Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a ; Psalm 121 ; Romans 4:1-5,13-17 ; John 3:1-17
Preached at Ebenezer Lutheran Church (Chicago, IL) on Sunday, February 17 on the occasion of their conversations regarding amending their constitution to allow for calling non-ELCA rostered clergy and extending marriage to same-gender couples.
Grace and peace be with you my brothers and sisters in the name of Jesus Christ, who calls us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Amen.
It is very good to be with you this morning and to be a part of your assembly’s conversations about bringing your constitution into line with your values and commitment to justice and full-inclusion for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. I was very happy to be asked to come participate in, and to some extent facilitate, the conversations you’ve been having here this weekend – yesterday morning and then again before worship this morning.
What has been most gratifying for me to see is the extent to which your conversation about changing your constitution to allow for calling clergy not-rostered by the ELCA – clergy like me, who have been told that we are unfit to proclaim the gospel or administer the sacraments because of our sexual orientation or gender identity – has been a matter of course. This has something to do with your excellent leadership and your two pastors’ commitments to issues of reconciliation with justice on matters ranging from peace in the Middle East to racial and ethnic justice to full inclusion for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. But you, people of Ebenezer, get most of the credit – after all, you called these two, and it is clear to me after this weekend that you are a people called out by God to walk the long road of blessing.
Now, because you are an assembly with deep roots in the struggle for full inclusion, and since you have two profoundly gifted pastors providing leadership and vision to you along the way, and knowing that your congregation holds an embarrassment of riches – including a wealth of trained preachers and an empowered, motivated laity – I had to ask myself, “what can I possibly offer this community that could be of help to them as they continue journeying together faithfully on the gospel road?”
My answer to that question is this: I can offer you Walt Whitman and Hairspray: The Musical. And that, brothers and sisters, makes this a big, gay sermon.
Now I expect that in plenty of pulpits throughout the church this morning pastors are struggling with Nicodemus’ question to Jesus from the gospel of John, “How can anyone be born after growing old?” In fact, my hunch is that Pastor Carla is dealing with that very topic right now over at St. Luke’s where, this morning, we are baptizing into the faith one Elsa Rose Westover. Jesus’ answer to the question speaks of being born again through water and the spirit. It’s a text we understand to be about baptism – that rite by which God draws us together and makes us into one body, one family, a great nation. The lectionary pairs this gospel text with a portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans where the apostle describes the terms by which we participate in God’s family – which are not acts of righteousness or adherence to the law (or in today’s case I suppose we might say have nothing to do with cleaving to our constitutions), but instead rest on promises God made to us and which we walk toward in faith.
The promises of God, and the long road of blessing, are what I want to spend just a little time on today. That requires us to go back to the very brief lesson from Genesis.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those that bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
As I was studying that text I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of my favorite stanza of one of my favorite poems, by my favorite poet: Walt Whitman. That is the fifth stanza of his famous Song of the Open Road. He writes:
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.
Do you hear the echoes of Genesis in there? The song of the open road is the song of the venture of which we cannot see the ending, the journey by which God is blessing us through one another and making of us one body, a family, a great nation. But in order to go on this journey you must first ordain yourself loosed of limits and imaginary lines.
You can imagine that it means something very powerful to say the words “I ordain myself” in the context of a denomination that refused to ordain me, that continues to refuse the gifts of so many of those whom God has called. But, while that is the specific injury that you seek to address with your constitutional amendment, the ordination that you as a community are taking upon yourselves is a much larger one. The word ordain, stripped of its religious significance, means “to order” or “to appoint,” and this is what you are proposing to do: to re-order yourselves so that your constitution, the document that describes your vision of yourselves and how you intend to live with integrity into that vision, tells the truth about your values and commitments. You are ordering yourself, or re-ordering yourself, so that your public documents match the reality of your journey with one another along the long road of blessing – because the reality is that the changes you’re talking about making aren’t really anything new, they’re putting on paper decisions that you’ve been making over and over in one way or another for years now – whether that’s the decision to open your last call process to what is now Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, or more recently your attempt to call Erik Haaland, a deeply gifted, openly gay, and blessedly partnered pastor to serve among you. Changing your constitution now is really a matter of saying publicly what you’ve been doing for years. A bit like coming out. You are re-ordering yourselves, ordaining yourselves loosed of imaginary lines.
That said, I’m perfectly able to acknowledge that this may be a little bit scary. It may feel like leaving the territory marked by the familiar and the well known. You may feel as Abram must have felt when the Lord God said to him and Sarai, “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” I suppose some of you may even be wondering, “if we do this, are we leaving our denomination behind?”
On the most basic level we have to say we don’t know. We can’t know in advance what it will mean t
o ordain ourselves loosed of limits and imaginary lines. We can’t know who will come with us on the open road, and who will stay behind. But on another level, in the longer view, looking back from the future I have to say that I think when we are telling the story of the long road of blessing it will not be said that you were leaving the denomination behind, but that you were leading the people of God ahead.
The Lord says to Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you… so that you will be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-4a)
Look at yourselves. Look at the collection of families you already represent. Look at the marvelous diversity of families among you – the beauty of the ways that you have configured yourselves in love. Look at how you are loving each other. You are a living sign of the power of God to bless. You are a blessing to me, a sign of hope for the future. You are a blessing to the church, to the body of Christ and the nation of God – a nation without borders. I have no doubt that in you, and through you, the families of earth are being blessed. You are a signpost, a blaze along the trail of the long road of blessing. But, for all the progress forward that you represent we know that we’ve still got so far to go.
Do you feel it coming? It’s time for the musical theater moment I promised you – or, in the immortal words of Ms. Motormouth Mabel from Hairspray: The Musical, “it’s time to wrap this mutha’ up!” Hairspray: The Musical, based on the John Waters film by the same name from the 80s, is set in the 1960s. It’s a story about desegregation in Baltimore, but at its core it’s about people who are different – which honestly is all of us, right? – people whose time has come. The message of the show is laid out in its plainest form in the show-stopping finale, a number called “You Can’t Stop the Beat” – a slow building crescendo that builds through repetition, like Ravel’s “Bolero” to an irresistible affirmation that the world is, indeed, being healed – being reconciled. The characters come together at the end of this show to affirm that the time for segregation in our cities, in our neighborhoods, and we might add in our church, is over – that the world is moving on, is marching to the beat of a different drummer, and that you can’t stop the beat. They sing:
You can’t stop today
As it comes speeding down the track
Child, yesterday is hist’ry
And it’s never coming back
‘Cause tomorrow is a brand new day
And it don’t know white from black
‘Cause the world keeps spinning
‘Round and ’round
And my heart’s keeping time
To the speed of sound
I was lost til i heard the drums
Then i found my way
‘Cause you can’t stop the beat
Ever since this old world began, since God called Abram and Sarai to leave the comforts of familiar, but ultimately imaginary lines of separation behind, the story of God’s people is the story of the long road of blessing. It is God’s story, and it’s not going to stop or slow down on account of us, but it will recruit us to its cause and it will scatter us among each other along the way. We will discover that together we are larger, better than we thought. In us all the families of the earth shall be blessed. How does Uncle Walt put it? “Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me / whoever accepts me, he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.”
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.