On the mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee…
What does that word mean for you?
For many, it conjures up images of football games, marching bands, and pep rallies; alumni returning to campus, weathered by some years gone by; and perhaps even, a high school dance. For others, it brings back memories of a parent coming back from a work trip; poignant images of soldiers returning home from deployment come to mind. Or maybe you’re even a fan of the Amazon Prime TV show “Homecoming,” a psychological thriller about a “live-in transitional support center” run by the unconventional “Geist [literally—ghost] Wellness Group.” The title of the series is ironic, and plays on the ways that, for some of us, home was not a safe place—and remains a place haunted by the various “ghosts” of our past.
What does it mean for you?
About four years ago, when I was still a priest in Washington D.C., the meaning of that word changed for me forever. The date was October 26, 2018—the day when, just a few miles down Wisconsin Avenue from the parish I served, Matthew Shepard was laid to rest at the National Cathedral. Shepard’s interment came twenty years after he had been tied to a fence, tortured, and left for dead on a remote prairie—simply because he was gay. Shepard’s murder brought attention to hate crimes legislation at both the state and national level, and his name is on the “Hate Crimes Prevention Act” that President Obama signed into law in 2009.
Bishop Gene Robinson—the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church—centered his sermon during Shepard’s memorial on three themes. The first was “rest.” “Rest gently, Matt” Bishop Robinson said gazing toward his ashes. The second was a reassurance that Shepard was “safe” now. This was in part a reference to something Shepard had said about the Episcopal church in his hometown while he was still living—that he considered it a welcoming, safe, “place of acceptance for anyone who wanted to enter.”
Then, finally, glancing again at Shepard’s ashes and the cathedral walls beyond them, a teary Robinson concluded—as if pointing out the most natural idea in the world—“Oh yeah, and Matt—welcome home.” Shepard’s father, in his reflection during the service, echoed this same sentiment: “We’ve now got a home for Matthew…A home that is safe.”
Today, these words are inscribed on the plaque where Shepard is interred: “Matt, rest gently in this place. You are home safe now.”
Rest. Safe. Home.
Does church mean those things to you?
I imagine it does for many of us. And I also know that, for many others of us, the answer to that question has sometimes been: no. There are many among us, I suspect, who have been hurt by our religious communities—and church is a place haunted by ghosts from our past. Speaking personally, I grew up in a church that believed interracial marriage was a sin, and so sat in pews as an interracial child—not much older than my five year old son is now—hearing sermons about how the literal genesis of my self and my identity was evil. Others of you have received similar messaging, and been made out to be somehow subhuman or (at best) a second class citizen––whether for reasons of gender, or sexuality, or economic status.
For still others, the harm may not have come because of something as big or as general as an aspect of your biology or identity. Maybe it was more simply a harm done in and through a particular relationship. A priest who somehow failed to live up to their calling. A fellow parishioner who turned their back on and betrayed you. A community that judged you harshly for something you hadn’t done—or maybe even, for something you had. I know that pain as well. And I’m guessing many of you do too.
In view of this, let me offer two things as we “come home” to a new year together. The first is an apology. On behalf of the church: I’m sorry. If that’s your story, we have failed you. It should not be that way—not then, not now, not ever. You deserve better.
The second is a promise. As a church, we will strive to make this a place where you can find the better you deserve. Of course, I have to acknowledge in advance that we may not always succeed in that task. When we don’t, I hope you’ll tell us. And in those times, you have my promise we’ll do everything in our power to make it right.
Which is just to say, on this Homecoming Sunday, we promise to make the Church of the Incarnation a place where you can hear these three truths again, and again, and again.
You are safe. You home. You are loved.
May you come to rest here and in those truths.