Closing worship at the For Everyone Born convocation was powerful and moving. Praise songs about God’s radical inclusion resulted in hundreds of attendees holding hands and swaying together as we sang about having a place at the table. We watched in joy as three bishops celebrated the communion liturgy together, including Bishop Karen Oliveto — adopted as “our” bishop. My wife and I were blessed to receive the body of Christ from her. We returned to our seats and wept in each other’s arms at the gorgeous hope it presented. The high of being with so many people who felt free to be themselves while worshipping was pure magic.
In contrast, our first Sunday service after Convocation felt like a slap in the face.
Over the summer, our pastor preached about being a welcoming church in a general sense, while not specifically naming LGBTQI+ people. She’d been waiting for an upcoming Town Hall meeting before openly discussing this issue. The sermon that day centered on Luke 19:1-10, in which a wealthy tax collector named Zacchaeus climbs a tree so he can see Jesus. While Jesus dined at the tax collector’s house, Zacchaeus said:
“Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
Our pastor briefly mentioned that Zaccheus’ words were present tense and active. She said they could be his defense of ongoing righteousness rather than being a conversion statement, despite the common view of those who judged and disdained him. Good stuff, right?
Unfortunately, our pastor instead focused on the idea that Jesus ate with someone who was despised by the Jewish people based on their assumptions about his behavior. To help the congregation find a modern-day equivalent to the tax collector, she compared Zacchaeus to Paul Manafort, mentioning a few allegations of his financial abuse. She suggested that we should imagine Jesus dining at Manafort’s house. Or if we were Trump fans, we could think about Jesus at Hillary Clinton’s house instead.
There were laughs from the crowd on this. We didn’t laugh.
She concluded the sermon with the idea that since Jesus would hang out with this level of sinner, we should make sure our church’s doors are open to sinners too. While she didn’t say it out loud, we knew she meant sinners like LGBTQI+ people.
The sermon wrapped up, and my wife and I tried to shake off our dismay.
Communion was supposed to be the highlight of the service, just as it had been the crescendo at convocation. Two tables were positioned at the front of the sanctuary, along with twelve chairs. The tables were covered with colorful squares of paper on which phrases were written, such as “coward,” “judged,” “old,” “poor,” “sinner,” and “thief.” We were invited to come forward, sit, pick up our little plastic cup of juice and cube of bread, and contemplate the idea of welcoming the unwelcomable.
They are good people at our church. They are kind, generous, and helpful. They love God and each other. They are a mix of those who desire to include and affirm LGBTQI+ people and those who don’t — just as in the broader UMC.
The pastor seems to want inclusion. But in this case, she got it very wrong.
There were only twelve seats at those tables. Twelve places for today’s apostles; the good people in the congregation. As congregants came forward and then left again, they were supposed to make room for thieves, swindlers Paul Manafort, and even us queer folk.
Twelve chairs meant there was no seat for Jesus.
Those who planned the service didn’t mean for me to focus on the comparison to Paul Manafort. They didn’t mean to make me feel like they viewed my marriage as shameful, sinful, and contemptible. I’m quite sure they didn’t intentionally forget a place for Jesus.
But that’s what happened.
How different the service would have been if, instead of subtly comparing queer people and others excluded from the table to Paul Manafort, she expanded on the fact that those who put themselves in positions of judgment about righteousness are often wrong. If she’d kept the focus on those words of Zacchaeus, it would have made all the difference.
LGBTQI+ people don’t want to be merely tolerated in church, as if we are something unpleasant that must be endured for the sake of righteousness. When pastors communicate like this, it says to the flock that the unmarginalized are morally superior. It says they should simply hold their noses and find a way to put up with us.
We need you to name us, clergy. We need you to say that LGBTQI+ people should be welcomed with open arms and be fully included in the life of the church. It’s not time for cautious dancing around the topic. It’s not time for polite politics.
Here’s one verse of the song they played during communion at church while we sat at tables where tolerance was preached but there was no room for Jesus:
Come meet this motley crew of misfits, these liars and these thieves. There’s no one unwelcome here, no. So that sin and shame that you brought with you, you can leave it at the door and let mercy draw you near. Just come to the table. Come join the sinners, you have been redeemed. Take your place beside the Savior now. Sit down and be set free. Come to the table.
I don’t want to be at this table. I don’t want to sit with people who are looking at what they perceive as my sin, and I don’t want to wonder if they feel morally superior.
We are all sinners who constantly fall short of the glory God. LGBTQI+ people are sinners, too. But our identity is not the source of our sin.
Contrast that verse with this one from the song we sang, hand-in-hand, at Convocation’s closing worship service:
For everyone born, a place at the table, to live without fear, and simply to be, to work, to speak out, to witness and worship — for everyone born, the right to be free. And God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace. Yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice: justice and joy!
This is the table I am seeking. This is the table at which Christ is central and to which Jesus beckons us.
I don’t want to be at a table that compares my life to that of an alleged criminal like Paul Manafort. And I don’t think Jesus does either.
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