Last night I went to bed, my sermon pretty much written and ready to go to preach at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, in Anchorage,AK. My friend, Pastor Ellen Johnson-Price, serves as pastor there. Today they would celebrate “More Light Sunday,” honoring their commitment to inclusion of all people, and explicitly LGBTQ people, for many years. Ellen hoped that my journey as an openly lesbian pastor in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) might help us reflect together about where we’ve come as the church and where we have yet to go.
This morning I awoke to the news that 50 people were killed in a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Florida.
Suddenly my struggles within the church feel utterly insignificant, and at the same time, crucial. It is at moments like this that preaching matters, and that the preacher feels inadequate. Still, I trust that God is far more than adequate, meeting us in our grief and anger and vulnerability.
Here is my attempt to proclaim that, based on the gospel reading from Luke 7:36-8:3.
And because beauty and connection are the two most healing salves I know, I’ll accompany this blog post with the Alaskan beauty that sustains me.
Today, we bear witness. Last night fifty people were killed in a mass shooting at the Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. My people. Our people. God’s beloved people. Another 53 were injured
And lest we forget, one year ago, on June 17, nine people were killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
I woke up to this news, and can’t even wrap my mind around it yet. But this, my friends, this is why it matters so much that you are here.
I want to thank you, my friends here at Immanuel Presbyterian. For more than a decade, you’ve been a More Light Presbyterian Church, providing a place of intentional and clear welcome to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people. You hosted the local Metropolitan Community Church for many years. I preached right here on this very text back in 2004.
Today we’re going to recall Jesus’ question to Simon the Pharisee, “Do you see this woman?”, and I thank you for doing your best to see us, and to welcome us. Because as I think and pray about preaching here this morning, it feels so very clear that NOT seeing, in far too many cases, means death.
Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee, “Do you see this woman?”
I’m pretty sure that EVERYONE saw this woman … she wasn’t invited to Simon’s dinner party, and eveyone in the city knew she was a sinner. But even that wouldn’t have mattered … you should have seen her! Weeping, bathing his feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, KISSING his feet? Anointing them with ointment… EVERYONE saw this woman.
When I left the church I’d served for three years as associate pastor, when I came out to them as a lesbian in a relationship, and everything blew up, one woman said to me “Why did you have to tell us? We already knew.” (the undercurrant being “we already knew, we didn’t want to talk about it”)
Do you see this woman? Everyone saw this woman.
Do you see this woman?
And here’s the thing about the seeing … what Simon saw in that bold and grateful weeping woman was a sinner. And it’s easy to look at this text and see maybe not so much a sinner, but a forgiven sinner. But the more I’ve wrestled with this reading over the last week, I don’t even think it was truly about sin or forgiveness so much, but about love. About love. Jesus looked at her, and saw … not a sinner, not a forgiven sinner, but a woman acting out of deep love. Jesus saw her, knew her, and saw love.
In one of my favorite books, Gifted by Otherness, M.R. Ritley describes gay and lesbian people as being “a people defined by our desires… by our loves.” “To be a woman defined by her desires, to be a man defined by his love, and to be faithful to those desires and that love, even in the face of everything that society and the church have done to us, is nothing short of awesome. It is something we have to offer others, a self-acknowledgment and self-affirmation that the rest of the church needs as desperately as we do.” (p. 27)
To be faithful to those desires, and that love, even in the face of everything that society and the church have done to us — even killing us — is nothing short of awesome. And it is something we have to offer, something the church and the world need as desperately as we do.
What does it look like for all of us to consider what it means to be defined by our loving? Loving someone of the same gender or a different gender? Loving the poor? Loving people whose skin is a different color than your own? Loving people who may have grown up in a suburb, a village, a city? Seeing and loving, and being most interested in how we might love better, love more. This is why our welcome matters. This is why #BlackLivesMatter. NO ONE should live in fear of death.
Because not seeing, not loving, brings death.
And yet our national churches have spent a lot of years, a lot of time, a lot of studies, talking about sin. And talking about sin way more than love. Pastor Ellen suggested that since my denomination, the Lutherans, has been on a journey not so different from yours in the PC-USA, that I share a little bit about that story. My plan was to share the ways I see God’s story intersecting with your story of being church, and my own experience in the ELCA. This morning, those stories seem to pale in contrast to our nation’s story of tragedy. But we will trust that God indeed shows up in our stories, and that points us to a greater love, to abundant life. Even, and especially in the midst of tragedy.
I grew up on the Oregon coast. I had NO idea that I would grow up to be a pastor or that I would fall in love with women rather than men. Or that I would find myself in Alaska. I was going to be a journalist. My bachelor’s degree is in communication and global studies. I spent two years working with homeless woman in recovery from substance abuse in a residential program in Washington, D.C., with Lutheran Volunteer Corps.
But fast forward to 2000, and I found myself newly broken up with my boyfriend of four and a half years, having crushes on women, coming out to my candidacy committee, and approved for ordination by said candidacy committee, despite the ELCA policy that said “those who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships.” My candidacy committee said “Good luck, we think the Church needs you, and we hope you can hang in there as long as you can.” I was off to a Lutheran church in Alaska to serve as associate pastor.
In 2002 I fell in love with a woman.
In 2003 we moved in together, and by 2004 I was out to everyone. It was a messy, painful, chaotic time. It was clear I could no longer do effective ministry there, many of our hearts were broken, and I left. Because of the ELCA policies at that time, I had suspected that this would happen to me at some point, but I had no idea how deeply it would hurt.
Thankfully, a few months later, I was hired to be a hospital chaplain, a ministry where I get to “see” people from every kind of background, people who are all, like me, in deep need of healing. Not because of who they love, but because needing healing is part of the human condition, and sometimes we’re more acutely aware of it than other times. In my work, I’m called to love. Yesterday one of my neighbors asked my what I do as a chaplain — I told him I do a lot of listening and a lot of loving.
In 2009, the ELCA took a stance similar to what the PC-USA took in 2011. The ELCA described this turn in terms of “bound conscience,” essentially opening the door to allow churches to call LGBT pastors, even in committed relationships, as they feel called, but not to require churches to do so. Finally my ministry at the hospital was recognized by my church, as I went from “on leave from call” status to a “call to specialized ministry.”
And now it’s 2016. Are we like Simon the Pharisee, trying to point out the sinners? Or are we looking for the many ways that people love, and reveal God’s love in their lives? How are our churches furthering God’s love?
BECAUSE NOT SEEING, IN MANY CASES, MEANS DEATH.
We don’t yet know the names of those who died last night at The Pulse. We do remember those who died in Charleston: Cynthia Hurd. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lance. Depayne Middleton-Doctor. Clementa Pinckney. Tywanza Sanders. Daniel Simmons. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Myra Thompson.
There are so many names. Names you know. Names I know.
Last night it was the horror of a massacre. But it also is another child bullied. Another queer teenager who takes their life. Another transgender woman of color murdered. Another young African-American man killed. The fact that more than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women and men have experienced violence in their lifetime. In Alaska we experience devastating rates of suicide, domestic violence and alcoholism.
On the days that we’re not grieving a national tragedy, wouldn’t it be fantastic if in our churches, rather than trying to figure out whether or not sex before marriage was sinful, that we could equip people to have healthy conversations about what it means to love someone well, to treat a beloved with respect, to want the best for the one you love and for yourself?
I remember in the mid-2000s being invited to preach at a local Lutheran church, when leaders in the church found out and called an emergency council meeting, where someone suggested “maybe she could just read the (scripture) lessons.”
And now, in 2016, I love that more and more churches in my denomination are open to calling a lesbian or gay pastor. A transgender, or bisexual pastor. And, I hope, an African American, or Indonesian, or Latina pastor. But I grieve that so many people called to ministry continue to face walls and ceilings and the barriers of “but we’ve always done it this way.”
Do you see this woman? Are we looking for sin, and opportunities for forgiveness, or are we looking for love? Are we looking to be transformed?
But before you get too excited about this awesome focus on “loving,” which sounds SO much better than “sin,” right? I have to warn you that loving is hard work. Hard, hard, hard. It’s messy. It means we need to create a welcome place for people that don’t think like I do. They might vote for Donald Trump or they might vote for Hillary Clinton, or they might feel completely alienated from our nation’s electoral process. They likely won’t look like me. They might be loud, weep in public. Remember THAT woman, who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair and kissed his feet? It means being called into community where we’re going to disagree. Where we’ll get our feelings hurt. People will disappoint us. We’ll disappoint ourselves. We will have to learn about forgiveness, and hard conversations, and that is tough work.
Jesus had just told his disciples about loving their enemies, doing good to those who hate you.
This morning, I feel too raw to even think much about what it means to love my enemies, what forgiveness means after a massacre, what it means for Omar Mateen or Dylann Roof. But I know that the God I serve is merciful beyond what I can imagine. And forgiveness NEVER means condoning evil. And we are called to loving at its hardest moments. Even those who have hurt us irreparably. God’s ability to bring healing and love into our grief and horror, our anger and pain, into inconceivable brokenness, is beyond what I can imagine.
Sometimes even scarier and harder, loving means being vulnerable and intimate, revealing our own broken places. Seeing, truly seeing, others’ broken places, and still coming together to the table. True loving means opening ourselves up to loss and then to grief. That will happen. That happened this morning. It will happen again.
But my friends, THIS is where we see THAT woman. This is where we see the ways she celebrates and proclaims the love and forgiveness she knows and trusts. It’s when we’re doing the hard work of loving that we realize our own brokenness. That we see our own need for forgiveness. And THEN, like this woman who loved Jesus, we too can weep with relief and gladness that we are free. Free to love. Free to be transformed. Free to start again.
It is in the midst of our loving that we recognize and welcome God’s loving. That God loved us so much as to become human and vulnerable in our midst. Messy, in our midst. Bold and loving, eating and drinking, teaching and weeping and proclaiming God’s good news of justice for the poor and healing for all. That even the brokenness and pain of death could not overcome Jesus’ love. God’s love is strong enough to meet us, weep with us, and promise healing, transformation and new life, even after the devastation of a massacre of God’s beloved people.We all share in this love; we are all called to proclaim this love. The abundant life God brings us here and now and far into the future is stronger than death.
We are part of bodies of broken people, we are part of broken systems. We are part of national churches that seek to proclaim God’s love and yet sometimes get stuck when the sin we think we see gets in the way of God’s promise and potential.
As a More Light church, you have committed to “choose to open our doors so that all may hear the good news and serve Jesus. We choose love over fear. We believe this is the path Jesus took.”
Do you see this woman? Do you see this woman who loves? I see her here. And here. And here.
Thanks be to God.
For those in Anchorage: Embracing those affected by the LGBT attacks in Orlando, Identity and Christians for Equality will hold a vigil at 5:30pm at First Presbyterian Church (616 W. 10th Avenue, Anchorage).
Please be good to yourself and gentle today. Find beauty. Create beauty. Love and see.