The Rev. Margaret LaMotte Torrence, Interim Pastor of Black Mountain (NC) Presbyterian Church, preached this sermon on February 1, 2015, the day after the Presbytery of Western North Carolina affirmed Amendment 14-F. Her comments at the presbytery meeting are included.
Isaiah 58:6-9a Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
In today’s reading from Mark, we witness the opening act of Jesus’ public ministry. He has gathered his first four disciples. This is the first thing we are told that they do together:
Mark 1:21-28 They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
In the late 90’s, when I was wrestling with the question of whether to seek ordination as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament, a friend and mentor gave me a poem that became part of my journey. I’d like to read it for you now. It’s called “A Prayer for Courage”.
It takes courage
to be crocus-minded.
Lord, I’d rather wait until June,
like wise roses,
when the hazards of winter are safely behind,
and I’m expected,
and everything’s ready for roses.
Knifing up through hard-frozen ground and snow,
sticking their necks out,
because they believe in spring
and have something personal
and emphatic to say about it.
Lord, I am by nature rose-minded,
Even when I have studied the situation here
and know there are wrongs that need righting,
affirmations that need stating,
and know also that my speaking out may offend –
for it rocks the boat –
well I’d rather wait until June.
Maybe later things will work themselves out,
and we won’t have to make an issue of it.
Wrongs don’t work themselves out.
Injustices and inequities and hurt don’t
Somebody has to stick her neck out,
somebody who cares enough
to think through
and work through hard ground,
because she believes
and has something personal
and emphatic to say about it.
Me, Lord? Crocus-minded?
Could it be that there are things that need
to be said, and you want me to say them?
I pray for courage. Amen.
Jo Carr and Imogene Sorley
The friend who gave the poem to me did not know that my middle name is, quite literally, Rose. My parents named me “Margaret Rose.” And it fits. I like the ground carefully prepared. Some of you know that I have siblings who are much quicker than I am to protest injustice. In the categories of the poem, I am the daughter who is aptly named Rose.
But my experience of faith suggests that God never leaves us in our comfort zones for long. God has a way of stretching us—asking us to be more than we imagined we might be. And that means that our life together often is characterized by growing pains.
Teenagers who experience sudden growth spurts often have to reckon with significant joint pain. And change in the church can also cause real pain—though I think we sometimes forget that a persistent lack of change also causes pain—as when feet are bound and not allowed to grow. So we try, in our sometimes halting way, to follow where we sense that God is leading us, even as we try to care for each other along the way.
Our presbytery met yesterday to wrestle with some hard questions. For those of you who aren’t acquainted with the finer points of Presbyterianism, our presbytery is a regional council of our denomination. It’s made up of representatives from 110 churches that stretch from Gastonia to the Tennessee line. We make decisions by worshiping together, wrestling together with scripture, listening to each other, and then, ultimately, by prayerful voting. One of the underlying convictions of our tradition is that we have a better chance of discerning God’s leading together than any of us do alone. Pastors and Elders [also called Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders] work this process together. It’s not fast, but we pray and trust that God works through it.
The most controversial question facing the presbytery yesterday had to do with amending the definition of marriage. The proposed language is long, and I won’t take the time to read it to you now, but I have made copies for you to have if you would like to take one and read it. They can be found on tables outside the doors.
The proposed language does two significant things: 1) it makes room for pastors to officiate at the wedding services of same-sex couples, and 2) it makes it possible for sessions to approve the use of church facilities for that same purpose. But no pastor can be compelled to perform any service of marriage that he or she believes is contrary to the Word of God, nor can any session be compelled to offer the use of church property.
I was asked to speak before the presbytery in favor of the amendment.
I want to share with you what I said, because I want you to be part of this conversation. I am leaving town this afternoon for two weeks (unfortunate timing, I know!) but when I return I would be so grateful for the opportunity to meet with any of you who would like to talk more about this matter. There are many ways we could do this. We could meet one-on-one. We could have a congregational forum and ask some of the Biblical scholars and pastors in this congregation to come and hear questions and share thoughts. We could have a Sunday morning class in which we read and study a book together. There are many models we might use. What is most important to me is that each of you has a chance both to be heard, and to hear from each other. Please come talk to me and tell me what would be most helpful to you.
This is what I said to the presbytery yesterday:
In 2006 I officiated at the funeral of an old friend, a former teacher of my husband’s. During the nearly 30 years of our friendship, we shared many wonderful meals and much challenging conversation. Bill’s grasp of history, his knowledge of art, his insatiable intellect often made it tough for me to keep up during those dinner parties. But through those wide ranging discussions Bill wove references to scripture in the most life-giving way. He invited the rest of us to encounter the God who had captured his heart. Bill’s deepest desire was to honor his Creator with the life he’d been given. He lived out that desire as a composer of sacred music, and he lived out that desire as the committed partner of a man named Ralph.
The night Ralph called to say that Bill had died, the night Ralph asked if I would lead Bill’s funeral service, I knew that I would preach from Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok; I couldn’t get it out of my head. I learned later that it was Bill’s favorite text.
I don’t think anything about his funeral service would have surprised you, except the setting. I still marvel that Bill’s service was not held in a sanctuary—that at the funeral of this gifted organist and composer, there was no instrument to help give voice to our loss or our confidence. Instead, we worshiped in a windy cemetery, not far from a noisy highway.
I never asked why the service was held there, but for me that image is, in part, a snapshot of our failure as a church to fully embrace those who live out God’s call in ways that surprise the rest of us.
My own life has been much more conventional: In June I will celebrate 30 of years of marriage to the man I met as a 17-year-old freshman in college. God has blessed us. Our relationship has grown richer and deeper with time, but I cannot imagine what it would have been like to try to live out that covenant without the support of the particular congregations that have been home to us through those years. What I am saying is this: I cannot imagine our marriage apart from the church.
And how much harder it must be to nurture and sustain a relationship that runs against the grain of society’s norms. Yet we have told our gay brothers, our lesbian sisters—up until now—that their desire to live in covenant faithfulness has no place in the life of the Church. In so doing, it seems to me that we have robbed them of the companionship and the counsel of the Church, and we have robbed the Church of the full measure of their gifts—and their companionship—and their counsel. For anytime we are withholding part of who we are from our community, we are offering less than God would have us give. And anytime we have cut off part of the body, we are not fully the church.
About three weeks ago, I was sitting at my desk, pondering whether or not to accept the invitation to speak on this issue, when my 3:00 appointment arrived. Into my office walked a man I’d never met. I’m guessing he was in his mid-thirties. He had emailed me to ask for the appointment, but hadn’t said what he wanted to discuss. He sat down and began by saying “I want to talk about the authority of scripture.” Specifically, he wanted to talk about the authority of scripture in relation to the question before us now. He went on to say that he supported gay marriage as a secular institution, but felt concern that the church was being co-opted by the changing norms of society.
For the next 90 minutes we talked about many things. Somewhere along the line, I told him that when I see the word “authority,” I always notice its relationship to the word “author.” My sense is that on many occasions my life has been authored—re-written—through encounters with scripture. The narrative of my life and choices has been shaped by the God who has encountered me in those ancient words. But that has not been, for me, a tidy or predictable process. The word I hear often surprises and challenges me, urging me to be braver and bolder than I would otherwise be. The God I encounter in scripture persists in freeing us so that we might risk everything out of the love we’ve come to know.
The study of scripture is one of the deep joys of my life. By God’s grace these ancient texts, which are so smeared with human fingerprints, bear to us the love of our Creator, the call of the Christ, the guidance of the Spirit. What a privilege it is to harbor those holy words, and then to breathe them out into the world, on their way again.
But we do not worship the Bible. We worship the God who meets us there. And the more I wrestle with scripture the more I notice that such wrestling is woven into the very fabric of scripture itself. The many voices which come to us between the covers of our Bibles form a rich conversation of varied perspectives, all bound by the Spirit of God. What God’s people can hear in one generation, is sometimes more fully understood in a later context. Jesus is the clearest example of that deepening revelation. He was quick to say “You have heard it said…(x), but I say to you…(y).” And in the Gospel of John, Jesus says shortly before his death: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Beloved of God, to be the church is to be a people in motion, always on the Way, moving into unfamiliar territory.
But we do not go alone. The God who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow is the God who always is going before us, leading us toward the new creation. May we dare to follow wherever God leads.
That’s where I stopped yesterday.
Before we stop today, though, I want us to spend a moment with the text from Mark that I read a few minutes ago. Each of the gospels tells the story of the life and ministry of Jesus a little differently. Mark, which scholars believe is the earliest of the gospel accounts, gives us Jesus as a man of action. He has less to say and more to do.
Someone told me a long time ago that you can tell a lot about a person or a community if you get to know their birth story. Beginnings can tell us a lot. Mark begins the story of Jesus’ public ministry with today’s passage. His is the only gospel to report that Jesus’ ministry begins with an act of confrontation.
Jesus’ ministry begins with Jesus confronting the forces that keep people from living fully the lives they have been given. Jesus confronts those forces in the lives of individuals and he also confronts them when he encounters them in the faith community of his day. The people gathered in Capernaum are not sure how to respond to this one who offers a new teaching, with an authority born of God’s indwelling. But before the story is over, Jesus will share that same authority with the church.
Could it be that there are things that need to be said—and done—and God wants you—wants us—to say them and do them?
I pray for courage for us all.