Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon for Open and Affirming Sunday
30 June 2019
Text: Luke 9:51-62
No Looking Back
Many of you know my story. But for those who are new I’ll do a quick refresher. I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My family and all our relatives belonged to a conservative Christian denomination called the Christian Reformed Church. I went to Christian schools and graduated from a Christian college. On the surface we were a model family. Dad had a good job. Mom stayed at home and raised us kids. We went to church twice on Sunday. We lived in a nice, new house in a nice new subdivision. Mom and dad led Marriage Encounter weekends during which they coached other couples on how to make their marriages more loving, healthy, and intimate. Years later, after my dad came out as gay and my parents divorced, one of my high school friends who knew my family well put it this way: “The Oscar for best performance in a marriage goes to Bill and Jayne Yonkman.” Open and Affirming Sunday is many things to many people, but for me it’s this: Be out. Be proud. The only Oscars any of us should get are for the work we do in Hollywood, not the lives we live at home or in the church.
Open and Affirming originated with a 1985 resolution to the United Church of Christ General Synod that the denomination encourage all of its member churches to welcome LGBTQ people into all areas of congregational life including lay leadership and ordination. Since then 1400 UCCs have become Open and Affirming. Other denominations have followed the UCC lead in welcoming gay people including the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Disciples of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, some Baptist denominations, some Pentecostal denominations, the United Church of Canada, and other denominations in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Same sex marriage has been legalized throughout much of Europe, in some Latin American countries, and here in the U.S. Much has changed since my dad was growing up gay and shamed in 1950s rural Michigan. Open and Affirming Sunday celebrates the progress we’ve made as Christians and human beings on this planet to embrace our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. It also recognizes how fragile this progress is and how far we have to go.
Open and Affirming is the UCC’s way of recognizing what the gay rights movement calls “pride.” The modern gay rights movement began at 1:20 am on June 28, 1969, when the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in NYC. This was a common occurrance at the time because New York, like most places in the U.S. at the time, had laws against almost any type of gay expression even in private. The affect, if not the point, of these laws was to shame LGBTQ people.
In order to be gay in 1969, you had to sneak. And what does sneaking do to the soul? What did the “Saint of Dry Creek” tell his son? “If you sneak, it means you think you’re doing the wrong thing, and if you run around your whole life thinking you’re doing the wrong thing, you’ll ruin your immortal soul.” In 1959 the Saint of Dry Creek told his son to be proud of himself and not to sneak. On June 28, 1969 the patrons of the Stonewall Inn resisted the police raid on their safe and sacred space, and out of that resistance, the modern gay rights movement was born. When an entire culture is set on shaming you, how do you resist? With pride. You resist shame by stopping sneaking and stepping into the light.
That was the power of the first “gay liberation march” organized a year after the Stonewall uprising in June of 1970. Several thousand LGBTQ people marched from the Stonewall Inn 51 blocks up 7th Avenue to Central Park in the middle of the day with signs and flags and chants–during the day. Even then, many felt like they had to wear masks in case their employers found out and they would be fired. In Central Park, they had a “gay-in.” It was basically a gay version of a “be-in, which was a hippie way to make a political statement by hanging out and be visible in this case as gay people. Every year since 1970 the NYC Pride parade and the LGBTQ rights movement has grown. Now Pride is worldwide. In many places around the world homosexuality remains a crime often punishable by death. Nevertheless, people once forced to live in the shadows are stepping out into the light risking their lives and livelihoods because they know that hiding, while it might preserve your privilege and in some cases be necessary to preserve your life, ultimately ruins the soul.
Open and Affirming in the UCC begins with the recognition of the negative effects that Christian teachings and behavior have had on LGBTQ people. We’ve been telling LGBTQ people to sneak when Jesus clearly invites all people to be true. You can’t do anything if you can’t be honest about who you are. To my LGBTQ brothers and sisters I want to say on behalf of the church that I’m sorry.
Unfortunately many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world continue to ruin souls by telling people–particularly LGBTQ people–that God wants you to sneak. So what do we say to those people?
In 2013 my wife and I had the opportunity to join Marriage Equality Rhode Island in bringing marriage equality to the state. As a part of that effort, I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The testimony lasted through the day, into the evening, and on into the early hours of the next morning. Many people spoke both for and against marriage equality. Amont those against it, I heard some of the many of the vile and hurtful slanders against gay people that I thought we as a society had left behind. But there they were, people shaming and dehumanizing other human beings in public in the name of Jesus. Needless to say, it was disturbing.
When my turn to speak came in the wee hours, I sat across from a state senator whom I knew personally, who was a Christian, and who himself said many of the hurtful things others had been saying. I shared my family’s story. I share my message to him with you as something you can say to Christians who do not share our Open and Affirming values. Here’s what I say: “I am a Christian. That means I follow Christ. Not Paul. Not Moses. I follow Jesus. And Jesus gave Christians one command: love everyone, period. You can’t both love someone and call them an abomination at the same time. If you are telling people that loving someone of the same sex is sinful, you are not loving them, you are shaming them, and in shaming them, you are not saving their soul, you are destroying it.” The result of that hearing and the work of many in the Marriage Equality Rhode Island coalition is that we won marriage equality for Rhode Island!
My family gave me the opportunity to experience the devastating effects of LGBTQ shaming up close and personal. I can say from my own experience that when you shame an LGBTQ person, when you demand that they sneak in order to survive, you commit spiritual malpractice not only against the individual but also against their families and everyone they love. The shame runs deep, and it takes a lifetime to heal. I’m still trying to heal from having a shame-filled dad who spent two-thirds of his life sneaking.
The good news is that healing is possible. And the irony is that I have found healing in the very Christianity whose institutions shamed my father and hurt my family. I had to leave the church of my childhood, but I’ve found welcome in the UCC, and for that I’m grateful. And a part of my ministry in the UCC is creating truly open and affirming spaces for LGBTQ people.
Jesus said, “No one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” I am grateful Jesus has called me to this work of creating open and affirming congregations. I have put my hand to the plow. I am not looking back. I have left the small, comfortable world of my childhood where we pretended LGBTQ people didn’t exist. I’ve stepped into God’s wide world of love. And I hope you will, too. There is no place for shame in God’s house. That’s why it’s so important that we stand together as a faith family–gay, straight, and in-between–and take pride. Let’s raise the rainbow flag and step into the light with pride. There’s no looking back.