Preached by Rev. Andy DeBraber at the funeral service for Ryan Ende, 31, at Hamilton Reformed Church, Hamilton, Michigan. Ryan was an intern at Douglas UCC in 2007-8, and graduated from Western Theological Seminary in May 2009.
Scripture: Genesis 32:23-32; Psalm 139, Luke 6:20-35
In talking with Ryan’s family and in my experience of him, three qualities came to the forefront:
1. Ryan was always for the poor, the oppressed, the underdog: helping, giving – even beyond his means; he would give you the coat off his back – and his shirt, too; from kindergarten on (student who was clearly poor and would get picked on and Ryan befriended him and felt so bad for him whenever he was teased).
2. Ryan was an intelligent debater and smart writer, frequently wrestling with God, others, ideas, and himself. One of the members of our church wrote of Ryan:
“I recall feeling as though he had a lot of wisdom to offer when he gave his homilies. I also always appreciated his observations, especially given the fact that we are so very close in age and pull from the same "pop culture" drawer. On a different note, he always smelled good and always wore the best shoes and glasses. I also could never reach quite high enough to provide him a proper hug.”
3. Ryan was, in the words so many used, a big teddy bear: so many of the pictures at the visitation showed him smiling, laughing, playing with children (Christopher, his nephew, was telling me how in he pool he would invite all the kids to pile on him, because he could hold them all – they will miss that; and the best thing about Uncle Ryan, they said, was his hugs); he was also a great listener (when he worked with the youth in this church, parents would tell Ryan’s parents that he knows things about my kids I don’t, because he made the space to really listen and offer them a person they could relate to and trust. He viewed everyone with the eyes of Psalm 139 – as fearfully and wonderfully made. Another of our members wrote:
“I remember Ryan for his care of others, particularly the elderly, and for how he related to the kids. He'd kneel or bend down and look them in the eyes. Many adults don't hug our daughter during the passing of the peace, but as soon as he'd see her, he'd ask for a hug. I so appreciated that about him.
Along with these qualities, also existing in Ryan was the paradox of not wanting to stand out but doing things that would make him stand out – at least in Hamilton and Holland and Douglas, Michigan. A couple from our church wrote of first meeting Ryan:
We met Ryan on our first visit to Douglas Congregational UCC in August 2007. We had parked the car and were approaching the front door. Ryan was standing outside on the sidewalk having a smoke. Wow! This was a big, rather intimidating looking dude. OK.... I have no problem with tattoos and piercings. We said hello and went inside. Over time, as we embraced this faith family, we participated in several discussion groups that Ryan led, which really helped us to know Ryan better. I came to see Ryan as a gentle soul...a big teddy bear. When he hugged you, you felt protected and loved. We also came to know of some of his struggles during these small groups and we struggled with him. Even after he left as our intern, we made a trip to Uncommon Grounds on the chance he would be working and we could say "hi" and "how are you doing?" The world has lost another gentle soul and he will be sorely missed.
What so many of us struggled with, and was so hard for Ryan himself, was that he loved everyone but himself. Somehow, that love just couldn’t get through.
Ryan had a passion for the Gospel, for following Jesus the Christ, and for sharing that good news with others. He had a passion for ministry. And when the church that raised him, that nurtured him, that loved him (were you here last night?), and that instilled in him that passion for ministry – that gave him opportunities here, at Clancy Street Ministry in Grand Rapids, in the Muskegon Jail – that agreed to train him for ministry in its seminary – when that church said “No” to ordaining Ryan, emphatically “No,” the beginning of the end was in sight.
Ryan overcame so much to get to that point. He loved and gave so much of himself to get there. He put his blood and soul and guts on the line to stand there and hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant, we recognize your gifts and your passions, your intelligence and your compassion, and offer you the opportunity to enter ordained ministry in the church that you so love because it first loved you.”
A chance, an opportunity – that’s all he wanted. Bring on the classis exams and the call process – though Ryan knew his call wouldn’t be to a church but rather to a ministry among the least of these, our sisters and brothers in the family of God.
A chance, an opportunity – that’s all he wanted. And what did he hear instead? “Wham,” the door closing. “You are most despised and rejected among people, a man of sorrows and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces, you are despised, and we hold you of no account” (Isaiah 53:3, alt.).
Why? Why? Because he loved too much. Because he was gay. Because he loved men. Because he had the courage and fortitude to come out of the closet, to be the first openly gay student at Western Theological Seminary.
God made Ryan a certain way – and after years of wrestling with God, after years of denying it, hiding it, trying to change it, Ryan finally came to terms with being gay. And, as was his way, his wont, he didn’t hide it from those around him.
Oh, I’m sure this is a surprise and a shock to many of you. As out there as Ryan was – God bless him – with his fashion, his piercings, his tattoos (Jacob wrestling, fishers) – his was a quiet way of being gay – like most same-gender loving people. He wasn’t on the front lines of changing the laws of the land for greater justice or marching in gay pride parades.
In fact, the ministry he felt most called to was bringing the good news of God’s love and new life in Christ to those LGBT folks who, like him, had been so wounded, hurt, and rejected by the church – and would never, or at least not for a very long time, ever set foot in a church again.
As a son of the RCA and one whose ordination is still held in that denomination, I can – as Ryan could – argue passionately and persuasively. We could go over the finer points of Scripture on sexual orientation. We’re not going to. You can, if you wish, find those discussion in many places.
What I can no longer abide is clinging to this one issue as a barrier to full entry in the church. In doing so, our interpretation of Scripture is inconsistent at best and cruel at worst.
We can tell story after story of children from the RCA – and other denominations – who so passionately loved God and wanted to serve the church, that they sacrificed themselves to do so. They tried so hard, willed themselves so much, to not be gay or lesbian that they were willing to love everyone but themselves. And we can tell story after story of the disastrous consequences and tragic results.
The good news is that we can also tell story after story of people who overcame that rejection from the church and much of society to continue to thrive and serve God in a multitude of ways, to love everyone, including themselves. And we can tell story after story of families and churches that have changed to welcome fully God’s gay and lesbian children.
Ryan’s family last night said they believe Ryan’s ministry is just beginning. It is their wish and mine that we learn from the ways Ryan’s life touched us and change, or grow:
1. change ourselves, to become more loving, giving, and compassionate
2. change our churches, that no more would die rejected from ministry for having the courage to be who they are, and
3. change the world, to become a more just place where all are welcomed, have what we need, and know the love of God, others, and self.
May it be so. Amen.
See Ryan's obituary at http://notierverleelangeland.com/obituaries.php?Post=ende--ryan-- where you can also read and post comments