I was invited to address our Outreach Commission about a lack of printed materials that offered an explicit welcome to LGBT visitors to the parish and our straight allies. The genesis for me going to this meeting came about a couple months ago when I was setting up the PFLAG table at the annual Pride on the Plaza festival. As always, we provided space for St. Stephen Lutheran Church to put out their literature advertising themselves as a welcoming congregation. However, this time, I found that their flyer was making me angry. And I couldn't understand why. Then it hit me: I was frustrated that there was no similar flyer from my church, the church where PFLAG has been meeting for four years! I took my outrage to the head of our Outreach Commission, who promptly asked if I wanted to be on the agenda. And I agreed, and then recruited a gay friend to also come to the meeting.
I had gone to the discussion in the hopes that I might get the Commission to recommend to the vestry and clergy that we develop a pamphlet which could be handed out to show our welcome to all people, especially gay, lesbian, bi, and trans people. But after a short discussion, with some sharing around the pain that was once present at St. John's in the form of a homophobic rector, the Commission voted unanimously to recommend that there be an LGBT Outreach ministry. For such a thing to work will require support of the vestry... and the clergy. I have no doubts that such support is there; I do wonder how that can be achieved in this diocese which has absolutely refused to have any discussion about human sexuality at all. But I trust God, and God does move in mysterious ways.
All of this happened on Tuesday, which was the Feast Day of St. Barnabas. What is known of Barnabas, one of the apostles, is that he once had a field, and he sold it and gave all the money for the spread of The Way. He was also the one who intervened on Saul's behalf after the former persecutor of The Way had his amazing conversion experience. Barnabas encouraged the other apostles to accept that maybe, just maybe, Saul really was one of them and was ready to spread the Good News throughout the region. Barnabas means, "Son of Encouragement," but I think of him as the one who always argues for people to have a second chance, having defended Saul... and later defending Mark when St. Paul wasn't interested in having Mark along on the travels to churches.
With this historical witness in my mind and my heart, I found that as I shared with the Outreach Commission the work of PFLAG, how we have helped parents become more loving and less apprehensive about their gay kids, and how St. John's willingness to host our PFLAG chapter has done much to improve the church's image in the community, I was not afraid or nervous. I was acknowledging that St. John's has made strides in the direction of being inclusive within its walls; now, it needs to take that out more into the city. I have made this case several times before to various clergy and others at the church to no avail. But something inside me told me, this time, things are different.
My co-presenter for the evening shared his own experiences of not being sure if he could enter St. John's because there was nothing "out there" in any of the local gay publications that explicitly welcomed gay people to come and worship. And that opened the floor for the straight members of the Commission to air some of their own experiences, before "the split" of the congregation. Some said that after hearing one sermon laced with venomous speech, they couldn't think of raising their family in that parish. How many others might have had that same experience, and are staying away now? In the back of my mind I kept thinking, "Son of Encouragement, here is our second chance to make things right." The group meeting in the upstairs classroom that evening seemed to be on the same wavelength.
Second chances are part of the nature of Christ's work. In the Gospel lesson assigned for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, we have Luke's account of the dinner party at the Pharisee's house when an unexpected, and uninvited, guest shows up. It's a woman with an alabaster jar filled with expensive ointment. She washes Jesus feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair, and then anoints him with the oil. The Pharisee, and probably others as well, were put off by this "public display of affection" because... well, y'know... we all know what kind of woman she is, a horrible sinner as opposed to the upright and proper man such as this host of the party. Jesus, himself a Son of Encouragement and definitely a believer in second chances, takes a moment to tell the parable of the two people who are in debt to a creditor. One owes 500 denarii; the other owes only a tenth of that amount. But the creditor, upon hearing that neither of these two can repay him, decides to just cancel their debt. Jesus asks his Pharisee host, Simon, "So, who do you think is going to love the creditor more?" And Simon, correctly, answers the one who was in greater debt. And Jesus goes on to note that Simon didn't offer to wash Jesus' feet, anoint him with oil, or even offer him a kiss. But this woman, who is scorned, has given fully of herself and has not stopped kissing his feet. Therefore, she, who has many sins, has been forgiven because she has shown great love and "the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."
Interestingly, the next line in the passage is how everyone then started bickering around the table about "Where does he get off forgiving people of their sins?" We have no resolution to that moment, because the next lines are about Jesus going out throughout the town, preaching, teaching, and picking up more followers, particularly women. Those women, too, like Barnabas, gave of their resources to aid in Christ's ministry. And why would they not? Jesus had recognized the faith and love of a fellow sister in a patriarchal society.
And he did the unexpected: he gave this woman with her alabaster jar and tears a second chance through forgiveness. This was a huge gift to this woman to restore her to a rightful place through recognition of her love and faith. This is the same gift God grants to each person in the hopes that we, too, might also extend it to each other. That's the lesson Jesus was teaching in Simon the Pharisee's house. When those who questioned "by what authority" did Jesus have to forgive this woman's sins, they had already shown that they failed to understand what he was teaching. They were still focusing on the black and white letter of the law, as opposed to what is the intent of the law. And in getting that wrapped up in the technicalities, they couldn't see that the "authority" is God, and God acts, exists, and perpetuates good in the world through "God's people" when they love one another the way God has loved.
In today's world, it is up to each one of us who profess a belief in Christ to be that one who is willing to do the unexpected, and forgive people who have messed up and give them a second chance when they come with their tears and their metaphorical alabaster jars. "By what authority" is simply answered: God's authority, working through us. It is up to us to see the sincerity of the heart, and offer forgiveness.
In some ways, I believe, that is what happened with the Outreach Commission. Another piece of the sin that was left behind by those who preached hatred at St. John's was made right, by proxy, by those who have remained and want to reconcile any differences that still exist with the community's LGBT population. Their unanimous vote to recommend an LGBT outreach ministry is a good, and right, and joyful thing. And I believe God, and all the saints... especially Barnabas... rejoiced.