May 19, 2019
Genesis 1:27, 31a Matthew 25:31-40
Rev Liz Miller, Guest Preacher at First Congregational UCC, Charlotte MI
In the United Church of Christ, we tell folks who are discovering us for the first time that if you’ve been to one UCC church, you’ve been to one UCC church. No two UCC churches are exactly alike, but I’m comforted to realize this morning that I feel very much at home in your sanctuary. As we prayed and sang together, your prayers were my prayers, your songs were my familiar, beloved songs. It feels like we speak the same language.
Language is important. It helps us connect with one another, it helps us feel like we belong, it helps us work together and be in relationship with one another. Thirteen years ago I moved across the country to Boston to begin seminary. On my first day, when I arrived in the city, I called ahead to find out where on campus I should go to check in and get my dormitory key. The person in the housing office told me to meet them in “Woosta” Hall. I got to campus, parked my car, and pulled out my map.
It was a small campus –only about nine buildings total –but there was no Woosta Hall. Herrick House, Stoddard, Kendall Hall…I was already full of first day jitters and I started to worry that if I couldn’t even read the map right to get checked into my dorm, I was surely doomed to fail out of seminary. After looking at the map a second and third time, I took a deep breath and walked into the only building that started with a W –Worchester Hall. I asked someone walking by, “Excuse me, how do you get to woosta hall?” They replied, “You’re standing in it. Welcome to Boston. ” It’s so much easier when you speak the same language as the people around you.
This morning I’m aware that I bring with me a particular language and vocabulary that might be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable for some folks. The language we use to refer to LGBTQ communities has rapidly evolved over the past few decades. Some of us might remember when it was only referred to as homosexuality, if it was referred to at all. Others of us might be more familiar with the language of gay and lesbian, but today we know that leaves many others who fall into the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Even LGBTQ is limited by the letters we remember to include.
There is a term that is used within the LGBTQ community that is a broader umbrella term that has been reclaimed, particularly by younger generations. The term is ‘queer.’ For a long time queer was a slur we were taught not say. Today its power to hurt has been stripped away for many folks and it has come to be used with pride. This seems like a sudden switch for some, but it was first reclaimed in the late 1980s by a group that called itself “Queer Nation.” They handed out pamphlets at the Pride celebration in New York City in 1990 that said, “Queers Read This.” Inside it explained how and why they were reclaiming queer for themselves,
“Being queer is not about a right to privacy; it is about the freedom to be public, to just be who we are. It means everyday fighting oppression; homophobia, racism, misogyny, the bigotry of religious hypocrites and our own self-hatred. [because] (We have been carefully taught to hate ourselves.)…Being queer is “grassroots” because we know that everyone of us, every body … every heart … is a world of pleasure waiting to be explored. Everyone of us is a world of infinite possibility.”
And thus for the last thirty years ‘queer’ was slowly reclaimed until today we understand that it includes gay, lesbian, transgender, and all the identities that are in between and beyond those. Queer is a word that represents inclusion and so I use it today to represent the full spectrum of the LGBTQ community. I invite you to join me in using the word queer in a radically positive way, to try it out if you feel unsure about its use, or at least listen to me use it with this new understanding.
Like language, so much of what we teach and pass on to each other is rooted in specific cultures, whether it is the culture of a family that knows which holidays are most important to come together for, a state where the culture is to hold up your hand to show where you’re from, or even a church that has favorite traditions that are specific to their faith community.
Individual churches each have their own culture, but more broadly, Christianity has a shared culture that is perpetuated whether or not individual local churches buy into it. For example, part of Christian culture is that if you’re only going to come to church once a year, it’s going to be on Christmas or Easter. And, Christian culture understands worship to involve prayers, scripture, a sermon, Jesus, and music –though of course there are Christian traditions like the Quakers who don’t have music or a sermon in worship, but they aren’t what first come to mind when you think of Christian culture in general. There are other parts of our Christian culture that are more challenging to accept.
It seems like once a month I get a phone call, email, or visit from a young adult who has been told that in order to be a part of the Christian culture, they can’t be queer. These young adults come to me not because they know me personally, but because they have heard there is a Christian congregation in mid-Michigan that is preaching and proclaiming a different message than they have heard their whole lives in other churches. They’ve driven by Edgewood’s building and did a double-take when they saw a giant rainbow post in the front lawn of a Christian church. They browsed our website and were shocked to learn what the phrase “Open and Affirming” meant. These are young Christians who are longing for a connection to God and community, but feel conflicted about what they have been told, where they might experience God’s love, and how they can authentically be their full selves. These are young Christians who are too afraid to show up on Sunday morning until they have tangential proof that they won’t be chased out of the sanctuary.
My conversations with these young adults always follow the same pattern. I first hear stories of how it came to be that they were reaching out to a complete stranger for advice. They tell me about their families –about parents who yelled or walked away or shunned their child when they came out. They tell me about being forced to talk to their home pastor, about the gentle tones that their pastor would use but how the message was always same, “You’re a sinner. And unless you stop sinning, you’re not welcome in my church.”
They tell me about camps I thought were a thing of the past but are still alive and well in shadowy corners in our communities where no one else is watching, conversion therapy camps where they were lectured and punished until they claimed to be rehabilitated. And perhaps more painfully, they tell me they understand why their family and their church rejected them, because after all –doesn’t God hate queers? Doesn’t the Bible say that homosexuality is a sin?
This is the point in the conversation when the questions come: questions about the book of Leviticus and Paul’s letter to the Romans, questions about being an abomination and God’s plan to have one man with one woman. Once the questions start they don’t stop and quickly expand beyond sexuality –usually they include, “And how exactly is it that you’re a woman pastor? Doesn’t the Bible say only men should lead the church?”
Every single time I have this conversation, my heart breaks. There is so much pain in these young people; so much shame, loss, brokenness. I live in this supposed liberal bubble of East Lansing, but these are my neighbors. These are your neighbors. These are kids who are driving 30, 45 minutes, an hour to hear a word of hope and affirmation inside of a church. And I say kids because it is almost always young adults. That’s not to say that shame or loss suddenly disappears at a certain age making it easy to find a new church –it’s that the longer you live and the older you get hearing these hate-filled messages, the harder it becomes to reach out and try one last time to find a church that will accept you, no matter who you are or who you love.
Whatever I say to these visitors, I never have enough time to adequately unpack all they have heard and been taught to believe throughout their lives. It feels like teaching a new language that requires practice, time, and patience as they stumble through to understand what I am saying. They are learning a whole new language of Christianity –one that is founded in prophetic love and not exclusion. It is a Christianity that doesn’t cherry pick Bible verses and holds them up to judge other people. It’s a Christianity that tells a wild story of God’s people seeking to find meaning in their lives, seeking to love God and be loved by God, seeking to do more good than harm in the world. And when I read the Bible, that is what I read. It is overflowing with stories of people trying to do good, messing up, and God giving them another chance and loving them no matter what.
This starts right at the beginning of Genesis. “God created humankind in God’s own image. In the image of God, they were created. And God saw what was made, God saw humankind, and it was good.” When it comes to our relationship with God, we start with goodness. One of those things in Christian culture that carries across many churches is the call and response, “God is good!” “All the time!” “All the time!” “God is good!” And we who were made in God’s image are also good.
Good doesn’t mean perfect. Good doesn’t mean we don’t have bad days or do stupid things or that we don’t ever hurt each other. But good means that however we were created –whether we have light skin or dark skin, whether we are tall or short, whether we are funny or serious, whether we walk or use a wheelchair, whether we love men or women, whether or not the sex we were assigned at birth matches the gender we are, we are good. You are good. Even me the too tall to be a proper woman, too womanly to be a proper pastor, too queer to be a proper anything is good. God said so when I was born. Nothing and no one can take that away from me.
I didn’t just cherry pick that verse. This is affirmed over and over again throughout scripture, but perhaps most explicitly in the Gospels. Whenever Jesus encountered someone who was left out, put down, or discriminated against, he spoke up for them and called for another way. In fact, that is what most of his teachings are about –reminding his disciples and the other people around him to stop dividing people into categories that create insiders and outsiders and to start loving one another.
Jesus calls for a love that is more than words, but instead is grounded in our actions. Feeding people. Offering them something to drink. Welcoming them. Clothing them. “Just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Those who are hungry for healing, those who are thirsty for acceptance, those who are longing for welcome, those who are naked in their vulnerability –that is in whom we see Jesus, that is who we are called to love as if someone’s life depends on it, as if our own lives depend on it.
I see so much love for queer people who have been marginalized and oppressed in the Bible, but the truth is also that the Bible doesn’t say anything explicitly naming queer people because our understanding of what it means to be in loving same gender relationships or what it means to be transgender was not a part of the culture when the Bible was written. But it is part of our culture today. As progressive churches, we are called upon to shift the culture of Christianity as it is understood in our country by proclaiming a bold, unapologetic welcome for all queer people, no matter what letter in the LGBTQIA+ spectrum they represent.
It’s not enough for us to know it in our hearts or to say it amongst ourselves. Your neighbors need to hear it and know that there is a Christian church that believes in the goodness of all people and lives out love for ALL people. The young adults, and older adults, in our communities and families that have been damaged and traumatized by Christian churches need to hear it. And, we need to teach this message to every child and adult age 0 to 101. Sometimes I wonder why we still need to have this conversation in 2019, but if not now, when? It is 2019 and there are people amongst us longing for you to proclaim who you are and what you believe. Longing for a church to call home without having to question whether that welcome is conditional. We, your cousins and friends and sojourners in discipleship are longing for you to join us on this journey toward reconciliation and prophetic love. May it be so.