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Open and Affirming of LGBT People: Why it still Matters

Earlier this Pride Month, June 2019, Dr. Carolyn Pressler preached at New Brighton United Church of Christ as they celebrated 25 years of being Open and Affirming. The following post is excerpted from her sermon.

The decision to become ONA (Open and Affirming) is to create a safe harbor for those of us whom the church has long regarded as “strangers” and “aliens.” I am often asked to speak to congregations wrestling with whether or not to become ONA. The folks want to know why I, a lesbian and bible teacher, think it matters. I usually give three reasons. 

First, it matters because those of us who are in the sexual minority need to know—explicitly—where we can safely go without being subtly or not so subtly attacked. What is at stake, at least for some of us, is nothing less than the opportunity to worship.  For worship involves listening for the still-speaking-God, and that in turn requires enough safety that we can let down our guard in order to to be open to the Spirit. 

My own coming out process was probably as “safe” as anyone can hope for, yet there were roadblocks and hazards—many of which were put there by churches. After a sermon touching on the perennial controversy at the general conference of the United Methodist Church over whether to ordain gays and lesbians, a woman who had immigrated to this country decades earlier confided in me that “back home we didn’t have this problem. We just killed them.” It’s hard to hold one’s heart open to the spirit when someone nearby judges it would be better just to kill us.

For twenty-five years, this church has provided a place where queer people like me can worship without experiencing ongoing challenges to our humanity, our worth as children of God.  This is a church home where we are no longer “strangers and aliens.”  That matters.

Second, by becoming open and affirming UCCNB has been an important witness to the larger community. Large segments of our society are convinced that all Christians believe that homosexuality is an abomination unto the Lord, a belief reinforced whenever the media contrasts comments from the religious right with statements by secular liberals. The impact on families of LGBT folk, on kids who wrestle with their sexuality, on anyone who struggles to reconcile their faith and their love, can be devastating. When I taught a class on feminist biblical interpretation at an area university, students who were not in my seminar lined up to talk with me after almost every class session. They weren’t interested in feminism or biblical interpretation. They had heard that there was a lesbian clergywoman on campus. They didn’t know that people could be Christian and queer. They needed to see for themselves that it was possible…and to ask me “how?” 

One of the saddest exchanges I had was with a young woman whose “friend” was about to break up with her partner because the partner wanted to have children. The “friend” was willing to risk hellfire for herself to be with the woman she loved—but said she couldn’t risk bringing a child into being that would be consigned to hell for having lesbian mothers. 

Our ONA witness matters because young women need to know that God embraces them and their babies. This congregation has taken a stand that lets folks recognize that it is possible to be Christian and also who they know themselves to be: lesbians, gays, transgender, bisexual, gender queer or straight. You—we-- provide public witness that faith in God, through Christ, need not be defined by who is excluded and condemned, but by who is welcomed and blessed through God’s inclusive love. 

Third, by providing safe space for us, being an ONA congregation helps to make queer folk visible, and to normalize our lives. Our culture has come a long way since 1969—and yet…Valentine’s Day cards still overwhelmingly depict heterosexual couples; romantic movies are most often about boy meets girl, not girl meets girl. How healing, how hope engendering it is to worship with a congregation where there are other couples who look like us.  How healing, how hope engendering, to be simply one more family. For twenty-five years, this congregation has welcomed openly gay or lesbian couples, transgendered persons, queer families. You have made our presence visible and normal. That is a huge gift. 

Those are the three things I lift up to congregations that ask why being open and affirming matters. Psychologically, pastorally, socially and politically, the hard work it takes to be open and affirming matters—it matters hugely.

After reflecting on our congregation’s journey—and after immersing myself in today’s epistle lesson, I want to name a fourth—and perhaps most important way in which being open and affirming matters…It matters spiritually and theologically. For as the wall of hostility between straight folk and queer folk is broken down, as we live out relationships that honor difference within unity, God’s peace is manifest. God is manifest. We are “built together into a dwelling place for God.”

Now, that is a tricky statement. Ephesians is a tricky text. We dare not proclaim lightly our oneness or peace in Christ. It is too easy to veer off into glibness, on the one hand, or triumphalism, on the other. As one commentator noted, “peace reverberates through this passage, but rarely throughout the life of the church.”  

Glib, superficial interpretations of the passage ignore the violence and bigotry of which Christianity has been and is too often guilty. Triumphalist interpretations—that, to quote Amy Pauw “arrogate to [the church] exclusive ownership of the household of God” beget violence and bigotry. I am thinking not only of the massive violence done to queer folks through the centuries of the church’s bigotry, but also of the horrendous violence sparked by misguided Christians who engage in the hatred poured out on refugees, people of color, Muslims…

Yet, if we dare not claim our oneness in Christ glibly or in a spirit of chauvinism, claim it we must. Yes, Christianity has too often shattered God’s peace, too often built massive walls of division. But that is precisely why communities that embody reconciliation –however provisionally--are so extraordinarily important. For in congregations like this one, we glimpse the truth—God is present in our world, bringing down dividing walls, restoring the peace—the interconnectedness in love—that was God’s intent for creation. Wherever walls of division are brought down, we glimpse, however briefly, the loving, powerful and self-giving work of God. In that love, we “are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” 



Carolyn Pressler

Carolyn Pressler is the Harry C. Piper Professor of Biblical Interpretation at United. Born and raised in Elkhart, Indiana, she received an M.Div. from Wesley Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Princeton Theological Seminary. Pressler is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Prior to attending seminary, Pressler worked as a community organizer and taught community organizing at a small college in the Washington, D.C. area. She continues to be interested in community and social justice issues, and has a special concern for the interrelationship of biblical studies and social ethics.

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