Jeffrey Sartain, June 25, 2017
Scriptures Matthew 26b–39; Proverbs 16:18–19
These have been some hard days for justice seekers. These have been some heavy times for peacemakers and proclaimers of liberation. Even though the summer days are long, there have been some long nights for people of tender heart.
But, as is always the case, when you look with eyes of faith, some goodness is rising up even when our worries are dragging us down. One of those good things is happening right here in our own city—and spreading across the country. That is the Justice Choir, started by our friend Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, the choral director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. You can read about the Justice Choir in the bulletin—but more than read about it, I want us to get a taste of it this morning.
Our choir will help us learn and sing one of the songs from the new Justice Choir songbook. We will prepare ourselves for the word this morning by singing about what it is we want to do: To be the change we want to see in this world. These words are adapted from Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” We will sing that phrase three times and then we will sing, “And the change will come to you.”
Carla is going to show us sign language while we sing, for those of us who are good at multitasking. Those who aren’t, you can just do what you can, and we will celebrate that.
The choir will sing it through once, and then we will join.
Be the change you want to see in the world,
Be the change you want to see in the world,
Be the change you want to see in the world,
And the change will come to you.
Be the hope you want to see in the world, . . .
And the hope will come to you.
Be the song you want to see in the world, . .
And the song will come to you.
Be the light you want to see in the world, . . .
And the light will come to you.
* * *
The lesson from Matthew is the kind of reading that I sometimes call Jesus’ “wrong-side-of-the-bed narratives.” These are lessons that sound like maybe he was not having his most optimistic day—lessons that don’t line up with things we would like Jesus to have said; passages that don’t sound like love or forgiveness or tenderness. At least they don’t sound like love the way we usually think of it. But then again love has a hard side, doesn’t it? We know from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that love is patient and kind, that love doesn’t insist on its own way. That’s true, but it is not the whole truth of love.
Jesus says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace. I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”
Let’s think about that for a minute.
First of all, it helps me to know that, in the syntax of the original language of the text, effect is often written as purpose. What that means is that while the text sounds like Jesus is saying, “I have come in order to turn a mother against her daughter,” what is likely being said is really more along the lines of “I have come, and because I have come, a mother will be turned against her daughter.” Because I have come, Jesus says, men will walk away from their fishing nets and their families and follow me. Because I have come, systems will be unsettled. Because I have come, the last will be first and the first will be last. Because I have come, love is set free in the world, and when love is set free, things are going to change.
There are many illustrations of how the kind of love God has revealed to the world is disruptive to all human constructs and systems, including the human family. As we observe Pride weekend, we can think of many illustrations of this.
God calls us to a radical affirmation of our created goodness. God announces that we are beloved as we are. We call it Pride, but it is not “pride” in the way the Bible talks about it in the passage I read earlier. This is not about hubris. This is not about thinking we are better than anyone else; it is about learning to believe we are no worse than anyone else. It is about not being ashamed. When that good news reaches sexual minority people, and all oppressed people, when we embrace the fullness of who we are, that can cause dramatic upheaval in the structures of this world.
When we say we will not be ashamed, despite the laws that have oppressed us . . .
When we say we will not be ashamed, despite the churches that have condemned us . . .
When we say we will not be ashamed, despite the parents who disowned us . . .
When we say we will not be ashamed, despite our children who rejected us . . .
When we say we will not be ashamed, despite the politicians who demonize us and the bashers who kill us . . .
When we say we will not be ashamed, but instead claim the love that we know is ours, then families do sometimes come apart, and powers are confronted. When we march with heads held high, the systems built upon foundations that rely on our being ashamed, those systems begin to tremble. Powerful men throw temper tantrums and viperous clergy spout more fear. Indeed, father can turn against son, and mother against daughter.
But also, new kinds of families are formed; families of love and acceptance. And new structures rise up that support us rather than hold us down. When we say we are not ashamed, the world becomes a little more like the world God envisions for us all.
A friend of mine, some years ago now, a well-meaning middle-aged straight woman, a minister’s wife in a small town in Minnesota, once said to me: “I don’t understand why gay people need a Pride celebration. After all, I don’t go around announcing, ‘I’m heterosexual! I’m heterosexual!’”
Sometimes you just have to remember to breathe, you know?
I asked her with as open a heart as I could muster, “Don’t you? Really? Don’t you let people know you are a heterosexual? Don’t you wear a wedding ring? (This was when only straight people were legally allowed to be married.) Didn’t I hear you just tell that waiter you were waiting for your husband? Doesn’t that say something about who you are? Didn’t you just invite every family member, friend and person at your church to your 25th wedding anniversary last June? Come to think of it, didn’t you just tell me how you’d walk 10 miles to see any movie with George Clooney in it? Is that really just about his acting?”
She didn’t have much to say to that.
On the other side of her same complaint are those people who ask why there is not a Straight Pride celebration. Let me just say that, if you are gay, every day feels like a Straight Pride celebration. Why isn’t there a Straight Pride celebration? To that question, international speaker, author and spiritual director Susan Cottrell wrote:
Straight is the dominant narrative. Straight people as a class have never been persecuted. (Individual straight people might have been persecuted, but not because they were straight.) . . . Why would we need to express a special pride to be straight when straight people have never been persecuted because they’re straight?
She goes on to say:
Here’s the truth: Gay Pride was not born of a need to celebrate being gay, but our right to exist without persecution. So instead of wondering why there isn’t a straight pride movement, be thankful you don’t need one.
As I already said, gay Pride is not so much about being proud. I don’t need recognition for being gay any more than I need recognition for being right-handed or tall. For me, it isn’t about being proud. Instead, it is a proclamation of the spiritual truth of Psalm 139 that says: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made”
The spiritual work this invites us all into is the work of accepting the fullness of ourselves.
None of us is immune to the power of shame. Shame is an equal opportunity employer. Maybe your shame is not at the front of your mind, but it is there, I would venture to guess, way back in the dank corner of the cellar of the soul, that place where we all keep a few jars that have passed their use-by date.
Most people, if they were to list what is wrong with them next to a list of what is good and sacred and very much right about them, which list do you suppose would be longer?
Actually, forget that. Because just one item on the list of what is wrong with you can be so big, so weighty and so overpowering that it can make null and void a list of what is precious about you that is a mile long. That’s shame. One thing of which we are truly ashamed of can be like a bottle of ink poured on a masterpiece or an oil spill in a pristine lagoon. It covers our truest beauty, contaminates our self-worth and veils our potential.
The lesson we heard from Matthew today, despite its harshness, also announces that we are known and loved by God. “Even the very hairs on your head are all numbered!” (Some of us with a larger number than others, but all are numbered nonetheless.) “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny; yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from the knowledge of God—and you are worth more than many sparrows!”
I’m actually not sure how I feel about humans being worth more than sparrows, but that is another sermon. Let’s just say, you are worth a lot!
Embracing the reality of our beloved-ness is spiritual work. We are called to embrace the love of God that so thoroughly involves us that it is baked into our DNA. Or rather, the love of God that we carry, that divine spark, is more essential to our identity than our DNA.
Jesus said: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed. Nothing hidden that will not be made known.” It’s all there, before God, and the negative things we rehearse about ourselves, the failings we have leapt tall buildings to try to overcome, and the mistakes that we’ve stored away in the recesses of our souls . . . they have already been revealed, known, and forgiven by God.
Why is that so hard for us to accept?
Many years ago in a former church we had a partnership with a congregation in Africa. The pastor visited us, and when he preached he told us this story:
A farmer had a goat, and she loved the goat. It was, to her, the most beautiful and precious creature she had seen. So to keep it safe, she kept the goat tied to a post outside her house. She fed the goat. She cleaned up after the goat. She bathed the goat. She brushed the goat. But the goat was not happy. The goat walked around the post and around the post. It wore a deep rut in the dirt and followed that path day after day. It was beautiful and beloved, but tethered and sorrowful.
One day the farmer’s heart was so broken by the sadness of her goat that she decided to set it free. As the sun was setting she came with the knife, and she hugged the goat and kissed the goat and told the goat she loved it. Then she cut the rope, and went into her house and went to bed.
The next morning, when she awoke, she went to her door, and there was the goat, still with its head down, and still walking slowing and sorrowfully around the post, dragging that rope behind it. It was in the same, old rut. It did not know that it was free.
And so it is with God’s people. Set free but still, far too often, going around like we are attached to shame, with heads down. But God has seen our shame and set us free. Will we look up and know we are loved just as we are? Forgiven for every wrong? Forgiven by the cosmic forces of the universe? Cut loose from every tie that keeps you from living like the beautiful goat you really are?
Everything that tethers us to shame is gone, but we limit ourselves to the small life that we are used to living. So this day, this Pride Sunday, let us all lift up our heads to see that we are not bound by the limitations of the past. We have been set free.
Galatians chapter 5, verse 1 says this, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free; so do not be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
What God wants for us is to be joyful. Do justice but do it free from guilt. Do justice not because you ought to, but because you love it! Do mercy, and do it with lightness and love. Show compassion, and show it not with slumped shoulders and downward gazes, because that is not what a goat should do. A goat—you beautiful ones, you should leap and kick up your heels and be free.
Be free! Not just for your own sake, but so that you can bring your full and beautiful self to the joyful work of liberating others.