Chicago Theological Seminary
Reading for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
I 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 preacher.
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 it.
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 this world.
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 and Lord.
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 to end.
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.
Founding director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program and first Program Director at Freedom to Marry, Rev. Harry Knox pastored churches in Georgia and Texas and was appointed by President Obama in February 2009 to the President’s first Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Before retiring he served as President and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.