June 27, 2021
Pride Sunday/ Fifth Sunday after Pentecost/ 27 June 2021
In many churches (certainly not all), the Sunday nearest to June 28 is Pride Sunday. More and more churches are marking this day every year. June 28 marks the beginning of the Stonewall Riots or Uprising in 1969 when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village that was a haven for New York City’s gay, lesbian, and transgender community. The police raid that evening was violent. However, that night the LGBT community decided to fight back in an uprising that continued for the next couple of days, ending on July 3. Stonewall marks the start of the LGBTQ movement in the United States, fighting, demanding, and advocating for equal rights, acceptance, and inclusion within American society. For the most part, the Church was late to this movement, although a handful of progressive theologians and pastors were vocal in the 1960s and 1970s. Everything began to shift in the 1980s and 1990s as congregations faced its members and members’ children and grandchildren, along with pastors, dying from AIDS.
“Hospitality,” “welcome,” “inclusive,” and “radical acceptance” became the watchwords, even code words of the liberal, progressive wing of the church called to minister to this marginalized and excluded segment of society. Within the PCUSA, it was first More Light Presbyterians who tirelessly worked for LGBTQ inclusion and early on advocated for the ordination of LGBTQ members. Later, in the 1990s, when there was a formal ban in the PCUSA on the ordination of LGBTQ members, and that dreaded paragraph (G-6.0106b) was added to the Book of Order, another group was organized. The Covenant Network of Presbyterians represented the broad middle of the church, with a primarily straight leadership. The Covenant Network joined ranks with More Light and other groups and pushed for full LGBTQ inclusion in the PCUSA.[i]
It was a long, painful struggle for the Presbyterian Church, especially for the queer community, from 1996 to 2008. In 2008, everything shifted in the denomination. We finally had the votes at the General Assembly to remove that G-6.0106b, and later a simple majority of the presbyteries approved the changes in 2009. Presbyteries were then free to ordain open LGBTQ Christians. Our gifts for ministry were fully acknowledged, welcomed, and celebrated. Then the denomination wrestled with marriage equality, bringing about even more changes and deeper inclusion in the PCUSA. And there’s more work to be done, especially around transgender inclusion and welcome. Thankfully, the denomination now has an Office for Gender, Racial and Intercultural Justice, something we couldn’t imagine ten years ago. We have come to understand how gains made in one social justice issue of the church directly impact every other issue. This is something we weren’t conscious of when we started this work. The gospel continues to call us to a ministry of welcome, to serve the “least of these” (Matthew 25:31-45), to work on behalf of the marginalized, the bullied, the ridiculed, the rejected, those that are ostracized and “othered” and made to feel inferior, less-than, sinful…attitudes that far too many Christians still harbor toward the queer community.
As we know, all of this has been a long, painful journey for the Church. In my work with the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, serving on the board for fifteen years—one of the greatest joys of my ministry—listening to Presbyterians at GA’s, at conferences and meetings across the church and nation, one thing became clear to me regarding LGBTQ acceptance and inclusion: while we might all be on the same journey, we’re at different stages of awareness, we’re not all walking together, and this includes people who are gay and coming to terms with their sexual orientation and identity. There are different stages in the coming out process. Everybody’s experience is different, and we must never underestimate the enormous spiritual, emotional, and psychological anguish involved in coming out, even today. It might be easier for many teenagers and young adults today, thank God, but it’s never easy. And there are different stages in learning to love someone coming out or gay, especially if you’ve never put yourself in the shoes of someone on this road. The more people who come out and courageously live lives of authenticity and integrity, the more people, especially those who are straight, will have to come to terms with their fears and feelings. When LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance debates move from discussions about a theological or biblical issue to an issue related to someone with a face, especially the face of someone you love, everything begins to change.
I will always be thankful for the way that this congregation accepted and loved me when I shared The Letter, my coming out letter, to the congregation. And I will be forever grateful to the Personnel Committee and the Session at that time (you know who you are) that listened to me, encouraged me to share my story, and then stood beside me 100% when the letter started to arrive in the mail. I remember seeing letters and envelopes arranged in piles on the table in the conference room in the Church House. Everyone there that morning putting the mailing together prayed over each envelope. And then, as I watched all the bins with the letters leave the Church House on the way to the post office, I was nervous and wondered, “What have I done?”
Two days later, the phone started to ring at the Church House. I braced myself and said, “Here we go.” The first call was from a long-time member who wanted to talk with me. Shirley put the call through. I picked up that phone and heard, “Hi, Ken. Your letter arrived today. I’m just calling to say we love you hon.” That was it. On the first Sunday after the letter went out—a Sunday when for the first time in my life, I stood free in the pulpit, knowing that I wasn’t hiding a part of myself (I’ll never forget the power of that feeling on that morning)—one of our young adults came by my study after worship, someone who had never come by before that day. This person knocked on the door, came in, stood there, and said, “So, God really loves us rainbow kids?” And I said, “Yes.”[ii]
“I praise you,” the psalmist prays to God, “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works…” (Ps. 139:17). It has taken the Church a long time—too long—to recognize that its LGBTQ+ children are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made, a long time to celebrate our gifts and honor our experience and listen for the way God is at work in our lives. And today, we celebrate and thank the LGBTQ+ members and their families here at CPC. Yesterday’s Catonsville Family Pride Event, a first for this community, was a beautiful celebration. I’m grateful that it happened on our grounds with the church and its steeple in clear view—and rainbow flags everywhere. So many expressed their deep appreciation and thanks to CPC for hosting this event.
It pains me, though, to consider the enormous amount of hurt and pain the Church has caused its rainbow kids because it was too slow to realize—that God loves us and that we have gifts to share. Consider all that pain caused by fear and an absence of grace and compassion. What authority does the Church have to say who is or isn’t “wonderfully made”? What authority does the Church have to say how and whom the Holy Spirit chooses to dwell and even calls some to ministry?
It took me a long time to accept my acceptance, to quote Paul Tillich (1886-1965).[iii] I had no role models. I had to work through things alone. I became very depressed and didn’t think I could live with all of it. I couldn’t imagine life outside that closet, and so I went even deeper into depression, deeper in the closet. I lived in denial. I ran from myself, hated myself, hated a part of myself. I threw myself into work, into academic achievements, into a Ph.D.—which was also problematic because my dissertation was on the writings of James Loder, my mentor at Princeton Seminary, who did not support the ordination of gays and lesbians, who wrote some misguided and hurtful things about the gay community. But because I considered Loder the most brilliant person I had ever met, how could he be wrong?
As you know, I’m grateful to him for so much. I met him for counseling as a student; he knew my struggles. Jim taught me how to honor my dreams, particularly one that changed my life and continues to shape my life and work and training in Jungian psychology. About a year before he died, I saw him in Princeton, and I told him that he was wrong when it came to understanding the gay experience.[iv] Jim heard me. He said he would reconsider some of the things he wrote. But, sadly, that never happened.
Early in seminary, I felt my call was to teach and preach. My personal life or happiness could be set aside. I became a house divided, and we all know what Jesus said about what happens to a house divided against itself (Matthew 12:22-28). When I came to Maryland—after living through a painful episode at the church in Mendham, which was divided over gay ordination, and was shocked by what I heard people say, people I loved but who didn’t know my full story—I decided that I needed to take more responsibility for my happiness, that I needed to befriend myself, make peace with myself, come out to myself, step into myself, step into my life. With pride, I guess, but more importantly, for me, at least, with grace. In time I met Mark, we’ve been together for twenty years.
But what about ministry? It wasn’t safe to come out. Do I stay in the Presbyterian Church? Should I move to the United Church of Christ (UCC)? Leave ministry altogether and teach? Through the support of close friends and family members, gifted psychologists, and hundreds of hours of therapy over more than thirty years, and wrestling with all of this biblically and theologically, I realized two important things.[v]
First, I’m Presbyterian through and through. For generations, my family has been part of the Reformed Church on both the Hungarian and Scottish sides. It’s in my blood, my DNA. I’m a child of this denomination, a product of this church. This is my church—and I’m not going anywhere.
Second, God’s call in my life was never just to a part of me but all of me. My experience of suffering, pain, shame, being bullied, getting picked on in high school for not being like everyone else (I knew I was different), and my sensitivity to the needs of others because of my own experience—all of this—took on greater meaning. The old proverb is true: “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle” about which you know little or nothing. I came to see the value of empathy. All of this has helped me (I hope) become a better pastor. Claiming my experience in this way has given me gifts for ministry.
Something interesting happened this past week. I was typing out the sermon title and typed Wounderfully Made. I quickly caught this Freudian slip—or, better, Jungian slip. And I smiled. Yes, it’s true. Our wounds make us. By God’s grace, I have worked with them, and I’m still working with them. I would say that my wounds have made me. And this, too, is part of the call, and this, too, is grace. This is why, in part, I preach and teach so much about the value of experience, the importance of honoring and valuing one’s personal experience, and finding God’s presence and call in one’s life. It’s also one of the key reasons why I’m so interested in psychology, committed to individual healing, growth, and transformation.
In the second century, Irenaeus (b.130) said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” I believe this with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. I believe this is the Christian life: to experience this grace, know it personally, and then live it out in the community by helping others come fully alive, helping others step more fully into their lives with integrity, authenticity, joy, pride, and grace.
Like many of my age who are gay, I am grateful that for many teens and young adults today, being gay is not a stigma. Those in my generation often wonder how our lives would have been different if we came of age with greater understanding, acceptance, and grace, feeling safe to be who we are and free to love. While it is easier today, there is still so much more work to be done on behalf of our youth. At yesterday’s Family Pride Event, I spoke with several parents and heard about some of their challenges. According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ young people are 120% more likely to be homeless. 40% of homeless teenagers in the U.S. are LGBTQ. The stigma and shame for being gay in Hispanic, African American, and Asian American communities are pervasive. LGBTQ youth contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth. Each incident of LGBTQ victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.[vi] There’s still work for us to do.
The church has something to offer youth, young adults, and all people, whether straight or gay. We can provide the welcome and kindness of Christ, a community—when the church is truly being church—that provides a setting, a safe place for people to love and be loved, to step into, indeed, live into one’s full humanity, to come fully alive. Doesn’t everyone need to know that they are fearfully and wonderfully—and, yes, even wounderfully—made?
[ii] Used by permission.
[iii] From Paul Tillich’s sermon “You Are Accepted,” in his collection of sermons Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948).
[iv] I included my critique of Loder in my doctoral dissertation and later in my book on Loder’s work, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2009).
[v] There are many excellent biblical-theological resources available today, thankfully. I recommend: James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), Linn Marie Tonstad, Queer Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018), Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (Convergent Books, 2015).