Sermon: What does it take to be "in"?
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.2 Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. 4 You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working[a] through love.
Do you ever wonder about humanity? What makes us tick? Some of us act like the balls in a pinball machine, chaotically careening every which-a-way, while others among us embody geometrical truth, plotting and planning to constantly travel the hypotenuse of a triangle… even when life doesn’t actually present itself in that shape. Why are some of us drama-queens while others are so stoic that they make the couple from Grant Wood’s painting, “American Gothic” look like they could throw a fairly decent party? We’re complicated creatures, we human beings, full of contradictions. Even the most clear-sighted among us can get taken by a good sales job, or our own mental contortions. Good sense flies out the window when fear is driving the bus.
In his letter to the church in Galatia, the Apostle Paul addresses one of our, oh-so-human tendencies… in this case, our predilection to complicate things unnecessarily. Like the other communities Paul evangelized, the Galatians had learned about and received the gift of grace through faith in Jesus. Paul taught them that their faith set them free. Free from the need to tick off boxes in a to-do list in order to be loved by God. Free also to live joyfully and lovingly so as to build one another up with care.
But after Paul left them to continue his travels, other teachers came along, who persuaded them that before the Gentiles became Christian, they needed to be Jewish first. After all, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah! This meant, among other things, the men would have to submit to being circumcised. Undoubtedly, that gave some of those converts pause, as this was a more significant commitment to make than most organizations demand as an initiation ritual. But there were also some folks who believed that it was worth it. They bought the sales job. Since they had found their place and wanted to be part of this community called church quite badly, they were willing to go along with this in order to get “in.” Perhaps you can relate to that desire. Maybe your younger self, say around 10, 11, 12 years old, might have some stories to tell about what you have done in order to be “in.”
When I was 10, I knew quite well who the cool kids were, and I wasn’t one of them. I was new to the school, my family having just moved from California to Illinois, and I did not share what all the cool kids had in common. They wore moon boots in the winter… cut me some slack… it was 1980. They all wore the right brand of jeans. Nobody carried a lunch box in 5th grade. I decided that the other thing that joined them all together… was glasses. They all wore eye-glasses. Which was a profound relief to me. Because, I knew that my family didn’t have extra money floating around for different kinds of jeans or boots than what had originally been purchased for me before I knew what was cool. And, I understood, that if there was something genuinely necessary for my health and well-being, my parents would find a way to afford it. So, I cooked up a scheme to get glasses. I cannily campaigned for some time, complaining during dinner that my eyes were tired and that I had a headache. I said that it was hard to read the blackboard. Dad suggested that I get my seat changed to the front of the room so I could see more clearly. “Oh no,” I said, “the teacher won’t do that. We HAVE to sit in alphabetical order. It’s a rule.” Eventually, my mother scheduled me for an appointment with the eye doctor. I made my plan for how to work the exam to my benefit. I intentionally mixed up b’s and d’s, p’s and q’s. Exchanged the odd a for an o. As so on. Much to my delight I was diagnosed with a stigmatism and prescribed glasses. I very carefully selected frames that looked as much like Amy Lobrillo’s as I could manage, and was completely thrilled that my months of effort had paid off. Of course, you know what happened when I went to school wearing my entry ticket to the cool kids club, don’t you?
ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. I was still me! I was just me wearing glasses… which turned out to not have any magical powers, after all. The problem was, they not only did not purchase for me the inclusion I wanted, they also created a mess. Because, my parents thought I needed glasses, and so I was obliged to wear them… which I faithfully did until 7th grade when the cool kids all got contact lenses and I buried my glasses in a bureau drawer. For years, if I ever mentioned having a headache, one of my parents would scold me for not wearing my glasses. When my mother and grandmother were helping me pack for college, mom found the glasses in the dresser and made a fuss about me needing to take them with me. “You’ll be doing so much reading,” she said. Never mind that I hadn’t had an eye exam in 7 years at that point… off I went to Massachusetts, unnecessary baggage in place, with the lie I had constructed at age 10 still between us.
I didn’t tell my mom the truth until I was 29 years old. It was after my dad died, and I wanted to tell her something that would make her laugh over this foolish story from my childhood. Instead, it seemed it almost broke her. She was distraught that I had been so desperate to belong, that I had created and lived with that lie, that secret and lingering silence for 2/3 of my life. It was the first time that I really understood just what the cost could be of being less than honest, and not quite authentic.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul, was so distressed, because he felt that the cost to be “in” that these folks were prepared to pay, was much greater than they knew. Just as I experienced the cost of one lie leading to another, Paul foresaw that beginning down the path of following the Law of Moses, would obligate them to fulfill ALL of the laws of the Torah… all 613 of them. Paul saw that that kind of legalism did not embody the grace that Jesus offered. He was determined to convince them that they were already IN the circle of God’s love. As theologian Paul Tillich describes it, all they had to do was accept that they were accepted. Through faith, they already had access to the abundant life God wants for all of us. By the grace of Jesus, they were already beloved. There was nothing for them to DO, no surgery necessary, no external equipment required, to make them worthy of inclusion. There was no way for them to be, other than themselves. It was a done deal. So, don’t mess this up with needless complications, friends. Just enjoy the flow of Divine love. Allow it to mold, shape and nurture you from the inside out, thus being transformed into New Creations as Jesus promised.
THIS is grace. For this grace, we give thanks… all the time… and especially during Pride month… when we have the opportunity to celebrate with LGBTQ folx that ALL people are beloved by God, included in the grace of Jesus, and are of sacred worth to the very core of their being. This is the time when Helena United Methodists affirm that this marginalized group IS included in THIS community of faith, and need do nothing to be welcomed into the circle of acceptance, other than just BEING who you are.
I count it as both a pleasure and a privilege to be able to be in ministry in a Reconciling Congregation. Among you, I have felt more free than at any other point in my almost 20 years of ministry. Here, I have received affirmation, both personal and professional. Here, I have been blessed with kindness, compassion and care in my journey from cancer to emerging health. Here, I find, miracle of miracles, people willing to be challenged, who want to grow, who seek ideas and inspiration for putting faith into action, so that values don’t grow dusty from sitting on a shelf, but instead live and breathe and yield fruit that is beautiful, delicious and nourishing, befitting the goodness of Jesus’ vision of what the kindom of God can be like. So it is here, that I believe, I can take the step of sharing with YOU, the beloved of God, whom Bishop Oliveto has appointed me to serve, that I am one of LGBTQ folx that Pride month is for. The welcome you proclaim on the banner St. Paul’s displays year-round, is a welcome and pledge of acceptance I hope can also include me as your pastor.
I realize that this might not seem necessary for me to have shared with you today. Some might say, “This is none of my business.” At a certain level, you’re absolutely right. We all have personal lives, no matter our vocation, but when you serve in a public role, particularly as clergy, personal is not necessarily private. I have spent much of the past 20 years of my life seeking to integrate what Parker Palmer refers to as "soul and role." It is vitally important to me, a matter of integrity no less, that who I am with you is consistent with who I am when I’m alone, I’m with my family, my friends, my colleagues in ministry, on vacation, in places where no one knows me and also where everyone does. It matters to me that you be able to know me as someone who is trustworthy… someone you know will tell you what I think, believe and hold true, even if it’s inconvenient or hard to hear. It matters that you know your pastor cares more about doing the right thing than playing it safe. It matters that you know your pastor loves those who are at risk and in danger, and desires to be of service to them and you more than she loves her own security.
Because you see, being gay in this country, is not yet “no big deal.” Not when this very week, the Supreme Court had to defend the rights of transgender brothers and sisters to not lose access to healthcare or be fired because of who they are. My friends, being gay clergy in the United Methodist Church is not yet “nobody else’s business.” Not as long as we are still debating at every General Conference who we will allow to follow God’s calling to serve as clergy and who may stand before our altars to proclaim love and commitment for a lifetime. I very much do not want to make our denominational issues “all about me.” I am pledged to serve… THAT is my purpose. But you deserve to know that I have a personal stake in how this conversation goes.
Would it be easier if such personal business could be private? You betcha. But it is not yet that time. For now, we still find ourselves in an era where yes, progress has been made, yes, there have been positive developments. But the journey isn’t finished yet. Until there are no more being left out and proclaimed to be somehow excludable from God’s house and all the means of grace within it, it’s not time to stop. Until the #1 cause of teen homelessness and suicide is no longer rejection from their families because of being gay, the work isn’t done. And until those who are called and equipped by God to serve may be fully of service in Christ’s church, I feel compelled to speak up. It’s been not quite two years since my emotional healing process led to this understanding of my identity. Today, I find that in order to be authentic in my speaking, I need to be fully open and honest about who I am. And that means, in order to be “in” with you all, I needed to come out.
So many queer siblings know the cost of living a lie, of keeping secrets, of feeling silenced because the cost of truth seems too high to bear. Only four years ago, those in the Pulse nightclub lost their lives for being gay. Within the last week, trans folx have been beaten to death. So many know what it is to fear rejection… to fear the loss of livelihood… to fear being unaccepted, and unloved.
Dear, beloved friends, I believe that the freedom to speak our truths, however significant or inconsequential, is one of the gifts Christ wants us to have. We are made to be in communities that are secure enough that we can we can trust each other enough to break some of the rules of politeness. What would it be like to feel empowered to say, “You know what, you asked me how I am today. And the truth is, I’m not okay. I’m hurting, I’m weary, I’m hungry… hungry for bread and righteousness.” God wants us to create spaces in which we can be so bold as to tell each other, “I’m so lost and I need someone to hold on and weep with me.” God wants us to be people who declare that it’s party time to celebrate the lost being found. “Activate the phone tree! Grab the neighbors, and come on over, cause it’s gonna be one for the ages!”
Such solidarity, such connection in community, is cultivated and fostered, when we collectively practice truth-telling, in both small ways and large. Creating spaces for vulnerability could yield for us bravery as a common, everyday practice. Sharing ourselves, in the fullness of who we are, both with the highs and lows of how our lives are going, our hopes and dreams, our faults and disappointments… all of it matters, because all of it contributes to who you are individually and to who we are together.
This is just part of the freedom that Jesus’s love and grace wins for us. Who we are as the church is the possibility of becoming this kind of community, where all it takes to be “in” is nothing more than the desire to belong.
Beloved, my prayer this day is that we will be this physical, spiritual and emotional space of hospitality and homecoming, unconditional welcome, generosity and caring to ALL who would seek these gifts among us. ALL… including me. Amen.