By the Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
The prophetic tasks of the church are
to tell the truth
in a society that lives in illusion,
in a society that practices denial,
and express hope
in a society that lives in despair.
– Walter Brueggemann
(Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks,
Plymouth has been ONA for a generation. Young people have grown up in our church who have never known other than an ONA faith community. Every Sunday’s welcome announces that we are an “Open and Affirming church of the United Church of Christ.” Our ONA statement says that “ all persons are created by God and are equal in worth and dignity. We recognize, celebrate and give thanks for the many diverse gifts of God among us…. [We are] welcoming into full membership and participation in the Body of Christ persons of every race, language, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic origin, physical and mental ability, economic status and nationality.” Plymouth hired LGBT clergy and staff even before becoming ONA, putting our money where our mouth is. We regularly staff informational booths at Fort Collins Pride, are longtime hosts of PFLAG, celebrate gay and lesbian marriages, have a private all-gender and handicapped accessible restroom, and integrate queer people into the mainstream of church life. As occasion demands, we speak out for justice for sexual minorities. For the most part, we are quite comfortable proclaiming ourselves ONA – though occasional vandalism of the rainbow flag on our street sign reminds us that not everyone shares our openness. We fix the sign, unapologetic about the truth.
In spite of the deepening and very troubling backlash over the last three years against marriage equality and other advances by GLBTQ+ people, few social issues have seen so much change in so short a time. We know that there are still glaring loose ends concerning protection regarding employment and public accommodations, and backlash is to be expected (given the radial reshaping of the courts, including the SCOTUS, under the current administration, outright reversals are not unlikely). Yet there has been so much progress -- where in but my own lifetime we have gone from police raids on gay bars to politicians campaigning there, from AIDS decimating the community to long term treatments managing the disease and PREP helping prevent it altogether, from growing up in an information vacuum to young people being able to access queer communities with the click of a mouse or step into their high school GSA -- this is a time of hope and joy. When we ask, “We are ONA, so now what?” it means we act vigilantly and courageously against those tides that would undo the progress that has been made. It also means we grieve losses like the reversal of military policies that had accepted transgender troops.
ONA calls us to deepen our understanding around the growing edges. We are pretty knowledgeable about gay and lesbian persons and relationships, but less so about bisexual or transgender people. A recent survey of ONA churches said that only 40% “Can offer a confident and well-informed welcome to your transgender neighbors… [or] Have undertaken a study of the transgender experience.” Our own community has been spared the brunt of controversy around so-called “bathroom bills” and other legislation aimed at making transgender person’s lives difficult; Colorado just passed legislation allowing people to more easily modify their birth certificates and other legal documents to reflect reality. While there has been fierce and often ugly debate about transgender people’s lives – even their very existence – those debates have largely passed us by. Yet as an ONA community, we need to be able to respond intelligently when our sisters and brothers are pressured or attacked. We also realize that we have family members and fellow congregants for whom this is no mere academic speculation. For these reasons the upcoming Forum series will be delving deeper into gender identity issues than we have in a very long time. We will be basing our programs on the TransAction curricula published by the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, who shepherd the ONA program in our denomination. See also other resources here.
Among the things we hope to address is the fear of being wrong or offensive. The Forum Team has had a variety of discussions trying to figure out vocabulary which we find is fluid and changeable. How has the experience of people changed the ways they describe their gender identity, ranging from transsexual to transgendered to transgender to genderqueer to non-binary to other things altogether? There are trends but no consensus. People’s experiences vary widely. We also seek to understanding our own gender identity even if we are not transgender, not treating ourselves as the default since there are many ways to be man or woman or in between and our own experiences vary widely. So long as one is respectful, and grants someone the right not to answer a question, the only bad question is the unasked one. There is enough grace to cover our gaffes.
We embrace an ONA commitment not despite our Christian faith, but because of it. Concerning gender-variant people, we remember that the first non-Jew to accept the Christian faith was an Ethiopian eunuch, who heard the gospel and gladly believed. A person of deep faith commitment, they had traveled to Jerusalem on pilgrimage even though as a eunuch they would not be allowed into the temple. The Spirit led the apostle Phillip to share the good news of Jesus with him. When they came to water and they asked, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” the clear answer in the new Jesus movement was “Nothing!” Not their nationality, not their race, not their sexuality. The eunuch was baptized and went their way rejoicing (see Acts 8:26-40). This is a clear example of the word from the prophet Isaiah, pushing back against the Deuteronomic bars against eunuchs – and by extension, welcoming other genderqueer people:
Don’t let the immigrant who has joined with the Lord say,
“The Lord will exclude me from the people.”
And don’t let the eunuch say,
“I’m just a dry tree.”
The Lord says:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
choose what I desire,
and remain loyal to my covenant.
In my temple and courts, I will give them
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.
I will give to them an enduring name
that won’t be removed….
My house will be known as a house of prayer for all peoples,
says the Lord God,
who gathers Israel’s outcasts.
I will gather still others to those I have already gathered.
(Isaiah 56:3-5, 8 CEB)
Plymouth is and is becoming a “house of prayer for all people.” Thank you for making that possible!
The Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Mark recently celebrated his tenth anniversary as Plymouth’s Director of Christian Formation for Adults. He also serves as chair of the Platte Valley Associations’ Committee on Ministry.
How many times were you asked as a child, “What do you want for Christmas?” How many times have you asked this? On the surface this is a very material question, a question that can lead straight into the consumer side of this holy season. Yet underneath there is an existential longing....”What do you want?” We continue to ponder this question no matter our age? “What do you want?” Health and happiness for our families, peace on earth, justice for all...housing and food abundance for all...healing for the earth...and end to war....an end to the climate crisis.....
What do you want during this holy time, this last week of Advent that leads to the Sunday when we light the candle of Love? What do you want from your heart, from the soul house within your heart?
Joseph, the father of Jesus, just wanted propriety, no drama, no scandal, when he discovered that his betrothed, Mary, was with child. The implication in our gospel reading from Matthew 1 this coming Sunday is that Joseph probably did not buy into the “with child from the Holy Spirit”explanation... “...being a righteous man and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace,” he planned to break off the betrothal quietly. However, the dreams of God got in his way.
“...just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit ... you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." ... When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” .... (from Matthew 1:18-25)
What do you want during this holy time, this last week of Advent that leads to the Sunday when we light the candle of Love? Are you willing to listen to the dreams of your heart and soul? Will you listen to the dreams of God in scripture to discern what you want?
I leave you with a poem titled, “What We Want” by Linda Paston from her book, Carnival Evening. Ponder with the poet, “What do you want this Christmas?”
What we want
is never simple.
We move among the things
we thought we wanted...
But what we want appears
in dreams, wearing disguises....
We don't remember the dream,
but the dream remembers us.
With you on this final week of our Advent journey,
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Read more
Lately in our staff meetings and at last night’s Leadership Council I’ve heard a common refrain: Let’s do less at Plymouth…and do it better.
Does it seem to you that we sometime confuse being effective as a congregation with just being busy? Do we sometimes form Ministry Teams or launch events that may not align with our mission? We need to get better at saying, “No, thank you” to good things that just don’t fit in with our mission priorities and direction.
All of that sounds very hard-and-fast, but it also has deep resonances with Advent. We must be willing to say, “no” in order to keep ourselves focused on what is really important in this season. If you are a parent, it may seem supremely important to buy the right toy or technology for your child. There may be family traditions (making cinnamon bread at our house) that may sometimes seem like more of a burden than a joy. Decorating your Christmas tree and the inside of your home, not to mention illuminating the exterior, make take up more of your time than seems reasonable to you. Left unchecked, the shopping, cooking, traffic, dreaded holiday parties, and general busyness all can, ironically, keep us from our Advent task as Christians.
I’ve been preaching about newness and transformation the past two Sundays, and it occurs to me that these are part of my task (and perhaps yours) in this season. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes,
Imagine a whole company of believers rethinking their lives, redeploying their energy, reassessing their purposes. The path is to love God, not party, not ideology, not pet project, but God’s will for steadfast love that is not deterred by fear and anxiety. The path is to love neighbor, to love neighbor face-to-face, to love neighbor in community action, to love neighbor in systemic arrangements, in imaginative policies.
The decrees of Caesar Augustus continue to go out for taxes and for draft and for frantic attempts to keep the world under our control. But the truth is found in the vulnerable village of Bethlehem outside the capital city, the village that disregarded the imperial decree. It will take a village to exhibit this alternative, and we are citizens of that village. (from Celebrating Abundance)
What newness may be breaking into your life this Advent? What unexpected direction might God be luring your toward? What may be gestating within you that God may be calling you to deliver?
In anticipation of transformation,
Advent is a season of waiting, reflection, and renewal: the hope for new light to enter our lives. It is one of the briefest seasons of the liturgical year second only to Christmas, lasting just four weeks. It is easy to miss. The busyness of Christmas shopping, arranging of travel plans, preparing for house guests (planning and preparing church services!) often overshadows the present: this fleeting season of Advent.
The annual Longest Night service, this year on December 22 at 6:00 p.m., acknowledges the shorter and darkening days of December but welcomes the promised Light of Christmas. A beautiful Advent message. On December 15, we will experience services of lessons and Advent carols. Inspired by the Anglican Advent Carol Service instituted in 1934 at King's College, Cambridge, the words of the Old Testament prophets will be followed by seasonal carols telling of the coming Light in Christ's birth.
The choir anthem offering for the 11:00 a.m. "choral" service on December 15 beautifully speaks to the heart of Advent. "Lord, Before This Fleeting Season," a poem by Mary Ann Jindra, asks God for an enlightened appreciation of the season: "to walk slowly," to give our "heart a leaning to hear carols," to "do less," "go less," and, most importantly, to "simply, peacefully, celebrate You." A lovely meditation for this time of the year and one duly needed.
The composer Libby Larsen masterfully sets Jindra's text and succeeds in embodying the tidings of Advent. I leave you with the following prayerful synopsis of this work by the composer herself....have a Blessed Adventide.
There are moments in life, private moments, when we seem to see beyond the reality of our lives -- when we are flashes of clairvoyance. At these times we know joy, peace, wisdom, hope, with a surety that sustains our belief in God. So stunning they are, that we are simply unable to recreate even a pale shadow of that eternal touch. All we can do is believe in the knowledge that such moments exist for every human being.
Director of Music/Organist
Mark Heiskanen has been Plymouth's Director of Music since September 2017. Originally from Northeast Ohio, Mark has experience and great interest in a diverse range of musical styles including jazz, rock, musical theatre, and gospel. He is thrilled to serve a congregation and staff that values diversity and inclusion in all facets of life. Read his mostly-weekly Music Minute here.