Signs and Portents of the Welcoming Generation

Preached by Richard Lindsay at the (R)evolutionary Revival, held during Presbyterian General Assembly in San Jose, California, June 24, 2008. (Transcript may vary slightly from video recording.)

Scripture text: Joel 2:23-32

It's been a great week in California. Last week, all around Berkeley, where I live, cars started appearing with "Just Married" on the back of their cars. One of the cars said "Just-ly Married." Not only that in Berkeley there was a tree sit that had been going on for about two years—there were people up in the trees that the University was trying to cut down—and they finally went in and extracted the tree sitters. There were about five news helicopters zooming around the city. And I thought, "You know, coming out here to California from the Midwest, this is exactly the way they told me it was going to be."

But the environmentalism and just recognition of people's relationships—these are those "San Francisco values" you've been hearing about. If you're from other parts of the country, I hope you'll take some of these values with you so they're not just San Francisco values. Because if more people move out here trying to find freedom and liberation, the traffic is going to get a lot worse.

I'm sure a lot of people looked at these events and saw signs of the end of the age. I'm sure they thought this was the end of the world and Jesus was going to be returning any minute now. It's just like the text we read today that said, "The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood." But anytime somebody starts talking about apocalypse you have to ask yourself, "Who's world is ending?" And, "Who's world is just beginning?" 

These signs and portents show that God's kingdom, God's dominion, God's reign is breaking into history. When Peter wanted to describe what was happening on the day of Pentecost, he used this text from Joel to describe it. He used it to describe not the end of the world or the end of an era, but the beginning of an era that we know as the era of the Church.

And so we're told in the gospels to keep awake and look for portents as signs of the coming of God's kingdom. These signs describe strange moments—some might even call them queer moments—in the Bible.

There are some folks that may not be comfortable with that word "queer;" it's been used as an epithet for a long time. But there's a generation coming up that seems to like that word and seems to have reclaimed it. If you go to a college campus and ask for the gay student group, they'll say, do you mean the LGBTQQIA group? (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and allies) And some of them may simply describe themselves as queer. What they mean by that is that they don’t want to define their gender and sexuality in terms of opposites, like gay or straight, male of female. They want to find a space for themselves that doesn’t fit the usual categories, the limited boxes that they're normally put in.  

When something doesn’t fit the usual categories, the limited boxes we try to fit it in, it may be referred to as queer. And that means the Bible is a really queer book. And the God we worship is a very queer God.

The Bible is full of these queer moments: "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your elders shall dream dreams, and your young people shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit…The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood."

But when these queer moments happen, it seems so strange at the time, but when you stop and think about the way God usually makes God's self known, they sort of make sense. These moments are holy inconsistent. That is they are holy…but they are inconsistent with what we have come to expect in those situations.

The people God chooses to reveal God's particular divinity to the world are a slave people under the Empire of Egypt. Holy…inconsistent.

Boy is born in a barn, placed in a feed stall rather than a crib, turns out to be the Son of God. Holy…inconsistent.

The one who is supposed to bring about he reign of God on earth is executed like a criminal. Holy…inconsistent.

And very, very queer.

When these moments of holy inconsistency, these queer moments take place, that's when God says, Watch out! God's kingdom is breaking into the world.

As the book of First John says, "We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life."

I'm going to testify to you tonight what I have seen with my eyes and touched with my hands in some of my work over last five years.

Five years ago, I had the privilege of attending one of the most distinctive church services I've ever been to. This was the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson in the Dioceses of New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop to be consecrated in the history of the Christian church. The Diocese of New Hampshire is very small and they didn’t have a building large enough to accommodate the thousands of people that were coming to this event. So they had to find the largest building they could find to hold this service in, and that was the University of New Hampshire hockey rink. I called it Our Lady of the Penalty Box. Going into the service, there underneath the scoreboard was the altar. As Episcopalians like to do, everyone paraded in with their big robes and their miters and their bishop's staffs, and they were waving incense everywhere.

At some point during the liturgy the presiding bishop asks, "Does anyone have an objection to this man becoming bishop?" So a little group of people trooped up to a microphone. They were being led by another bishop who was wearing his scarlet blouse and his clergy collar. He had on wire glasses and gray hair, and he was balding. And he tottered up to the microphone…and launched into a graphic description of gay sex. And I thought to myself, "How many times in the 2,000-year history of Christianity has this happened at the consecration of a bishop?" It has to be only a handful.      

But there was another moment later on when the presiding bishop asked this congregation, which had to be about 5,000 people who filled up half the arena, "Do you accept this man to be your bishop?" And there was a mighty roar as everyone shouted, "Yes!" It was like the University of New Hampshire had scored a goal.   

And I have to tell you that the energy was just crackling around the room. The Holy Spirit was truly at that event. And for one moment, it felt like the church was the most relevant institution in the world.

So, I "declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life."

I had the opportunity to go on the Soulforce Equality Ride. Soulforce is an organization that was founded to confront the homophobia of the religious right with nonviolent direct action. We took a bus full of young adults to Christian colleges and universities that don’t allow openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people to enroll in their schools. One of the first colleges we went to was Regent University in Virginia Beach; that's the university founded by Pat Robertson. So we pulled up and there were officials there from the Christian Broadcasting Network, and there was a phalanx of officers from the Virginia Beach police force, some of them on horseback and in riot gear. (Maybe they didn’t get the press release that said we were a non-violent activist group.)

We lined up on the public sidewalk outside the school, and we were trying to get some of the students to come out and talk to us. And we noticed that the police were holding some of the students back. They were trying to keep them from crossing over the police line to talk to us. So I got a card and wrote my cell phone number on it, and held it up for the students to see. And they called. And we got a group of our people together and met them across the street at the 7-11. And at the gas station we planned a bible study between our team and the Regent students that night, and we planned a dinner for several more of the students for the next night.

The next morning, we went back to Regent University and we got out of the bus and lined up. And we had made the decision that some of our people were going to cross onto Regent University's property and be arrested. As were standing there, a couple of cars pulled up, and about ten Regent students got out of the cars. They came and lined up in front of us. They took our hands, and started asking forgiveness for the way their school had treated us, for the way the church had treated us. And they started praying with us for our safety   

It was a holy, inconsistent moment, a queer moment, and a sign and a portent of the coming age. 

There is a new Generation rising up in this church and across this country, a welcoming generation that doesn’t feel the need to fit sexuality and gender into the traditional categories, that is comfortable with being holy…inconsistent.  This Welcoming generation is not based on age, it includes middle-age parents defending the rights and the safety of their lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children. It includes heterosexual allies who are tired of seeing their friends discriminated against, who are tired of seeing them not be able to marry the people they love, who are tired of seeing them not be able to be ordained. It includes my 95 year-old grandmother, who said when she found out when I was going to visit Pat Robertson, "I'd like to go with you and give Pat Robertson a piece of my mind." It includes, in what could only be a stroke of God's unfathomable logic, Dick Cheney, who could not be happier with the grandchild that his lesbian daughter and her partner have brought into the world. The opponents of inclusion may be winning the occasional battle here and there in the courts or in the churches, but if the next generation fails to take up their cause, the war is lost. 

There are good Presbyterians who do not see these signs and portents the way we do; our brothers and sisters in Christ who have not yet experienced the Good News that transforms our bodies, our gender, our sexuality. They will continue to portray this as a conflict between license and morality, rather than a fight for human dignity. "Go ahead, just do what feels good," they tell us. Alright, I will. When I do what God wants me to do, when I become the person God wants me to become, it does feel good. And I'm telling you, we are not here asking the church to accept or ordain free love, we are asking it to free love.

There are much larger anxieties afoot, though, that are not about queer people. The anxieties are about the meaning of marriage, family and sex. There are people in the church who continue to believe that if they simply condemn everybody they don't agree with on these issues as sinners, all the earth-shattering changes around sexuality and family of the last 50 years will be tidied up and swept away.

The unacknowledged thread that runs through all of this is fear about the continued decline and uncertain future of the Mainline Protestant Church. The Presbyterian Church is not losing an ideological fight for membership with the religious right, it is aging and failing to regenerate itself. The demographic realities say we must focus on attracting new constituencies to the church and retaining young people, which means a more, not less diverse, church. 

God has not fully revealed what the future of the Mainline church will be. But we do know what it will not be. It will not be a white-dominated, male-dominated, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-immigrant, racist, classist church. That model of church is over. The corpse is dead and buried, and it is not rising from the dead. The Mainline church may be in the wilderness, but you cannot take the people of God back to Egypt and call it a "renewal."

The signs and portents are clear. God is revealing a new thing. There is a world that is ending, but there is a new world beginning as well.

Now I know that in the last thirty years, there are people who have been wounded and by the slights and insults they have suffered at the hands of the church.

I quote the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, longtime chaplain at Yale and minister at Riverside Church in New York, who said, "With some Christians, it's hard to tell the difference between their prayer list and their shit list." I think some of us feel like we have been on the "prayer list" of this church for a long time. I think there are some people in this church who are on our "prayer list."   

But the scripture says, "You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame." We have discovered a new church in this wilderness that was once the Presbyterian Church. And we are not asking the Presbyterians if we can be a part of their church, we are inviting them to be a part of the church that we've found. Our bodies and minds have led us into the wilderness, where we found a new way of seeing God, and we need to share this Good News. But if we're going to share this Good News, we need to let go of victimhood and start claiming victory.

The scripture says your old men and women will dream dreams. Some people that we love started dreaming these dreams a long time ago. People like Chris Glaser, Janie Spahr, Howard Warren, Troy Perry. And now in the visions of the Welcoming generation, these dreams are coming true. We are living in dream time.

There was a time when Audre Lourde, Harvey Milk, Del Martin and Phylis Lyon were lone voices in the wilderness. But there is a new generation rising up that is going to live out these dreams. We are living in dream time.

This is a holy, inconsistent generation, a queer generation that doesn’t fit the old categories. A generation that brought robed clergy into a hockey rink to consecrate a bishop; that had Evangelical young people and queer young people embracing and praying in the belly of the religious right. 

This is the growth edge of the Gospel, where the foolish are wise. These are the places where the God is doing a new thing. The question over the next few days is whether the Presbyterian Church will take those few, faltering steps, and heed the invitation of the welcoming generation.