I had never been to a Pridefest before. I knew it was a communal event to show support for the LGBT community, and I knew that the one being held last weekend in my city would be celebratory in the wake of the monumental Supreme Court decision to allow for legal gay marriage in every state. When I was invited to attend, I thought to myself that I had never been to one, and so I wanted to experience it for myself. Even getting dressed to go became a difficult endeavor, because I don’t have a lot of rainbow apparel. I decided to focus on my jewelry: two cuffs that are precious to me. The first is from India, made by women who used to be objectified and used in the sex trafficking industry through heterosexual sexual sin. It is embossed with one simple word: LOVE. We all need love, and no matter what anyone says, I think we all yearn for it. The second cuff is a recent acquisition from Annual Conference, that statewide gathering of United Methodists from all over Virginia who descended upon Roanoke two weekends ago. It is up-cycled from leather remnants and an old spoon. It was hand stenciled with the phrase, “SAVED BY GRACE.” The combined statement of those four words on my wrists made me feel ready. I may not be gay, but I do have numerous family members and beloved friends who are. As a heterosexual person, I wanted my only statement to be consistent with Christ: grace and love for all.
I do not believe that I have to agree with everything about you to love you. Yet I do not like the implication of that old adage, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” I mourn sin, but I think hatred is a seed planted in the heart that is antithetical to the love Christ calls forth. If God wants to hate sin, then that’s God’s business, as God cannot be corrupted by hate as humans can. I’m focusing on loving and granting grace, leaving space for transformation, as I feel called in Christ’s name to do. I have many people in my life whom I love with all that I am. Some of them practice a lifestyle that can be harmful at times. Some sin regularly and openly. Some are trying to change their ways and their life. They are all in different places, and I consider myself a vessel of God’s presence when I love in spite of sin. I seek to be one who looks beyond the brokenness to search out the potential in each person to magnify the Lord. I do this because I want someone to do it in me. I want to forgive as I know I need to be forgiven, and I have been by God through the grace of God.
So it was that I walked into the park where Pridefest was being held. It was a plethora of rainbows, and flamboyant apparel. None of that bothered me, as I am rather colorful and flamboyant myself. The rainbow is an ancient Biblical symbol for peace. Genesis recounts how God, the Father, hung his bow, his weapon of war, in the sky after the flood that destroyed all the earth except the life preserved within the ark (Genesis 9:8-17). It was to be a perpetual reminder of the loss that had occurred and the promise never to destroy the world with flood again. The rainbow has been used by the LGBT community as they have struggled against constant threat of violence, both physical and verbal. They long for the day when their heterosexual adversaries would hang up their weapons of violence, and let them live in peace. Since we do not round-up other sinners and subject them to this kind of abuse and torture, I see their point. I regret the suffering they have endured, and the deaths that have been for no other reason than a hatred unleashed. This is not who God created humankind to be. While people argue that God did not create us to be gay either, I believe that I can only control how I react to what is before me. I reject violence. I renounce the forces of wickedness that allows one group of human beings to dehumanize and seek to destroy another.
I am not without internal conflict about the practice of homosexuality. I know the nine references to the act in the Bible, five in the Old Testament and four in the New. I have read them over and over for a decade now, and I remain as confused and overwhelmed as ever. I also consider that four of my top ten people in my life are gay. They have done for me, when heterosexuals have not. They have loved me in spite of my sinfulness, too. I cannot hate them. I will not hate them. I wonder if we would treat them this way if their sins were struggles with addiction, stealing, or another form of sexual sin. I think not, because I know we do not treat other sins this way. We have singled out one sin and elevated it above others. We have set ourselves against an entire group of people, and for what end? Have we changed hearts to look like Christ’s through this? Have we revealed the grace of God in transformative ways this way? No, we have created enemies of the Church, and turned an entire generation sympathetic to their LGBT loved ones away. We are losing our image of Christ embodied in our grace and love, and it is being replaced with one marked by judgment, hypocrisy, and hatred. It makes my heart-break. I suspect that God is not pleased with this course of events either.
I stayed quiet and did a lot of observing. There was a lot of public displays of affection, but less than I observe in the heterosexual population on Valentine’s Day. There were LGBT people of all ages, multiple races, and any other signifier I could conjure up. They were human and expressed the same flaws and fabulousness any heterosexual might. There was a lot of talk about the marriage equality ruling. I think it was time. As someone who is tasked with presiding at weddings, I think we made a linguistic error in the Church. We allowed Holy Matrimony, a life-long covenant made before God and ratified in the Church, to be referred to in the terms of legal marriage. I officiate Holy Matrimony. It just so happens that the Commonwealth of Virginia accepts this Holy Matrimony as legal marriage. But not all heterosexual marriage is Holy Matrimony. We have untold numbers of heterosexual couples who have been wed legally outside of the Church, and many of those unions would not have been performed in the Church, at least not by me. I refuse to perform a wedding for a couple when I know there is abuse going on. I will not perform a wedding at a drive through for people I do not know. I will not perform a wedding when people spent a wild night in Las Vegas and decide to get married to someone they just met on a whim. Yet all of these happen and regularly so, and they are legal. So those heterosexual couples have legal rights that unmarried couples, heterosexual and homosexual do not. I don’t see the justice there, if we deny homosexual couples the right to marry legally. People who have been dedicated and committed to one another should have the ability to share in healthcare insurance, property rights, and end of life decisions.
The book of doctrine for my denomination, the United Methodist Book of Discipline prohibits clergy from officiating a homosexual union. Regardless of how a clergy person feels about that personally, we vow to uphold the Book of Discipline professionally as part of the investiture of Apostolic power and authority in us. If that is ever changed in the course of proper Church polity, then every clergy person will have to decide how they will live that out, but this is not the case today. So while I cannot and will not perform a homosexual union of Holy Matrimony, I can still see where a secular, legal change to marriage outside of the Church can be a good and joyful thing. I see people who have been together longer than I have been alive, and now they can enjoy legal rights denied to them solely because of their sexuality. The day could come when the State no longer recognizes Holy Matrimony as legal marriage, but I would still perform them, because that is my charge as clergy. Sometimes we need to recognize that the affairs of the Church are not synonymous with affairs of the world. When people articulate a fear that this will destroy marriage, I tell them that I have yet in the past five years to perform a single marriage where the couple was not already cohabiting. There is an all together different threat going on to Holy Matrimony, and it is the ease with which we are willing to cast off the vows for divorce or adultery, and forsake the biblical parameters of celibacy before being married.
In the end, I attended my first Pridefest, and tried to see a people who were not truly any different from me like I see myself. We all sin. We all fall short of the glory of God. We all need grace, and we all want to be loved. I am done shaming someone for one sin, when no one does so for a different sin. I am done allowing hate, when we are a people born out of God’s redemptive love. I choose to love. I will love in spite of any and all sin, because I want God to do this for me in spite of mine. I will grant grace that every person I know will grow in their love and deepen their relationship with God, who alone can transform us from the unrepentant sinners of our birth into the beloved saints of the Kingdom to Come. There is no sexual identity requirement for Christ’s forgiveness, and if we keep acting like there is in the Church, then we will have sealed our fate. It is time we let God do the interior work in the hearts of all humankind, regardless of their sexual status. This is the purview of the Holy Spirit, and we are wholly unqualified to co-opt it. The grace Jesus gave to sinners during his earthly ministry was not about judgment and condemnation, which was abundant in the Pharisees, but divine encounter and love. I pray the Church will become more about the latter, and forsake the former. May God work in all of our hearts, and change us to be more Christ-like.