredibly angry. Someone had mentioned in passing the idea of being a “Good Samaritan” and all I could think about was how I didn’t have a choice. Of course we were going to stop. Anyone who could have passed by and kept going… well, that’s where the anger came in. Having experienced a person in need on the side of the road, I cannot understand how a pastor or religious leader could have crossed to the other side and not stopped to help.
Luke 10: 25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”[a]
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion.34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Part of me wants to take that priest and Levite by the shoulders and look straight into their eyes and demand to know why on earth they refused to stop. The scripture doesn’t tell us. We make plenty of excuses for them… they were on their way to worship, they were maintaining ritual purity, the law prevented them from helping. But to see a person dying on the side of the road and to NOT stop… There is no excuse.
Lately, instead of a person in need on the side of the road, I’ve been witnessing a church that is not quite sure what part of the road we are on. In the midst of the work of ministry and church we are also distracted and focused on statements and trials regarding pastors who performed same-sex marriage ceremonies.
As I read the testimony of Tim, whose father, Frank, was found guilty this week for officiating his wedding, I couldn’t help but think about the injured man on the side of the road. Too often, the church has played the roles of the thieves in this story – battering and bruising our LGBT brothers and sisters by telling them they have no place in the church and leaving them on the side of the road… without hope, grace, or mercy.
I’ve listened to voices on all side of the arguments about homosexuality and the United Methodist Church and I try to be someone who does more listening than talking. I try to hear the good and find common ground. And the deep nugget of difference lies in the fact that one side believes that to be an LGBT person is to be who God has created them to be and the other side believes that six verses of scripture demonstrate that the actions of LGBT persons are sinful and therefore incompatible with Christian faith. One side is talking about conscious, willful decisions to sin that requires us as people of faith to hold one another accountable… but the other side is talking about the core of a person’s identity that includes gender and sexual orientation and ethnicity. Because it appears as if we are talking about two very different things the conversation and conferencing is immensely difficult. We are all people of faith but right now we are stuck.
I know the deep faithfulness of persons who are trying to uphold the ideals of Christian teaching and I do believe we need to hold one another accountable in love and grace for our sins. But today, I have to speak from the experiences in my life and prayerful nights and studying of scripture and admit I am faithfully standing on the other side of the argument. I believe in many of those passages we are taking the words of God out of context; the scripture is actually talking about pedarasty or ritual sex and not LGBT relationships. In others, the passages are simply wrong for our time; just as we have come to understand scriptures on slavery and the prohibition of female pastors and divorce differently in a different time, through the Holy Spirit, God is leading us to new understandings of what it means to be faithful people today. My friends and family who are gay and lesbian and bi and trans do not choose their reality. They are some of the most faithful and compassionate and God-fearing people I know. And as they work out their own salvation with fear and trembling and experience attacks that shoot to the very core of their identity… it does harm. Tim Schaefer is simply one voice among many who have been turned away at one point or another and who felt like his very existence was “incompatible.”
Part of who I was, my sexual orientation, was broken and evil, according to them. I felt incredible shame.
Every night I prayed, begging God to make me normal. I pleaded with God to fix me. Many nights I cried myself to sleep. I was in the 10th grade when I came to the realization that my attraction to men was not going to change. I began to think that the only way to avoid bringing shame to my family and community was to take my own life.
But thank God, Tim’s family supported him. Thank God there are churches who surround LGBT brothers and sisters (and all people) with love and compassion. Who allow God to speak through them. Who baptize their children and who hold their hands as they watch loved ones pass. Who serve them communion and welcome them into the church and allow the gifts God has blessed them with to bear fruit in the kingdom of God. Thank God there are people who have stopped on the side of the road to be engaged in acts of ministry and care and love.
These past few weeks, the core of what we are debating in official circles and in church trials is whether we are going to be a church that stops by the side of the road to do the work of Jesus… the work of the gospel and the core of the Law… or if we are going to hold fast to tradition and rules and step over to the other side of that road and keep going. If we are going to focus on “upholding the Book of Discipline in its entirety” or if we are going to get about the ministry of Jesus in his world.
Do you know what I hear in Luke 10? That we are called to go out into a harvest that is “bigger than you can imagine.” That we are to locate ourselves among the people God has led us to – healing the sick and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. That we are to love and serve God with all of our heart, being, strength and mind. That we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. That the law demands mercy. That it is more important to sit at the feet of Jesus than to do the upkeep of the house. I firmly believe these things we can all agree on – no matter what side of this particular division… and that is what gives me hope.
I would be lying if I didn’t say I’m traditionally a rule follower. I love our church. I love our connection. I love our accountability. I even love our Discipline. But I have been called to love and serve God and God’s people and sometimes I just want to weep at how we set up barriers to the kingdom.
Christ have mercy, for the times we have been so distracted by rearranging the chairs that we forgot you were among us.
Lord have mercy, for costly trials that distract all of us from the work of saving the lost and hurting in our very midst.
Christ have mercy, for the times we have focused on following the letter of the law and didn’t help you lying on the side of the road.