Are We The Gay Church?
Delivered by Rev. Kowalski, Oct. 16, 2011
I suppose that that if Garrison Keillor were telling the story it might start out with Pastor Ingquvist, who had not heard from his younger son Neil in almost a year.
Neil, you see, had begun his sophomore year at St. Olafs. But then as second semester got underway, Neil informed his parents that he needed some time off before he was ready to declare his major, which surprised his Dad because Neil’s scholarship was from the Lutheran Church and especially for students headed into ministry. That was part of the package. So when Neil said he was taking a leave of absence and headed to New York to stay with a friend, to "chill" as he put it, Pastor Ingquvist was annoyed, knowing that the denominational funding panel would not be pleased with this decision, that Neil might lose the church’s backing. But what worried him more now was not hearing from his son.
You see, what Neil hadn’t told his parents was that he was going to New York because he didn’t want to be a clergyman like his father and his older brother Ted. What he wanted to do was dance, which he’d never really told anyone in Lake Woebegone because although he’d never really asked, he just had a feeling that the guys at the Sidetrack Tap didn’t really approve of fellows wearing tights.
But New York was so different from Minnesota. And after just a few months of waiting tables Neil had been cast in a show, not the lead, but as one of the chorus dancers, not on Broadway but in Brooklyn, but still it was a hit show, a sensation—the Bill T. Jones Dance Company, a black choreographer whose production titled "The Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin" was getting rave reviews for shattering boundaries of race and sex and raising a few eyebrows with the finale where the entire cast dances nude on stage in a celebration of the power of life and love and uninhibited creativity. And Neil had never felt so alive or so happy in all his eighteen years. For the first time, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life.
And not only that, he was also in love, head over heels, smitten with the most wonderful, fascinating person he’d ever met, Simon, another member of the cast. Neil, who’d been so depressed studying church history at St. Olaf’s, felt like the sun had come out from behind a cloud, as if all his life he’d been a bell and didn’t know it until that day he met Simon, when he was suddenly struck and began to ring.
But, but, how could he tell his parents any of this? His mother would die if she knew he was dancing in public with no clothes, and the first time he was out there in the buff he almost died of embarrassment himself. But hey, when you’re eighteen, you look pretty good and it was exhilarating in a way. Still, his father would surely be disappointed that he didn’t become a minister. And he wasn’t at all sure either what the Lutheran Church taught, exactly, about being gay. Sex was just not something they talked about in Sunday School, but he had a pretty good idea the Bible frowned on homosexuality.
And that was why he hadn’t communicated with his mother and father for so many months, because he was torn apart inside, wanting them to share his joy, but also terribly afraid, if they knew any of this, of what they might do or say.
Well, Neil finally put all this in a letter, and two weeks later a postcard came back that said simply, "Son, come home," signed mom and dad. So Neil wasn’t really sure what to expect and was getting more and more anxious as he hit the highway from St. Cloud and got closer to the little town where he’d grown up. But as he turned onto Main Street there by Bertha’s Kitty Boutique, where the road bends by Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, he saw the big banner hanging over the thoroughfare that said "Welcome Home Neil." And he was surprised to see the lights on in the Lutheran Church, with the parking lot full. And when he stopped at the church to see what was happening, there they all were, Pastor and Mrs. Ingquvist, and his Church School teachers, and all the parishioners who’s brought jello salad and tuna hot dish in his honor. The choir was warming up to sing "Amazing Grace." And as he hugged his father, Neil said, "I didn’t know if you’d want me back." And his Dad replied, "Neil, we were so worried. We thought maybe you had cancer, or had become a Catholic. Your mother and I are so relieved. We’re proud of you, we love you, and we’re happy for you."
There was just one person who wasn’t at the party, and that was Neil’s older brother Ted, Theodore, "lover of God," who had a deacon’s meeting that night in the nearby town of Worthington, where his own parish was located. Ted didn’t see his father until the following Monday, when the Luther League was meeting, and where Pastor Ingquvist expressed regret that Ted had missed the big homecoming. There was a little hitch in his voice when Ted replied. "Dad," the older son said,"did you ever stop to think? I never dropped out of college. I never ran away from home. My wife and I drove thirty miles in a blizzard to rescue you and mom when your heat went off last winter, while Neil was away dancing in New York. I entered the ministry, just like you. And you never threw me a party." Then his father put a hand on his older boy’s shoulder an said, "Son, everything I have is yours. I’ve given you the faith that is my greatest treasure. The day you were born I gave you my heart. But we didn’t know if your little brother was alive or dead. He was gone, and now he’s back. How can we not rejoice?"
But of course, Garrison Keillor didn’t tell this story. Instead, Jesus told it, long ago, about a prodigal son, a parable that has some relevance for the First Parish of Sudbury as you think about what it means to be a Welcoming Congregation. Because there are at least some members here in this parish who feel a little like the elder brother. You are the loyal, hardworking, no-fuss, faithful people who get the job done week after week, teaching Sunday School, folding the newsletter, organizing the Holly Fair, singing in the choir, the steady and dependable members who seldom get singled out for special appreciation. The unsung heroes, so to speak. And yet every week, it seems, there’s a party for the gays and lesbians and bisexuals who get to fly a rainbow flag and have a plaque on the wall, maybe even a gigantic banner on the front of the meetinghouse, a special notice in the bulletin each Sunday and a tag line at the end of every press release announcing that this congregation welcomes individuals of differing sexual orientations. Just how fair is that?
Well, as Jesus told the story, the younger son takes his share of the family fortune and fritters it away in a distant country, where he is reduced to hiring himself out as a swineherd, an occupation that for a respectable Jew is among the most degrading, shameful and humiliating that can be imagined. In other words, he is a complete disgrace. Now this is not quite our situation here in Sudbury Because our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters did not leave the church so much as they were forced out of the family of the faith and for years lived in a kind of netherworld, a distant land where if their existence was acknowledged at all it was with smirks and dirty jokes, or condemnations from the pulpit, told that their deepest needs for intimacy and companionship which seemed to them most life giving and natural were in fact filthy and diseased. Like the younger son in the parable, many internalized a sense of shame, of self-disgust
, as Roman Catholics and Mormons and evangelical
Protestants representing the vast majority of moral and spiritual leaders in the land continued to lambast what they considered perverted "lifestyles," as bullies harassed them and respectable people snickered. Many, especially among the young, were made to feel such despair and inward torment that some took their own lives.
But then, a few churches (of which this was one) did something brave. You sent a postcard to your long lost family members that said, simply, "Come home." You voted to become Welcoming Congregations. And for untold numbers of our GLBT and questioning friends, it has been a lifesaving invitation. Because in a culture that has for centuries tortured you, imprisoned you, diagnosed and tried to cure you, laughed at you and made you feel invisible, just to be validated for who you are is the greatest of all possible gifts—truly a cause for celebration.
So is it any wonder, in the Gospel of Luke, that the father at long last reunited with his youngest son orders dancing and music in his honor? And is it any surprise that the older brother, hearing the festivities, becomes angry and refuses to join in? His father pleaded with him, the Bible relates, "But the older son answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
Well, the prostitutes up the ante in the story, don’t they? On top of pig farming, let’s throw in a smear of scandal and sexual impropriety. And I’ve heard any number of similar comments these past few weeks. If First Parish becomes known as the "gay church," won’t our reputation in the community suffer? Families may stop bringing their children. People will think of this organization as being identified with a single issue. And besides, church just isn’t the place to talk about s-e-x, I’ve also heard. To those who may share these concerns, I can assure you that I haven’t been talking about s-e-x this morning. What I’ve been talking about, and what Jesus was talking about, is not sex but a different, four letter word, l-o-v-e, which is indeed a family value and which for a single issue—if the church is going to have one overriding message—is just about as good as it gets.
So here’s how the story ends. ‘My son,’ the father said to his oldest, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’"
So how can we not fly the rainbow flag and break out the jello salad here in Sudbury, where love is being preached and practiced? Not eros or sensual love, but the kind of love that the Greek writers of the New Testament called agape, the kind of radical compassion that doesn’t condemn you because of who you slept with that night when you were a teenager and ran away from home, but that acknowledges our basic co-humanity, whether we’re gay or straight, Jew or Gentile, black or white, female or male. Because that’s the kind of welcoming community we want to establish here at First Parish, where all the women are strong, and all the men are good looking, and all the children are well above average.