Let’s Talk!

Here is my column from the May issues of the First Church, Cornerstone, newsletter.

Building a strong, healthy, community of faith requires communication. I don’t mean the weekly church email or monthly newsletter, but earnest, open conversations about our thoughts, feelings and beliefs regarding the important things of life and faith. People too often avoid such substantive conversations out of a concern that disagreement might lead to conflict, or because they fear being judged. I have found that church members can sometimes be reticent to talk to their pastors when a sermon has touched a nerve or raised a concern. Preachers most often hear such concerns second-hand in the form of someone-said statements, as in, “I heard someone say they had a concern about your sermon on Sunday.” I have heard a few of these someone-saids about the Easter sermon I preached with Rev. Kev.

For those who didn’t hear it or read it online (see the church website for a transcript and recording), Kevin and I brought a resurrection message that encouraged everyone to exit the tombs that hold us back in life that we might live fully into the people God created us to be. Kevin used the example of a widow who experienced a joy-filled life following the death of her husband by becoming like a mother to a young woman, a Sudanese refugee in need of maternal support. I drew on my experience leading an AIDS service organization in the nineties, using AIDS as a metaphor for a tomb, and the example of men “coming out” as gay as a symbol of resurrection. Recognizing that there were children in worship, I sought to craft my words in a way that would be both accessible and appropriate for young listeners.

I had a meaningful call from a parent who told me that my sermon caused her child to ask a number of questions that she wasn’t ready to address. She affirmed the content of the sermon, but said that from a parenting perspective, explaining the relationship between AIDS and sexual orientation to her child presented real challenges. She would have much preferred to talk to her child about such things in her own time on her own terms. I hear this. And I have been pondering the choices I made in preparing and presenting that sermon.

As for other concerns, a certain amount of guess work is involved since these perspectives have not been shared with me directly. But from what I hear second-hand they are along the lines, “It was a good message, but not appropriate on Easter.” My initial response to this is, we are an ONA church fifty-two weeks a year. And what better Sunday to demonstrate this than on Easter Sunday when the church is full of people who might be here for the first time.

But I have also thought that there might be more to this “just not on Easter” perspective. I know many people bring family members to church on Easter, parents, grandparents, or adult children. I know of particular cases where these visiting family members hold more religiously conservative views than those represented here at First Church. The discomfort of these folks may have been quite apparent to family members, and may have even led to difficult conversations over brunch. I am sympathetic. I like a happy, tension-free Easter brunch as much as the next person!

Let me share a few things about what led to that particular sermon. I did not choose my sermon illustration to be intentionally provocative. Instead, my sermon emerged organically, bringing experiences in the church and in my life together with the story of Christ’s resurrection. Did you know that since the church year began last September, at least a dozen visitors or members have come out as LGBT to me or Rev. Kev? This includes a number of our church youth. Some of these folks have been harshly judged in other churches before venturing into First Church. I am forever inspired by the courageous decision LGBT people make to come out, whether to family, friends, clergy, or the world. These good people were on my mind as I prayerfully contemplated the significance of the empty tomb, and this led me to recall my own, life changing experience of loving people who live with AIDS.

I had another meaningful conversation with a parent, this one with a child who “is on a gender journey and is contemplating precisely what (the sermon) was about.” She thanked me, saying that she found the sermon to be profound, and that it touched her child deeply. While hearing the “just not on Easter” concern, and empathizing with those who might have experienced tension-filled Easter brunches with family, exchanges like the one with this mom might suggest an alternative perspective, “especially on Easter!”

In the past week I have thought deeply and prayerfully about all these things, trying to hear and understand various perspectives. Here are some closing thoughts.

We are indeed an Open and Affirming Church fifty-two weeks a year. Using legal language, our ONA identity is the equivalent of “settled law.” We won’t retreat from or qualify this covenant we have made.

I am sensitive to the concern of parents who feel like they were thrust into difficult conversations with their children without notice or preparation. I will continue to reflect upon the implications of this perspective for future sermons.

And I realize that we need to do a better job preparing and equipping our members to think and talk about such things. Let’s work together to develop the capacity of our congregation to have these conversations with one another.

And I conclude as I began. Let’s talk! Especially if you recognize yourself as one of the someones in someone-said, let’s talk! One of the reasons I wrote this is to provide some entry points into a conversation with you. Find something in here you agree with, disagree with, or would like to explore more, and let’s talk. Faithfully engaging such important topics in a way that we can all learn and grow together is what it means to be the church.

 

Come Out… of the Tomb

This is the sermon that I preached with my partner in ministry, Rev. Kevin Weikel, at First Church Simsbury on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017. Rev. Kev begins, then I pick it up half way through, and we finish together.

Matthew 28:1-10

Kevin:

First Church Music Director extraordinaire Mark Mercier was joking with Pastor George and I last week about outdated church words, especially the words that are most prevalent this time of year.  For example, last week was Palm Sunday and we shouted, “Hosanna,” but have you ever used that word in your daily life?  “Hosanna” literally means, “God save us.”  I’m sure there have been times you’ve watched the news and thought, “God help us,” but I doubt you’ve ever shouted “Hosanna.”

Today, Easter Sunday, the word is less outdated than complicated.

“Resurrection.”

Like “Hosanna,” It is not a word we use very much outside of these four walls, but even more importantly, what does it even mean?

To fully understand the word resurrection, it might be helpful to think back again, just for a moment, to what happened last week.  Jesus rode that humble donkey into Jerusalem as the people shouted, here’s that word, “Hosanna, God save us!”  That donkey was symbolic we recall.  Leaders going off to war rode horses; leaders coming in peace rode donkeys.  And the people believed that God, through the love and peace that Jesus preached, taught, and embodied, would save them from the corrupt, uncompassionate, and war hungry Roman empire.

In the days after Palm Sunday, in the week we just experienced we call Holy Week, the hope the people felt as they waved those palm branches on Palm Sunday turned to hopelessness rather quickly.  Fear and sadness took over as, after Jesus had ruffled the feathers of the Roman Empire so that they could take no more, he was taken away, tried, and led to the cross to die.

As we saw on the faces of the actors and actresses in our skits who played the role of the women who came to the tomb to pay their respects to Jesus, they were experience deep grief.  Their Jesus, in whom they had placed so much hope, had died.  He was gone, and so were his message and his movement.

As we also witnessed, however, these women were shocked when they arrived at the tomb to find the stone that had covered the opening of the tomb had been rolled away and Jesus was not there.  He had come out.  He was resurrected.  And we too experience resurrection every time we come out of a dark place in our lives to renewed life, to find that God has made a way where previously there seemed to be no way.

When have you come out of a tomb, out of a dark place and into the light, and experienced resurrection?  When you finally felt you had your strength back after a serious injury?  When you found that one person who seems to completely understand the grief you’ve been experiencing?  After you admitted you made a mistake, and apologized for it?  When you shared with a cherished friend or family member that you are gay, and they affirmed you?  When you got up the courage to go to a soup kitchen and returned with a heart so big you thought it might burst?

Yvonne Josephson is a nurse at High Point Regional Hospital in High Point, North Carolina.  Yvonne and her husband got married, and like all newly married couples, believed they were going to share many wonderful years together.  Soon after Yvonne and her husband were married, however, he got sick with a chronic illness and, even though they both loved kids, they felt they had to make the hard decision not to have children.  And then one day her husband died suddenly.

Yvonne was obviously devastated.  She felt lonely and hopeless.  She was in a dark place, a tomb you could call it.

But then one day Eppi, a Sudanese refugee who was a student at the University of North Carolina, stopped by the hospital where Yvonne was working because Eppi needed some guidance on the senior paper she was doing on strokes.  Yvonne volunteered to help.

As Yvonne and Eppi spent time together, they became fast friends.  Yvonne became somewhat of a mentor to Eppi and told her that if she ever needed anything to give her a call.

The following Monday Yvonne got a call from child protective services, Eppi needed a home.  Initially it was going to be a temporary situation but that’s not the way it worked out.

Over time, Eppi started calling Yvonne her American Mom, and Yvonne started calling Eppi her Godchild, because she believed God had worked things out for her.

Eppi says, “Yvonne needed a daughter, I needed a mom, and we met and connected.  And now I can’t imagine my life without her.  I call her every minute, whenever I run into problems or need someone to talk to.”

Eventually, Eppi met someone, got married, and had a baby.  Through Eppi, Yvonne became a grandmother.  Eppi says, “Yvonne loves the baby so much, whenever she sees her she just takes her and says ‘I miss my baby.’  It has been great for my daughter to have a grandmother because I didn’t have one.”

Eppi says Yvonne is her role model, and she wants to be as good as a mother to her daughter as Yvonne has been to her.  Through Eppi, Yvonne found her way out of the tomb and experienced resurrection, renewed life.

You see, resurrection is happening all around us, all the time.  God is always making a way for us to come out of the tombs of our lives to experience light and love, even sometimes when we thought it was not possible.

George:

I’m going to begin with a rather adult topic, so I am going to try to speak about it simply so children present might follow along.

About thirty-five years ago, before many of you were born, a dangerous new disease appeared in the United States called AIDS. AIDS made people very, very sick, and at first almost everyone who caught AIDS would die from it. In the beginning it only infected a small number of people, but over the next twenty years about half-a-million people would die from AIDS in America. Scientists figured out that people caught AIDS from infected blood and other body fluids. Though anyone can catch AIDS, in these first twenty years it was mostly gay men who caught it, mostly gay men who got sick and died of AIDS.

A gay man is a man who loves other men, who wants to be in a relationship with another man, maybe marry another man. Thirty-five years ago, when AIDS first came to America, many people thought there was something wrong with being gay. There isn’t, but that’s what many people thought. Back then, many gay men kept the fact that they liked other men a secret because they were afraid of being criticized, bullied, or hurt. If a gay man loved another man, they might meet secretly so no one would find out they loved each other.

Not only was this very sad, (if you love someone you would want everyone to know, right?), but keeping secrets also made it harder to help gay men protect themselves from getting AIDS, or get them medical treatment if they caught this disease. Even when a gay man started getting sick he might not tell his family he was gay because he was afraid of being rejected by them.

Keeping a secret about being gay is sometimes called “being in the closet.” Kids, think about hiding in a closet in your house during a game of hide and seek. Some gay men didn’t want anyone to find out they were gay so they hid who they really were “in the closet.”

When a gay man decided to let people know that he loves, and wants to be in relationships with other men, this is called “coming out of the closet,” or just “coming out.”

Even though gay men with AIDS were afraid to “come out” they quickly learned that if they stayed “in the closet” they couldn’t get the medicine that could save their life. Staying “in the closet” led to death; the closet became a tomb. “Coming out” led to a new and better life.

From 1995 – 1998 I led an organization called Pacificare that helped people who were living with AIDS. We trained volunteers to be companions or “buddies” to someone with AIDS. When I worked there I got to know many, many remarkable gay men. I will never forget one man in particular, named Valentine Cosmo.

Valentine was both a client of and volunteer for Pacificare. I remember very clearly the first time I heard him speak at a volunteer training; he introduced himself to a class of prospective “buddies” by saying, “I lived my whole life by a river in Africa called “Da Nile.” Get it? The Nile. Denial. He went on to explain to this group of strangers that he had been in denial about his identity as a gay man. This denial had led to unsafe behavior that brought about his infection with the HIV virus. His pathway to new life began when he came out as gay and started speaking openly about his illness.

Valentine was a beautiful, extraordinary human being. In time he would come to write a regular column called “From the Heart” for the Pacificare newsletter. When I first asked him to share a monthly reflection he refused; he would later confess his fear, “that I didn’t have anything inside myself that anyone would want to read.” But he eventually agreed and penned lovely, personal, poignant reflections about life and love, and in his last column wrote, “I have loved writing for the newsletter more than any fear I had.”

The name Valentine, of course, brings love to mind. But as I prepared this sermon I realized that his last name, Cosmo, evokes the infinite expanse of the universe. Valentine Cosmo, Cosmic Love! When I left Pacificare to respond to a call to ministry at Central Union Church, Valentine presented me with this Teddy Bear that he had made; to me, it represents a love that has been set free from the tomb.

Bible scholar Karoline Lewis writes that resurrection is not so much something to be believed but something to be experienced. By confronting his fear and coming out, out of the closet, out of the tomb, to live and love fully as God created him, Valentine entered into and shared that universal love of God.

I had coffee with our church member, the good Reverend Stoddard Williams, on Thursday, and he told the story of visiting a tomb in Jerusalem called Gordon’s Calvary that is said to be very much like the tomb that Jesus was laid in. Set in a cliff face, one must stoop to enter this small, cold, damp, dark hollow. Todd describes the frightening chill of death that lingered in that place, and the thrill of turning around to see the sunlit garden that awaited just outside the tomb.

George:           So, brothers and sisters, this is Christ’s invitation to each and all of you.

Kevin:             Face your fears.

George:           Then turn around.

Kevin:             Come out.

George:           With Jesus as our guide,

Kevin:             and Yvonne and Valentine as our examples,

George:           come out of those dark places that entomb you

Kevin:             to live and love as God created you,

George:           and enter into that universal love of God.

 

 

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