Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Atlanta, Ga.
Readings: Isaiah 56:3-8, Matthew 23:29-40, Acts 11:1-18
Before I came to Gentle Spirit Christian Church, I spent a few months church shopping. My criterion for a good church was a place that I would feel totally comfortable. “I’ll know it when I see it,” I told myself. I visited many churches around this area, both mainstream and predominantly gay and lesbian. I never found a church that made me feel totally comfortable until I walked into this church. True, I already knew Paul very well … and there were other people in the church that were already friends of mine. But, a large majority of you didn’t know me at all. But that didn’t stop any of you from giving me a big hug and welcoming me into this church. It’s the reason I’ve stayed. I saw what I was looking for … a church that welcomed anyone who walked through the door … and not just with a visitor’s packet of information. No, you welcomed me with a hug, a smile and a genuine concern for my well being.
This is what church is all about … a welcome place for anyone who comes in. It’s a lesson many churches would do well to learn. It’s a lesson the church has had to relearn through the centuries. It’s a lesson we, as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians, are called to teach the church.
Recently, the United Methodist Church reconfirmed its position on gays and lesbians in the church. At their General Conference in May they renewed their statement that, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” They, along with most other major denominations, do not welcome us in their churches. Oh, we’re welcome to come and sit in the pew, give our money to the church, and support them in other ways. We are not, however, welcome in most denominations to become any part of the leadership, serve as deacons, or heaven forbid, be ordained into the ministry. Why? Because “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” One of the critics of Whosoever sums it up another way … “there is no place in the church for gays and lesbians.” Think on that line for a minute. “There is NO place in the church for gays and lesbians.”
On the Whosoever mailing list, a reader brought up an excellent point. “Why stay?” Why should gays and lesbians even care if the church ever opens its doors to us? We have our own places to worship free from denominational condemnation. Why is it so important for the church to open its doors and ultimately accept gays and lesbians openly? Good question.
Martin Luther King Jr. in his book “Strength to Love” answers that question eloquently:
Many continue to knock on the door of the church at midnight, even after the church has so bitterly disappointed them, because they know the bread of life is there.
That’s why it’s so important to open the doors of the church to gays and lesbians. Because the bread of life is there! The church’s function has always been to give the bread of life to all that seek it.
The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender believer understands what Karl Barth meant when he wrote that the church’s duty is “to bid people hope, and thus to mediate to them the promise that they need.” Barth further insists the church must “confess solidarity at every point with … people” and “show ourselves to be their companions and friends without worrying about their garb or mask, and we make their cause our own.”
Instead, the church too often looks at the garb or the mask, and insists in a change of clothing or a removal of the mask before the doors will open. Barth counsels churches to remain open to all because “those who hunger and thirst after righteousness … those who, however mistakenly or strangely or impotently, ask after and seek the right and dignity of humanity, have God on their side and will be satisfied … we cannot separate this from them no matter what name they bear or what kind of people they are.”
In the case of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians, the church turns a deaf ear to Barth’s words. They are not interested in welcoming the gay, lesbian, bi or transgender believer, nor in giving them the right and dignity of humanity. They think such believers are mistaken, strange and not truly seeking righteousness. Instead, too many churches seek to separate the humanity from such believers, telling them they must abandon a large part of their identity, their sexuality, to share in the ultimate hope of glory with God.
The church is wrong when it treats people this way. That’s not just my take on it … but it’s the Bible’s message as well. The Bible clearly shows God calling the church to be more inclusive … even as far back as ancient Israel.
The Torah, or the Pentateuch as we know it, is very explicit about who and who cannot come into the temple to worship. Deuteronomy 23:1-4 makes it quite clear:
“He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the LORD. No bastard shall enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD. No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none belonging to them shall enter the assembly of the LORD for ever because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came forth out of Egypt … “
Seems pretty clear. No eunuchs, no sons of unwed mothers, and no foreigners, especially Ammonites or Moabites since they refused to help the Israelites on their flight from Egypt. Okay, so maybe the church can close its doors on some people. As my fundamentalist friends are wont to say, “it’s there in the Bible, so it must be true.” Fine then, the Bible says these people are excluded from the church … so if exclusions can be made then, they can certainly be made now. The church has biblical justification for refusing certain people entrance into this sacred institution. The Bible is the final authority, so I suppose we should just give up our fight. The Bible has justified the exclusion of some people, and the Bible … or God … never changes its mind.
Or does it?
Let’s move forward a few hundred years in the history of the Israelites. In 586 Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians and most of the Jews were exiled into Babylon. Many expected their exile to be short and planned for the day when they could soon return to Jerusalem. Several prophets, including Jeremiah, warned the people to settle in because the exile would be a long one. Jeremiah was right. It wasn’t until 70 years later, after the Persians had defeated the Babylonians, that the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem.
Now remember, I said “most” of the Jews were exiled to Babylon … not everyone was sent away. Some Jews were left in Israel, mainly farmers and peasant workers, but some community leaders were allowed to remain. Now, they’ve got a problem. Exiles are returning, but since they’ve been gone 70 years, these are not the exiles that were sent away … these are the children of the exiles. These children were born in Babylon. They were not born in Israel. These children are … foreigners! And as such … they are NOT allowed in the temple! Deuteronomy is quite clear on this point … no foreigners are allowed in the temple … it’s for Israelites only! If the Jews had General Conferences every four years maybe they would have drafted a statement saying, “Foreigners and eunuchs are incompatible with the teachings of the Torah.” The more bellicose critics would have proclaimed, “Foreigners and eunuchs have no place in the temple.”
What were the people to do? These exiles were returning with the explicit purpose of rebuilding the temple that was destroyed by the Babylonians! But, how could they rebuild a temple they couldn’t worship in? The Torah was plain … there was no mistaking its edict against foreigners.
It falls to the prophet Isaiah to settle the dispute. What does Isaiah say?
3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off.
6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, every one who keeps the sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant —
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
8 Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”
Oh, my God! I’m amazed Isaiah wasn’t stoned on the spot. How dare he open the temple not only to foreigners … but to eunuchs as well! Hasn’t he read the Torah? Doesn’t he know God expressly forbids these people from entering the church? What happened to the infallibility of the law? Has it been tossed out just for the convenience of the returning exiles?
No, I believe what is happening here is that God is reminding the people that the bread of life is for everyone! “My house shall be called a house of prayer for ALL peoples.” No law can separate people from God … even if that law is perceived as being a divine edict.
Moving even further ahead in history, we find Jesus’ disciples faced with a similar dilemma. After Jesus has been crucified, the disciples go about the work of spreading Jesus’ message. This has been their edict. They’ve been told to “make disciples of all the nations.” [Matthew 27:19]
However, in Acts, we see the disciples discriminating somewhat in who will receive the message. Instead of teaching to “all the nations” … they take their message to Jews only. But one night, Peter has a dream. God shows him food that is ritually unclean and tells him to eat it. Peter refuses. Peter is a good Jew. He could never eat unclean foods. Peter is so stubborn, in fact, that God has to show him this dream three times. Each time Peter refuses to eat the food, calling it unclean or common, until finally God tells Peter, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.”
What did Peter do after this dream? He did the unthinkable. He did an act so shocking it brought a sharp rebuke from the other apostles. What did he do? He preached the gospel to the Gentiles. Gentiles! These were the people most hated by the Jews. Telling a Gentile back then about God’s love was almost as horrible as giving God’s word of hope to a queer today! How could Peter do that? Didn’t he know that God hated the Gentiles? Didn’t he know they were filthy pagans who cared not one whit for the law? How could he so blatantly disregard the word of God on this? How could he just go out and change how things are done? How dare he! Didn’t Peter know that “being a Gentile is not compatible with Christian teaching?” Didn’t he know that “Gentiles have no place in the church?” Peter must have missed the General Conference edict.
Instead, Peter listened to God, who gave him a new revelation … preach to the Gentiles … they, too, are God’s children. The bread of life is in the church, and it’s for everyone! There are no exceptions. There is a place in the church for everyone.
Theologian Fred Craddock states, “Wherever and whenever, for whatever the reason, anyone is not welcome to sit at table with you, to eat with you, then you do not have church.”
My friends, we are sorely missing churches today. I can name many churches in this city alone where we would not be welcome to sit at a table and eat with other people who call themselves Christians. They would deny the bread of life to us … both literally … and figuratively. Why? Simply because of who we love.
But for my friends who cling so desperately to the Bible as the infallible word of God, this is a tough lesson! The church has changed over the centuries. A once exclusive church has changed to welcome eunuchs, foreigners and even Gentiles! For those who cling to the Bible as the word of God, the precedent has been set … the church must change. Indeed, the church is called to change! The church must be open to new revelations … new ways of seeing itself. It must ever be reminded of its sacred commission, to give the bread of life to everyone, without exception. That’s not my message … that’s the Bible’s message, and it seems fairly clear to me.
Jesus makes this message of inclusion clear when he talks to the Pharisees in Matthew. They too had closed their churches and had become stingy with the bread of life. Jesus condemns these exclusionary practices and even says, “Look, I’m not coming back until you bless anyone who comes to you in my name!” How much clearer can Jesus be?
Indeed, God had sent prophets telling the Pharisees to open their doors. The prophets, the people who brought a new word, a new revelation, to the Pharisees were murdered and persecuted! It’s a scene we see replayed today as Soulforce protestors were persecuted and spiritually murdered at the UMC General Conference. These were the prophets who stood outside the assembly, and those who stood on the floor of that gathering and proclaimed the message that the church must open its doors to everyone! Jesus predicted what would … and did … happen! The church leaders persecuted the prophets. They were arrested and taken from the assembly. This is nothing more than spiritual murder.
How many more spiritual murders do today’s churches commit? Every time a fundamentalist preacher, a modern day Pharisee, stands in the pulpit and condemns homosexuals, he kills us! Churches that routinely exclude us, churches that close their doors on us, churches that refuse to give the bread of life to gays and lesbians are committing spiritual murder.
It was with great sadness that I read this week that the Southern Baptists … the denomination of my childhood … voted to ban women from the pulpit … and renewed their exclusion of homosexuals from their churches. The Convention said scripture is clear that only men can be pastors. The new SBC president went so far as to say that women who felt called to ministry were “mistaken.” I suppose the prophetess Deborah was mistaken when she prophesied in the Old Testament. I guess Esther was mistaken when she saved the Jews from certain death. I suppose Mother Theresa was mistaken when she heard her call to take care of the sick and poor in India. Hear again the words of Karl Barth, “those who, however mistakenly or strangely or impotently, ask after and seek the right and dignity of humanity, have God on their side and will be satisfied.” Deborah, Esther and Mother Theresa may have, in the Baptist opinion, sought their right or dignity of humanity mistakenly, but God was on their side and they were satisfied! We too, are dismissed as “mistakenly” seeking after the right and dignity of humanity. I tell you today, God is on our side and we will be satisfied. Isaiah, in an assurance from God, answers the Baptists loud and clear:
“my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”
All people … that means women, that means gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transgender people and straight people of every race … of every heritage. It begs the question: What part of “whosoever” don’t the Southern Baptists … and the Methodists and other churches that practice exclusion, understand?
Brothers and sisters, the church must change. Soulforce protestors are not the only ones called to prophesy to the church. We, too, are the prophets Jesus talks about. We have been sent to the churches with a message of inclusion! So many of our brothers and sisters die spiritually because they believe God does not love them. We’ve got to be on the front lines of the battle to stop that kind of spiritual violence! We’ve got get out the new revelation … we must spread the word … the bread of life is here and it’s for everyone! This is a house of prayer for all the people! Let our resolution be: “Excluding anyone from the church is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Or more simply: “Everyone has a place in the church.”
After the Methodist vote to reconfirm it’s position that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” a Methodist minister talked with her church board about the possibility of becoming a reconciling congregation and formally welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The board’s response was typical. They were not ready to do that right now … it wouldn’t be good for the church at this time. So, the measure was voted down.
The next Sunday when the congregation gathered they noticed the signboard had been changed from the usual, “All are welcome” to “Some are welcome.”
This, my friends, is why we at Gentle Spirit Christian Church and others like us continue to knock on the door of the church at midnight. It is not because we are masochists … staying in a club that does not want us … and has been clear that our presence is unwelcome. Instead, we knock at the door of a church that has so bitterly disappointed us because we know … deep within our souls, we know … that the church doors must be open to everyone, without exception … because the bread of life is within the church! That bread belongs to everyone who seeks to eat of it. Who are they … indeed, who are we … to deny anyone who comes in the name of the Lord?
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.