Remarks to Covenant Conference

Friday night worship service, 3 November 2000

Scripture That Speaks to Me

Douglas Nave
Trustee, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York City

Good evening. It’s good to be here.

I come from a family of Presbyterian ministers — my father retired after 32 years as the senior pastor of a large Presbyterian church in the Northwest, my twin brother and his wife are co-pastors of a Presbyterian church in California, and my sister is married to a Presbyterian minister on the coast. I became a lawyer, to give my family something to worry about. Having grown up in a Presbyterian family, graduated from a Presbyterian college, and served as an officer in my local Presbyterian church, I take the church and our faith very seriously. I am also a gay Christian, and spent many difficult years learning to accept and integrate that with my faith. My own family is not of one mind on this issue, and I know from personal experience how painful such disagreements can be.

Consistent with the theme of this conference, I would like in the short time available to share with you two passages from Scripture that I identify with as a gay Christian, and as a person who seems to be a source of controversy in my church.

The first is the story of the woman caught in adultery, whom the religious leaders brought to Christ for judgment. The story is in John 8. The elders reminded Christ that under that Mosaic law such women were to be stoned. But Christ dispersed them by reminding them that no one is without sin. Let me be clear: I believe that sometimes homosexual conduct is sinful, and that sometimes it’s not. The woman here clearly had sinned. But Christ refused to condemn her, sending her on her way with the instruction to “Go, and sin no more.”

Often the liberals among us like to cite the fact that Christ refused to condemn the adulteress, while the conservatives among us like to cite the fact that he instructed her to change her ways.

I find a different meaning in the story. Christ did not tell the woman to “Go, and stop committing adultery” — he gave her the far more challenging instruction to “Go, and stop sinning.” I hear in his words the echo of God’s promise in Jeremiah 31: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. . . . No longer shall they teach one another . . . for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” When we meet Christ, we are profoundly challenged to eliminate sin from our lives. But we also are given great hope: that we may look beyond the accusations of the crowd, deep into our own hearts, for the truth of how we must live.

A second story in the Bible from which I have always gathered great strength is the story in Genesis 32, where Jacob wrestled with the angel of God. We all know the story: Jacob was fleeing his vengeful father-in-law, and was being chased back into the arms of the brother whom he had cheated out of his inheritance. Jacob faced a hostile world. He camped out, and an angel of the Lord attacked him during the night, wrestling with him until daybreak. Then the angel said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And the angel gave Jacob the new name of Israel, and blessed him.

I take three lessons from this story:

  • First, not all of God’s blessings come easily. The Scripture tells us that Jacob was hurt, and that he limped into the sunrise after a long night of struggle.
  • Second, we need to remember that even our adversaries may serve the purposes of God. We cannot harbor ill will or impute bad motives to those on the other side of our debates.
  • And finally, the hardest but most important lesson in the story for me is, to hang on! We must make sure that our quarrels with the church are lover’s quarrels, that beneath the conflict lies a greater measure of commitment. When Jacob hung on, he won his blessing, and went on to play a central role in the community of faith.

My mother is a warm and loving Christian. But I will never forget a conversation we had one morning at the breakfast table, when the debates over then-proposed Amendment B were raging and my parents did not have much of an inkling yet that I might be gay. The debates had been long and wearying, and my mother said in a moment of exasperation, “I just wish those people would go somewhere else.” I wonder if perhaps we haven’t all felt that way at one time or another. But we all know the answer: we can’t do that, because this is home, and we’re a family.

I’d like to close with another of my favorite passages in Scripture, the very first chapter of the gospels, Matthew 1, the genealogy of Christ. Many of us skip over the passage, dreading the executor’s drone that “So-and-so begat so-and-so who begat so-and-so.” In fact, it’s a passage of great power and promise. In the genealogy of Christ, we find:

  • Women, long despised in the ancient world as second-class persons;
  • Foreigners, who were held under the ancient laws of Judaism to be far outside the family of God; and
  • Persons who engaged in sexually and morally questionable conduct.

Matthew 1 teaches the great lesson that everyone — everyone — has a place in the family of Christ, and in the plans and promises of God. Friends, I believe it with all my heart: that’s the first word — and the last word — in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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