I was sitting at lunch with my co-worker and friend this past Friday, and after we finished talking about all of the frustrations, projects, the excitement that we had around our jobs—you know, the typical co-worker social gathering talk—she asked me, “So, any plans this weekend?” And I casually responded that I was working overnight on Friday night and Saturday night on the cardiology service at the Brigham and then I was going to give a lay-person sermon in church on Sunday, and then hopefully end the weekend with a nice relaxing Sunday night dinner with my roommates. And all of a sudden this expression came over her face, and she kind of rocked back in her chair, and she said, “Wait a minute.” “Back that conversation up.” You are doing what on Sunday? You go to church?!?!?!?!
Unfortunately, this is not the first encounter on the topic of church and Christianity in my professional life—the responses have been varied—from oh, that’s cool, to “but I just do not understand” to “oh … ” and it kind of reminds me being back in the Mid-West, in Michigan, and coming out to people as Gay.
This got me thinking, “Why do I go to church?” Why am I always in sitting in the third pew from the front on the pulpit side every Sunday that I am able to make it? Why am I not at home and asleep right now after working 16 hours overnight? Why come to this place and listen to Anthony, John, and Nancy, and sometimes some of you, re-tell stories over and over again of the life of a Jewish man from Palestine?
And I believe the answer to that is all of you. It is because of the wonderful, warm, welcoming community that we have here, both inside and outside of these walls. For me, it is the experience of coming home, over and over again, every time I step through these doors; and when I am not here, every time I stream the service online.
It is that rush of excitement I have when I walk through those doors, and the inner peace I take with me to sustain me for the remainder of the week. And this inner peace, this sense of hope, and of joy—this reminder that I love God so much that I love nothing else too much, and that I fear God just enough that I fear nothing else at all—these words, these emotions, the hymns, our collective spirit, they all carry me through the entire week, and it is reflected in the way I interact with my co-workers, it flows through me as I take care of my patients, as I listen to them, touch them, comfort them, encourage them—as I rejoice with them or mourn with them. Going to church fills me spiritually, it re-charges my batteries, re-sets my mood, and armors me to go out and face the world, each and every week, because I know, that I always have this home to come back to.
This community that we have created; this community that we are all apart of; this community that we are all engaged in—a community full of love, of respect, of support for one another—I believe so much that the spirit of what our community is here—that is what it means to be a Christian, and quite frankly, when I look at all of you, and reflect on your stories, our relationships with one another, the support that we give to each other through the Cards Committee, home and hospital visits; and the support that we give to the world through opening our basement up to the homeless, and the beautiful Boston Strong scarves that you all knitted—these warm acts of kindness, the generosity of spirit—I believe that this is Christianity at its best, and I am so proud to call myself a member of this Christian community!
So when I bring up church and being a Christian to friends, colleagues and family members who do not share in our faith, I talk about you. I talk about us. And I talk about our community.
Going back to the beginning and the lunch with my friend this past Friday, aside from listing off all of the examples that I shared above about our wonderful community—I also said, “you know, after all that has happened with this election, and our current President, and the waves of anger and anxiety, discouragement and depression, and heavyheartedness and hopelessness that I feel with each and every breaking news story from the New York Times, Boston Globe or Washington Post—I think back to my church community, and I am reminded of why I am a Christian.
I am a Christian because 27 years ago, on a warm May day, at the international arrivals terminal in Jacksonville, Florida, a church community, very much like this one, welcomed with open arms and with open hearts, 3 refugee families fleeing political persecution from Vietnam. 27 years ago, my parents and I arrived to this country without knowing a single person, with one small suitcase of our clothes and possessions.
We were tired from the long journey that began with a tearful goodbye to our friends, our family, our homeland—to a refugee camp in Thailand where we awaited news that our American Sponsors were ready to receive us, to the Frankfurt airport were we processed by the International Organization for Migration, and finally to Jacksonville, Florida, where we were welcomed with open arms and signs at the airport, welcoming us to our new home.
I am a Christian because the congregation pooled money together and found us a house to live in as we got settled in this great country; because kids from the youth group donated their toys and clothes so that I could have something to wear and things to play with; because members of their retired and ready committee sat with my father in their cars and taught him how to drive; because they used their personal networks and connections to get my parents their first jobs in the United States.
The congregation in Jacksonville opened up their arms, and their hearts—they donated their time, their money, their expertise—and they welcomed my refugee family into their lives, into their community; they welcomed us home.
I am a Christian because 9 years ago, on a hot and humid Thursday evening in June, a young man who felt lost, alone and struggling with how to both love God and be Gay at the same time wandered into a Jazz Service on the sidewalks of Bolyston Street, and was welcomed with open arms and open hearts into a diverse and vibrant community—Old South Church welcomed me home.
My brothers and sisters—let us hold our arms open to immigrants, refugees and the homeless, the documented and un-documented, people who gay, straight, trans, lesbian, queer, rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Latino, saints, sinners—Let us make it known that there is always room at this table, there is always refugee in this community.
I leave you with one of my favorite passages from Ephesians, which I think is extremely relevant for this moment in time:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
My church community, let stand, let us be one, and let us cloak ourselves in the armor of God so that we can continue to open up our arms and our hearts to welcome God’s children home. Amen.