Saturday, June 14, 2014

"Draw the Circle Wider" Guest Message, Wesley United Church (Amherstburg, ON) May 25, 2014

Isaiah 55: 1-5; 12-13                                                                           
55 “Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.
3 Give ear and come to me;
    listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
    my faithful love promised to David.
4 See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
    a ruler and commander of the peoples.
5 Surely you will summon nations you know not,
    and nations you do not know will come running to you,
because of the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has endowed you with splendor.”
You will go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
    will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
    will clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
    and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
    for an everlasting sign,

    that will endure forever.”

Galatians 3:28
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.                                                                                          

John 14:15-21                                                                                            
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask God, who will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept Spirit, because it neither sees Spirit nor knows Spirit. But you know Spirit, who lives with you and will be[ in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.  Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in God, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by God, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

Will you pray with and for me? God of Grace, pour out your blessings on this time; give us all the wisdom and courage to speak and hear and share and be your truth and love for us. Give us hope and strength as we seek your justice for all your people. In all your names, amen.

It is indeed a pleasure to be here, and to share with you a bit of my story. That’s not because I am special, but because I can only tell my story. Other people have other stories; I can only tell you mine.

As you may have guessed, I grew up in the US, in Michigan. I grew up in the United Methodist Church—and when I say “grew up,| I mean pretty much lived there. My mother was raised in the Methodist church, my parents were married in the Methodist church, I was baptised and confirmed in the Methodist church. When I married, it was in the Methodist church, and my son was baptised in the Methodist church. And when I finally responded to God’s call to ministry, after a career as an information specialist, I went to seminary—Wesley Seminary—and earned my Master of Divinity.

That heritage, and the church, has been very important to me throughout my life. When my parent divorced, it was the director of the church youth group and my friends in that group who stood by me. The church was always a place where I felt at home and appreciated—I served as an acolyte, played in the bell choir and sang in the youth choir—and then the adult choir and was active in the youth group. I even preached my first sermon there, at the age of about 14, for the youth group’s Easter sunrise service! When my then-husband and I moved into a house across the street from a Methodist church, I was once again at home and welcome—I served on several committees—worship, education, fellowship—was the church librarian, sang in the choir, and so on and on. After my son was born, he was baptised in that church—and still, at the age of 25, considers that his home church.

And so off I went to seminary. What a transforming time it was! Wesley is one of several seminaries in the DC area, and, with the others, formed a consortium. Students were required to take at least one class at one of the other seminaries, and could take more than that if they wished. Remember also that Washington DC is a very diverse city—and the student body at Wesley reflected that. We had students from literally around the world—Russia, Korea, Nigeria, India, Nicaragua, Kenya—and from many different denominations. The Conservative Jewish rabbi who taught the class in Jewish Thought and Theology in a yarmulke, the Catholic priest in his friar’s robes, and others less colourful but no less diverse—Presbyterians, American Baptists, Quakers, Lutherans.  In fact, a chapel service was held each year to celebrate that diversity—always one of the favourite chapel services! And yes, sexual orientation was included in that diversity. 

It was one of the many blessings of my time at seminary—the diversity of the students and staff, the challenges of the coursework, the emotional and spiritual growth. One of the central tenets of the seminary was to tell your own truth—not what a theologian had said or what the professor taught, but the truth as we understood it. This was most obvious in our Biblical study courses and in our systematic theology class, in which the project in the first term was to write our own creed, or statement of faith, and in the second term, to rewrite it.

The importance of this really came home to me when I began serving a country charge right out of seminary. It was very clear that I had to be my authentic self—not what they wanted me to be, or what they thought I was, but simply me. And so I realised I had to speak my truth to the congregation I served—but I was not speaking that truth. I came out to myself and a few trusted friends, but could not come out completely.

“Coming out” is a term that means to be open about one’s sexual orientation—it happens over and over as a person meets new people and changes jobs and so on. It doesn't mean a big announcement—it is really in the small quiet things, like putting your same-gender partner’s name on a form under “spouse,” or putting a photo on your desk at work of you and your same-sex partner. Things that differently-gendered—or straight—couples don’t even think twice about are flags that out a lesbian, gay man, bisexual person or transgender person.

Now, as you may or may not know, the United Methodist Church in the US does not permit gay men or lesbians to be ordained or appointed to Methodist churches. I happen to identify as bisexual, so when I came out to those few people, a couple of them suggested I try to contest the church law, and argue that the Book of Discipline doesn't mention bisexual people, so I should be ordained. Well, I had just seen what happened when a transgender person tried to come back from the leave of absence she took during her transition. I did not want to experience the hurtful and un-Christian attacks she had gone through. And I aso had family reasons. And finally, I didn't want to be identified as just that part of me—I wanted to pastor with all of myself, not be seen for only one facet of myself.

So I transferred to Metropolitan Community Churches, and was ordained at MCC Washington DC, and then was called to Windsor, to serve MCC Windsor.

While that path was difficult for me sometimes, it was easier than most. I had not grown up with the idea that lesbians, gay men, bisexual people and transgender people (LGBT for short) were evil or sinful or going to hell—in fact, I didn't grow up with a clear concept of hell. And homosexuality simply wasn't something that was discussed in my church home. In my family, it wasn't ignored but it wasn't emphasized—it was simply a part of who a person was. In fact, in my well-read family where literature was of vital importance, I read the poetry of May Sarton and Walt Whitman and the historical fiction of Mary Renault—so I was aware of what “lesbian” and “homosexual” meant. My parents treated the topic matter-of-factly, and in retrospect, I can see that they were very progressive on social questions. So when I came out to my family, I received nothing but support and love. That is something that many LGBT people do not receive. Youth who come out to parents who do not accept them are often evicted from the family home, and account for a good percentage of homeless youth. Living on the street, as many are forced to do, sometimes leads to sex work and illegal drug use. Other youth, even if they stay in the family home, face so much anger and bullying that they choose to take their own lives. I don’t have the exact numbers, but LGBT youth complete suicide at a higher rate than non-LGBT youth—and completed suicide is highest among transgender youth. This is why so many LGBT groups are so passionate about the support needed for LGBT youth through gay-straight alliances in the schools and training for teachers, coaches and other people who work with youth.

While the UMC officially had no use for me, and would have expelled me if I had not left first, I found a lot of support there as well—mentors, superiors, and other church members lamented the loss to the UMC of not only me, but several others who have left the UMC for the same reasons. Others, in other denominations and faith traditions, have been publicly shamed in front of their community of faith, been demonized, defrocked, shunned and silenced. It is painful enough for a church member to be expelled from a congregation--I don’t know if I can express to you how painful it is for an ordained person to have that ordination removed. We who are ordained have responded to Spirit’s special call on our lives—have gone through a maze of study, requirements, interviews, psychological tests and review boards—sustained by our sense of call, our sure knowledge of where we needed to be in order to be what we were created to be. To have that removed, to be told we were deluded, that we are so evil we cannot possibly serve God’s people effectively—that is, in a very real sense, a death sentence to us. And yet, LGBT people are told this all the time, by many faith traditions. A clergy friend remembers telling her childhood pastor that she thought she was called to ministry. He responded that she needed to listen more closely, that God didn't call women to ministry. The world has moved on from there, but now it is LGBT people who are being told that God doesn't call them to ministry. Who are we to decide for another group that they—as a group, whether it is women, or First Nations people or people of colour or people living with disabilities—are never called to ministry? Who are we to put limits on God? On an individual basis, of course we should be testing the call and ensuring that individuals are fitted for ministry. But to decide pre-emptively that someone, by virtue of membership in a group, is not called is the height of arrogance.

I was one of the lucky ones. I did not lose my family. I had to transfer from one faith institution to another, but I did not lose my calling. I lost a few friends, who were caught up in their own fear and narrow-mindedness—friends who I thought would be able to see beyond the label to me and continue to love me. I was wrong. But I wasn't thrown onto the street. I have never been physically attacked. I have never been harassed at home or at work. I have never been refused service at a hotel or restaurant or store. I was not denied custody of my son. He was never told by my ex-husband’s family that I am a terrible mother or prevented from seeing me. I have never been told I deserve to be imprisoned for life, or that I deserve to die. But all those things have and do happen, not only in faraway places like Nigeria and Uganda and Russia, but here in Canada, in Ontario, in Essex County.

But there is hope. And it doesn't lie solely in the determination and courage of the LGBT community, working in the political system or through education or through simply living quiet lives, living examples of who LGBT people really are. I believe that members of faith communities can be the strongest allies to the LGBT community. So much of the homophobia, transphobia and biphobia of society is based on misunderstanding and mistranslation of Biblical passages that it is vital for our allies in faith communities to speak up and say, “We stand with our brothers and sisters in the LGBT community. We acknowledge our ancestors caused pain and death and we will work to overcome prejudice and hatred based on spiritual teachings.”

I don’t have time today to review those readings—the “Clobber passages,” as they are called, from Leviticus, Genesis, and Romans—but I will sum up the discussion by saying simply that Biblical study must take into account translations and context. I would also remind us that the circle of Christianity has always been widening—starting with Jewish converts to include, at various times, pagans, Romans, slaves, people of colour, women…the circle ever widens.

Listen again to the words of Isaiah: 55 “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you, because of the Holy One your God.” What a lovely, gracious invitation to all God’s people! Nations you do not know… And Paul in his letter to the Galatians says that we are all one in Christ—no divisions, not between slave and free, not even male and female. The Gospel writer John reports Jesus saying, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by God, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” There are no conditions set on that love—no disqualifying statements or requirements. Simply love God—for God loves you.

Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia—it is not about just discomfort with people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. It is about denying the humanity of people who are LGBT. Those who would deny us basic rights—to live safely wherever we can afford to live, to a legal bond to the one we love, to raise our children in safety, to work in safety, to pursue a vocation we feel called to, whether that is clergy or teaching or banking, to simply be who God created us to be—would deny that LGBT people are human beings. If that is not said in so many words, it is made clear in their actions. We in the LGBT community cannot do this alone—we need and want the support and encouragement of our allies.

Do you speak up when someone makes a racist comment? Then do the same when you hear a gay slur. Do you allow your children to listen to music that advocates the abuse of women? Then don’t allow them to listen to music that demonises LGBT people. In the final analysis, it is our allies—people just like you, here and now—who will tip that balance of the world towards love and acceptance. No minority can do it on our own. Although the struggle is ours, we cannot do it without you, too.

I would leave you with a final thought, from Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, a tireless worker and pioneer for civil rights in that country. He said, “I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid. For me, it is at the same level.” 

In all God’s names, amen.

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