photos by Vicki Kane
Last Sunday I had the honor of preaching at the rite of reception/re-installation of 7 GLBTQ Lutheran clergy in San Francisco. My denomination changed its policy in August, now allowing GLBTQ clergy to be in life-long, monogamous, publicly accountable same-sex relationships. We've taken the closets out of the church. 6 of these pastors were ordained through the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries - an ordination process which exactly paralleled the ELCA, waiting for that day last August when the ELM pastors could be received onto the the ELCA clergy roster. The 7th, Ross Merkel, was re-instated onto our roster, having been removed 20 years ago for being gay. Ross Merkel is also the guy who made me a Lutheran to begin with. His congregation, St Paul Lutheran in Oakland is where it all began for me. Here's the sermon which starts with that story.
20“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o”clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o”clock, he did the same. 6And about five o”clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o”clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Here's the manuscript:
Grace peace and mercy to you from the crucified and risen Christ. Amen. To say that it is an honor to be your preacher today would be an embarrassing understatement. So I will just say thank you.
I bring you greetings on this festive occasion from the people of God at House for all Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado a mission church of the ELCA. House for All is a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice oriented, queer inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient - future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination. At least that’s what our website says.
You may not realize this, but this little mission church is kind of the spiritual granddaughter of many churches represented here today. Churches like St Pauls and St Francis. So I’d like to thank you and the ELM 7 for your faithfulness to the Gospel despite countless obstacles and say that you almost certainly have no idea how your witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ has rippled out into this hurt and broken and beautiful world.
Let me explain - many of the folks at House for All have been hurt by the church in one way or the other. Several have been victims of so-called ex-gay reparative therapy at the hands of Christians, some have been told they are not up to snuff in the eyes of God and needless to say, the vast majority of the folks at House were not regularly attending a church when they joined us.
In other words they were just like me in the Spring of 1996. It was 14 years ago that I walked into a Lutheran church for the very first time. I had not entered a Christian church for 10 years and when I finally did, it was St Paul Lutheran Church in Oakland. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Well, here’s the thing: I had no desire to be Christian. I don’t like Christians and they don’t like me. See, I was raised in a sectarian and fundamentalist tradition called the Church of Christ. Not the gay-friendly liberal United Church of Christ. Nope. The Church of Christ - which can only be described as, like, “Baptist-Plus”. Women in this tradition were not permitted to pray out loud in front of men much less be pastors. I left that kind of exclusion in the name of God behind me and was perfectly happy about it.
And yet, despite my mis-givings about the church, that Sunday in 1996 I found myself with tears in my eyes. When I walked into St Paul’s Lutheran church it somehow felt like I was walking into the kingdom of heaven - there were young people and old, gay and straight, black folks and white folks and folks who used wheelchairs. And the worship was so beautiful. I had never experienced liturgy. I had never heard that kind of language used to speak of God. I had never heard… the Gospel.
After that first Sunday I unexplainably found myself thinking “I want to come back next week and hear those things and do those things and say those things again” And before I even knew what was happening I started going to Pastor Ross Merkel’s adult confirmation class. I could not believe I was choosing to spend my Wednesday nights in the basement of a church of all places…yet there I was.
I had at this point been clean and sober for 4 years following just the tiniest little drug and alcohol problem. God had literally interrupted my life and plucked me off one path and put me on another bringing life out of the death of this Sinner/Saint. So when Pastor Merkel taught me that God brings life out of death, that we are all simultaneously sinner and saint; when he said that no one is climbing the spiritual ladder up to God but that God always comes down to us; when he said that God’s grace is a gift freely given which we don’t earn but merely attempt to live in response to…well, when he said all of this, I already knew it was true.
I had undeniably encountered God’s grace when I got sober and now I was hearing a historically rooted beautiful articulation of what I had already experienced to be true. It’s what we like to call Lutheran Theology. And It changed everything.
Those classes… and Ross Merkel’s gracious acceptance of me… and my hearing the gospel …and receiving the Eucharist at St Paul’s was how God again simply came and got me. It felt like the Kingdom of Heaven and I fell in Love with this whole Lutheran thing. It was like that 5 minutes of a movie where the couple is gloriously ignorant of each other’s short comings and are vapidly skipping hand-in-hand through a field of wildflowers ….because you know as the viewer that as soon as the montage ends some kind of awful is gonna happen. The Lutheran church was so different from the conservative Christianity of my youth and I was so happy to have discovered something so beautiful – and so different from the church of my upbringing.
So when I was soon told that Ross Merkel had actually been removed from the clergy roster because of a policy in the ELCA prohibiting partnered gay folks from serving as pastors I was devastated. It felt like the rug of hope that the church might actually be something beautiful and redemptive was pulled out from under me. This Lutheran thing isn’t what I hoped after all. Because these Lutherans are just as bad as everyone else. Yet in his humble wisdom Pastor Merkle reminded me that God is still at work redeeming us and making all things new even in the midst of broken people and broken systems.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. You already know how the rest of the parable goes. The landowner goes about hiring whoever happens to be hanging out at the marketplace all day. And when everyone is paid the same wage, when the landowner makes the slept-till-noon new hires equal to the upstanding early risers who worked all day in the scorching heat, well…things get ugly.
You gotta love a kingdom of God parable in which the citizens who make up the kingdom of heaven are completely unlikable and entitled and whiney. Don’t you picture the Kingdom of Heaven as more like a thing where everyone wears sandals and flowing white linen? Wouldn’t people in the kingdom of God appear more, I don’t know, spiritual? Wouldn’t people in the kingdom of God have that sheen of serenity and calm which is not unlike having taken a couple doses of Xanex? Nope. Apparently the Kingdom of God is like a cruddy work place filled with type A personalities whose sense of entitlement would rival that of Paris Hilton working alongside slackers who take smoke breaks and earn what money they have through scratch tickets.
What kind of off-brand kingdom is made up of this kind of people?
God’s kind. Because here’s the thing: what makes this the kingdom of God is not the quality of the people in it. The kingdom of God is like a glorious mess of a kingdom where Paris Hilton and Hilton Perez and Fred Phelps and Fredrick Beuchner and ELM pastors and Core Lutherans all receive the same mercy we never saw coming because we were too busy worrying about what everyone else is doing.
What makes Lutherans blessed is not, as I thought, that they’re somehow different from the people in the Church of Christ where I was raised. What makes us all blessed is that God comes and gets us, dumb as we are; smart and faithful as we are; just as we are. Because the kingdom of God, is founded not on the quality of the people in it but on the unrestrained and lavish mercy of the God who came and got us.
Our gospel text for today is not the parable of the workers. It’s the parable of the landowner. Because what makes it the kingdom of God is not the worthiness or piety or social justice-yness or hard work of the laborers…it’s the fact that the trampy landowner couldn’t manage to keep out of the market place. He goes back and back and back interrupting lives…coming to get his people.
Like a parent throwing a wedding feast God goes out into the street and just grabs up any old wretch. Like a sower who just wantonly, wastefully casts handfuls of seed, God just CAN’T seem to be discerning. Like a father who runs out into the street to embrace his wasted betrayer of a son, God simply insists on coming to get us. Insists on making all things new, insists on ripping out our old hearts and replacing them with God’s own.
And anytime we think that this kingdom of God is just for the nice people, or the ones who are ethnically Minnesotan or the ones who really really believe it; anytime we think this thing is just for the liberals who are open and affirming or the ones who protect the Confessions, we become blind to God’s making all things new work. Work like the unexplainable fact that I am now in a clergy small group with a Church of Christ preacher who is my brother in Christ and friend and colleague.
This is the kingdom of heaven breaking in on us. A kingdom where yes, the people are somewhat questionable, but which is defined by the mercy of a God who is revealed in the cradle and the cross.And so, Paul, Jeff, Craig, Dawn, Megan, Sharon and Ross… know this: The Kingdom of God is also like right here right now. The kingdom of God is like this very moment in which sinners are reconciled to God and to one another. The kingdom of God is like this very moment where God is making all things new…even this off brand denomination of the ELCA. Because in the end, your calling, and your value in the Kingdom of God comes not from the approval of the other workers but in your having been come-and-gotten by God. It is the pure and unfathomable mercy of God which defines this thing. And nothing. nothing else gets to tell you who you are.