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Friday, January 30, 2015

Reconciling Sunday

On Sunday, January 25 Bill Host shared the message for Reconciling Sunday.

I’m going to do something I tell my students to NEVER do – I’m going to start off with a definition:

Reconcile – a Definition
  • to find a way of making (two different ideas, facts, etc.) exist or be true at the same time; 
  • to cause people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement; 
  • to restore to friendship or harmony; 
  • to cause to submit to or accept something unpleasant; 

In his paper titled “Reconciliation and Conflict Transformation”, Dan Sinh Nguyen (Gwin) Vo a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame writes: “In common parlance, reconciliation means some kind of agreement between disputants or adversaries. … It can be argued that reconciliation, at its core, is about restoring the right relationship between people who have been enemies. Reconciliation, implies a fundamental shift in personal, and power relations.” (Vo, 2008)

“But the word reconciliation goes far beyond a relationship between two human beings. It is used in the Bible to speak of our relationship to God in terms of the restoration of the right relationship between us and God. Reconciliation, then, is God being reconciled back to us, or we, if you will, being reconciled back to God either way.” (MacArthur, 1976) Reconciliation becomes a two way street. 
God was reconciled to Ninevah and God’s people of Ninevah were reconciled to Him – the city was not destroyed. 

The Psalmist of Psalm 62 gives us a vision of hope and of safety – of showing us the way to reconcile our doubts and fears. 

Paul urges us to change and give up what we know in order to be reconciled to God.
Christ fishes around for other folk and they give up their nets.

How do we reconcile ourselves to God? How do we reconcile ourselves to others? Can we reconcile our old lives with our new? Can, in fact, our lives be transformed through reconciliation?

Theorists note that whenever we communicate there are really at least six "people" involved:

1) who you think you are;

2) who you think the other person is;

3) who you think the other person thinks you are;

4) who the other person thinks s/he is;

5) who the other person thinks you are; and

6) who the other person thinks you think s/he is.

I submit that the same theory is a part of the reconciliation process as well. Notice we are not only “thinking”, we are assuming (and you know what assume means ...) we are assuming we know ourselves and others - only God really knows.

I moved to Chicago 40 years ago this September and since then I’ve had to do a lot of reconciling of who I am with who I thought I was or who I want to be. I am still in the process. Over the years of your life, you’ve probably been in that process too. We all are. And through our various experiences of reconciliation with others and with God – we are transformed. Jewish theologian Martin Buber writes that “my I meets your Thou” and the more intensely, honestly, authentically, and spiritually that “I” build a relationship with “Thou” the closer we come to the highest Thou – God. Buber’s understanding of ‘prayer’ as dialogue serves as a way for the individual to seek reconciliation with itself, with others, and with God. (Guilherme, 2012)

Our relationships and reconciliation within those relationships transform us.

An organization known as Lutherans Concerned for Gay People (LCGP) (now Reconciling Works) was founded in 1974 in Minneapolis, the year before I moved to Chicago. The American Lutheran Church (one of the predecessor church bodies to the ELCA) funded $3,000 to invite 25 LGBTQA folk to discuss (and I am quoting from the original objectives) to discuss their sexual orientation and their relationship because of it, to society and their church … that the church might respond to them and become less a source of oppression to ALC and other persons with homosexual orientation.”. (Of course in 1974, we just brought together persons with homosexual orientation and their friends – LGBTQIA were not even thought of.) Of the 25 people invited. 8 attended – 5 of them Lutherans – 3 of them facilitators from other denominations.

I graduated college that year of 1974 and the summer that LCGP began I was attending the Lutheran Student Movement annual Assembly at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. It happened that at the assembly Allen Blaich, one of the 5 founders of LCGP was also a board member of LSM. He led a workshop on the new organization and gay issues. I remember that to help protect identities, the room was tucked away in a remote part of campus. Only 25 people or so were expected – the room was packed – people spilled out into the hallway. We later learned, as we began organizing such events, that those numbers were typical – the rooms were always packed with more folks than anticipated – even if the announcement of its location was not particularly overt. And eventually when we added in supportive parents as presenters, the crowds got even larger.

The gay thing wasn’t anything new to me – you see, I’ve always known that about me. It’s that little voice in your head and the emotions of the heart that tells you and there is no escaping – you’ve got to reconcile that too. I had occasional boyfriends in high school, was active in a progressive Lutheran youth group (although gay things were not talked about). I was OK – going through the normal angst of a teenager but with the added burden of a deep secret you can’t tell. The good news? I never heard a “they are going to hell speech”, ever, that I can recall. But I never heard a “you’re OK speech” either. Gay stuff and boys loving boys was just not talked about...

Kutztown State College in Pennsylvania changed that.

Being a good Lutheran boy I headed off the first day on campus to the Lutheran Student Center where I met the campus pastor Lou Smith (may he rest in peace) and I met Ken. Ken was a senior and was as openly gay as anyone I’d ever known – actually – like I’d never known. And he and Lou would sit in the center and talk about gay issues in front of God and everyone. There for the first time, I experienced the church, talking in an open forum about the “love that dare not speak its name.” I now knew what I was and that it was OK. And my new pastor was cool and I had an openly gay friend. That was 1969, three months after Judy Garland died, Neal Armstrong and Bud Aldrin walked on the moon, the Stonewall Riots in NYC broke out pitting drag queens against police, and the birth of the gay pride movement. (and yes, I think they are all connected but that’s another story.)

Little did I know in 1969 that I’d be involved in the religious side of the movement 5 years later and for another 15 years after that.

So after the LSM conference in August of 1974, I began the job of going from campus to campus raising the flag and organizing for LSM. I was also an underground Johnny Appleseed, dropping off Lutherans Concerned for Gay People brochures during my visit. In some places, I’d quietly and literally just happen to drop them off. In others I’d hand them out like playing cards. LC chapters began to spring up and I recall attending my first chapter meeting in the Prairie Shores or Lake Meadows apartment of Odell and Artie Mae Tanner (rest their souls). They were members of Christ the Mediator a congregation who in 1972 married a lesbian couple. Artie Mae and Odell were supportive because her sister was lesbian. Other members of the chapter were also from Mediator – There I found my church home, I found supportive members, a supportive pastor, and again a sanctuary of safety within the church not unlike that at school.

By 1980 LC was not doing well. There were some internal struggles, a lack of leadership and real need to re-examine and re-structure. The LC Assembly met in San Francisco re-named the organization Lutherans Concerned/North America: a Christian Ministry for Lesbian and Gay Understanding; wrote a new set of By-Laws, set the headquarters in Chicago in anticipation of the merger of a new church locating its headquarters here as well, and elected new officers and board members.

In the early to mid-1970s, most of the major denominations’ LGBT support groups formed around the same time as Lutherans Concerned. But it was not until the 1980s that we saw congregational programs being born to identify open and welcoming parishes – (Affirming and Welcoming – Methodists, More Light – Presbyterians, MCC – Metropolitan Community Churches). I don’t recall any of the religious group leaders planning this together. There was no “World Council of LGBTQIA Church Groups.” The organizations and the congregational programs just sort of sprung up across the denominations – the Spirit of God does move in amazing ways.

LC’s Reconciling in Christ program was launched in 1984. Pastor Tom wants me to tell you that it happened in my kitchen. It did not – it happened in the living room during a meeting of the LC/NA Executive Committee. It was a proposal brought forth by then president John Ballew and board member Rose Smith. Thirty years later, I can still recall us writing the Affirmation of Welcome:

As a community of the people of God, we are called to minister to all people in our world, knowing that the world is often an unloving place. Our world is a place of alienation and brokenness. Christ calls us to reconciliation and wholeness. We are challenged by the Gospel to be agents of healing within our society.

We affirm with the apostle Paul that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). Christ has made us one. We acknowledge that this reconciliation extends also to those whose affectional orientation is toward a person of the same gender.

Because gay, lesbian persons are often scorned by society and alienated from the Church, we wish to make known our caring and concern. It is for this purpose that we affirm the following: that gay and lesbian people share the worth that comes from being unique individuals created by God; that gay and lesbian people are welcome within the membership of this congregation upon making the same affirmation of faith that all other people make; and that as members of this congregation, gay and lesbian people are expected and encouraged to share in the sacramental and general life of this congregation.

Today that Affirmation of Welcome has been slightly revised to include people of all sexual orientations, bisexual, transgendered persons, and families. (We finally got the “LGBTQ” (questioning, queer) “I” (intersex) “A” (asexual, ally) figured out.

It was a scary time though. The country had become more conservative politically and we actually developed a plan to destroy the highly confidential mailing and membership list should a knock come at the door. HIV-AIDS was beginning to devastate our community – we lost many fine leaders. And the church was not really supportive of our concerns. We’d sponsor secret hospitality suites at synod and national assemblies. We’d publish open letters to the bishop and Calls for Dialogue and Repentance with little or no response. The church was “defrocking” pastors and not certifying seminarians if either were found to be openly gay, non-celibate and in a relationship. An underground support organization of clergy and seminarians was formed known only to the leaders of LC/NA.

Frustrated, I can recall asking Leo Treadway an LC leader and mentor “Why the hell are we doing this?” Leo says: “We are doing this so kids don’t go through hell and kill themselves out of shame and guilt.” That’s all any of us needed to hear, because we knew it to be true. I don’t know if we thought of today’s Psalm … If we didn’t, we should have …

“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. 
He only is my rock and salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly moved. 
How long will you set upon a man to shatter him, all of you, 
like a leaning wall, a tottering fence? 
They only plan to thrust him down from his eminence (reputation?). 
They take pleasure in falsehood. 
They bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. Selah 
For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. 
He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.”
On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; 
God is a refuge for us. Selah” (Psalm 62:1-8)

The Psalm offers a vision of safety and promise. How many kids have not heard that? How many lives have been wasted because of falsehoods and inward curses? How many LGBTQIA kids then and now do not know God as their rock, their salvation, and their fortress? Where is the church? Where is the reconciliation? Where is the transformation of them and us?

I am so grateful to God that First Trinity has taken that step to answer those questions to the youth of today, to their parents, to LBGTQIA persons of any age, color or stripe.

How often do we, like Jonah begrudgingly and reluctantly proclaim the saving grace and the word of God? And what does it mean to be a prophet and speak a word that calls for change and repentance in areas of reconciliation (sexuality, racial justice, economic justice, care for the environment) and continue to call us, the church, and the world to renewal and transformation. Can we hear that opportunity for transformation? Can we, as reluctant prophets, be pushed to be uncomfortable in speaking with a prophetic voice?

And it is an honor to be standing before a church who has raised its prophetic voice reluctant as some of us may be. By calling for the church and the world to be renewed and transformed, you (we) are transformed yourselves (ourselves).

From 1984-1986, a predecessor church body to the ELCA – the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) was developing a final social statement on human sexuality. It was to be presented at one of its last assemblies to help finalize the LCA stance on the issues before the merger – some say in the hopes of influencing the new church body. And here is where hope comes into play … the LCA was planning on a series of regional workshops and hearings on the LGBT issue. Some of its leaders realized that it was LC/NA who was better connected to a stronger base that could support the statement. In a series of unpublicized meetings, the LCA flew me out to Philadelphia to meet with church officials and to lay plans for organizing groups of parents, family members, and LGBT folks to attend these hearings and in essence “stuff the ballot box.” Twenty years later the ELCA adopted the human sexuality statement that supports a wide diversity of families, including those of same-gender couples. (“Like a mighty turtle, moves the church of God, people we are treading, where we’ve always trod.”) It also voted to “allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.

That was a lot of continual gentle pressure brought on by behalf of Lutherans Concerned for Gay People, who begat Lutherans Concerned/North America, who begat ReconcilingWorks and its predecessor organizations to bring the church to where it is today. To us, forty years is a lot of time, and forty years produces a lot of grit, and tears, and doubt. For other movements, civil rights for example, it has taken much more than forty years and the same, grit, tears and doubts were and are being faced. We know that for God it is a blink of an eye.

From the reading from 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 –
“I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”
As a gay kid growing up and realizing (revealing to myself) my sexuality - the appointed time had grown short, for the form of my world was passing away –– it seemed as if nothing made sense. I wanted to laugh and could not, wanted to mourn and could not, tried to rejoice but did not. I tried to deal with the world but wanted no dealing with it. My old world was passing away – I was coming into my own. I began learning how to be reconciled to myself and to God. (I still am). I began to know that Christ could enter at any time. Whether forty years or a life-time of kife-times. “Whether literal or metaphorical, we look to Christ coming into the world in each and every moment—in each person we encounter; in the I / Thou; in each moment of ministry; in the promised realm yet to unfold.” (Zentz A., et al. (2015).

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-20) The kingdom of God is at hand.

Works Cited
MacArthur, John (April 11, 1976) Reconciled to God. Grace to You. Panorama City, CA.  from
Vo, Dan Sinh Nguyen. (June 2008). Reconciliation and conflict transformation.  Beyond Intractability.  The Beyond Intractability Project, The Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado.  From:
Zentz, A., Valeriano, T., Roher, M.,Froslee, B., Feiertag, T. (2015) Resources for reconciling in Christ Sunday. ReconcilingWorks, Minneapolis, MN 

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