Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"44 Years Later" October 14, 2012

Note: This is the Sunday we celebrate the founding of our denomination. This sermon is heavy on denominational history, although it is grounded in the readings.
Hebrews 4:12-16
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Child of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Mark 10:17-31
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’”
The man said to Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the realm of God!”
And the disciples were perplexed at these words.
But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the realm of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the realm of God.”
They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Will you pray with me? Holy One, you guide us through the needle’s eyes of life, those times when we must declare your truth even though our voice shakes, lead us through to your throne of grace. Be present with us as we seek to understand your good news. Teach us not to see and hear what others want us to see and hear, but your truth alone. May all that we speak and hear be acceptable to you, our teacher, our redeemer, our friend. Amen.

44 years ago, in a small living room in Los Angeles, 12 people gathered together for a worship service. They had come after seeing an ad in the local gay paper The Advocate, inviting all who wished to come to a worship service. Led by a former Pentecostal pastor, Troy Perry, they worshipped, they sang, they read Scripture, they took Communion.  They were Caucasian and black and Latino, all genders, many spiritual backgrounds, all sexual orientations. The next week, they returned; some brought friends. The next week, more still. Over the weeks and months and years, that congregation grew—sometimes slowly, sometimes faster—and spread across the US and around the world. Together those worshippers formed the basis of what we know today as the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.

Rev. Troy Perry had begun his ministry as a young boy of nine, when he preached his first sermon on the street. Growing up, he confessed his attraction to men to his pastor, who told him it was merely a passing phase and that he should marry as soon as possible. Three children and several years of heterosexual marriage later, Troy could not deny his true nature. He was outed and expelled from the denomination where he had successfully pastored for many years. He found secular work and tried to forget his ministry. But he could not reconcile his sexuality and what he had been taught by his church, and so, wracked by his church’s judgement that he was condemned by God already, he attempted suicide. Troy’s roommate found him and summoned help. Lying on a stretcher in a hospital corridor, he was told, “God is not done with you yet. You have work to do.” His mother came to visit him, and as only a mother can do, said, “Troy, you are loved by God. You want a church where gay people know they are loved, well, go start one.” And he did.

MCCs have been in the forefront of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people for 44 years. Troy fasted several times in an attempt to force the California legislature to legalise same-gender marriage. He worked on campaigns to defeat discriminatory proposals, such as those that would deny teaching jobs to lesbians and gay men. MCC has testified for hate crime statutes, for equal marriage, and for anti-discrimination laws at all levels of government. Canada’s Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes, of MCC Toronto, was made a member of the Order of Canada for his work on human rights issues. We have protested discrimination, we have worked for the protection of families with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered members—children, parents, siblings, grandparents.

Around the world, we also work for women’s rights—to education, to protection under the law, to healthy care, to equal pay. We are also currently working in South Asia—Pakistan, India, Indonesia—for equal rights for transgendered men and women there. In South Africa, MCC was the place where a person living with HIV/AIDS could go and be accepted and a part of the community. Wherever a group is marginalised, we work to bring them justice and equality and protection.

We are known in many places as the human rights church. Our guiding call is that of the prophet Micah in the First Testament—“What does our God require of you but to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God?”

Seeking justice—that is human rights work.  It’s standing with people who are marginalised on the basis of who they love, or the colour of their skin, or where they or their parents were born, or how they worship God. It’s standing with people who have no health insurance. It’s standing with people who are not paid a fair wage for the work they do. It’s standing with people forced to work in dangerous conditions.  It’s standing with people who are denied education because of their gender, or race or location in society.

All those things and more are what MCC does around the world. But we aren’t doing it for political reasons, for publicity or because other people are doing it. We know our call—to do justice, love mercy, and walk with God—and that is what we do.

The reading from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews clarifies this for us. God’s truth is sharp and sometimes difficult to speak; it can divide countries, communities, families. But we have the example of Christ, who also spoke truth, spoke truth to power. It can be done—it may be frightening and we don’t always know what the consequences might be, but it must be done. Troy and Brent and others have fasted, been arrested, had threats against their lives and against their churches. Even I, with the little I have done here in River City, have received a few nasty calls and comments on articles in the paper or stories on TV.

Jesus is talking about this very thing when he says that those who follow him may lose everything. The truth, especially the truth about who we really are, can divide us from our friends, our families, our work, our homes, even, as in the case of Matthew Shepard and many others, our lives. When I came out, I had to leave behind everything except a few possessions, my son, a few friends, my family, and my call to ministry. And at that, I was lucky—I was not harassed, I was not barred from my son, I was not physically harmed or thrown onto the street. Some of you have experienced those things, or know people who have.

And yet we know our truth, the truth of who we are as God made us, and that sword of truth requires us to speak, to stand, to work—to be all of who we are, and to spread the good news of God’s love for all people. It is just what we do.

But there is a word of warning for us here too—those who think they will be first will be last and the last will be first. We cannot assume that we are free of mistakes—indeed, being human, we can’t help but make mistakes. Simply because we are marginalised in some ways, we are not then perfect in other ways. Being a woman does not mean a person doesn’t have to be caring, to share what she has with others.  Being a gay man doesn’t mean a person can be racist. We don’t get a bye on our errors because of the wrongs done to us. We can’t think that because we are, in some way or ways, marginalised, we automatically go to the head of the line. Marginalisation doesn’t make people saints.

The decision about who is first and who is last is not ours to make; either for ourselves or for others. We cannot know the actions and motives and needs of other people—the person who steals because she is hungry, or the person who lies on a job application because he is desperate for work, or the person who has never had a healthy relationship who deceives and coerces her partner. God’s calculus of salvation and promise is beyond our understanding; our own errors and mistakes are more than enough for us to work on.

And we know, with gratitude and thanksgiving, that there is grace enough for us. Christ’s love for us, for each one of us as individuals, provides us with grace and the promise of mercy. Because he too was human, Jesus understands what it is to be human—the promises we make because we want to keep them, but cannot; the fears and hopes that lead to half-truths; the insecurity that drives us to actions we don’t even want to make. He knows all these and so is able to bring us that grace and forgiveness, because he understands. Jesus knows the struggle to remain faithful to our call, to squeeze our way through the eye of the needle to right actions. When we fall short of our intentions, when we don’t speak that truth we know we should, when we can’t seem to find the courage to stand—Christ is with us in that moment, leading us through that narrow way.

MCCs have come through some hard times. There have been days and months when it was uncertain whether the denomination would survive; there have been times when this local church faced the possibility of closure. But we have come through, my friends—we have survived and thrived, because we heard the voice of Christ leading us through that narrow way. We have stood with the marginalised, we have taken our place in the world and spoken truth to power. That is who we are—as UFMCC, as this local congregation. We will continue to stand beside those viewed as “less-than” in any way—age, income, gender, ability, sexuality, race, ethnicity, country of origin. This is our call, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk with our God every day.

Take up that call, church. Do justice, love mercy, and walk with your God, today and everyday.

In all God’s names, amen.

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