November 8, 2020
23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
Let me tell you the mystery of the gospel of Jesus Christ: Winning isn’t always winning, and losing isn’t always losing. It’s the wisdom of the cross
I know this from my own life. Some of you may know that in 2007, I was put on trial by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America because I told the bishop that I had met the love of my life. I had, in fact, met my bridegroom and no longer intended to be just a bridesmaid at weddings. When he reminded me that there were rules against “practicing homosexuals” and then je asked me to resign as a pastor and from the congregation I served in Atlanta, I said no. He filed charges, and there was a trial. The church jury and judge (yes, we have those in the 21st century) ruled against me, and they set the date of my “defrocking” in August after the national gathering of our denomination, suggesting that the church really should change its policy because it’s not right to throw away pastors whose congregations continue to hear the gospel. In a weird way, we lost and won at the same time. Then we appealed (yes, there’s even a supreme court in the ELCA). And, in July, one month before the churchwide assembly, they smacked down the “lower court’s” decision and removed me immediately from the roster, my very own experience of having the door shut, standing in the outer darkness. And, then, after huge amounts of planning, agitating, strategizing, and vote counting, to ensure a process for change, the effort failed. The church said, “No.”
I won’t lie to you. It was devasting. Many in the movement never recovered. They left the church. They heard the words from the gospel text, “I never knew you.”
What I didn’t see that summer was that the very seeds for a policy change were being sown in that loss. By 2009, a sea change occurred: bishops, pastors, seminary presidents and faculty, synods, congregations, said, “We cannot be a church that says I never knew you. We cannot be a church that throws people away.” In 2009, the policy was changed. In 2010, both Darin and I were re-instated to the clergy roster, given back our frocks.
And, almost immediately, people in the church began debating whether this new policy included people who are transgender.
And, so it goes, winning never means the work is done; and losing doesn’t mean that all is lost. God will use any loss to move the reign of God forward and to invite us to see new truths that, perhaps, we didn’t want to see before. God is in this mix, moving the universe toward celebration, enlisting a cast of characters to wait and be ready to join that celebration the moment that the cry goes up.
There’s no doubt that we identify with the bridesmaids this week. Some feel like they got swept up in the party. Some felt left outside. Some worked so hard and were so prepared to change the world on election night. Some slept through the whole thing, only to wake up and realize they should have been more prepared for the moment. In our gathering this morning, waiting as we are for the reign of God fully to appear, we are probably both foolish and wise.
Always a bridesmaid…
Clearly, the church is still waiting for the full celebration, the arrival of complete justice and peace, the definitive announcement that all are welcome, all are forgiven.. No more bitterness; no more tears; no more violence.
We live our lives in this space between the invitation and the celebration. We’re always waiting.
We know that no president is the bridegroom, the savior. And we know that no win or loss ends our call “to keep our lamps trimmed and burning.” We know that we will need the baptismal oil, slathered on foreheads and pooling in hearts, to see wisely that this nation has not been saved nor lost. We have clarity on this Easter-saturated morning, to be wise enough to lament the deep divisions that are present in America, not needing to pretend we’re greater or better than we really are. It’s usually pretty foolish to be adamantly ideological, or stubbornly partisan, or even naievly patriotic.
Yet we often act like we are only in community with those in our own party. In fact, some of us seem quite content to say, “I never knew you, nor do I want to.” Our nation has a propensity to say this to those who the Bible lovingly describes as “the least,” no matter who wins elections. However, God’s attention has always been with the poor people’s campaign; marching in a parade of aliens and outsiders, waving the flag of the peacemakers and the humble and the merciful, caravans and boat parades for mercy and kindness.
I wonder if the wise this week are those who won but know that there is much yet to win; or those who lost who have become convinced that there’s a larger arc to the story. It’s probably only the foolish to think that we’re done for the next four years.
I wish the wise bridesmaids had recognized that the foolish were their siblings. It wasn’t a win that they went into the party without their silly companions. Why not just say, “Wait with us to go into the party, then we’ll figure out how to get some more oil when the sun comes up.For now, just come close and share my light.” The point of it all, it seems, is for us to know one another, even as we come to know and be known by the bridegroom. What if this crazy community that waits, comprised of foolish and wise, sometimes switching roles depending on the availability of internal oil, says, “Let’s just get to know one another.” Let us never be a church that says to any child of God, “I never knew you.” What if this ridiculous community, dressed as it is in ugly bridesmaids dresses, decides that no one will go into the party before everyone can go into the party? What if there is no party as long as racism isn’t a deal breaker for our candidates? What if we stop calling the hoarders of power and wealth and privilege “the wisest” among us, and call it for what it is: foolishness? What if we stopped saying I only need to be concerned with having enough resources for myself? And what if we stopped waiting for the party to start, and started it ourselves, even when the door remains closed. Light a lamp; share our resources; listen to one another’s stories; discover what we’re all really waiting for; let the party get started.
I think that’s what church is. It’s the party that starts before the party; the one before the bridegroom finally arrives; a community that already beats with the bridegroom’s heart. The baptismal garment is really just a bridesmaid’s dress. The oil on the forehead is enough for everyone’s lamp. Water washes our vision clean to see the world, a community of saints and sinners, all waiting for the same thing: life and love, justice and mercy. A chance to breathe, to stop fighting one another, to have peace like a river.
The parable is wrong about one thing. When the bridal couple arrives, they won’t shut the door but will leave it ajar, certainly unlocked, so that even the foolish, who is likely to be me or you or Joe or Donald or citizen Jane or a border neighbor, Maria, can come on in, as the Christ catches your eye across the party to say, “I’ve been waiting for you all along. It’s just not a party without you here.”