October 20, 2013--Celebration of an Affirming Congregation, Tecumseh United Church, Windsor



Note: This is the message for a friend's church, as they became the first United Church of Canada congregation in Essex County, ON to be certified as an Affirming Congregation. THe process requires self-study, discussion, and open conversation in the congregation, as well as a committment to be truly open to all who come, and an understanding of what that means. 

The "Star Exercise" is a powerful tool to help others understand the obstacles and realities of what it means to "come out" at any age. I debated including it here, because part of the power of it is not knowing what will happen, and (for some people) watching every relationship, every support system you have vanish until you are all alone. I used it as an introduction to the message.
 
Isaiah 56:3-8
3 Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,
    The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.
And let no eunuch complain,
    I am only a dry tree.
4 For this is what the Lord says:

To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
    who choose what pleases me
    and hold fast to my covenant
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
    a memorial and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that will endure forever.
6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord
    to minister to him,
to love the name of the Lord,
    and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
    and who hold fast to my covenant
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain
    and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
    a house of prayer for all nations.
8 The Sovereign Lord declares
    he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
I will gather still others to them
    besides those already gathered.

Acts 10:9-15

9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.
14 Surely not, Lord! Peter replied. I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.

Luke 10:25-37
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. Teacher, he asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
26 What is written in the Law? he replied. How do you read it?
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind[a]; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.[b]
28 You have answered correctly, Jesus replied. Do this and you will live.
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, And who is my neighbor?
30 In reply Jesus said: A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. Look after him, he said, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.
36 Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?
37 The expert in the law replied, The one who had mercy on him.
Jesus told him, Go and do likewise.

Star exercise
Tell participants how to prepare their stars. Say:
1. Write your name in the middle of the star.
2. Think about a friend who is very close to you, who you care about very much. Write your friends name on one of the points.
3. Think of a specific family member (chosen or biological) you turn to in times of need or for advice, someone who cheers you up when youre sad, or who has made a big impact on your life. Write this persons name on a star point.
4. Think of a community group that you belong to, a religious community, a neighbourhood etc. Write the name of this group on a star point.
5. Identify your ideal job this may be where you work now or where you would like to work in the future. Write the name of your ideal job on a star point.
6. Think about some of your hopes and dreams. These may be personal, educational, career goals, etc. List a few hopes and dreams on the last point.

Step 2: Lead participants through the challenges involved in coming out.
Say: All of you are LGBT. You have known about your sexual orientation for some time, but you have kept that information secret until now. Starting today, you are going to come out and share that information with others. Lets find out what happens to you.

1. You have decided that it will be easiest to come out to your friends first, since they have always been there for you in the past and you trust them.

If you have a blue star, your friend has no problem with your news. He/she thanks you for being honest and acts no differently towards you, accepting you for who you are. Do nothing with your star.
If you have a yellow or red star, your friend is hesitant and annoyed youve waited so long to tell her/him. But, you are confident that he/she will eventually accept you and understand that being LGBT is a part of who you are. If you have a yellow or red star, fold back the point of your star with your friends name.
If you have a green star, you news is met with anger and disgust. This friend who has always been at your side tells you that being LGBT is wrong and that he/she cannot associate with anyone like that. If you have a green star, please tear off the point with your friends name and drop it to the ground. This friend is no longer part of your life.

2. Most of you have had good luck with your friends and you decide that your family probably deserves to know. You turn to your closest family member.

If you have a blue star, you are embraced by this family member. He/she is proud that you have decided to come out and tells you that he/she will always be there to support you. Do nothing to your star.
If you have a red star, the conversation does not go exactly as you had planned. Questions are asked as to how this could have happened, but following a long discussion your family member becomes a bit more at ease with your news. Fold back the point of your star with the name of your family member. This person will be an ally, but only with time.
If you have a yellow or green star, your family member rejects the thought of being related to a person who is LGBT. Much like some of our friends, your family member is disgusted. Some of you who have yellow or green stars are thrown out of your house and become part of the 20 40% of homeless youth who identify as LGBT. If you have a green or yellow star, please tear off the point of your star with the name of your family member and drop it to the ground.

3. Having told your friends and family, members of your community soon begin to become aware of your LGBT identity.

If you have a red or blue star, your LGBT identity is accepted by your community. Do nothing with your star.
If you have a yellow star, you receive a mixed response. Some people in your community accept you. Some dont know what to think. You remain a part of the community and, with time, you will fit in as you once did. If you have a yellow star, please fold back the point with the name of the community group.
If you have a green star your community reacts with hatred. They tell you that someone like you does not belong in the community. Those who had supported you in times of need no longer speak to you or acknowledge you. If you have a green star, tear off the point with the name of the community group and drop it to the ground.

4. You have heard that rumours are starting to circulate at work regarding your LGBT identity. In the past you confronted these rumours, but in this instance, you do not have the chance.

If you have a blue star, your co-workers begin to approach you and let you know that they have heard the rumours and that they do not care, they will support you. Your bosses react the same way, letting you know that you do good work and thats all that matters. Do nothing with your star.
If you have a red star, the atmosphere in your workplace becomes interesting. Everyone appears to think you are LGBT, even though you have not confirmed the rumours. Some people speak to you less than they did before, but nothing changes drastically. Do nothing with your star.
If you have a green or yellow star, you continue to work as though nothing is happening, ignoring the rumours that have spread throughout the workplace. One day, you come in to find that your workspace has been packed up. You are called into your boss office and she explains that you are being fired. When you ask why, she tells you that lately your work has been less than satisfactory and that she has to make some cutbacks in your area. If you have a green or yellow star, please tear off the point with the name of your ideal job and drop it to the ground.

5. Now your future lies ahead of you as a LGBT individual. Your hopes and dreams, your wishes for the perfect life for some of you these are all that remain.

If you have a red, blue or yellow star, these hopes and dreams will keep you going. Most of you have met with some sort of rejection since beginning your coming our process, but you have managed to continue to live a happy and healthy life. Our personal hopes and dreams become a reality.
If you have a green star, you fall into despair. You have been met with rejection after rejection and you find it impossible to accomplish your lifelong goals without the support and love of your friends and family. You become depressed and with nowhere else to turn, many of you begin to use drugs and alcohol. Eventually, you feel that your life is no longer worth living. If you have a green star, please tear it up and drop the pieces. You are now part of the 40% of suicide victims who are LGBT identified.


Step 3: Discuss peoples reactions to the risks and losses associated with
coming out.

***

That was pretty powerful, wasn't it? But this is not a mere exercise for those of us who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. It is our reality.

We don't ask people to go through this exercise in our Diversity Training so that they will pity us, or to make people think our lives are terrible and sad.  Nor do we do it to make people feel sad. The purpose is to try to give people an idea of what it is like to come out and face society as a gay man, a lesbian, a bisexual person, a transgender person. Most people in modern Western society have little experience with the loss of community and family and friends that often happens when someone "comes out."  If some one goes through a difficult time, and one support system fails or withdraws, another is there to help. The youth whose family is dysfunctional or dangerous for her still has friends, other family, her school, and the community to offer support and encouragement. Someone who is part of a racial or ethnic minority still has family and community support. But often when someone comes out as LGBT, they lose all those at once, and literally have no place to turn for emotional, psychological or spiritual support.

The last is perhaps the most painful, after the loss of family. A person can create another family, a chosen family, if her or his biological family cannot support them. Coming out may offer a whole new world of friends who are also part of the LGBT community. But without spiritual support to help give life meaning, despair can set in. Some members of the LGBT community turn away from organized religion altogether, finding solace in an individual spirituality. Others turn from the faith tradition that rejected them to others that are more accepting, whether another Christian tradition, a progressive synagogue or mosque, or another tradition altogether, such Unity churches, Buddhism, or First Nations spirituality. Others blend them, taking from each what they need.

But the crying shame is that they have to do this at all! It is hard spiritual work to find a place you can be your authentic spiritual self and be comfortable with God, Higher Power, Allah, or whatever name your tradition uses for the creative being of the universe. No wonder that many people, tired and worn and stressed already with the pain and difficulty of being out, and having to come out again and again, with no assurance they will be accepted--because we do have to come out, or decide not to, every time we meet someone new--a new doctor, our child's new teacher, a new neighbour. The calculus may be different every time, but having to do that is a tremendous strain. And so often there is no energy left to try to find a spiritual home, a spiritual community. Too often organized religion, by ostracizing or shaming, keeps people from their rightful place with the family of God.

The readings this morning are all about that. God says that everyone will be welcome in God's house of prayer, everyone, even those who are, according to Levitical law, defiled--i.e., the eunuchs and foreigners--will be welcome in God's house. God has more than the nation of Israel to gather together!

In the same way, Peter's vision declares all foods clean and good to eat. Food is a metaphor for people--no one is to be considered outside the circle, objectionable, someone to be shunned.

The familiar parable from Luke turns the question around--who really understands who their neighbour is? The Samaritan. And in Jesus' day, to the Jewish people listening to Jesus, a Samaritan was the lowest of the low--not actually a criminal, but spiritually wrong, impure, unclean, a person who just doesn't understand God's truth--and let's face it, that is how many people in the world view people in the LGBT community.  LGBT community members are perceived as willful sinners, missing out on the truth. And yet, Jesus says, this is the person who truly understands how to care for another person.

Some of you already know my story--I will keep it brief, because it is not the main point here. I was born and raised a Methodist, in the US. When I married, it was in a Methodist church; my son was baptized in a Methodist church. I discerned my call to ministry in the Methodist church, and graduated from a Methodist seminary--Wesley Theological  Seminary in Washington,DC. I served for two years as an intern in a Methodist church and was appointed to serve two small rural Methodist churches. Attending seminary, one precept that was repeated in a hundred ways was this: speak your own truth. The professors and staff did not want us to repeat what sixteen theologians thought of a particular  bible passage--they wanted to know what we saw in it, what I saw in it. And in serving those tiny country churches, I realized that the most important thing a pastor can do--has to do--is be honest and truthful with the congregation they serve. And I realized I was not being honest. And so I came out. The Methodist church Book of Discipline explicitly says that the church will not ordain, "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals and lesbians." I identify as a bisexual woman, so some of my friends, in the church and out, urged me to fight to remain, but for family reasons--I had a 14 year-old son who had enough to deal with already--I chose not to. But the fact remains that the faith tradition I had grown up in, that was willing to ordain me, suddenly was not, because of a part of me that has nothing to do with my call to ministry or my ability to pastor effectively. Because of their human viewpoint, their human rules, they did not, could not, accept.God's call on my life.

I was lucky, in  a way--my family was very supportive, the most important of my friends were there for me, I knew of alternatives to the Methodist church, where I could fulfill my call--MCC being the one I chose. But I had that other support, and I had my sense of call to ministry, and an awareness of other options--which traditions were likely to be welcoming and which were not. Most people in the LGBT community do not have those advantages--if they are yearning for a spiritual home, they have few choices, either because the local churches are not welcoming, or because they don't know which ones might be. And it is just too scary to keep putting yourself out there, trying different churches to see which might welcome you, fearing and expecting rejection or condemnation each time.

And this, my friends, is why what you have done here at Tecumseh United is so very important. By going through this process, including Windsor Pride Community Centre's 50+ Proud's Diversity Training, you have demonstrated that this welcome is vitally important to you. A church can put rainbows all over its website and proclaim that "all are welcome here" but to the hesitant gay man or lesbian, or bisexual person or transgender person, there remains the question, "even me?" But with this designation, even if a person is not a member of the United Church, and isn't entirely sure what is meant by an Affirming Congregation, it says enough. It says, "this is God's house for all nations. There is no clean and unclean, for we are all one with God. We are each other's neighbour, and we care for each other, and that includes you." It says, "you are welcome here--yes, too. Come in, be at home."

I know it hasn't been easy at times, I know there have been struggles in the process. But anything worth having is worth struggling for, too.

Now, a word of warning--having the certification doesn't' mean that Tecumseh United will have a crowd of GLBT people at the doors next week. It won't grow your congregation by 10%, or the offering on Sunday by 20%.

But much of what we do as a church community isn't about numbers, is it? Worship is worship, whether 2000 people are there or 500 or ten. Bible  studies don't have a minimum attendance requirement, and the food closet doesn't shut down if five people come instead of the expected 30.

The task of a Christian community--any Christian community--is to do our level best to create an image of God's realm for others to see and share and come to participate in. We've heard from the prophet Isaiah today that every human being will be welcomed into God's house; and Peter's vision reinforces that--there is no longer clean and unclean, there are simply people. And sometimes the very people who are refused entry, who are seen as less-than, are the ones that community needs, wants, would benefit from--If they only knew.

Today is a day to celebrate--doors have been flung open, hearts have been enlarged, spirits have been set free. Tecumseh United, today you have done a great thing--to recognize the common humanity of all people, the common calling of us all, as we seek to know the divine, and to be part of a community in that seeking. As we are all seeking God and to know God more fully and deeply, you are creating that opportunity for ever more people to share in the task of creating the image of God's realm, and becoming a part of that image.
May God continue to bless each of you, your continuing journey with God, and your work to be God's people. In all God's names, amen.

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