Since I wrote my last post, the sermon I gave this last Sunday at my church: “Okay, God, What Next?”, I’ve received some comments from friends that I was brave to preach that sermon which stated my complete support of the Supreme Court decision that all gay and lesbian people deserve the legal right to be married.
I’ve been thinking about that. I know I am not brave. My friends are brave who came out to their families and friends not knowing what kind of support or derision they would receive. I may have had the smallest snippet of bravery when, sixteen years ago, I preached a similar sermon at my first congregation in New York – long before my own denomination stated their support of gay and lesbian marriage and ordination, but even then I knew my synodical bishop and many fellow clergy agreed with me, so I was not standing alone.
But now, as I sit here in 2015, with the ruling of the Supreme Court and the affirmation of my own denomination behind me, I am not brave to speak out in favor of gay and lesbian people having full marriage equality. Rather, I feel remorseful and ashamed.
I am remorseful and ashamed that I was not more brave and vocal about this in the years between my first call and now. There were many years when I no longer had the vigor and passion of being a first-call pastor, ready to change the world and willing to say the hard things that needed to be said. Those years when I was an associate pastor and I did not feel it was “my place” to speak out on issues and show disagreement with a senior pastor or those years when I was in rural Texas and knew my congregation was just barely holding on to the ELCA by a thread and I didn’t want to be the one to push them too hard for fear of them leaving the ELCA altogether. Those years when I supported my gay and lesbian friends, attended and sometimes was given the beautiful honor of preaching or presiding at their weddings, and yet I did not post the pictures on Facebook or speak about it too widely because I wanted to be sensitive to “where my congregation was at.” I took the middle path – not too far to the right, not too far to the left, but not really going anywhere at all – the path that I told myself was pastoral and that I had to take for the sake of my position – but yet a path that left me the worst of people. Spineless. Neither hot nor cold. A hypocrite, really. I would have defended myself by saying that if people asked me point blank my views on the matters considering gay and lesbian weddings or ordinations, I would tell them the truth. How dang noble, Ruth. Don’t offer up your opinion for years, water down the Gospel fire burning within for years, don’t speak up loudly for your dear friends for years, don’t vehemently proclaim the presence of injustice for so achingly long and then find ways to rationalize this ineffectual and feeble sort of ministry. I’m ashamed of it.
This is my confession today. I am not brave. I have been the opposite of brave.
The culture of our churches in these times makes it difficult, truthfully. Clergy have families to feed and so there is a certain amount of wanting to keep a congregation happy so that one’s paycheck keeps coming. The problem is that the real, raw gospel of Jesus Christ is upsetting and even infuriating…but none of us like being confronted and challenged regularly. So there is this balance that pastors try to find between sharing the convicting truth of the Gospel and also the endless grace. We need both.
But too often, way too often, churches get so worried about anyone getting upset about ANYTHING. So much so that this becomes a god of its’ own. I’ve sat in countless council meetings where fear of losing members was the guiding decision-maker, not “what would Jesus do.”
And when a church does this too much, not only does the pastor get disillusioned, but so do the people. People are passionate about the church when it is fired up about sharing the gospel, not when it is fired up about itself. When we find our identity in Jesus, not when we find our identity in our programs or our pretty buildings, then we are authentic and brave and frankly, irresistible.
Anyway, here’s to being brave. I just turned 45 a few weeks ago, an age that I am comfortable saying I may be halfway through my life. The first half was very good – full of love and beauty and grace. Now, the second half – I pray I will be truly brave.