Last Friday at the 2013 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, I heard an excellent sermon preached on Matthew 15:21-28, the story of the Syrophoenician woman. In it, I heard good news for LGBTQ people and especially those called to places where they have not been welcomed.
In this passage, we heard a difficult truth – that Jesus didn’t always welcome everyone. When a woman from outside the Jewish faith approached him for a miracle to save her daughter, first the disciples turned her away. Then Jesus did. She persisted and in a stunningly frank exchange she made it clear that she was able to accept whatever Jesus had to offer. Her faithfulness changed Jesus. As biblical scholars note, this is a turning point for Jesus and leads to a great expansion of his ministry to people outside the Jewish faith.
The pastor didn’t mention LGBTQ people, but as I sat among a dozen or so LGBTQ pastors, candidates and seminarians as I listened to his sermon, I could only think of the faithfulness of people who have been rejected at many turns, but continue to follow a call to ministry. I sat next to a pastor who served faithfully as a pastoral associate for nearly 20 years before her congregation decided to move forward and ordain her extraordinarily. I sat near a clergy couple who were placed in separate rooms by their candidacy committee and quizzed about their relationship. I sat near someone who was selected for a full tuition scholarship from the ELCA’s Fund for Leaders several years ago, and who still awaits first call. I sat near another pastor whose candidacy committee told him that he was the one of the best candidates for ministry they’d ever seen, but that they could not approve him due to the ELCA’s (then) guidelines. Despite these barriers, each of these pastors has followed her or his call to ministry, and the church is better for it. These are just a handful of the stories that surrounded me that morning.
I was sitting among many Proclaim leaders because one of their colleagues, the Rev. Tita Valeriano, was presiding at the service. Just a few seats down was the Rev. Guy Erwin. Just four short years ago, our own church policies prevented both Tita and Guy from being recognized as ELCA clergy. And due to their faithfulness and the persistence and faithfulness of many before them and alongside them, these leaders can now do the ministry to which they were called. And I believe that the church has and will continue to change as a result.
The 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly was a powerful experience because of moments like these. I was deeply grateful to be there to show my gratitude for the leadership of Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson and to recognize where he has led this denomination. And I’m thrilled to welcome Bp. Elizabeth Eaton as Presiding Bishop!
I couldn’t agree more with Presiding Bishop Elect Elizabeth Eaton’s words that she shared in a press conference following the election: “The election of the woman to the office of presiding bishop is a fulfillment of his ministry of making this church a welcoming place,” [Eaton] said.
We’re still on a journey and there is a long way to go before the diverse gifts of all are recognized. But we’re on our way. I’m thankful for the prophetic vision and witness of LGBTQ pastors, their congregations & ministries, and the ELM donors who support this work.