Fourth Sunday in Advent
Sunday, December 18th
This testimony was offered in the early worship service by Rachel Coffee as part of a four-week testimony series during the season of Advent. The theme of the series comes from Romans 13:11, which reads, “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
Here is a story many of you know well: On October 21st, 2006 this church ordained Erik Christensen as pastor. Working with what is now Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, the small group of people keeping this congregation alive did the brave thing, the right thing. They called Erik roughly three years before the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America – or the ELCA – would formally adopt a welcoming position to openly gay and lesbian pastors. In the five years I’ve been attending this church I have always known this to be a decision, of course, that has greatly shaped our life as a congregation, particularly in this place and time and likely one that had a huge impact on Pastor Erik’s life. But it was only just this year, as I was reflecting on the 10th anniversary of this momentous occasion, that I realized just how profoundly it has impacted my life.
Back in 2006 when St. Luke’s was doing these big, amazing things, I was in that rebellious stage of life – you know the one where I wasn’t really Lutheran.
By that time, I had more or less left the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod – one of the more conservative arms of the Lutheran church. While I will always be deeply grateful for the loving examples of parents and grandparents who had raised me in the church, I did not like the sense I got from the church itself that God’s love had limitations – and was only available to a select few that believed the right things. Practices such as closed communion and limitations on women’s roles in the church left me confused, as they conflicted with the example Jesus had set as I understood it. This was not what the kingdom of God looked like to me. So I was searching – trying out different churches.
In 2009, I was living in the Twin Cities when the ELCA adopted the “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” social statement, the one that ultimately recognized and welcomed gay and lesbian church leaders. I remember hearing about this decision and feeling intrigued by the position that the ELCA had taken, but mostly indifferent to it. For as long as I had been alive, homosexuality has been labeled a “sin” by my family and all the religious leaders in my life. At the time, I had approximately one gay friend – Ryan V. – the “Original” Ryan as he affectionately refers to himself. And to be honest, I’m not sure we would have been friends if he had been openly gay when we had originally met my first year in college. It pains me to say that now, as he remains one of my dearest friends to this day, but I share it to explain the deep-rooted homophobia I was trying to overcome. So I was more or less indifferent to this new position the ELCA had taken.
I started coming to St. Luke’s shortly after I moved to Chicago at the end of 2011. Over the next four years, I would work closely on justice issues with many of you in this congregation. Housing, immigration, fair wages -you name it. This all seemed like the welcoming Kingdom of God that I had been trying to find in the past and I was so thankful this congregation seemed to get it.
At the same time, many of you would work on issues related to LGBT justice and advocacy: organizing pride parade activities, phone banking for marriage equality, collaborating with the Inclusive and Affirming Ministries in Africa. But honestly, not me. I shied away from this particular area of justice work. It was just too controversial for me. What would my family think? They would judge me, think I am just trying to create a stir by condoning something they have labeled as sinful. It was better to sit this one out. I wouldn’t even profess my support on social media. I was more or less silent. There was enough other stuff to do.
Meanwhile, my life in this church, made up of people from all different walks of life – of different sexual orientations and gender identities – would become my new spiritual home. The relationships I would make here would change me forever. Eventually, the 2nd Ryan – Ryan Coffee, now my husband – started coming to church with me. In the spring of 2015 he was baptized. Our good friend Noel, Captain Bisexual himself, was assisting minster that very special night. We both would not have had it any other way. Later that year, Ryan and I were married, surrounded by many friends from St. Luke’s who traveled to Wisconsin to be with us that day. “The Original Ryan” was also there – I purposely sat him at the St. Luke’s table because I knew he would be as uplifted by the friendship and conversation that you all bring to my life on a regular basis. Pastor Erik presided over a crazy beautiful ceremony, one that seemed to resonate with many people there.
I have a natural aversion to the community organizing concept of self-interest: the idea that in order to feel convicted about something, you need to understand what your own connection is to the issue. It seems so…selfish. But this past October, my own self-interest in taking progressive action to embrace the LGBT community, just as St. Luke’s did ten years ago, rang loud and clear. The occasion created this natural moment to stop and look back. I realized how my own life has been infinitely richer because I have been part of this community at St. Luke’s that has embraced and celebrated every human being as their own authentic self. A community that has been kind, loving, patient, and understanding – even in those times when I remained silent. All of this: it changed my life. And while I’m so very grateful for this, it is not gratitude that drives my desire to be a better advocate for the LGBT community. It is self-interest.
I am suddenly aware that the on-going movement towards LGBT justice does not need me. There are plenty of other people who are more educated on the issues, more articulate about the vision, who bring more to the table for the fight. No, it does not need me – but I realize now that I need it. I need to be part of the work that is moving this world to be more like the rich, welcoming community I have found at St. Luke’s. I need to lift my voice around these issues and make sure that it is heard. Because I know confidently that it is what we need to create a better future for ourselves and for each other.