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Psalm 139:1, 13-16
1 Corinthians 12:7-11

I practiced the words for months: I’m gay.

I was fifteen and should having been spending my time practicing for my drivers test and attempting to do my math homework. Instead, I spent almost every night pacing the floor of my room, wondering whether it would be easier to kill myself than to live openly and authentically.

I was a teenager, lost and afraid, unwilling to believe that my identity was God-given and sacred.

Tears poured down my face after I finally blurted out the words to my parents. They were ashen-faced and questioned me intensely in hushed, deadly-serious tones. My father was incredulous in his disbelief and my mother firmly insisted that I was confused. Though it was never explicitly stated, I knew that I was not to mention my sexual orientation to anyone else. When the almost two hour-long interrogation was over, I fled on my bike to the church, threw myself on the sanctuary floor, and prayed to God through screams and tears to take my gayness away or smite me dead right then and there.

God, of course, did neither.

Though my home life was painful, going to school was even worse. On several occasions I can remember going into the bathroom to find my name written on the wall underneath the words “kill yourself”. Students blatantly harassed me in class with no consequence and occasionally the teachers would join in as well. I went from being a straight-A student to barely passing some of my classes and I seriously considered dropping out of school. I wholeheartedly believed that I deserved it all.

I stopped sleeping, stopped eating, and tried my hardest to stop living. But God refused to let me go.

I had all but lost my faith, but the church was my refuge, the one place in my life where I had a glimpse of what extravagant love and welcome looked like. Though I barely let myself believe in God or a future for myself, the love of an open and affirming church community sustained me just enough to stay alive through high school.

And then I came to Amherst, and suddenly my story became our story.

When I moved, my goal was to not get emotionally attached; to Amherst, to UMass, to a church. So far, my life experience had taught me that emotional attachment would only cause more pain and heartbreak. But from the moment I walked through these doors in 2014, I knew that this particular goal was impossible to achieve. I walked in the door and felt like I was coming home. I walked in the door and finally felt safe to live as my authentic self, to live as I had never lived before.

Six months later, I came out as transgender while sitting on my bed in a locked psych ward, finally allowing God back into my life by confessing my secret to the pastor that I had so far adamantly resisted opening up to. I have been living a lie for nineteen years.

At the end of her visit, we prayed. She stumbled over my newly requested pronouns, but it was raw and it was real, and when she left I wept because I had always been convinced that if I came out as trans I would lose everything. She proved my assumption wrong; no matter what, I would have the church. Oh my God, my God, I am going to be okay.

And I have been, for you have been with me every step of the way. You’ve celebrated the milestones of my transition with me and held me as I’ve sobbed with overwhelming fear and grief. You’ve helped put a roof over my head and become my family. Countless times, you have saved my life.

Mine is just one story of many- I know that you’d do the same for anyone who walked through these doors, desperately seeking a little extra love, because that’s who we are, and that’s what we do as a church who strives to live out our Open and Affirming covenant in mind, body, and spirit every single day.

We don’t just say the words “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here” we live it too.

That’s not to say that we don’t make mistakes; even those of us with the best intentions of welcome fall down occasionally. We are only human after all.

Sometimes we may worry that our efforts to be a safe place for immigrants and refugees may put us on the wrong side of the law. Perhaps we are unsure of how to continue in ministry to our homeless neighbors effectively. Maybe we question whether it’s okay to talk about transgender identities and issues in front of our children.

Sometimes we fall short of what our Open and Affirming covenant asks of us and that’s okay. ONA is a process, a living covenant, and the original document from 1987 is not the be-all-end-all product of our quest to be more welcoming to all people.

For 30 years we have tried our best to live into the fullness of our open and affirming values, but the journey is far from over. Every day we are called anew to draw our circle of welcome wider still and embrace the identities and gifts of all of God’s beloved children.

Friends, I don’t know what the future holds. Like many of you, I often find myself gripped with very real fears about the future of the world, our country, and my own life. The road ahead very well may require traveling rough terrain, but the way to living more fully into a truly open and affirming ministry is clear.

When the world screams ‘you are a mistake, you are wrong, you are not deserving’, the church must respond with: God knows you and loves you. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, just as God intended.
You are worthy. You are enough. You are loved.

Over and over and over again: You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.

Amen.