For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.
I was invited by a friend to join him and some of his family and other friends for Thanksgiving. At one point in the conversation as one of the friends was trying to coax our host’s sister into telling us stories about him from childhood, we began to discuss some basic differences between individuals, including the degree to which someone is more of a “planner” or more “impromptu” and able to fly by the seat of one’s pants. Some of us clearly self-identified as ones who like to have things very ordered, structured, and planned out in great detail – while others of us were much more laid back, able to go with the flow, and take things as they come.
Well, regardless of our preferred way of approaching life, all of us know that things don’t always go according to plan and that what we envision things will be like at some point in the future often needs to be periodically adjusted with the passage of time and in response to the reality of changed circumstances. This is a fact of life – true for individuals, for families, for companies, for societies, and even for communities of faith. Although there are some who would like their community of faith – the Church – to be timeless and never changing, even our earliest scriptures tell us that this was never the way it was.
In fact, within the very first half-century of Christianity, our ancestors in the faith needed to make two very significant adjustments precisely because things weren’t going as they thought they would. These two adjustments were rooted in their lived experience of life – in the reality that “Life Happens.” The first adjustment had to do with their understanding of when Jesus would come back – when his promised return to usher in fully the Reign of God, would take place. The second – because of the first – had to do with their understanding of the steps required for a non-Jew, a Gentile, to become a Christian. Originally it was believed that in order to become a follower of Jesus and member of the Christian community, a gentile must first convert to Judaism, as Christianity was seen by those outside and inside the Christian community as a “reform of Judaism” movement. Over time – this perspective changed. This perspective – which answered an utterly fundamental question – “what is Christianity?” – gave way to a new and evolved understanding, a different perspective that was informed not only by the passage of time, but by the lived experience of people unfamiliar with Judaism who heard the Gospel message. Our second reading today comes from what is probably the oldest scripture in the New Testament – Paul’s first letter to the community at Thessalonica. These were mostly gentiles who were not familiar with Judaism, yet who heard the preaching of Paul and were drawn to follow Jesus. They were not required to convert to Judaism as part of their path to Christian discipleship – they were not required to follow the 613 Laws of Moses in order to be faithful Christians. Rather – they were simply to follow what Paul instructed them to do – to “abound in love for one another and for all” – essentially to live lives that were loving and just.
This change in how a gentile could become a Christian was partly influenced by the realization that the Second Coming of Jesus – originally thought to be just around the corner – was probably not happening any time soon. And so the first followers of Jesus – whom we can imagine as having both eyes gazing heavenward as they awaited Jesus’ return – began to realize that perhaps they needed to have at least one eye focused not on the skies above, but on the earth below, on the world around them.
Today we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of a new liturgical year. And while many around us are focused on putting the holiday shopping season into high gear, our history and liturgical tradition draw our attention to this period of four weeks which is often spoken of in terms of anticipation, expectation and hope. Each of these is among the traditional words used to describe Advent. From the Latin meaning a coming, or coming towards – Advent is a season that invites us to reflect not only on the First Coming of Jesus in time some two thousand years ago, but also the second coming of Jesus at the end of time.
I suppose that’s one of the reasons why we have for our gospel reading a passage that seems at first a bit out of sequence. We have a reading that sounds like it belongs more at the end of the year rather than at the beginning. When we think of this time of year, we think about those scripture stories that prepare us for the birth of Jesus. This year – Year C in our liturgical cycle of readings – we will be reading largely form the Gospel of Luke. And beginning next week we will start to hear some of those beautiful Lucan stories that are referred to as the “Infancy Narrative.” But today on this the First Sunday of Advent, we hear a passage not from the beginning chapters of Luke, but one from the 21st chapter. Luke presents Jesus telling his followers about the end of the world, speaking in an unusually apocalyptic tone. But even as Luke presents Jesus as saying these things – things that seem to direct our eyes heavenward – Luke also reminds of what is most important. Today’s Gospel reading leaves out a small parable that occurs between the beginning lines and the ending lines of what we just listened to. In the so-called “parable of the fig tree,” Jesus states that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.”
Living that Word here and now is the challenge before every Christian. The Living Word is always found at the intersection between Faith and the present moment of the World in which we live. Bringing these together isn’t always easy. In some ways it seems particularly challenging this year, because at first glance, the present moment of the world in which we live doesn’t seem all that receptive to folks like you and me. In fact, in some ways one could say that the world and our Church are becoming less – not more – welcoming to the LGBT community.
- On the political front, voters in Maine joined voters from many states around the country when they rejected same-sex marriage for their gay and lesbian neighbors;
- The Vatican welcomes Anglicans who no longer feel at home in their own communion – not because the Anglican Communion has denied the divinity of Christ or abandoned the Nicene Creed, but because they do not like their church’s positions on women in ministry and same-sex unions;
- In Uganda – where homosexual activity is already criminalized – there is strong support, even from those who call themselves Christian, for legislation that would expand this criminalization and impose the death penalty in certain circumstances;
- And, closer to home, numerous Catholic bishops – including Washington, DC’s own Archbishop Donald Wuerl – have signed the so-called “Manhattan Declaration” which labels same-sex relationships as examples of “immoral conduct” and compares such loving unions to polygamy and incest.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so important that we take our Advent theme to heart this year. That theme – “Dignity: Tell Your Friends” – invites us to tell our friends, our families, our colleagues and neighbors who we are and what we have to say to the world. It invites them to come here as they are – to pray with us, to celebrate Eucharist with us, and to share in our faith which we experience as gift. As a community, we claim that we are a prophetic voice to the gay community and to the Church – a voice that says the arms of God are big enough to welcome all people – regardless of any category or label we might place on one another. As we begin this Advent Season, this New Year in our own life of faith, let us with faithful hearts be attentive to the present moment of the world in which we live. Let us re-commit ourselves to telling our stories with others – our stories as lesbian and gay Catholics.
If any of you read the National Catholic Reporter, you may have seen a commentary by Nicole Sotelo, writing about the recent pastoral letter approved by the bishops of the U.S. on Marriage, which promotes – I think – an incomplete and at times incongruous theology of the human person. She essentially writes about how our Catholic brothers and sisters – more so than Church leaders – are much more like our Christian ancestors who were able to grow and change and evolve with the passage of time, being able to discern the difference between the essentials of faith and those things that are conditioned by history and culture and circumstance. In conclusion, here’s what she says:
“When one stops gazing only at the 258 active Catholic bishops, but instead takes a good look at the approximately 65 million Catholics in the United States and their growing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, there emerges much hope for the future of our church and society.”
“Dignity: Tell a Friend.” With 65 Million Catholics in the US … that’s a lot of friends to tell!