14F is a sure success now, but the PC(USA) is nowhere near done struggling with what gay marriage means to the Church. This meditation is a new way to think about that conflict. About where the hurt is, why it’s there, what to do to help it, and what it is to be a queer Christian.
Listen to the audio here of when it was delivered during worship, or read the full transcript below.
Katherine Davoli is a neuroscientist and lay member of Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh where she co-chairs the More Light Committee. She identifies as a genderqueer lesbian and follower of Christ.
HEBREW SCRIPTURES READING: is from Genesis 32: v22-32 and 33: v1-4.
The GOSPEL READING assigned for today is from John Chapter 15 Verses 9-17
MEDITATION: STOLEN BLESSINGS
We had ONE JOB
What part of “love one another” didn’t we understand?
There’s no caveat there. No subclause. No loophole. Loving your neighbor means loving your homeless neighbor, your Muslim neighbor, your black neighbor, your gay neighbor, your immigrant neighbor, your Jewish neighbor, your Christian neighbor (no matter how difficult they might be….), your atheist neighbor, your disabled neighbor, your addicted neighbor, your neighbor next door, your neighbor halfway around the world.
Jesus said a lot of things during his ministry. He had plenty of proclamations. A healthy dose of of prophecy. A few condemnations and lots of helpful suggestions for how to live. He had plenty of “should”s but he had only ONE commandment. One “must”. And this is it. Love one another as Christ has loved us. And yes that means everyone.
If you leave now, you can just catch the opening pitch of the Pirates game, Peter knows the way there, follow him. You already got the take-home message.
But if you want the 201 lesson, stick around.
Love one another … Ok… I mean, we understand, right, that we live in a civilized society where we have to get along with people we don’t like. We know we have to tolerate people who have drastically different values systems from us.
The problem is that this is not the gospel of tolerance. This commandment doesn’t adjure us to “get along”. Jesus commands us to love one another. The “lay down your life down for” each other level of love. Even for your enemies. And that is hard. But it’s a genuine commandment, which means we don’t get to give up just because it’s hard.
And if you think loving your enemies is hard? Try loving your brother.
The Presbyterian Church USA has undergone some changes over the past year. In an effort to live out Christ’s commandment to us to love one another. Shortly, our constitution will be amended to allow individual churches the option to perform gay marriages. Hallelujah! Thank God. Not every presbytery has voted yet on the amendment, but a majority was reached in late March, and we’re at 98 presbyteries and counting now, so it will happen. Our Presbytery votes on Thursday.
To us at Sixth, the approval of the amendment came as great news. We rejoiced. We rendered glad songs of celebration, for God has done marvelous things.
Our congregation has seen this issue as one of social justice; of living more fully into Jesus’ commandment to love one another. Of course we want to perform gay marriages here. Why would we deny our congregants any of God’s blessings simply for living authentically for how God made us to be? We wouldn’t want to deny it; it doesn’t make sense.
To us, this amendment is about recognizing that blessings flow from God, and that we can actively choose to bestow them. It is a very Christian move. But it has caused no end of strife in the denomination.
Congregations have left the sect already simply for being given the *option* to perform same-sex marriage. Brighton Presbyterian in Rochester was the first to take its ball and go home in late March, and more are following. Brighton’s exit letter states, “We believe that Scripture’s meaning and intent should not be altered to fit a current culture.”
The National Black Church Initiative has severed ties with the PCUSA, pulling away its 34,000 congregations directly as a result of this change. I’m quoting here, “The NBCI resolved to break from the denomination for succumbing to cultural pressures rather than adhering to biblical teachings. By voting to redefine marriage,” they said, “PC(USA) automatically forfeits Christ’s saving grace.” and they “urge all of Christendom to sever ties” with us also.
The Presbyterian Lay Committee issued a statement with similar language. It has form letters you can send to your session, or your that session can send to its Presbytery, decrying the amendment and calling it “an accommodation to a cultural trend that is
contrary to God’s revealed will,” and exhorts you to “repudiate the actions of the 221st General Assembly…”
A little over a month ago, Four churches in Missouri (presumably four who came down in favor of the amendment) were mailed death threats. The letters say, “Any church that accepts this action, should be burned to the ground.”
Of course, this sentiment is not limited to Presbyterians. Just this week, The Ten Commandments Church of Midgeville Georgia changed their marquee to read, “Homosexuality is a death worthy crime”. To which I DESPERATELY want to append the words, “said no Jesus ever.”
The whole country is examining this issue right now. The Supreme court heard arguments last week about the role of government in the civil side of gay marriages, and it seems like everyone is talking about it. Across the dinner table. On social media. On the news and on talk shows.
Good. It’s worth talking about.
When I actually ask folks about the conflict, about why they feel so strongly that the PC(USA) should not perform gay marriages, they overwhelmingly use the language of grief when discussing what’s happening.
Listening, and reading through statements, it is clear that the strife isn’t one over intellectual divergence over conflicting principled theologies (strict readings of the scriptures vs. liberal ones). Do not be deceived. If that were so, we’d be seeing many more calls for stoning those blasphemers who dare to wear cotton with linen. The abomination that is polyester would have no place in our society. No. This is about family and righteousness. About entitlement and inheritance.
One person says, “I feel like I’ve lost my home. No matter how hard we try to keep the tent as big as possible, this is a wedge that is going to drive the church apart,”.
“What … what happened?” says another.
“My denomination is going to hell in a handbasket,” says another, “and I’m watching it happen!”
They feel the deliberative process was hijacked by the sinful culture in which we live, and the church — something that belonged to my brother — was stolen. My brother’s church, his tradition, his blessing is becoming worthless because it is part of a trend of capitulation to a cultural authority.
Meaning me. That I, a gay Christian, went in there with my agenda and stole something precious of his away. I stole it.
And to understand why that feeling is there, we need to take a look at our denomination’s recent history. Because to my grieving brother churches, this is just the latest in a series of thefts.
First we stole a seat in the pews with the onset of the More Light Movement in the late nineties. Very suddenly, we not only came out as gay by twos and threes, but didn’t then exit the building never to return. We insisted that we stay without repenting.
Then we stole a place at the pulpits in 2010 with a constitutional change allowing ordination of gay leaders. And now we’re clamoring for the altar. Gay marriage is just the latest and last straw.
To them, that we’re having this debate at all is offensive. They wonder that we have the audacity having already wrestled the tradition to the ground, we have the temerity the absolute cheek, to then demand a blessing.
How dare we.
How dare we.
Haven’t they given enough already in the name of the big tent? Couldn’t we have given them time to get used to the idea? Couldn’t we blend in a bit? Couldn’t we have just sat patiently in the back pew while the denomination focused its efforts on the areas of mission it agreed on?
No. We couldn’t. Christ as my witness we could not.
This is not a minor issue. It is the center of our faith. Christ came to bring the good news of God’s grace. That God’s blessings are gifts. That they are not countable; not coinage. Not something you can steal! The news is even better than that, A blessing from God isn’t something you can acquire by association either. Not something you can inherit or earn or deserve. But an impossibly gracious gift.
The heart of the More Light movement is the Christ-centered belief that bathing in the blessings of God is not uniquely the province of the certain. Or of the righteous.
And nobody knows that better than Jacob. Fellow queer Christians, we have found our patron saint. And he’s in the old testament. Let me show you what I mean.
We don’t know a lot of the context of Jacob’s situation in his family. But from what little is there in the text, it seems like Jacob was born to be second fiddle. He enters the world clutching at his twin brother’s heel — an omen that leads to him being named “Yacov” which means “the supplanter”. As they grow up Esau receives his father’s love, he’s an outdoorsey guy, hairy, buff, bit of a bear, loves hunting – while Jacob is a Mama’s boy. A homebody. A farmer. I have to wonder, was Jacob constantly the underdog? Constantly compared unfavorably to Esau? Living in his shadow?
In that culture, the first born got more of everything. More land, more love, more status, and the treasured innermost blessing — passed on from Abraham to Isaac, and soon to be passed from Isaac to his son. What will be left for Jacob?
Jacob isn’t interested in finding out. He extorts his brother’s birthright from him while Esau is starving, he buys it from him for a bowl of soup. That’s not fair! Then he swindles the innermost blessing out of their father. By (and this should sound familiar) pretending to be who his Father wanted him to be. Pretending to be someone that he is not. He steals Esau’s blessing away. That’s not fair!
We can’t explain this behavior away as divinely commanded disobedience, either. It’s not God who tells Jacob to supplant his brother out of his inheritance by tricking his blind old father into blessing Jacob instead. It’s not God who tells him to flee for Esau is coming to kill him. It’s his mom. Rebekah is the mastermind here. The first woman to choose her own spouse and these children are the fruit of that union. She loves Jacob and wants him to enjoy the fullness of God’s plans for his legacy. But this whole time Jacob himself has had zero encounters with God. Not one conversation. God doesn’t have two words for Jacob until later when he leaves home, and rests his head at Bethel, dreaming of the ladder. Jacob has to leave home to connect with this God from whom all blessings until now had flown to Esau.
But why should Jacob get any blessings? He behaved reprehensibly. He was second born. He’s a Mamma’s boy. Jacob isn’t playing by the rules. What he does is not fair.
To make matters worse, Isaac will not undo the blessing he put on Jacob, despite acknowledging that he was tricked into giving it. He doesn’t “have another one to give” to Esau. Perhaps Isaac intuitively understands that blessings aren’t his to generate, just his to bestow.
Worst of all, God doesn’t condemn this behavior! Jacob gets to keep his blessings.
Everyone in the story acknowledges that Jacob’s blessings are stolen. But to everyone in the story, even that stolen blessing counts!
So Jacob leaves Canaan in fear for his life. He crosses the Jordan with nothing but his walking stick. He goes to live with his Uncle Laban and there — out from the Shadow of Esau — he prospers. He forms a relationship with God. He grows his family. Becomes wealthy. He lives into that blessing reaping its benefits. Canaan is looking less and less like the promised land.
How many of us were cast out from our church families for being gay? How many of us were tempted to stay in the new land we found? In another church that is more accepting, or at least less actively hateful, or another denomination? Still more of us left off our relationships with Christ altogether. It is so tempting to just go make our own nation elsewhere, where it’s no big brothers allowed.
It’s what our brother wants us to do. It would be a safe place to live.
But God does not let Jacob alone in comfortable exile. God appears to him in a dream and tells him, “Go. Return to the land of your fathers and kindred. And I will be with you.”
So Jacob goes. He goes with serious misgivings. Last time he dealt with his brother, Esau was plotting Jacob’s death.
The call to love one another often gets appropriated by the powerful into calls for complacency. Just be nice. Be good. Preserve the communion. Get along. Big tent. But the commandment to love one another is terrifying at heart. If the church is like a family, then it can be just as abusive and harmful as any family member can be. Asking me who survived the hate and hostility once to come back to treat with my abusive church bowing low seven times, sending ahead gifts for my brother. That is asking a lot.
They still think of us as supplanters. As second fiddles. As thorns, to be tolerated at best, or as souls to be re-educated or sheep to be sacrificed to a jealous God at worst. Worthy of death.
Love my brother? How do you do that? How can I be reconciled to the one who is actively trying to kill me? How can I love him?
If it were anybody but Jesus asking me to do it, I would think he had no idea what he was asking.
But this is Jesus.
Jesus on the cross.
Jesus who gave this commandment on the night he was betrayed.
SoIknowithastobeme.Ithastobewe.Wehavetodothat. Thewinnersinthe debate. The victors. We have to make the first move. We have to start the process of reconciliation. We have to return to our brother in Canaan, and somehow we have to do it in a way that doesn’t involve us giving up who we are in the process. It is clear from the bible that God does not intend for us to live apart however prosperously.
But we can’t go back to how we lived before, and pretend everything is fine. We aren’t bodies who can be tolerated in order to fill some diversity quota in the pews, content to wallow in self-pity for the crime of loving one another. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend my life ashamed of coming into my birthright.
Before the wrestling. Before Jacob crosses back over the river he stands at the ford at night and he prays. He says,
“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your homeland and to your family, and I will do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for back then I crossed this Jordan with only my staff; and now I have so much I have become two companies. 11 Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. 12 Yet you have said, ‘I am with you. I will surely do you good…’”
Friends. Jacob’s God is with him. The God of his fathers, the God of his brother, is Jacob’s God too, and promises to be with us. Through the river. Through the wrestling. Through to Canann, if we but set our feet on the path toward reconciliation.
And the first step on that path is to live into our blessing. To occupy the pews in this church, to lead as Elders and Deacons, and to make a great nation out of what was the rejected son. To rejoice without shame in our love for one another finding comfort in the knowledge that what God joins together, no one can sunder.
The first step on that path is realizing who you are.
And so I say to you today,
Fellow queer Christians in the pews and in the pulpits,
Parading in the streets and trembling in the closets,
Come to the Altar! Receive your blessing. The Transformation God has changed your name!
You are no longer the supplanters, who uproot all things holy. But Israel. A people who wrestle with God and with humans and do not die.
People of Israel, know that you are blessed.
That because Almighty God is great, even those so bereft of blessings they feel they have to steal one will prosper.
People of Israel! God is with you in your exile and does not want for you to remain there. But will guide your path and return you to your family, your home, your church. With blessings to spare.
People of Israel! Look! Your brother comes. The Resurrection God has turned him around already.
People of Israel! Welcome home. Amen.