This is another in a series of posts that take a lesson from the LDS Church’s (Adult) Gospel Doctrine class and present it from a gay perspective. Today’s lesson is based on Lesson #18 in the Gospel Doctrine Manual and focuses on the parable of the Prodigal Son, as contained in Chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke.
I remember, while in my senior year in high school, sitting in a Methodist Church listening to a sermon on the Prodigal Son. It sticks out in my memory even today because what I was hearing was totally new to me and caused me to see that parable in a very different light.
In his sermon, the pastor (whom I call Dr. Rutledge) made the elder brother the centerpiece of the story, whereas every sermon or lesson I had ever heard about the Prodigal Son had focused on the younger of the two sons. You know – how he had been so improvident and had wasted his inheritance, yet his father was willing to take him back, (but only) after he had gone through the “hell” of “repentance” – the natural consequences of his foolish actions.
Dr. Rutledge, however, focused on the brother who had stayed with his father, who had not asked for his inheritance, who had been diligent, obedient and hard-working – all sterling qualities. Yet, the brother becomes angry when his father forgives – forgives! – his profligate brother and welcomes him home like a prince. Why does the older brother become angry? Because he is resentful and believes that he is better than his brother and more deserving of his father’s love and honor.
By now, Dr. Rutledge had the congregation’s rapt attention. Where was this sermon going?
Then came the challenging question: “Are WE the elder brother in this story?” Do we – who are regular church goers, who serve on committees, who work with the youth, who clean the church, who go to Bible study, who are obedient to God’s word – think ourselves better than those who don’t come to church? Are we pious, pompous, narrow-minded and judgmental? Are we guilty of these sins, as well as the sin of pride? Are we jealous of God’s love?
Even though we are assured of “all that the Father hath,” are we yet jealous of the love of the Father? Do we who are “righteous” try to make ourselves out as the “guardians” of God’s love, dispensing it as largesse only to those of whom we approve and withholding it from those of whom we do not approve? If we had been out on that road on which the Prodigal was returning, would we have turned him away, deeming him not worthy of forgiveness and love?
I don’t know how the sermon affected other members of the congregation, but it had a profound affect on me, causing me to not only look at that parable in a different light, but at God’s love in a different light.
Now fast-forward a number of years. I would now like to write about another Methodist minister, this one named Jimmy Creech. I had never heard of this man until a few weeks ago. I was traveling in the East and read an article about him in a local paper. I was intrigued. Creech was formerly a Methodist minister, the article explained, but had been “defrocked” in the second of two trials conducted by the Methodist Church in the late 1990’s. He was put on trial the first time for conducting a covenant ceremony between two lesbians at the church in Omaha, Nebraska where he was then pastor, and his second trial resulted from him participating in a similar service involving a gay couple in North Carolina. The story of these two trials, as well as the events in Rev. Creech’s life leading up to them, is told in his newly published book, Adam's Gift.
Rev. Creech, who by the way is not gay, had started 15 years earlier on the path that led to his expulsion from the ministry. A member of his congregation had come out to him, and Creech was so concerned about this man that he began an intensive study of what the Bible did and did not have to say about homosexuality. He also researched the latest scientific findings concerning homosexuality and, as a result of his Biblical studies and other research, came to the conclusion that it was unjust and immoral for the church to maintain anti-LGBT policies and positions.
Creech became an outspoken advocate of gay and lesbian rights within his own United Methodist denomination as well as the Christian community generally. After he was defrocked, he joined Soulforce and served as Chairman of the Board of that organization for five years. He remains active in several organizations that campaign for LGBT equality.
In his book, Rev. Creech describes the covenant (commitment) ceremony he had performed for “Mary” and “Martha” and provides some background information on them. “Mary” had grown up in a devout Mormon home in Salt Lake City. She had discovered at an early age that she had a strong attraction to women. “Her religion,” wrote Creech, “taught that it was offensive to God for a woman to love a woman. She felt absolutely alone with her secret … She was angry with God for making her who she was. Still she wanted God’s love … She believed that if she tried really hard, she could overcome her attraction for women and God would love her again.” [Sounding familiar to anyone?]
Mary got married in the Salt Lake Temple, had a daughter and then descended into a hell of depression, abuse, self-hatred and – after she finally came out to her family – total and complete rejection by her family and church. “Being true to herself,” wrote Creech, “cost Mary her family, her church and, she was convinced, even God. It was necessary, she believed, to turn away from God in order to accept herself. The pain of leaving the Mormon Church made her want to have nothing to do with organized religion.”
Martha, too, had turned her back on the wrathful god portrayed by the religion of her youth, and she and Mary both eventually found the God of love in the small Metropolitan Community Church in Omaha.
In a sermon delivered in New York’s storied Riverside Church, Rev. Creech spoke of this couple and what it was like for them to find a God of love after being denied his love by the religions they had grown up in:
“[It was] like a homecoming … While they thought they left God, God never left them. God was the power within each of them that would not let them deny themselves, that nudged them to leave behind the dishonesty and embrace and honor their true selves as a sacred gift. This was God’s active gracious love. It did not come from their religious training, nor from the expectations of family and friends. It came from the deepest place within their souls that knew the truth. This is what we Methodists call, ‘prevenient grace,’ the grace of God, the love of God that comes to us even before we know it’s there, and claims, embraces and empowers us to be whole.”
Unfortunately, many gays and lesbians must leave their Father’s home in order to go out and find out and/or be true to who they are. Many times, they feel driven out, angry, like Mary, at a God that would make them the way they are, then reject them.
Sometimes, however, they find their way back and are confronted, mercifully, not by the older brother – the purported guardian of the Father’s love – but by the Father himself:
“But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”
They have come home – not, as Creech wrote, “to a home they had left behind, but a coming for the first time to a home they had been denied by the religious traditions in which they grew up.”
Rev. Creech concluded his sermon in Riverside Church with these stirring words:
“The Christian church must no longer demand that the Marys and Marthas of the world remain in the closet of fear, rejection, and self-hatred. No, the Christian church must join God in offering to all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people the assurance of what God has already done: blessed them and their loving with dignity and honor. When I prayed God’s blessing upon Mary and Martha, I was only voicing what God already had done. By God’s grace, they had been set free from fear and free to love.”
For I am convinced that neither death nor life,
neither angels nor demons,
neither the present nor the future,
nor any powers, neither height nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us
from the love of God
that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.