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Laying aside ‘every weight and the sin that clings so closely’

The Rev. Brian Ellison’s thoughtful take on a famous Hebrews passage opens Saturday’s Covenant Conversation in Oklahoma City

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Brian Ellison is executive director of Covenant Network of Presbyterians. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — This summer, together with his partner Troy, the Rev. Brian Ellison, executive director of Covenant Network of Presbyterians, crossed three countries off his bucket list with a visit to the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  In Latvia’s capital, Riga, they visited the new Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which “tells the story of a healthy functioning democracy” in a country that was occupied from 1939-89 by first the Soviets, then the Germans and then the Soviets again.

“It stands almost defiantly,” said Ellison of the new museum during his sermon opening Saturday’s Covenant Conversation held at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City. During the nation’s long occupation, 180,000 Latvians died after being deported to concentration camps and fighting in World War II. The museum “beckons tourists to come in and look” because “you can’t understand our identity as Latvians unless you know of our challenges,” Ellison said.

That got Ellison to pondering the Scripture he used for the worship service, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, a passage Ellison learned as “The Hall of Faith,” although some of its storied members may seem “a little off.”

“It’s stories of deliverance that came with a cost. Rahab would have been an outcast” since “her success was in lying,” according to Ellison. Some members of the Hall of Faith “saw no liberation, only sorrow. If this is a recruitment tool, it’s a perverse one.”

Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which is working to help build a more just and inclusive church for LGBTQIA+ people, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Over the last quarter-century, “there has been a good deal of progress, thanks be to God,” Ellison said. Hundreds of same-sex marriages have taken place in Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) sanctuaries, “not just in the courtyards and parks,” Ellison noted.

But “there are few presbyteries where openly queer ministers are truly seen as equal. There are many churches that have never discussed being open and affirming; many have decided not to be,” Ellison said. “It is a hope not yet realized.”

Maybe, he said, the author of Hebrews can help: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

“Oh yeah, Jesus: Not just the Jesus who did the work of suffering, but who set an example of what life in the middle of imperfection looks like,” Ellison said. “If Jesus is our example, we are led to a reality: faith that is perfected requires imperfection. The identity of a child of God is one whose journey is not easy and not yet complete. It includes LGBTQIA+ people but is not limited to us.”

When Christians are baptized, “we are welcomed not into a choir of angels, but a motley mess,” he said. “Our baptism is into the crucified and risen Christ. Our identity is blessedly imperfect, but full of hope,” a nod to the day’s theme, “Signs of Hope: Embodying God’s Love and Justice.”

“One of the great gifts queer people have to offer the church, born of long and painful experience, is the reality that God embraces the fullness of our identity, even when others don’t. Even when we don’t embrace it in ourselves, God does … every blessed imperfection.”

While he and his partner were in the Baltic states, “the tension was palpable. These countries have gone all in with their advocacy for a free Ukraine,” Ellison said. “That is something that happens when you embrace the imperfect part of your story. It feeds your hope,” which is “why we’re here today.”

Latvia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The last display Ellison and his partner saw at the museum was a projection of the Latvian flag and this quote from the Latvian poet and journalist Knuts Skujenieks:

“Do not shed your tears for yesterday,

Do not fear what comes tomorrow,

Just in a steadfast, measured way,

Plow your furrow straight and narrow.”

“Friends, let us draw hope from our imperfect story,” Ellison said before quoting the well-loved assurances of Hebrews 12:1 one last time. “May it be so. Amen.”

Read an account of Saturday’s keynote address delivered by the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Rigby of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary by going here.

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