Are We Pharisees…

Or followers of Christ?  I ask that question because today is the start of Reverend Amy Delong’s trial for the heinous crime of being…, gay.  Oh, I know the leadership of the UMC and all my good Methodist friends will say that’s not why she’s on trial, that’s it because she is in violation of the Discipline (the UMC’s rulebook).  In that august publication, it states

 ¶ 304.3

While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals1 are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.

It states in a footnote that “Self-avowed practicing homosexual” is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual. See Judicial Council Decisions 702, 708, 722, 725, 764, 844, 984.” and Reverend DeLong did just that, i.e. openly acknowleged that she is a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” when she and her partner of 16 years registered under Wisconsin’s domestic partnership law and she reported the action to the Wisconsin Conference.  If that wasn’t bad enough, in 2009 she officiated at a ceremony of union for a lesbian couple, which she also duly reported to her conference leadership.  There is a tendency to look at what Rev. DeLong did and say “Well, if she’d just kept her mouth shut, none of this would be happening”.  But, I see what she’s done as civil disobedience and I applaud her.  As Edmund Burke said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Make no mistake about it, denying LGBT people the same basic rights that straight people enjoy is evil.  In doing so, we are no different from the Pharisee’s that Jesus referred to as a “brood of vipers”.  Here’s a little enlightenment for those who wonder about that reference.  The Pharisees were a group of pious Jews who studied Mosiac law and all its interpretations.  The seeds for this group were sown in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile when the returning Jews, believing that their recent captivity resulted from a rejection the law, decided to be vigilant in following it in the future.  The Pharisees as a group emerged after the Maccabean revolt 160 BCE that ushered in 100 years of Jewish self-rule.  If most Jews in those days were vigilant in their application of the law, then the Pharisees were hyper-vigilant.  In time, that vigilance resulted in the law becoming more important than the people.  That debate continues to this day.

Jesus came to free us from the millstone of the law around our necks.  In a complete reversal of what the Pharisees had been teaching for years, He maintained that people were more important than the law.  For Jesus, orthopraxy (right practice) always trumped orthodoxy (right belief).  With all this in mind, is it really necessary to try, convict and punish a pastor who has given her life to spreading the Gospel?  Does her violation of a man-made commandment override all the work she’s done carrying out what Jesus said was the greatest commandment, to love God with all your might and love your neighbor as yourself?  I don’t think so.  Hopefully, though, some good will come of this ugly mess.  With its General Conference coming up next year, the issue of how the Church treats sexual orientation is once again a hot topic among Methodists.  Things like the trial and possible defrocking of someone who has been lauded as being an excellent pastor, a pastor whose congregation stands squarely behind her, someone who’s courage and conviction has been praised by the very people who are putting her on trial and are only doing so because church law requires it may point out just how ridiculous those laws are. 

Whenever following a law causes us to persecute someone, we are not showing the grace and love that Christ bestowed on us and called us to show to our brothers and sisters.  When that happens, we stop being His followers and start being Pharisees.  And, believe me, that’s not a good thing.