I remember as a young girl sitting in the pews, the priest describing the church as “here comes everybody.” Above the doorway to the sanctuary were words from the prophet Isaiah, “My house will be a house of prayer for all the peoples.” Church, I was led to believe, was a place where everyone was welcome.
The reading we just heard that concludes the Sermon on the Mount makes two important points: Whenever we welcome someone in the name of Jesus, we are welcoming Jesus himself; And whatever we do for a disciple of Jesus, for someone who is striving to create God’s kingdom of love and peace for all – no matter how small, even if it is simply offering a cup of water – is of value, is a real contribution towards building the kingdom.
We gather as church each week to receive the grace, support and sense of belonging we need to be able to go out into the world and extend grace, support and a sense of belonging to others. No exclusions. No exceptions.
Think back for a moment. As a young person, if you grew up in a church or other religious community, who was welcome? Who was not? Was “everyone” really welcome?
For many of us, more than at any other moment in a given week, being in worship gave us a sense of belonging in community, a sense of “us;” of who was in our tribe and who was out. In the city where I grew up, there were Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian and Greek Orthodox churches. Among Catholics, there were further divisions: Irish, Polish, and Italian churches. Among Protestants, there were black Baptist churches, high Anglican churches, Scotch Presbyterian churches, Dutch Reformed churches and more, lots more. Beyond that, there were three synagogues – Reformed, Conservative, and Orthodox. Within these religious divisions, the same insidious message was present – our way was the right way; their way was “less than,” even dangerous. And among Christians there was another exclusivist message: “we” had a path to heaven, “they” did not.
If God’s house is a house of prayer for all people, then how come we were and are so separated and segregated at worship time?
Not until I was in college, did I realize that there was one group who wasn’t fully welcome at any of the churches or synagogues – openly gay people.
Throughout the history of Christianity, words of scripture have been misused to justify numerous, toxic forms of “othering.” Drawing on literal readings to justify fear and hatred, the Bible has been used by antisemites to legitimize killing Jews; by men to keep women silent and powerless in churches; by slaveholders and racists to validate slavery and discrimination; by industry to rationalize plunder of the earth; and by homophobes and those with their own agendas to deny the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
In the second half of the 20th century, brought on by the horrors of the Holocaust and the embrace of pluralism and diversity as positive values, Christian theologians began to repudiate and reinterpret age-old beliefs that led to anti-Jewish violence throughout the centuries (Michael Kriess). During this same era, the Feminist movement propelled women into every sphere of society, including the pulpit; the civil rights movement made strides towards the full integration into American society of black people; environmentalists and eco-theologians began recognizing that we are called to be stewards of the earth; and the movement that began 51 years ago today has enabled LGBT persons to finally achieve the right to marry and just last week to receive protection from discrimination at work.
Even today, as most churches widely condemn antisemitism, sexism, and racism, while embracing care for the earth; anti-LGBT ideas and practices based in a misreading of scripture persist. We ought to remember that “there is no mention of homosexuality in the four Gospels of the New Testament. The moral teachings of Jesus are not concerned with the subject.” (Gomes, NYTimes)
Theologian Peter Gomes writes, “lest we forget Sodom and Gomorrah, recall that the story is not about sexual perversion and homosexual practice. It is about inhospitality… failure to care for the poor, according to Ezekiel (16:49-50): ‘Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.’ To suggest that Sodom and Gomorrah is about homosexual sex is an analysis of about as much worth as suggesting that the story of Jonah and the whale is a treatise on fishing.”
Even a cursory glance at Christian churches in 2020 leads quickly to the assessment that we as Christians have fallen short of providing welcome and offering help to others – which is the actual meaning of both the Sodom and Gomorrah story and Jesus’ message today.
Since the year 2000, there have been splits in the Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and American Baptist churches over homosexuality and related issues. Our Methodist friends are likely splitting up their church over ordination of gay clergy and same sex marriage. Married lesbian and gay teachers are still losing their jobs at Catholic schools. There are those churches who say they are welcoming, as long as gay folks remain celibate.
I wish I could stand here and say “Today we celebrate Gay Pride” because a courageous Christian leader decisively and finally put to rest agenda-driven, literal, anti-LGBT interpretation of scripture. I wish I could say Christian leaders stepped up and stood up to acknowledge the sin of anti-gay bigotry. I wish I could say that the “Church universal” has apologized for saying things like “the homosexual orientation is objectively disordered” as the Catholic Church teaches or “even a desire to engage in a homosexual relationship is always sinful, impure, degrading, shameful, unnatural, indecent and perverted.” as the Southern Baptists have said, to just name two.
I wish I could say that Christian churches have apologized for all of the many ways we have harmed our LGBT family members and friends in the name of God, causing deep soul injury. But our awakening did not come from within the church, it comes from those who felt so painfully excluded, many of whom were either dying of HIV or caring for those with HIV, that they pushed us from the outside to see the changes we need to make on the inside of our hearts and religious communities to live the message of Jesus.
The exclusion of LGBT people from full participation in the life of the church – whether at marriage, baptism, or ordination – makes a mockery of Jesus’ inclusive love. Jesus’ ministry showed a special concern for the stranger, the outsider, the oppressed. And those who stand outside the church looking in see the hypocrisy. As long as Christian churches exclude LGBT persons from full participation, the next generation will keep the church at an arm’s length. Because they intuitively know that “love is love.”
Fifty one years ago, those who marched in the Stonewall riots never could have imagined all the progress they would inspire. What the LGBT civil rights movement has accomplished offers a powerful witness that even the little we can do to create a world where all are welcomed, accepted, appreciated, and loved can make a difference. To those first LGBT civil rights activists, many of whom were also people of color, it must have seemed an impossible dream that they could live as fully accepted members of society. Though there is still much work to do, their achievements are worth celebrating. As we consider all that still needs to be done towards the work of racial justice and saving the planet, we can look at what the LGBT community has accomplished to be encouraged. It is a reminder that every step – even when worn by a man in high heels – moves us in the direction of a more just and inclusive world and church.
Because the Annisquam Village Church is not part of a larger body that makes policy about who is welcome and who is not, we have the awesome opportunity and responsibility to make these decisions for ourselves; to be explicit about our welcome and our mission. My hope is that as we come out of the crisis of the Coronavirus pandemic we will be able to have a process that thoughtfully and prayerfully discerns our full welcome of LGBT family and friends so that the warmth of the welcome we make is more than gracious – but is rooted in spiritual and theological reflection about Christ’s command to us to welcome all in his name.
Douglas Blackwell was my dear colleague at the St. Martin de Porres Shelter in Seattle, Washington in the mid 80’s. When the older homeless men came in for the night, some of them battered and bruised by the younger men on the street, it was Doug who tended to their wounds. It was Doug who made sure that each man had enough to eat, a clean and cozy place to sleep, and that all of us would feel safe another night. He was our Gentle Shepherd and the first openly gay men I ever knew. When Doug was diagnosed with HIV, his church-attending mother would not take him in. But, his AA attending father did. By his love for the men we served, welcoming the least and the lost, Doug, showed me the face of Christ, the welcome of Christ.
May we fix our eyes and hearts on what matters most – not on who we are: Jew or Christian, male or female, black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight – but on how we love. Amen.