The Final Word

People tell me I like to talk. Sometimes I talk too much. One of my core faults is always wanting to have the last word. Hidden in here may be one of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog.

Yes, I do like shake-’em-up conversations, especially with people who are more curious about next questions than needing to have pat answers. Sometimes I toss out strong opinions hoping to elicit an equally strong response.

Nothing is more disappointing than to have someone back-off. Well, actually, there is something more disheartening — that is to have someone recite pious palliatives, hide behind doctrinaire opinions or bolster their closed-mindedness by only getting their information from like-minded ideologues.

My ideal dinner party would be a table with Krista Tippet surrounded by five guests of her choosing from her Public Radio program, On Being. In a setting like that I would never have the last word. I would be more than satisfied if I could leave with a whole new set of provocative questions. But I digress.

The primary inspiration for this post was happening upon a sermon recently preached by a minister of the Uniting Church (Methodist/Reformed) in Swansea, Australia. His Scripture reference is the Beatitudes.

The very same text are the Gospel verses Russ and I have coincidentally chosen for our wedding service. As an exercise in not needing to have the last word, here is a link to a marvelous sermon preached by a Reformed minister half a world away… [link]

We would be honored to have his be the final Word preached at our marriage ceremony.

Don’t Tread on Me!

A funny thing happened one day at the Cedar County Court House. My sister-in-law who had a title and abstract company randomly discovered that the officiant had failed to sign her marriage license back in 1961. Were she and my brother legally married? Is she really my sister-in-law?

By the time of her discovery she and my brother had four children and were pillars of the community. My sister-in-law founded and was the sole owner of the title company. My brother had served numerous terms on the city council as well as mayor of our hometown. Both were strong supporters of the local schools and highly visible in their church.

The parish secretary had dutifully recorded their marriage in church records. There was no doubt they were sacramentaly married in the eyes of the Catholic Church. But the priest whom the state had authorized to serve as its representative, much like a justice of the peace, had failed to sign the legal document prescribed for civil marriage. Were they legally married?

This family story highlights something I also know from my years as a pastor. Most couples and wedding guests are totally unaware of the dual function a priest, minister or rabbi serves in contracting marriage. Most people have no idea that after the ceremony — usually in the vesting room, back of church or sometimes at the reception — the “wedding coordinator” has to chase down the officiant and honor attendants to sign the marriage license as prescribed by the state law.  The parish secretary then dutifully mails the license to state officials.

This is a pretty important clarification as many states consider “religious freedom” exemptions for everyone from photographers and cake bakers to county courthouse officials. It takes on even greater significance as we await a Supreme Court decision which two-thirds of Americans presume will open civil marriage to same-sex couples.

Let’s be clear, no one is saying that churches, synagogues or mosques should be required by civil law to accept, host, or bless gay unions, or any other marriage they may find objectionable. In fact, quite the opposite!  What goes on among religious people, and in religious spaces, is constitutionally as well as theologically sacred.

Jay Michaelson of the Religious News Service makes this point in a commentary [link] that should be required reading for all Americans. He bolsters his point with his personal experience growing up in a synagogue which refused to perform interfaith weddings. Does that violate the civil rights of the couple wishing to be married? Well, it does affect them, but the couple’s right to get married wherever they want is trumped by the synagogue members’ rights to freely exercise their religion.

But the courthouse is not a religious space, and the magistrate is not acting in a religious capacity. She is doing her job, which she took an oath to do. Photographers and cake-bakers are another matter — there are usually many more to choose from.  Michaelson gives more examples.

Suppose two divorced people marry one another. Some Catholics may believe that to be against God’s law. But a Catholic magistrate is not a Catholic priest. He’s not performing the sacrament of marriage. He’s acting under secular, state law.

Or suppose a black man wants to marry a white woman — it was illegal in Nebraska when my brother and sister-in-law got married for a white person to marry either an Asian or an African-American! The US Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional in 1967. Was that ruling incorrect? Should marriage clerks with sincere moral objections be able to refuse to perform their civic function?

My guess is we will be seeing many more “religious freedom” laws considered regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on the right of every American to enjoy the freedoms and privileges — as well as responsibilities — of civil marriage with the person they love.

As a Catholic I am very well aware — nor am I asking that my church to violate — its teaching about the Sacrament of Matrimony. I cherish that tradition and affirm the church’s teaching. I have had the honor to be the minister of that sacrament and signed many state-issued marriage licenses.

I have also had the experience of teaching American Government to juniors and seniors in high school. Just as most Americans attending a church wedding conflate the sacred and secular roles of the officiant, most Americans are functionally illiterate of the constitutionally enshrined principle of Separation of Church and State.

As an American I want this nation to live up to the promise and protections of our Constitution. As a Catholic I am aware of her teachings and continue to find my spiritual home among its members. As a gay man I claim and expect my government to keep its role separate from my religion and ensure my Constitutional right to Equal Protection of the Law.

Sorry, there isn’t a courthouse clerk in America who should have the right to deny me a marriage license because they have a religious objection. If they have a problem with that perhaps they should take up photography or cake decorating — at least then my taxes would not be subsidizing their religious practice.

Do You Know Him?

This poem was written by my friend, Kathy Caron in November 2009:


Do you know him?
Do you know him?
Is he really a sinner?
For being the person God created him to be?
The bright, inquisitive boy who has a heart of gold?
The boy who cares deeply for the rights of others?
The boy with the playful spirit, and creative depth?
Do you know him?
The young man who struggles to accept who God created him to be?
The young man who is following his path, with righteousness and care?
The young man who cares about the world
So deeply that it is painful?
Do you know him?
The brother of the two who silently, obediently, listened
While you called him a sinner?
The son who always takes time to remember birthdays, anniversaries
making things by hand that he knows would be special?
Because he notices.
Because it matters to him.</em
No, you don’t know him.
Yet you judge him.
Using God’s word as your shield.
He is my son.
He is not a sinner
Not for embracing who God created him to be.
He is simply trying to be that person.
Yet, he has the burden of living in a world filled with fear and judgment
About who he is.
He is just like you and I
Created in the image and likeness of God.

Do you really know him? God, I mean.

Scripture Blesses Same-Sex Marriage

Twelve years ago I proudly marched in my first Gay Pride parade. Yes, I was afraid! A lifetime of being vilified within American culture and condemned as “inherently disordered” by the church I love and served would not easily loosen its harsh grip.

A few short months before that Sunday in June 2002 I had been the pastor of the Church of St. Luke – an iconic institution a block down Summit Avenue from the Governor’s Mansion. I had been a priest for thirteen years and a Jesuit for twenty-three. The stark contrast between preaching and presiding at Sunday liturgy and now marching in the Pride parade down Hennepin Avenue could not have been more acute.

I have come to believe what I only intuitively knew twelve years ago – the turmoil and debates in Christian churches are not ultimately about my sexual orientation or even sexuality in general. Our biggest fight is really about our understanding of Scripture and its use in exercising authority and maintaining order in our communities.

If it were really about sexual orientation and behaviors there would be more than enough “inherent disorder” among heterosexuals to keep the defenders of moral rectitude busy! As Luke Timothy Johnson – distinguished professor of New Testament at Emory University and father of four – incisively points out, a relatively small set of same-sex behaviors gets singled out for moral condemnation while a vast pandemic of sexual disorder goes ignored.

It’s a moral duplicity as old as the human race! The LGBT minority offers a convenient scapegoat onto which the cultural majority easily projects its own moral failings. Righteous indignation often compensates for the human state of powerlessness. Long ago I learned to be especially wary of any who would sit in moral judgment – what is so out of control in their own lives that they feel the need to control mine or the lives of others? From my way of reading the Gospels, this resonates with what Jesus preached. And for that, he was scapegoated by those who claimed seats of authority.

As Luke Timothy Johnson convincingly asserts is an essay cited below, a moral obligation confronts those of us who experience God at work among all persons and in all covenanted and life-enhancing forms of sexual love. Believe me, those who are gay understand fully that the authority of Scripture and of the church’s tradition is scarcely trivial to us.

At the same time, we must honestly ask when has Christianity ever been lived in precise accord with the Scriptures? Forget about reconciling war with Jesus’ Scriptural teachings of nonviolence, I am regularly exasperated with Catholic bishops who wantonly ignore its own Just War tradition while giving tacit approbation to whatever military action our government chooses to deploy.

Scripture and tradition are conveniently and regularly set aside by bishops no less those of us who populate the pews every weekend. What about divorce? Even under another name such as “annulment”, Jesus explicitly prohibits it! And where would we be if Christians ever faithfully observed the exhortation in Leviticus to put adulterers to death?    Must wives be submissive to their husbands to have a good Christian marriage?

Yes, something sacred is at stake. The authority of Scripture and of the church’s tradition is scarcely trivial. As Professor Johnson demands, our responsibility is to take our tradition and the Scripture with at least as much seriousness as those who use the Bible as a buttress for rejecting forms of sexual love they fear or cannot understand.

Again relying heavily on Johnson’s compelling insights, our situation vis-à-vis the authority of Scripture is not unlike that of abolitionists in nineteenth-century America. All abolitionists could point to was Galatians 3:28 and the Letter of Philemon, while slave owners had the rest of the Old and New Testaments which gave every indication that slaveholding was legitimate and necessary. Scripture explicitly sanctions slavery as a God-ordained social arrangement, one to which neither Moses nor Jesus nor Paul raised any fundamental objection.

So how is it that now, in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong? The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience.

Eventually, though begrudgingly, we came to recognize that every human being is created in God’s own image. Once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation and our churches could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.

Those of us who call for full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion find ourselves in a position similar to that of the early abolitionists. We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position.

To justify our resolve, we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). And if the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture.

Paul struggled mightily! Ultimately he recognized he could not force the God of Jesus Christ into the framework of his community’s previous understanding of what it means to be a people in covenant relationship with God. Instead, he called others to reread and reinterpret all of their Scripture with new eyes and a transformed heart. We too journey to Damascus and are at times startled to recognize Christ in those we previously rejected if not persecuted.

Quite simply, we would not revere the New Testament as sacred if the first believers had not been willing to obey the living God disclosed in their own stories and experiences more than the prescriptions contained in their sacred texts —writings we, as did they, cherish as holy and inspired by God.

It is extraordinarily important, as well, that we who assert convictions based on the graced experience of our lives not just accept “cheap” or “easy” grace – as if whatever feels good is morally acceptable. What grounds our Scriptural defense is our own lived experience of those profound stories of bondage and freedom, longing and love, shared by thousands of persons over many centuries and across many cultures, that help define us as human.

Our obligation, therefore, is to name what constitutes virtue and vice in sexual behavior. A good start would be applying the same criteria on both sides. If porneia among heterosexuals includes promiscuity, violence and exploitation, then the church must condemn similar forms of homosexual activity. Similarly, if holiness among heterosexuals includes fidelity, chastity, modesty, and fruitfulness, we should celebrate and praise the same virtues whenever and wherever present in same-sex love.

The creative, redemptive work of our living God never ceases. The Spirit blows as and where she will. As people and as the People of God, we continue to be shaped as imagio Dei every day of our lives in ways that can surprise and even shock us. This fact cuts to the deepest truth revealed by Scripture itself—namely, that God does create the world anew at every moment, does call into being that which is not, and does raise the dead to new and greater forms of life.

In this perennial struggle to come to the fullness of faith, brave witnesses like Paul refused to force their experience of the Risen One into the “old wineskins” of any dogmatic or literal understanding of Scripture. Instead, they followed the invitation to give witness to Christ alive among them. In the light of that experience, they began to reread and reinterpret all of their Scripture as prophecy that reveals God in ways they had not perceived before—and could not have perceived before.

In short, we would not have the New Testament as Scripture if the first believers had not been willing to obey the living God disclosed in their own bodies more than the precedents provided by their most cherished writings—writings we also, by the way, consider holy and inspired by God.

Jesus reserves his harshest judgment for the Pharisees’ willful narrowing of God’s initiative and intentions. They obstinately clung to their own sense of righteousness rather than acknowledging God’s prerogative and propensity to work in ways their moral categories could not contain. In this we see that human history truly does reveal salvation history!

Yes, much has changed in the last twelve years. Much more needs to change – and this by God’s design and initiative. This Sunday morning I don’t know if I will be at the parade or at church. It will come down to how the Spirit moves me!  My hunch is I will be in the pew at Christ the King Catholic Church.

In any case, let’s all celebrate where we’ve been, where we’ve come  and where we’re headed — with parades and in our churches. Happy Pride!
This reflection is largely an edit and synopsis of Luke Timothy Johnson’s superb essay, “Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture and Experience” that first appeared in the June 11, 2007 issue of Commonweal magazine. In writing, I made the judgment that extensive citations and quotations would be distracting. Nevertheless, I must express my esteem for and indebtedness to Professor Johnson. I enthusiastically encourage you to read his more extensive and compelling essay [here].



Eric Ohena Lembembe

Remember that name… Eric Ohena Lembembe.

Last evening was the first I heard the name. We were guests at a neighbor’s home to learn about The Advocates for Human Rights. We were duly impressed by all we heard.

The Advocates is a Minnesota based network that investigates and exposes human rights violations, represents immigrants and refugees seeking asylum, trains and assists groups that protect human rights, and uses research, education and advocacy to engage the public and policy-makers in human rights work. I encourage you to check-out their website [here]. 

Eric Ohena Lembembe was a human rights worker in Cameroon. Somehow international reporting of his torture and murder in July 2013 escaped my attention or failed to register in my memory. Imagine… the courageous and tragic story of Eric Ohena Lembembe was retold and honored in a neighborhood gathering last evening in south Minneapolis.

Mr. Lembembe was a well-known gay rights activist, who led an organization which campaigned for people with AIDS in the central African country. Under Cameroon law homosexuality is illegal and punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. His killing followed several attacks on the offices of human rights defenders in Cameroon, including those working for gay rights.

In his last blog post before he died, Lembembe – who had recently contributed to a 55-page report on prosecutions of gay people in Cameroon – described attacks on gay and lesbian groups, and criticized the lack of action by the authorities to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators.

The Advocates actively collaborated with Mr. Lembembe. Last evening friends spoke of him on a first-name basis. To this day police have failed to investigate his murder. Though his body was found in his home with his feet broken and his face, hands and feet burned, the cause of death on his official death-certificate remains blank.

A representative of Human Rights Watch has aptly observed: “It’s extremely ironic and really sad that Eric seems to have been killed by the same violence he was speaking out against.” Again, we are reminded of a recurring, tragic pattern of our lives.

Last evening, at the home of neighbors right here in south Minneapolis, I had my Easer faith confirmed… He who has died, LIVES!

Eric Ohena Lembembe, we remember!


I have relied on The Guardian and their July 2013 [report] on Mr. Lembembe’s death.

No Jumping Allowed

Reverend Fred Phelps, the founder of the nefarious Westboro Baptist Church, is reportedly dying at a hospice in Kansas.  We all know him for organizing protests at the funerals of anti-LGBT hate crime victims, soldiers, and celebrities under the slogan “God Hates Fags.”  It was a proud Sunday morning about twelve years ago when we at the Church of St. Luke warranted his angry attention.  Never had the 9:30 lower church community sung “All are Welcome” with as much vigor, resolve and celebration.

I wish we had done something explicitly prophetic to merit Westboro’s ire. “Lukers” truly were a community of faith-filled, joyful, inclusive, prayerful and socially committed Christians. Truthfully, we were simply one of a series of churches targeted by Phelps in a media-mongering march to our neighbors at St. Paul Reformation Lutheran Church.  Reformation had recently called a lesbian to serve as an associate pastor.  Still, this moment stands out as a very proud day within a very distinguished history of what was Church of St. Luke.

It came as a shock to learn that Fred Phelps had been a champion of civil rights.  Unbelievable.  Hard to imagine but the evidence is irrefutable.  In a PolicyMic post on Twitter, Matthew Rozsa explains the inconceivable. After moving to Topeka in 1954, Phelps developed a reputation for taking civil rights cases that other attorneys — black as well as white — refused handle. Phelps’ reputation reached the point that he became the go-to litigator for victims of racist persecution. Rozsa reports, even after he received numerous threats and had his windows shot out, Phelps persisted in his work. By 1987 Phelps won an award from the Bonner Springs branch of the NAACP for his “steely determination for justice during his tenure as a civil rights attorney.”

So what happened?

Rozsa debunks the argument that Phelps merely took those cases to make money. He also discredits as far too simplistic the idea that Phelps’ subsequent hate-mongering proved his earlier work was insincere.  We want to believe there is an impermeable wall between that which makes one person a “hero” and another one a “villain.” Rather, the frightening fact we so tenaciously want to deny is that good and evil simultaneously reside within each of us.

Rozsa’s uses Phelps’s life to illumine the truth we want to flee – not only can good and evil co-exist within each of us, they often spring from the same source. Rozsa credits philosopher Eric Hoffer’s classic The True Believer when explaining: Individuals who invest their life’s work in larger social causes often do so for psychological as well as ideological reasons. Regardless of the exact beliefs of the movements in question — whether they are religious or political, left-wing or right-wing, intellectual or visceral — people who become “true believers” in those causes frequently do so to fulfill a variety of needs to both their egos and their ability to comprehend the dauntingly complex external world. Indeed, as Hoffer demonstrated, this fanatical personality type could be found behind causes ranging from Communism and Nazism to Christianity and Islam… with “true believers” able to flip from one point-of-view to a seemingly contradictory one precisely because their core psychological needs were still met.

Consequently, instead of viewing Phelps’s earlier civil rights activism as an angel to his subsequent raging homophobe’s devil, we should see them as different manifestations of a single root drive. We need to recognize that the same fervent conviction and inner belief system that can fuel the cause of justice can also be used to deny justice to others, even though the genesis of both those forces can sincerely hold that each is serving a righteous cause.

Nothing excuses malevolence or hate.  But it helps, especially during Lent, to hear the warning implicit in Fred Phelps’ tragic life:  Everyone — progressives, conservatives, libertarians, centrists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists — is capable of being both a hero and a monster. We all believe what we do as much out of pride and the need to be swept up by a “greater cause” as we do out of detached intellectual and moral analysis.

It’s not just about Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church is it?  It’s not about self-congratulatory contentment with communities as objectively praiseworthy as St. Luke’s.  It is not about a single protest or revolting slur.  It’s not outside “us” or about “them.”  It is about me, you, us, all of us together. It’s about each of our faith communities and our nation.  It is about sin, violence and all that lurks in the human heart.  It is about grace, love and becoming the Imagio Dei we are at our core.  It’s about giving ourselves over to the paschal mystery.

It’s about not leap-frogging Lent in our desperate need for Easter.
Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist.  His article on PolicyMic is available [here].