Happy Pride Sunday, everyone. June is Pride Month, a time when the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered and Two-Spirited community, along with those who support us, have a special focus on our long struggle against persecution and discrimination individually and as a community, to celebrate the progress made, and to recommit to helping others particularly those in more repressive countries when gay and lesbian people are still being oppressed and, in some cases, killed because of their sexual orientation.
Our choir prepared a short video this year for Pride to be part of a larger production from the Toronto United Church Pride Network. Our video is based around the hymn “Come in, come in and sit down, you are a part of the family. We are lost and we are found, and we are a part of the family.”
“We are a part of the family.” I want to talk about three types of family this morning – our biological family, our chosen family (a term that’s very important to many gay people who have been rejected by their biological family), and thirdly our spiritual family. In today’s Gospel, Jesus had some interesting observations about family that relate to each of these types of family – biological, chosen, and spiritual. I’ll get to those comments of Jesus in a moment.
Regarding our biological families, every gay person has a story about coming out to their families. And many of those stories do not end happily. What many people have not understood is that various sexual orientations and gender identities are part of the wonderful diversity of God’s creation. My sexual orientation as homosexual is as fundamental and intrinsic to my nature as heterosexuality is for straight people. But for centuries, homosexuality has been seen and treated in societies as a sickness, a crime, and a sin.
My coming out story to my family is one of the happier ones. My parents, particularly my mother, seemed to know that I was gay long before I told them when I was about twenty. They were supportive but they also admitted that they were worried that I would face discrimination in my life and they worried about whether I would find a loving partner.
Well, I did find a loving partner. And many of you knew Bill. Bill and I were together as a gay couple for thirty-three years until his sudden death in August 2009, two weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Bill was not so fortunate in coming out to his parents as I had been. They rejected him and he was estranged from them for much of his adult life. But later in life, his parents ran into financial difficulties, and Bill and I took them in to live with us in our home in Stratford. They lived with us for over a decade until their deaths.
There was one member of Bill’s family who was always supportive of him – his Aunt Mame. She used to babysit him as a child and the two of the remained very close all their lives. After Bill’s death in 2009, Aunt Mame and I became very close. We used to talk on the phone a lot and send emails back and forth. At one point, she wrote, ”I am very, very happy that we are still in each other’s lives. Love Aunt Mame.” She just died in April of this year and it’s a huge loss to me.
Now, I want to say a few words about chosen families. We use the term “chosen family” to refer to friends who become very important in our lives and with whom we develop loving ties that bind us for life. Some of you will recall that after Bill died, I had a memorial service for him at Saint Luke’s on Sunday afternoon September 13th, 2009. Many of you stayed after the morning worship to attend the memorial service. Many of you provided generous assistance with hosting the reception after the service. Hoon Kim, Gordon Winch, and Malcolm Finlay all participated in leadership. The church was packed. Over four hundred people. There were members of the Saint Luke’s congregation and a few members of Bill’s and my biological families but the vast majority were members of Bill’s and my chosen family, friends with whom we had become close over the years. For many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and two-spirited people whose families have either been hostile or grudgingly accepting, our chosen families become the most important people in our lives because they accept us fully. Many in our chosen families are also gay of course. This helps explain why a sense of community is so important among gay people. For many of us, our friends in the gay community are our family.
Now let me turn to the third type of family, our spiritual family. In the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus makes some very curious comments about family. It seems that he had a fluid definition of family. He was preaching to a crowd and his family came to see him. Quoting from the Gospel of Matthew:
A crowd was sitting around him; and they said, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers.” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 3: 32-35).
Jesus has an expansive definition of family. He says, that whoever does the will of God is my spiritual family.
Saint Luke’s is a fundamental part of my spiritual family. Bill and I had been living in the Beach area of Toronto and going to a United Church there. In 2005, we moved back downtown. On weekends, I was often traveling on business or tied up in meetings. So Bill started visiting United Churches in the area to find one for us to attend. Some had professional choirs or high-powered preachers but, for him, something was missing. Then one Sunday he came to Saint Luke’s. When he walked into the sanctuary before the service, a bunch of young boys were running around, probably Justin, Abraham, and Jepath, I suspect. One of them stopped when he saw Bill. “I haven’t seen you here before,” the young boy said. “Well, no, this is my first time,” Bill replied. “Oh, well, welcome,” the kid said and then tore off to continue playing with his friends. Before the service began, over a dozen people approached Bill and welcomed him. When I got home that evening from my meeting, the first thing Bill said to me when I walked through the door was, “I’ve found our spiritual home.” And so, we started attending Saint Luke’s and you welcomed of us warmly as a gay couple. The support from the Saint Luke’s family around the time of Bill’s death was very meaningful to me.
And then in 2014, as a congregation we went through the study process leading up to becoming an Affirming Congregation. It is out of that process that we have the Affirming Statement that we read at the beginning of every service. The photos in the choir’s Pride video are from the Covenanting Service at the culmination of that process.
In the Gospel, Jesus talks about those sitting around him as part of his spiritual family. Pointing to them, he says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Just as those people living around him then and there were part of his spiritual family so the Saint Luke’s family here and now is part of my spiritual family.
But there is second aspect of spiritual family that comes out for me in this morning’s scripture lessons. In the Epistle reading in 2nd Corinthians, we hear,
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day … For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (2nd Corinthians 4:16, 5:1)
I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately and what comes after death. Over the past fifteen years, I have accompanied during their last days, eight immediate family members – my parents, Bill’s parents, my two brothers, Bill, and Aunt Mame.
None of us knows what happens after death. In my faith journey, I have been struggling with this question, particularly given the number of family deaths I have been present for. The Scriptures, like these verses in Corinthians, point to some way that our “inner nature” is welcomed into God’s house after death. So do we reunite with our loved ones, whether members of our biological or chosen families, in a new spiritual family hosted by God?
Though I don’t know the answer, I do occasionally get glimpses. And one of those happened during our Saint Luke’s Zoom worship service on Sunday, January 17th of this year. That was the Sunday that Malcolm Finlay preached. He had just begun his sermon when my cell phone rang. I noticed that it was a call from Jaye, my sister-in-law in Phoenix. I stepped away from my computer and took the call because my brother Jim was in very poor health and nearing death. Jim had woken up enough to be able to speak so Jaye called me right away. Jim and I had a brief emotional conversation. It was a video call so I was able to see him. We said how much we loved each other. The call only lasted a few minutes. Jim was too weak to continue. After the call ended, I came back into my study and sat down again at the computer. The service was continuing. Malcolm was preaching. Seeing everyone on the screen, it seemed to me like you all were the visible incarnation of God’s presence for me at that moment. You were the incarnation of God’s arms wrapping around me holding me after I had just had those precious few moments with my dying brother. The following Sunday during the celebrations and concerns, I shared with you, my spiritual family, the story about that call and the news that my brother Jim had died on Saturday.
It felt like more than a coincidence for that video call with Jim, the last time we were able to see and speak to each other, to have happened during my Sunday worship with my spiritual family. It felt like a sign of God’s presence connecting life here and now and life after and beyond, a spiritual family that binds in some mysterious way the realms of this world and the next.
So, I feel blessed to have had a biological family almost all of whom have unfortunately died, to have a large chosen family who are very much alive, and to have a spiritual family that includes both you folks alive and well at Saint Luke’s and others whom I’ve loved in my life and whom I still love but who have passed into God’s arms.
I have felt welcomed in all three types of family and I try to contribute to the well-being of all three.
I invite you, similarly, to give thanks to God for your biological, your chosen, and your spiritual families. For God is the foundation of all the various types of families that we have with all their uniqueness and diversity.
As we say in The United Church’s New Creed,
“In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”