Pastor David Eisenhuth
I would like to use my column this month to talk about two things which have become the focus of discussion in our congregation, both relating to issues of human sexuality. The first is something I said at the very end of our Bible study, Lust in the Dust, a Biblical Perspective of Human Sexuality. The second is our participation in the Reconciling in Christ program.
I had a great time leading the Bible study. We looked at all aspects of human sexuality as it appears in both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament and its interpretation in theology and practical ethics. We discovered how in Genesis intimacy was meant as a perfect gift from God, intended to be used by humans as a true expression of love. We saw how sex was then distorted by sin. The Holiness Codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, written for the people of God on their sojourn from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, gave order to those people under very challenging circumstances. We tried to find in them meaning for us today. We looked at the Church’s view of sexuality and how, especially in the writings of St. Augustine, it became something dirty and left undiscussed in polite company. What I thought was going to be a four-week study turned into something like 12 sessions. The last thing we talked about was Jesus’ own sexuality.
In one of the last sessions we talked about the fact that the Church emphasizes that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. I offered that if this is the case, Jesus experienced the fullness of what it means to us to be human and that he had to have sexual feelings. I believe this is true, but as is the case with us and the choices we make with regards to our sexuality, what did Jesus do with those feelings? We don’t know. I offered that, given the silence of the Gospels on this subject, people have tried to read their own interpretation in Jesus’s sexuality. For example, the Early Church was so concerned about Jesus’ close relationship with Mary Magdalene that it turned her into a prostitute—something clearly not supported by the New Testament writing. How then could Jesus the divine have expressed intimacy with someone very far out of the social norms? The Early Church was also so concerned about the human bodily functions of our Lord that one writer said that the very first time Jesus had to urinate he crawled out of the crèche and went outside to the back of the stable. This sounds funny to us, but the combining of human and divine presents certain problems.
Some on the far side of the spectrum have read into Jesus’s lifestyle homosexuality. They propose that a rabbi would have had no credibility without being married, and that spending time with the disciples, camping out for three years, seems to proffer the possibility that they were sexually intimate. Who was the “disciple whom Jesus loved”? Was does this mean? How did Jesus love this man? Ah, those who highjack these things say that Jesus was gay.
It has come back to me that I said that Jesus was gay. No, I did not. I said that it was one interpretation placed on Jesus’s sexuality which, in the absence of anything definitive, could be true. But we don’t know, and it is not a particularly important issue for me to spend much time thinking about. I believe that in the end, according to God’s plan for the world, Jesus gave the fullest expression of love possible by offering himself on the cross for us. There is no greater intimacy than this! That’s what I would like to focus on. Anyone who teaches, preaches, or talks in public is often misheard by others, who then place things into the mouth of the speaker. I just wanted to set the record straight (no pun intended) about what I had said in our Bible study, Lust in the Dust.
The second thing is our participation in the program Reconciling in Christ. As you know, this is a program which, after study and discussion, makes an intentional effort to present the congregation as accepting of and welcoming to people whose sexual orientation is other than heterosexual. It used to be pretty straight forward that the “other” meant gay, bisexual, or lesbian, but recently it has been expanded to include transgender people, people whose sexuality is fluid, and those whose sexuality does not fit into the other boxes. The acronym which seems best suited to express this is LGBT+.
When I arrived last December, the study was already underway, with the logical conclusion of it being that Trinity would become a RIC congregation sometime during 2018. Pastors Bettye Wolinski and Torben Aarsand had discussed what this might mean to the congregation and how it would impact its ministry. Church Council gave its approval to assemble a working team. Shortly after I got here I joined the team. We have met eight or so times during the past year.
Every congregation says that it is “welcoming.” But what does that really mean? Most would be well served to say something like: XXXXX is a welcoming church if you look like us. Martin Luther King, Jr., described 11 a.m. on Sunday as the most segregated time of the entire week. Indeed, it’s natural for people to congregate with others with whom they are comfortable. Therefore, some congregations are white and others black. Some churches have lots of financially well- off members, others are known as being blue-collar. Etc., etc. But is that what Jesus wants? I don’t think so. I believe we are called to speak to all people, and to indeed welcome everyone. The pews in the local church should, at the very least, reflect the community in which that church is located. At its very best, a congregation that truly is welcoming should have a touch of everything and be the kind of place where people who look different, act different, love different, vote different, think different, all fit in and feel safe and secure. To be blunt, Trinity is a homogenous congregation of middle- class white people.
Now I’m not saying there is anything wrong with middle- class white people. I fit nicely into that category. However, I hear and believe that our members want to become more missionally oriented. That would involve speaking to people out there who don’t go to church. We don’t simply want to shuffle people around. That’s what most churches do. You get mad at something here at Trinity, and you leave for the church that meets at the movie theater. Someone from there gets tired of a literal interpretation of scripture and comes here. The true mark of a missional church is how many un- churched people it attracts and eventually integrates into the life of the congregation by Baptism.
Where do these people come from, you ask? Statistics tell us that 70 percent of people have no church affiliation. “None” is now the largest group, if that category was a de- nomination. Let’s say there are 75,000 people in the Hagerstown area. So that means there are around 50,000 out there in our mission field. Hard to believe, but it’s true. Rather than shuffle people around from church to church, I think we are primed and ready to look out to these people to share the Good News we know about Jesus.
That brings us back to what it means to be a welcoming church. The theory of RIC is that if the church can intention- ally declare that it is welcoming of a group it has not only ignored but actively persecuted and vilified—the LGBT+ community, not only will they come but so will others who are disposed of the values the church expresses. For example, the Roman Catholic Church excludes from communion and confession people who are divorced. What if they see that Trinity is welcoming of this other normally excluded com- munity? Maybe someone will think he or she is welcome at Trinity too! How about those who have been sent to Hell more often than they can count by fundamentalists? What a novel idea to find all-encompassing grace in a church that indeed welcomes people unlike themselves.
I am not sure I am totally convinced by this theory. In our marketing of ourselves I think I would be explicit but more inclusive. That is to say, I would target not only the LGBT+ community but also disenfranchised Roman Catholics, people whose experience in the church has been very negative because of judgment and guilt, and a host of others. Specific but inclusive.
I am writing this—and I thank you for reading this far— because the RIC program has become a distraction for us. I have found the team to be extremely transparent about its work. Yet I hear it frequently said that it is working in secret like some kind of dark web. The team has no power to make any decisions such as making us an RIC congregation. Yet it has been said directly to me that RIC is being pushed down peoples’ throats.
We are at a critical junction in the life of our beloved parish. We need to take immediate action to turn things around or we will die on the vine like a plant deprived of water. We have begun a new vision with our Joyful Noise youth pro- gram and Jazz Vespers. We are reinvigorating our prayer life. There is more to come. I’m trying to get people to open up the purse strings to spend money on marketing ourselves. This is a concept completely foreign to 99 percent of congregations. All of this takes energy, and I fear the RIC pro- gram is sapping some of our enthusiasm and focus. To this end, a decision has been made to back off from the RIC pro- gram for a couple of months so we can focus on the other things that are happening. I hope by February of next year we might restart and reconstitute the program, but for now we need to join together to acknowledge our 150 years of ministry at the same time looking forward to a future you might not have imagined a couple of months ago.
This, however, is not letting our members off the hook of taking a long and deep look at what it means to be a welcoming congregation. If our outreach to the community includes that phrase, then it had better be true, or else it’s false advertising! We need to discover why RIC has met with some resistance. We will be tested if people from the immediate neighborhood come to join us and we suddenly become a biracial congregation. We will be pushed to reshape our image from being the “rich church on the hill” (yes, I hear that too) to being a servant church offering an image of God’s love. Now that’s a challenge! God help us. And he will!
Our new program, Joyful Noise, is moving beyond the planning stage to actual life. In late September, a targeted mailing to more than 2,000 homes will invite third graders to join a new program focused on music here at Trinity. We are hoping for a start group of 20 to 25 young people. The group will meet each Wednesday at 6 p.m., starting with a snack. Music practice will be from 6:15 to 6:45. The evening will close with a Bible story or a look at something interesting like our altar or windows. It is anticipated that the group will sing once a month, after which each young person will receive a small stipend like a $10 gift card.
If we are successful, we will touch the lives of young people and their parents/guardians. An adult must remain here for the entire hour. I hope the adults can eventually be coaxed into a Bible study or discussion group focusing on current issues. We may want to eventually involve our Food Pantry and Clothing Bank in the program. The Literacy Council of Washington County is also interested in helping, as is the outreach arm of the Maryland Symphony. The possibilities here are endless. Surely some people will start coming to church. Maybe we can revitalize our Sunday School. How about a youth group?
The following year the first choir group will move up to be fourth graders, and we will look for a new group of third graders. The following year we would do the same, and then have a full complement of young people in our target group of grades three, four, and five.
Of course, this takes money. The Church Council will present a budget that shifts some of Pastor Greg’s time and recompense to support the program. Other funds will be found in our Paddack Youth Endowment. We will also need your help in staffing the evening event, with people to provide and serve snacks, help maintain order during practice, and teach both young people and the adults. At the very least, pray every day for the success of this new mission and ministry. That is really important.
On September 6, we had our first Jazz Vespers. A quartet from my days at Holy Comforter came over the mountains to lead worship. Rhonda Robinson, vocalist; Seth Kibel, sax; Todd Simon, pianist; and Bob Abbott, bass, did a wonderful job leading this traditional service of Evening Prayer with jazz accompaniment. Some thought it would be a success if 50 people came. Others put it at 75. I was at 100. Guess what? 127 people came out. A wine and cheese reception followed. It was a wonderful night. Feedback was exceptional.
The group from Baltimore will return on Thursday, October 4 for a repeat. Please plan to come. If you can help as an usher or as the lector, please speak up. We also need contributions of cheese and snacks.
We have a lot of homegrown talent both in the congregation and in the community. Carl Disque is working on assembling a group to play at a special Thanksgiving edition of Jazz Vespers to be held on Wednesday, November 21 – Thanksgiving Eve. This service has some elements of traditional Evening Vespers, but includes more secular music and readings. How about “Over the Hills and Through the Woods”? The service will be at 7:30 p.m., but will be pre- ceded at 7 p.m. with dessert and coffee. Plan to come! Bring your friends!