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Welcome > Gatekeeping

This sermon was preached at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church as part of a pulpit exchange for the 5th Sunday of Easter. The texts for the day were John 14:1-14 abd Acts 7:55-60. Photo by Peter Mason on Unsplash

Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, know that you are most welcome here to receive God’s goodness, mercy, and love. Amen.

This is the prayer that I offer before every sermon that I preach at my congregation, Abiding Peace Lutheran Church in Budd Lake.

It is a prayer because it is a hope that I cannot achieve on my own. However carefully I craft my words, and however faithfully I seek to witness to God’s goodness, mercy, and love, I cannot guarantee that those who are listening will be able to receive and believe that witness.

And that knowledge is the reason this is the prayer that I ALWAYS pray. Because I am painfully aware of how difficult it can be for many people to trust the assurance that God’s goodness, mercy, and love is for them.

There can be many reasons for that hesitancy, but one of the most common, in my experience, is the failure of the larger church to actually offer a good, merciful, loving witness.

Far too often, the witness heard by those both inside and outside the church has been the witness of judgement and exclusion.

And for no community is that more devastatingly true than for the queer community.

As you may be aware, Pastor Froehlke invited me to preach and lead a forum with your community today at the request of the Reconciling in Christ (or RIC) core team.

This is the team of lay leaders here at Prince of Peace who are exploring the possibility of your community participating in the RIC process, to become a congregation designated as intentionally welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ+ people and the work of racial justice.

He asked me to come, in part, because my congregation recently went through the RIC process (which you can hear more about if you stick around for the forum after worship). But I also have a more personal level of experience.

My oldest son, Quinn, is transgender and gay.

When he was born, we assumed he was a girl and raised him under that assumption until a little over 4 years ago when – at the age of eleven – he told us that was wrong. He wasn’t a girl, and trying to live like one was destroying his mental health.

Quinn is one of the lucky ones when it comes to being queer in the church.

Well before we had any idea that he was anything other than cis-gender and straight, he heard a message of inclusive welcome from his faith community.

His pastor was an openly gay woman, and he got to see her get married to her wonderful wife.

He worshipped week in and week out with queer couples, and gender-non-conforming people, and saw pride flags hanging on his church building.

He walked in the Garden State Equality march with members of his church and attended the Synod’s Faith, Hope, and Love event aimed at building welcome for queer youth.

When his self-understanding developed to the point of needing to share his true identity, Quinn knew that he would receive an unequivocal welcome from God, from his family, and from his faith community.

All this is a beautiful witness to what the church CAN be….

And even so, Quinn is the first to admit that it is difficult for him to claim the label of “Christian” in queer spaces, because of the level of trauma that label is associated with for so many other members of the community.

He gets incredulous looks. And questions of “why?”

But worse than all that is the fear of causing deep and genuine pain to a friend, because even the word Christian can bring with it stinging reminders of rejection and judgment:

Of being told that an indelible aspect of their identity is sinful and wrong;

Or that God can’t love them if they pursue a “queer lifestyle.”

It reminds them of people who were supposed to love them choosing adherence to a set of beliefs over trusted relationships.

It reminds them of devastating hurt, and it brings that damage into what is supposed to be a safe space.

I feel pretty confident that these kinds of associations with his church were NOT what Jesus was calling his disciples to foster when he delivered his farewell discourse to them.

The gospel reading that we heard today is part of that discourse: Jesus’ final teaching to his closest followers, the words that were meant to prepare them for his departure and for their responsibility to carry on his mission after he returned to the Father.

It’s a long teaching, spanning four of John’s twenty-one chapters, so it’s a lot to digest.

What we read today is only the early introduction, but even so it hints at how confusing it can be to try to interpret what Jesus is saying, considering that the people he was talking to were struggling to understand and asking clarifying questions.

As a result, Christians over the centuries have often tended to pick out just a single phrase or verse from such complex passages, confining their attention to something that offers an apparently simple and clear message.

If you were to look back at today’s gospel reading, I bet many of you could pick out the phrase that gets quoted on its own:

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Now, if we ignore the fact that Philip (one of Jesus’ closest companions who has been living with and listening to him for three years) immediately indicates that he needs some clarification on what this means… it sounds like a perfectly clear and unequivocal teaching.

Jesus is the only way to God.

It’s an understandable interpretation. Unfortunately, the result of this singular focus has been centuries of gatekeeping… of the church telling people that they can’t get to God because they are doing it wrong.

Christianity has a long and painful history of followers of Jesus believing that it is their job to exclude anyone who disagrees with anything in the “approved doctrine.”

To protect the faithfulness of the church by keeping all the wrong people out.

It is heartbreaking, and it is faith-destroying.

Of course, the Christian church is not unique in this dynamic

Our first reading today reminds us that the earliest followers of Jesus were themselves subjected to such gatekeeping, in sometimes deadly ways, by people who understood themselves to be acting a faithful followers of the One True God.

We read the account of the stoning of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. What we did not hear was the sermon which preceded his murder… a sermon in which he detailed the long history of God’s people getting things wrong.

Stephen, of course, witnesses to God’s faithfulness in continuing to correct and save the wayward people, but then he concludes with a challenge: comparing the people confronting him to those who rejected and killed God’s prophets, the prophets who consistently challenged the people for misapplying God’s law and failing to act in love.

Stephen’s challenge was clear: the would-be gatekeepers had a chance to break the cycle, but instead they “covered their ears,” preferring to kill a man known for being filled with God’s power and grace, rather than have their faith assumptions challenges.

I know that evoking the story of Stephen might seem like an extreme case for warning about the dangers of gatekeeping in the church, but I did not pick the readings for the day – this is what the lectionary gave me.

But, more than that, considering the story of Stephen gives us the chance to take his challenge seriously. To be open to self-evaluation about the kind of harm that God’s children can do when we get confused about what our role really is.

Because the gospel lesson we heard today begins and ends with important context for understanding the mission he is actually giving to his followers:

He begins by telling them not to be troubled.

He knows that losing his physical, human presence among them will be utterly disorienting, even once they understand the truth of the resurrection. They are bound to feel abandoned and ill-equipped.

And THAT anxiety is what he is addressing with his proclamation that he is the way, the truth, and the life. He is reassuring Thomas that he does not have to know where Jesus is going, because he knows Jesus. That’s enough!

And then, at the end of today’s reading, he declares that “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, in fact, will do greater works than these…”

It’s a continuation of his reassurance, but it’s also his commission to his followers… to keep on with the same work he did while he was with them, and to EXPAND it.

And the work Jesus did was not gatekeeping; it was the work of healing and welcome:

eating with those who had been ostracized by their community and told that their identity was sinful;

challenging the prejudices that divided people groups and blamed people for their illnesses;

confronting the religious leaders who claimed exclusive authority to interpret God’s will for the people as a will focused on law and obedience, rather than the fullness of life.

Our job, as those who would follow the way who is Jesus, is to continue this work:

the work of healing and outreach;

the work of welcome and inclusion;

the work of the gospel of God’s goodness, mercy, and love for all.

Thanks be to God.


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