When Facing Legions
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

June 19, 2016

1 Kings 19:1-15a
Luke 8:26-39

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

Friends, I confess, I want to be speechless. On this first anniversary of the Sunday after the shootings at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, where a young man sat in the sanctuary for Bible study, and then murdered nine church members; on this first Sunday after a man went into a very different kind of sanctuary, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and murdered so many and wounded so many more; I want to not have to express my grief again, and again. I want to not have to stand up here and try and articulate a word from the Bible that deals with the *stuff* we have been going through.

But I cannot. I cannot because when the church is silent about the love of Christ for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, queer, questioning, or simply confused about who they are and who they are attracted to, we are complicit in their murder.

We confess that God has loved us long before we knew or loved God, that while we were yet sinners with no hope for ourselves, God came with a life affirming and unconditional love for us in Jesus Christ. And so when we are silent about the love of God for all, including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, queer, questioning, or confused about who they are and who they are attracted to, we are complicit not simply in the deaths and injuries at the Pulse night club, but also of the countless number of other deaths: the murder of LGBT people, a rate of suicides four times higher than their straight peers for LGBT teens, and three times higher than their straight peers for teens who question their sexuality.

Because we have a message of love in a world full of fear, hatred, violence and shame. And if we are not willing to share that message with those who are most at risk, we are a part of the problem.

In a study done by Northwestern University School of Medicine, the thing that shields LGBT youth from suicide the most was found to be being surrounded by the love of family and friends. The opposite is also true. When a kid comes out to their parents, if their parents reject them, they face a risk of a suicide attempt 8.4 times higher than LGBT kids who are accepted by their family and friends. Which, if you are doing the math, means that kids who are rejected by their families and friends because of their sexuality, the risk of a suicide attempt is nearly 34 times higher than for a straight kid.

When we know the cause of such pain, and we know the source of its healing, and we claim to be a people who follow the Great Physician, and we do nothing, we are part of the problem.

Now, I did not want to go here. Talking about guns, talking about sexuality, these are not good “Jesus and me are doing alright” topics. It is safer in the church to talk about spirituality, to work out our own private salvations, to say “live and let live.” Except, the world is not live and let live. People of color are being killed. People of sexual minorities are being killed, or being bullied and rejected enough to kill themselves.

Going here in a sermon feels a lot like being in a pagan land (an unclean people), among the tombs (an unclean place), near the pigs (an unclean animal): not the place that nice, God-fearing, religious folks would ever want to be.

But this is where Jesus goes in the Gospel.

And what he finds there is a man who is tormented. Tormented by the labels put on him, like shackles that he both breaks and drags around with him. Tormented by trying to live in a place of death. Tormented by so many problems that violence feels like it might be the only solution. Tormented, because a man like this knows rejection and pain and bruises, not just of the body, but of the soul.

And that is where Jesus goes.

As some of you know, First Congregational Church has already been labeled by some of our more conservative brothers and sisters as a “gay church.” And we know that we live in a congregation that expresses love and welcome to those who come here that is life-giving and life-sustaining, and one’s sexuality is not a barrier to that. So it seems that if we know this, and our neighbors know this, the only ones who do not know that we are this loving and this welcoming are the ones who are literally dying for lack of a place like this in which to discover that God loves them just as much as God loves you and me.

Which raises some interesting questions: Does making welcoming people of color make us a black church? Does having a sound system in the sanctuary make us a deaf church? Does having a ramp at one entrance and an elevator and a barrier free bathroom make us a handicapped church? (Each of which, by the way, was a condition that at one point or another has faced exclusion from the congregation of God’s people…) Would a rainbow on the sign make us a gay church? Or are all of these ways that we work intentionally to make it so that people can come in a worship God, have the joys and support of a church family, and find their place in God’s amazing and unconditional love, regardless of who they are or who they love?

I get the difficulty of this. I understand the worry about what the neighbors might say if the church had a rainbow on the sign. I understand that this is a lot of cultural change happening way too quickly for some of our own dear and faithful members.

Between Jesus and Elijah, we see two faithful ways of being. When faced with a legion of problems, we can stand solidly in our faith and do what we are called to do, as Jesus did; or if we do not feel strong enough for that, we can turn to our other scripture from this morning. See, Elijah also faced legions. His were soldiers and prophets of the pagan king and they wanted to kill him. So he ran away. He retreated. And he cried out to the Lord. And in this wilderness, God fed him. In this wilderness, God gave him rest, and food, and shelter.

And then God told Elijah to go to a cave, wrap himself in his mantle, and wait for the Lord. Not in thunder and lightning; not in earthquake or fire; but in a still small voice.

This fall, we are going on a pilgrimage. We are not traveling to holy sites around the world. Instead we are going to gather in small groups, and we are going to join in our spiritual practices: prayer, fasting, listening for the still, small voice of God. Because we will need to stand up, we will need to be a bulwark of compassion in a world of violence and hatred. And if we are going to do that, we must first be fed by God, be led by God, listen together intently for the still, small voice of God.

And we pray that God will lead us through this wilderness, to be able to stand in our faith and be the church God is calling us to be.

Thanks be to God.