It has never been easy to be a follower of Jesus. Or to be married. Or to make peace in the Middle East.
In fact, all of these good things are hard to do. And because they are tough, they lead to fights.
Jesus saw the people of Jerusalem fighting over how he and John the Baptist were supposed to behave. He said that the people of his generation were "like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn'" (Matthew 11:16-17).
Jesus saw that some people attacked John for not dancing -- instead, John refrained from feasting and celebrating, and people criticized him for being so gloomy. They even said, "He has a demon" (v. 18).
But Jesus himself received the opposite criticism. "We wailed, and you did not mourn," said the people -- instead, Jesus came eating and drinking, and the people called him "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (v. 19).
So John the Baptist was attacked for being too serious, and Jesus was criticized for not being serious enough! Both were trying to follow God faithfully, and both were torn apart for not pleasing the people around them.
Today, we face several fights in the Presbyterian Church (USA) that mirror these struggles from the time of Jesus. Our elected church leaders recently met in a national conference called the General Assembly, and made decisions about same-gender marriage and divestment from three companies that are accused of helping Israel to violate Palestinian rights.
As in the time of Jesus, proponents of same-gender marriage are saying, "We played the flute for you and you did not dance" -- clearly, some people don't want to dance at same-gender marriages. Proponents of divestment are saying, "We wailed, and you did not mourn" -- some people don't agree that these companies are violating Palestinian rights. These are tough issues, for sure, and when we struggle with tough issues we are going to have church fights.
I think we need to accept the fact that we are going to have disagreements, just as the people of Jerusalem did. Some of us want our leaders to dance, others want them to mourn. Some of us approve of eating and drinking, while others worry that these behaviors lead to gluttony and drunkenness. It's always been this way, from the time of Jesus to today.
So, how does Jesus guide us through these church fights? How does he want us to approach the tough issues of marriage and peace in the Middle East?
He starts by telling us that "wisdom is vindicated by her deeds" (v. 19). This means that wisdom is made right by her deeds. Jesus wants people to judge him by what he does -- healing the sick, raising the dead, and bringing good news to the poor (v. 5). And the same is true for us -- we should be judged primarily by what we do.
I think this is a key question for the same-gender marriage debate: What are such couples doing? They are entering the covenant of marriage, which is a relationship based on promises to love each other and be faithful to each other as long as they both shall live. Whether couples are opposite-gender or same-gender, the promises are exactly the same.
Ted Olson is the conservative super-lawyer who argued for the election of George W. Bush in front of the Supreme Court back in the year 2000. He is now putting his energy into fighting for marriage equality, and he recently spoke to Washingtonian magazine. He believes that individuals should have the right to marry and not be discriminated against, and says that "marriage is a conservative value: It means coming together, living in and being part of the fabric of a community and becoming a stable, committed unit."
In his opinion, same-gender marriage is made right by its deeds -- it is made right as people become part of the fabric of a community as stable, committed units. This is the way marriage has always been, although the rules of marriage have changed over the years, with polygamy being outlawed and interracial marriage becoming legal.
Time will tell whether same-gender marriage will have a good result. But for now, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has decided to grant pastors discretion in determining whether or not to conduct same-gender marriages in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal. We pastors are not required to perform such marriages, just as we do not have to perform any marriages that we do not think are appropriate. But for the first time, such marriages are permitted -- at least in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal.
So the first bit of guidance Jesus gives us is that "wisdom is vindicated by her deeds" (v. 19). And the second is an invitation: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest" (v. 28).
Jesus clearly wants to give rest to people who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens. He wants to give rest to any of us who are facing struggles, and he wants to give rest to people who are oppressed in any way. I think this is what motivated Presbyterians in the General Assembly to divest from three companies that they believe are helping to violate the rights of Palestinians.
I would not have voted for this divestment, because I believe that more good can be done by remaining engaged. I would have preferred that we hold on to our stock in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions, and then appear at stockholder meetings and argue for reforms.
So Presbyterians are going to disagree about divestment. We are going to find ourselves in the middle of church fights. But these are differences about strategy, and they don't mean that we disagree about giving rest to people who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens. Our church has a long-standing commitment to peace in Israel-Palestine, and we want to do whatever we can to alleviate the suffering caused by both the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership.
Clearly, Presbyterians are not of one mind about these decisions. We criticize each other for being too serious ("you did not dance") and we attack each other for not being serious enough ("you did not mourn"). But if we can bear with one another, I think we will discover over time that efforts to support the covenant of marriage and peace in the Middle East are always worthy of support.