The past few weeks following the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality have been filled with stark contrast for me. My church celebrated the decision by honoring the work of our former rector and the many church members who began working for marriage equality in the early 1990s, a time when public support for marriage equality did not exist, but they did it because they felt it reflected who God was and what God was calling them to do. At the same time, other voices close to me raised concern that the Supreme Court decision represented the abandonment of biblical principles and Christian tradition.
As the days passed and the blogs and posts from people who said that they could not accept the full inclusion of LGBT people in the church accumulated, my mind kept turning to a parable Jesus told about two sons.
It’s the one where the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance — something which was not supposed to happen until the father died — and heads off to spend the money on good food and women. He runs out of money and ends up going hungry while working as a farm hand. This younger son then remembers how well his father treated the workers on his farm back home. So he plans to return home and work for dad, going so far as to rehearse a little confession. But while he is on the way, “when he was still a long way off, his father sees him, feels compassion, and after running fell upon his neck and lavished him with kisses.”
The son tries to give his rehearsed confession, even saying that he is not worthy to be called a son, but the father will have none of it. Instead, he throws a party, with music and a fattened calf, because apparently that is how Jesus thinks you welcome people back into the family.
The parable doesn’t end with the younger son’s homecoming, however. The story turns to the older brother’s reaction to his father’s acceptance of the younger brother. When the older brother finds out who the party is for he refuses the father’s request for him to join the party. He asks why the father never gave him a party — not even a “skinny goat” to share with his friends — even though he had never overlooked a single one of the father’s commands.
And here’s the real twist, the father responds by pointing out that the older brother has misunderstood their relationship. While the older brother assumed that his obedience had generated his father’s love and rewards, the father tells him that he had his love and rewards the whole time. The father says, “My child, you have always been with me and all I have is yours.”
The older brother doesn’t understand how the father can welcome the lost brother back with such joy because the older brother does not actually know who the father is.
And as I have read more and more blogs where people reference the same list of verses to show that God cannot accept LGBT people, I can’t help but wonder if these people have forgotten who God is and what God is like. I wonder if they have lost the capacity to be surprised by God, to stand in awe of the God who is always greater than we could ask or imagine God to be. I wonder if they have forgotten that they are people who, if we are going to take a full account of actions or habits or genealogy, don’t belong in God’s family either. Not me, not you, not anybody.
The other night I was at a gathering where I was one of the only non-LGBT people around a table. And as the conversation turned from spiritual formation, to discerning the call of God and listening to Holy Spirit, to the responsibility we all have as Christians to engage in the work of God and service to the world, I was overwhelmed by the realization that I was at the party. I was surrounded by people who were filled with God’s presence and God’s love. People who knew that God had welcomed them back into the family and was now calling them to be a part of transforming the world by welcoming others. People who were living into God’s acceptance of them and were now channeling that awe, wonder, and love towards others. It caused me to stand in awe and wonder at God’s love.
I also realized what was missing from all the conversations which list reason after reason why God can’t possibly accept this person or that person. They are missing out on who God is and it breaks my heart because there are some truly great people in that group. These are people who have devoted themselves to God and to ministries which serve and protect people in need. But, as with the older brother, simply doing the right things does not mean you know who God is or what God will do.
In fact, the Bible contains story after story of God’s people (especially those who can point to a passage from Scripture) being surprised when God doesn’t act according to their expectations. In the book of Acts, God repeatedly acts in surprising ways, and the church’s response is to stand in awe and follow God. And as the church stands in awe at God’s capacity to love and accept, the church finds itself transformed, strengthened, and filled with God’s Spirit.
There is this great little line at the end of Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome where Paul says that God loves people so much that God is willing to act “contrary to nature” in order to welcome people into the family of God (Romans 11:24).
REally? God is willing to act contrary to what is right, proper, maybe even expected, in order get more people on the dance floor?
Right after that Paul launches into a little prayer and says, “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:34). The answer is no one. Not me, not you, not anybody. The church grows and thrives in proportion to its ability to stand in awe and wonder at God’s ability to welcome people.