|Post-church selfie with Adam Page
after community RIC service, January 18, 2015
**this is the text of a sermon I gave at Mission of the Atonement (MOTA) on January 25, 2015.
I love MOTA. You were the first place I ever preached, back in 2005. I was Laura then, and still remember the welcome I received here. Thank you for having me back for the forum earlier this month to share my journey from Laura to Leo, and for having me here again today.
I also have a special place in my heart for MOTA because of the ministry you do here, specifically building a community that is both Catholic and Lutheran. Our world loves to put up barriers between people, to create categories of us vs them. To paraphrase the former Lutheran presiding bishop Mark Hanson, you have taken border walls and turned them into tables of fellowship, around which you worship, serve and share in the life of Christ. That is a beautiful, blessed thing that you are doing here.
Thank you again for inviting me to share this day with you.
I’d like to start with a little history. In 1990, there were a little over 50 Reconciling in Christ congregations (now we are at just over 500, including MOTA), but we were a long way off from changing church policy to allow for the ordination of openly gay and lesbian pastors. Lesbians and gay men could not be ordained unless they were celibate, nor could they serve a church, according to church policy. But in the fall of 1989, two courageous and prophetic congregations risked discipline by calling a gay man and two lesbians to be their pastors. On January 20, 1990, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart were ordained with a joint call to serve at St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco, and Jeff Johnson was ordained with a call to serve First United Lutheran Church nearby.
The Bishop did file charges against these two congregations, and they were expelled from the ELCA. But church policy did not have the last word, and ministry and gospel work continued in these places. The Lutheran church finally changed policy in 2009, and in 2010, these churches rejoined the ELCA and these three pastors as well as others who had not been seen as legitimate under the previous policy, were recognized and welcomed officially.
It is in commemoration of this act of resistance that we have RIC Sunday on the last Sunday in January. At that ordination in 1990, the call and ministry of these pastors was affirmed despite policy. ReconcilingWorks continues the work of affirming the dignity and worth of all peoples. We celebrate churches’ welcoming people of all sexual orientations, all gender identities, and all gender expressions. This work is important, because we still live in a world in which people do not know they are have a place at the table, or that God’s love includes them. That work has helped me also know that I belong here, as a child of God, after coming out as trans at 37.
The gospel reading from Mark is fitting for today, and one of my favorites. Jesus is at home preaching and being his awesome self. You know how he rolls. So many people came to hear him that quite a crowd had gathered.
Some people came with a friend who needed healing. But it was so packed! Perhaps these friends tried to make a way only to find backs turned, shoulders barring the way, looks of disdain? So many in the LGBTQ community experience these same barriers to welcome. These friends knew they would not be able to get to Jesus by normal means, or acceptable methods. So they dug through the roof of the home, and lowered their friend down near Jesus.
Now me, I don’t know if I could have done that. I’m the kind of person who walks quietly through halls so as not to disturb other people, and if a sign says “keep out”, I do. If I were there on that day with my friends, I may have stood awkwardly on the edges, wishing Jesus would take care of the situation, (hopefully without drawing too much attention to me!) If my friends had started digging through the roof, I may well have pretended not too know them.
And yet Jesus sees their faith, forgives the sins of their friend and grants healing. Those in power were grumpy about this, but they did not have the last word. That belongs to the people, who glorify God.
I want to be brave enough to interrupt the accepted order, inconvenience the crowds and those in power, perhaps even draw attention to myself and my actions, for the sake of justice and the work of the Gospel. I’d like to think that our work to advocate for others, and to work for a church where all are truly welcome embodies that courageous and faith-filled spirit.
Now let me say three VERY important things. I have compared the friends digging through the roof to get healing for their friend, to the work for advocacy in the church, which means I need to be very careful and very clear. 1) LGBTQ people are not sick, 2) Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer is not a sin. 3) The work of advocacy is not about bringing LGBTQ people to Jesus.
I want to be very clear about this, because the bible and the church are still used to oppress people, to make them feel sinful, unworthy, or unwelcome. On December 28, 2014, transwoman Leelah Alcorn, at 17 committed suicide, in large part because of the efforts by her Christian parents and church to “fix” her trans-ness and make her into a “straight boy”. That is not what I am advocating. In fact, this is what I am fighting.
The four friends in our gospel had compassion for their friend, and faith and hope in the healing and saving presence of Jesus. This made them bold enough to remove barriers, defy convention, and risk condemnation.
In January, 1990, two churches had faith in God’s presence among them as they broke the rules in order to affirm the worth and dignity of gay and lesbian pastors, and validate their ministry among God’s people.
In 1983, Pastor Anita Hill, who was with us for the community-wide RIC service last week, began serving as a pastor despite the national church’s unwillingness to ordain her, an out lesbian. Even when she was finally ordained in 2001, it was outside of church policy. In 2010, she finally had her ordination recognized, twenty-seven years into her pastoral ministry.
We must have courage and faith in God’s continuing presence and healing action here on earth.
Troublemakers, rule breakers, and visionaries often lead the way. Rosa Parks. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Cesar Chavez. Disrupting business as usual and bringing pressure for change.
Unfortunately, we know that the work of ending racism and systemic oppression is not over. We live in a world of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and many other forms of prejudice, and the consequences can be deadly.
I thank God for the persistence and courage of those working for change, of those digging through the roof to bring their friends to a place of justice, to make this world safer for those on the outside.
I thank God for the work that you have done here at MOTA to help make the church safer for people in the LGBTQ community. I am grateful that you include in your bulletin a statement of welcome: “At Mission of the Atonement, we affirm our welcome to all sexual orientations, gender identities, shapes, sizes, races, languages, faiths, and spiritual perspectives.” You give me hope and courage. I know that I am welcome here.
Our bulletin also gives us direction for today. Trial. Truth. Trust. Saying Yes to God. We are challenged and supported in our call to bring healing, mercy, love, hospitality and reconciliation to this troubled world.
In Jonah, we see a God that sometimes has to keep reminding us of our call. We read, the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. We know Jonah was reluctant to tell Nineveh to repent. Reluctant is one way to describe him –really, he tried to run far, far away. But after dwelling in the belly of the whale, he finally hears the word of the Lord and goes to Nineveh to proclaim judgment against the wickedness of the city.
And the people of Nineveh heard Jonah. They repented. The king repented. And God showed them mercy. God’s embrace was big enough for those who were slow to listen and those who had been wicked. The story of Jonah reminds us to trust, to speak truth, and to know that God is active in the world, working with us to bring about peace and wholeness.
The prayer of Jonah from the belly of the whale (in the chapter before today’s reading), and the prayer in the psalm, affirm a hope in the deliverance of God. Birthed during hard times, these prayers can give us courage and strengthen our faith. God is a refuge for us, our rock and our fortress, giving us confidence while at the same time prodding us to do God’s work in the world.
And 2 Corinthians reminds me that God is faithful to God’s promises, and is before us, leading the way, establishing relationships in Christ, and giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
Today we celebrate the prophetic courage of those who ordained two lesbians and a gay man in 1990, risking and losing their membership in our national church body, and we rejoice that this policy changed. We celebrate the decision of Mission of the Atonement to become an RIC congregation and the progress our country has made, even while there is work yet to be done. We sing gladly that All are Welcome here, proclaiming that the doors are open, the roof has been dug through, and everyone has a share in the abundance of love that is in God. Today, we re-dedicate ourselves to fight injustice and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, shape, size, race, language, faith or spiritual perspectives.
We can have courage and say yes, trusting that God goes before us. The original trouble maker, boundary breaker, deep heart of compassion, and fountain of grace, leads us on and sends us forth to live in and share the good news of God’s great love.