The Netflix TV show “Queer Eye” just came out with a 7th season. In each Queer eye episode, 5 men, the “Fab 5”, who identify as gay, for a week, come to the aid of a nominated individual, who is often struggling. Each of the “fab 5” in queer Eye have a different gift. One person teaches cooking, one teaches fashion, one does house renovating and décor, one does grooming, and the last one – my favorite- is essentially a chaplain. Throughout the week, the Fab 5 care for, love, and makeover the nominated person’s life. In many of the situations, the individuals who they care for for the week are pretty unsure of gay men. However, most of the episodes end in lots of tears and deep connection between the individual and the Fab 5, as a result of the Fab 5’s radical love for them.
Radical love – the theme of this sermon.
Human sexuality is an extremely contentious topic right now in American Culture. Sexuality and Gender are important ways in which we understand ourselves, and are a key way in which we interact with the world around us. My appearance, my voice, my face, – signal to those around me in traditional American culture, that I am a man. That information helps you, perhaps at an unconscious level, interact with me.
So it can be quite unsettling when expectations that we have grown up with around what it means to be a “man” or a “woman,” are changed. One’s intuition is questioned. Having one’s intuition questioned can feel like one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences are not valid. It is painful to not feel valid.
I remember starting to hear bits and pieces about “gay people” late in elementary school and having the gut feeling that that didn’t seem right. I had never seen it before. Every couple I could see were men and women. All of the unknowns of what two men or two women together would mean was scary. It forced me to question the world around me, and it made me feel unstable. Instability is uncomfortable and no one likes to be uncomfortable.
For those of you who are uncomfortable with this topic today, I see you and I have a deep desire to care for you on this journey.
But today’s topic is hard. It questions tradition. It questions culture. Which are major challenges to go up against. But we must. We must because of the alarming suicide rates of LGBTQ teens when they are not in a supportive community. We must because of the violence that LGBTQ people experience – from the PULSE night club shooting, to laws actively trying to discriminate, to every day name calling that I know my loved ones experience. So today, we brave into the uncomfortable, for the care of our community.
Today’s scripture is a parable by Jesus, and Jesus’ parables are uncomfortable.
Part of what makes Parables uncomfortable, is that they don’t have a definitive moral at the end of them. Fables – have a moral. In Aesop’s fables, there is always a moral at the end of the story.. The moral of Aesop’s “The lion and the mouse” is that if you are generous to others – like the lion was in sparing the mouse’s life, that generosity will come back around, like when the mouse frees the lion from the trap.
Sometimes Bible interpreters like to add a “moral of the story” to the end of Jesus’ parables – a defined, singular moral. However, when we do this we miss the point of the parable.
A parable is meant to have us ask hard questions, to uncomfortably hold tensions, and they invite us to search ourselves – deeply. A Parable is meant to be entertained – twisted around, looked at from many angles and reimagined over and over again for new understandings in new contexts. Parables have endless possibilities. I think it is Jesus’ parable telling that makes his teachings so timeless. We can, over and over again, come back to “the good samaritan” or “the parable of the Talents,” which Ellie Hartzler shared last week in her faith statement, and with new life experiences mine the parable for new questions, challenges, meanings and applications to our lives.
Today we have read perhaps the most classic of all parables – the prodigal son. The story whose telling and interpretations in recent centuries has been at the center of showing readers how to repent, and it explores the feelings that come with receiving grace, and the feelings that come with watching someone else receive grace that you might think doesn’t deserve it. It’s amazing that a story can hold so many human feelings all at once.
The parable goes that a younger brother leaves his older brother and his father, with his inheritance and he spends it lavishly on worldly things. After much time passes, this younger brother has nothing. He has spent it all. Wasted it on the things in life that do not matter. Squandered his wealth. So with empty pockets, he walks home, with his tail between his legs. Ashamed. He is ready to say in verse 18, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
When he comes home, we expect his dad to shame him. “How could you waste the money that I have worked my whole life developing. You know nothing of how to be responsible. You know nothing about how to live a moral life.”
This, of course, is what the older brother is hoping for. The older brother has been waiting for this day: The day that the younger brother comes home, and is shamed for who he has been. The older brother hopes that his dad will see him for how loyal, hard working, and responsible he has been. And maybe “earn” his dad’s love that he has been longing for.
The dad does not buy into the older brother’s schemes and instead the dad welcomes his younger son home with a feast. He does not consider what the son has done because he is so happy to see his son again. In doing this, he shows “radical love” that the older brother is unable to understand. The older brother comes up to the dad and says, how can this be? Why is he getting a party – where has my party been for the last decade where I have worked hard for you.
Radical love. Queer Theologian Patrick Cheng writes in his introduction to Queer Theology, that radical is a love so extreme that it dissolves existing boundaries that might normally seem fixed. Like loving one’s neighbor or one’s enemy, as you would love yourself.
God’s love is so radical, so extreme, that even after the father’s child squanders what he was given, the father welcomes the child back into loving arms. This love dissolves the boundary that could be up between this father and his son. Radical love. (pause)
The story of the prodigal son always has me asking “who am I?”
“Who am I in this story?” “Who are we, the church, in this story?”
The dad? The older brother? The younger brother who runs away? I often find myself for better or worse inserting others into the story too. She is being a prodigal son. Or he is resentful older brother, or she is being a radical, loving father.
Today, as we consider pride month – the celebration of LGBTQ peoples, I have the fun and probably foolish challenge of trying to fit the church, the LGBTQ community, myself or others into the characters of this story.
My first, inclination is to place the church in the position of the father and the LGBTQ community as the prodigal son. The church, like the father, opens his arms to his son. Like swinging wide its doors and welcome the LGBTQ community back to table – where they have been harmed by the “older brothers,” for centuries.
What is striking to me in this way of telling the story of LGBTQ inclusion, is that the church is placed into the role of the character that does not change in the story. The father is consistently gracious and consistently giving. The father in the story gives inheritance to the son and when the son comes back, he throws him a party even though he squandered the wealth. When reading this story with church is the father, then the church is not asked to change.
If the church is in the role of the father, and like the father had it right all along, then the church doesn’t have to change how we have done anything. But have we had it right all along?
In 2013-14, during my senior year at Eastern Mennonite University, the school did a listening “process” where it created spaces for people to discuss and share their thoughts on LGBTQ inclusion. We sat in circles and folks shared their experiences, their faith, and their hopes for the future. At the end of the process, EMU changed its policies to include LGBTQ folks, but I did not remember this change requiring any change out of me. I was like – cool – I am happy that LGBTQ folks were included at the school, but I continued on in a Mennonite church that would go on to discriminate against a friend of mine that was gay. The church would say that its doors are open and he was welcome, this friend was not allowed to use his incredible leadership and music skills. Those gifts were squandered. The pain this friend experienced from his community was immense, and yet I continued to go to this church the rest of college.
Like the father, I did not change, nor did the church. And this story did not end in a big celebration either.
What happens when we rearrange the pieces of the parable to create a different meaning for us today, because my hunch is, like me, placing the church in the role of the father is what most of us would default to. We jump to the church as the father, who is like God, like the bible, like tradition – unchangeable.
What if we swap roles and lean into the fun and unlimited possibilities of a parable. What if the church is the prodigal son, and the LGBTQ community is the father – what can we learn from exploring the story in this way. Lets try it out.
The church, like the prodigal son, was given a gift. Beautiful human beings. Humans with all kinds of skills, abilities, and love to share. But like the prodigal son, the church squandered the gift it was given. It ran from God’s radical love, anxiously searching for wholeness in other places – in the certainty of traditional family values, in the certainty of fundamentalist readings of the bible, in comfort of traditional Christian sexual ethics, and in traditions in general. But after centuries of searching, judging, excommunicating, or even killing people who do not fit into our traditions, the church or prodigal son realize that this is not working. Tired of causing pain and feeling hatred, the church walked home, with our tail between our legs.
Who are we walking back to?
We walk back to the father – and in this telling of the story the father is the LGBTQ community – and the church, the prodigal son, is ready to repent and ready to be transformed. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
Like the son, we have to take the risk and walk home. The prodigal son did not know what was going to happen when he walked home. Would his dad accept him? What was his future? How would he need to change so that this didn’t happen again? I am sure it was scary.
What does it mean for the church, the prodigal son, to walk back to the LGBTQ community, the father, with our tail between our legs? It could mean that we know that we have messed up. It could mean that we have accepted that we have caused pain.
In May of 2022 the Mennonite church USA, the denomination we are a part of, did something unexpected at the convention in Cincinnati. Some of you were there – I wasn’t but from what I have heard about the event, I wish I would have been at this holy holy gathering. There were two votes. The first vote was to remove the guidelines that prohibit LGBTQ pastors. And it passed.
But then something else happened. The next vote was on the “Resolution for Repentance and Transformation.”
And it passed.
The Anabaptist World wrote that “The “Repentance and Transformation” resolution, written by the Inclusive Mennonite Pastors group, not only repeals the guidelines but also confesses harm and affirms the spiritual gifts of LGBTQ people and commits to inclusive actions.”
This resolution doesn’t simply repeal guidelines that would inhibit LGBTQ pastors from churches, but it moves the denomination towards confessing the harm that it has done towards LGBTQ folks.
It’s a resolution that pushes the church to recognize that like the prodigal son, it has squandered the gifts that it was given – the gifts of the LGBTQ community – and the church has to walk home and repent for the harm that has been done. Verse 21 – Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
The resolution consists of a section of confession and a section of commitments. I am going to take a second to read some highlights of these two parts.
We confess that:
- We confess that Our denomination’s policies, structures, practices, and theologies have excluded LGBTQIA persons from fully sanctioned participation in the denomination and have caused great harm to LGBTQIA Mennonites and their families.
- We confess that We have failed to offer the Good News of God’s “grace, joy and peace” to LGBTQIA Mennonites and their families.
- We confess that Our denomination and congregations are diminished in vitality and faithfulness by the loss of our siblings who have chosen to leave because of exclusionary practices and policies.
- We confess that We have not affirmed the full status and worth of LGBTQIA people as fully beloved by God.
- We confess that We have not taken seriously “every human grouping [being] reconciled and united in the church.”
And there are commitments that this resolution makes, and I am going to read a few of them.
- We commit to Provide denominational resources for individuals, congregations, and conferences to engage with repentance and reconciliation in their own contexts. Such resources should explore historic harms, encourage truth-telling, and address areas of intersectionality.
- We commit to Follow the leadership of LGBTQIA Mennonites to provide support and resources for LGBTQIA leaders in the church. This should involve investment of denominational time and money.
- We commit to Embody a theology that honors LGBTQIA people and relationships with all future MC USA theological statements, including but not limited to future revisions of The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. When MC USA partners with other denominations or faith groups, its input into the process will advocate for this theology.
What does it look like for our community, who has made a lot of progress towards LGBTQ inclusion, to follow the resolution that was passed at the last MCUSA convention? What then shall we do?
In two weeks, 10 delegates from FMC will be going to our conference’s annual gathering, and this resolution will be one of the topics. Hopefully we come back with new ideas. And a quick Shameless plug – If you would like to be a delegate at future gatherings – please let me know!
We, the church, do not know what is going to happen through this process of repentance. We do not know if the LGBTQ community will say in response to our repentance, like the father in verse 22, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’
Here is the crazy thing about the LGBTQ community – radical love – this love from the father in this story, is what they are best at. Theologian Patrick Cheng argues that this Radical love is something that the LGBTQ community has in common with the divine. The radical love of the LGBTQ community breaks down the barriers of Gender, sexuality, male and female. It welcomes and celebrates all. There is even a place for straight Mennonites.
Last Saturday, over 20 folks from our church attended the Findlay pride celebration. Some folks shared that it was a new experience for them and they were going to test it out. Some folks were dressed and ready for the occasion. At an event like Findlay pride, Radical love that breaks down barriers feels very present. We saw it everywhere – a party for everyone – celebrating the diversity of gender and sexuality in our midst. No gifts are squandered. Even those of us like me that were dressed in a standard, boring, t-shirt and shorts felt part of that radical boundary breaking love. Truly as sacred space.
As you saw during Children’s time, there are many signatures on the border of the quilt that is being made. I can’t believe it -the hundreds of people that stopped by in all kinds of pride paraphernalia wanting to be a part of a Mennonite church quilt. I was very touched by this, knowing the pain that my friends and family have felt from the Mennonite church.
Many people at pride thanked us for being there and supporting this region’s LGBTQ community. One person told me that they were so encouraged by churches being there, and he believed that a Pride gathering is the space that Jesus would be.
Multiple people picked up our bookmark size “vision of healing and hope” which is hanging in the back of the sanctuary, that says
“God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow as communities of grace, joy and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.”
What a beautiful vision for the work of the church – growing as communities of grace joy and peace, so that healing and hope can happen. Part of this process of healing and hope requires the church to come to terms with the harm that it has done to the Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer, people in its midst. That way, we can bring out the colorful robes, the food trucks, the pride rings and bracelets, and eat and celebrate. For this son, the church, was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!
May we continue to work towards repentance, seek God’s radical love as demonstrated by the LGBTQ community, and join in the celebration of ALL of God’s creation.