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A few years ago, after I had finished seminary but before I was ordained and became a pastor, I was a community organizer in the Minnesotans United campaign’s Faith Department. I worked with people of faith all across the state, first to defeat the proposed marriage amendment in 2012 and then to pass marriage equality legislation at the state legislature in 2013. When I’m an old man, taking stock of my life and pondering whether the world is any different because I lived in it, I am sure I will count this as one of the most important things I ever did. You all know that Minnesota was the first state in the country to defeat a proposed marriage amendment, after 30 states before us had failed. And just a few months later we became one of just a handful of states to pass marriage equality legislation. Our success in Minnesota helped turn the tide and paved the way for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made marriage equality the law of the land.
Plenty of time has passed since those days. For some of us, marriage equality now seems like old news. But each day Facebook continues to offer me little glimpses of the past, showing me campaign photos I posted “on this day” three or four years ago. I bump into fellow Minnesotans United staffers pretty regularly and we invariably spend a few minutes reminiscing about the good old days. And just a couple months ago, some local filmmakers released a new documentary about the campaign. I bet many of you have seen it. But I have a confession to make: I haven’t, and to be honest, I’m not sure I really want to. It just feels to me like it’s time to stop looking back and move on, time to turn toward the future. There is too much work still to be done for us to keep looking behind us. I want to keep moving forward.
I think the prophet Isaiah knew the feeling.
In the reading we just heard, Isaiah is speaking to the Israelites who had been exiled to Babylon. Fifty years earlier, the Babylonian army had conquered Jerusalem, laid waste to the Jews’ beloved temple, and forced the people from their homeland into exile. Severed from the land God had secured for them and forced to live as captives under Babylonian rule, this was a hopeless time for the Israelites. God had promised to love and protect them, and this exile was not part of the plan. So now what? Where was God now? How could they even begin to imagine a future together?
The Jewish people have always been a people who retell the stories of their faith over and over again. It’s a way for them to remember who they are, where they’ve come from, and what kind of a God it is in whom they put their trust. We all have family stories, don’t we, that we repeat over and over again at holidays, or weddings, or funerals, or any other time we gather together with relatives. Telling those stories keeps us mindful of our past, shapes who we are in the present, and helps us imagine our future.
So it maybe shouldn’t be surprising that in the midst of this crisis, as the Israelites are trying to come to terms with their exile, that they would reground themselves in the stories of their past and remind themselves of the ways God has saved them before. That’s just what the prophet Isaiah does at the beginning of the reading we heard today: “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick….” Isaiah is making an allusion here to the Exodus, that pivotal moment in Jewish history when God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, brought them across the Red Sea, and defeated the Egyptian armies that came out after them. “Remember that this is the God we worship,” Isaiah wants to say, “a God who has saved us and protected us in the past.”
But then, speaking for God, Isaiah does something very strange. He says, “Now forget all of that!” “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing. Do you not perceive it?” I don’t think the point is that they should actually forget their past. I think it’s that Isaiah doesn’t want them to get stuck there. Isaiah wants them to get their minds off the old things and focus on what’s possible right now. They need to be shaken out of a faith that only sees God’s activity in the past and has ceased to believe God is doing anything new today. Remembering what happened in the past is really only useful insofar as it inspires us to dream boldly about what might be possible in the future.
Have we in the LGBTQ movement been dreaming boldly about the future? I sometimes wonder how many of us look back at our marriage equality victories as our movement’s crowning achievement and believe we’ve reached our goal, that there’s nothing more to be done. Some in our community have started writing the history of the movement, as though our movement exists only in the past. Maybe we need our own Isaiah to come among us and say, “Thus says the Lord: Forget all of that! I’m about to do a new thing! Can’t you see it?” What new thing is God about to do among us if only we turn our gaze to the future and start paying attention?
In the summer of 2009 my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, voted at its Churchwide Assembly to allow the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy in partnered relationships. That was a significant vote for me because it determined whether I would be able to pursue my call to ministry in the denomination I had grown up in, where I felt most at home. I attended the Churchwide Assembly that year and I remember clearly how it felt to be in the room when the results of that vote were announced. I was elated. I shared a lot of hugs and tears with the friends who were with me. But a few moments later the reality sank in: Those of us who had been on the outside, pounding on the doors, pleading to have our gifts recognized and affirmed by the church—we got what we wanted: We had been welcomed inside and given a seat at the table. We were no longer on the margins; we had been brought to the center. We had become part of the establishment. And that meant we now carried an extra burden to continue making space for those who remained outside on the margins.
With marriage equality behind us, gay and lesbian people have been brought to the center. We have become mainstream, part of the establishment. And now the burden is on us who identify as gay or lesbian to keep looking ahead, seeing who remains on the margins and finding ways to make more room at the table. That is where we will discover the new thing God is doing among us.
Maybe it’s building a society where transgender and gender-nonconforming folks can claim their identity, live without fear of violence, harassment, or discrimination, and, for goodness’ sake, use the bathroom in peace. For many of us, that’s going to mean educating ourselves, learning what “transgender” means and discovering what gender identity is all about—and that work is our work to do. It will mean asking our transgender neighbors, coworkers, and community members how we can be better allies. And it’s going to mean standing up, speaking out, and advocating for change.
Maybe the new thing is really making space in our movement for bisexual folks. Some of us will have to begin by acknowledging that bisexuality is real, rather than assuming that it’s just a halfway point on the journey to “really” coming out.
Maybe the new thing is recognizing that none of us is free until all of us are free, and that the success of our LGBTQ movement is linked with the movements for racial equity, economic justice, immigration reform, and gender equality. For some of us, this will mean showing up for folks with whom we don’t share much in common, simply because we understand we’re in this together and we need each other.
When I’m an old man, maybe I will look back on my life and realize that my work for marriage equality was some of the most important work I ever did. Or maybe I will look back and realize that work was just the beginning, that it inspired us to dream big dreams and accomplish more than we ever thought possible. “I am about to do a new thing,” God says. “Do you not perceive it?”
Walter Brueggemann, “Isaiah 40-66,” in the Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 1998).
Callie Plunket-Brewton, “Commentary on Isaiah 43:16-21” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2013, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1647.
The featured image for this post, “Rainbow flag and blue skies (cropped),” is copyright (c) 2008 Ludovic Bertron and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license.