Sermon for Pride Sunday 2021

When Tara asked me to speak on “What Pride Means to Me,” I said yes… Then, I sat down at my desk and e-mailed a friend. In that moment, all I was feeling was that I wasn’t particularly proud of being gay. It seemed like taking pride in brown hair… or brown eyes… or being able to eat a medium pizza all by myself. These things weren’t unique, just intrinsic to me.

As I wrote, that feeling lasted for five minutes. For five whole minutes, I forgot the rest of the world exists. It came crashing back, bringing me a sermon seed. From the riots at the Stonewall in to the foreseeable future, pride isn’t about being gay. Pride is about your reaction to others’ disappointment, fear, and anger at something that doesn’t need an opinion.

In fact, homophobia, transphobia, and acts against the queer community fueled by hatred conspire to form the perfect storm. Lightning bolts come at us through major events. Sodomy laws weren’t completely abolished until 2003. Gay marriage wasn’t legal until 2008. AIDS has been a never ending struggle because it has been the proof that conservative Christians needed that being gay was a sin and we could die from it. Conservative Christians are still struggling with the sin aspect, when other scientific progress has been institutionalized. For instance, we no longer think of the left-handed or the divorced as morally bankrupt.

Hypocrisy echoes like thunder all around us.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus and the Disciples are out on a boat in what is now Lake Kinnaret, then called the Sea of Galilee. Mark writes that it is storming, and Jesus is asleep in the boat. The Disciples are scared, and wake Jesus up. They say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are in peril?” In short, what they want is for Jesus to wake up and help bail water.

Biblical stories are often told in parables. This one is not spoken by Jesus, but imparts a lesson all the same. In the Bible, storms are often used to represent chaos. The Disciples internalize it by saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are in peril?” Jesus isn’t having it. Instead of working through the storm, he yells at it.

It obeys.

The AIDS crisis begat the slogan “silence equals death.” To me, that plays right into our gospel, because as all these messages of fear and hatred are coming at our community, progress is not measured in how well we go along, but how well we stand out.

We dismantle chaos when we yell at it. We dismantle chaos when we refuse to take it in. The storm is not of us, it is around us.

What pride means to me is not pride in the fact that I’m gay. It’s pride in yelling at the storm, even when my voice was shaking.

Amen.

Dear Black People,

I hope that you are not offended by my opening salvo, but one of my favorite shows on Netflix is “Dear White People,” and it seems rude not to write back. However, I am not here to be as flip and funny as that show. For instance, there will be no take-downs of shows that made me laugh so hard there were tears and snot running down my face. I hope and pray there will be no “white people are weird” moments, because I agree with you. I’m just here to talk about yesterday, and what it means for our collective futures.

I have said many times that no minority has the capability to be racist. Prejudiced, sure, but not racist. This is because racism is clearly a top-down, systematic, institution. No minority has the kind of power to create such a thing.

Though I would never compare my own struggle to yours, I feel so much empathy and sympathy toward it. Even though I’m as white and nerdy as they come, I am a woman and a lesbian, two things that have worked against me my entire career.

The one shining moment of equality that I’ve ever experienced was in Texas, of all places. I needed two forms of ID to get my driver’s license renewed, and I realized that I only had one… my old driver’s license. And then I remembered that I had a copy of Dana’s and my domestic partnership license from Oregon in my backpack, and I asked if they would take that. There was the usual “let me ask my manager,” but then they said “yes.”

I’ve also experienced some truly cringeworthy moments, the white people are awful moments that we share- the difference being that people can immediately tell that you’re black. They can almost immediately tell that I’m female. But knowing I’m a lesbian is just conjecture until I come out to them. It is not the same, but I hope that we can share some common ground.

For instance, when I was in high school, I told one person that I was a lesbian and two hours later, the entire school knew. One of the percussionists in my orchestra used to hold up Playboy centerfolds where the conductor couldn’t see them and whisper at me to look in his direction. It was mortifying, and it went on for days.

Later in life, I had a boss who spent 30 minutes talking about her children. She said, “I know you’re not going to have any, so I guess you can talk to us about your cat like that.” She also forced me to wear make-up because she said that I always looked like “I didn’t feel good.” Believe me, I was much more comfortable in my own skin without makeup, because while I am not androgynous, I’m not a girly girl, either.

When I was a teenager, I worked at an early childhood daycare center. They didn’t know that I heard them say I shouldn’t be around children, but they didn’t know if they could fire me for that. Over the next few weeks, there was a concerted effort to make me look incompetent instead.

Another story from my junior year in high school was that I had who I thought was a fantastic English teacher, and she would ask me to do things like help her with bulletin boards. I felt safe enough to come out to her, and after that, she had me transferred into a different class.

I realize that the last few paragraphs seem like I’m trying to make this entry all about me, but that is not my intent. I am trying to say that I will always be a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, because if I have had these experiences, you have stories that are 80 times worse.

Yesterday, while the verdict was being read on Derek Chauvin’s case, police shot and killed a 15-year-old girl. She had a knife and was not only lunging at another girl, she lunged toward the police. What I will never understand is why lethal force was necessary in that instance. Perhaps the police could have used defensive moves to take away the knife. Perhaps they could have used a taser to get her to drop the knife altogether so that they could get her into custody alive. She would have stood trial and probably done some time in juvie, but at the end of it, she would have been able to come home to her parents. Shooting four bullets at her was not, and should never, be the answer.

It should be known that the police are also trigger happy with white people, but the reason the Black Lives Matter protests are so important is that the police act as judge and jury in the moment and decide the punishment is death at a rate far greater than they have ever done when white people commit a crime.

Timothy McVeigh is a prime example. He blew up an entire building in Oklahoma and was taken alive to jail. The important part here is that though he died at the hands of the state, it was a jury’s decision. No police officers decided to kill him in that moment, at the site.

We can also add Dylann Roof to the mix. He killed nine people at a Charleston AME church, and was taken alive- even given Burger King on the way to the police station after a manhunt that lasted two days. He did not receive the death penalty, but life imprisonment. So, even though he will never live with his family again, they will get to come and visit. And again, he got to stand trial. No one in that manhunt decided that they were responsible for punishing him.

Getting caught stabbing someone is the least of our worries. Let’s start with the idea that black kids and adults can apparently be killed for holding anything. A toy gun (Tamir Rice), snacks (Trayvon Martin), and it was a cigarette that provoked the white cop’s ire in the Sandra Bland case. Worse, black people don’t even have to be holding anything. Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging through a park, though not by the police- by white supremacists in Georgia.

So now we’ve arrived at the part where it’s not just the police. It is all white people, clearly some more extreme than others. Most white people would not identify themselves as racists because they aren’t physically or emotionally violent towards minorities, particularly black people.

Or are they?

I get that most people aren’t physically violent, but the emotional piece is ever-present and pervasive. Believe me when I say that most of the time, white people do not even realize what they’re doing. They have grown up in a racist system that they can’t even see because it’s always been there. White supremacy is still a problem; extremists still exist. But every white person in America has committed the sin of blindness. I am including myself in that crowd, because the color of my skin still allows me privileges it doesn’t give you.

I can buy a car or a house easier than you. If you buy a nice car or house, the police are more likely to believe it isn’t yours.

Remember when Henry Louis Gates was arrested in front of his own house because when he came back from a trip to China, he found that his front door was jammed, so he and his driver tried to pry it open? The neighbors called 911 and claimed someone was breaking into the house. Gates is one of my favorite authors and has been on TV for interviews plenty. (“Finding Your Roots” hadn’t started yet.) Yet, no one recognized him or believed him in the moment.

If it can happen to a respected scholar, it can happen to any black person in America….. like Amanda Gorman, who had literally just been on TV a few weeks before, and if I remember right, it was a national broadcast (that’s the one joke you’ll get in this piece).

I am heartened by the election of Rev. Raphael Warnock, for a very particular reason. He went to Union Theological Seminary after he graduated from Morehouse. At Union, he went all the way to a doctoral degree. He is the antithesis of everything the Religious Right (which is neither) has done to the Republican Party. Instead of living in a comfort zone thisbig by emphasizing fear of hell and damnation, he is letting his votes be inspired by what the historical Christ would have wanted. He is bringing the kindom of God through the soul of politics, which I would support even if I was an atheist…. because his theology is one of civil rights for all, feeding and caring for the least of us, and changing our racial identity as a country, which for a long time has been rightly compared to South African apartheid. He is not trying to convert people to his religious beliefs, just using them to ask himself the important questions.

In “The Black Church” on PBS, Henry Louis Gates paraphrases James Cone’s work in “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” I had heard of Cone and the title of his book, but I’d never read it in depth. It struck me where I live.

Gates said that when Africans were first brought to the United States, slave owners forced Christianity on them because there was a lot in it about how slaves should behave (that is a whole different story for another day, but sufficed to say, that interpretation is abominable…. and at the very least, the slave owners should have paid more attention to the master’s responsibilities, the bare minimum for people that misunderstood those scriptures so badly). The slave owners didn’t anticipate that the slaves wouldn’t identify with those scriptures at all, but the man who was beaten and crucified, someone they could indeed understand.

To take it a step further, there is no such thing as competitive suffering. Jesus did not suffer more than American slaves, and to say he did is to undermine you both. Howard Thurman said it best when he entitled his magnum opus “Jesus and the Disinherited.” Martin Luther King, Jr. carried a copy of that book everywhere he went, and he kept it close to his heart- literally in the inside pocket of his suit jacket.

There’s probably nothing that I, a nerdy white lady, can offer you in the way of comfort. However, I believe that these two books might become important to you, even if you are not religious. I will also add a second book by James Cone called “Black Theology and Black Power,” which argues that Jesus’ liberation of both Jews and Gentiles alike was the same message that Black Power was preaching. In fact, you’ll read that it was Malcolm X who shook Cone out of his complacency….. Malcolm said that “Christianity was a white man’s religion,” and it stuck with Cone long enough for him to realize that Malcolm was right. The church universal has a lot of work to do in terms of widening the net and dissociating itself from white supremacy…… going back to ancient missionaries trying to bring white European Christian culture to people who already had civilizations older than theirs.

White, heterosexual, cisgender supremacy has become inextricably interrelated with white church. It’s just more polite. Hidden behind smiles and “bless your hearts.” If there is anything the Trump administration showed me, it is that there are still so many people who would treat you as lesser than just because your skin looks different, and treat me as if I am sin personified. I don’t go to a church like that, but I am wary of walking into any of them with which I am not familiar…. or if I’ve heard the things that go on there.

Any church that looks at the Bible as if God literally had a pen in their hand and wrote it all down is ridiculous to me. It was written in a time and place that has no bearing on our own, in addition to being inspired by many, many people…. some of whom made it into the canon, and some who did not. I look at theology as a lens through which I see everything else, and I have to admit, I did not write that sentence. Marcus Borg did. The best analogy I can bring to the table is a scene from “Shadowlands:”

Harry: I know how hard you’ve been praying; and now God is answering your prayers.

Jack: That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.

I can only hope that the reverse is true with the Black Lives Matter movement… that through the fog, we will carry the light together, bringing along everyone else.

Love,

Leslie

Sermon for Proper 10, Year A: Seeds and Stems

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Sperm is often called “seed,” especially in the Bible. Therefore, every single one of us starts out as a seed, and when, joined with an egg, takes root in the womb and stems outward. A lot of our personality is created when seeds become stems  and stems become branches and branches become the mature tree… a new person, ready to take on the world.

But have you ever stopped to wonder how the DNA handed down to you affects the type of roots you create? What kind of seed you might be? Do you consistently seek out people who you deem “in the same garden?”

The types of seeds that Jesus is talking about directly relate to personalities in people, and he says so directly when he’s explaining what he just said. This is because often, when Jesus uses an analogy while preaching, and even in just talking to his disciples, what he receives is a series of dumb looks.

This is not unusual even today, because without repetitive explanation, people get lost in their own minds and now have no idea what you’re saying. The best preaching advice I’ve ever gotten is, “first, you tell them. Next, you tell them again. Then you tell them again.” Of course, you use different illustrations, but they’re all the same point.

When people are firmly planted in their pews, completely tracking with you, they may not get the idea of repetition. People who are not often need it. As a preacher, I am competing with the personal stories that come up for the people listening, what to have for lunch, and, especially in Portland, a sunny day.

It’s the difference between how the seeds are planted, and what kind of personalities they create.

We can even expand past the personal to the local church. Are you invested with deep roots, or did your mother make you come? It’s at this point that we have to ask ourselves “are we the 30, the 60, or the 100-fold kind of church?”

What kind of church ARE we?

Are we so shallow in our commitment that a bird could swallow us up? That it would take so little to make us disband? We have nourished the bird, but have failed ourselves in a “give a man a fish” kind of way. We’ve sustained, for a moment, one being… and walked away. The gospel competes with the world, and loses… badly.

Have we planted ourselves on rocky soil, reaching for the sun? The best analogy I can think for this kind of church are those that initially are so gung ho that they over-commit, and six or 12 months later, leave, never to return… because it’s just so much work. Few can let go and listen because the running tab of things to do is so long, particularly for “the Marthas…” who place very little importance on the phrase don’t just do something, sit there.

Initial excitement in its exuberance is a wonderful thing, but it has to be watered carefully, as not to burn or drown. There is generally little room to add new crops, because people are already so mired between committees and choirs and teaching Sunday School and laying out vestments and ALL THE THINGS that new shoots spring up, and there’s no one with enough sunlight left to tend to them. The gospel just gets in the way of the running to-do list with no respite.

Churches with deep roots are not only self-sustaining, but have the ability to minister to others… and it’s a difference you can both see and feel. Deep roots mean there’s a group of people for each single thing, so that no one group has to do everything. The same 30 or 60 people are not the entire church, but just the choir or just a couple of committees. If you’ve ever been to a really small church, you know that there are at least ten people who are on every committee and in the choir, and have to say “no more.” Not out of malice, out of exhaustion. There are churches with deep roots who have the ability to create a committee just to shake new people’s hands as they come in the door, and that is their only function. There is enough room between rows, enough nutrients for everyone, that the seeds become stems and the stems become branches and the branches become the mature tree. The gospel is not working at us, but through us. We are able to welcome the stranger, give to the poor, fight racial inequality and GLBTQI rights… we have the ability to widen the net, teaching others to fish as we go.

Which invariably leads to the question of what kind of world we want to be.

For a lot of people, it’s starting to feel like being a 100-fold seed in a 30-fold world. But here’s the catch… it’s not a 30-fold seed world. Perception is not reality. There are enough people to do everything, enough people to be able to pick which causes to support, which battles to fight… and which governments need resistance. Resistance is not futile, it’s its own kind of protest.

Hundred-fold people create hundred-fold churches which give the individual a chance to grow into a community. So many people can and will get involved, but are overwhelmed when it comes to how to “jump in.” They are the hope and the future as to how a 30-fold seed can find its way from feeding one being to all of them.

This is where you are issued an invitation, in turn to give one. In my own life, I have never once had success with inviting someone to come with me to church. I have had success with showing them who I am and to whom I belong. For instance, I’ve invited friends to march with me in the Pride parade along with my church group…. or go to a political rally. Wide-eyed, they look at me as if to say, your church does THAT?

Of course. In a church with deep roots, the plants grow toward the sky, because the deeper the support system, the easier it is to say…

Jesus Has Left the Building.

Amen.
#prayingonthespaces

The Upside of Fear

When fear that life would pass me by became greater than my fear of social interaction, I started to move. Yesterday was a “go big or go home” sort of day. I talked to my pastor about all sorts of things, such as working to earn ordination through the UCC, actually going to seminary, and people I should meet in Silver Spring.

As of this morning, my application to Howard is complete. I am just going to worry about how to pay for it later. I am sure that with the combination of donors, federal aid, grants, etc. I can wade my way through the last year and a half of undergrad and start grad school to get the MDiv I’ve wanted forever, but have never put my money where my mouth was. I chose Howard because it’s cheaper than American. The last thing I want to do is start out my homeless ministry with crippling debt. Being a pastor to homeless people generally doesn’t pay that well, and if it does, you’re doing it wrong.

The application fee was less than $50, and as I submitted my debit card number, I had this huge feeling that this was money I was using to prove that other people didn’t have to believe in me. I believed in myself. To that end, I took Matt’s suggestions and reached out to the names he gave me in Silver Spring already doing what I want to do.

I have a meeting with Jeffrey Thames on Friday morning. Jeffrey runs a homeless ministry in Silver Spring called “Hope Restored,” so my objective is just to show up and absorb all the knowledge I can, and see if he’ll give me a job. I can’t imagine he won’t. It doesn’t matter if it pays anything. That’s not the point. The point is to get experience in what I really want to do, because walking back and forth from my house to the 7-Eleven is only going to yield so much. As of right this moment, I know four homeless people by name. It’s a damn good start if I am choosing to focus on how far I’ve come in the month that I’ve been here. The trick is not to give in to social anxiety anymore.

When I isolate, I keep bad things from happening, but I don’t let in any good, either. I have to be bigger than my fears. I have to keep them at bay. I have to own them, and not let them own me. The upside of fear is that it motivated me to look at my life differently. And in that way, there is no downside at all.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday Year B 2015: Put Down Your iPhone

Put. It. Down.

I know you’re reading this on some kind of electronic device, but when you’re finished, maybe take a walk. Play Scrabble with your kids. Walk on The Mall or go to the Smithsonian. Whatever you do, unplug in a major way. Because when you are paying attention to your screen, what kind of information are you missing? What kind of dreams would you have if they weren’t interrupted by pictures of falling candy? What kind of knowledge would you pick up that you couldn’t get from Google?

A lot, actually.

Google and your electronics will definitely give you world news, but what about how your family is doing emotionally?

Our passage from Isaiah focuses on that point exclusively. Isaiah has just been through one of the worst times in his life. The king of Judah that he loved, Uzziah, was pushed out of his throne and into a life of solitude, even unto death. He’d committed a major sin according to the High Priest by burning incense as a gift to God, but to the High Priest, it came across as a major power play. Burning incense as a gift to God was an authority given only to the descendants of Aaron, so HOW DARE HE? Uzziah contracted leprosy soon afterward, and the High Priest declared it punishment for Uzziah’s sins. He wasn’t even buried with the other kings- set apart because of his mistake.

The king that took over, Jotham, conspired with Pekah, the King of Israel, to form an alliance with the Assyrians. Isaiah felt that the Jews were turning their backs on a God that had delivered them from their distress, all the way back to Moses leading them out of the slavery they’d suffered in Egypt.

He went into the temple to pray, and had a vision. This scripture is very important to the life of both Judaism and Christianity, because it is the moment Isaiah steps up and says, “here I am.” It doesn’t come easily, though. At first, the vision is of his pain. He knows that he and his people are unclean in the way that they are ignoring the same God that’s been there for them all along. He deems himself unworthy, and then an angel steps forward. Hear it in his own words:

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Isaiah is not anointed by oil; he is anointed by fire… and yet, he doesn’t speak of it burning him. He speaks of it as doing what fire does. It tempers him. He takes the fire and lets it burn away the old version of himself, the one that feels unworthy to serve. When God says, “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah STANDS UP. He says plainly, “HERE AM I; SEND ME!” The old Isaiah is no more. He takes his power of vision and is considered one of the greatest prophets who ever lived. His predictions turned out to be accurate. As I have said before, Isaiah’s prose on Jesus is like looking at his baby pictures from hundreds of years before he was born. Fire on his lips in his visions became fire in the belly in his daily life and he USED IT.

We don’t get this kind of vision in our daily lives unless we sit as still as Isaiah did. Unless we unplug our electronics and sit in our own unworthiness and decide what kind of fire we need to create the kind of passion that Isaiah exhibits.

Last week, I preached a confessional sermon on how my Holy Spirit moment occurred, also through fire that tempered me. What is your moment? Have you found it yet?

Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit moment in a different element. Hear his words:

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

The context is that he is talking to Nicodemus, who is confused by the concept of being “born again.” Of course you cannot reenter your mother’s womb, but every life gets fresh starts. We do it all the time. I just moved from Texas to Maryland. What have you done? Perhaps it is seeing a bad relationship and either departing from it or refreshing it anew. Maybe it is a job you hate that you’ve finally decided you’ve had enough.

Or perhaps you have unplugged enough that you can say, “here I am; send me” to the other people in your world. Perhaps there’s a sick person that needs your attention and you just haven’t had the fortitude to visit, but today is the day. Perhaps you’ve let church relationships fade because of one conflict or another and you’ve had enough of your own passive aggression and show up, anyway.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ve had enough of you. Maybe the person you are is not the person you’d like to be. What kind of coal should go on your lips so that you can be born of the spirit instead of watching it happen to others? To you, is self actualization just for other people? Are you hiding in your own darkness because it’s comfortable?

On this Trinity Sunday, I ask that you ask yourself these burning questions, because if you sit with them long enough, they won’t burn anymore. You won’t have seen fire, you’ll have walked through it.

Where is your Holy Spirit moment? What do you need to ask God to heal? Are you calling out for Jesus, the Mediator and Advocate?

God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

Amen.

To This Day

Dana and I were just having the most interesting conversation about Doctor Who and the Bible, because the canons are strikingly similar. The conversation started when we remembered The Master.

I said:

I hope they show The Master as a little boy, looking into the schism for the first time. You know who it reminds me of? Moses and the story of the burning bush. God actually tells Moses not to look at him because the sight is too overwhelming. When The Master looks into the time vortex, it’s like getting an answer to the question “what would have happened?” Keep in mind that since I am not a fundamentalist, I am not talking literally. There’s just a lot of wisdom in looking at them together.

And Dana said:

The Doctor is a Christ allegory because in dying for our sins, he’s still protecting us to this day. For years, the story has been that the doctor is atoning for the sins of killing all of his people and the canon has changed to now having locked them in a slice of time so that he can rescue them one day. And he’s over 2,000 years old now.

My eyes started to bug out of my head.

I love being married.