Reconciling In Christ Sunday Sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me." Based on Luke 4:14-21 (reading below)
Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,… to proclaim release to the captives.
Last Wednesday, I attended the North Dakota Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Bismarck on Senate Bill 2303, for prohibiting housing and employment discrimination against LGBT people. We were in a small meeting room, with six Senators, and dozens of community members. The room was packed, with people standing out in the hall. We heard impassioned testimony from courageous gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans individuals, as well as allies. They shared fears of losing their jobs if they came out. They reported apartment leases terminated. They disclosed sexual assaults and harassment.
They spoke of adult children who never will return to this state because it is unsafe for them to live and work here. They told stories of resilience and love.
I was one of two clergy who testified—the only Lutheran pastor. But it was energizing! I was proud that one of our St. Mark’s members—Emily—was also there to tell her story. And she did a great job!
My testimony included a letter from our Bishop Terry Brandt, which he agreed to write in response to my request. Here’s a portion of what I read:
“As Bishop of the Eastern North Dakota Synod, I believe that our church and society have a place for everyone. The call of Christ’s people today is to celebrate the diversity of God’s creative work; to embrace all people in the spirit of love, regardless of race or ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation or gender identity; and to speak with a prophetic voice against all forms of hatred, bigotry and discrimination.”
I wonder how many Lutheran bishops would dare to issue a statement like that. We are lucky to have Bishop Terry. I was honored to read his supportive words.
Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to proclaim…recovery of sight to the blind.”
Later that morning, we heard from those who opposed the bill. Though the number of speakers was half of those who spoke in support, some of their arguments were sobering. They seemed blind, refusing to see the need for any compassion for others in the room.
Mark Jorritsma, Executive Director of the Family Policy Alliance of North Dakota, claimed the bill would “enshrine ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identify’ in the same protected classes as race and religion, and would be disastrous to [Christian] biblical values.” He argued it would allow “those people” to enter the bathrooms, locker rooms, and other private spaces of women and girls—our daughters and sisters and mothers—and put them at risk.
Later that afternoon, the committee voted 5-1for a “Do Not Pass” recommendation. The bill was presented on the Senate floor on Friday afternoon, but was defeated, 27 to 20. In response, many of us who testified or contacted legislators are disappointed and angry. It makes me wonder, what will it take to get justice? How long will our LGBTQIA community have to wait until something changes? When will Christians stop using the Bible as a weapon? When will people of faith stand up for those of us who continue to live with oppression?
Today’s Gospel reading talks about that. Jesus has come to his hometown, Nazareth. To speak to the faith community where he grew up. I imagine the synagogue that day was packed. With people standing outside, struggling to hear. With children peeking in windows, and teenagers sprawled on the floor. Jesus has to squeeze by everyone just to get to the podium. When Jesus starts to speak, the room becomes totally silent. The passage he reads from Isaiah is unexpected. Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,… to bring good news to the poor.”
Many would hear these words as a political statement.
For living under the oppression of the Roman empire, the people sitting in that synagogue would have interpreted Jesus as speaking for them. For the poor, forced to pay unreasonable taxes. For those who had family members, killed and imprisoned for protesting the government’s actions. For them, Jesus spoke words of liberation and justice. Jesus promised that God was on their side. Standing with marginalized, voiceless people in the face of a cruel and powerful regime.
Today is RIC Sunday. A day when we celebrate our standing as a Reconciling in Christ congregation. Twenty-eight years ago, St. Mark’s Lutheran voted to intentionally welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, and their families.
Today, I wish that we no longer needed churches like ours. But the events of the past week and the last two years—both here in North Dakota and throughout our country—speak otherwise.
I wish we could remove all walls and barriers used to hide and separate LBTQ people from rest of our world. But we are not there yet. Today, many fear we are moving backward. With Supreme Court justices voting just this week to endorse a ban of transgender soldiers in our military. With local and national politicians who continue to vilify us.
Today, we truly need places like St. Mark’s. Today, we are still the only RIC Lutheran congregation in North Dakota—besides the campus ministries at NDSU and UND.
Today, there are 855 RIC congregations and organizations in the United States and Canada, and 400 more that are in the process of becoming RIC. Today, I feel blessed to be able to serve you as the first openly gay, married Lutheran pastor called by a congregation in this state. Today, I believe we are still changing hearts and minds.
Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,… to let the oppressed go free.”
After the hearing at the State Capitol on Wednesday, I walked out into the hallway. There, a young man asked if he could talk to me. He thanked me for speaking, and told me he really appreciated St. Mark’s Lutheran. Especially because we provide space at our office for Harbor Health Clinic, a clinic for trans individuals. With tears in his eyes, he told me that the clinic had helped two of his friends, who he was convinced would be dead without it. And that he was so grateful to our church for being a welcoming place.
Together, this year and on this Sunday, we have a lot to celebrate. Like Jesus, we are a prophetic voice that people desperately need to hear. Like Jesus, we preach good news to those who are condemned by other Christians—telling them that our God is a God who welcomes everyone—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, cisgender, and heterosexual. Like Jesus, we proclaim that our God loves us, not as a special, marginalized group to be pitied. But our God embraces each of us as beloved children, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.
Today, the Spirit of Jesus is here among us—healing our hurts, filling our hearts with compassion, and making us instruments of healing in this world. For, here at St. Mark’s, Jesus continues to proclaim:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,… to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Amen.
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GOSEPEL READING: Luke 4:14-21
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because [God] has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. [God] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”