[Moderator's Note: Babs Geminden is a graduate of the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and an elder of the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. This sermon was delivered at St. Andrew's dedication service for a Covenant of Dissent to Amendment B accepted unanimously by the Session on May 11, 1997 and signed by members of the congregation on Pentecost Sunday. Remarks by Ellen Babinsky, Associate Professor of Church History, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, follow.]
"Babs Geminden is an elder at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas. She is theologically trained, was under care in preparation for minstry, but several years ago removed herself from the process because the stress of living the lie regarding her orientaion had become too difficult. For several years we lost the benefit of her voice and her ministry. Since she joined St. Andrew's she very quickly received an important role in the leadership of the church. She is so incredibly pastoral as she leads the congregation in worship and offers leadership in education. The integrity and truth-telling she brings to her work as a licensed chemical dependency counselor she also brings to the people at St. Andrew's. It was completely fitting that she preach the sermon for the worship service dedicating St. Andrew's Covenant of Dissent." (Ellen Babinsky)
Many of you have heard me say before that going to seminary for me was a spiritual journey, not an academic one. When you get really intentional about approaching all of life as a part of that process, many wonderful and strange things happen. One small piece of all that for me was to finally claim ownership of a preaching style that may not fit into the more traditional styles. Ellen Babinsky (one of my seminary professors who also happens to be in our choir here at St. Andrew's) played a major role in this process for me - and so Ellen, I take this opportunity to thank you publicly for all your love and support of me through some very trying times. (And if you don't like what you hear tonight you can blame Ellen - it's all her fault.)
All this is to set the stage for a story I would like to pass along to you tonight. This is basically my story but I think it speaks to our passage from Ephesians we just read. Perhaps it also helps to make the battle we are fighting more real for us all - for it truly is our battle, not my battle and for that reality I thank you St. Andrew's. You clearly have made it our battle - and my standing here before you tonight is powerful testimony to that reality. And now to our story.....
As Susan sat in the pulpit waiting to preach her sermon she couldn't help but look back at the tremendous struggle it had been to finally find herself here.She had been doing battle with God since she was a teenager - and maybe even before that - about her call to ministry. Much like Jacob wrestling with the Angel of God, she too had many battle scars from her long standing battle. She had stubbornly refused to acknowledge or accept God's call to ordained ministry. The ironic part was that ultimately she ended up on God's side defending her right not only to do ministry but to be an equal part of the body of Christ along with everyone else. And she felt blessed because this battle had led her to many people who not only affirmed her sense of call but also affirmed her right to be an equal child of God along with all of God's children.
She also remembered her friend John and knew that his spirit was rejoicing along with her today. How she wished she had been able to share this entire journey with him. But John was dead. He had committed suicide years ago because he could not reconcile his homosexuality with the teachings of the church he had grown up loving. The church had stopped loving him when they found out he was gay. The church was not the only place where he had experienced rejection either. His family refused to claim him as their son and brother and many friends had walked away from him when they had found out too. Susan had stood by him but even Susan could not convince him that God still loved him because even he had begun to believe that he was unloveable.
When the church sets itself up as the only authority on scriptural interpretation the church can do a lot of damage - and even help destroy many of the very people it was established to serve.
When John died, even Susan's family had disapproved when she organized a memorial celebration of his life in a neighborhood park. John's family and his church refused to even acknowledge his death - just as they had refused to acknowledge his life. John's death was the beginning of one of the most difficult periods of Susan's life. During the years of friendship with John, she had spent a lot of time looking at the Bible and what it had to say about John. Her ultimate conclusion was that it really did not say much about homosexuality - and what it did say was unclear at best. And she questioned the use of these scriptures as a condemnation of some of God's children.
She remembered hearing a comedian once say that the Bible contained 6 admonitions about homosexuality and 362 about heterosexuality. Clearly God's message here was that heterosexuals required more supervision. In fact, Susan wondered why churches made such a big deal about these few passages - and seemed to ignore the many passages about heterosexuality and living the Christian life. They also seemed to ignore God's overpowering message of amazing grace and exuberant love.
When John had committed suicide Susan had also searched the scriptures to see what they had to say about taking one's own life. Even though the Bible seemed to indicate that we did not have the right to "play God" and take our own lives, and while Susan's own personal conviction was that she could not justify suicide for herself, she also could understand that for others like John, it might seem like the only solution to an impossible situation or pain. But as she read the scripture, she also found the overwhelming message of God's amazing grace and exuberant love freely given to all - not a select few - of God's children. She also found that God never set humans up to judge each other but rather to love each other without judgement.
After this experience with John's death and her search for answers in the scripture, Susan found herself very confused and somewhat disillusioned by the church. John's needless death made her angry - and she began to blame the church and even, in time, to blame God for allowing this to happen. As a result, she left the church and tried very hard to turn her back on God too for about ten years.
When we turn our backs on God and what God has created us to be,we create our own hell - our own separation from God and ourselves. But God will not let us go to hell in peace - and so ultimately Susan found herself back on her spiritual path which led her back to the church.
By this time Susan was a divorced mother of two children. The divorce was not something Susan had ever envisioned as happening to her - and once again she found herself searching scripture for it's view on divorce. In the process, she was struck by how many more times scripture addressed divorce than it had homosexuality or suicide. But again, in spite of the very clear admonitions against divorce, the preponderance of the Biblical message seemed to come back to God's desire to include everyone in the family of God and to advocate wholeness and completeness for each of God's children.
In fact, working towards wholeness in our world today could - and does - sometimes include divorce. The church where Susan had again become active seemed to have no problem with Susan's divorce. She served in numerous leadership positions there and in the Presbytery. She even had the unanimous blessing of her church when she finally gave in to God's reoccuring call to ministry and enrolled in Seminary.
Seminary was like breathing a long sigh of relief. Finally she was not battling against God - and it felt good. It was where she was supposed to be at that point in her life. But complacency never lasts long with God either. Old insecurities returned, along with new information about who Susan was - and who God was calling her to be. Once again, God was pushing her to be true to who she had been created to be - and slowly she began to realize that she had not been doing that in at least one area of her life.
She now clearly understood that she was a lesbian - a woman who loved other women. This reality turned her life upside down for a while. Armed with this information about herself - which now seemed so obvious - she began to think that perhaps it was equally obvious to those around her - sort of like she now had a scarlet letter (or pink triangle, as the case may be) attached to her forehead for all the world to see.
This reconnected her with a deep fear she had not felt in many years - but she knew exactly what that fear was connected to in her past. Years ago, when she had just finished college, she was mistaken for being black in a small east Texas town and refused service in the White Kitchen Cafe. When the reality of that racial encounter finally sank in to her, she felt a fear she had never before experienced . She had always lived her life as if she too were a part of mainstream America - and suddenly here was a group of people telling her no she was no longer a part of that. She briefly became afraid to walk the streets of that town or to enter stores or restaurants. But she overcame those fears and moved on with her life.
Now once again at seminary her whole self identity was being challenged, and she found herself once again as one of America's despised. She was afraid to walk across the seminary campus - much less go to classes - for fear of peoples' reaction if they did know. She had heard of gay bashings and did not trust this community to react any differently, because she was already well aware of some of their views on the subject because of the presence of other gays on the campus. These students prided themselves that at least the other queers were not Presbyterians.
But Susan also knew that she could not let their homophobia rule her life - and that God's love was always with her - and she must continue on her spiritual path. She was later able to laugh at God's sense of humor in sending her to seminary to discover this reality about herself! She also recalled Dean Shelton's words when he had said that "God had found that the only way God could save some people was to send them to seminary." And that seemed very appropriate in her case.
She also could see that John's death years ago had probably caused her to bury this truth about herself, because she was afraid she would end up just like him- seeing suicide as the only way out. But today she could face the truth about herself because she was armed with the truth about God.
A God of love would not exclude what that same God had created. The God of her understanding could not possibly hate that which God had made in God's own image. There were not degrees of sin and separation from God. God's love makes us all equal in God's sight and we are all equally commissioned to work together to fulfill the destinies for which we were created.
Susan knew that somehow she had to use her God-given gifts to help the Presbyterian Church and all other churches understand the truth of God's amazing grace and exuberant love for all God's people - and that the church that excludes anyone from full membership and participation has no right to call itself the church.
The church had to be about loving everyone and serving everyone in order to be the church.
In the meantime, Susan worked with troubled youth in the hopes of preventing another young man or woman from reaching the conclusion that John had reached for any reason, whether it was because of homosexuality, or drug addiction, or unloving parents, or rape or incest - whatever the problem, Susan wanted to be there with the very clear message of God's deep and abiding love that makes us all equal members of the household of God. Amen.