“For we have heard that God is with you”
David R. Weiss
Sermon for Westminster Presbyterian Church, Lakeland Florida, November 13, 2011
NOTE: I was invited to preach at this church, about 30 miles east of Tampa, in a very conservative area. They’re committed to being a welcoming congregation (“More Light” in the Presbyterian Church) but at times feel rather isolated in central Florida. The pastor asked me to bring a message that would remind them of the value of being welcoming, and she invited me to select two readings for the day. I chose Isaiah 56:3-8, where Isaiah proclaims God’s welcome foreigners and eunuchs and concludes with the declaration: “Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” And Luke 7:17-23, where John the Baptist hears from prison about Jesus’ deeds and sends disciples to ask Jesus if he is “the One,” to which Jesus replies, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”
My sermon message can be summed up in two sentences: (1) As a welcoming congregation here in central Florida you—Westminster Presbyterian Church—put living flesh on Isaiah’s words. (2) You also put on the lips of people in this area, the same hopeful question John’s disciples asked of Jesus in today’s gospel reading.
But since I know my story far better than yours, let me tell you a story about where my life crosses these texts and then invite you to see where your life crosses them as well.
We begin in St. Paul, Minnesota, in May 2001. It’s a bustling Sunday morning at my congregation, St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church. There’s excitement in the air. Last Saturday, just 8 days ago, we ordained a new pastor in a festive ceremony. Today we’re officially installing her as our pastor. It’s a happy day. But not entirely. I remember, as I walked from the parking lot to the church that day, seeing a mother—looking anguished and protective—hurrying her young son into the church building while he hugged his stuffed teddy bear fiercely, burying his face in the fur.
There is apprehension alongside excitement. You see, our church parking lot sits kitty-corner across the street from the church itself. And on this Sunday, stretched out in bright colors along the sidewalk as a strangely un-festive greeting for us, about a dozen protesters are parading their displeasure with us. They came from Kansas with signs on fluorescent poster board that greet us with phrases like: “Matthew Shepherd is burning in hell.” “No fags in heavens.” Your pastor is lying.” “AIDS is God’s cure for being gay.” And “God hates fags.” A particularly bright one has an image of two pigs in a pit of their own feces. The words say, “Pigs marry,” and one pig is labeled “Anita” for our pastor; the one “Janelle” for her partner. Now you understand that mother’s anguished, protective demeanor. Now you know why her child buried his face in his teddy bear’s fur. But to understand where I fit in this scene, we need to go back about 30 months further, to October 1998.
That puts me in northeast Iowa, in the small town of Decorah, home to Luther College, a liberal arts school with a strong Lutheran heritage. I’m the new kid on campus, a late-summer hire to teach Religion. I’ll turn 39, in a few months, so I’m not a “kid” by any means, but this is my first teaching position out of grad school. Pretty much I’m just happy to be here, excited to be teaching after a rather meandering vocational journey.
As a newcomer, I’m usually among the last to know about any significant happenings on campus. So I didn’t even learn there’d been anti-gay chalking at the start of Coming Out Week until after the sidewalks had already been scrubbed clean. And I was completely unaware of any controversy about the Coming Out Week speaker—a recently outed gay pastor from Ames, Iowa—until I got a note about it in my faculty mailbox. This typed message went to every member of the Religion Department. The anonymous authors deplored the fact that our department had co-sponsored this speaker and more or less demanded that we be clear in our classes about the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality.
I was new to this campus, but I was not new to this issue. I’ll say more about my journey as an Ally after lunch today. But in response to this anonymous note, I picked out one short but moving essay I’d written in graduate school as an Ally and I read it out loud in each of my three classes. Years before YouTube was around, my words went viral.
I was asked to speak at a campus teach-in a couple weeks later. I pulled out another essay from grad school and presented it. Midway through that presentation, after reminding my listeners that the book of Isaiah announces that “God is doing a new thing,” I spoke these words: Think of Isaiah’s pronouncement (56:3-8) that foreigners and eunuchs, two classes expressly excluded from the Assembly of Israel by the same holiness code so often used to exclude gays, are now explicitly welcomed as full members of the community of God, as part of what Isaiah names as God’s agenda to “gather the outcasts of Israel, and to gather yet others besides those already gathered.”
I’m a pretty shy person; I don’t go looking for attention. But after that talk I got it. Lesbian and gay students sought me out. They were hungry—starved, really—to learn about the God Isaiah proclaimed. They heard his words from inside their own lives. Scholars tell us that these words of Isaiah date from a time in Israel’s history when a fear of otherness led to at least two rounds of “ethnic purges” throughout the land. Every inter-ethnic marriage was dissolved. Foreigners were forcibly separated from God’s people. Along with any children from these mixed marriages, they were cast out, driven into the wilderness. It was a time when starting a family, or building a life together with the wrong type of person was sufficient to get you cut off from the community.
These gay and lesbian Luther College students knew that threat in their own families … and in their own churches. So Isaiah’s talk about a God who welcomes foreigners and even eunuchs—and especially his declaration of God’s intent to gather all the outcasts, even those not yet gathered—this was good news to them.
A year later I embarked with some of these same students on an amazing journey, teaching a college course on GLBT Voices in Theology. We read theology written by trained theologians whose lives—and theology—were shaped by their lived experience as LGBT persons. I helped them wade into the theological language and they helped me understand the lived experience. Along the way we heard about this Lutheran church three hours north of Decorah that was considering ordaining a lesbian woman in a committed relationship. They were weighing whether to break Lutheran church law in order to enact Isaiah’s words today. My students were not unlike John the Baptist in our text today. They heard all these things at a distance and could only wonder: “Is it really true? Did such a church exist now, or did they need to wait for another? I, on the other hand, was more like the disciples sent by John. I knew this congregation first hand. On weekends, when I was visiting my fiancée, Margaret, up in St. Paul we attended this congregation together. In fact, we joined St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church just in time to participate in their historic vote to call and ordain Anita Hill.
So in the fall of 2000 I brought word back to my students, and I told them what I had seen and heard: gay men and lesbian women worship openly together; their unions are blessed and they raise their children in faith; transgender women come forward to receive communion; many whose faith was dead know new life—and in many other ways the poor have good news brought to them.”
The following spring I witnessed a messianic moment, a day dripping with oil as it were, anointed by God. Our congregation borrowed a larger church for the ordination ceremony, certain that our 200-seat sanctuary would be too small. And on April 28, 2001 I joined with over 1000 people for the ordination. The entrance procession was included over 100 robed clergy of many denominations joining us in solidarity on this extraordinary occasion. It was a day of unparalleled celebration.
And then the very next day the fax from Fred Phelps arrived. The preacher from Kansas who gained notoriety for the mocking pickets carried at Matthew Shepherd’s funeral was coming to St. Paul to picket on the coming Sunday when we would install Anita as our pastor.
When I reported this to my students back at Luther there was an outcry of concern. “What can we do to let them know they are not alone? Over a few frantic days plans were. We drafted a letter of solidarity and support and collected over 450 signatures. But even more than this, on Sunday morning May 6, 2001, thirty college kids rolled out of bed between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m. to board three college vans for the 3-hour drive to St. Paul to worship alongside this congregation that no one except me had ever even visited before.
We arrived to see the ugly pickets on the sidewalk and to watch that mother rush her child inside. Once we entered the church, we formed an impromptu choir and sang several hymns, bringing a measure of calm inside the building as people gathered for worship knowing the ugliness outside. At the beginning of the service we presented our letter of solidarity to the congregation. We also presented a large 3’ by 5’ poster painted by one of my students who was an art major. It featured Anita’s bright red ordination stole, entwined by a green vine bursting with colorful blossoms. And in the middle were the words of a single Bible verse—Zechariah 8:23—“We have heard that God is with you, and so we wish to share in your destiny.”
That Sunday those students gave a priceless gift of their presence to that congregation—acting in gratitude for the priceless gift of hope they had received from that congregation, whose actions put flesh on their witness to God’s welcome. It was mutually unexpected grace. Perhaps nobody except God saw it coming.
But I saw it happen. With my own eyes. In my life Isaiah’s words are not 2700 years old. They are my experience yesterday, today, and tomorrow. In my students’ lives John’s longing question for Jesus is not 2100 years old. It is as new and fresh AND AS URGENT as each LGBT person who comes out to family and faith community in fear and trembling.
So this morning, as we gather here in central Florida, I want you to remember that the witness of what we do matters so much more than we know. Because God is still hoping that Isaiah’s declaration of a welcoming God finds echoes here and now—and in your congregation that echo happens. And God is still hoping to hear people ask (as did John’s disciples) with hungry wonder: “Is it true? Is the place here and is the day now, when all God’s children are welcomed home?” And in your affirmation of LGBT persons in all their fullness you say to them, “Yes. Here. Yes. Now.”
My friends, never, never, never underestimate the power of your witness. Surely there are already in your midst some whose presence with you is the embodied echo of Zechariah 8:23. “We have heard that God is with you, and so we wish to share in your destiny.” May it be so. AMEN.
© 2011 David R. Weiss
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace, David lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and is a self-employed speaker and writer on the intersection of sexuality & spirituality. You can reach him at email@example.com and read more at https://tothetune.wordpress.com.