A beach is a lovely place for me to go to escape, but this year there was no escaping some of the big events in our country. The Charleston tragedy was just over a week old on the day I left for vacation. That same day with my Jeep loaded with chairs, towels and swim suites the Supreme Court handed down its decision making legal same-sex marriages in our country. There is a lot of anxiety that has been raised, primarily in the faith community, about what this means for the church. As far as the decision itself, it does not mean anything directly to our church. The First Amendment protects all religions to practice according to its beliefs. It is a great gift of freedom that our Baptist forebears struggled for in the earliest days of our country. Unless our church decides to change the wedding practices of nearly 200 years and wed same-sex couples, the Supreme Court’s decision has no impact.
There are those that say this decision threatens the institution of marriage. I have to disagree. Marriage, however, does have threats. Take co-habitation as one example. I estimate that 75% or more of the couples I counsel and whose marriages I officiate are cohabitating or otherwise sexually active. Many of you have children that are cohabitating with a significant other. Data suggests that cohabitation can contribute to less-stable marriages due in part to an unwillingness to make lasting commitments, yet this lifestyle, according to data and my own observations, is on the increase. Divorce is certainly another threat to marriage. In fact the issue of divorce was the only time Jesus spoke about marriage. Did you know that according to Barna Research Baptists have the highest rates of divorce? Each year I sit with couples and families experiencing the very real threat to marriage because of divorce.
The Supreme Court’s decision in and of itself does not threaten marriage, but there are many issues that do threaten marriage that we face in our church and in our nation that deserve our attention. Nevertheless the court’s decision has created a nation-wide dialogue.
For the last thirty years I have known and loved church members who were gay or struggling with their sexual identity. I have officiated a number of funerals of those who died from AIDS contracted by risky behavior. I have witnessed or known of many divorces because one of the spouses “came out of the closet.” Each Sunday I see or hear from members and guests who feel isolated because of their sexual identity. As of this writing I can visualize many, many children of our church members who live what is colloquially called an “alternative lifestyle.” These are my experiences. I am certain you have your stories too.
So why I am bringing all of this up? In spite of 5/4 decisions that reflect a country divided along those same lines as well, we need to know not so much where we stand, but to whom will we stand. In a recent blog a friend of mine reminded: Jesus never saw “issues” he saw people. In dealing with people we have example after example of Jesus’ compassion, grace and mercy. Over the years I am learning to lean in closely and listen to Jesus and trust that his words are true. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:36) Mercy has taught me how to relate with broken marriages and broken lives. Mercy has guided my words with young couples who, no matter what, choose to live as they want to live, before and after marriage. Mercy marks my thoughts and prayers as I try to understand those whose sexuality is different. Mercy continues to push me and pull me in the many complex and competing forces that challenge my values as a follower of Jesus. Mercy helps me to see not a black person or white person, gay or straight, republican or democrat, but a person whom God loves and wants to raise up to be a saint.
It is mercy, after all, that we witnessed in the days following the Charleston massacre. Church members and family members were extending tearful words of forgiveness to the perpetrator who forever changed their lives. Mercy. Mercy dares to look beyond the offense, beyond the brokenness, even beyond the issue and see the person created in the image of God. Our world, our country, and our church could use more mercy, more compassion, and more love.
Of course that does not end the debates. It does, however, give us a place to stand as God’s church and a way to live, generously, because we are at the mercy of God who is generous too. The world needs that message. Let us listen to Jesus who said go and tell. Let us also go and live. “For God so loved the world…” We can do no less.