I open this reflection with a direct quote from sermon seeds a ucc online resource because it sums up all that is happening so well…
“This scene from the early part of Jesus' ministry, right after he has chosen his twelve apostles, feels almost as chaotic to read about as it must have seemed to those gathered around Jesus. It might be helpful to get a sense of how the Gospel of Mark itself feels--it's no leisurely story with nice, long sermons and extended conversations (think the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and the woman at the well, or Nicodemus, in John). The Marcan Jesus is on the move constantly, like a man on a mission with little time to spare and even less patience with people who like to criticize everything he does.
We're only in the third chapter of Mark now, but a quick read of those first chapters is exhausting: Jesus has gone from his hometown to the wilderness to Galilee to the sea to Capernaum to a house to a deserted place and back out to the towns of Galilee (in just the first chapter) and then back to Capernaum and home, and then to the sea, and to Levi's house, through the grain fields and to the synagogue, and then back to the sea, into a boat, before heading up the mountain where he gathers those twelve apostles around him, and then, finally, he goes home.
Imagine all this travel with desperate crowds around him (people "from every quarter," 1:45), clinging to him, begging for healing, begging to be released from the demons that had hold of them, and then picture a group of carping critics picking at everything he did--breaking the rules about healing on the Sabbath, eating with tax collectors and sinners, and not fasting as they should. In other words, finding it more lawful to meet human need than to let human suffering go on unnecessarily: Jesus understood the heart of God's Law.
Of course, we can understand that the crowds couldn't help themselves: who among us would not do whatever it took to get our sick child, for example, to a healer who was doing the amazing things being attributed to Jesus? Still, it's poignant to see how Jesus couldn't even go home and have a meal in peace (a practice with much greater significance in that culture than we allow in our own).
In chapter two, people dig through his roof and drop a paralyzed person right next to him, hoping for a cure, and after admiring their faith and handling the criticism of the scribes when he forgives the man's sins, Jesus tells the man to get up and walk. That healing amazes the crowd, of course, and makes Jesus even more sought-after, but it really gets the attention of the powers that be, which explains why they're back again, all the way from Jerusalem, here in the third chapter, as Jesus tries once more to go into a house for a break from all this activity.
The problems with crowd control persist, so much so that Jesus can't even have supper with his friends, his disciples. But he isn't surrounded only by people who were willing to admit their brokenness and their need, along with those institutional critics who, we suspect by this time, are looking to find fault with Jesus rather than to affirm the wonderful thing God is doing in him. The growing crowd also includes, of all people, the family of Jesus: his mother and his brothers, who can't even get inside the house and talk to him face to face.”
Now this brings us to the part that many just glance over or shrug off as ancient superstition. What the ancient world viewed as demonic possession today we know as well other conditions. What was demonic then we now explain as deafness, blindness, epilepsy, mental illness, allergies. Anything that could not be explained or understood the devil got the blame.
But the exorcism isn’t really the point. The point is the power of sin isn’t going to cast itself out because it is doing the job of dividing a community, creating distraction from the truth. The truth is “People will be forgiven their sins!” Jesus is proclaiming forgiveness of sins and that is what truly has the scribes upset. Without sin management, which is the business of the temple, we have no order. We cannot proclaim who is with the in crowd and who is with the out crowd.
That brings the next part of the text…Jesus’ family. We do not know exactly what prompted Jesus’ mother and brothers to come and well, give him a talking too…but it may have been the stirring up of the crowds…it may have been the exorcisms… Jesus was changing the conversation around sin and heaven and well it scared some people and his family might have been just scared for him too. It may have been they felt he needed a break…we just don’t know.
But here in the midst of bickering and crowds and confusion and family trying to push in and other people probably yelling hey we were here first. Your wrong about Jesus no your wrong about Jesus …Jesus heal me. Jesus teach me …in the middle of that confusion some one pauses and says hey Jesus your family is here…Jesus paused looked around him and said you are my family. Right here, right now, you are my family ….” whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and mother.”
“The family of Jesus--his mother and brothers--make their way through much of the crowd to reach the outside door of the house where Jesus was sitting. Scholars note that even such a small detail is significant: Judith Hoch Wray says that "house" is the "key word" here, and the understanding of who is on the inside and who is on the outside is central to the meaning of this passage .”
Who is inside and who is outside of the “house?” Who is inside or outside of the church. That is a question that comes at me from so many ways. It stirs me up. It upsets me. It brings pain and joy and understanding and confusion all at once.
I have been paying a bit more attention to this lately. Maybe because it is Pride month…I don’t know…I think it started on face book someone asked what is cis gender? They wanted to know what it meant.
“Ryan Ashley Caldwell It’s when the gender you were assigned at birth actually matches the cultural gender expectations for presentation once older. It’s as if you’re saying “yes!” To your assigned at birth gender. (All this assumes a binary system and not a queer identity)”
That is a great description it’s all very scientific…. until…one-person claims “labels used to divide and separate!” I pointed out that here are more terms to help understand and lift up and celebrate our glorious differences. He didn’t like that too much the conversation went on until this
“The less united we are as a population (through divisive labels), the more manipulation can occur by the media and the more control can occur by the government. We can no longer be ______Insert name here (identified by those that know me with my quirks, foibles, etc.), we now have to be known by our labels... race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, pregnancy, citizenship, familial status, disability, veteran, genetic information... and yes, all the above are protected with the only class of people remaining without protection are white males 19-39 years of age unless they're a religion other than Christian, are married, are disabled, or are a veteran.”
Well I am assuming, from this post, this young man is white between the ages of 18-39 single, and considers himself Christian. Yikes …. who is in and who is out? Who is my family?
Before I started writing this I happened to catch the Pride flag raising from Hart plaza in Detroit…When I was young and in Detroit we could barely have a pride rally for fear of retaliation and now they wave the pride flag with the mayor present and council people present. It really is amazing to see how far we come and yet…It was pointed out that just a few days before a young transgender person of color was murdered.
This Wednesday morning as I am writing this a minister who is serving in a UCC church shared some pain. “This last Sunday during my sermon, I revealed that I was transgender and transitioning. (I should begin by saying we are an ONA congregation, and the leadership of the church already knew I was transgender.)
The initial response from the congregation was either positive and supportive, or neutral. I heard nothing that was negative to my face. All day Monday I was in the office and not a word was said to me about my revelation. There was a great deal more silence in my presence than normal from the church staff who are also on council (I know, you bad idea, small congregation, old practices die hard.)
I found out last night that our Council President had called in our Association General Minister to attend our Council Meeting this evening (and did so without consulting with other folks on Council.) Please pray that tonight's meeting will be civil, that love will prevail, and God's will be done.”
I reached out to her and she basically said I am treading water right now…No one…no one should have to tread water in the United Church of Christ, or any Church for that matter! This is unacceptable and yet it goes on day after day. Sometimes more subtle ways…If we hire a gay pastor they will turn us into a gay church! Its okay to be a gay Pastor just don’t talk about it. Here is one I got from the LAPD before being approved as a chaplain …please do not evangelize your openly gay agenda??? I am not sure what that would even mean.
To this day there are 70 countries that still have anti homosexuality laws on their books 8 countries where it is punishable by death and yet our own administration opposed a resolution condemning the use of the death penalty as punishment for consensual gay relations. It passed the UN without our support.
One other note about this week this Sunday they are celebrating Pride in Los Angeles, which incidently was founded by Christian ministers, Rev. Bob Humphries (founder of the United States Mission), Morris Kight (a founder of the Gay Liberation Front), and Rev. Troy Perry (founder of the Metropolitan Community Church) came up with the idea as a way to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. but before all the festivities today thousands of people on Bikes rode in after riding all week, 545 miles from San Francisco to los Angeles raising over 65.5 million dollars for the san Francisco Aids foundation and los Angeles LGBT Center both supplying life saving service to people living with HIV/AIDS…who is my family? Who is in and who is out?
This week in light of the Bakers ruling another UCC Clergy wrote a letter
“Open Letter to the UCC: The LGBTQ Right to Distrust God (and even the Progressive Church)
For my Beloved United Church of Christ,
I have written in my ordination paper, essays in seminary, and many other forums of my love for this denomination as an out-LGBTQ clergyperson and Christian. This Pride Month 2018, however, it is time to issue a loving challenge.
Twenty-five percent of congregations Open and Affirming, thirty-three years of the Open and Affirming (ONA) Statement, and many other signs and sacrifices for the LGBTQ community in the National Setting and Local Settings of the UCC (including countless congregational and individual member departures) are a great start. Thank you, UCC, for your dedication, help, and sacrifice. I know how hard your work for LGBTQ people has been: sometimes splitting congregations, families, friendships, and decimating church budgets. Likewise, I know sometimes it has brought new life to congregations in need of new inclusive vision, members, or hope. I look for more examples of the latter as we move forward as a faith tradition into an uncertain future.
That said, I want to address an attitude in the UCC: shock when LGBTQ people don’t understand that this denomination is a safe space. Moreover, I have witnessed straight-privileged anger, indignation, and desperate need for gratitude. Open and Affirming Churches want gratitude from the LGBTQ community, which is something we really cannot emotionally provide.
In order to be theologically healthy and authentic as an Open and Affirming Movement, we need to first affirm the following difficult reality: The LGBTQ community does not owe the United Church of Christ anything in return for its theologically driven move towards inclusion—even if that has meant great sacrifices. We are delighted to be included in pews, pulpits, pastorates, and pensions, but the wider LGBTQ family’s hurt and continued endangerment (especially with the current political winds) is greater than anything the UCC alone can heal, apologize for, or save us from. Additionally, LGBTQ spiritual gifts, theology, and radically unique perspective on liberation didn’t end with marriage equality. Marriage Equality is not synonymous with LGBTQ Liberation. There is so much more wisdom capacity and value yet untapped by the UCC from our diverse queer perspectives and fabulous presence.
The UCC’s openness is deeply appreciated by those of us in the LGBTQ community whom have chosen to do the HARD WORK (daily, complicated, painful) of reclaiming and living as religious Christians, but It doesn’t mean that gay and queer people owe you, the institution, our love and devotion. ONA isn’t transactional in that way. The popular attitude that the UCC is the gift that the LGBTQ community is looking for but hasn't found yet must be tempered with an understanding that church PTSD is real even for those who have never been inside a church.
As an example, I have never been inside of a haunted house attraction or a haunted corn maze, but I know that it would NOT be a safe, fun, or good experience for me. I know that from my outside experience with horror movies, people jumping at me, and even being alone at Plymouth at night (yes, this is a scary building when empty). Every experience I have had informs me to stay away from haunted houses. Likewise, even for LGBTQ people who have never had a direct experience with church (not even to mention the countless who have been emotionally abused and damaged by our wider Christian family), convincing us LGBTQ people that churches are safe and trustworthy is a multi-generational, long-term effort that must be rooted in meaningful mission and ministry rather than money and marketing. I have yet, sticking with my above example, to be convinced that a haunted house would result in anything other than a heart attack and my own early demise on the spot! In short, we are a hard sell.
Having an out minister doesn’t cure that fear or fulfill your ONA promise. Yes, I can speak with my friends and sometimes open doors of understanding, but I am not called to evangelize the LGBTQ community. Hiring me or my predecessor didn’t mean a cure to any fear others have. If anything, it just means that Gerhard and I have a lot of trouble finding friends who understand me or want to be around us, and I never ever blame anyone for this. I knew what I was signing-up for. It is a sacrifice I have been willing to make. It does mean that I understand and respect the healthy distance people who have been hurt need to keep from religion—even if that means keeping me as out gay clergyperson at a distance too. It is just too risky, confusing, or painful to befriend even a gay minister.
The LGBTQ community still has the right to distrust the God of Christianity after 2,000 years of oppression and continued alienation like yesterday.
The UCC must continue in our Open and Affirming Journey, and that means understanding that what we have begun in reconciliation, love, and radical inclusion is only the beginning of what could take generations of Queer acceptance to heal. We do this work of openness not for ourselves, our full pews, or our budgets, but we do it for God and for Jesus the Christ whose love we are called to embody.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that a local Colorado cake baker could deny a gay couple a wedding cake because of his belief in God and “religious liberty.” For that decision to come down in June is particularly difficult. June is LGBTQ Pride Month when we celebrate our liberation from straight patriarchy beginning with the Stonewall Riots in NYC in 1969, so this decision is jarring for many. It is days like yesterday that I find it incredibly difficult to justify the Church, God, and religion to my LGBTQ community as a Christian Minister of the Gospel. It is days like yesterday when responses, “sorry,” “we promise we aren’t all like that,” “you should try the UCC,” “don’t lump us in with those Christians,” or even, “we are just as angry as you and God loves you… really we promise…” just don’t work. It breaks my heart to watch my Facebook feed crumble in pain, alienation, and anger after yesterday’s verdict. It hurts even more to have to admit that my ministry and my Facebook posts can’t fix it and neither can the UCC alone within one generation.
It isn’t really about the damn cake. We, LGBTQ individuals and our straight allies alike, all know that we make better, tastier, more creative cakes anyway when it comes right down to it, right? Right? You know it’s true. It is really about systemic pain of rejection, of family alienation, and discrimination happening when trying to do something as simple as ordering a giant, glorified pastry for a party with a loved one! For God’s sake… it isn’t about the cake. It is about everything else that matters.
There is hope yet, friends, in grace! This is a word many of us only know if we have ventured into Wesleyan theological territory like I did for seminary, but it can mean so much right now for us in the United Church of Christ.
Grace means more than changing ourselves, changing our words, opening our doors and then assuming that we no longer carry cultural pain. It means coming to terms with our own privilege and understanding the weight of the history of this wider institution outside of our control. Grace also means understanding when our invitation of Open and Affirming welcome isn’t met with enthusiastic embrace. The turning of the Titanic takes great time. Grace is the humility to know that the doors may have to remain open for a very longtime before anyone feels safe enough to trust this institution. Love is loving those who never will enter our churches and never become pledging units because we are called by God Almighty to do so. Becoming ONA isn’t a marketing scheme to fill pews, it is a theological statement on the level of theodicy!
Grace is a grace for ourselves when we don’t get it right. Grace is love for others when they aren’t quite ready to accept our invitation to a loving community as we experience and know it. Grace is what God holds us all in at this time of transformation for the Open and Affirming Movement. Grace is what happens when we see that becoming Open and Affirming is more than a marketing statement. When taken seriously, it is a part of a wider systematic theology of inclusion that has the power to transform all of us into better people: all of us together…even or especially those whom we now accept will never join or visit the church.
Yours in Love and Pride,
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph (or just Jake)
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, CO.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph,
Jake came to Plymouth having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Jake's experience include hospice and hospital ministry settings. Jake is a fluent French-speaker and formerly lived in Nantes, France. He and his husband, Gerhard, live in Fort Collins where Jake is also a Commissioner on the Fort Collins Housing Authority (Housing Catalyst). He is a Board Member for the UCC's Archway Housing in Denver, Habitat for Humanity of Fort Collins, and other non-profit boards. Jake serves Plymouth as the Associate Minister for pastoral care, outreach, mission, congregational life, and he supervises church communications.
Jake's academic background:
M.Div. and Graduate Certificate in Human Rights, Emory University's Candler School of Theology
B.A., Grinnell College”