This sermon was preached for Pride Sunday at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church on June 24, 2012. The scripture for the morning was Mark 4:35-41
35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
You might have heard of a man named Bishop Gene Robinson. He was the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and due to the homophobia in the church, after his election as bishop of New Hampshire the global Episcopal Church turned itself into a tizzy. One example of this tizzy is the conference of bishops that happens every many years—it is called the Lambeth Conference and it is in the U.K. Bishops from all over the world come together for fellowship and to make decisions. Due to the outcry around Bishop Robinson’s election it was deemed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams that he be uninvited.
A colleague of mine, Macky Alston, made an award-winning documentary film about Bishop Robinson and followed him through these events. The Bishop went to the conference anyway and had speaking engagements on the outside, and spent his time in soup kitchens and meeting with survivors of AIDS. He received only one preaching invitation, as the Archbishop made it clear that he was not to be allowed to preach while in the country. One brave Pastor disobeyed these orders and invited him. The sanctuary was packed. Macky sat in the balcony with a camera in his hand.
The bishop preached about fear—and from the congregation a man stood up and began screaming hateful, threatening remarks at the Bishop, screaming at him to repent. He was removed by security with the congregation singing and the Bishop, after he left, asked for the congregation to pray for that man. “Fear, he said, is a terrible thing. And the opposite of love is not hate but fear.”
It’s a rocky boat ride Christians choose to take.
A few weeks ago I heard Macky speak about this film and when asked what he learned in the filming he said something to this effect: “I sat in the balcony filming that day and realized that my dear friend could have been killed right in front of my eyes and I couldn’t have done a thing about it. As I watched the man rise from the congregation and scream I saw he had his hand positioned in his jacket so that I thought he had a gun—and all I could do was stand behind the camera.”
You see there had been death threats out on Bishop Robinson. To the point that at his consecration he had to wear a bullet-proof vest.
We were warned that the journey of Christians, at least when we are truly living into it, is life and death. The combination of religion and sexuality, and same-gender loving people in particular, is so threatening, so scary that it brings us to bullets.
This same fear translates into our own soul and understanding of God’s love for us.
You see I guarantee you that there are people sitting in this congregation who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning it all that aren’t so sure that God is on their side, that because of whom we love or how we express our understanding of our own gender believe that we might just not be righteous and acceptable in God’s sight.
And if this is you, I am here to say to you that this is false. God created you just as you are and loves you individually and uniquely. God is proud of you. This should not be such a life-threatening thing, not at all, but in the complex world we live in, it is.
And that is why days like Pride are so important and that is why congregations like Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church celebrating pride are critical. It can be the difference, for some, between life and death.
Don’t get me wrong. We have made incredible strides for LGBTQ folk in the church and state both. After 35 plus years of struggle we can be ordained. In New York state—with many more states to go—we can marry. And yet, homophobia and heterosexism is alive and well in the world. Homosexuality is outlawed in 77 countries throughout the world and in seven countries same-gender loving people can be sentenced to death for their “offense”. Have you heard of David Kato, a gay activist who just a few years ago was killed because of his work to be seen as equal? Literally life and death.
And closer to home, the National Coalition for the Homeless says that 20% of homeless youth in the United States are LGBT. In comparison, the general youth population is only 10% LGBT. LGBT youth, once homeless, are at higher risk for victimization, mental health problems, and unsafe sexual practices. 58.7% of LGBT homeless youth have been sexually victimized compared to 33.4% of their heterosexual counterparts.
In a recent study by the Human Rights Campaign of young people in the United States, nearly six in ten LGBT youth say that churches or places of worship are not accepting of LGBT people; a third say their own church or place of worship is not accepting. One individual interviewed said this: “I can’t come out to anyone I know at church because they will immediately see me as a bad person.”
And I could go on and on about the face of local and national church politics as we continue to fight to be known as equal children of God—and in that fight how we become retraumatized each day we engage in it, how spiritual violence is caused each time we debate and hear, from good and often well-meaning church people that queer folk are to blame for the downfall of mainline Protestantism, that we have received too much already and that if we could just stop making advancements we wouldn’t see church schism. Now, if only we had so much power I think we might do something else with it. If you think I am overexagerating, just being dramatic by naming this as spiritual violence refer back to Gene Robinson’s story—it is years of religious rhetoric and condemnation that led to him being forced to wear a bullet proof vest upon his consecration, it is this that led to his life being threatened so often that he had to resign from being Bishop of New Hampshire, because he and his family could not continue to take it.
If churches do not explicitly make their welcome known, in real and tangible ways, if we do not expand our ministry outside of these walls to reach those who need to hear God’s love and welcome most, this damage just continues to be created.
It’s a rocky boat ride Christians choose to take.
Now Jesus. Jesus and his buddies they were on a rocky ride themselves. At night for some unknown reason, in secret, where no one could see them or the miracle that was about to take place. It was all Jesus’ idea. Just as they were, scripture tells us, they took a few boats and took off. And a windstorm came along and it was bad. These were fishermen, they had reason to be scared, they knew the sea. There was no nautical equipment to help them see in the middle of the night. What was happening could have killed them.
Jesus was showing them a rocky ride, and here they thought it might be the last ride of their life.
Yet they didn’t really know who Jesus was at this point. He had been performing miracles and speaking in parables, but this one ups the anty for what he was doing. And yet they have reason to be scared. A trip across the sea in the middle of the night with a guy they don’t know well but who had already been transforming their lives. A guy who falls asleep on the cushion when the waves were beating into the boat. And the disciples respond by acting—well—without a whole lot of grace or faith.
They could have woken him and said: Dear Sir, why might you perhaps help us? You have said you could before. But instead they woke him and said: HELLO! Do you not care about us? We are perishing?
There is something to be said for manners here. It might have helped.
But note, Jesus does not say: Don’t be afraid, there is no reason for fear, there is no reason for your over-the-top reaction. He does not say that. First he stills the water and then he turns to them to talk about it. Why are you afraid? He asks.
Fear and faith, the intersection of the two, how one sparks another and they go around in circles, is a theme all throughout Mark’s gospel. And then it ends with a note of fearlessness and faithfilledness with women at the tomb.
Why are you afraid?
Well, they could outline the many reasons why they were afraid. And so can we. Fear isn’t a bad thing. It is an emotion that tells us that something is wrong. If we don’t listen to our fear we can’t protect ourselves. But I would like to suggest that we listen to our fears and move forward accordingly, cognizant of them, aware of why they are there, aware of what is an old fear that we don’t really need anymore—so that fear does not paralyze us. May we respond to fears by not allowing them to take over and keep us from healing ourselves and healing others, not allowing them to keep us from believing in a God that names us and claims us and calls us good before anyone else gets a chance to say otherwise.
Where is your faith? He asks. Well, with our fear, of course! The translation we read today says: “And they were filled with great awe” but a more accurate translation of the Greek is: They were filled with great fear as they turned to one another and said: Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him? Who is this, they would find out. And of course the women would be the first to get that who this one is not the one to be fearful of. Who this is would teach them how to live outside of their fear but with faithful expectation of the beautiful potential of this world that our Creator has entrusted us with.
Great storms, great fear, great faith.
The opposite of love is not hate, but fear, says the bishop, in the face of his life flashing before his eyes.
And so fear, love, faith, they all do seem to be connected somehow. I wonder how when we push through our fear if we might then more easily live a life of faithfulness, which is really all about loving.
So let me tell you what I have seen love to look like. One of the queer candidates for ministry with whom I work—who is pursuing ministry in the Presbyterian Church despite all odds—wrote this earlier this week: Ever since a crisis of faith several years ago, I’ve sort of been making an ongoing list of reasons to believe – in God, in human goodness, in the possibility of a better world. Tonight I added something new to the list. I’m working at a restaurant and as I was finishing my shift tonight, my girlfriend showed up with flowers to surprise me. We shared a quick kiss and hug and sat down while I ate to catch up on our days. As we were getting ready to leave, an older white gentleman approached our table. Where I come from, older white men are often the ones silencing and diminishing others, and so as he approached I feared that at best he had a work-related complaint, and at worst that he would tell us not to so flagrantly display our “sinfulness” in public. What he said was, “Excuse me, I just wanted to tell you both that you make a really great couple. And I hope y’all have a wonderful night.” And with a smile, he left.
Love is what we are trying to live into, as Presbyterian Welcome works to bring young people together to empower them to love themselves and to be able to speak from a faith-based perspective on why acceptance and celebration of LGBTQ people is critical for the future of our faith.
- We live into love, free of fear as we gather on 5th Avenue in Manhattan today and give water to the thirsty and cookies to the hungry—to some of God’s most fabulous children marching in exuberant Pride.
- We are loving into faith as we plant a new church just feet away from here and bring people together to open the Word to find the liberating understanding of Jesus the Christ who keeps us from fear.
- We are loving into faith as we gather in a few short weeks 35 LGBTQ folks pursuing ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church, many of whom have been told “no” loud and clear, just because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
- We are loving into faith as we approach the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church next week. It is my 10th time attending and finally, finally, for the very first time my vote will count. We approach the Assembly as we will be told, no doubt, that our demise is our fault, but we come with a different message, that God is calling us into less fear and more love.
And so, for Christ’s sake, I give thanks to you, to each and every one of you, for responding to God’s call to welcome all not with fear and trembling—but with open arms and warm hearts, loving, living, in faithful anticipation of what is yet to come.
Thanks be to God.