Sermon Text for May 5, 2013 at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster.
Biblical text: Acts 16, 9-15
When I rang the doorbell to Grandma’s house, I knew that the next thing that would happen would be Grandma throwing open the door and saying “Hiya!, Hiya! Come on in!” Grandma’s house was filled with comforts; ice cream in the freezer, pretzels on the counter, television in the basement with a remote control and no adults to look over our shoulders, a newfangled intercom system to talk from one room to another, a ping pong table; and other games we didn’t have at home. Grandma always seemed happy to see us and eager that we have a good time. Sometimes Grandma or Grandpa asked if we wanted to wash the car, sweep the porch, stack firewood, or help with other household tasks. These jobs included a dollar or two as “pay” for the work. It always seemed like we were taking advantage of Grandma or Grandpa. I was never quite sure if they knew how disproportionate the pay was for the work completed. At Grandma and Grandpa’s house I was experiencing love and probably learning about grace; receiving a gift whether I earned it or not. At their house I always felt welcome. This morning I’m telling a few stories from my own life on the theme of Welcome, I’ll make some observations about the story from Acts, and suggest ways that my experience informs my participation here at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster. In 1975, in the third grade at Landisville Elementary School, a new game swept through the playground culture at recess. A simple elastic string, called a Chinese Jump Rope was the basis for a game involving three people. Two would wrap the string around their ankles and the third person would jump a series of choreographed steps. Then the string would be raised to the calves, knees and waist, making the jumping more and more challenging. I really wanted to play Chinese Jump Rope. But it was a girls’ game. And I was a boy. I never approached the girls to ask if I could play, too. But one day I did stop on the way home from school, and buy a Chinese jump rope. It might be an interesting sociological or historical question why a simple elastic string, being sold at Turkey Hill in Landisville to an English speaking Swiss German Mennonite had the name Chinese Jump Rope, but that multicultural exploration will have to wait for another time. In any case I bought the jump rope and tried to convince my brothers to play with me. I only convinced one of them, and using a dining room chair as a substitute second person I recall a few minutes of very unsatisfactory attempts to play this game. I’m not sure who made the rules about which games are boy games and which games are girl games, but this was one of those times when I knew it was too risky to cross the boundaries of acceptably gendered behavior. I was safe at home, but on the playground, I chose not to push the question of whether I was welcome to play Chinese Jump Rope with the girls. In the 1995 I was living in Goshen Indiana and studying at the Mennonite Seminary in Elkhart, which goes by the acronym AMBS. I had enrolled in the Master of Arts in Theological Studies program. I was nearing the end of my first semester and recognizing that what I really wanted to be studying was in the Master of Divinity program. But my understanding was that Gay people were not permitted in the Master of Divinity program. So I went to talk to one of the advisors to find out exactly what the school’s policy was. I asked if it was true that gay people were excluded from the M.Div. program. The response I heard was that the Master of Divinity program accepted individuals based on application to the program. It was not true that gay people were categorically excluded from the M.Div. program, but functionally, each gay person who had applied had been deemed unfit for the program. This response added to my anger and disillusionment with Mennonite Church institutions. I discontinued my pursuit of a graduate degree, and waited 14 years before continuing graduate study at another institution. A few years later, when I was 30 years old, I moved to San Francisco. My primary purpose for that move was to find a place which was more welcoming of me as a person, so that I could work on my own healing, find myself as a gay man, and decide whether I wanted to have anything to do with the Mennonite Church. I wanted to attend a Mennonite Church where I could decide if I wanted to be a member, rather than the church community deciding if I could be a member. Soon after I arrived, First Mennonite Church of San Francisco experienced a challenging pastoral transition, and I took the opportunity to stop attending the Mennonite church altogether. I put both feet into the church world of Metropolitan Community Church, a denomination whose primary constituency is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and other individuals. Almost every service began with a welcome which stated, “Whoever you are, wherever you come from, you are welcome in this place.” Every service included communion. Every invitation to communion included the words, “You don’t have to be a member of this church or of any church to come to this table. All are welcome.” Metropolitan Community Churches recognize that many people have had painful experiences of exclusion in many religious communities. So they intentionally have shaped worship and rituals around healing, support, and inclusion. It’s not a surprise that inclusion and welcome became a core part of their communion ritual. After 6 months of not attending First Mennonite Church of San Francisco, Easter arrived, and I realized I just couldn’t miss the Mennonite Easter Potluck meal. So I went to church at Metropolitan Community Church, and then went to the Mennonite potluck. Since that time I have kept multiple church allegiences. My experiment of finding a church home showed me that I want to keep two feet in the Mennonite church world. Food and fellowship, the opportunity to tell stories, brought me back. But I didn’t drop my involvement in Metropolitan Community Church. I like having a foot or two in additional church worlds. It’s a challenge to have two feet here and two feet there and another foot here or there. But it’s the dance I’ve been doing for 15 years. So what within me longs to be welcomed? What I most long to be welcomed is simply, my story. I want to be seen, I want to be known. I want the experiences that have created me as me to be heard and understood; which is why I’m spending time this morning telling stories. What I also want is to see each of you. I want to hear and understand each of your stories. I believe that this is the path to intimacy, wisdom and action. When I hear your story I get to test my understanding of the world. Are my understandings of God, my understandings of healing and redemption, my understandings of community and celebration large enough to hold the specific details of your story? Or do I have to shift and expand my paradigm to fit your experience in addition to mine? The practice of actively listening to stories doesn’t stop with the people in this room. It includes stories of People like Paul and Lydia from Acts. Paul was an urban Jew and a traveler. He was probably charismatic and bold. In some form he had a vision to go to a new city where he looked for people who might be interested in his stories. And he found the women by the river who were praying. Paul and his companions heard enough of Lydia’s story to know she was a worshiper of God. And Lydia heard enough of Paul’s story to ask to participate in the story, to ask for baptism. These interactions led to an invitation to stay in Lydia’s home. That’s one of the things which happens when we hear another person’s story. We feel connected. We offer hospitality and welcome. Imagine someone like Paul showing up in our entry way, seeing that we are a place where people gather to pray. What do we do with someone who arrives saying “I had a vision where God told me to talk to you. I have some stories, some new paradigms and some new rituals. Do you want to hear about them?” How can we make space for that story? Or maybe some of us are like Paul. I’m sure there are people in this room who have been called by God, or nudged by the spirit, or listened to a still small voice telling you to take a step, or make an action, or talk to someone. How are we entering into each other’s stories and joining with each other in these actions and urges? In our culture, some stories are more welcome than others. Stories of graduations, engagements, weddings, pregnancies, completions, and other celebrations are welcome. Stories of challenges, diseases, accidents, traumas are sometimes welcome. Mental illness, learning disabilities, power abuses, bankruptcies, and stories of sexual experiences may be more difficult to tell and difficult to hear because of cultural taboos and the associated feelings of shame that go along with those experiences. But I yearn for a community where these stories are also welcome. Listening to a broader array of stories may expand our understanding and it may inspire us action or transformation. Each story has the capacity to move us to tears, move us to laughter, move us to anger or outrage, move us to celebration, and move us to action. Last Sunday Chad raised the question of whether CMCL welcomes everyone equally by asking the hypothetical question of whether we could hire a pastor who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. For me this feels like a re-run of my experience at AMBS. Until the answer to that question is a clear yes, I’ll wonder about my welcome here. I’ll wonder if there are other positions where I’m not welcome. And I’ll wonder if I’m permitted to fully participate in Atlantic Coast Conference and Mennonite Church USA. But there is so much beyond that which I want in my church community. I want to hear your stories of how you came to be you. I want to know how you make sense of the world. And I need some help. I want to hear your stories so that I can be transformed. I want a community that challenges my material consumption. I want to know how you are facing the incessant pressures of participation in our consumerist culture. I want to hear where you find security. How do you resist the assumption that we each need to be fully independent and how do you find healthy interdependence? How you are challenging the US global military industrial empire and how you are making peace with your complicity with the current systems? How are you are countering oppression here in Lancaster? How are you reflecting on your life’s journey and what stories can you tell me about trusting the future to unfold within the beauty of a compassionate God while releasing your need to control the outcomes? What do you mourn? What do you celebrate? Can I be in solidarity with your sadness and joy? Where is your enthusiasm? What brings you alive? How you are joining with the spirit of life, the spirit of god, the spirit transformation to live abundantly? That’s what I want to be welcomed into. Can I hear your stories? Can we build intimacy, be inspired to new understanding, and moved to compassion and action? Can we open those doors between us? Can we fling them wide and say “Hiya, Hiya, come on in!”