We Want Our Children to Know
A Sermon for The Plymouth Church of Framingham, UCC
March 31, 2019
Sermon Video available on Vimeo.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
God, creator of all people, whose image we all beautifully reflect,
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together,
Make visible the beauty and dignity of all our siblings, especially today, our transgender siblings.
On the walls of the traditional church sanctuary of Middle Collegiate Church in New York City I saw the most extraordinary set of contemporary paintings. They are part of the Queer Icons collection by visual artist Gabriel Garcia Roman – beautiful, glorious paintings of queer folks of color. The artist describes the folks portrayed as multi-dimensional, powerful and proud – and includes their own narrative in gold calligraphy on the icons. Many of the folks portrayed identify and transgender or gender non-binary. The icons have been displayed in museums around the country – and in Middle Church’s sanctuary.
Think of what it means for the children of a congregation to walk into the center of their church home, and see in their sacred space paintings that make visible the beauty, strength, and courage of a spectrum of folks whose dignity is underrepresented in our culture. The child who wonders about their own gender expression and the child who asks, will I be welcome and supported no matter what my gender expression is – knows they are welcome, beloved and supported because that promise has been made visible to them.
Today is Transgender Day of Visibility. As an Open and Affirming Congregation your deacons and settled pastors chose months ago to mark this occasion in worship. And I am so glad you did. Selfishly I am glad because it meant I got to sit with a crew of seven of you to talk about how in the world we might celebrate this day and how we might connect the scripture this morning with this theme. And I want to tell you, the Spirit showed up, in the copy room downstairs.
As you heard from Joyce, we talked about where the usual interpretation of this scripture does not match up with the message of transgender visibility – we are not going to talk about sinful folks repenting and being forgiven, because it is not sinful to be transgender. (Say amen.) The full gender identity spectrum is part of God’s diverse and amazing creation. (Say amen.)
But we kept going and this part spoke to us:
The father watched the horizon for the son because he wanted the younger son to know he was loved and welcomed home. He ran out to meet his son.
Then we knew what today’s theme would be.
We want every child in this congregation to know they are loved and welcomed.
We want our children to know.
We want to make it plain. We want to make it visible. We want to continue to make it public. Because even for an Open and Affirming church it is worth making plain. Because even in 2019 it does not go without saying. It is not clear unless we make it clear. It is not current unless we have repeated it recently. On this Transgender Day of Visibility, we proclaim: we will run out to meet you, we will throw a party for you. Our transgender children and our cisgender children and our children who haven’t discerned yet, we want you to know, you are loved, you are seen, and there will always be a seat for you, for every one of you, at our banquet table.
Friends, let me tell you something I have come to understand about this congregation’s story.
There have been multiple children who have grown up at Plymouth Church being affirmed and welcomed always – who have been able to claim a new name and write a new nametag and tell this community their gender identity. There have been transgender children who have grown up knowing this community loves them.
That means, there have also been children here, whose friends have struggled over gender identity and not known who would support them. Our children have been able to be good friends.
That means, there have been parents and grandparents here, who have found support in their work to love their children through the transition of their gender identity.
That means, there have been pastors and Sunday School teachers, and choir members, and lay leaders, and youth group mentors, and greeters who have found support in our offerings of love, even when we stumble, even when we’re confused, even when we use the wrong words.
Thank God. Thank God for the ways this community has supported our kin. Thank God for the party that this community throws, to which everyone gets an invitation.
This parable is as much about the father as it is about the son.
It’s about a father who cannot stand that his family is separated, that his beloved child has gone away. It’s about a father who starts to wonder if he could have said something, could have done something, to make it right. It’s about the father who watches the horizon, hoping and praying the son will make his way home, so the father can do something to make things better, to restore their relationship.
Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar of Jesus’ parables, suggests we might rename this text, “The father who lost his sons.” (Short Stories by Jesus, page 34) Of course, she writes, of course the father would run out to meet the son. We would, too: “we search, desperately, [if] our family is not whole.” (Short Stories by Jesus, page 69)
If the father in this story is God, it tells us that God will always coming running to meet us. That God will search high and low for us. That God will throw a party where all of us are invited. God yearns for wholeness.
But if the father is the church, there’s a bit of a different message. We are responsible for the sheep, the coins, and all our children. If they get lost, we bear some of the responsibility. If they feel unable to come home, we are part of that. This is our deep work, as the church, to make clear the welcome, the love, the grace, the support – throughout our children’s lives.
Erin Wiebe’s family figured this out this deep work. It took them a while but they figured it out. Her story and her parents’ story is in a Mennonite booklet on transgender concerns. ( Trans101: A Brief Guide by the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests. Downloaded at http://media.wix.com/ugd/fa8ffe_98093c908043433282e3b58ad5eee6b8.pdf )
“Erin says she wore a metaphorical mask, hiding her true identity and projecting a false self that was more socially acceptable in her community, for the better part of her life. In fact, she didn’t tell anyone about her struggle until she was nearly 40. “I made the decision to forever lock that part of me away because there was nothing I could do about it,” she says. “I was ashamed.”….
When she was 38, she came out to her parents. And the lovely ending to this story is their response. Not perfect, but filled with love: Erin’s parents, Art and Alma, who are members of Bethel Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, say they didn’t have any idea that she was suffering from a gender-identity crisis. It was a complete shock when she came out to them when she was 38. “I had no idea how they were going to respond,” Erin says. “My mom said, ‘You mean you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body? . . . What can we do to support you?’” Her mom says, “I often think of Erin as a butterfly… Erin is a beautiful butterfly, testing her wings in what sometimes seems to be an unforgiving world.”Throughout the process, Art and Alma attended Bethel Mennonite Church and participated in its Pilgrim Group, a support group for lesbian/gay/bisexual/ transgender/queer (LGBTQ) people and their families and friends. In turn, they found the strength to support their daughter through her transition process of taking off a proverbial mask.”
I share this story as an example of courage – Erin’s courage to become her true self – and grace – her parents’ ability to change, to try so hard to understand Erin and love her. Truly, these parents have run out toward their daughter to publicly and joyfully welcome her home.
Imagine the parties at Erin’s house, these days.
Erin’s story is also a good reminder that our welcome is important not only for the children among us, and not only for those we know well – but also for the grownups and the new folks. Taj Smith told Sojourners Magazine how a church welcomed him as a young adult. Some of you know Taj as the Faith Director of Yes on 3, last fall’s campaign for transgender rights in Massachusetts. Taj is also a friend and former student of mine at HDS, and this story of his shows what it means when a church community gets it:
“The first Sunday I went back to my church after I came out as trans, I just remember standing in front of the name tags and staring at mine and thinking, ‘I can’t put that on,’” Smith explained. The name on the tag no longer reflected who he really was.
“One of the greeters came up to me, and she says, ‘You need help finding your name tag?’ And she laughed, and I laughed, and I said, ‘No, I think I need a new one. I need a new one, like, forever.’ And she went, ‘Okay!’ And she got me a new tag, and she said, ‘Why don’t you write your name on this one and we’ll have a new permanent one for you next week!’ And she handed me an order of service and I went inside and thought, ‘That was the easiest thing ever!’ That church became a safe haven for me.” ( https://sojo.net/magazine/june-2017/just-i-am – article by Austen Hartke, sharing Taj Smith’s story )
Thanks be to God for parents who might not get it right every time, but are moving toward love and understanding. Thanks be to God for churches, like ours, who might not be perfect but are faithfully and joyfully preparing a banquet, who are faithfully and joyfully running out to meet our transgender siblings. Thanks be to God for every one of God’s beautiful, beloved children, who reflect God’s own image. Amen.