I am the lead pastor of a local church in Sarasota and what I am about to tell you is one of the most incredible stories and lessons of my life!
On June 12th, at 2:02am the first shots were fired at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Hate pulled the trigger that night. As I watched the news begin to break, the first victim mentioned was a Booker high school classmate of mine, Eddie Sotomayor Jr. You may have learned about his life because he quickly became the face of the tragedy with his “Top Hat”, cavalier style and unforgettable smile. His pictures adorned every news network screen, Time magazine, People magazine and thousands of online news stories around the world.
Through a serious of crazy events, including meeting his boss, Al Ferguson from Legendary Journeys and co-worker Daniel Milks, I was asked to officiate and deliver the main message at his public funeral at Robarts Arena in Sarasota.
His family was not particularly religious and neither was Eddie. He was also a prominent member of the LGBT community here in Sarasota and all over the world because of his work in pioneering travel for the community that he was a part of. It seemed odd that I would end up being asked from a more traditional church background to officiate and deliver the main message. I soon realized that a door of hope was opening and all I had to do was stop asking questions and walk through it.
When Jesus asked Peter to step out of the boat in Matthew 14, He didn’t assure Peter of what would happened when he began to shift his weight to the water. He just asked him to be obedient. When God asked Abraham to leave his land, home, and family, He never even told him (at first) where he was going.
How much do you think we could actually accomplish for the Kingdom of God in Sarasota or in your city if we just learned to walk through open doors without asking or questioning God? Is it possible that God is always doing a new, fresh thing and is looking for wild, risky, adventurous faith?
These were the stories that were rattling around my brain as I jumped at the opportunity to help bring comfort to a grieving family and clarity to a mourning community. I knew God was getting ready to do something really amazing, even in the midst of tragedy. I knew God was going to take this horrific atrocity and bring healing and rebuild bridges. I just didn’t realize the part I would play.
I had so much to say and so much I wanted to communicate to the church, the gay community, and to our community as a whole. So I compiled my thoughts, with much thought and over a week of constant prayer. The one thing that I felt very strongly is that the Holy Spirit was asking me to do the one thing that I was the most nervous about. I wasn’t nervous because I didn’t want to say it. I wasn’t nervous because I was afraid of what people would say or think both inside and outside the church. I was nervous because I realized the immensity of the moment in front of me and I frankly didn’t want to screw it up.
I knew that i was supposed to………apologize! Apologize to a community that has felt so much hurt and rejection from the church. Apologize to a community that has been marginalized and picketed against with the most hateful speech and slurs. Apologize to a community that has not been met with the love that fills the face and lights the eyes of the Jesus that drew the line in the sand to protect the outcast woman or called Zaccheus down from his tree and dined with him that night or the Jesus that said I have come to seek and to save. The word “seek” means to actively and intentionally search. When you picture Jesus seeking in this light, you realize that we have not represented Jesus well to some communities in our culture.
Sooooo…I did it! I apologized and asked for forgiveness on behalf of the church and religious leaders. We finished the funeral and I was not prepared for what happened next. A door of hope was blown off the hinges and swung wide open. I spent the next 8 hours having conversations with hundreds of people (gay, straight, black, white, man, woman) who poured their hearts out about the hurt they have experienced and their desire to understand God’s heart for them. I walked through an unknown door with an opportunity that had no safety net and God rewarded my obedience with one of my favorite things. He allowed me to spend hours and hours talking to unchurched people about the love of Jesus. It was beautiful.
Maybe you are reading this and have not walked through the door in front of you because the details of what it looks like have not been made clear or it shattered your religious box or misconceptions of how God uses his children. I hope you realize that fear has held you back too long and now is the time to walk in obedience and enter the door into the unknown.
The apology I made that day quickly became the apology heard round the world (I think I am the only one that says that). It was quoted in over 6,000 news articles online in 24 hours and 18 hours later Pope Francis echoed these same remarks almost in quote.
Allow your box to be shattered today and embrace the idea that God is so clever and is looking for someone who will listen and act….especially when the road ahead is unpaved and uncharted.