Sunday, December 1, 2019
The message for Sunday, December 1, 2019, by guest speaker Marty Kreman was heard during the 10:00 AM Worship service.
***[Slide 1]*** I have been invited to speak with you today because Holy Trinity has nearly completed a journey it began several months ago toward becoming a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Congregation. Put simply, that means we will be outwardly welcoming and affirming of all people; but will direct particular notice of this welcome toward LGBTQ people.
This may not have touched you personally, and you may think we are already very welcoming. And I agree.
Unfortunately, that isn’t always enough. There are important reasons why the RIC designation is necessary, and I can speak to you about those reasons from personal experience.
If you haven’t met me yet, my family and I have been attending Holy Trinity very regularly for just about 9 months and we became members at the beginning of summer. We feel like we have found a home here.
For several years, we were pretty active in a nearby church. Not a Lutheran church. We honestly weren’t that picky or that knowledgeable about differences between churches. We just wanted something close to home that had a decent kid’s program.
In many ways, it was a satisfactory experience. My kids got exposed to Jesus, and my wife and I learned to put our faith and trust in God in a way that we really hadn’t before. It really helped our relationship.
But all was not perfect.
Women were excluded from most leadership positions and never gave sermons. The sermons we did hear were often focused on all the sins we were committing.
We heard a lot of comments from church leadership – and entire 45-minute sermons – against homosexuality, or warning against non-traditional gender roles, or transgender issues.
The exclusion of women, the concern with following specific rules, the fear of sexual and gender issues – these policies and teachings struck me as being in conflict with what I was reading in scripture. Today’s epistle reading is a good example. Paul writes that before Jesus, we’re imprisoned under the law, but he says now we are all one. There is no Jew or Greek, no male or female. None of these dividing lines that seemed to be an obsession in our old church. Rather, we are all clothed in Christ and heirs to the promise.
Still, changing churches can be so disruptive, and without an obvious alternative, I let this stuff go. And anyway, I assumed the kids weren’t hearing this kind of thing in their Sunday school classes anyway. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing they would focus on with kids.
What I didn’t realize is that they were hearing this stuff and to make matters more urgent, one of my kids was growing to realize that she might be lesbian. Now, this is a girl who was committed and excited about her faith and enthusiastic about participating in the church community.
She kept the revelation of her sexual orientation to herself, though, because she was understandably afraid of the reaction. So rather than confide in anyone, she prayed for this feeling to leave her. As you might expect, that did not happen.
About this time, she spent a week at a Christian summer camp. Maybe being immersed in that devout atmosphere would set her straight. When we picked her up, the very first thing she told us was that the folks at camp told her Heaven was closed to gay and lesbian people. And she asked us, “Is that true?”
“Of course not” we told her. And I was disappointed to hear that a Christian summer camp would teach kids that there was anything that could separate them from the love of God. It also gave us a hint that this might be a very personal issue for her.
We didn’t talk about it anymore for a while, but she found reasons to skip church on Sunday. I thought maybe it was a thing where a kid becoming a teenager starts to get bored of the old things and distracted by new things. One particular day, I encouraged her to come with me and give it a chance.
But at this point, my daughter felt she couldn’t go to church anymore. And by that I mean she literally could not bring herself to enter the building. She knew she was not welcome in there. She cried on me in the church parking lot and begged me not to make her go inside. So we didn’t go in there again.
I tried to talk with friends and leaders in the church. To get them to be compassionate. Empathetic. To contrast old stereotypes about homosexuality with the reality of good people who simply want to share their life with someone they love. To embrace what we are learning in modern studies about sexual orientation and about gender identity. That they are not a sign of evil or perversion, but part of a spectrum of healthy human behavior.
They weren’t interested.
Many young people in this position have been told they offend God and to expect his wrath. Or they fear their family will disown them. And many do. Some see no hope because they are told that hope is not available to them.
***[Slide 2]*** People like this person are out there. This is one of the Westboro Baptists who stood outside T.O. High School right after the Borderline shooting last year. As you can see by her sign, she thinks God sent the shooter. Now why would that be? Well, their theory is that God is punishing America for being good to LGBT people.
You might not think about it every day, but LGBT people have reason to keep this hostility in their minds.
I wanted to respond for my daughter in the best possible way, so I did a lot of research. I found out that many young people in this situation, who have been intimidated into silence and hopelessness, are at risk for suicide. Compared to hetero kids, LGB Youth are far more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide. When they do try it, they’re more likely to seriously hurt themselves.
The family reaction to a teen coming out is particularly critical. LGB Youth rejected by their family are more than 8 times as likely to attempt suicide as LGB Youth who experience little or no rejection.
As you might imagine, there is nothing I would not do to keep my baby alive.
But more than that, I want her to know, in her heart, without even having to think about it, that I love her. That her mother loves her. Her sister loves her. Unconditionally. Without reservation.
But it doesn’t end there. I also want her to believe that God loves her. With the same lack of conditions. The whole point of God’s grace – the great miracle behind it (to me) is that none of us measure up. But his grace is available for everyone through faith.
I think our willingness to walk away from our old church meant a lot to her. But her faith in God had been badly damaged and I didn’t want to give up on that.
How do you find a church that will not just tolerate your diversity but celebrate it? Again, I did a lot of research, but I felt like I needed a sign.
Of course all churches already have a sign. Ours is right behind me. The cross. The cross tells people this is a place of worship, specifically of Jesus Christ. It also says this is a place of charity and of good works.
But you know our last church had a cross, too. The summer camp throwing up roadblocks to Heaven had a cross.
If you’re not directly part of the LGBTQ community, it may not occur to you that the cross can also be a sign that says, “Stay away.” Sadly, for some people, it says that they likely are not welcome.
Obviously not every church is like this and the Westboro Baptists are an extreme example. But it’s true for enough churches that many LGBT people who want to worship, who want to be part of a church, might just give up on the idea. I think that’s a shame.
In my quest for a new church, I studied the official positions of major Christian denominations. I looked at individual congregation websites. I went to LGBT organizations for advice. And I wrote letters to pastors.
***[SLIDE 3]*** The Reconciling Works website has a handy search function to help people find welcoming and affirming Lutheran churches specifically. As you can see – or actually, not see – there are no such churches near my house in Newbury Park. This map includes the location of Holy Trinity.
***[SLIDE 4]*** If you pull out a little, there is Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Simi Valley. They are an RIC congregation.
***[SLIDE 5]*** They have a welcoming statement and the RIC logo on their website. For LGBT individuals or families looking for a church, these kind of overt invitations encourage attendance. I can tell you from my own experience that anything less than this makes trying a church scary. Considering what we had already been through, it’s just not worth the risk of disappointment. It’s not worth taking your kids into a room intending to worship God where you might be told that God hates you.
So, we checked out the services at Shepherd of the Valley and it’s exactly like services here. It’s just a Lutheran church. Exactly what you’d expect.
***[SLIDE 6]*** On their little sign outside, though, they have the rainbow heart with the cross in it. I have to tell you, that after months of searching, just seeing this tiny sign was like a great weight being lifted off my chest. We knew we wouldn’t have to play it cool when we went inside. We wouldn’t have to feel the place out. We knew before we entered that we were genuinely welcome. Here at Holy Trinity, we too can give other people that feeling. Even before they walk in the door.
***[SLIDE 7]*** By the way, don’t get the idea that it would just be us and a church in Simi. Open up the map a little, and you can see we will be in good company. In fact Reconciling Works says there are almost 900 RIC congregations in the United States and Canada, with another nearly 400 just like us who are in the process of becoming RIC congregations.
So back to my family, I thought: OK, the Simi church is nice, but it’s also kinda far for us to pull off every Sunday. I’d like us to be busy and involved with the church we belong to and that’s just easier if church is only a few minutes from home.
But it gave me hope, ya know? So I kept hunting around here. And I knew from my research now that Lutheran churches – even if they weren’t RIC congregations yet – were still a good place to look.
So, I wrote to Pastor Erik. I told him our story, that I have just told you, and I had some hard questions for him about his beliefs. What was taught at Holy Trinity particularly as it related to homosexuality? Also, not just how women and LGBT people were viewed or treated, but the roles and responsibilities they could realistically hold.
To this last point, as you all know, women deliver sermons in this church. That happened last week. They also hold positions of high authority in this congregation and nationally. The presiding Bishop of the ELCA is a woman. The bishop of our Southwest California Synod is a married gay man.
Erik told me all of this and these encouraging revelations were enough to bring us in, but the repeated affirmation and love from this community have made it easy for us to stay. Our family is grateful and genuinely revitalized by how welcoming you all have been. I wanted you to know that welcoming us into your community is not a small thing for us. As my youngest likes to say, “It’s everything.”
In our gospel reading today, Jesus makes plain the kind of people he wants us to be. Give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Take care of the sick. Visit the prisoner. And as you did for us: Welcome the Stranger.
I believe it’s not intended to be an exhaustive list. It’s not “do these good acts and no others.” My understanding of the theme behind this list is simply: Be kind. And give that kindness to all people in need of it.
[SLIDE 8] I believe this community does this already. But not everybody out there knows that. I think the outreach we do through the RIC program can help. The RIC logo on a sign and a welcome statement on our website are outward signs of a commitment you have already made. It will bring hope to people who have given up and I believe it will bring those people into church.