Saturday, June 21, 2008

"Where's the Fire?"

Please pray with me. God, your child Jesus taught us that we should love one another; your Spirit teaches us your truth and love; give us now the strength to love each other—not just the people we know, but each person who needs our love, even those who hate us. Give us the wisdom to speak your truth, the fire in our bones that Jeremiah felt. Open us to you guidance in our lives, to the ways you want us to show that love and speak that truth.

We’ve heard a reading from the Jewish prophet Jeremiah today, and the testimony of the New Testament gospel writer called Matthew. Hear now from a modern prophet, someone who has gone into danger bearing the truth of God’s love for all God’s children, and who spoke that truth to power, who did not leave those longing for God’s word to hunger and thirst in vain.

Our bishop wrote of her trip to Moldova:

"I am battle weary, bone tired, emotionally wasted and I could cry so easily. Not for myself but for those who must exist in this place of so much fear and hatred. I am profoundly sad."

The security guards were pushed further and further away from the bus, and the bus had begun to rock from the press of the people outside. I was sitting at the back of the bus and heard noises coming from the rear. I looked out the rear window and saw people ripping pieces out of the engine of the bus. I passed the information forward, and the bus driver got out to investigate. As he got to the back of the bus, the protestors began hitting him and pushing him away. People were raising crosses and icons, and they were yelling; anger and hate made them look less than human. A group of young men, who had decided that I was particularly evil, were waving crosses and moved to the back of the bus with lighters raised, passing the flame closer and closer to the engine, taunting me and laughing.

On the bus people were trying to stay calm, and those of us with phones were calling embassies and the police. A couple of people panicked, wanting off the bus to take their chances with the crowd. We talked calmly to them, trying to ease their anxiety. Nine times we contacted the police, and nothing. We could see they were in the crowd in plain clothes but doing nothing. We had observers in the crowd who told us there were armed police officers between buildings, leaning against their cars, talking on cell phones but not responding. We could see the chief of police in the crowd, and we were told that he was telling the protestors what to do, colluding with the crowd. The Swedish embassy had spoken with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who contacted the police and was told that they would not respond even if there was violence. The mayor's office had set us up.

I was on my phone the entire time, calling the embassy and emailing back and forth with our communications minister, who had stayed up into the wee hours of the morning in LA so that he could be available if anything happened. I sent hurried messages back and forth. I wanted there to be some record of what was happening on the bus. I know that he would get word out quickly and that he understood what it could be like. He had travelled to Eastern Europe for pride two years ago and had seen what hate-filled crowds were like. He became my lifeline. I know that sounds dramatic, but I knew that he was there at the other end of the phone and it helped. It was a light in the midst of darkness, a tether to everything that was whole. Our moderator sent me a quick note saying that she was praying, and I felt it and knew, "Okay, MCC is here with us". I don't know if I will ever be able to convey just how much that tenuous connection meant to me,
but it was MCC at its best.

The tension was thick, we had been sitting like this, being shaken and taunted for 30 minutes. The crowd had grown, and they were getting more and more riled up. Two protestors broke onto the bus. They were religious leaders who said they could keep the crowd from killing us if we handed over all of our banners and the Moldovan Flag and destroy the balloons. Hand over hand, the banners moved forward. "Tolerance", "Would Jesus discriminate?", "Would God hate?", "For God so loved the world", "Love your neighbor as you love yourself", "Stop Discrimination", "Human Rights for ALL" - each banner was lovingly passed forward and taken by the religious leaders who threw them to the crowd, as you would throw meat to a pack of hungry dogs. The crowd fell on them and shredded them. The driver was allowed back onto the bus, and we edged our way forward.

As we gained speed, the crowd surged after us - older women running with icons raised and fists clenched, young people running, yelling and pounding on the sides of the bus. The bus driver was supposed to take us out of town but instead took us back to the Gender-doc offices, exactly where the crowd would look for us. He was too traumatized to take us from the city. People from the bus scattered; only ten of us remained, trying to decide what we should do next. Police cars were at the corner. Then security people arrived; they said the crowd was on its way. They had received a message from the police telling them where we were.

Ten people braved the police presence and gathered to study together. It took such courage for them to arrive and participate. There is such a hunger for God and for understanding, and I wonder what would happen if we had to fight in North America, Western Europe, and Australia to express our faith. I hope that we would be just as courageous. It made me think of what the early Christians had to do to come together. This is the "why," the reason our work around the world is so important. It is in these gatherings that we are "Tearing down walls, building up hope". It is here the teachings of Jesus and the work of MCC is so critically important.

As we met, the landlady came to the apartment to see if we were having a worship service. The police had visited her and told her we were holding illegal worship services. Moldova claims to have freedom of religion but only if you are with the Orthodox Church. Apparently I was being investigated for hosting and presiding over worship. People left in groups of two and three as taxis arrived. We were so conscious that the actions of this community were revolutionary, and we wanted as much as possible for them to be safe.

I cried when I read this for the first time. Besides the obvious danger to our bishop, who has been an amazing leader and pastoral presence in my life, and to my friend with her, with whom I went through pastoral intensive training, the tragedy of the violence and hatred taking place tore my heart. So many people lost to hatred, so many people suffering for what they believe, so many people trapped in a web of lies and deceit.

And then I turned to my other emails, to my work here in River City. And I began to get angry. Where is our fire here in River City, in Canada? Are we too comfortable, “fat, dumb and happy,” in the popular phrase? Are we complacent because we can marry whomever we love; because our rights are codified in law? I have had a couple people tell me they feel Pride is irrelevant, not needed anymore, and that it does a disservice to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, two-spirited and allied community to parade down Main St., to have the young men show off their bare chests, the young women their tats and piercings, to have floats with drag queens and leather people, let alone the abomination that we, as lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirited and transgendered Christians are to many people from other religious traditions; that we “alienate” people when we are honest about who we really are. These folks would rather we just shut up now that we have what we wanted.

Where is our fire?

Sometimes I just don’t know what to do…we as a community have so much to be grateful for, and it seems to me that we waste these good things, we take them for granted. People complain about Pride—“The men are running everything,” or “the women don’t want the men at their events” or “There’s nothing for kids,” or “those crazy drag queens are just too bizarre.” We are spoiled!! As our elder would say, we need to get over our own damned selves! We can have Pride, openly, freely. The elder was in danger of her life—but she could leave Moldava. The Moldavians cannot…and they are still in danger. That’s not talking a few insults on the street or graffiti on the garage or even individuals being beat up, horrific as that is. In Moldova and other places around the world, it’s gangs, violence, the name of a loving God being taken in vain to promote hatred and murder. We’re talking about governments, including the police forces, that do not see LGBT rights as something to be protected, nor do they believe in free speech. That is what the LGBT Moldavians have to live with every day.

Jeremiah had a fire in his bones…yes, he got tired, yes, he was literally burned out, but he could not deny the truth, the call God had on his life. He had to speak up—he could not be silent, not even when people laughed at him, scorned him, when he was exhausted and tired and didn’t think he could move forward. Jeremiah had the fire of God’s truth in his very bones, in his marrow—and he had to speak it.

How can we be silent? How can we act as if things are well for us, for our sisters and brothers around the world, when they are not? Not only in Moldova, but in Russia, in Nigeria, in Egypt, in Turkey, in Saudi Arabia, in the Philippines? Where is our fire?

Do you feel the fire, church? Do you feel that divine flame in your heart and soul and bones? Yes, we have most of our rights and the law on our side—but there’s still education needed, even here in Canada. Being in a border town, we have to talk about the US too—and in the US, things are improving, but they aren’t where they should be. Too many states have defined marriage as between one man and one woman, too many hospitals are denying people visits and a voice in the care of their same sex partners, the US military hierarchy is still acting as though gay men, lesbians, bisexual people and transgender people are a threat to “good order, discipline and morale”—just as they said about African-Americans fifty years ago; and too many bigoted foster care and adoption agencies are allowed to get away with denying same-sex couples children solely on the basis of their sexual orientation—and not-so-incidentally, denying those children a safe, loving home. There’s obviously room for improvement, and LGBT people face violence and discrimination on an individual basis.

In the States and Canada and Great Britain and Brazil and many other places, LGBTT communities have to have a clear voice and must continue to speak up for their rights, but they may speak; and the law is on their side. In Nigeria, in Egypt, in Iraq—LGBTT people are threaten with being put to death. In Moldova, they are threatened by gangs, their danger ignored by the police, they are followed and watched and investigated as if they were criminals—which they are, according to Moldavian law.

Where is the fire, church?! Where is your fire? Yes, we’re small in River City, but Jesus himself started with only 12 people, and one of them betrayed him! The truth cannot be defeated, cannot be silenced.

I don’t know what speaking the truth might look like for you as individuals. Each of us has to hear God’s direction for ourselves. I don’t know what it might look like for the church—I have some ideas, but we as a congregation, as a church, must listen for that guidance together.

It is not enough to sit in church on Sunday, to feel good about ourselves because we have been to church, sung a couple of hymns, heard some scripture and a sermon, put our loonie in the plate, shared Communion, had some coffee afterwards and gone home to a BBQ with the neighbours.

That’s lazy Christianity—it’s not what we are called to. Jesus never said it would be easy to follow him, to carry that truth, that fire, within us. Yes, he said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light—“ but there’s still a yoke and a burden. In the gospel reading, Jesus warns us that it won’t be easy. He tells us there will be bullies, there will be conflict and pain and struggle. Some of us will lose our families, some of us will lose our jobs, some of us will lose our lives. But if we believe in the truth God has spoken to us, if we hold to the truth Jesus taught us and the truth the Holy Spirit renews in us every day, then we don’t have a choice.

God’s eye is on the sparrow, and on us. Do you think the one who put that truth in our hearts will abandon us when we speak that truth, when we live it out in the world!? Of course not! Jesus knew what it was to be hated and scorned, to be condemned for the company he kept, to be mocked and teased and bullied—and to be killed, ultimately, for the truth he knew in his bones.

We will not be abandoned. We who speak truth to power—whether it is political power or economic power or religious power—we who speak truth from the fire in our souls will not be alone. God will be with us to strengthen and encourage us, to give us words to say and courage to lift us up when we are terrified. Our elder had a line to the communications minister and to our moderator; their presence, even through text messaging, was a source of encouragement, God’s strength flowing through other humans as our elder spoke God’s truth to power in Moldova.

Sometimes I feel like I’m preaching to the choir—usually the folks I see on Sundays are the ones who do feel God’s truth. But do we get tired sometimes, and want to stop telling that truth? Do we get weary of being scorned, of having our concerns politely shunted aside or ignored or condescended to? Do we get so tired of it that we quit, and say, “Forget it. I’ll go to church, because I should and because I need the presence of my sisters and brothers in Christ, but enough of this working for God’s realm. I’m tired, I need a break.”

We cannot rest, we cannot set it aside, we cannot quit, we who feel God’s truth life fire in our souls and hearts and spirits. We cannot be silent, and we cry out that truth in spite of the scorn, the anger, the ignorance, the hatred and violence. We will not become complacent and rest on what we have—because until all our sisters and brothers are free, we are not truly free.

Feel that fire—and speak that truth.

In all God’s names, amen.