We Are Family
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost • June 24, 2018
Scripture Lesson: Luke 15:11-32 NRSV
Scott Sprunger, guest preacher
Happy Pride, Church of the Village.
I want to extend a hearty Church of the Village welcome to all who are gathered here on this sacred occasion. But I also want to take a moment to publicly acknowledge the sisters, brothers, and siblings here today who are lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, gay, trans, queer, questioning, gender-nonconforming, intersex, two-spirit, non-binary, asexual, polyamorous, agender, demisexual, androgynous, bigender - butch, femme, both and neither - closeted, out of the closet, genderfluid, and same gender loving. Can we give them a round of applause?
Know this always, but know it especially today: You are profoundly and fiercely loved by this community and by the very God who made you who you are.
I also want to extend my deep love to the straight and cisgender sisters and brothers who stand with us in solidarity and justice and love. Can I get another round of applause?
Keep up the good work, we cannot do this without you.
Finally, could we have a brief moment of silence for the queer and trans siblings who can’t celebrate Pride with us this year- all those who have lost their lives to violence or suicide or illness.
God, we pray for a day when everyone is free to be who they are, when everyone is treated with dignity and respect, when every closet door is shattered. God, make us the builders of a better world. Amen.
At a place like Church of the Village, Pride sunday feels kind of like a high holy day, up there with Christmas or Easter. Pride is a strange thing to celebrate and this is a strange moment in history to celebrate it. Often times when we talk about somebody being proud, we mean it as an insult. It’s like calling somebody ‘smug’ or ‘arrogant.’ Augustine believed that pride was the biggest sin of all.
But when we celebrate Pride as a community of queer and trans people, we are not being arrogant. We are standing up defiantly, in a world that constantly tells us we are less than, and instead we are saying: I am beautiful, I am worthy, I am exactly who God made me.
When we celebrate Pride, we are living into the dream of queer ancestors who struggled against injustice and paid a heavy price. Only a few blocks south of here, 49 years ago, the queer community, led by drag queens and trans women of color, resisted police brutality. So not only are we honoring their memory, but every time we celebrate Pride, we are carrying forward their legacy of courage and justice. We are continuing the work they started so that future generations of trans and queer people can live without fear. And isn’t that what pride really means? To live my life in the fullness of who I am, free of fear?
Here at Church of the Village, we’ve been exploring the parables of Jesus over the last several weeks, looking at what they tell us about God’s desire for our lives and for our world. And today we’re spending some time with the parable of the prodigal son.
This is a messy story, and perhaps because of that it’s one of the most timeless and relatable of Jesus’ parables. It’s about a family that is broken and restored. And if there’s anyone who knows about messy family situations, it’s queer and trans people.
So, in this story, a son goes to his father and tells him, “Dad, I want you to give me my share of the estate.” You have to understand, this is tantamount to a son saying, dad you might as well be dead to me. I don’t want to live here anymore. I don’t want to be part of the family. I want to leave and live by myself and do whatever I want.
And the father clearly loves his son so much. He must have been heartbroken when he heard those words. Can you imagine that kind of emotional pain? But this father knows that when you love someone, you can’t really force them to love you back. And so the father gives his child exactly what he asks for, half of his wealth goes to the son, because all he wants is his son to be happy.
And so the son leaves and travels to a distant land, and in a very short amount of time, he’s squandered all of that money. This guy was living the high life for a short while. But when a famine strikes, he’s back to square one and he has nothing again. In fact, he has less than nothing, because this time he doesn’t even have his family. So this guy gets the only job he can find, which is feeding some pigs. You have to understand, when Jesus said that part, the original listeners must have been scandalized. According to the levitical code, pigs are ritually unclean animals. This is one of the most shameful jobs a person can have.
Now this son finally understands. This whole time, all he wanted was wealth and independence. But when he took his inheritance, he squandered the true wealth, which is his own family.
Now I think there are some things about the prodigal son that queer and trans people can identify with. A lot of us know what it’s like to live in exile, separated from our families, our churches, or our communities. For some of us this is a spiritual and emotional exile. For others, it’s a literal one. 40 percent of youth who don’t have a home identify as LGBTQ. 40 percent. Largely because when they came out to their families, they were kicked out of the house.
I’m sure a lot of people here today know what it’s like to be exiled from a church community, to have their spiritual foundation ripped out from under them by transphobic and homophobic pastors. And every year, more queer and trans people move to New York to find a community that will accept them and love them for who they are because that’s something they don’t have back home. Indeed, I think that all queer and trans people know, in one way or another, what it’s like to live in exile.
But, and I want to make this very clear, in this parable, trans and queer people are not the prodigal son. Because the there is nothing wrong with being trans or queer. Let me say that again. There is nothing wrong with being lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, gay, trans, queer, questioning, gender-nonconforming, intersex, two-spirit, non-binary, asexual, polyamorous, agender, demisexual, androgynous, bigender, butch, femme, genderfluid, or same gender loving. And if you have ever needed to leave, or run away, or remove yourself from your family or your church because you knew your very soul was being insulted, then I don’t want you to ever think for a second that you have abandoned them. They're the ones who abandoned you first.
No, in this parable, trans and queer people aren’t the prodigal son. We are the father. And it is our homophobic and transphobic society, family, or churches who are the prodigal children. And by excluding us, they don’t realize it yet, but they are the ones who have squandered their wealth.
I grew up going to church every Sunday. And I loved it. Church was the place where I found unconditional love and acceptance. It was in the church that I first learned to use my voice. From a very young age, I had mentors in the church who urged me to go to seminary and become a pastor. I was very opposed to that idea. And you can see how that worked out for me.
But when I was in high school I started to become aware that I was gay. And when I started telling people, things changed immediately at church. Mind you, this wasn’t even an outright homophobic church. And some members were even supportive of LGBTQ people. But when I came out of the closet, some people stopped looking me in the eye. Others stopped talking to me altogether. Now almost nobody was encouraging me to go to seminary and become a pastor.
Technically speaking, nobody ever kicked me out of the church. They were all much too polite to do that. But they made it clear that my presence wasn’t welcome at church. At best, my membership in the community was a topic for debate- an open question, not a given fact.
Eventually my soul was worn down. It became harder and harder for me to go to church. The love and affirmation I had felt as a kid, I now realized was never unconditional. It was love and affirmation that was reserved only for straight people. But when I decided I couldn’t go back to that church, I felt that I had failed them somehow. And it took me years to realize that it was really they who had failed me. I’m sure many of you have even worse stories of being abandoned by the church. But like the prodigal son, it is the church who has abandoned queer and trans people and not the other way around.
I was talking to worship chair Katie Reimer about this parable and she said something very profound. She told me that when churches exclude trans and queer people, they have diminished their own ability to see and know God. Let me repeat that: when churches exclude trans and queer people, they have diminished their own ability to see and know God. Queer and trans people were made by God in the image of God. And if some Christians can’t see God in the lives of queer and trans people, then they are that much worse off for it. First John, Chapter 4 says, “how can you love God, whom you have not seen, if you hate your neighbor who you have seen?”
When I heard that a light bulb went off above my head. When the church excludes me and people like me, the biggest loser is the church. Because we may have lost a community- and believe me, that is painful- but the church has severed their own connection with God.
The biggest sin of the prodigal son wasn’t that he disrespected his elder, or that he disobeyed his father, or that he partied too hard, or even that he got greedy and asked for too much money. The sin of the prodigal son is that he forgot that we as human beings are fundamentally connected to one another. That we belong to one another. That we belong with one another. That all people are members of a common human family and that not a single one of us can survive on our own.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it most prophetically when he was writing in a prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama. He wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The prodigal son thought that he could make it on his own. That if he only had enough money, then he wouldn’t need another person. And there are many people today who believe that same thing. But when he lost all his money and finally hit rock bottom, the prodigal son realized that the only wealth any of us truly has is our connection with others. You can have all the money in the world and live in a mega-mansion and drive 15 cars. But if you don’t have human connection. If you don’t have the kind of relationships and community that make life worth living, then I promise you will be miserable til the day you die.
So, the prodigal son decides to return to his father. He knows at this point that he doesn’t even deserve to be a son anymore. But as he’s walking down the road and he sees his house in the distance, his father sees him first. And this dad takes off sprinting. And he’s not in great shape so he’s getting out of breath but that doesn’t stop him, he keeps running until he finally reaches his son. And the father embraces him.
So the son says to the father, “Dad, I know what I did was wrong. I lost all your money. I know I’m not even fit to be your son. But please, just let me live in your house and be your servant instead.”
But this father looks his child in the eyes and says, “Son, I love you. We are family.” Not only that but then the father gets out the best robes and puts them on his son and throws the most extravagant party any of them had ever seen.
All of this is total nonsense. Why on earth would this guy throw a party for the son who disrespected him so profoundly? Why would this father run to embrace him when he lost half of the father’s wealth. It’s because this father understands that our connection to one another is worth so much more any amount of money. He knows that human beings are fundamentally bound together as members of the same family. And if any one of us is excluded or hurt, then all of us suffer.
This is something that trans and queer people know well. Because many of us have families that were given and families that we chose. And if you’re like me, you’re very fortunate to have a family who loves and supports you regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. But if you’re not, then you know that finding a chosen family can be a matter of life and death.
A lot of us take love for granted until it’s withheld from us. To be queer or trans in this country, to be Black or Brown, to be a woman, to be poor, to be undocumented, is to know what it’s like to have love withheld. We may be a single human family but those who have the most power are the least likely to realize it. And when that happens, you and I have the power to build human connection with one another. To treat one another with tenderness and mutuality. To create a family.
Family isn’t defined by blood. Family is defined by love. And if I’ve learned anything from Jesus on the cross, it’s that love is more powerful than blood.
I did go to seminary. And I’m going to be a pastor. And even though there are people in the church who refuse to see me as a human being. I will spend the rest of my life running toward them and embracing them and reminding them that we are family. And when they’re willing to return home, I’m going to the throw the most biggest party for them. In fact, if I could boil my life’s mission down to a single sentence it would probably this – I am going to sprint full speed into places where I am not wanted so that I can remind people that we are family.
Now, and this is very important, if you are like older brother, and you need to wait a little while before you can join the party, that’s okay. If you have been abandoned by people who should have loved you, if you have been harmed by individuals or communities, it’s okay if you’re not ready to forgive quite yet. You’re not going to do yourself any favors if you force yourself to forgive before you’re ready. Take some time to heal your own soul first. But please, please, please don’t ever let bitterness prevent you from seeing that we are all a family. We need one another. Badly. And as soon as we draw a border to keep some group out, then God is standing on the other side of that border.
This, I think is God’s gift to the world through the lives of trans and queer people. To remind everyone that we are fundamentally connected. After all, what is queerness if it’s not about love and connection and community? And who are we if we’re not family?
Copyright © 2018 by Scott Sprunger
All rights reserved.