1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Preached Oct. 12, 2005, at Chicago Theological Seminary
am grateful to President Thistlethwaite for the invitation to be with you
today - and to Dr. Haldeman and the LGBT students who worked with him on
the marvelous liturgy that is helping to guide us in worship. Everyone at
CTS has made me feel extravagantly welcome. And I am truly grateful.
Because I was denied ordination because I am gay, I don't get to preach
as often as I would like, so invitations like this one are precious -
and made all the more so because I am keenly aware of who you are, you
brave CTS students and faculty who set the progressive standard for the
Church in so many ways. It is a privilege to be with you.
I'm going to get around to talking about the greeting of Paul to the
church at Thessalonika, but I feel that in order to share effectively
with you some of what I've learned about this surprisingly radical pericope,
I should fill you in a little on who I am and how I came to stand before
you today. The folks at Thessalonika knew Paul, so he could get away with
challenging them, even in the introduction to his letter. If I'm going
to be that presumptuous with you, I want at least to buy a little authenticity
as a messenger by telling you part of my story.
When I was a kid and a young adult, all I ever wanted to be was a Methodist
When I heard the story of Samuel and Eli and God's call to Eli in the
night, I saw myself in his little bed.
When the preacher called out "Whom shall I send?" I felt the great lurch
in my chest that ended with words - "Here am I."
When on the Mount of Ascension Jesus said, "Go," I started walking.
I entered Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta
and became the student pastor on the weekends of the Uvalda United Methodist
Church down on the Altamaha River in South Georgia. There I met two amazing
men who, in that little wide spot in a narrow road, were living their
lives with integrity as out gay men.
They and their families came to me for pastoral advice. I handed them
Mollenkott and Scanzoni's Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? and ran just
as fast as I could from the conversation. I wanted nothing to do with
any situation that might make me slip up and tell my secret, and thus
jeopardize my ministry. My call was the most important thing in my life,
indeed it had come to define me. I didn't want to do anything to jeopardize
But those two courageous men, and their loving, courageous families,
stayed under my skin. Ultimately, the power of their witness, the strength
of the truth they told caused me to examine my own integrity.
At the same time, I was learning about the Hebrew Scriptures at Candler
- including the Holiness Code in Leviticus. The point of the rules laid
out there was not, in the final analysis, to control the lives of the
Israelites. The point God was making in Leviticus was that turning from
idol worship to a proper understanding of our relationship with the Creator
would make all of us, not just the Israelites, different people, with
different standards, based on devotion to God and not to the things of
I realized I had made an idol of my ministry. Not even ordained yet,
and I had made my sense of who I was and what I was supposed to do more
important than telling the truth. My ministry, whatever that was, was
demanding a sacrifice of my integrity and I had been piling up sticks
and leaves in order to incinerate my own truth.
So I left that little church, and the greater United Methodist Church
I loved, to tell the truth and to seek ordination in the United Church
of Christ. I transferred to a UCC school, Lancaster Theological Seminary
in Pennsylvania, and entered the in-care process in the Georgia-South
Carolina Association of the UCC.
Then I learned a lesson about the autonomy of organizations within the
UCC. The Church and Ministry Committee did fun things to me like scheduling
meetings without telling me when they would take place. I would call to
say, "Isn't it about time for me to see you all?" and the answer was "Yes,
the meeting is next Tuesday in Atlanta and you are required to attend."
So I would somehow get off from work on the night shift at the hospital,
put an $800 plane ticket on my student credit card, and head south - only
to find when I arrived that the committee didn't have a quorum and had
decided not to meet.
Finally, when I graduated, they had to make a decision and voted 3-2
not to ordain me. At least they had integrity in the end. They said I
had a good record in school and great recommendations, but they were not
willing to ordain a person who was gay. After two years in the care of
that committee, the three men who voted to end my ministry met me for
the first time that day. My intimate personal interaction with this nation's
most liberal, open-minded Christian denomination ended in the most devastating,
humiliating, spiritually death-dealing event of my life.
And then the student loans came due.
I had my integrity, by God, and that was about it.
But the story doesn't end there, though it ends soon, I promise - we're
going to talk about 1 Thessalonians 1 or die trying. I went to work for
the American Cancer Society and did wonderful work for a great cause and
learned an awful lot about how to run a non-profit organization. I helped
to found Georgia Equality, the statewide LGBT advocacy organization and
was its Executive Director for a number of years. I became the Program
Director at Freedom to Marry, the national coalition working to end marriage
discrimination. And now I am the Director of the new Religion and Faith
Program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
My life is more fun than grown people ought to have. I have been blessed
to be part of successful initiatives to pass LGBT-friendly legislation
in one of the most conservative states in the union - to get domestic
partnership benefits for employees at companies like Coca-Cola, BellSouth,
Delta Air Lines, and Cingular Wireless - and to help to achieve marriage
equality in Massachusetts. I have been part of things I could not possibly
have conceived on that dark day in 1989 when three men in Atlanta presumed
to pass negative judgment on the usefulness of gay folks to Christ's Church.
And my work has been a form of ministry.
So, that's who I am and where I come from as I open the Bible to look
at a passage of scripture and presume to tell you what I think about it
- hoping, always, that I am being true to myself and my experience while
also listening to the God who keeps revealing the unimaginable to me.
When Paul opens his little letter to the Thessalonian Church, he starts
out causing trouble. He's a radical and he can't help, right off the bat,
putting a powerful stake in the ground, establishing what is what and
Who is Who as context for all that follows. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the Church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus
Christ: Grace to you and peace. What? You don't think that's radical?
Do you think that's just church talk - Paul talk - formulaic letter greeting
talk? Don't you believe it.
Caesar was a masterful propagandist. With every public pronouncement
the people of the Roman Empire were reminded that they were part of the
Roman family and that Caesar was their father. It was Caesar the benevolent,
loving father who had brought them the new paved road - the Via Egnatia
- that had made Thessalonika a city, rather than just a town. But if he
was a kindly father, his was also the powerful visage on the idol at whose
worship services everyone was required to attend. Caesar was both father
Paul opens his letter with a salvo. It is designed in large part to
comfort people who have been paying a high price for their faith. But
he implies right from the start that peace is found, not in the absence
of struggle, but in knowing to Whom you belong and on Whom you can rely.
Interestingly, Paul couldn't thank the Christians at Thessalonika directly
for their sacrifices.
According to Greek rhetorical rules in that day, to say thank you ended
a relationship. It was what one said to bring a contract to a legal close
and announce the end of the contractual relationship. So it was sort of
rude to say it to another person outside that context. But it wasn't considered
rude to say thanks to God, with whom relationships could never be said
So, out of his deep love for the people at Thessalonika, he offered
prayers of thanksgiving to God for their authentic, Christian lives -
and then told them he had done so. It was a round-about way of saying
thanks, but it worked for the Thessalonians.
Even in saying thank you - remember, this is just the introduction to
the letter, it's not the sort of thing you'd actually ever preach from
- even in saying thank you Paul lays out a little theological gem. He
gives them, and us as we listen in, a little model for approaching the
unfathomably hard work of actually being a Christian. He thanks God for
1) their work of faith - 2) their labor of love - 3) and their steadfastness
of hope in the One they can trust, their true Lord Jesus.
1) Our work - the task that really costs us something - the one that
requires risk, personal and professional - is always an act of faith.
I see it all the time as I travel the country and talk with LGBT people
who are working to create change. Courageous souls speak up in human resources
meetings at their job site and ask for domestic partnership benefits.
In one fell swoop they not only run the risks inherent in coming out in
a place that isn't often equipped for such disclosure, but they make themselves
vulnerable in the process - asking for something based on their status
as different from most of those around them. That's not a regular workday.
That's a spiritual experience. And sometimes the outcome is not predictable
or good. Last year a woman asked the local college where she worked in
Alabama for health care benefits for her spouse. The local paper found
out and ran a story about it and two days later an arsonist burned the
woman's house to the ground. Billy Jack Gaither came out to people he
lived with, folks he considered his friends, and they tied him up and
threw him on a pile of burning tires.
Somebody crucified Matthew Shepherd.
The response from about 99% of pulpits in America the Sundays after
those events was silence. To use a wonderful Baptist phrase, I am bold
to ask - I am bold to ask you, when you become an ordained minister of
the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, to do a work of faith. Preach the
good news of welcome and love and full acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual,
and transgender people. We need it so badly.
I was privileged to be part of Foundry United Methodist Church's celebration
of ten years as a Reconciling Congregation a couple of weeks ago. They
had set up beautiful display boards showing the timeline of the struggle
to become and then to live into the name of a reconciling congregation.
I read on the board how controversy had erupted when the first lesbian
couple had been listed in the church directory. Then two years further
down the timeline I read about how another fight started when a second,
male couple asked to be listed. Just as I began to move away from that
part of the display, a man behind me in line reached up and touched the
words that described that second controversy. "That's me!" he said. "That's
me and my partner."
LGBT people long to be named in our places of worship. Not euphemistically,
not just in the obligatory list of the oppressed. Named. And it is your
unique task to name us. Yours. Not the pastor of the safe, liberal congregation.
Not the pastor of the big church who has already made her career and can
afford to take such risks. Yours. In your present and future settings.
I know that the outcome of your preaching will be unpredictable. I ask
you to do it not just because we LGBT folks need it so badly or because
I want so much for you to be free of the sin of making your ministry an
idol. I ask because I know to Whom you belong and on Whom you can rely.
2) Paul was grateful for the Thessalonians' labors of love. In Paul's
guidelines for how to be a Christian, he says love is a primary standard.
I am at great pains to understand how the hierarchy in the Roman Catholic
Church can take love as its guide and at the same time promulgate rules
that limit access to its seminaries to gay men. Yes, I've heard the poppycock
about loving the sinner and hating the sin. But they know better. They
know that scapegoating gay men for their pedophilia crisis doesn't deal
with the problem they have and creates another one for the gay men they
slander in the process. They know pedophilia and sexual orientation are
not the same and yet they take the convenient route, preserving the power
of the Church and sacrificing before its idol the truth about gay men.
I'm begging you for the kingdom's sake. Make love your standard for
deciding what to do when you become a minister of the Gospel. It will
cost you. But I'm here to tell you, the pain fades, and, if necessary,
there are others ways to make a buck. The souls in your care will cry
out and the health of your own soul will demand that you make not an idol
of power, or peace, or the unity of the Church. Leave the unity of the
Church to the One at its head. You do justice.
3) Paul said, "God, thank you! Those Thessalonians have been steadfast
in their hope. They didn't just hear what we said and assented to our
theology. They heard the word and took into their very souls the power
of your living and Holy Spirit and they have conviction!" Paul said, "They
don't walk around mad all the time because the election didn't go their
way, because their superiors are disdainful of their beliefs, because
people they try to lead don't always follow. They remember Who cares for
them, on Whom they can rely, and they are always, always hopeful."
Paul said the Thessalonians looked and acted like Jesus - right out
there in the busy city on the big road that Thessalonika had become -
in full view of the powerful government authorities - knowing what it
would cost them. They took on not just the name of Christ, but Christ's
faithful, loving, hopeful Spirit. They were not defined by the world around
them; nor were they slaves to idols everyone else said had to be bowed
down to. They were Christians. Amen.
Knox is the Director of the
Religion and Faith Program at the Human Rights Campaign
Copyright © by the author
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