Delivered at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco, CA on Saturday, February 13, 2010 at “Rivers in the Desert” – the gala celebration of the 20th anniversary of the first extraordinary ordinations of openly LGBT persons in the Lutheran church in 1990.
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
First of all, on behalf of the Covenant Circle of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, its roster of clergy and seminarians, the congregations and ministries through which it serves the church and the world, the many faith-filled and hopeful people who volunteer their time and money to resource our many panels and grant committees and working groups, thank you for being here tonight and for giving so richly of yourselves to our shared ministry.
Secondly, on a more personal note, thank you for the invitation to speak tonight as we celebrate an event, the historic extraordinary ordinations that took place twenty years ago, that has done more to change the course of my own life than almost any other. This is a deep honor and privilege.
When I got the invitation to speak at this event, I was given the passage from Isaiah that became the rallying cry and the rationale for the extraordinary ordinations twenty years ago, “I am about to do a new thing,” along with the title of our gala, Rivers in the Desert, and was asked to address my remarks to the question: “How do the events of twenty years ago reveal God’s word in ELM’s ministry today?” My sense is that there was some hope that I would speak to the ways in which the work of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries and its predecessor bodies have been like rivers in the desert, a part of God’s sustaining presence for those living in places and times that seemed for us dry and barren of God’s grace. I may end up doing that, but I want to begin by talking about jackals and ostriches.
Isaiah’s vision of water in the wilderness is an amazing metaphor for so many things – it is a symbol of provision in places of lack; it is the promise of a seemingly impossible thing that will come to pass. But what strikes me about this passage is that those who will benefit from God’s desert river, those who are named first as offering back honor to God for the new thing, are the jackals and the ostriches.
My first thoughts about jackals and ostriches are not complimentary. Jackals are dirty scavengers who seem to have evolved to feed off the refuse of human settlements. Ostriches are large, ugly birds with a reputation for running from danger and hiding their heads in the sand when frightened. If we who are gathered here as part of the movement for full participation by people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the Lutheran church want to imagine that we have done our work in the wilderness, that we have been a part of that desert river, then I think we have be a little bit curious about the jackals and the ostriches.
Some research on both animals revealed to me my ignorance about these interesting creations of God. For example, when I think of jackals my mind conjures up images of packs of wild beasts roaming the desert and feeding off the remains of dead animals. But it turns out that the basic social unit of jackal society is the monogamous pair. Jackals create families with one another and raise their young together as a family, only banding together in large packs infrequently to scavenge a carcass. Like the wolves and the dogs they are closely related to, they are quite social and exhibit unexpected care and love for one another. Misunderstood as they are, the jackals have found a niche in the wilderness where their publicly-observable, life-long, monogamous (and occasionally same-sex) relationships provide the safety and stability they need in order to thrive.
Likewise, there is more to the ostrich than meets the eye. First of all, the ostriches Isaiah speaks of belong to a species that no longer exists, the Arabian ostrich, which was hunted out of existence by the mid-20th century. This extinct species was considered an unclean animal under Levitical law, and had a bad reputation with our Hebrew ancestors because, as the book of Job put it
“it leaves its eggs to the earth, and lets them be warmed on the ground, forgetting that a foot may crush them, and that a wild animal may trample them. It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own; though its labor should be in vain, yet it has no fear; because God has made it forget wisdom, and given it no share in understanding.” Job 39:14-17
But our ancestors were wrong about the now extinct Arabian ostrich, or at least they didn’t know how to make sense of its behavior. Although, yes, the mother ostrich was an unusual bird for leaving her eggs supposedly unprotected, the reality is that the shells of this creature’s eggs were extraordinarily thick, and able to shield off the attacks of predators even when they were left alone in the desert.
And, although in modern times we joke that ostriches bury their heads in the sand at the first sign of danger, that is a myth that seems to date back to the first century when a famous Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, wrote that ostriches “imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.” Job comments that the ostrich “has no fear, because God has made it forget wisdom;” but the truth seems to be that the ostrich, like young children playing peekaboo between the fingers of their hands, was not aware that its body was so much larger than its eyes could see.
Misunderstood as they were, the supposedly “unclean” Arabian ostriches found a niche in the wilderness where their thick-skinned children could thrive, never seeing, never knowing just how large their body truly was.
These are the creatures Isaiah names as the ones who give honor to God for water in the wilderness – the lovingly loyal and the thick-skinned, those creatures misunderstood by others and unable to see their own strength and size. And, this evening, what strikes me as particularly noteworthy about these creatures is that they had no desire to leave the wilderness. These creatures are not animal kingdom metaphors for the prophet Moses and his nation of Promised Land followers, always looking for the journey to finally be over. These are creatures who live lives of abundance in places where others saw only danger and lack. It was their home, and they gave honor to God for the water God gave them to drink, to bathe in. That sustenance, that cleansing, was good enough for them.
We pause tonight to give honor to God for the extraordinary events that took place in this city twenty years ago, ordinations that looked like rivers in the desert to people struggling to find evidence of God’s goodness in a church that had long excluded them and their friends and their children. We are aware that we are living in another extraordinary moment, when the church that forced the need for those events may finally be almost ready to be a part of th
e new thing that God always has in store for all of us, God’s everlasting opening of our hearts and minds and doors to those we think of as wild beasts or unclean animals.
But if you ask me how the events of twenty years ago reveal God’s word at work in ELM’s ministry today, I will have to say that those ordinations, and the ministries they inaugurated, and the communities they formed, and the movement they birthed, revealed that – in the reign of God – the jackals and the ostriches, no more or less than any other creature whom God has created, have a home in God’s world; that their habitat, no more or less than any other creature’s, is holy; and that God – who is the river in the desert, not us – is providing for all our needs, wherever our lives and our communities are planted, be that in the sanctuary or on the streets, inside the church or in the wild places of this world.
It is good to be where the wild things are tonight. Thank you.