Paying it Forward

Paying it Forward: My Journey as an Ally into the Welcoming Story of Scripture
David R. Weiss – Journey of Faith, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ – November 3, 2021

NOTE: You can download a PDF of this talk here. You can watch a VIDEO of the talk here. (The video is pretty “raw” – that is, it’s simply the audio & video picked up by my laptop for a Zoom feed for those watching online in addition to those in the room. And, I of course, squirm a bit watching myself speak. But if you’d like to hear it and see it, it’s here.)

I was born into a German Lutheran family almost 62 years ago … early on Christmas morning. Named David because Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the City of David. I attended church every Sunday of my childhood unless I was sick. We said table grace every night before mealtime—even when we dined out at a restaurant. I attended a Lutheran Day School from first grade through eighth grade. After four years in a public high school, I headed to Wartburg College, where I studied psychology, sociology, and religion. After that I attended Wartburg Seminary where I completed a master’s degree in Theology and later on the University of Notre Dame, where I completed a second master’s degree, this one in Christian Ethics. From 1997 to 2017 I taught religion at Notre Dame, Luther College, Augsburg, St. Kate’s, and Hamline—all church-related schools.

During those same twenty years I came to work relentlessly, writing, organizing, and speaking locally and nationally to urge people of faith and communities of faith to becoming fully welcoming to LGBTQ persons. I taught a college course on LGBT Voices in Theology. Published a collection of my essays. Wrote and recorded more than a dozen hymn texts that celebrate welcome. I was ALL IN as an Ally.

Still, growing up my life was steeped in traditional Christian faith, active church involvement … and a solidly heterosexual identity. So how did this come about?

Well, my journey begins in the heart. In my own youthful hunger to pray.

As a fifth-grader with an uncomfortably precocious spirituality, I yearned for a nearness to God that nothing in my reserved German-American-Lutheran upbringing was able to provide. But I was blessed with a fifth grade Sunday School teacher named Dale. He opened our classes, usually amid the rampant chaos of about-to-be adolescents, with prayer. Prayer that breathed nearness.

When Dale prayed he set aside all the formal piety used in the prayers I recited from the hymnal. He launched into prayer like a cannonball dive into a swimming pool. He prayed with passion. Not made-up excitement, but authentic in-your-gut passion. He spoke to a God who was palpably real, palpably present. A God I wanted to know. I still pray the way Dale modeled for me.

When Dale left to attend seminary, I knew he’d make a great pastor. But the next year, with no explanation, he was back running his parents’ pet shop. I worked for him there during my high school years. Eventually I learned one of his classmates had outed him as gay to seminary administrators—who told him not to return for his second year of seminary. He was broken-hearted but too ashamed to tell his family or others at church. He carried his hurt in agonized silence.

Once I learned Dale was gay, I realized that his posture of prayer was hard-won. His seemingly casual confidence in God’s presence was never taken for granted. And although it faltered and faded in later years, that wasn’t because of weakness on Dale’s part; it was because of the relentless lack of good news in the church’s response to him.

My journey begins in the heart. In my own longing for authentic faith and vocation.

After college I went to seminary myself. I didn’t feel a call to be a pastor, but I knew I wanted to know more about God. I learned a lot in my seminary classes. I learned even more in my friendships.

While in college I’d prided myself on learning all manner of Lutheran doctrine. In seminary my faith … shifted; it left my head and moved … out into my limbs. I became invested in “doing,” rather than believing. In living compassion, rather than just knowing theology.

Amid this shift, I became friends with half a dozen gay and lesbian seminary students whose lives were a living dilemma. They felt called to be pastors. But they knew the only way they could do that was by being less than truthful about who they were to their professors and eventually to their parishes. These were the classmates whose faith seemed most alive to me. They had every reason not to be there. Back then, Lutheran seminaries pretty much put out the “Not Welcome” mat to gays and lesbians (and they couldn’t even imagine bisexual or transgender persons coming their way). But something stronger than that lack of welcome pulled them to seminary.

In their close company, often outside of the classroom, I wrestled with what it meant to live compassion. I still loved theology, but now less for its doctrinal claims than for its potential to be a passionate voice for justice and its capacity to produce compassion not as a token response in a given moment but as a whole way of being in the world. And much of what I learned came from my circle of gay and lesbian friends.

I hadn’t yet sorted out all the biblical passages or the moral questions about homosexuality (bisexuality and trans weren’t on my radar back then). But by age 23 I had met the people themselves (many times over), and I had found them bright, warm, funny, compassionate, gracious, and committed to serving the same God I longed to serve. They had nurtured my faith and kept me company on my own vocational journey. How could I not join them on theirs?

My journey begins in the heart. In anguish and anger.

After seminary, I spent several years working in warehouses and restaurant kitchens. It was good work, but it was far from vocation for me. Eventually I went back to graduate school, at Notre Dame where I studied Christian Ethics. There I wrestled directly with the biblical, theological, and moral questions related to sexuality using my intellect, but the journey continued in my heart as well. 

A couple years into my graduate work at Notre Dame, just 30 miles from my hometown, my mom called to tell me Dale had suffered a massive stroke. Only 46 years old, his body gave out after years of trying to ease the spiritual anguish of a ruptured vocation through excessive drink and food.

Dale never recovered. He just lingered, half-dead, for nearly 30 months. Paralyzed on the left side of his body, he never walked again. I visited him twice a month in the nursing home. Some days we talked. Some days his speech was so slurred I could only nod and hope to guess his meaning. In the spring of 1996, Dale grew tired of lingering. He said he knew he wasn’t going to live much longer. And he asked me—the man who chose not to be a pastor—to preach at his funeral. I hesitated, but he insisted through lips that had long ago refused to cooperate with clarity, “Because David, you know me. You know who I am. You preach.” So I did.

Dale had never come out to his family. To them he was still the gifted kid who somehow lost his way and inexplicably drank himself to death. They never knew how wounded he was or why. In the same room, listening to the same sermon, were Dale’s friends. They knew he was gay—and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t left the church that caused him so much torment before it killed him. Somehow I found words of comfort, grace, and hope for those who gathered to mourn his death.

The long months at Dale’s bedside changed me forever. I never spoke these words out loud in my sermon, but through my tears that day I promised myself to never miss an opportunity to speak a word of comfort, grace, and hope to a gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender person. Not ever.

None of this—from those first Sunday School prayers to the seminary friendships to the bedside vigil—none of it made the Bible irrelevant. Rather, it sent me to the Bible with questions that were far from abstract or hypothetical. They were questions with faces and names. Questions marked by real lives—and, in Dale’s case, by real death.

But don’t tell me I came to the Bible with an “agenda.” I came with anguish. With hunger. With hope. With the very stuff that life is made of. And if you think about it—if you’re honest—that’s how every spiritual pilgrimage begins, even the biblical ones.

Think of Abraham and Sarah moving across endless sand dunes—going up … and then back down a mountain with a child intended for sacrifice. Or Joseph, thrown from a pampered life into a deep pit and then sold into slavery before rising to power in Egypt. Remember Moses and Miriam leading their people out of Egypt into freedom, but also into more unknown territory than they could possibly fathom.

Recall Ruth and Naomi, women and widows in a time when it was barely safe to be the first and rarely safe to be the second. Think of David, the shepherd king, runt of the family, anointed to power, fleeing for his life, taking the throne, and then watching his dynasty unravel due to his own tumultuous testosterone.

Consider Mary, transfixed between angelic promises and watching the tortured death of that promised child on a tree. Or Mary Magdalene, the female apostle, claimed by Jesus but envied by others and plagued ever after by rumors of her past. Think of Peter and Paul, these two head-strong but equally awkward leaders of the early church.

None of these folks took their cues solely from the Bible. They began with their lives. Their pain and their joy. Their hope and their fear. They began with their questions.And I began with mine.

Each journey—theirs, mine, and yours—begins in the heart, in the frightfully unpredictable, the ecstatically joyful, the tragically painful lived experience of life. And in this space God … and God’s word is our companion. Not as blueprint or map. Not as answer book. And surely not as the persistent threat of eternal judgment. Rather as a compass, a north star, a whisper of grace.

My journey took a momentous turn 25 years ago in February 1997. Ten months after Dale’s death. Well into my graduate studies at Notre Dame. And soon after starting to teach my own classes of college students.

Notre Dame wasn’t a friendly place for LGBT persons back then. The daily student newspaper carried mean-spirited tirades against homosexuality on a weekly basis. I cringed when I read them. But I was here to get a degree. I wasn’t Catholic, after all. Not really my argument to get into. It wasn’t my life on the line.

But now I was taking attendance in my classes. My students … kids just 18 or 19 years old … suddenly had faces and names. I never knew whether any of them were LGBT, but my first semester I had eighty students, and surely a couple of them matched up with one letter or another—and felt targeted by those weekly tirades. I felt myself move from an occasional cringe to chronic discomfort.

On February 20th, I read a poetic lament written by an anonymous senior. He wrote about coming to Notre Dame four years earlier knowing he was gay—and how he’d graduate in three more months—without having told a single person at school this truth of his life. His piece was titled “Living in fear,” and it told the fear that framed each day for him. His words were my burning bush. I couldn’t turn away. I had no idea who he was. Clearly not one of my students because I had only freshmen and sophomores. But his pain seared my soul. That night, re-reading his piece, I wept—sobbed—while I wrote into the wee hours of the next day.

I didn’t write an essay. I wrote a letter back to him. I titled it “Words offered at the end of the day to an unknown friend living in fear.” I wrote, “I see now that if God is silent in the face of your anguish, it’s only because I wouldn’t lend God the use of my words. Well, here they are.” And I went on to ransack the Bible for images of welcome and comfort. I wrestled with the Word of God the way Jacob wrestled with that angel, not as an enemy or adversary, but determined to wrestle … until I, too, received a blessing.

Two weeks later my response was published. Since then, I’ve written hundreds of pages about welcome, spoken to thousands of people. I already had very real names and faces for company on my journey up to that night, but it was the poignant anonymous anguish of a young man I never met, whose name I never learned, that marked a crucial moment in my journey.

I’d already studied the Bible with a sharp mind in college and seminary, years before I wrote those “Words offered at the end of the day.” I’d already learned a lot. But during my time at Notre Dame, particularly in seminars on the Hebrew prophets and the Gospels, I came to appreciate how C.S. Lewis describes Aslan, the lion who represents Jesus in the Narnia Chronicles: as “profoundly good—but hardly tame.”

I found the Hebrew prophets brimful and more with passion for justice. They declared a God whose commitment to liberation was not only disinterested in fanfare and ceremony but exploded in anger when devotion to ritual created the conditions for apathy, abuse, or injustice. The prophets loaned God their words to sound alarms in times of complacency and to spark hope in the depths of despair.

I met the Jesus whose parables sought to disorient those who heard them, precisely so they could hear new things. A man whose healing miracles again and again aimed to restore those marked as outcast by their infirmity to the community God longs for. And a man whose meals and whose fellowship obliterated the carefully constructed boundaries that sought to preserve a world shaped foremost by power and prejudice. I started using the phrase “kin-dom of God” in place of “kingdom of God” because it’s clear that for Jesus God’s reign IS the experience of becoming family.

Eventually, I had to deal with the six or seven Bible passages that seem at first glance to condemn homosexuality—the “texts of terror,” as they’re sometimes called. One way to approach them is through careful textual scholarship, looking at the historical and social contexts and the linguistic features. This makes it pretty clear these passages don’t speak to our contemporary experience.

I’ve written about how they really deal with behaviors like using anal rape to terrorize strangers in a territory or to humiliate vanquished soldiers, “reducing” them to women. Or temple prostitution, which used sexual ecstasy to “seal” the power of sacrifices. Or pederasty, where an adult man—usually married—used a prepubescent boy in a mix of one-way eroticism linked to power, status, and gender roles.

None of these behaviors are expressions of sexual orientation or identity. None of these texts have anything to say about committed and caring same-sex relationships.

Much as we might wish that the biblical writers had anticipated every question our world would present to us, they concerned themselves with the world they knew. This isn’t at all about a reluctance to take the Bible seriously. It’s about recognizing the Bible is far too complicated a book to presume that it speaks directly to issues today. It’s about showing real reverence to the text and real respect for the actual authors in their actual history.

But another—more life-giving—way I’ve come to meet Scripture is through the life of Jesus. Christians have called Jesus the Incarnate Word of God at least as long ago as John’s Gospel, likely even sooner than that. And in his life Jesus repeatedly re-frames the written biblical text, not to relativize it and not to dismiss it, but to refocus it on the same passion that the prophets showed: mercy and justice, and a large measure of gracious welcome. Finally, for us as Christians, Jesus’ life of radical, surprising, and unconditional welcome is the Text that claims our attention, our loyalty, and our hearts.

Reading the biblical story through this Text, this life, and with fresh attention to welcome and surprise, I began to see themes that were there all along that I never really noticed before. Consider that set of stars we know as the Big Dipper.

It’s just a human-imposed pattern. And there might well be a more interesting pattern in that part of the sky, but we’ve been taught to see the Big Dipper—and only the Big Dipper—for so long, that, even if we try, our eyes find it virtually impossible to see anything else in those stars.

Well, all my life no one had ever told me that there were dots in the biblical narrative that revealed the pattern of a scandalously welcoming God. But at long last my questions, my hunger, my anguish, and my learning, let me finally see this pattern that had been there all along. Listen to this rushing wind of images:

Abraham and Sara, a couple of nomads—and nobodies because they had neither land nor children—become the parents of a nation.

Isaac, their child of promise and laughter, nearly gets sacrificed in a misguided attempt by Abraham to prove his faithfulness to God, but instead walks down the mountain alongside his father, finally known as the laughing gift he was all along.

Jacob, Joseph, and David—all sons second-born or lower in a society where first-born sons got everything—each becomes the hope of their people. Indeed, when Samuel comes to anoint David to be king of Israel, his father, Jesse, first summons every older brother, certain that one of the other seven must be the one chosen by God. Only when pressed by Samuel, does Jesse send someone to get the runt of the family. Samuel anoints David, and his heart becomes the biblical standard of a king’s passion for God.

Rebekah, a woman with no voice in her culture, resets the course of history by helping Jacob gain an inheritance that seemed destined for Esau.

The Exodus is the great tale of liberation and love. A whole people of nobodies—slaves for whom “tomorrow” doesn’t even really exist—except as the continuation of today’s unending servitude—Godwelcomes a whole people of nobodies into freedom and community and tomorrow.

Naomi, despite being a woman and a widow, manages to secure safety and security not only for herself but for her foreign-born daughter-in-law as well.

And Ruth, this foreign-born daughter-in-law, a Moabite no less, a member of an entire people damned in the Bible—she becomes not only one of the greatest biblical model of faithfulness, but also the great grandmother of King David. She brings the bloodline of people condemned in the Bible into the royal lineage that runs through David and on down to Jesus.

The tale of Jonah has nothing to do with the size of the fish’s belly and everything to do with the size of God’s love, which Jonah discovers includes even his enemies. When he explains to God why he first refused to go to Nineveh, he says he was worried that the God he knew to be “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” would suddenly be these same things to those people—and he wanted that God all to himself and to his kind.

Isaiah declares that eunuchs—persons whose sexual anatomy, whether by birth or by violence, often left them marginalized, exploited, or altogether outcast—eunuchs had found God’s favor. He goes on to declare that the very goal of the God of Israel is to gather outcasts—and that God’s gathering is still far from complete.

The story of Jesus in the Gospels is more of the same—with the emphasis on “more.” Almost every category of questionable character or status makes an appearance in the gospels’ grand narrative of welcome. We see shepherds, wizards, barren women, bleeding women, lepers, demoniacs, all manner of persons with disabilities, tax collectors, revolutionaries, and more. The man is a magnet for every imaginable outcast person.

Like Samaritans. They make three significant cameo appearances in the gospel accounts.

When Jesus encounters a woman at the well and asks for a drink, she reacts with surprise, that this Jewish prophet would stoop so low as to seek water from a Samaritan. But a few verses later she becomes one of the first “apostles,” sent by Jesus and sharing the good news about him with her fellow villagers.

When Jesus heals ten lepers, nine—all of them Jews—are so happy to be cleansed of the disease that they go their own ways never returning to praise God or thank Jesus. Only one—a Samaritan—returns to do so.

And when Jesus tells the parable about the injured traveler lying alongside the road, he describes how both the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side. Their Temple duties forbid them to come in contact with anyone near death. So, while their actions strike us as callous, they’re really just following the orders of their occupation. But someone needs to aid the traveler, and the Samaritan—never named in the parable as the “Good Samaritan”—comes along and saves the day.

What’s at stake in these “Samaritan sightings”? Most of us have no idea, but in Jesus’ day these encounters were scandalous beyond measure … the result of animosity several centuries old.

Twice in Israel’s early history, great empires swept through and conquered them. Seven hundred years before Jesus the northern tribes were scattered by Assyria, eventually becoming, in fact, “the lost tribes of Israel.” One hundred fifty years later, the Southern tribe of Judah was carried off into Exile by Babylon. Both times the Bible tells us that “the poorest of the poor” were left behind. There were some Jews that these superpowers didn’t bother to scatter or deport. They were too poor, too illiterate, too unskilled, too worthless to worry about. Left behind, they lived up in the hill country of Israel, known as Samaria. Over the years they intermarried with refugees from other conquered nations, but they persevered in worshipping the God who had liberated and loved them generations before.

Decades later, their kinfolk returned from Exile to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. The descendants of these poorest Jews from the hill country came down, overjoyed to greet their long lost family and help them reclaim the land and rebuild the Temple. But they were scorned as half-breeds. They were told to get lost. They were regarded as illegitimate Jews—bastards, really—on account of sleeping with … and forming families with … the wrong type of people.

They were denied the name “Jew” and were instead called “Samaritans,” a term uttered by Jews with disgust. In Jesus’ day, Samaritans remained, without question, the single most despised category of people you could mention. And yet in one of his best-known parables, Jesus chooses an outcast Samaritan man to image the activity of God in the world.

So, in case you didn’t catch the point about Jesus’ ministry taking the promise of God’s faithfulness and the wideness of God’s welcome—already stretched widely in the Hebrew Scriptures—and stretched yet further by Jesus in his day …  In case you missed the parts where shepherds, wizards, barren women, bleeding women, lepers, demoniacs, all manner of persons with disabilities, tax collectors, revolutionaries, and more got included in the story …  Well, the Samaritan sightings come along like an italicized, underlined, bold print, brightly colored bit of text that says, NO MATTER WHO THE WORLD THINKS YOU ARE, YOU’RE WELCOME ALONGSIDE JESUS.

See, this isn’t just a minor theme hiding in the background. When you read the Bible, not literally, but seriously and reverently, moved by the messy stuff of life and aided by good scholarship, you discover that this is THE CENTRAL THEME OF THE BIBLICAL STORY. It’s called “grace,” but “grace” is just an abstract theological word until you put flesh on it. Clothe it with ethnicity and skin tone, with class and power, with gender and sexuality. To say that God deals in grace—in radical, absolute, unexpected, unconditional, and sometimes even unsettling welcome—that doesn’t mean much of anything until it means precisely “the people not like us.”

We see this in the tale of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. Peter has a rooftop vision in which God invites him to enjoy a feast of forbidden foods spread on a blanket. He declines to eat anything, assuring God he’s never eaten anything “ritually impure.” God responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” At first Peter doesn’t understand this isn’t about food; it’s about folks—people that are regarded ritually unclean. But a short while later, when he receives a request to go preach to Cornelius, a Gentile (and thus ritually unclean), he realizes his vision was really a call to see these unexpected people … as clean.

He accepts the invitation, goes to Cornelius’ home, and preaches to Cornelius and his entire household—all Gentiles: the men uncircumcised, the women and children ritually unclean in other ways. Every one of them falls outside the known bounds of God’s welcome. But before Peter even finishes his message, the Holy Spirit claims all these foreignersexactly asthey are (unclean by human standards, unclean even by biblical standards, but chosen as clean by a welcoming God)—and they’re carried away in a moment of holyecstasy. It’ll be decades before the rest of the church sorts it all out, but in that moment, Peter connects the dots and exclaims to the Jewish Christians who’d come with him, “How can we not welcome fully into our church those whom God has so clearly and fully welcomed already?”

Of course, the welcome to Gentiles is not exactly analogous to welcoming LGBTQ persons today … though I’d argue it’s pretty dang close when you get right down it. But this Acts 10 text relates even more closely to another contemporary group of people: ALL THE REST OF US.

Acts, chapter 10—in fact, the entire Book of Acts, and much of Paul’s writings, might be more aptly titled for us today, “Gentiles R Us.” Then maybe we’d remember that once upon a time, almost 2000 years ago, despite way more than a small handful of texts that specifically condemned everyone in this room simply for being Gentiles, WE—the distant but undeniable members of Cornelius’ household—WE were the ones offered an entirely unexpected welcome, first by God and then (after several decades of argument) by God’s church.

That’s why I title this talk “Paying it Forward.” Years ago, driven by questions, by friendships, by hunger, by anguish, I went looking for a God who welcomes others. And here’s the surprise: I discovered as well the God who welcomes ME.

The story of God’s surprising welcome is MY story, OUR story, too. Thus, to even ask whether we should pay it forward? How dare we not?! Welcome is the theme of the biblical tale from first to last! All manner of outsiders are unexpectedly brought in. Again and again and again and again—including in Acts 10: US.

The Bible carries in its narrative the tune of a welcoming God. Indeed, it holds the pounding rhythm of a welcome that is still widening today. If we attend to the stories of those most recently called into that welcome, LGBTQ persons or others for whom this welcome is still raw and real—we might remember that such Grace was once breathtakingly fresh for us as well.

“Paying it Forward” means remembering the grace of a welcome that always comes to each of us as quite a surprise—and without condition. In this remembering, how can we not be moved by joy to extend that welcome on to others today? Paying it forward. It’s not “the least we can do.” It’s the only thing we can do in response to Grace.

© 2021 David R. Weiss

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s