Text for reflection: [Three men] said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And [Abraham] said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” (Genesis 18:9–15)
I often have wondered about Sarah’s laugh in this text from Genesis. Was it a laugh of disbelief? “You have got to be kidding, God. The idea of having a child at my advanced age is worthy of great laughter.” Or was it a laugh of pleasure? “After all these years, I can finally have my own child and not share my husband’s son Ishmael with my husband’s mistress.” Or was it a laugh of sarcasm and cynicism? “This time you have gone too far, God: You know that the only role for women in this culture is to bear and raise children. After all these years, it still brings me great pain that I have been unable to have children.” Or was it a laugh that provided a cover-up for a great deal of shame – shame that was a result of years of pain?
When I a teenager, I walked around with a great deal of shame, which I quickly covered up with lots of laughter – just like Sarah. I was ashamed of being gay, and I wondered why God would have created me gay and not straight like everyone else. Even saying the word “gay” did not happen unless it passed my lips as I sang a Christmas tune in the local Covenant Church Sunday School pageant: “Christmas is Jesus’ birthday; that’s why we’re happy, and that’s why we’re gay, for Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.”
Of course, we were “gay” if you mean happy, but we certainly were not all gay in my Sunday School. But I was – and I hoped for a long time, through middle school and upper school, that somehow God would work a miracle and make me to be just like everyone else.
Journalist Anna Quindlen has written in the weekly magazine Newsweek* that traditional definitions in our culture can “make things so simple.” She rightly worries about the unspoken and sometimes-spoken definitions, such as:
White is somehow better than black when it comes to getting the right jobs. Men are somehow better than women when it comes to being the leader of the newly chosen Hebrew people like Abraham, or being priests or CEOs or doctors. Rich is somehow better than poor when it comes to procuring health care or making ends meet or buying the “right” clothes or having the best opportunities for a good education. Straight is somehow better than gay when it comes to being teachers and bus drivers and dentists and private school headmasters.
Quindlen writes, “The God who suggested we love one another seemed strangely absent from all this.” She encourages the reader not to fall into the trap of these assumptions or patterns. She asks us to think and act, in her words, “outside the bright lines.” I guess she wants us to color outside the lines, rather than inside the lines – she wants us to push the boundaries a bit.
It worries Journalist Quindlen, and it worries me as well as others, that people can get defined by unspoken and spoken traditions rather than by who they really are. People can hear signals indicating that it is wrong to be gay, according to some biblical theologians, or that it is not “normal” to be gay, according to some psychologists, or that it is somehow impossible for gay people to express love in meaningful ways.
As a Christian, my companion in trying to understand all this has been Jesus as he is revealed in the Bible. He says, Love God and love your neighbor. He says, Do good to those who persecute you. And he sends me time and time again to this text from Genesis, and to that verse: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” The answer, throughout the Bible, is, No, nothing is too wonderful for the Lord. God loves us for who we are, and God wants us to be exactly and authentically who we are. It is a wonderful thing to believe that there is nothing too wonderful for God, that we all can be loved and respected. That’s why it is a great gift for me to be an Episcopalian: The Episcopal tradition calls on us to “respect the dignity of every human being.” That’s something on which we must agree to agree because we proclaim it in our Baptismal Covenant. We are not required to agree with every doctrinal statement or every new religious trend. But we are called upon to employ kindness and love, and to respect each other. That’s what Jesus did in every interaction with others and that’s what Jesus said in every teaching.
My admiration for the Covenant Church runs deep. My Swedish immigrant forebears found the Covenant to be their faith home in rural Iowa. It’s the church of my upbringing. It’s a church that takes the Bible seriously. It’s a church whose history I studied as a doctoral student. Yet for me as an adult, the Covenant Church presented a real theological problem: How could I live a lie and, over time, support the denomination’s institutional theology that does not fully honor how God created me?
Many years ago I had a conversation with someone very important to me. Despite his own struggles with understanding my sexual orientation, he said that he had grown weary of silence when he heard people say mean things about gay people. I asked, “What are you going to do about it?” And he responded: “I think it is time for me to try to speak up and ask people not to say these things because you are gay, and I love you.” Can we at least do that? And can we perhaps lower the level of animosity, disrespect, misunderstanding, and mean-spiritedness that often accompany conversations about gay people?
Think about the question from the Bible: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Think about your neighbors and friends and classmates and teachers – some of whom might be gay and struggling with their place in your community, local church, or denomination. Might you consider the question that I posed to someone very important to me: What are you going to do about it?
Scott Erickson, now an ordained Episcopal priest, grew up in the Evangelical Covenant Church in Pomeroy, Iowa. He is a graduate of North Park University and North Park Theological Seminary. Scott earned his doctorate from Uppsala University, Sweden. His dissertation was on David Nyvall, North Park University’s founding president. This summer, Scott and his spouse Ryan will move to San Francisco for Scott to take the position of headmaster at the Phillips Brooks School.
*Anna Quindlen, “Outside the Bright Lines,” Newsweek 11 August 2003, page 64.