Bold Persistence

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14, Galatians 5:1, 13-14, Luke 9:57-62

Rev. Doug Van Doren


The texts Rebecca read are the lectionary texts for the day. In other words, I did not choose them. I also had the theme and title for this sermon long before the Supreme Court ruling striking down DOMA and allowing the court ruling in California to stand, which reinstituted same-sex marriage in California. However, I am not sure I could have chosen a more fitting text than the one from 2 Kings, nor a more fitting title, given that ruling and Plymouth's work spanning over a decade and a half.

Though self-congratulation is unbecoming, there certainly is a time for celebration and for reflection on what brought us to take the stands and actions that we have taken as a church.

I think what is most important about our work in this and several areas of social justice is that we do not do it, or view it, as something different or more "out there" than what some others might do. We do it because we believe it is what we are called to do. So it is rather matter of fact. It is just who we are and what we do; no big deal. We are nothing special and we don't call attention to ourselves. Rather, we are just seeking to be true to our understanding of what God calls us to do and be. That is as it ought to be.

Prior to the ruling, I was certainly hopeful and prayerful about what the Supreme Court might do, but did not give much thought to Plymouth's involvement and ministry in helping change perceptions. We are working on many important things and simply going about our everyday ministry to our congregational members and the community.

However, I was in a meeting Wednesday morning when the ruling was announced, so I did not hear it right away. I felt my phone buzz in my pocket and, after the meeting when I checked my voice messages there was one from my sister-in-law. She called to congratulate Plymouth on our role in helping to change attitudes and she stated how proud she was of all we had done over these years, long before others had gotten on board. I felt tears well in my eyes, and I thought, "Yea, we have been on the leading edge of this for a long time."

We had been active in LGBT issues for several years and supportive of our denomination's stances that date back several decades. We became more directly involved in 1996 when we began a study about "Homosexuality and the Church." We were a test congregation for the UCC's study course on the issue. The following year we studied specifically what it means for a congregation to be "Open and Affirming," (ONA). And in January, 1998, over 15 years ago, we became Open and Affirming by vote of the congregation, with only two abstentions and only one "no" vote!

You may remember that the world was a very different place in 1998. We were the first church of a non-gay denomination (I give thanks for those models, particularly Reconciliation Metropolitan Community Church, pastored by Bruce Roller) in, thought-to-be-conservative, West Michigan, outside the gay community of Douglas, to openly and publicly welcome and affirm LGBT persons just as they are into the full life and ministry of the church. We were the 236th church in the UCC and the first church in Michigan that was not either very small or in a college community. We were a "normal" church in "churchy" West Michigan, in a main-stream denomination, and if we could do it, it had to be paid attention to. And it was!

Maybe more than we imagined, Plymouth becoming ONA made a big and immediate difference in the life of the church and of many LGBT persons and their families. Finally, a mainstream Christian Church was willing to repent of its historic sins and provide growth and learning for straights. It was seeking to be a place of welcome and sanctuary for LGBT persons and a witness to the community.

Importantly, we have been clear from the beginning that becoming ONA was only a first step. We immediately instituted, and still have today, an ONA Committee to help us live into what that means. Though we have been, and continue to be, very active in issues seeking justice for LGBT persons, we are clear that our ministry is with LGBTQ persons, not to them. They are not "objects of mission." We are all ministers and we are all ministered to. We all have needs. We all have gifts.

We knew going in that this stance was not for the faint of heart! Some nasty things happened. You should have heard some of the phone messages and threats on the church answering machine. (Well, actually you shouldn't have!) Of course, some of the most hateful and vitriolic messages quoted Scripture to me. Obviously, there were some key elements of Scripture they had missed! And they seemed to assume that we didn't study, or even read, Scripture. I have always maintained, however, it was not in spite of the Bible, but because of it that we became Open and Affirming.

Not only did we have to defend ourselves in the community but, for many of you, it was closer to home. Many of you had to deal with the condemnation, or at least questioning, of parents or children, siblings and neighbors who wondered how you could go to a place like that! "What are you, nuts, or just plain a heretic?" And though we can laugh now, those were, (and some still are) very painful conflicts. But you were willing to stand fast and engage and defend in your own way. For us, it was a matter of justice and fairness, as illustrated by one of the elderly women in the congregation at that time. She was in her early 80s at that point and her daughter went to a fundamentalist church and gave her mother great grief about going to Plymouth. At one point in a discussion, the mother was trying to make it clear to her daughter that being Gay was an orientation.

Finally, the daughter granted that perhaps it was, so she said, "Well, even if it is, they shouldn't act on it; that is just sinful." To which the 82-year-old, seemingly quite conservative, almost prudish, mother replied, "You know, I just don't think it is fair to tell a young person that he cannot have sex for the rest of his life." She got the justice and fairness ethic of our Christian faith.

There were people in the process who were willing to risk being open with their experience. When Stan and Betsy Dole's daughter was going to have a commitment ceremony in Seattle, Betsy remarked that other people put the announcement of their son or daughter's marriage in the newsletter and celebrate it in Joys and Concerns, but that can't happen with a Gay child. I said to her, "Betsy, it is your risk, not mine, but I think that you would find a lot of support and celebration for your daughter, and if you are willing to put it in the newsletter, I would be happy to do so." They took the risk and things opened even more.

When I was preparing my sermon about why I thought Plymouth should become an Open and Affirming congregation, I went to an older man in the congregation whom many knew to be quite conservative. But I knew that he had a Gay son whom he loved and accepted. The son had been beaten up at college for being Gay, and had decided not to come back to Grand Rapids because he could not imagine being accepted here and did not want to bring "shame" on his parents. I asked if I could share his story, not using his name, and disguising any details that might lead people to know who it was. He said to me, "Doug, you can use my story and you can use my name."

Elijah knew that the road would be difficult. Being a prophet, Elijah knew all too well, was no picnic. He had been vilified, chased, threatened, and exiled. Unless Elisha showed that kind of bold persistence going in, he wouldn't have a chance. In the same way, Jesus tried to dissuade those who would casually follow him, those who thought they had to take care of other things first before they could make a commitment. He tried to dissuade those who did not have their competing priorities - their competing Biblical priorities clear. (I was going to say, "straight.") One man wanted to stay and bury his father. Isn't it a Biblical mandate to honor your father? Another wanted to go first and say farewell to his family. Don't we believe in family values? But, you see, if they could not distinguish between the deeper claims of our faith, like love of God and neighbor, and those things, even from the Bible, that can sometimes interfere with the greater ethic, then they would be of no use to him. In fact they would be a detriment.

What we have discovered in this, however, is not so much the challenges or struggles but, rather, the joys and the benefits! Just like Elijah did, no doubt. What did Elisha experience that he would not have had he not been persistent? It was the witnessing of an amazing transformation - Elijah being taken up from the earth. It was receiving a double portion of the great prophet Elijah's spirit. It was being on the leading edge of God's ongoing creation of a world and a people pleasing in God's sight. Ultimately, it was the joy of being faithful and useful.

In becoming ONA, in working on behalf of love and justice, we sought to follow in Jesus' way. Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem regardless of the consequences in order that Caesar would not have the last word. "When Christians preach love and acceptance as a way of life, when we practice peacemaking, we do so not as helpless doormats for the fearful, ignorant bigots or jackboots of the world. We do so as a means of subverting that world, as a means of participating in the victory of Jesus." (Willimon)

Had we not boldly persisted, we would not have discovered that in prayer, study, and community dialogue, we can discern the word God is still speaking. We can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. We would not have become a safe place, not just for LGBT persons, but for all of us. We would not have known, been in fellowship with, and received the gifts of so many LGBT persons who are now close friends, son and daughter figures to us, as well as parent figures and aunts and aunts, uncles and uncles to our children. We would not have been as faithful as we have been.

And we would not have nearly as much fun!

We take a moment to celebrate in order to gain strength and encouragement, for there is a lot yet to do. Until same-sex marriage is allowed in Michigan and in all states, our friends and fellow church members, if they would choose to, are still denied the 1,100 legal benefits of marriage.

This needs to be attacked on all levels. Rick Roane, a lawyer in town who is Gay, has been working on this issue for a long time, and was present for the Supreme Court arguments. He told me Thursday that he heard from a woman in her late 20's who, after the DOMA decision, finally came out to her family and friends. She said she came out now because it was the first time she felt safe to do so. Rick said that even though he had been out for many years, after the DOMA ruling was the first time he felt safe and that he truly belonged.

Legislation needs to continue to change for legal justice for LGBT persons. And that also changes attitudes. Religious attitudes and religious perspectives need to continue to change as well. The Church is still largely perceived as against LGBT persons, which is why Plymouth understood way back in 1998 that if we were not in that place, we needed to clearly say so. It is changing, but those scars run very deep. And the message from much of the Church is still too much not just that people don't, but that God doesn't, love LGBT persons.

When I preached about why I thought Plymouth should become Open and Affirming, I used this story from Christianity and Crisis, by Louie Crew.

Barry died last night, and nobody much cares. Barry was Gay. Barry loved the music and the smells and bells of my religion, so I took him to church occasionally, but he stayed away most of the time, saying that it made him feel guilty. "A third of the parish is Gay; several on the vestry are Gay. Why on earth do they make you feel guilty?" I asked. "It isn't them," he told me, shocked that I had misunderstood. "It's me. It's God. It's the way I was brought up, the message I received in church and everywhere... in my heart of hearts, I believe that God hates me, He has to. I don't live the way I was taught one had to. My parents hate me. Society hates me. When I was young I tried every way possible to live like they said I should, but I'm me. I'm Gay. And Louie, I'm scared of God.

My friends, maybe, just maybe, by what we have done, by what so many did before us, and what we and so many are doing now, there will come a day soon when there will be no more people like Barry who are scared of God.

May it be so, Amen.


June 30, 2013