It’s Waiting

2000 Covenant Conference
Closing Worship, November 4, 2000


It’s Waiting

Isaiah 65: 17-25, Acts 2:1-13

Scott D. Anderson
Executive Director, California Council of Churches
Sacramento, CA

Several years ago a pastor in my Presbytery, Brad van Sant, and I were invited to co-lead a workshop on “The Church and Homosexuality” at a Synod youth leadership event. The conference organizers–in good Presbyterian fashion–wanted to maintain a “balance of perspectives.”

In many ways, Brad and I were different. Brad pastored a rural congregation in Woodland, north of Sacramento. I attended a middle size urban church widely recognized as one of the most progressive in the Presbytery. Brad finished distinguished service in the U.S military and responded to God’s call to a second career in the parish ministry. I had served as a Presbyterian pastor for eight years before setting aside my ordination because I am a gay man.

The conference registrar called the week before the event: “By the way, you and Brad will be roommates for the week.”

Planning and leading this workshop was one thing. But rooming with Brad for a whole week was just not my idea of a good time. The pit in my stomach signaled distress.

Isn’t that the way it is in the Presbyterian Church these days? It’s not just that we hold different worldviews; we live in parallel universes. We attend different seminaries, use different Christian education materials, support different mission enterprises, employ different placement systems, read different theologians, even go to different conferences. And in those rare moments when we do meet across the theological divide, our visceral reaction is a mixture of fear and mistrust: mistrust of motives, mistrust of theology, mistrust of commitment, as if we all don’t really belong in the same room, let alone the same church, together.

What a contrast to that Day of Pentecost, “when they all gathered in one place.” When the second chapter of Acts is read liturgically, the list of nations represented that day in Jerusalem is often omitted, probably to spare the lector any tongue-tied embarrassment. The omission is unfortunate, for the table is something of a political and cultural geography lesson. It reads like the contents page of an Empire Atlas. Devout Jews from every nation under heaven hear the word and gather into community.

Funny thing about the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t stop for border guards. The authoritative lines are crossed. Indeed, at Pentecost–and in the drama that follows in welcoming the gentiles–those lines are blown right off the spiritual map.

“They were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The marvelous utterances of the gathered faithful from the far corners of the known world are a mystery guarded much like the Gospels veil the particulars of the resurrection. What’s clear is that because of the Spirit’s work, the folks who were there understood what was going on, and even more to the point, they understood in their own tongues: not a paraphrase, not a delayed interpretation, not even a translation; they understood in their own languages.

Peter Gomes reminds us that one of the great paradoxes of race in America is the fact that the religion of the oppressor, Christianity, became the religion of the oppressed and the means of their liberation. Black Muslims ask incredulously how any black person in America could possibly be a Christian, given the legacy of white Christianity. The answer, of course, is that if Christianity in America depended upon white Christians, there would be no right-minded black Christians.

What is the case is that Christianity, and the Bible in particular, does not depend upon us for the Gospel, but upon the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus black American Christians do not regard their Christianity as the hand-me-down religion of their masters, or an unnatural culture imposed on them and thus a sign of their continuing servitude. No, they understand themselves to be Christians in their own right because the Gospel, the good news out of which the Bible comes, includes them and in fact is meant for them.

The same is true for my own community. Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in America ask incredulously, “How can any healthy, self-accepting gay person possibly be a Christian, given the oppressive legacy of the institutional Church?” The answer is that Christianity, and the Bible in particular, does not depend upon heterosexual Christians for the Gospel, but upon the work of the Holy Spirit, who doesn’t really like border guards.

Behind the text of Scripture is the Spirit that animates it, the force that gives it life. There is always something elusive about the Bible; it’s a book that has a life of its own. And so, for gays and lesbians, we hear the Gospel not as first-century Christians or even as 21st-century heterosexual Presbyterians. We hear the Gospel in the same way the gathered faithful did on the Day of Pentecost–as only we can –in our own language.

Almost thirteen years ago I began serving as Pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church, a 400-member congregation in suburban Sacramento. Since I had arrived at Bethany, a couple in the church and I had been in conflict over a particular social issue. They wrote to me and told me that just after New Years in 1990, they had learned from a colleague in town–another Presbyterian pastor who had been a trusted friend for almost 20 years– that I was a gay man. They surmised that my need to hide my sexual orientation as a Presbyterian minister was the reason that I was so timid about their issues. Now, if only I would do what they wanted me to do for their cause, they would keep my secret.

Ironically, a year earlier I had already made the decision to leave the Presbyterian ministry. My partner’s departure after 8 1/2 years heightened my own dissatisfaction with having to live a lie about who I was. I grew emotionally weary of my despair and self-hatred. If I was to live with the kind of honesty, integrity, and whole-ness that God intended for my life, I realized I could not do so as a Presbyterian minister.

I felt like Lazarus locked away in that tomb. After Jesus arrived at Bethany, he said to Mary and her friends, “Take away the stone.” Martha objected on the grounds that the body had been in the tomb four days and there would be an odor. A four-day stench. The smell of death.

Something was rotting inside my tomb. Something was rotting in my roles and relationships. Something was decaying inside my soul.

Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus comes to us in whatever tomb we are decaying. He calls out our name. He calls us out of our stench. Come out! He says. Come out of hiding! Come out of that cold dark tomb with its odor of death.

Coming out has to do with accepting our true identity regardless of what others say. Coming out always makes a disturbance and lets out the stink. Coming out is going public; it is being on the outside who God has created us to be on the inside!

And so, in a church which speaks of us as sick and suffering, we hear the words of Jesus to Lazarus, the language of resurrection hope.

Last spring I had a phone call from a Presbyterian pastor I had known for many years. The 17-year-old son of a long time family in that congregation had told his parents over dinner the week before that he was gay. The pastor called me because he didn’t know what to say or do. The boy’s parents also were at a loss for words, embarrassed by the whole situation. So was the Moderator of the Board of Deacons, a long time family friend. What was this 17-year-old young man to do with all this awkward silence from the adult Christians in his life?

In a church that still equates sexuality with shamefulness, we hear John’s gospel that the Word became flesh, the language of incarnation: that in the most intimate and vulnerable moments of life when the core of our humanity is revealed to us, there is Christ.

Seventy United Methodist ministers in the Northern California-Nevada Annual Conference held a Holy Union in Sacramento that became a national news story last year. As the service began, the standing-room-only crowd of 2,000 people was told, “Today, we are not only celebrating the relationship of these two women, we are honoring all of you who have made life commitments to each other. Would all of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender couples stand.” Over 60 couples rose to their feet across the convention center. “Those of you who have been together more than five years, remain standing.” A few sat down. “Those of you who have been together more than 10 years, remain standing.” A few more sat down. Those of you who have been together as long as this couple–15 years, or longer– remain standing. Almost 30 couples still stood. The congregation went wild with applause.

“Do not press me to leave you, or turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die–there I will be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

These words are, of course, the passionate expression of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi. Words of faithful, life-long commitment. Ruth’s pledge has always been honored as a classic scriptural statement of love and fidelity. Thousands of times ministers have read this passage at heterosexual weddings, but I have never heard it noted that these words were spoken by one woman who loved another.

In a church that speaks of our relationships as sinful, we hear the words of Ruth to Naomi, the language of covenantal fidelity.

The Hartford meeting of the National Council of Churches was an absolute zoo. The Inclusive Language Lectionary was being introduced. And, because of stiff opposition from the Orthodox communions, the NCC adopted a compromise motion that would postpone indefinitely their long-debated vote on the Metropolitan Community Church’s application for membership. After the vote happened, the leadership was called out into the hallway in front of 50 or 60 reporters, and everyone read their prepared statements. The mainliners wearing their Protestant polyester and the Orthodox in their long black cassock robes. Eileen Lindner, now the Associate General Secretary of the NCC, recalls that the local newspaper, the Hartford Currant, was short staffed that day and sent its sports reporter to cover the National Council of Churches story. After hearing all of the statements, the reporter asked her, “So, let me understand this: it’s the guys in the skirts who don’t want to let the queers in?”

In a church that is mired in conflict, we hear the language of Holy humor. An irreverent humor that prophetically names the truth of the situation. An outrageous humor that reveals the preposterousness of divine grace. The kind humor Abraham and Sarah, in their old age, experience when the divine comedian whispers in Abraham’s ear, “The two of you are going to have a baby.”

The miracle of Pentecost is two-fold. It is not just that we are able to hear the Gospel in our own language; it is also the miracle of being able to speak the Gospel in a whole new language.

After my own coming out experience, the first few years I attended General Assembly, I left devastated and demoralized. Because of my own woundedness, every negative comment, every scripture quote, every reference to our confessional heritage which contradicted my own point of view I was taking as a personal attack on me and my community.

Today, after attending the last eight General Assemblies, I find myself at a different place. I find myself trying to listen through the fear, to listen beyond the misunderstandings and the stereotyping, to listen for the testimony from my evangelical friends, of “God’s deeds of power,” the Gospel. I find myself asking, “How can I speak the Gospel of my understanding in the language of the listener, in the language of those who stand across the theological divide?'” Isn’t that what happens at Pentecost? Hearing the Gospel in our own language, and by some miracle of the Spirit’s doing, speaking the Gospel so that all the others who had gathered can understand it in their own language.

Pentecost is not about agreement, and Pentecost is not about avoidance. Pentecost is about mutual understanding. St. Francis of Assisi must have had Pentecost in mind when he penned his famous axiom, “Seek first to understand, and then be understood.”

Ronald Heifetz of the Kennedy School of Government writes in his remarkable book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, “Leadership consists not of answers or assured visions but of taking action to clarify values. Leadership asks questions like, ‘What are we missing here? What are the values of opposing groups that we suppress rather than apply to our understanding of the problem at hand?'”

That’s our Pentecostal challenge. To speak the Gospel in the language of the listener, which is, in the case of our evangelical friends, the language of boundaries. And to invite our evangelical friends to speak to us about their understanding of the Gospel in our language, the language of justice.

In spite of all the naysayers and cynics on both sides of this debate, I believe Pentecost is waiting for the Presbyterian Church. Not necessarily one big “capital P” Pentecost, but 1001 lower-case pentecosts–the kind of Pentecost that happens over quiet conversation at the local coffee house, in the pastor’s study, out in the narthex during a boring Presbytery meeting, or at a Synod youth leadership event. The kind of miracle that can happen when someone, somewhere, has the courage to reach across the theological divide, and trust the Spirit that Pentecost is waiting.

And speaking of Synod youth leadership events, the one that Brad and I attended didn’t turn out the way we feared it would. That’s because the 100 or so senior highs who went through our workshop simply couldn’t shut up. For five days and five nights! In their exuberance, in their innocence, and in their disarming faithfulness, those senior highs dragged Brad and me kicking and screaming towards Pentecost. It was one of the most exhilarating, exhausting, and hopeful weeks I have spent as a Presbyterian.

One 16-year girl came up to me at the closing worship service and said, “We don’t get to talk like this in my church.” Maybe it’s time we adults start trying.

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