A version of this sermon was preached about a year ago at St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem. After David Kato’s death in Uganda, and considering what is happening in our country around bullying and in our church around marriage and ordination “standards,” I had an opportunity to pull this out again and retool it for Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Jersey. I was there to welcome them to Presbyterian Welcome This was preached on February 13, 2011 and is based on Isaiah 43: 1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.
Sometimes Scripture makes the solutions to our life problems seem kind of simple. God loves us. If you are having doubts and problems know that God loves you and will bring you through whatever you are going through. If you see an injustice or live and injustice then know that God is with you in that and that the injustice you know will one day soon enough be turned on it’s head.
For a few concrete scriptural examples let’s take Isaiah. For the people of the world, all the people that God chooses, we are called by name, we are God’s own, we are redeemed. When we pass through waters, when we feel like the waters are eating us alive, God is with us. When we pass through the rivers and are in under our heads, God will not let them overwhelm us. When we are in the midst of fire, we won’t be burned and the flames won’t consume us.
It is one of those unconditional kinds of readings, no ifs, ands or buts. There is no if you are righteous or faithful or perfect enough then God will be with you through the waters. What good news to hear for those being ordained and installed today! It isn’t a kind of test on God’s part—there is no deal-making or gambling done with God about God’s love, it is there, it is clear, there is nothing you can do to get rid of it and there is nothing you can do to earn it. God promises to us to be there. Period. No questions asked for all of us.
And then we move to Luke.
We have John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, travelling throughout the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness for everyone and quoting Isaiah: Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. It’s a pretty good promise, a clear one, straightforward, unconditional, and the people came for this promise, even tax collectors, and if they were there then just about everybody was there. They came and they asked John what they should do because of this promise, how they should act now that they had been baptized and he told them to share their stuff and feed the hungry and stop ripping people off. Pretty simple on the outset.
By the time we get to the reading today, when Jesus is baptized, John had baptized many others. People were learning that sharing what they had and not spending their days scheming about how to take advantage of others had given them have a much better life. This better life, though, was a life that was resented by people, like the King, who thrived on hoarding and scheming. King Herod, the one who tried to kill Jesus in the massacre that we learn about in Matthew’s account, because Jesus was a threat to Herod’s royal line, was so angry, and shut John up in prison and eventually beheaded him because he baptized and because he proclaimed God’s equality and justice. But this wasn’t before John had baptized hoards of people, including Jesus. This wasn’t before the Holy Spirit came to Jesus and therefore to us and gave yet another affirmation: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.
But then it grows more complicated. Working for fairness in the world might get you imprisoned or even killed. And yet that is what we are called to. But these affirmations we have, over and over again are there to give us strength in our biblical calling to work for a world where there is enough for everyone so that we don’t have more than anyone else and where no one is hungry.
In the text we read this morning, baptism is one of those places we go for strength. What we do when we baptize is simply acknowledge that God has been working inside of us since we were in our mother’s wombs. Baptism, an outward sign of the grace that has been extended inside of us before we had memory, is for all of us. Baptism calls us to respond, to action, to ordination and installation for some of us but to a life of service for all of us. Baptism calls us to life in Christ, calls us to a life of feeding the hungry, sharing, refusing to abuse systems of power and working against the system that does abuse people, forging brother and sister relationships with people whom we would never choose. God’s grace and forgiveness is free for the taking, if only we had the foresight to really know that and change our behaviors accordingly. God’s grace doesn’t need to be bartered for or worked for or be perfect enough for. We’ve got it, as it is given freely and then we are free to do all the things like feed the hungry and share and challenge systems of injustice and not judge others for, you know, baptism is open to all and all doesn’t mean some and all does mean those who we wouldn’t choose.
So, while these readings might be straightforward, they don’t make it easy or simple at all. Because the flip side of living into our baptisms is the indication that the Christian life is one of risking life. Jesus had been hunted down by Herod before he could speak his first word, because the Wise Men determined that Jesus was King, usurping the power of Herod. John gets thrown in jail for his huzpah, for all this monkeybusiness about baptism and telling others to not abuse the tax-collecting system or encourage the empire and to feed the hungry.
So, by following Jesus, and by following Herod, the scriptures make it clear that this glorious promise of life abundant we hear in Isaiah and again in Luke is for all people, but not without putting our pride and our traditions and our lives on the line.
And so, welcome to the fold of Presbyterian Welcome, joining us as our 20th Supporting Congregation as we work to transform the church into a place where all people know that the promises of Jesus are for them, that they are loved just as they are, that they are called on this journey to risking their lives to save their lives and that we are called to do that together. I can’t be more pleased than to be in this pulpit welcoming you.
And to preach about the work we have to do together.
I am not sure how many of you are following what is happening right now in Uganda. In March of 2009 three conservative American Christians who believe in, and have organized “change ministries” here in the U.S. went to Uganda to give a conference about how they might “cure” gay and lesbian people from their sexuality. The point of their talks were to uncover the “dark and hidden” gay agenda, and the threat that they believe gays and lesbians pose to Bible-based values and the traditional African family. Their visit to Uganda was given a great deal of press and attention, with thousands and thousands of Ugandans listening with great attention to every word they said—with no other counter opinion or experience. They discussed how to make gay people straight, how the gay movement is an evil institution, and other lies which I find so painfully offensive that I can’t bring myself to repeat from the pulpit.
One month after this conference, not surprisingly, a Ugandan politician puts the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009” on the agenda, which threatens to hang gay and lesbian people.
About a year ago a New York Times article said the following: “human rights advocates in Uganda say the visit by the three Americans helped set in motion what could be a very dangerous cycle. Gay Ugandans already describe a world of beatings, blackmail, death threats … scrawled on their homes, constant harassment and even so-called correctional rape.” A woman named “Stosh Mugisha, a gay rights activist said she was pinned down in a guava orchard and raped by a farmhand who wanted to cure her of her attraction to girls. She said that she was impregnated and infected with H.I.V., but that her grandmother’s reaction was simply, “You are too stubborn.””
And then just a few weeks ago a Christian gay activist by the name of David Kato, a close personal friend of friends of mine, was killed in his home, beaten to death by a hammer. David had spoken bravely against the anti-homosexuality bill not yet voted on. You see, he believed that the promises of baptism were for him, and for all of his brothers and sisters and was working hard to counter the death-dealing propaganda of the American conservative Christians, and this was so very threatening that to death he was brought.
I admit to you that I come from a very different perspective than conservative Christians from these evangelicals that traveled to Uganda in how I read and interpret the Bible. I know many conservative Christians are faithful and good people, and that there is a great range and diversity among movements regarding many social issues. They are just as divided and diverse as any other group of people. But conservatives who justify telling such violent and dangerous lies, in the name of Jesus, in the name of the one who was named King in the face of the Roman Empire, in the name of the one who comes as a human being to this world to show us how to love each other, in the name of the one who was baptized right alongside tax collectors and hung alongside prisoners, these people, I cannot understand. Nowhere in the Bible do I find justification for this kind of irresponsible behavior. Possibly it is because I work on the other end of things, because gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender people who have been so tremendously damaged by conservative Christian theology find their way to my doorstep struggling with who they are and whether or not God loves them for who God made them.
My biggest concern with what is happening in Uganda, besides for the lives of gay and lesbian people, for David and so many others, their families, and anyone who speaks out for them, is that the promises that we are given, in Isaiah, in Luke, at the time of our baptisms be defended and lived out. My biggest concern is to preach these promises, for the soul and the integrity of the church and to preach the gospel in the face of such dangerous heresy.
You see, what was being confronted in our readings today are systems of oppression and power. Literally feeding the hungry then was like Ugandans speaking up against their government’s Anti-Homosexuality bill now. In that same New York Times article a man named, Haj Medih, a Muslim taxi driver with many gay and lesbian clients, was quoted saying this: “I can defend them. But I fear the what? The police, the government. Thy can arrest you and put you in the safe house, and for me, I don’t have any lawyer who can help me.” This man speaking out potentially can receive three years in jail. Those who fed the hungry, who spoke out against corruption, John the Baptist, for instance, were put in jail and beheaded.
So we see how complicated it gets, so easily. Corrupt systems of power thrive…and then we find ourselves, in the name of Jesus, in the name of Christianity, in the name of the church, literally finding ways to kill each other. We reenact these systems over and over and over again and it is a wonder to me at times that we are still within the realm of God’s love promised to us in Isaiah, in Luke, in about ever inch and corner of God’s Word to us.
Jesus came to us in human form, Beloved Child of God. He lives on inside each and every one of us, which makes us Beloved Children of God. In his name, in the name of his world, and his church and his people, our sisters and our brothers, we can do nothing less than put our lives on the line, as he did for us, for others.
Each of us has a unique opportunity. To speak, to risk, to do, to be. Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church, you have made a declaration to the world that the promises of Jesus Christ are for all, and by all I mean all, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. You have been empowered to speak. For if you don’t speak then people on the outside of these walls will believe otherwise, that Christians do not welcome all, that Christians can’t very well live into what God through Christ Jesus says and does. You can use your collective voice, as Christians who gather week in and week out, loving each other, loving everyone who comes through your doors and let our Ugandan sisters and brothers know how blessed you have been by the diversity you have welcomed in this congregation.
And for goodness sakes let’s be clear. It isn’t only in Uganda that we struggle with homophobia and heterosexism. It is also in our own back yard. Let us not forget the brash of publicized bullying and suicides that happened from coast to coast of LGBT teenagers. Did you know that one of the bullies that harassed Tyler Clementi to his death off the G.W. is a Presbyterian, active in her youth group. Did you know that last fall a young lesbian woman in CA took her own life—she a Presbyterian and her father a Presbyterian Pastor. The bullying and the suicides continue, taking our children, even though we aren’t hearing about it anymore.
And just two weeks ago, literally right down the road, the same Saturday your youth group came into the city for an anti-bullying event we sponsored Chris and I attended the trial of the Presbyterian Church USA vs. Laurie McNeill. Laurie is a Presbyterian pastor who in her middle aged years finally stopped hiding her sexuality, and came out. She came out and she met the love of her life and she married her, legally, in the state of Massachusetts. And just a few towns away a few people filed charges against her in our Presbyterian system, accusing her of violating her ordination vows by marrying Lisa. They said that, because of our constitution she was not allowed to be in a “happy marriage” with Lisa and every moment that this continued was a violation. I have been accompanying Laurie through these charges for about a year now and finally it went to trial—to be found “not guilty,” but who knows if it will be appealed.
Oh, yes, it is right here too, people needing to know on a very intimate level the promises of Jesus.
For Christ’s sake, you can do this, you can defend the Gospel.
The Scriptures give us lessons that appear so easy. Feed the hungry. Confront corruption. Share your stuff. Trust in the one that is coming. Do this because God loves you and everyone else so very much that you will never go through rivers alone, you will never be engulfed by the flames, you will never be all by yourself to die. Do this because nothing in life nor in death can separate you from the love of God.
But as you do it know that you are putting your life at risk. John got life in prison. Jesus got the modern-day equivalent of the death penalty. To follow is to risk, big time. But to follow is also to allow life to win out over death, because death never, ever wins. To follow is to find peace beyond all understanding. To follow is to seek Jesus and no one, no one I know has ever regretted that decision.
In the name of Christ, the one who comes and the one who saves, Amen.