If you haven’t read previous chapters of Little River, you can catch up here!
Jonathan studied the faces of his congregation from his seat on the dais, to the left of the choir loft. Their expressions ranged from bored to curious to excited. Word had spread fast about the deacons’ admonition to address the topic of his brother. Disgust churned in his stomach as he surveyed the charged atmosphere.
Abigail had made him drink peppermint tea before they left for church. He was so nervous about his sermon, he had nearly made himself sick. He hadn’t been this out of sorts before taking the pulpit since his very earliest days in the ministry. Today might be the very first time he was thankful his brother had refused to go to church. The thought of Titus seeing the bloodthirsty way Tammy Hall was eyeing him from her seat in the second pew made him angry.
Larry Davis’ solemn face two rows back took the edge off Jonathan’s anger. The elderly deacon looked genuinely sad. He had stopped Jonathan before the service started and said, “I don’t think this is quite right…forcing you to side against your own blood.” Jonathan had smiled and thanked his deacon for his support. ‘Not quite right’ was an understatement. Did Tammy Hall and the deacon board and whoever else was in on the edict handed down to Jonathan not realize he had slept in the bunk bed above his little brother for sixteen years? Did they not know that Titus was the only person in the world who knew Jonathan had cried for two weeks straight when he was ten years old after their Papaw died, and Titus had climbed in his brother’s bed every night and held his hand in the dark. Every night for two weeks his little brother had comforted him, and never mentioned it in the light of day. At eight years old, Titus had given his brother the dignity of not calling him out, and now Jonathan’s congregation wanted him to publically strip his brother of his own dignity. How could they ask him to take a stand against the most loyal friend he had ever had?
The choir exited the choir loft as the pianist played through another verse of the hymn they had just sung. Jonathan stood and went through the motions of making announcements and taking up the offering. He called on a trio of middle-aged women to come and sing a song, and, as they finished, he took a deep breath. He wiped his sweaty palms on his suit pants, and wished he could loosen his tie. He glanced out at Abigail sitting with the kids in the third row, and was grateful to find her looking back at him. She smiled at him, though it didn’t quite reach her eyes. Her face was pale in solidarity.
Walking the short distance to the pulpit, Jonathan attempted to steady his nerves with a silent prayer, Lord, help me.
He placed his Bible on the pulpit, running his thumb along the worn leather of the spine. He looked out over the congregation, and attempted to smile. He knew this sermon would be a defining moment of his pastoral career.
“I know a lot of you already know what I’m going to preach about today. I have spent many hours in prayer since the deacon board came to me with some concerns shared by some of you.” Jonathan could tell by the confused expressions of many of his congregants that the concerns brought to him didn’t spread a whole lot further than Tammy Hall and the deacons. “I’ve struggled with how to approach today’s sermon, and I finally settled on the simplest way I know. I’m going to speak to you from my heart today, and I hope you will listen prayerfully to what I have to say.”
Jonathan opened his Bible, and scanned the page. The short pause gave him just enough time to collect his thoughts before saying, “I’m speaking to you as your pastor, but, more than that, I’m speaking to you as your brother. I am just a man. I have the same hopes and fears and struggles as all of you. I walk the same thin line with my family that some of you walk…wanting them to give their lives to the Lord while, at the same time, wanting them to know you love them just the way they are.”
Jonathan could have heard a pin drop in the room. The uncharacteristic silence rang in his ears as the congregation as a whole focused all their attention on what he was saying. “For those of you who don’t know, I have lived in Little River for most of my life. I went to Sunday School in this very church. I went to school here. I played baseball with some of you men. I even dated a couple of you women when we were in high school. This has been my home…and you have been my family…for nearly my entire life.
I grew up as one of four kids. I have two sisters and a younger brother. One sister lives in another state, and the other sister and my brother, Titus, stayed here in Little River. Some of you may wonder why I’m telling you this…what my history and my family have to do with a sermon. Well, besides being a talented engineer, a loyal friend, a devoted son and brother, and the best uncle any kid could ask for, my brother is also a gay man. It has come to my attention that some members of my congregation feel like I need to publically address my brother’s sexuality this morning. While, being perfectly honest, I feel this is unnecessary and incredibly insensitive both to me and my family, I have chosen to honor the request of the deacon board and address this topic this morning.
Historically, the Christian church has taken the stance that homosexuality is a sin, and several verses in the Scripture have been used to support that stance. While the opinions of many theologians and laymen in the Christian faith have begun to change about that, I, myself, have not taken a firm position. Maybe it is because I am afraid of what it would cost me. If my personal stance on the topic changed, would I lose my position as your pastor? Your respect? My job? My ability to feed and care for my family? And, if it stayed the same, would I need to reiterate to my brother that I don’t support his sexuality? Would I need to hurt my brother to follow the Lord? These are the questions and fears that have led me to largely avoid thinking too much about it. However, my avoidance has offended some of you, and so I will avoid it no longer.
As I have sought the Lord as to what to say today, I have come to this conclusion: No matter who is offended and no matter what it costs me, I will follow the Lord. I will do my best to follow his commands.”
Jonathan scanned the sanctuary, pausing to make eye contact with the people he had considered to be his friends for most of his life. After a moment, he said, “Turn with me to the book of Matthew, chapter twenty-two, verse thirty-four.”
Jonathan looked down at his Bible, already opened to the passage, and began to read, “ Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Pausing for a moment, Jonathan let his words reverberate in the room, before saying, “Turn with me to the Gospel of John, chapter thirteen, verse thirty-four.” He waited until the sound of rustling pages quieted, and then read, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
“Finally,” Jonathan lifted his eyes from the page, “turn with me a couple of pages to chapter fifteen, verse twelve.” Again, he waited for the congregation to find the right passage, and then read, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”
Jonathan took a deep breath, looking out at the people who were hanging on his every word, and braced his arms on the sides of the pulpit. “I know those who asked me to address the topic of my brother were expecting me to read from Leviticus and some of the epistles. When I was praying about what to say this morning, though, I kept coming back to the words of Jesus Himself. My heart’s desire has been to follow Jesus and to keep his commandments. That is why I read from the Gospels this morning. I wanted to spotlight what Jesus said was the most important thing.
When asked what the most important commandment was, Jesus answered that loving God is the most important, and, even though he wasn’t directly asked what number two was, He went on to say that the second most important commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves.” Glancing at Abigail, Jonathan smiled and said, “These are my wife’s favorite verses. She likes to say that until she can master number one and two, she can’t get too worked up about anything else.” Jonathan chuckled. “My wife is usually right about most things.”
Abigail smiled at him from her pew, and gave him a little wink.
Jonathan continued, “Every time she and I have discussed this topic, she has reminded me that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality but said a great deal about loving others.”
Jonathan searched the faces of his congregants, willing them to feel his sincerity, “Jesus said it was the greatest command, and I have to take that seriously. More seriously than anything. Jesus said it was the most important.
Not only that, but he said the way other people would know that we are his disciples is that we love one another. He didn’t say it was because we spoke a certain way or dressed a certain way or took a strong stance against other people’s sins. It wasn’t by what church we attend on Sundays or how much money we give to missions. It’s not by how we push our own set of standards and beliefs on unbelievers, but it is by how we love.”
Jonathan looked directly at Tammy Hall before continuing. “My brother has never professed to be a believer. He has insisted that the church doesn’t want him, so he doesn’t want to be a part of the church. He has recently had someone vandalize his home, and has confided that in the past people have written him letters and left gospel tracts in his mailbox, telling him he is a sinner in need of repentance. While I am not saying anyone involved with this church was involved in the vandalism of my brother’s house, I’m saying I would be surprised if it was so. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same person who left the tracts was the person who spray-painted slurs on his front door. If that is the case, God have mercy on us. That would be a grievous failure to love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Jonathan sighed. “My brother is not a believer, but he has been an example of love to so many people. Remember that Jesus said, ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ My brother has given the entirety of his adult life to the cause of loving others. He has stayed in this community that continually says they don’t want him when he could have moved to Knoxville or somewhere else years ago and made more money and excelled in his career. Instead, he has stayed here in Little River. Why? Because of the sister I mentioned earlier.
Seven years ago, my sister’s husband was killed in an accident, leaving her a widow with four young sons. Titus had just finished graduate school, and was on the cusp of beginning a lucrative career. He had planned to move to California, where he had been offered a very good job. Instead, he stayed here to help our sister and our nephews. Our sister was struggling with her husband’s death in a debilitating way. At first, Titus thought he could stay around for a year or so, but a year turned into two turned into three turned into seven years. Seven years that he bought groceries, chaperoned field trips, baked birthday cakes, and helped with homework. As our sister got worse with each passing year, Titus continually stepped up. He taught our nephews how to drive…how to shave…how to be good men. And now, with our sister taking a very hard turn for the worse, he has taken custody of our youngest two nephews.
He didn’t have to do all that. I should have done more. I was away at seminary for several years. I had my own family to care for. I had a lot of excuses, but, in all honesty, I should have done more for my sister and her boys. My parents and older sister live in another state, but they could have done more. We all could have done more, but Titus did do more. He gave his life…his hopes for a career, a family of his own, and his longtime relationship…to care for our widowed sister and her children.”
Jonathan pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his eyes. He couldn’t hold back the tears. He nearly choked on them as he said, “How can I stand in this pulpit and condemn my brother when he has done a far better job of following the teachings of Jesus than I have?”
The congregation was quiet, as if they were collectively holding their breath, as Jonathan concluded, “I can only go forward from today striving to follow my brother’s example, praying for a greater love.”