This message is dedicated to 8 beloved friends of mine who were among 15 United Methodist clergy and candidates who came out as LGBTQI in an open letter to the UMC this week: Elyse Ambrose, Micah Gary-Fryer, Bruce Lamb, Lea Matthews, Siobhan Sargent, Alex Souto, Althea Spencer-Miller, and Sara Thompson Tweedy.
This week, United Methodists from around the globe will gather in Portland, Oregon, for General Conference, from May 10-20, 2016. Some of us, like myself, will pack our suitcases, board airplanes, and fly to Portland to be there in person. Many others will journey to Portland in spirit, through social media, texts and emails and phone calls from friends, and news reports.
My message here is for all LGBTQI persons and their allies who are journeying to General Conference in body and spirit. The stakes are very high for you going into General Conference. This international gathering of voting delegates from around the world only happens once every four years. And, this is the only body within the United Methodist Church that has the power to change our discriminatory policies against LGBTQI persons and their allies. The decisions made will affect your lives in profound ways – they will affect your bodies and your safety.
The main thing I want to tell you is that you are powerful. As you walk into the lion’s den, as you face Goliath, I want to whisper one last time in your ear: You are powerful. My prayer for you is that you will feel your own strength.
I have heard your fears.
I have heard your fear of coming face-to-face with the ugliness of people who call themselves Christians, yet have hatred and bigotry towards their fellow human beings. I know that feels like a stab in the heart of your faith.
I have heard your fear that you will be treated like an ‘issue’ and not a person.
I have heard your fear that the risks, the nerves, and the vulnerability will all be for nothing. I know that your courage might result in an even stronger pendulum swing with even harsher treatment of LGBTQI folks.
I have heard your fear of witnessing spiritual violence committed against people who tell the full truth about who they are. And I understand that you are afraid that will drive you away from the church.
I have heard your fear of disappointing people that you love.
I have heard your fear that you will allow the hateful language and the idea that God does not affirm your queerness to get into your head, and paralyze you spiritually.
I share those fears. And, I would add one of my own fears, of feeling helpless to stop the spiritual violence being committed against people I love.
I hear your fears…our fears. And I honor those fears. And still, I want to remind you of your power. I want you to feel your own strength.
I want to remind you that when God looked upon God’s creation, God said it was good. Each of us is wonderfully and fearfully made in the image of God…in God’s likeness. When you tell the full truth about how God created some among us to be LGBTQI, you honor God. You honor God because a part of God is LGBTQI. And God said that was good.
Your power, and your strength lie there. God gazes deeply at who you are, and God says that it is very very good.
One of my greatest spiritual mentors often used a mountaintop metaphor for the spiritual journey. When we are on the mountaintop, the view is often breathtaking. We have exhilarating moments on the mountaintop, when we feel at peace with the world. But the thing about the mountaintop is that not very much grows there. The conditions are perfect for clarity and vision, but not for trees, flowers, animals, and humans to grow. It is in the valley where the most growth happens.
Friends, we are in the valley as we walk into General Conference this year.
Our job in the valley is to remember the view from the mountaintop. I want to help us remember that view. Many of us attended Gather at the River in San Antonio last August, 2015, a gathering of progressive United Methodists dreaming and planning for a fully inclusive church. That was a mountaintop experience for many of us.
I want to remind us of the opening message at Gather at the River. It was delivered by the Rev. Grace Imathiu, a Kenyan missionary serving a church near Chicago, IL. She introduced the scripture for the week, Revelation 22. Revelation 22 – the last chapter of the last book of the Bible.
Do remember when she said this?
“Has God shown you the last chapter? The chapter where the President of the United States is an openly gay man? The chapter where the President of Kenya is an openly lesbian woman? The chapter where when everybody looks like you, it suddenly feels poor? The chapter where 25% of United Methodist bishops will be queer? Have you read Revelation 22 lately?”
Do you remember that last chapter that Grace Imathiu helped us to see on that mountaintop experience of Gather at the River? Do you remember how after she showed us that last chapter, she reminded us that John, who wrote that vision, was just like us? She reminded us that John did not know the historical Jesus. John had only heard stories about Jesus. And John lived during dangerous times. He lived during a time when the Roman empire was whipping and beating and stoning and killing the followers of Jesus. He saw 16,000 troops besiege Jerusalem, break up the revolution, desecrate the sacred temple, and leave the city in ruins.
Grace Imathiu asked us on that mountaintop at Gather at the River: In the face of danger and defeat, “…how do you survive?” And then Grace told us:
“[John] survived by seeing the last page first. You see last things first. You taste your dessert first, and then you can tackle the beans and broccoli. John saw that final chapter, and when he saw the chapter, he began texting us the book of Revelation.”
Friends, we are in the valley now. But we were once on the mountaintop, and we will be there again someday. There were moments when our vision was clear – when we felt God affirm us as made in God’s image.
We must remember, though, that the growth happens in the valley. After we see the final chapter – the chapter when Love Wins – we are sent back into the battle. It is when our fears keep us awake at night, and cause us to tremble and cry, that we must remember the clarity of the mountaintop. And that clarity should remind us of our strength, and our power.
To all the LGBTQI persons and their allies who are afraid going into General Conference, I say this – remember your power. Feel your strength.
I started this sermon with a reference to the lion’s den and Goliath. I want to acknowledge that in both of those stories, Daniel and David are rescued by God as they defeat the lions and Goliath. As I close this sermon, I want to remind you of your power, even if the decisions made at General Conference continue to perpetuate spiritual violence against LGBTQI persons and their allies. I want to remind you of your power even if the lions and Goliath are not defeated this time.
I offer you this story –
A long time ago in a land far away, there was a girl, about to become a woman. Her mother and the other women in her village had been excitedly preparing her for an important rite of passage for months – years even! She was apprehensive, but curious about the man who would become her husband. Would he be kind? Stern? Would he be handsome? What would her daily routine look like? Would she feel homesick?
One day, a holy man was passing through with two companions, and there was great joy and breaking of bread. The young woman forgot about her impending marriage for awhile, and sat by a window and listened to the holy man speak. It was like music to her ears! She was deeply stirred by his stories about Jesus, and felt her heart leap at the good news. She felt perfectly at peace sitting by that window, hearing those stories for three days and nights. There was not a tense muscle in her body. She felt energized and free. She hardly noticed anything or anyone else around her, so transfixed was she by these great stories of God.
She didn’t even notice that her family was distraught because she was so fixated on the stories of God. Her family had the holy man arrested, but the young woman followed him to prison, to continue hearing him speak.
Her family and the governor were left with no choice but to condemn the young woman to be burned. This threat against her life only further demonstrated the power within her, as she was still intently fixated on the holy man. She walked to the pyre calmly and certain of the power God had placed within her. Somehow, her life was spared!
She went back to the holy man and told him with great joy that God had spared her life! There was much rejoicing and laughter! But then, the young woman asked the holy man to baptize her, to prepare her for a life of ministry. But the holy man told her to wait. Even he had his reservations about her calling, and was not sure someone like her could spread the word of God like he did.
And then they went to another town, where a very powerful man fell in love with the young woman. The holy man pretended not to know the young woman, because he was afraid. She was left to fend for herself. She tore off the powerful man’s clothes in public and caused him great shame.
Her behavior brought her to the attention of the governor, who sentenced her to death by wild animals. Right before she thought she would be killed, she saw a great pit full of water, and decided to baptize herself, so convinced was she of God’s call on her life. And somehow, again her life was spared!
All were amazed that she had faced the wild animals, and lived! Even in the face of this second threat to her life, she knew that her power rested in God. Even when the holy man told her to wait, and pretended not to know her, she still knew that she was powerful. Even when no-one else would baptize her and affirm her call to ministry, she claimed the power and the call that God had placed within her soul.
And this young woman lived a long and fruitful life, and carried out the ministry she never doubted she was called to do. She was 17 years old when she first felt her heart stirred by God, and she lived to be 90 years old.
This woman’s name was Thecla, and the holy man was Paul. Most of us are familiar today with the story of Paul through the New Testament. Thecla’s story is not as well known, but it is just as powerful. Even though she had to baptize herself, and even though she was told to wait, she knew her own power. And she did as much as Paul, if not more, to spread God’s good news throughout the world.
Friends, it is my hope and my prayer that Paul will baptize you and affirm the stirrings of God in your soul. But, even if that does not happen, claim your power.
Some of your spiritual ancestors carried out the call of God on their lives with the blessing of the community. But some, like Thecla, lived their truth even when they were told to wait. Thecla knew that she was powerful even when Paul pretended not to know her because he was afraid. And Thecla had a long life of ministry, full of many healings and sharing of life-giving news to people around her.
To all LGBTQI persons and their allies who are afraid going into General Conference next week, I say this: Fear not! Know that your power comes from the God who created you, and who said that you are very good. Your power comes when you speak the full truth about who you are. No-one can take that power away from you without your consent.
Fight for Revelation 22 to become a reality – speak and vote and protest! But, be at peace even if it does not happen next week, or next year, or even within your life- time. Even if yours is the story of Thecla – even if you are told to wait – even if your call is not affirmed – even if you have to baptize yourself – you can still live a long life of fruitful ministry if you never lose sight of your power.