This sermon was first preached at a hybrid service of Grace Episcopal Church on March 27, 2022 as part of a special Campus Ministry Sunday.
Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.
Good morning! My name is Pastor Elle Dowd, I use pronouns like “she” or “they.” I am the campus pastor of South Loop Campus Ministry here in Chicago. South Loop Campus Ministry is a joint ministry of the ELCA and the Episcopal church, focused on serving students and community members in the South Loop. And I am grateful to have an office in this building, and to be welcomed by the hospitality of all of you here.
This morning we read the parable of what is often called “The Prodigal Son,” as recorded in Luke 15. I understand that you have spent some time this Lent really dwelling in this story in particular through your book study. One of my favorite interpretations of this story in scripture comes from a beloved prophet and ancestor in my tradition named Joel Workin. Joel was born in North Dakota. He received his Master of Divinity from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, CA.
In the fall of 1987, Joel was one of three people to come out publicly as a gay candidate for the ordained ministry and was certified for call by the American Lutheran Church (a predecessor body to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Following this courageous and faithful act, Joel’s certification was revoked by the ELCA and his name was never placed on the roster of approved candidates waiting for call.
Joel’s ministry continued in Los Angeles, however, at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and as Director of Chris Brownlie Hospice. In 1988, Joel married Paul Jenkins. They both organized with groups in the Lutheran church working to affirm LGBTQIA+ people. Paul and Joel both died from AIDS – Paul on June 6, 1993, and Joel on November 29, 1995. (This bio was adapted from ELM)
In addition to his courageous public witness, part of Joel’s legacy is his writings. He wrote powerful essays on scripture from his own experience as a gay man. One of these essays is entitled “Overflowing,” and in it Joel reflects on Luke 15, the very Gospel story we read today. Joel places the emphasis on this story not on the “prodigal son” and instead on the patient Parent, ready to welcome back the prodigal. But Workin goes further, reminding us that God not only waits for us to come back. God goes out searching for us. Joel wrote that in our wanderings, God did not simply say, “Come home.” Home came to us.
This is so much of what is at the heart of South Loop Campus Ministry. Whether it is serving dinner Sunday nights to unhoused people or providing condoms alongside devotional books at student fairs, SLCM is sharing the Gospel at the margins of society. We want to go where students are and instead of inviting them home, bring a sense of home and belonging to them wherever they are at, whatever experiences they might have had of the church in the past.
But there is something important to point out here. So often the institution of the church casts ourselves as the Patient Parent waiting for wayward young adults to come home. In reality, though it is often the institution of the church that has lost its way by conforming to the culture of the Empire, replicating its systems of oppression. The wayward wanderings of the institutional church hasn’t led us off gallivanting in some exotic land and spending lavishly on wine, wo/men, and song…almost the opposite. Too often the church has become less differentiated from Empire; less queer, more comfortable. Instead of far-off adventures, the church has marched to the beating drum of the Empire. Instead of spending time, money, and energy on partying, like the story in Luke 15, the church has sold its soul to systems of oppression like white supremacy, the cis-hetero patriarchy, and capitalism, too afraid of losing power and influence to challenge the status quo.
The church has strayed because it has become comfortable with the things that God calls us to resist.
God, in Her graciousness, has not waited patiently by the mailbox for the church’s return. Instead, God has relentlessly chased after Her people and the church. In every time and place, God has raised up faithful witnesses..like Joel… to resist the pull to stray and call us homeward. Prophets act as messengers of God’s desire for us to come home. These saints are often rejected by their communities. They are usually people that the dominant culture would not expect or recognize. They don’t fit into boxes society has designed. They are different. Queer. I see a lot of these saints in my work in the South Loop. They are students and community members at the margins, whose lives and stories call us towards a more just future.
The institution of the church has too often lost its way, running off to chase the trappings of the Empire. And these prophets on the margins..THEY are the reflections of the patient Parent. Many of our students and community members are pursuing a wayward church, offering their gifts and insight, beckoning it back to its original mission of love and liberation for all people.
South Loop Campus Ministry is one of the surprisingly few LGBTQA+ affirming campus ministries in the city…and ESPECIALLY downtown. Our commitment to not only welcome, but celebrate and center LGBTQIA+ people makes us different…in the best way. LGBTQIA+ people, by nature of our holy embodied experiences, are practiced in the tools the church needs to resist the con game of Empire and choose a new way forward. Our queerness is subversive. It asks questions. It pushes back. We are resilient. We have survived, held on, become stronger. We are playful. Despite our suffering, we have built up our own cultures and subcultures. We are campy. Glittery. Full of life in a world that proclaims “death” to us. When the world has tried to say, “no” to us, when the church has echoed that “no,” we have said, “yes.” We say “yes” to ourselves and in doing that, say “yes” to the image of God inside of us.
We know that Grace is a church that does things different too. A church that shares many of the same values and commitments that we have at South Loop Campus Ministry. You too are reflections of the patient parent, calling the wayward church home. We are grateful for all of the ways that you have partnered with South Loop Campus Ministry in the past under leaders like Pastor Tom and Pastor Ben. I am so excited for all that God has in store for us here on the South Loop.