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Epiphany at Epiphany

From For Life is a Journey

Epiphany, a sudden realization, a sudden intuitive leap of understanding, especially through an ordinary but striking occurrence.

It was an epiphany moment for me. As is the practice in our congregation, the bread and cup communion was being offered on this first Sunday of Epiphany.

I have sometimes been indifferent about taking part in communion. But this day I decided that I was going to participate. As I moved, along with others, into the center aisle to go forward to receive communion, I suddenly remembered a time when I had been denied communion. And then it came to me and I realized with thankfulness that I now had the choice to “come to the table.”

I recall vividly that time that I felt excluded. It was in the spring of my yearlong Clinical Pastoral Education residency in a Chicago hospital. My wife Barbara (we were still married at that time), our son Joel, his woman friend, and I were attending a Catholic university church located on the shore of Lake Michigan. It was Easter Saturday - the Easter Eve midnight mass.

I was in the midst of a rather difficult CPE year. I was beginning to realize that I would not be willing to return as an ordained professional to a position in my denomination unless I could be completely honest about my sexuality. I was struggling with my own integrity. And I was grieving because I understood that in all likelihood I would probably never again be a pastor in the Church of the Brethren, or a District Executive, or a national staff person. I was, I know, on an emotional edge.

Then, that late Saturday night in that lovely cathedral, as the Easter eve service was coming to a conclusion, the priest made it clear that only Catholics would be invited to the table. Though I was not Catholic, and though an invitation was not expected, I felt that I was being physically heaved out the door, and out of the church, even my own church. Reality struck. I was no longer welcome at the table, not even in my own denomination. I felt, deep in my soul, excluded and alone. And, on that quiet Easter eve, sitting with my family, I cried.

This past Epiphany Sunday (January 2009) I realized that our congregation - and I - had come a long, long way. We are now a congregation that welcomes gays and lesbians. I was, without rebuke and without question, invited to the table. The pastor was clear. All may come. And again, I cried.

I would wish that you could imagine what is going through the heart and soul of any person in your congregation who feels, openly or secretly, that the table is not open … that they are not welcome.

Some of those who feel uninvited are person who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender; persons with physical and mental disabilities; those without money; the homeless; the poor; the depressed; survivors of child abuse, women and men struggling with abortion, and those with a mental illness.

A congregation that faithfully, honestly, prophetically, and courageously seeks out what it means to be inclusive of gays and lesbians will also find that they are dealing with a whole new world of what it means to be inclusive to all. Conversely, the congregation that tries to include some but excludes others, such as gays and lesbians, still has not dealt forthrightly with what it means to present a welcoming table.

It is my belief that a truly welcoming congregation is a congregation that has courage. They have been willing to confront and talk in depth with those who are blatant excluders. It is an interesting dilemma, isn’t it? It would appear that sometimes congregations exclude some from the table in order to keep the excluders who are within the congregation - in.

A mentor of mine, the late Benton Rhoades, at an event of lgbt persons, feminists, and allies, said that we, in our denomination, were reaching a “critical mass.” Benton was prophesying that there is within the Church of the Brethren a nucleus that was moving the church toward becoming inclusive. Perhaps he was right. Several years ago over 200 supporters came to a “witness” event at our national church conference demonstrating support for Brethren Mennonite Council who had, once again, been denied an exhibit space at the conference. And in the following year two other progressive groups, in solidarity with BMC, decided not to have their own exhibit space. At the 2009 Annual Conference literally hundreds of conference goers wore rainbow scarves. The Womaen’s Caucus sponsored the scarves that had been knitted and were given to conference goers to wear as a statement of support for lgbt inclusion.

What an incongruity! At our national conference it was somehow logical for conference planners to give visibility to a fundamentalist group, which in many actions did not agree with the statements of faith of our denomination, but would not recognize the Brethren Mennonite council which in most of its concerns about justice, peace, and reconciliation had agreed with our denominational statements and resolution on issues of justice, peace and reconciliation. What can we do? What can you do? What is needed is a movement of believers!

Write to the executives of your denominational agencies. Let your judicatory executives and board know your opinion. Talk with your voting representatives. Have you written or spoken up in your own congregation? Have you made it clear - very clear - to those who may feel excluded that they are truly welcome to come to the table in your congregation?

When will you have your next God-sent epiphany moment?

The arc of history bends toward justice.

- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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