Light for the Kingdom

Randall Tremba
June 17, 2012
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

Mark 4:26-34
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed.

* * *

In case you hadn’t heard or have forgotten, one year ago our little church here in this small town in West Virginia was in the national news. First, we were mentioned on NPR’s “Tell Me More” and then two days later our story was featured on the editorial page of the Sunday LA Times. One year ago I was getting mail and phone calls from people all across the country. A few were negative. But by far most were positive.

That story began here in January 2002. What we did here at that time was hardly remarkable in the larger scheme of things. But, as it turns out, it was what Jesus might call a mustard seed.

Jesus said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

One year ago the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) to which we belong made national headlines. One year ago the Presbyterian Church officially removed a ban from its constitution, a ban that had been in place implicitly or explicitly for nearly 40 years. It was a ban on ordaining openly gay and lesbian persons who were otherwise qualified to serve as ministers, deacons and elders. Unwittingly our congregation was on the vanguard of that constitutional change.

In November of 2001 this congregation elected a slate of six nominees for the offices of Elder and Deacon. Among them was Sally, a devout and active member whom the constitution of the PCUSA would seemingly deny ordination. To their everlasting credit, the ruling elders (the Session) of our congregation found contradictions in the constitution and a permissive interpretation. After much discussion and prayer, the Session ordained Sally to the office of deacon. Soon thereafter we were officially rebuked by a higher church council for “irregularities” and told never to do it again.

Well, lo and behold, in the wake of that simple and somewhat unremarkable act of love and justice, we experienced an outpouring of the spirit. And that’s why 18 months ago I wrote a letter to 100 of my minister colleagues in the Shenandoah Presbytery—most of who wanted the ban to remain in place.

Shenandoah Presbytery was about to cast its vote for or against removing the ban. For 20 some years every time this issue came up in one form or another in the higher church councils, we had argued and argued one reason against another, this Bible verse against that Bible verse until we were blue in the face. I didn’t want to participate in that kind of argument any more.

In my letter I offered no arguments. Instead, I told a story. I told what had happened in this, the only church in our presbytery—the only one of 110 churches—to knowingly ordain an open and partnered lesbian. In a word, my letter said: the roof of the church did not fall in. Instead the walls nearly burst with more people, youth and children glad to be part of such a church.

My letter did not persuade enough to gain a positive vote in our presbytery. However, much to my surprise, my letter went national.

That letter landed in the hands of the More Light Presbyterians (MLP), a national organization that has been working for 38 years to change the constitution and culture of the Presbyterian Church to make it welcoming to GLBT persons. MLP brought my letter to the attention of their national network and, lo and behold, a year ago April an editor at the LA Times saw it and asked permission to reprint it.

You never know what might happen when you plant a seed of love and hope. One year ago the MLP leadership thanked me and thereby thanked our congregation for aiding the official removal of that appalling ban.

More Light Presbyterians have designated June a More Light month. “After 38 years of praying, dreaming and working for this wonderful change in our Church it's time to celebrate and be a church that reflects God's heart.”

June is also Gay Pride Month in recognition of the historic moment when our LGBT sisters and brothers stood up, fought back and said they would no longer accept second-class status. That was 1969. (Sometimes the church has to run to catch up to the Spirit of Christ working in the world.)

June 27, 1969 was the watershed moment. That night New York City police raided a Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. Such raids were not unusual in 1969; in fact, they were conducted regularly without much resistance. However, that night the street erupted into protest as the crowd fought back.

A few years later, in 1972 Jeanne Manford was watching a news report when she saw her son tossed down an escalator during a gay rights protest. The police stood by and did nothing. Soon after Manford marched in the New York City Pride Parade with a sign "I Love My Gay Son." That sign inspired the creation of PFLAG (Parents, families and friends of lesbians and gays). To hold such a sign at the time was an act of courage. It was a mustard seed of faith, compassion and hope.

A few years later in 1974 at the Presbyterian Church's national assembly, the Rev. David Sindt held up a sign in the midst of hundreds of commissioners. The sign read: "Is There Anybody Else Out There Gay?" That act of courage inspired the creation of More Light Presbyterians. Soon after in 1978, West Park Presbyterian Church in New York City became the first welcoming and affirming congregation by declaring sanctuary, advocacy and witness as a More Light congregation.

One mustard seed of faith and hope here. Another there. Another there. And so it goes. From a small seed a sheltering and welcoming tree arises.

The Kingdom of God, said Jesus, is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

The struggle is not over. There are still many unsafe and unwelcoming places. Many churches still denounce and condemn children of God as sinners for just being who they are. The light of the kingdom has yet to vanish all darkness.

Our work is not over.

The kingdom of God is peace and love and freedom and justice. Wherever those are neglected or threatened, Jesus calls us to bear the light.

When the policies and practices of a nation deprive people of food, we stand up and speak out and do all we can to feed them. When policies and practices aggravate conflicts and lead to violence between peoples and nations, we stand up and speak out and do all we can to make peace. When the policies and practices of a church discriminate, we stand up and speak out and do all we can to bring justice. When our own personal practices hurt others in our household, workplace or neighborhood, we humbly repent and make amends.

Our work is not over.

If you want to bring peace to the world, said Mother Theresa, go home and love your family. To which many of us say, Oh, no, not that. Anything but that. Well, sorry. But that’s where it starts. As Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher born 600 years BCE put it:

If there is to be peace in the world.
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.