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An interpretation of Judges 12:1-6
I bring you greetings from Rev. Elder Dr. Nancy Wilson, who is the Moderator of Metropolitan Community Churches, from the now-retired Rev. Elder Ken Martin, and from the entire leadership of MCC. MCC was formed in 1968 – long before most of you were born. We started as a church of 12 people in Los Angeles and today MCC is a global movement of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and heterosexual people in over 40 nations. For the last 46 years, MCC has been at the forefront of the struggle for the human, spiritual, and religious rights of those who live at the margins of society. We were the first church in the world to offer a ministry of hope and healing to those living with and impacted by HIV and AIDS. We are still the only denomination that
openly speaks in a sex-positive way about the divine reconciliation of human sexuality and spirituality.
We thank God for the organizers of Amplify, for each of you who is here, and for the churches you represent. Together with the MCC churches in The Philippines and South Korea, you are bringing the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ and its message of hope, joy, peace, and love to millions of people in Asia.
Many good Christians everywhere need to hear the Good News that you bring. A lot of churches teach that there is but one narrow way to be a Christ follower. They really do believe that being a Christian requires that people live in fear, view others with judgment, and act more fervently to show our hatred than to demonstrate God’s love. So they need to hear the Good News that only you can bring. You are the feet of Christ who stands with those at the margins, the hands of Christ who heals all brokenness, and the heart of Christ who loves without condition. Indeed, you are the full Body of Christ and the
embodiment of Christianity for the 21st Century.
A question that I have today is this: What is it that God is calling you to embody? Are you called to be the same kind of traditional Christian church that is just like most other churches in Asia today…or are you called to emerge from tradition in order to become a church that is new?
I recognize that most of your congregations are young churches. Some are just beginning your ministry. Others have been in ministry for quite a few years now. It might be, however, that of all of the churches represented here, Metropolitan Community Churches could perhaps be the oldest. As the “eldest sister,” I would like to share with you some of the wisdom that MCC has gathered on our journey in the hope that the relatively young movement of inclusive Christianity in Asia might benefit in some way.
MCC has solidly reached middle-age. We are no longer who we used to be. Some of you might know what middle-age is like. When you reach middle age, you look in the mirror and see some vague resemblance of your youthful self now staring back at you. You listen to what you are saying and discover that the words coming out of your mouth sound just like what the old folks in your family used to say. Not only do you start to look different in middle age, but you also realize that start doing some things differently. You used to be able to eat anything you wanted to eat; now you have to pick and choose from the menu so that your food does not take up long-term residence on your hips. There was a time when you had great flexibility; now it is hard to stand up because your joints have begun to ache. You used to take long runs; now you are doing good just to stroll slowly around the block. As much as you want to hold on to that care-free youthful self-image, you discover in middle-age that the choices made when you were younger no longer work for you as well.
Middle-age is a wonderful time for sorting through your life and shedding excess baggage. Just like with an airline, carrying excess baggage can cost you dearly! No matter how much money you have, it is a price that few people can afford to pay. In the case of middle-aged MCC, we discovered that it was going to cost us dearly if we held on too tightly to the baggage of who we used to be. Being known as “the gay church in America” served us well for a long time. As wonderful as it has been to have that reputation, being “the gay church in America” was never who we truly were and is certainly not all of who God called us to be. So we realized that, unless we changed, we would become nothing more than yet another denomination that succeeded in fulfilling its purpose but died for failure to emerge into its destiny. We discovered that our collective willingness to let go, or lack thereof, is what would determine whether MCC will live a long and healthy life far into the future or else perish in middle-age instead.
As a child, I was raised in the Baptist Church and then became part of the Anglican Church. I found and joined MCC 38 years ago in 1976. It was only the 8th year of the MCC movement. I was a 28 year-old single mother living in Washington, DC, with 3 young children. I had moved there to escape an abusive marriage and to come out to myself and anyone else who would listen. I loved what I found in MCC and what MCC represented. It was clear to me that God was doing a new thing through MCC and that I was destined to be a part of it. In so many ways, being part of MCC in those early days was to me like finding Gilead with its healing balm. It made me whole; it healed my wounded soul.
Many of you might say a similar thing about how you felt when you first found your present church. Do you recall the feeling you had when you first realized that God loves you without condition? That tremendous sense of belonging when you first experienced full acceptance into the community of God’s people? When you realized you no longer had to hide from, apologize for, or be ashamed before God because of who you are? What a healing and a blessing it can be when you finally find your true spiritual home!
Well, as wonderful as it can be to find our way to Gilead’s balm, it is vitally important to remember that a healing balm is not all there is to find in Gilead. There is more to the story.
In the Book of Judges that is found among the most ancient Christian text, we read that the people of Gilead controlled the only crossing point over the River Jordan that connected the two cities of Gilead and Ephraim. The head of the tribe of Gilead had offended the head of the tribe of Ephraim. Soldiers from Ephraim had crossed the river into Gilead to defend their leader’s honor. The two sides began to fight; the warriors of Gilead won. Once the battle was over, the surviving warriors from Ephraim just wanted to leave and go home. This meant that they had to cross back over the Jordan.
Each time an Ephramite got to the crossing point, a Gileadite crossing guard would ask, “Are you an Ephramite?” Afraid for his life, the warrior would deny it and say, “No.” Then the Gileadite would tell him to say a particular word: “Shibboleth.” The people from Ephraim and from Gilead, you see, had different accents. The warrior from Ephraim could not say it right. He pronounced it “Sibboleth” instead of “Shibboleth.” When his accent revealed who the warrior really was, the Gileadite crossing guards would kill him right there at the crossing point. Scripture says that over 42,000 Ephramites were killed in this way.
So you see, not only is there a balm in Gilead but there are gatekeepers in Gilead, too. The gatekeepers are the ones who decide who comes in and who goes out; to decide who and what is right; and to enforce the consequences of being wrong.
The Gileadites and the Ephraimites were not enemies. They were family — two of the 12 Tribes of Israel. So this story of Gilead is about religious in-fighting, about the violence that can happen among people who are part of the same denomination or even within the same church. Indeed, it is my experience that a similar thing happens even within MCC and perhaps even in your congregations. In spite of what we tell ourselves, even we who are radically-inclusive Christians can sometimes have very little tolerance for difference. We say, “Everyone is welcome here” while leaving unsaid “as long as you are able to be like me.” Far too often we become the very gatekeepers who violate someone’s dignity in order to keep things the way they are, killing the dreams of those who are just trying to make their way home.
Womanist theologian Rev. Raedorah Stewart wrote about this story in an article that appeared in Black Theology: An International Journal (Steward, 2013). She writes:
Tradition does not inherently embody truth. What if that which was regarded to be not said right was instead embraced as one saying it differently? As one saying it as ascribed to one unique community? As one saying (it) to introduce the possibilities for a multi-cultural communal experience? What if the peculiarity of difference would have been simply renamed, the Queer Shibboleth? Where instead of being rendered silent, oppressed, and invisible, not saying it right was seized as an opportunity for dialogue within a community poised and willing to learn to say it differently!? Can we talk?
Can we talk, Amplify?
· Can we talk about becoming a church community that is willing to learn to say and to be Christian differently?
· Can we talk about what our churches are like for native-born and -living, right language-speaking, able-bodied, gender conforming, gay men and lesbians?
· Then can we talk about what our churches are like for peoples from other nations, children, young adults, older adults, trans* and gender nonconforming folks?
· For people with disabilities, those who are HIV+, women, bisexuals, and heterosexuals?
· For people for whom your spoken tongue is their second, third, fourth, or even otherwise unneeded language?
· Do we dare talk about how those of us from any one country need to place ourselves on the globe as equals with the rest of humanity instead of assuming that our particular nation is or should be the center of the universe and everybody else is doing it wrong?
No matter what the gatekeepers in us and in our churches might say, the reality is that God has called us to bring and to be healing in a contemporary world. God is way ahead of us, beckoning all of us onward, inviting us to let go of the chains that bind us to the past. So we cannot allow our gatekeepers to keep us from fulfilling our divine destiny. There is still a balm in Gilead and our ministry really is (or could be) that healing balm.
Yet our churches will never emerge into what we can be until we stop resisting God’s call to become something new. We will never become something new until we let go of whatever it is that keeps us wanting to be just like the churches we came from.
· Let go of the notion that your church is only to be a “gay church” that includes heterosexuals only when it serves your purposes to do so. Emerge into a true multi-cultural church that genuinely engages with the world.
· Let go of the idea that the only way for people to become part of your church is by conforming to your rules in order to be just like you. Emerge into a covenant-based community that includes all kinds of different culturally-authentic manifestations of human and spiritual diversity who are all connected to, identify as, and lead your church.
· Let go of the expectation that your own personal belief system should set the standard for what it means for anybody else to be a Christian. Emerge into acceptance of the reality that citizenship in the Beloved Community is bestowed by God and God alone.
· Let go of the infernal need to judge and to make somebody else “the other.” Let me just say one thing on behalf of all the so-called “others.” The thing that makes me different from you does not mean that I am “that other one.” I am not one that you need to fear, ignore, tolerate, take care of, rescue, pity, talk about, speak down to, look down upon, or eroticize. Emerge into seeing human difference as being merely “another” – another manifestation of God’s boundless creativity and unending grace to be celebrated, honored, and respected.
Letting go is not easy. Trying on something new can be hard. Yet by the time we reach middle-age, we do need to open our eyes to the truth. Most of our old clothes are worn out, no longer fit us, and we no longer look good in them. The time has come for all of us to emerge from our closet of yesterday garbed now in a new way of being church that fits the 21st Century.
I realize that we do not like it when a new idea does not fit with our notion of how things ought to be. Some of us have very low tolerance for such discomfort. Yet consider the butterfly as it emerges from the cocoon or a baby emerging from a woman’s womb. Either one would testify that letting go is not really an option; emerging demands discomfort and failure to emerge will kill you!
My friends, neither MCC nor your church will ever reach its destiny of being a church that demonstrates God’s inclusive and unconditional love unless we start acting like one today.
This is exactly what MCC is trying to do. Late last year, my office got an email from a Hindu man in Punjab, India, who wanted to be baptized. I asked Rev. Jim Mulcahy (our Ministry Development Officer for Eastern Europe) to respond. Using Skype, Rev. Jim became this man’s pastor and prepared him for Baptism. Listen to Rev. Jim’s own words as he describes the experience:
Good Sunday morning. At midnight, after weeks of instruction, conversation, and pastoral care to 19 year old Zachary Subhankar Das, through the wonder of technology and the assistance of a very kind young Hindu man, I baptized, confirmed, anointed and received Zachary into the Christian faith and into MCC. I was uncomfortable when I was first asked to do this but Zac is a wonderful young man in love with God and inspired by MCC. There is not a Christian church there that would accept him and the one other Christian at his Jesuit-run university refused to participate because Zac is gay. His friend, Vishal, a heterosexual Hindu, was my proxy, my hands there to pour the water and anoint with oil. When Zac told him he needed candles for the ceremony, Vishal walked six miles to find them. I watched the wonder on this Hindu young man’s face as his friend Zac glowed with joy to be a Christian. He has wanted this since he was 12.
So I’m sitting in my living room in the middle of the night. I think I will not soon forget the look in Zachary’s eyes and the delight on his face. We take so much of our freedom in faith for granted. I am touched deeply by this youngster who listed me on Facebook as his father. Thank you for encouraging my work in this marvelous fellowship of ours which dreams dreams bigger than imaginable, which knows that our God is a wild God who cannot be confined to “the way we’ve always done it.”
There is a balm in Gilead. MCC was a healing balm for Zac. Indeed, all kinds of people the world over are looking for a healing balm and hoping to find it through a connection to MCC or to your church. Because there are so many people like Zac, MCC is initiating new church starts all over the world while also creating an MCC Oasis — a network of global virtual and face-to-face spiritual communities. Through Oasis, people all over the world who do not have a church will be able to receive, be part of, and contribute to ministry in the world through MCC. Through Oasis, more and more people – Christian and
non-Christian, straight and gay – who are seeking to explore their spirituality will be part of the global MCC movement with direct access to worship, music, pastoral support, the Rites and Sacraments, Bible studies, courses for spiritual development, resources on sexuality and spirituality, and opportunities to be involved locally and globally in social justice, with all of this being offered in the world’s major languages.
In what ways could your church emerge as a church that honors tradition by doing an old Christian thing but in new ways? That is a place of healing, reconciliation, and welcome to the diversity of God’s human creation? To be God’s love with skin on it for the world today?
God’s beloved, as church leaders, each one of us stands right now as a Gileadite gatekeeper at the crossing point. We are now the ones with the authority and power to determine whether the crossing into the beloved community will be opened or closed to those who are different, those in search of healing, and those yearning to be free. We have some choices to make. What we decide, what we say, and what we do each day will determine whether our churches will achieve their God-given destinies or will meet an untimely death at the hands of our complacency and comfort. My prayer is that all of us will let go of
who we were and emerge instead as the healing balm for which the world awaits. So be it. Amen.
Mulcahy, James (2012). Email to Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson and Rev. Elder Darlene Garner dated 9 December 2012.
Steward, R. R. (2013). Say Now “Shibboleth” – Queer(y)ing Black Homily, Hymnody, and Holla: Toward a Radically Inclusive Prophetic Gospel. Black Theology: An International Journal, 301-320.