July 19, 2020
On July 19, Mitch Overton gave the senior sermon for our virtual Youth Sunday service. He spoke about his at-times painful journey of reconciling his faith in God with the truth he knew about his fathers, enduring faith, the power of truth, and the lessons learned in serving others. Below is a video of his sermon and the full text below that.
Watch Mitch's Full Sermon Below
Faith, Truth and Service
When I sat down to start writing this sermon, I struggled with what to talk about. I have so many impactful moments I wanted to share, and so many fun memories I wanted to reminisce on.
However, I decided that, before I left for college, I needed to tell you the three most life-changing things that this church has taught me: have faith, seek the truth, and serve others.
Growing up with gay dads, I learned early on that my family wasn’t like everyone else’s. I was told by friends at school, other kids at church, and even some of my cousins that being gay was a sin and that my parents were going to hell.
They told me that two men couldn’t raise a child and that I was surely gonna turn out badly. As a child, I obviously hated hearing this, because I knew my parents better than any of those people, and I knew how much love they had for me and for each other, and I wondered why they or God could possibly be opposed to something as good and pure as love?
When I talked with my parents about it, they would reassure me that God really did love us and that those other people were wrong, and that satisfied me for a while. However, eventually, during a particularly heated exchange with a friend at school, my friend started naming Bible verses about homosexuality. Later that night, I asked my parents about it, and they told me all stuff the Bible says, I remember the word ‘abomination’ got thrown around a lot, and they tried explaining about historical context and the culture of the time when the Bible was written, and even though I felt a little better, I still cried a lot that night.
It felt like everything I had been taught was a lie. After all, the Bible was the Word of God, and it really seemed, based on the actual text and on what so many other people told me, that God really didn’t love gay people, and my parents’ explanations didn’t really satisfy me.
And since I was a little kid, the next morning I woke up and life went on without really a thought, but the seed of doubt was planted. Over the next few years, my doubt and skepticism of Christianity grew, and going to church became more of a hassle and habit and less of a fun or calming event.
Eventually, years later, the seed of doubt had grown large in my heart, and I was a bit resentful that my parents insisted on us worshipping a God that I didn’t think wanted us.
I remember Mark Thielman was my Sunday school teacher, and somehow we got onto the topic of homosexuality in the Bible. Now, Mark tried giving me the same explanations and rationalizations that my parents had given me, but I remained unconvinced, and after the class, I didn’t really think anything of it.
The next week, Sunday School rolls around, and Mark has printed out packets full of information, earmarked eight places in the Bible, and prepared a VERY LONG PowerPoint presentation. That day, we went through every single verse that dealt with homosexuality, and Mark had prepared detailed notes about the historical context and author of each verse, the larger biblical context, and lots of specific verses from the Bible to cite, and, basically, my faith was reborn in an hour-long Sunday School class.
Looking back on it, I see that what Mark did for me was he allowed me to reconcile my faith in God with the truth I knew about my parents.
Friedrich Nietzsche, who described himself as both “anti-religious” and “anti-Christian,” claimed that “those who strive for peace and happiness believe, while those who wish to be disciples of truth inquire.”
This statement implies the mutual exclusivity of faith in God and a rational life based on the truth, and that is not an unreasonable implication based on the history of all religions, including Christianity.
You look at the Crusades, the Church’s countless stubborn rejections of science throughout history, from labeling doctors as witches and rejecting heliocentrism, to today’s fundamentalists who deny evolution and the Big Bang, and it’s not hard to see Nietzsche’s point about Christianity’s rejection of the truth. The same conflict between faith and truth played out in my life, even though I didn’t fully realize it at the time.
But this church proves how wrong Nietzsche was. Here, at St. Stephen, faith, and truth are not fundamentally opposed but are interdependent and self-reinforcing. Mark Thielman showed me that when he helped me reconcile my faith in a loving God with my unconditional love for my parents, and I’ve seen it countless times since then.
Here, unlike so many other churches that I’ve visited with friends and family, we can read the book of Genesis without rejecting evolution and the Big Bang. We can preach about God’s all-powerful love to people and families like mine, who feel rejected, unwanted, and unloved at other churches.
Here, my parents and I have found not only a church, but a community and a family. In addition to my search for a balance between faith and truth, service has been a big part of my life with the church for as long as I can remember.
Every summer as a child and on many weekends, I’d spend countless hours at church with my dad, Eduardo, helping him with everything from mopping the basement and replacing burnt-out lights with LED to big projects like the youth basement renovation.
From an early age, I loved this type of service because I enjoyed learning how things worked, and because I got to spend so much quality time with my dad. However, I never really understood the benefit my time and effort could have on others until I joined the youth group.
I’d like to specifically talk about my second mission trip when we went to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and Utah. I remember when we were told we were going there, I complained that spending a week in July in the desert would be too hot. When we got there, I saw much more than scorching desert heat: I saw widespread, systemic poverty that I had never imagined could exist in the United States.
The church we stayed at was tiny and deteriorating, with a small congregation and shrinking donations caused by the lack of disposable income in the region. In fact, the pastor at the church we stayed at, Pastor Norma, told us that for several years she had been using an ever-growing part of her tiny income as a pastor just to keep the church afloat and perform basic mission and maintenance, even at the expense of her already impoverished personal life. I remember that she told us one night during dinner that before Beth contacted her about the possibility of a mission trip, she had begun to lose faith in her ability to keep her church afloat, and that we were like a sign from God to keep the faith and continue the fight.
Now to go on the mission trip each year, each youth has to raise at least a couple of hundred dollars to help us afford the supplies and food to make the trip. That year, my parents basically forced me to not just ask family members and people at church for donations, but to go door-to-door in our neighborhood to ask for donations, which, for a shy kid like me was mortifying and really out of my comfort zone.
Now, at the end of the mission trip, as we were preparing to start the long drive home, we had a few hundred dollars left over, and I remember that Beth, my parents, Tommy, Joe, and the other sponsors took the money we had left as well as some of their own money and left it as a donation to the church.
I’ll remember Norma’s reaction until the day I die. She started crying. Sobbing actually. She called us angels and told us that the money we gave her was enough to help her keep the church open and that she had been praying for years for God to save her church, and she told us that we were the instruments of God’s salvation.
Now, when Beth contacted her, Beth didn’t know that we were the instrument that God was using to answer Norma’s prayers. When the youth were awkwardly asking church members, friends, family, and neighbors for donations, we didn’t know the impact that the little bit of extra money over the minimum would have. Now after spending a week with her I was convinced, and still am, that Norma is a modern-day saint, and it still amazes me that what WE did on that trip restored HER faith.
One of the lessons I took from this is summed up nicely by a quote that was in the Silent Reflection in the bulletin a while back:
“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.”
I’ve learned, from seeing it in others and experiencing it firsthand, that when our doubt is greatest, God sends a sign, often people, as unknowing instruments of salvation. That’s what God did for Pastor Norma through our Youth Group, and it’s what God did for me through all of you. When Norma doubted if she could carry on, God delivered her, offered her a brief, seemingly impossible respite that convinced her and allowed her to carry on her fight and keep faith with God, her congregation, and herself. God renewed her faith.
Similarly, from the moment my family moved to Fort Worth 16 years ago, God sent me all of you. When I was young, God sent me Beth and my early Sunday School teachers, to teach me about God and the Bible in a way that I could understand. At my moment of greatest doubt, when I wondered how I could love a God that I thought rejected my parents, God sent me Mark Thielman in Sunday School, taking hours out of his busy work week to research and prepare a brand new Sunday School lesson to directly deal with what was troubling me and restore my faith.
God sent Fritz with his wonderful sermons and kind wisdom, preaching so honestly about the issues in our church, our city, and our country, and always leaving me with a reassurance of God’s love and the knowledge that, no matter what was going on in the world, everything was going to be ok.
Then, when I was old enough, God sent me the Youth Group, who are the closest people I have to siblings. He sent them not just to laugh with me, but to know me, to love me, and to help make me the person I’m meant to be.
And, of course, he sent me all of you who have been part of my church life in countless moments big and small, reassuring me that I am loved and that my parents are loved and accepted at this Church, by all of you and by God.
Now, as I’m about to go off to San Antonio for college, I have the seemingly impossible task of finding a church home away from home, that can be everything to me that St. Stephen is: a place for me to be curious, a place for me to question, a place for me to think and learn, and a place where I can find a church family as loving, and thoughtful, and nurturing, and as impossibly perfect for me as all of you have been.
And now, as I prepare to start this exciting new phase of my life, I’ll leave you with some of the wisdom that you’ve taught me over all these years: keep faith, seek the truth, serve others, and in everything you do, serve God.