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Welcome, Wonder

Perhaps you have noticed some interesting new words in the liturgy we’re using today, the words we use for worship. Most of these words came from ReconcilingWorks, which is an organization helping ELCA congregations extend welcome to LGBTQIA+ peoples, and those letters stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual and the plus is for anyone else not otherwise named. You may have also seen the term BIPOC, which stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

ReconcilingWorks created this liturgy for RIC Sunday, a time to acknowledge the Reconciling in Christ program, which individual congregations can decide to become part of, by learning and studying and taking a congregational vote to affirm their willingness to specifically welcome LGBTQIA+ people.

Gethsemane Lutheran Church did this very work years ago and became a Reconciling in Christ congregation in the summer of 2011—anyone here remember that? ReconcilingWorks continues their relationships with their RIC congregations by encouraging continued growth and learning and advocacy. There’s always more to learn as language changes and shifts, as people discern words for what they feel inside, words for explaining gender and how it is expressed, and there’s continued need for advocates to speak up.

A couple of weeks ago, our Central States Synod Bishop, Reverend Susan Candea, visited St. Louis to host a required training event for clergy, so there were a bunch of us pastors and deacons there. The training was about LGBTQIA+ inclusion, and the executive director of ReconcilingWorks, Aubrey Thonvold, was present to help us understand how to speak intelligently about things like sex and gender and how to reduce our own anxiety by breathing and rooting ourselves in love and acceptance.

She spoke about grace, for oneself and for others, which is important in those moments of awkwardness when you use the wrong pronoun, and she admitted that happens to her too. She encouraged what she called “hospitable curiosity,” being interested in a person for who they are as a human being, rather than indulging lurid curiosity, asking deeply personal questions about a person’s sexuality or gender identity. The goal is hospitality and welcome.

To see a room full of grown adults caring deeply about their commitment to God and caring deeply about showing hospitality to LGBTQIA+ people who are not welcomed everywhere, there was a moment for me that it all seemed so simple.

What’s so difficult about loving people as God created them to be?

What’s so difficult about embracing people who have gone to great lengths to understand themselves after they could tell they didn’t fit into the narrow definitions we have in our society of gender or sexuality or gender expression?

Why does life need to be made more difficult for people who have had to fight for their own dignity because they have come out as gay or bisexual or trans or nonbinary or queer?

What’s so difficult about celebrating what God has done in creating each one of us unique, called as precious children of God, made whole by God’s healing power, made holy by God’s grace?

What’s so wrong with wonder? What’s wrong with acknowledging the miracles who are walking all around us?

There are people who have answers for these questions, who insist that life must be defined within gender binaries, who say they’re concerned about children or corruption or whatever. There are people who tie this same rigid insistence to their faith in God, and there are people who create and pass laws to make life and freedom and medical care more difficult for LGBTQIA+ people. Because this reality exists, and because of my own faith in God, my own trust in God’s amazing creation, my own experiences of grace-filled liberation that I must speak up and say, no, you will not harm God’s beloved, all these with whom God is well-pleased.

It’s because so many Christian churches have been explicit and ugly in their rejection of queer populations that LGBTQIA+ people don’t even have the expectation that they’ll be welcomed in any Christian church.

I got to lead a breakout session with my clergy colleagues, and the title was “We’re already welcoming, so why do we need to say so?” Because we need to be as clear and specific about exactly who we are welcoming. It was a privilege for me to share with my colleagues the stories of love in this congregation, the welcoming statement that is printed on every bulletin, the people who seek this church out on purpose because of this welcome, whether they personally identify as LGBTQIA+ or not.

There’s so much fear around the unknown, so much fear around sexuality and gender—oh no, what if it’s awkward? But for people who identify as queer or transgender, there is real fear beyond awkwardness because what if it’s not safe to be who they are? Can people be welcomed and safe, in their bodies and in their psyches?

If we are going to honor our faith in God by honoring all that God has created, and if we are going to honor God’s creation by encouraging people to embrace the wholeness of their identity as God created them, then we will welcome LGBTQIA+ people and we will encourage and we will advocate. If we have experienced the grace of God, which is a gift given freely by God even though we didn’t earn it and we don’t deserve it, then we will understand how important this is.

This is sacred work. When Jesus needed to nurture his own completeness of self, he took three close friends with him—his allies—up a mountain, for some time away. Jesus was transfigured in their presence, and they could see something more true about him than they had ever witnessed before. It was so profound that the ancestors from the past—Moses and Elijah—were there to affirm it.

And a bright cloud covered them, and they could no longer rely on their vision to perceive; they had to pay attention differently, and it was scary at first. But then came the voice: this is my child, the Beloved, with whom I am pleased; listen! The allies were afraid but Jesus was not: he brought them fully into the present. And Jesus was allowed to determine the narrative: tell no one, because it wasn’t yet the right time for everyone to hear this news.

There’s a lot of information here about how to be a good ally, how to be supportive of someone embracing the fullness of their identity. Don’t be afraid to remain present, to marvel at God’s goodness. Don’t rush to manage or interpret the situation, and even if you don’t have the perfect words, as Peter spoke up on the mountain with Jesus and it wasn’t quite the right thing to say, don’t dwell on your own mistakes; apologize and move on because this isn’t about you. Be present with your friend. Don’t be afraid to sit with the truth for a little while. And don’t forget to savor the moment. Leave room for wonder.

It’s beautiful that Scripture includes this story about Jesus’s transfiguration, because this story resists easy explanation. We don’t have to explain everything. It is possible to sit with mystery, knowing we are surrounded by God’s love, as much as the cloud surrounded the disciples on that mountaintop. And this love doesn’t only exist on mountaintops, but we carry this love with us down the mountain, back into our daily lives.

May this love of God sustain us as we welcome, as we advocate, as we proclaim God’s healing.


Pastor Cheryl


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