I was ordained almost sixteen years ago. I had a shiny new call in hand from a little church in Western New York and planned the ordination service at my home church – Good Shepherd Lutheran in Henning, Minnesota. My pastor from all my growing up years, Rev. Darrell Vetter, preached. Bishop Arlen Hermodson of this synod did the ordination. My internship supervisor, Rev. Allyne Holz, placed the stole on my shoulders. Afterward, the wonderful ladies of the church provided a lunch – little sandwiches, cake, and coffee. It was a gorgeous September day.
A few days later I was driving out to New York with everything I owned in my black 1984 GMC Jimmy. My two faithful cats, George and Sam, meowing at me the whole way.
There were many unforgettable moments in that trip and those weeks but one that often comes to mind is my first morning in my office. I arrived early – the sun was just coming up. I stood looking out the window across the street at the cemetery and the church’s former building which now stood empty and peeling paint. I stood there and thought, “okay, God, now what?” Here I am. Now what.
Years and years and years of preparation had led to that moment – and I didn’t have the foggiest clue what to do. But then the phone began to ring and people began to stop by and hour by hour, day by day, prayer by prayer, joy by joy, and frustration by frustration, suddenly sixteen years have gone by.
But most days I still look out my window and my silent or whispered prayer is, “okay, God, now what?”
It’s my ineloquent way of saying, “God, please lead me and guide me.” Partly because God must, and partly because I am clueless on my own. I always have been – I have no qualms about saying that. I need God’s guidance in all things. I listen like a hawk for the still, small voice of God’s direction because without it I am just floating about on the wind. Without God’s guidance I would be easily deceived, I have no doubt about it. So I cling to God’s promises and I cling to the assurance that I belong to Him.
What am I going on about here? I don’t know. It’s just been another one of those weeks where as a preacher, I’m a little bit terrified to preach. The Bishop of the ELCA recommends that we keep talking about Charleston and I agree this is important. Did you see President Obama’s beautiful eulogy at Reverend Pinkney’s funeral – it was gorgeous as he talked about God’s amazing grace and even sang.
But also in the news this week we have huge news about the Supreme Court of the United States saying all gay and lesbian marriages are legal. This is huge. And this is news that I know everyone here has an opinion about and I don’t think it does us a lot of good to not talk about it. In fact, I don’t think it is faithful for us to not talk about it.
So let me start – I grew up as the daughter of a preacher – but my father was a very different sort of preacher than me. He loved the fire and brimstone. He preached law with a small sliver of grace on the side. And don’t get him talking about “the gays” because for some reason, in his view, homosexual people were excluded entirely from God’s grace.
I didn’t understand this. To me, it seemed so contrary to everything else I had been taught about God. Then I went to college where I knew a lot of nice conservative Christian people who were super kind people – when talk about homosexuality would come up there were a lot of phrases like, “hate the sin but love the sinner.” I remember I had to do a little speech in a class after reading a required book called, “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor” and I spent hours and hours studying and preparing my opinion piece – which basically came down to the simplistic, yet I felt faithful, conclusion that God made us all and loves us all just as we are. Period. From that point on there was a small group of particularly ardent conservative Christians on campus who were gently trying to confront me lovingly and steer me back in the right direction.
It wasn’t until seminary that I actually had a close friend come out and tell me he was gay. He was so scared to tell me. I hated that he was so scared to tell me. But growing up in the Christian church, he knew that admitting this about himself was a big thing. He knew there were good people for whom this would be no big deal but he also knew that for other good people, this would be a deal breaker. They wouldn’t want to be his friend anymore. They would distance themselves from him. And many did.
Over the next years there was this huge wave of honesty as friend after friend of mine came out. All of them Lutheran Christians who had grown up in surroundings so much like mine. Some told me through conversations, quite a few through letters they constructed to tell me this news about themselves. I was always surprised – I have no gay-dar whatsoever. But one by one they entrusted me with this news that they had wrestled with and struggled with and had come to love and accept about themselves. And they became even more dear to me because I knew that this process of unfolding and becoming their real selves was painful for them – but ultimately it was part of their becoming even more of the precious people God had made them to be.
I knew it. I knew it like you know a good melon. I knew it like you know that rain is in the air or that you are pregnant. I just knew.
But the hard thing is that there are just as many people, good people, faithful people, people I love, maybe even some of you, who just know that homosexuality is wrong and are certain that what is happening in our country is a slippery slope to Armageddon. You know it like you know a good melon, or that rain is in the air, or that you are pregnant. You just know.
In 2009 our ELCA churches had a lot of heartfelt conversations around this topic. Good, faithful people of all opinions came together to pray and think and listen for God’s voice. I went through this with my church in Colorado and also in Texas in 2010. In Texas it was harder because there was a small group of people, lifelong members of this little historic church, who just saw the issue of homosexuality as the deal breaker for them. They wanted our church to be the church in our area to leave the ELCA. They pushed hard and rallied members but they couldn’t get much traction. About ten ended up leaving our church and started their own non ELCA church downtown.
It was so hard for all of us. I prayed so hard all the time – especially then – that if I was wrong, that God would help me see it. I wanted to do what was right, not be blinded by my own emotions, my sentimentality for the friends I love who are gay.
But the more I prayed, the more I was just convinced that there was no part of the God I had been raised to know and love or even the scriptures I had studied my whole life that informed me that the thing to do would be to tell all gay people that the love they have for one another was lesser than the love given to heterosexual people.
Yes, there are parts of scripture that are complex – there certain texts that some want to hold up as a beacon that homosexuality is wrong – these scriptures reside with many others that seem to reflect the culture and times the biblical authors lived in more than the timeless will of God:
Concubines and polygamy and the use of slave girls as surrogates in childbirth were all acceptable family values in the Old Testament. Slavery was found to be morally acceptable in the Old Testament and slave-owning Christians in the early church were not asked by the apostles to set their slaves free. Priests were commanded to burn their daughters alive if they became prostitutes, and rebellious children were to be stoned to death. Women who were raped were required to marry their rapist. And when Israel went off to war she believed God called her to destroy every man, woman, and child among the nations she conquered—what today we call genocide. The Apostle Paul teaches that women are to pray with their heads covered and to not wear their hair in braids. They are not permitted to teach a man, and Paul notes that it was “shameful” for a woman to even speak in church.
But if I’m not willing to embrace slavery or polygamy or to tell a rape victim they have to marry their rapist, and if I, as a woman can feel the call to ministry and the calling to speak in church – and all these things go against certain cultural laws in the Bible – how can I tell a gay couple their love is wrong – especially when the overarching message of Jesus Christ is that love is the greatest of all things?
How can I feel anything but glad for the healing that so many gay and lesbian families are feeling now – because of all the big and small rights they now have that they never had before. And does that healing mean any less to them than the kinds of healing we read in our scriptures for today? A woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years is healed. A young girl who is thought to be dead hears a word from Jesus and walks. A group of people feel marginalized and unaccepted their whole lives, undeserving of love, unable to participate in the gift that is family – but then allowed in, over time welcomed, over time given justice and rights. All these things seem like healing to me. All these things seem holy to me.
People of God, please don’t think I stand up here thinking I have everything figured out or that it is my job to convince or sway opinion. I only share all this with you because I want you to know how much I wrestle with all these matters of faith, too. I share my own journey with you so that maybe you will share yours with me, too, and with each other. As we seek to listen to each other and understand each other – I think there is more room for the Holy Spirit to really move. As we let love and grace guide us, rather than fear or judgement, we become more nimble vessels for sharing all that is beautiful and helpful and life-giving about the church. If we can talk openly and lovingly about things that matter, if we can disagree with each other and still live and worship together in respect and work together to serve God – then our children will grow up knowing that they can do this, too. That they will know, with no shade of doubt, that no matter who they are or who they love, they are welcome here and beloved to us and to God.
This is what we need. We need to be able to stand together in our questions and our certainties, all our stumblings and steps of faith and trust that in the end, it’s God who catches us. Whether we end up wrong or right, it’s Jesus who saves us and loves us to the end. That we are wrapped, cloaked, enveloped in this Amazing Grace that is big enough to cradle us all. That when we say, “Okay, God, what next?” The answer is always going to be grace. Treat yourself, treat one another with grace – because this is what God pours out to us and wants us to be about as God’s church on earth. Amazing Grace.