One year ago this July I took an emergency flight back home to Oklahoma for the unexpected death and funeral of my mother. She was old and frail and blind, and finally one day she gave up and gave in and moved on to her heavenly home with God.
While I was there I took some time to walk up and down her street and say good-bye to her neighbors one the last time. I had known many of these people from my childhood. Across the street lived two old gay men whom I had never met, but always appreciated because my mother told me how kind they had been to her after she had an accident and was no longer able to drive. Then when she eventually became blind they started mowing her lawn, cleaning her gutters, and raking her leaves. One time when a truck pulled up and people started hauling things out of her garage, they ran over to stop what they thought was theft of their friend's household property. As it happened, the truck was from her church, and the goods were for a rummage sale, but she never forgot their attempt to rescue what she called "the old 'widder' in distress."
I knocked on their door, but no one answered so I moved on to the next house where I saw the father of a young girl I had known as a teen. I asked him what had happened to the guys next door and he said "well that's an interesting story." Evidently over the years new families had moved into the neighborhood who didn't know the two men and who were not like the older crowd, and they were upset that the neighborhood had allowed "queers" to live so close by. Young parents, inspired by teachings of a variety of TV preachers, were worried that these old men might be a danger to their children. So they began organizing and talking, and finally the two felt the pressure and moved away. I asked the neighbor if they had ever actually done anything wrong and he said no. Actually, he said, "they were pretty good fellas." But "they were queer and all, and they say that's bad, so I guess it is."
All of this came back to me when, on July 4, Independence Day, I was in Atlanta Georgia, watching thousands of members of my church, the United Church of Christ, vote to affirm "equal marriage rights for all people, regardless of gender." That means, as most of us would have put it, "same sex marriage."
I know, of course, that votes such as this are not binding on local congregations, and that the General Synod "speaks to the churches, not for the churches." On the other hand, it was a pretty inclusive looking crowd, and their opinion probably approximates that of the majority of our members nationwide. I looked around the room during the debate and saw a wide range of faces. Young people, old people, gay and straight, "red and yellow, black and white" (as the hymn puts it), from all across the U.S. They wrestled with the issue for two days, first in committee and then on the floor, with debate, amendments, rephrasing, and then prayer. They were attempting to discern how God might be still speaking to us in an increasingly complex and brutal world. And what the vast majority finally concluded was that no matter what one could say about the differentness of same gender marriage, they couldn't quite be convinced of the wrongness of it. How could God create human beings and then tell them not to love one another?
I confess that I agree with that. At one level I didn't have a horse in that race. I'm happily and heterosexually married and I wasn't even a delegate to the Synod. But on the other hand I kept thinking of those two nice guys who looked out for my mother. The Bible says very little about homosexuality and some of the references are frankly unclear. Jesus is totally silent on it. What he is not silent on is the need to love, accept and care for all people. Bring in the poor, the hungry, the outcast, the sick, the beggars, the alienated, lonely and marginalized. Jesus condemns wealth and war and divorce, but never two old men who love each other and mow the lawns for neighboring widows.
When I left the assembly hall that day, I was frankly nervous. I would have to go back to my church and explain this extremely difficult decision to the good people in my congregation who had not been there and who might only know of it through headlines and sound bites. The delegates took a leap of faith that day, hoping and praying that their actions were discerning the will of a still-speaking God. But we're all mortal and imperfect. We act in faith and pray that we will be forgiven if we are wrong.
But I was encouraged by the words of a pastor friend of mine from Texas who told me that when he dies and stands before the pearly gates and hears a list of all his sins and failings, he expects to hear a very long list. But, all in all, he would rather be judged for being too open minded than too closed. "If I'm going to make a mistake," he said, "I suspect God would rather it be a mistake of letting too many people into the kingdom than too few."
And you know, I think I agree with that too.