Sunday, June 17, 2012

Faux Pastor Jon's Latest Sermon: "Reconciliation and the Post-ONA Church"

I have shared before that I am a member of Faith United Church of Christ. We employ a part-time pastor. To fill the gap, we have a long tradition of Shared Ministry -- it's the idea that we all share the ministry of this church. Shared Ministry includes planning for worship service. Once monthly, a member will either organize worship or s/he will make arrangements for a guest pastor. Today was my day (again).

I was asked to address our church's Open & Affirming Covenant. We have been ONA for 20 years. What does that mean? How do we keep this covenant relevant after two decades? I've been playing around with this general idea for a couple months and the following sermon was given earlier today. Enjoy!:

Reconciliation and the Post-ONA Church

In May 1992, Faith United Church of Christ – after a long period of discussion and deliberation – became what I believe to be Iowa's first UCC church to become an Open & Affirming (an ONA) church. Our covenant read, in part:

We openly support the concerns of those who find themselves exiled from a spiritual community – including lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

We condemn racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, injustice, discrimination, violence, indifference, and hatred as the antithesis of Christian faith.

God calls us to Christian faith manifested in love – love of God, of neighbor, of self. Such love honors diversity while seeking peace and wholeness within community. As the apostle Paul wrote, “There are many parts, yet one body. They eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,’ nor the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”

We acknowledge God’s gift of sexuality with its joyous power and challenging mystery. And we affirm lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people as persons of God who are deeply valued by their Creator.

Since then, we have called two gay pastors to serve this church. We have welcomed LGBT people as friends and members to this church community. We have witnessed gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies and later on gay and lesbian weddings. We have welcomed the children of LGBT parents. This church has gladly and appreciatively welcomed the gifts of all members. If you have a drive to serve on Church Council or to help care for the yard or to organize a worship service, we will gladly welcome your offer and thank you for your efforts.

Since the decision to become ONA, we have struggled off and on. We have struggled to figure out how to be open and affirming and it hasn’t always been pretty. One of the more uncomfortable struggles, I am embarrassed to say, involved me pretty directly. The Boy Scout troop that shares a relationship with this congregation requested to do some work on the shed outside and a congregational vote was needed to approve this. A group of us questioned this relationship given our ONA status and the Boy Scouts’ overall policy against permitting gay scouts or troop leaders.

We brought a list to the meeting expressing our concerns about the Scouts’ discriminatory policy to the church membership and demanded accountability on this issue. If my memory serves me correctly, we asked the Scout troop to change their practices and to push for change within the larger organization. It was a long and uncomfortable meeting, our request was rejected, and the shed project was approved. But the community was frayed. We had a series of group discussions to work through our feelings on the subject and to bring about some level of reconciliation. We lost a few members in the process. And we probably sowed the seeds for still others to seek out other places of worship later on.

In other words, we messed up. We could have expressed our concerns more effectively. We could have displayed the level of grace towards our local Boy Scout troop that we as hypothetically excluded gay, lesbian, and bisexual people sought from the Scouts themselves.

I bring this up not to stir up old wounds and I sincerely apologize if I did that. I bring up this story to point out a specific example of the tension that continues to exist long after a church decides to address the issue of LGBT sexual orientation and identity. It’s not enough to have the discussion and make the vote. The discussion continues in one form or another as new folks arrive and as new situations arise locally and beyond.

Back in 2005, the 25th General Synod voted by a large margin to affirm equal marriage rights for all couples – both in and out of the church – regardless of sexual orientation. It was all over the news. Lots of folks within the UCC were ecstatic about the synod resolution. We were the first mainline Christian denomination that had ever come out in favor of marriage equality. The previous year had been an election year and gay marriage had been the topic – or at least a major topic that played out in numerous states that amended their state constitutions to exclude gay and lesbian couples from legal marriage. Most church denominations were silent or they were mobilized against gay and lesbian families and were often quite vocal (and incendiary) about this topic. So even though the UCC was a small denomination with a liberal bend, it was pretty big news for our General Synod to come out in favor of equal marriage rights.

And the denomination crowed about it quite a bit. Even though we have a bottom-up organizational structure and even though Synod is supposed to speak to the churches but not for us, Equal Marriage Rights and ONA in general became a defining point for the larger United Church of Christ – even though many within the church were still torn on this topic.

At Synod, the press showed images of people clapping and cheering about the EMR resolution. What you didn’t see as much were the Synod delegates from our Puerto Rico Conference walking out after the EMR resolution vote and didn’t look back. Within the year, the entire conference left the United Church of Christ. The entire conference. It’s only been within the past few months that representatives from the former Puerto Rico Conference has agreed to meet with UCC National staff to discuss reconciliation. It’s unclear if the conference will return to us or if some former churches will come back to us or if we’re just going to end up with a more positive split.

And Puerto Rico wasn’t alone. The UCC has witnessed a trickle of losses for quite some time – mostly over the issue of sexual morality, homosexuality, and the definition of marriage. Some of those losses have been significant and overtly noticeable, such was when we have lost entire churches or the before-mentioned conference. Other times, it has been less noticeable but still significant, such as when more conservative UCC members have quietly left our churches for other churches.

Faith United Church of Christ isn’t immune from this. Back when I was the church's office assistant, I remember receiving correspondence from more than a couple folks who loved our church but couldn’t reconcile our ONA stance. Keep in mind that these were new visitors who visited the church who really connected with our Twain projects or our correctional outreach programs, but couldn't connect with gays in the Church.

So the question becomes, how do we as an open and affirming church and denomination publicly claim our unique status as LGBT-affirming Christians while simultaneously nurturing and holding onto our relationship with Christians who either don’t affirm LGBT people or who are ambivalent and uncomfortable? Can we, Faith United Church of Christ, affirm and include Jon and Mark the gay dads while simultaneously welcoming "Joe X the Christian traditionalist"?

Quite likely we can’t – especially with those who cannot reconcile the notion of gay Christians.

HOWEVER… does accepting the idea that we cannot achieve Christian community with LGBT Christians and anti-LGBT Christians within the denomination jive with this one key UCC belief statement?:

In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity. In other words, we are united through our Christian belief and the rest of it is secondary to that belief. I’d say no, even though it’s difficult sometimes.

Several years ago, I learned of an evangelical Christian named Andrew Marin who was trying to change how we do this whole culture war thing – particularly when it comes to LGBT people and the Church. I wrote some stuff about him on the Internet because I couldn’t figure him out. Basically, I couldn’t figure out if he was anti-gay or ex-gay or kind of naive pro-gay. He wrote back to me and we began talking and I eventually became friends with him and his wife.

Back in his early 20s, Andrew found himself at a crossroads when all three of his best friends came out to him. He didn’t know how to deal with this information and he found that his church (an Assembly of God church) didn’t know how to help him process this information, so he cut ties with them and ran. He eventually mended bridges with his friends, but still didn’t know how to bridge the differences between his conservative Christian beliefs and his longtime loyalty to his friends. His response was to move with a couple of his friends to Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood, which is the country’s first incorporated gay neighborhood, and learn more about LGBT people, beliefs, and culture.

During the next dozen years, Andrew befriended tons of LGBT people and found himself called to start an organization called the Marin Foundation whose mission is to build bridges between the Christian and LGBT communities. The reason it’s difficult for most to get him or the group is that it’s not a church, it’s not an ex-gay program, it’s not a pro-gay advocacy group. It’s a non-profit that does a few things:

1.     It gathers data about faith and sexuality.
2.     It accepts people where they are at (gay, pro-gay, anti-gay, ex-gay, whatever) and it sponsors events where all of the above get together and explore/discuss topics related to faith, sexual orientation, and sexual identity.
3.     It goes out and helps people or groups figure out how to more effectively cope with differences.

Andrew has his fair share of critics from both sides of this issue and for differing reasons, but I have found him and his group helpful for a couple different groups in particular: LGBT people who’ve been specifically chased from the Church and who no longer feel a place in the Church and Church people who have LGBT children, family members, neighbors, co-workers, friends who come out to them and they have no clue how to respond. Some of those latter folks are really trying to figure out when it’s best to tell their LGBT friend or family member that they’re living in sin and some of those former folks still might never step foot in the Church. But that’s not the point.

The longer picture is learning to build relationship with those who hold diametrically opposed belief systems and learning how to accept others where they are at despite differences.

Right now, it’s extremely difficult for people to cope with the idea of two men or two women marrying. It has gotten so that the kids are being expelled from Christian and Catholic schools because those parents are in long-term gay relationships. Or faculty are being fired for refusing to sign statements opposing marriage equality. Heck, it’s gotten so bad that a UCC in Missouri was recently expelled from the local church baseball league because their pastor (who isn’t even on the team) is a bisexual man.

On the other side, church folks feel besieged when gay or lesbian people learn that they oppose homosexuality or gay marriage. A Des Moines cake maker recently found her business boycotted because she chose against making a cake for a pair of brides. More recently, there have been a couple churches who’ve found themselves overwhelmed by protesters and callers and (in the case of a recent Massachusetts church) subject to the threat of arson for making pretty harmless statements opposing homosexuality or gay marriage.

What if, instead of protesting those churches or refusing to play baseball with that team, the people involved in these different scenarios sat down and got to know each other? What if they spent less time complaining about what’s wrong with the other and spent more time accepting that they don’t always have to agree on everything, but we can still learn to love each other and find commonality? 

That’s what it all comes down to: Relationship. Relationships don’t always have to be easy or comfortable. It was not comfortable for me after the Boy Scout situation. I could have left this church because of that. But I didn’t. I maintained friendships and I remained open to rebuilding friendships with those I’d aggravated through my earlier actions. I learned to shut my mouth and to listen and fortunately others did the same. And others learned to forgive, move on, and forge stronger ties to each other and with me.

I encourage you all to remain active and connected – not only to the people of this church, but to the people of our larger association, conference, and denomination. It’s important so we can maintain friendships and acquaintances that get strengthened every year (as well as to keep the larger business organization running of course). These relationships aren’t just helpful for us. These relationships are helpful for “them” too. Those UCCers who struggle with ONA churches. Those UCCers who disagree with the nature of my family and others like it. Those who think that pastors shouldn’t be L or G or B or T. It’s a lot harder for them to leave when they have bonds to others. And it’s a lot harder for us to keep going if they leave.

We never know where these relationships may lead. We might change their opinions through our everyday words, beliefs, and actions. And they might change ours’. And that’s okay. What’s important? Learning from each other, sharing with with other, and showing tangible love towards each other.


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