Just What Is God Up To?

 Address to the Covenant Network Commissioner Convocation Dinner
216th General Assembly – Richmond
June 25, 2004

Kimberly C. Richter
Pastor, Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC
Incoming Co-Moderator of the Covenant Network


I was born in Birmingham, Alabama in the midst of the struggles for civil rights. As I was learning to walk and talk, my hometown was struggling to walk and talk in new ways, too. By the time I was old enough to run and play in the safety of my neighborhood, just a few miles away, children were being attacked by police with fierce dogs and fire hoses. As I lined up for snacks in pre-school, other children lined up behind paddy-wagons and, dressed in their Sunday best, sang hymns. They walked into jail in order to win their freedom. On a Sunday morning in September of 1963, I must have been in Sunday School at my downtown Presbyterian Church. I would have been five years old when, less than a mile away, at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, four African-American girls just a few years older than I were murdered at their church by a bomb blast. I would be in college before I ever learned in detail about that terrible event in Birmingham.

I was six years old when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. About a year ago, I took my own six-year-old daughter and fifteen-year-old son to Kelly Ingram Park and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, with the Civil Rights Institute located nearby. In the park, we walked through sculpted dogs that, though immobile and silent, are nevertheless straining and snarling at chest and throat level. Inside the Institute, you can watch a slide show of what life was like in that time for African Americans. The last slide shows two water fountains. One is large and electricity pumps cool water for its white patrons. Right next to it is a smaller, crude fountain marked “Colored.” There is a life-sized replica of this scene in the Gallery called, simply and profoundly, “Barriers.”

I thought of Acts 10-11, when Peter shares the good news with Cornelius and other Gentiles and finds, to his surprise, that they have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. He baptizes them with water. Peter then has to go back to headquarters in Jerusalem and explain himself. He tells the leaders what he heard and saw among these Gentiles and concludes with this line: “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

This is the question before us in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as we consider the gifts of the Holy Spirit that have been given to our Presbyterian brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian. Baptized with same water and gifted by the same Spirit, gay and lesbian Presbyterians work with our youth and sing the faith, teach the Bible and read scripture in worship. Presbyterians who happen to be gay or lesbian visit the sick, work for peace, pray without ceasing, contribute their financial resources, their time and talents to the church. Our brothers and sisters in the Lord may serve freely everywhere except at our Session tables and Boards of Deacons and in the Ministry of Word and Sacrament.

So tonight, Peter’s question echoes through the centuries from Jerusalem to Richmond, through the changes of Biblical interpretation and theology and cultural prejudices about slavery and the place of women to this 216th General Assembly. It is my honor and it is my joy, as a female pastor from Birmingham, Alabama to ask Peter’s question to the church leaders—you commissioners—this June night in 2004, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who are we to hinder God?”

The Covenant Network of Presbyterians remains completely committed to opening ordination standards that will permit all sessions and presbyteries to ordain and install every person whom God calls to ordained service, including qualified gay and lesbian Presbyterians. We are committed to removing G-6.0106b from the Book of Order at the earliest possible time. As our Board stated last fall: “The good of the church and the truth of the Gospel are at stake.”

We have been busy this year in the Covenant Network in preparing the church for the change that is surely coming. We are providing a new array of resources to promote education and dialogue in the church. Joanna will be telling you about two of our newest resources in just a few minutes. We are building networks of support and conversation across the church. And we are offering legal and polity advice and counsel as needed. We believe these faithful and persistent efforts will contribute to the climate of change in the constitutional standards of the church. We already see a climate of change in the hearts and minds of people across the denomination.

In my own church, Grace Covenant, in Asheville, North Carolina in, of all places, the Presbytery of Western North Carolina, there are many stories I wish I had time to share tonight about hearts and minds being changed. But I will share only one. There is a man in my congregation I’ll call “Stan.” During my first few years as pastor, Stan came to my office a couple of times. He wanted to sit and tell me in his best South Carolina accent, that he just didn’t like it when one of the worship leaders referred to God as “she.” Almost apologetically, yet firmly, Stan would tell me that he had lived all of his life in a small town running a grocery store and going to the Presbyterian Church there. He had been the Sunday School Superintendent for years. Retired now and working in a gas station down the street, he still read the Bible every day and had his morning devotions. “I just can’t get comfortable,” he told me and that part was obvious enough by the pain in his face, “with these new things and ways. I just don’t like it.”

Then one Sunday about a year or so ago, Stan stopped me on his way out of church and said he needed to come see me the next day. My mind quickly ran through the worship service…no one had called God “she” or “Mother” as best as I could recall. So I had about 24 hours to brace myself for what new complaint he might bring in. The next morning he knocked on my door and we sat opposite each other. He began slowly…he recalled for me again his background and upbringing in the church and his love for the Bible. Then Stan stopped. And he said, “Now Kim, what I’ve come to talk to you about is this…” I took a deep breath.

“You know how I always sit on the back pew at the early service. I don’t really know that many people because I like to sit back there and just be kind of quiet. Well, for the last year these two girls have been sitting on the same pew with me. And I don’t know if they’re a couple, but I think they might be. And you probably know how I feel about that.” (Uh oh, I thought…here it comes…) “Well. We’ve talked a little bit over time. And I’ve gotten to know them. They are probably my best friends in this church, to tell you the truth. And, well, here’s the thing I’ve come to talk to you about today:

“They told me Sunday that they’ve decided to join the church. And they’ve asked me to be their sponsor.”

There followed a second of dead silence between us. Thankfully, before I could speak, Stan burst into laughter, the kind of deep laughter that makes little tears form at the outside edges of your eyes. And he asked his own Peter-like rhetorical question, “Now just what do you think God is up to?” I eked out the only thing I was capable of: “Well Stan, we never know, do we? What are you going to do?” He sat there for a minute and said, “I guess I’m going to be their sponsor.” And with that, he was out the door. For the rest of that day, I found myself alternately laughing and weeping…all from a place of deep joy and wonder at the God who will not be hindered.

At this General Assembly, we can work for change in a very specific way. As we continue to work for a church as generous and just as God’s grace, we want to support Item 05-07, the Overture from Western Reserve et al. This Overture clarifies our standards for ordination. It asks this General Assembly to make it clear that the church is no longer bound by earlier “Authoritative Interpretations” and “Definitive Guidance” statements that pre-date “Amendment B.” These earlier statements have never been part of our Book of Order and so were never ratified by our Presbyteries. The Book of Order alone is sufficient in determining fitness for office. Just as a new will replaces any earlier wills, so the inclusion of G-6.0106b into our Book of Order superceded and replaced earlier statements. This important overture can be effected this week by you, the commissioners. For just as these “Authoritative Interpretations” never went to Presbyteries for ratification, so now their removal can be decided by this General Assembly.

The detailed report that led to policy recommendations back in 1978 contains dated, obsolete and offensive statements that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should want to eliminate. It bases its conclusions about sexual behavior on a 1948 study of males and a 1953 study of females. I wasn’t even born when those two studies were made. Social patterns and statistics on perspectives toward gay and lesbian people are based on a 1977 Gallup Poll which shows the percentage of Americans then who did not think “homosexuals” were fit to be school teachers or doctors or clergy. The conclusion of our denominational report from this section states: “Most Americans continue to view homosexual persons with great disapproval, distrust, repugnance, and fear.”

Acknowledging a diversity of Biblical interpretations, the report nonetheless concludes that “homosexuality is not God’s wish for humanity.” And goes even further by stating: “In many cases, homosexuality is more a sign of the brokenness of God’s world than of willful rebellion. In other cases homosexual behavior is freely chosen or learned in environments where normal development is thwarted. Even where the homosexual orientation has not been consciously sought or chosen, it is neither a gift from God nor a state nor a condition like race; it is the result of our living in a fallen world.”

Given these kinds of statements, is it any wonder, then, that when it came to ordination, this “AI” declared—you’ll forgive me—straight-faced: “The repentant homosexual person who finds the power of Christ redirecting his or her sexual desires toward a married heterosexual commitment, or finds God’s power to control his or her desires and to adopt a celibate lifestyle, can certainly be ordained, all other qualifications being met.” And finally, that “our present understanding of God’s will precludes the ordination of persons who do not repent of homosexual practice.”

Friends, this General Assembly has the historic opportunity to step forward from the 1940s and even the 1970s to 2004 by approving Overture 04-18 from Western Reserve.

Back in May of 1963 in my hometown, one black youth went spinning across the pavement while firemen battered him with streams of water strong enough to take the bark off of trees. As a congregation of African Americans came out of a church singing hymns, they faced a line of police officers.

Not by fire hoses, but by the gracious waters of baptism, these church members knew who they were—beloved children of God. They knew that in their Bibles there were passages here and there that condoned, even encouraged, slavery. And the oppression of women. But they knew the bigger story that God is telling across the whole of Scripture. The story of God’s generous and just grace intended for every person.

One little girl, splendid in her newly starched dress, marched out of the church toward the police. She turned to a friend who had dropped further back and said, “Hurry up, Lucille. If you stay behind, you won’t get arrested with our group.”

I love the courage of her faith within that community. We Presbyterians probably don’t have to worry about getting arrested here in Richmond! But we can go to this Assembly and do at least this much: remove the bonds of old, obsolete, offensive language. And then—wouldn’t it be a source of wonder and joy if, at our 2006 General Assembly in Birmingham of all places, we could finally open the way to ordination for all people whom God calls to serve the church.

Amen… and let it be so!

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