By Derek Penwell
When I got to the office one time, I had a voicemail from a young man I’ve never met before. The message began, “My name is Benjamin. You don’t know me, but one of your colleagues referred you to me.”
He went on to say that he’d done some research on DBCC, and the ministry we’re involved in advocating for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. He wanted me to know how much he appreciated our efforts, and how encouraging it is to hear about a church that actually cares for folks who’ve traditionally experienced only heartache at the hands of the religious establishment.
Felt good. Nice to have your work affirmed by a stranger … unsolicited. Put a smile on my face.
He proceeded to relate a bit of his story. He came out to his parents when he was twelve. Being religiously conservative, they did what they believed best—they put him in “reparative therapy”—”pray away the gay.” The whole thing damaged him so badly that he’s assiduously avoided church ever since. I could hear the bitterness in his voice.
Over a very short period of time, I went from feeling, perhaps, a little too self-satisfied at the initial compliment to feeling awful for this young man’s trauma.
Then he said something that struck me as both profoundly sad and strangely hopeful: “I can only wonder how my life would have been different if there’d been a church around that had loved me for who God created me to be, instead of trying to change me from what it feared I represent.”
I started thinking about the Suicide Prevention Workshop we held a couple years ago. Turns out LGBT young people are two and a half times more likely to contemplate suicide than their straight counterparts. More frighteningly, I found out that those same LGBT youth are eight times more likely to attempt suicide.
Why the significantly higher rates?
Bullying, of course. But bullying is something that frequently happens … to a lot of kids. Perhaps even more deeply than bullying, though, LGBT kids experience rejection and isolation at the hands of the very people kids are supposed look to to love them and keep them safe.
Their parents kick them out of the house at alarming rates, making homelessness among LGBT youth twice as likely as among straight youth. The churches they attend often brutalize them in the name of “love.”
Young people are dying at an alarming rate, in order to allow some folks to retain the purity of their personal sense of integrity. That this integrity costs the lives of children is apparently a price they are more than willing to pay.
I realize that the motive for this stringent vision of purity is rooted in what its possessors would term love. And, I should point out, there is something to be said for saying “no” in the name of love—addicts, for example, often require the love found in “no.” And those who affirm reparative therapy, I suspect, would prefer to see same gender sexual orientation as an addiction to be conquered.
Unfortunately, though, reparative therapy is not “AA for the gay.” For one thing, AA actually works, whereas reparative therapy, at least according to the medical and scientific community, does not.1 But the problem has less to do with the fact that reparative therapy is ineffective, than with the fact that it does damage.2
LGBT young people having to find their way without the people and institutions charged with caring for them struck me today as I spoke with a pastor about his church. It seems there are some young adults in the church who would like to have conversation about how the church can become a place of welcome to LGBT people. Apparently, the older people in the church think such a conversation would be dangerous, afraid people will get angry and leave. After all, there are so many more important things in the world.
As the pastor spoke, I thought about Benjamin. I thought about all the LGBT young people going through hell because the people they trust to watch out for them have belittled and abandoned them. And I wondered how life would be different if there were churches around that loved these kids for who God created them to be, instead of trying to change them from what church people fear they represent.
I pray to God we find out.
To wit: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychoanalytic Association, American Psychological Association, American School Counselor Association, National Association of Social Workers, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO): Regional Office of the World Health Organization. ↩
See above note. ↩
I remember getting my first ministerial call as I prepared to graduate from seminary. Small town in the heart of Appalachia. The church was beautiful, a traditional Protestant downtown county seat kind of church.
The parsonage was nice … big. It had a large yard with an enormous swing set, new landscaping in the front. And to complete the perfect vocational/domestic idyll, the parsonage sat across the street from the fourth tee at the country club—to which the church bought me a membership.
So, back at the seminary I told my buddies about it … saving the country club part for last. Let’s be honest I was bragging. Looking back, I’m not proud of it. I was twenty-six and insensitive in that obnoxious way young people who figure they’ve got the world by the tail can be.
My pride didn’t even make it through that first conversation with my friends at seminary, however. Because after I finished recounting the glories of my new job, complete with the country club audio tour I wanted so badly to share, one of my friends, Marcus, spoke up and said, “Are you going to take that membership?”
I thought surely this must be a rhetorical question, because … really? Are you nuts? Of course, I’m taking it.
“Good for you. But let me ask you something: Can I come visit you at your new church?”
“You’reracis my friend. Of course.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that. Let me ask you another question: If you take me to play golf at your country club, will they let me play? Or will I have to caddy for you?”
Hearing those words hurt my heart. Marcus was my friend. So, it never occurred to me that a country club anywhere, including the South, might accept me but not my African-American friend.
LIke most middle class white kids, it never much occurred to me that a world of injustice exists, one that thrives beneath the horizon of my awareness. I knew about instances of unfairness, but it never occurred to me that those instances were connected on a deeper level.
But what struck me about Marcus’ question—beyond the fact that we still lived in a country where African-Americans could be refused access because of something as uncontrollable as the happenstance of birth—was my casual assumption that if I wasn’t being hurt by it, then nobody was.
For a couple of weeks we’ve watched as the implications of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman fiasco unfold. Without rehashing all the details, it seems clear that Trayvon Martin’s race was more than just a coincidental factor in the confrontation that led to his death.
It would be easy for me to chalk this whole tragedy up to the problem with Stand-your-ground laws, which, as Walter Breuggemann has rightly pointed out, should be unthinkable to Christians—inviting violence as these laws do.
I could very easily look past this case as merely another instance of the breakdown of civility, another rending of the social fabric through an insistence that my life is more important than yours.
But I have dear sisters and brothers who, themselves African-American, see this case as just another illustration of how injustice is embedded in our society. And because they are my sisters and brothers, I have a responsibility to add my voice to theirs in drawing attention to a system that regularly puts a thumb on the scales of justice, disadvantaging people of color.
It doesn’t affect me, though, right? I wasn’t shot. I’m white. I’m generally not in danger of inviting violence because of how I look.
The popular assumption seems to be that we have varieties of injustice, complete with interest and advocacy groups for each. Which interest and advocacy groups dedicate themselves to seeking redress and reform for their particular cause. You take care of your stuff, because I’ve got my hands full taking care of my own.
In such a world, I need not be concerned so much with Trayvon Martin for two reasons: 1) I’m not African-American, so his death doesn’t seem to affect my world, and 2) there are already competent and passionate interest groups taking up his cause.
But beyond the laziness of such casual assumptions about somebody else doing the heavy lifting, the problem with thinking that I don’t have a responsibility to speak out about the racism baked into the American cake is a reality we don’t often name: racism isn’t a thing unto itself, but an expression of the larger problems of injustice and oppression committed by those in power against those who too often don’t have a voice. And that, my friends, affects us all … whether we realize it or not.
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you,’” (1 Cor. 12:21) is how Paul says it.
I cannot say to my African-American sisters and brothers, “I have no responsibility for you.”
I cannot say to my Hispanic sisters and brothers, “I know they’re ripping your families apart through deportation; I know they’re slandering your character, calling you unspeakable things for having committed the ‘crime’ of seeking to make a better life for those you love—but you should have thought of that before you crossed the border.”
I cannot say to my LGBT sisters and brothers, “I know you’ve felt like everybody’s favorite punching bag (sometimes literally); I know some of you are living on the streets or dying because you can no longer bear the hateful world we’ve made for you, but I’m straight, so I’ve got no dog in this fight.”
I cannot say to my sisters, “I know many of you live in fear that you’ll attract the unwanted attention of violent men; I know that you have to work harder to find a job that will pay you what you’re worth (or as is the case in my profession, that you’ll find a job at all), but you just need to quit being so ‘sensitive.’”
I cannot say to my sisters and brothers who live in other parts of the world, “I know that many of you cower in your homes, afraid of American bombs falling out of the sky; I know that you shrink behind locked doors, waiting for armed men to come crashing through; but if you’d have been smart enough to have been born in our country, you wouldn’t have to worry about that.”
I cannot say to my sisters and brothers without housing or adequate healthcare, “I know you worry about how you’ll make it through, but you’re just going to have to quit being lazy and get a job.”
It’s not enough for me to look after my own interests. It’s not enough for me to remain ignorant of the pain others experience. We’re connected in ways that make injustice a problem for all of us.
And if you follow Jesus, if you seek to participate in the unfolding reign of God, you don’t get to choose which injustices you care about. Racism, being anti-immigrant, homophobia, sexism, militarism, poverty … these are all presenting symptoms of the much larger disease of injustice that is at odds with what God desires for those whom God created and loves.
Here’s the thing: Since I happen to be an activist for a particular cause, I can too easily forget that I have sisters and brothers suffering from different forms of injustice to whom I need to offer my support. But they ought to be able to count on me to stand by their side … even if the issue doesn’t affect me directly. Because if I claim to follow Jesus, then—all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding—it does.
According to Paul, when you run headlong into the wall of oppression and injustice, I get bruises too.
I think Marcus would agree with me.
On Tuesday, July 16, as part of its biennial General Assembly, the Protestant mainline denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) voted to "to affirm the faith, baptism and spiritual gifts of all Christians regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity," declaring "that neither is grounds for exclusion from fellowship or service within the church." The resolution passed with over 75% of the vote.
Rev. Derek Penwell, pastor of Douglass Blvd. Christian Church in Louisville, was the resolution's primary author and DBCC served as the resolution's original sponsor. While this resolution does not speak directly either to the question of the same gender marriage or to standards for ordination, it attempts to say a positive word of grace and welcome to those people who, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, have historically felt unrecognized and unwelcome by the churc.h"
Rev. Penwell said, "We know that the church has harmed countless LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, BiSexual, and Transgender) people in the past. Many churches continue to hurt today. This was a chance for Disciples to say publicly 'enough.' It was our chance to say that many Christians wnat to be a part of the solution of welcoming everyone, instead of the part of the problem."
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), based in Indianapolis, Indiana, and part of an indigenous American religious movement that arose at the beginning of the 1800s, is today considered a Protestant mainline denomination with a historic concern for the pursuit of ecumenical unity, social justice, and freedom of Biblical interpretation.
For more information on the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), visit http://www.disciples.org.
Douglass Boulevard Christian Church, founded in 1846, has historically been committed to the pursuit of justice for all people, offering leadership in trying to live out the message of love and hospitality embodied by Jesus. In 2008, Douglass Boulevard Christian Church voted to become an Open and Affirming Community of Faith.
Douglass Boulevard Christian Church is located at 2005 Douglass Boulevard in the Highlands near Douglass Loop. For more information on the church, visit http://douglassblvdcc.com.
For more information on Rev. Derek Penwell, visit http://derekpenwell.net.
From A Letter from Rachel Held Evans
I don’t know much about what it’s like to be you. But I value those times we’ve spent talking over coffee and exchanging emails. We always seem to find one another when I’m on a college campus, and I’m beginning to think it’s because we’re the same kind of people—broken, wrestling, hopeful, brave…ragamuffins and misfits just taking it one day at a time.
I love you, and I am honored to be your sister in Christ.
Hang in there.
I’ve got your back.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Chris Hartman, Fairness Campaign Director
(502) 640-1095; @FairnessCamp
Dr. Noell Rowan, BSW Program Director, UofL Kent School of Social Work
(502) 852-1964; NLRowa01@louisville.edu
"Aging Fairly" Series Includes FIlm & Lecture on LGBT Elder Issues
April 28, 4 p.m., UofL Chao Auditorium; June 9, 5 p.m., Douglass Blvd. Christian Church
(Louisville, KY) As part of its "Aging Fairly" series, the Fairness Campaign is partnering with KIPDA Mental Health and Aging Coalition, the University of Louisville Kent School of Social Work, The LGBT Center at University of Louisville, Mad Stu Media, Faith Leaders for Fairness, and True Colors Ministry to present showings of Stu Maddux's award-winning documentary film on LGBT aging, Gen Silent.
Each film showing is coupled with a brief lecture by Dr. Noell Rowan, BSW Program Director of UofL's Kent School of Social Work, who will reveal findings from a groundbreaking Hartford Faculty Scholars research project, Resiliency and Quality of Life for Older Lesbian Adults with Alcoholism. The series is free to the public with refreshments and will be shown Sunday, April 28, 4:00 p.m. at UofL's Chao Auditorium in the basement of Ekstrom Library and Sunday, June 9, 5:00 p.m. at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church, 2005 Douglass Boulevard.
The film showing and lecture series is part of the Fairness Campaign's ongoing efforts to promote awareness in the community of LGBT aging issues and disparities among older LGBT adults. As chronicled in Gen Silent, many older LGBT people struggle with going back into the closet as they fear prejudice and unfair treatment in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. According to Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults, a joint study by the MAP Project, Center for American Progress, and SAGE, 8.3% of LGBT elders reported abuse or neglect by a caretaker due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, senior lesbian couples have almost twice the poverty rate of senior heterosexual couples, LGB older adults have 11% higher alcohol abuse rates than their heterosexual peers, and 72% of LGBT seniors are hesitant to engage in mainstream aging programs for fear of being unwelcome, among other staggering statistics.
"With more than 1.5 million LGBT seniors living in America today, and with that number ever increasing as more Baby Boomers join those ranks, caring for and better accommodating the needs of our LGBT elders has become an increasingly urgent issue on the Fairness Campaign's radar," shared director Chris Hartman. "In the coming years, we will be deepening our partnerships with these and other organizations--like Elderserve, Inc.--to best serve Louisville and Kentucky's LGBT seniors."
WHAT: "Aging Fairly" film and lecture series
WHEN & WHERE:
Sunday, April 28, 4:00 p.m.
UofL's Chao Auditorium in the basement of Ekstrom Library
Sunday, June 9, 5:00 p.m.
Douglass Boulevard Christian Church, 2005 Douglass Boulevard
WHO: Dr. Noell Rowan
KIPDA Mental Health and Aging Coalition
University of Louisville Kent School of Social Work
The LGBT Center at University of Louisville
Mad Stu Media
Faith Leaders for Fairness
True Colors Ministry
"Jim Wallis' support of same-sex marriage is yet another proof of the ever-changing opinions in the U.S. about the subject. Since 2003, Americans, even from the most conservative states and religious creeds, have steadily increased their support for the issue. Slowly but surely, gays rights are becoming what African American rights were 60 years ago: accepted by more and more people."
Do you hear that? It's the winds of change
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend Louisville’s PRIDE FESTIVAL…my third…as I have only been active in the LGBTQ community for about 4 years. The festival began with the parade on Friday evening. My church, Douglass Blvd. Christian Church, has participated for several years now. I experienced real joy as I marched alongside some of our gay and straight members, carrying our banner of support. I have been involved in church music ministry for 50 years, and experience real joy at being part of a faith community which welcomes and affirms ALL people gathering to worship and fellowship, regardless of gender, age, color, creed or sexual orientation. It brought sheer joy to my heart to witness the smiles of people watching, knowing that many of them were not members of the LGBTQ community, but there to support it. On Saturday, I volunteered, along with some other church members, at our booth…passing out information about DBCC, and engaging in conversation with those who stopped by. I felt great joy in my heart as I heard person after person express thanks that we (representatives of the church) were there with our support. (And lest I forget, there were other churches there as well. Hopefully, next year, there will be even more.)
The balance of the afternoon was spent walking around the festival, meeting old friends, making new ones, and taking in all that the festival had to offer. While there, I could not help but notice the others who had come. As I walked, I saw outfits of every color of the rainbow. People in long pants, short pants, underpants, t-shirts, no shirts, crazy hats, crazy hair, nipple rings, ear gauges, tattoos, lip rings… you name it and it was there. I heard some comments about how the news media only seemed to film and photograph the ones who dressed and behaved in such outlandish manner. I was asked, “Is that the message that we want delivered to the larger Louisville community about the LGBT population?” What about those who choose to be less conspicuous about their “gayness”? After all, the LGBT community contains not only those who blatantly flaunt their homosexuality, but those who dress and act in a more conservative manner. The fact is: we are lawyers, doctors, teachers, servers, sanitation engineers, accountants, students, real estate brokers, managers, construction workers, nurses, bartenders, etc. I would daresay that those in the “straight” Louisville population cannot go anywhere in the area without some contact with a member of the LGBTQ community, and may not even realize it. Some of us are noticed, while others are well-hidden. We are black, white, Asian, Indian, and of mixed descent. We are teenagers, baby boomers, and members of the X and Y generations. Are you getting my point? We represent DIVERSITY, within our own LBGT community.
The True Colors Ministry at Highland Baptist Church is hosting Inside Out Faith a concert featuring Jennifer Knapp at Highland Baptist Church this Sunday, April 28th. DBCC has sponsored this event, and have been given a number of complimentary tickets. If you are interested in seeing this concert/conversation session, please contact the DBCC church office immediately.
Please join us for what is sure to be an incredibly moving and enlightening evening of worship and fellowship!
Our friends at the True Colors Ministry of Highland Baptist Church are screening the film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin this Sunday, February 5th. If the Super Bowl just isn't your cup of tea, or you're simply looking for an interesting and stimulating activity on Sunday, this is definitely the place to be! For more information, contact Maurice Bojangles-Blanchard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I had a chance to preach this past Sunday at Trinity Parish Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington. The invitation to preach this sermon came to me after DBCC's April 17 congregational vote to stop signing marriage licenses as show of good faith to our LGBTQ members. The folks at Trinity Parish couldn't have been kinder.
You can read the full text of the sermon below. The audio file is at the very bottom of the post. You can subscribe to our podcast and catch all of the sermons at DBCC and special events like the Matthew Shepard Sermon.
We gather here today, of course, to offer up our worship to God. As the sursum cordareminds us, "It is meet and right so to do." In the process, we also seek to commemorate the life of a gay man who was left to die alone. Thirteen years ago, 2 men took Matthew Shepard from a bar in an automobile, robbed him, pistol-whipped him, tortured him, and tied him to a fence to die alone in the night. He didn't die on the fence, because a passerby the next morning saw him. He died 5 days later in a hospital, on October 12, 1998--a victim of senseless violence against somebody on the margins.
That Matthew Shepard was gay apparently gave those two men all the motive they needed to inflict as much damage as venal little minds could concoct.
In the years since, Matthew Shepard has become a symbol of all that hatred can do when unleashed on the world.
It makes me wonder how you get to that point? How do you turn your fear of that which is different into something so potent that when it breaks over the levies, everything in its way gets swallowed up in in death?
Fear of what's different? That doesn't sound altogether right. Of course, fear of what's different is a part of it. But that seems too easy, frankly. Fear of what's different is the standard answer in cases like these.
But why do we fear what's different? I think it has something to do with the fear that we're insignificant, with our insecurities about the potential meaninglessness of our lives. Our confidence in our own agency is so tenuous that whatever stands over against how we view the world is a threat. We know enough native logic that A cannot simultaneously be non A. That is to say, we know, for instance, that "World Series Champion" cannot be used as an antecedent qualifier for "Chicago Cubs." The universe just isn't structured to allow a thing to be itself and its opposite at the same time. We know this.
For two men in Wyoming thirteen years ago, the prospect of homosexuality coexisting in a world with "natural" sexual affinities was logically impossible. Matthew Shepard's existence itself threatened a whole way of construing the world.
If your world is threatened, if your equilibrium is disrupted, you've got to figure out what you're going to do to restore stasis. If violence is all you know, violence is what you bring to the existential party.
Insecurity. Fear. Meaninglessness. They stand as roadblocks to an otherwise satisfying existence.
A few years after Matthew Shepard died, on a gray day in November 2000, when the sky looked like lead and the leaves had all vanished, I went to Creech Funeral Home in Middlesboro, Kentucky, down in Appalachia where I lived, to perform a funeral for Bryan Landon. I didn’t know Bryan; he’d spent most of his adult life up in Louisville—where he’d finally succumbed to the ravages of AIDS. My friend Bill, the funeral director, had asked me the day before if I’d perform the funeral, since Bryan didn’t have a church home, and his family refused to provide assistance because they disapproved of his “lifestyle.” I said I’d be happy to do what I could. Bill said to me, “But I want you to know right off the bat that, because he was estranged from his family and his church, there might not be many folks there.” “Not a problem,” I said.
But as I walked into the funeral home on a cold November day, it occurred to me that I’d not absorbed the full implications of Bill’s warning . . . not many people had shown up. And by “not many” I mean, nobody had shown up. I waited in the funeral home chapel for five minutes or so after the funeral was supposed to have started—just Bryan Landon and me. Finally, Bill came into the back of the chapel with someone I didn’t know offhand. She sat in the back row. Bill made his way up front. And I said, “Oh good. Is that a member of his family?”
“No,” he said, “that’s the woman who cleans for us.”
I looked at him, puzzled. He said, “Well, buddy, in 25 years as a funeral director, I’ve never had a funeral where nobody showed up, and I figured somebody besides you and I ought to bear witness to this man’s passing.”
And so, on a gray November day in 2000, along with a funeral director and a cleaning woman, I buried Bryan Landon. He died of AIDS. Nobody who knew him came to witness that he’d ever even walked this earth. He had a family; he’d had friends along the way; he grew up in the Baptist church, singing Jesus Loves the Little Children—all the children of the world. But in the end, nobody came to claim him, to speak words over him, to call him a child of God. So, we three strangers wound up offering him up to God on the wings of weary and bedraggled prayers, clinging to all the hope we could muster in a gray place.
What continues to haunt me about that day, though, is that I still cannot find words to express the sadness, the outrage, the terribleness of it all. Where was the church for Bryan Landon?
Where's the church on this whole issue of our brothers and sisters created by God gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered? Who stands up for them? And what would it even look like to stand up? I think that's the question raised by Matthew Shepard's death, by Bryan Landon's death. What would it take for the church to make a difference in a world where people are killed, bullied, and abandoned for being who God created them to be? What would it take?
Jesus, in our Gospel for today, has been in a long conversation with the Chief Priest and the elders of the temple. The occasion that prompted this conversation was the first act that Jesus performed after entering Jerusalem on a donkey, way back at the beginning of chapter 21. Remember that? Jesus comes into Jerusalem, now a few days prior to his death, to the enthusiastic support of the people--who are convinced he's the Messiah . . . the long awaited political/military leader who will lead a revolution to oust the Roman occupation.
That little parade makes the hairs on the back of the necks of the political leadership stand up.
His first act after entering to a chorus of "Hosannas" was to go straight to the temple and start turning over the lemonade stands, telling the folks in charge that they've destroyed God's house of prayer, made it a den of robbers. Remember that?
What happens next, though, is the really telling part of the story. Jesus, it says in verse 14, after revealing the people entrusted with the caretaking of God's house as frauds, welcomes the blind and the lame to the temple, and he heals them.
Isn't that great? Jesus calls out the big shots, and right under their noses receives with open arms the people those big shots have assiduously attempted to exclude.
This little jaunt into the temple makes the hairs on the back of the necks of thereligious leadership stand up.
In fact, they're so annoyed with Jesus that they button-hole him the next day, and ask him by what authority he's doing all this stuff. Just who does he think he is?
So Jesus launches into a series of parables to tell the religious leaders who he thinks he is, and perhaps just as importantly, who he doesn't think they are.
Our parable, the parable of the wedding banquet is the third in this series, all keyed by, I would like to suggest, Jesus making a statement about who should be allowed into God's house--and what God thinks of the leaders who're supposed to be running things.
So, our parable for today, involves a king who's going to give a wedding banquet for his son. Each time the king sends out the wedding invitations, however, they're rudely declined. The king asks for the pleasure of his subjects' presence at a wonderful occasion, but they're preoccupied by tending to other things--things they're convinced are more important than whatever the king has in mind.
In an honor/shame based culture like that prevalent in the ancient Near East, this was the granddaddy of all social snubs. You don't turn down a king, then beat and kill the king's slaves.
This, of course, enrages the king--so he turns over every lemonade stand in the country. Then, what does the king do? He invites in everybody else who wasn't important enough to get an invitation the first time around--both the good and the bad. The king throws an enormous shindig for folks on the margins, welcoming all those people who're used to being left out of the important stuff, those who've been abused, pushed aside, excluded, those who've been bullied and abandoned to die alone.
For, you see, the kingdom of God does not exist where some are not welcome … where the lame and the blind, where the tax collectors and prostitutes, where the hungry and the poor stand on the outside looking in. The kingdom of God does not exist where people are barred entrance because of sexual orientation or identity, because of race or immigration status.
There doesn’t have to be a sign on the door that says, “You’re not welcome here.” People know.
Well, then, how do we tell people they're welcome?
People will finally know they're welcome–not because we advertise our solidarity (as important as that is)–but because we show them … we keep throwing open the doors and inviting people to come in. We keep working on behalf of those who’ve been turned away by the very people who are important enough to get invited to the party. We keep standing side by side with those left to die alone.
Ok. That's fine. Nice words. But what does it mean to do the things you're saying? What would it take for the church to accept the host's invitation to attend the party right alongside those who've been systematically told they're not welcome?
Peter Velander gives us a glimpse of what it might look like, what it I think it takes.
He writes: “I remember the day I learned to hate racism. I was five years old."
“The walk home from school was only about five blocks. I usually walked with some friends. On this day I walked alone. Happy, but in a hurry, I decided to take the shortcut through the alley. Without a care in the world I careened around the corner. Then I looked up—too late to change course. I had walked in on a back-alley beating.
“There were three big white kids. In retrospect they were probably no more than sixth graders, but they looked like giants from my kindergarten perspective. There was one black kid. He was standing against a garage, his hands behind his back. The three white kids were taking turns punching him. They laughed. He stood silently except for the involuntary groans that followed each blow.
“And now I was caught. One of the three grabbed me and stood me in front of their victim. “You take a turn,” he said. “Hit the ______!” (I’m not going to say it; you know what they said.) Velander said, “I stood paralyzed.”
“Hit him or you’re next!” the giant shouted at me. So I did. I feigned a punch. I can still feel the soft fuzz of that boy’s turquoise sweater as my knuckles gently touched his stomach. I don’t know how many punches there were. I don’t know how long he had to stand backed up against that garage. After my minute participation in the conspiracy they let me go and I ran. I ran home crying and sick to my stomach. I have never forgotten.
“Thirty-five years later that event still preaches a sermon to me every time I remember it. One can despise, decry, denounce, and deplore something without ever being willing to suffer, or even be inconvenienced, to bring about change. If there is one thing that Jesus taught us it was how to suffer with and for others.
“Jesus walked the way of the cross. He taught us the meaning of suffering as a servant. Perhaps my first chance to follow that example came in the ally by a garage thirty-five years ago.
“I don’t know if that black boy from the alley grew up, or where he lives, or what he does today. I never knew his name. I wish I did. I wish I could find him. I need to ask his forgiveness—not for the blow I delivered, for it was nothing, but for the blows I refused to stand by his side and receive. I think that’s what it takes.”
That's not easy. That's not get-up-and-go-to-church-on-Sunday-morning easy. It's hard. I know. Standing up for people this culture doesn't think are worth it is hard, painful work.
But, as Father Daniel Berrigan said, "If you want to follow Jesus, you'd better look good on wood."
You see, the truth of the matter is, as a people who claim to follow a savior who was strapped to his own rough cut piece of lumber and left to die alone, we can't stand idly by and watch the world do that to even one more person.
Matthew Shepard. Bryan Landon. Jesus.
It's time for the rest of the children of God to stand by the side of those forgotten, abused, bullied, and left to die alone . . . and take some blows.
I think that's what it takes.
This sermon begins with Louis C.K. and ends with the promise that "in the reign of God, we’re valuable not based on our production, not based on how much we’re worth. We’re valuable because, by the grace of God, God says we’re valuable."
Here's the video Rev. Penwell references of Louis C.K.:
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I’m a minister. Which is to say, I work as a minister in a church. Historically, I’ve found myself reluctant to offer that bit of information in casual conversation, not because ministry occupies a position inherently more shameful than a host of other vocational options, but because when people find out that I’m a minister they either want me to answer their questions about I watch TBN, or they want to impart some theological nugget they’ve mined from The Prayer of Jabez or The Left Behind series. Please don’t misunderstand—I like questions. In fact I entered the ministry because of some of the questions I had about life and its ultimate meaning. My problem lies not in questions in themselves, but in questions about whether or not I believe that the World Council of Churches, Democratic politicians, and certain cartoon characters on prime time television form a shady cabal intent on ushering in the anti-Christ and a one-world government—complete with standard issue UPC codes emblazoned on everyone’s forehead, or whether I’ve finally come to my senses and realized that mega-churches are the goal of God’s reign here on earth.
The fact is I like being a minister, in large part, because of the conversations that attach to a life spent following such a strange, quixotic, compelling character as Jesus. The conversations, however, that seem to me to be important to have center on questions of justice, non-violence, grace, faithfulness, friendship, and devotion, rather than the sort of mass-produced fare provided by a popular religious culture that asks nothing more of Christians than that they act nice, refrain from swearing in public, and support any military action proposed by the American government as, ipso facto, God’s will.
To put a finer point on it, I like being a minister at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church. I’m blessed to belong to a community of faith that takes seriously our call to live out the example of Jesus in the best way we know how. DBCC is a community unafraid to take a chance on following Jesus down a dark alley. I like that. I like the sense of adventure I find at DBCC, as well as the adventurous thoughts I have when I think about what we can do together.
I guess this is all a long way of saying that my thoughts about ministry have evolved since coming to Douglass. Many of the things I do don’t even feel particularly like work. In fact, now when I’m asked what I do, I tell people I’m a minister at this really great church that seeks justice for the marginalized, that provides embrace for those who’ve been excluded, that looks into the eyes of the forgotten and says, “You’re welcome here.” Though we’re not perfect, we are constantly looking for ways to grow and be better.
I’m a minister. I just thought you should know.
On Facebook, as many of you know, I tend to be kind of a smart aleck. More to the point, I tend to be a decidedly liberal smart aleck—a fact that annoys some people, while others seem more appreciative of my sarcasm. At any rate, I received a message on Facebook the other day from someone about whom I care a great deal. It read, in part:
“Many of the people in my generation are politically what they are because of their upbringing. It would do us well to hear the "other" side in a constructive manner. For instance, I have been thinking about the homosexual question, and all of my learning and understanding comes from my conservative teaching.”
The note went on to ask that I offer some clarification of my views on the “homosexual question.” Notwithstanding the implication that my snarkiness is often less than “constructive,” I take the message to be a genuine attempt on the part of the writer to understand a different view—admittedly, something about which I could do better myself. Since I believe the request to be a serious one, and since my early “learning and teaching” also came from “conservative teaching,” I feel a certain responsibility to try to offer a serious answer about how I have arrived at my current theological convictions. And while the nature of the medium in which I provide my response necessarily narrows the scope of how thoroughly I can address each issue associated with this question, I will try to provide a general account of how my beliefs have changed.
At the heart of what my questioner refers to as conservative teaching, it seems to me, is the issue of authority—namely, who or what guides my theological beliefs, and how those beliefs get converted into action. Growing up, I learned that it was the bible that provided a blueprint for what to think and how to act. If the bible said it, I was taught to believe it. On this reading of scripture one operates under the defining assumption that the bible was written with the intention of providing a clearly understandable set of universal guidelines by which to live, one that extends to all times and all places. In other words, what the bible said 2,500 years ago is just as binding today as it was then. When it said not to steal, that was a universally binding command. When it said not to murder, that was meant for me as much as for the Israelites wandering in the desert. When it said, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lev. 20:10), that was supposed to apply to . . . wait a minute. It was there that I ran into problems with reading the bible as a timeless blueprint, since big portions of it were ignored as being only for certain times and places.
So when Paul said that a woman “ought to have a symbol of authority on her head [either a veil or long hair], because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:9, cf., also 11:6), and I noticed that the women I knew never wore veils and often cut their hair short, I was told that Paul was issuing only a situational command. That is to say, Paul was only speaking to women of his time. But when, some verses later, Paul said, “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says” (14: 33b-34), I was told that he was speaking to women of all times and places. It wasn’t clear to me how I was supposed to tell consistently between time-bound and timeless commands. I just couldn’t figure out why the command for women to be silent in church should operate beyond the first century Roman Empire, but that the command that women ought to wear veils and refrain from cutting their hair shouldn’t.
I concluded that the church operates in a decidedly different context now—one the apostle Paul could not have foreseen. That argument began to change my mind about women’s ordination (another “question”—that is, the “women’s ordination question”—I had learned from early on was a theological no-no). In fact, it made enough sense to other Christians around me that there had already been a substantial shift in many parts of the church over the issue of ordaining women. As important as that hermeneutical shift was, however, my ideas about women in ministry were cemented when I finally received the honor of working side by side with them as colleagues. I saw how gifted they were at tasks that I had been taught were to be reserved to males. I worked with women who could preach and teach and administrate much better than I could (not necessarily a heavy lift, that). I saw this as a way that, over time, the Holy Spirit was able to reveal a new conception of what God intended. It didn’t necessarily mean that God had changed, but that the world in which we lived had changed enough that God’s true vision of the way things ought to be could finally be received.
It occurred to me, though, that another gradual revelation of God’s true design had happened even before the shift on women in the church. The bible, while not commanding slavery, certainly seemed to condone its practice. In fact, many people who, at one time, defended the practice of slavery did so while standing firmly within the tradition of biblical interpretation, using the bible as the defensive tool of choice. However, we’ve reached a point where, looking back, it seems outrageous that anyone ever used the bible to defend this kind of treatment of other human beings. It struck me that perhaps the church’s stance toward gays and lesbians might follow this same trajectory. In other words, I thought that maybe the Holy Spirit is in the process of revealing to us God’s true vision of the way things ought to be with respect to homosexuality. If this is the case, then we need not necessarily say that God has changed (though my colleagues who are Process theologians probably wouldn’t object to this description), but that the world has changed sufficiently to be able to receive the fullness of God’s truth on this issue.
But beyond what I take to be the inadequacies of a static view of biblical interpretation that seeks to match the brown shoes of scripture with the often black tuxedos of context, the thing I found most persuasive in changing my theological views of homosexuality was my contact with my brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian. In the church where I minister there reside some of the finest people with whom I’ve ever been fortunate enough to work—people who just happen to have been be born loving others of the same gender. These people are my parishioners; but more importantly, they are my friends. My gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have the same love for Jesus in their hearts as all the rest of the people with whom I work. They want to be a part of a community seeking to live faithfully as followers of Jesus. They want this. Unfortunately, though, the church has not traditionally wanted them back. We have caused grave damage to people whose only crime was to be created different. I found I could no longer view people for whom Jesus died as defective or degenerate just because the object of their affections happened to share the same anatomy.
I don’t have the space to go into a separate exegetical defense of the seven “clobber” passages, those passages in the bible usually cited as arguments against homosexuality; those arguments are well rehearsed on both sides (stay tuned for future articles on the “clobber” passages, where I’ll rehearse the arguments again). My point here centers on how we identify authority. I want to be clear about the fact that I’m not suggesting that the bible isn’t authoritative; I believe it is. Instead, I’ve come to the place where I can no longer accept as authoritative the view that scripture is a handy guidebook, indexed with rules for every occasion. Scripture acts as authoritative when interpreted within a community that seeks seriously to understand the story of God’s loving interaction with humanity in the person of Jesus the Christ. And the community in which I interpret scripture consists of people who are better disciples than I am, but whose gender identity or sexual orientation differs from my own. And, as someone who claims to follow Jesus, my primary vocation is to learn to love others (all others) with the same radical abandon as the Jesus who radically abandoned good sense by answering “the Derek question” and loving me.