Gifts to the Church for Such a Time as This: faithfulness in the shadows of Orlando & Charleston

The text, more or less, from a sermon preached at Puyallup First Christian Church on Sunday, June 19, 2016. You can listen to the Scripture readings and sermon on iTunes or on the church website

This has been a difficult week for our country. We are reeling from 49 lives lost in the Pulse nightclub, in Orlando, Florida, last weekend–a popular gay club on Latin-themed night. Now 49 young lives are gone, and a community is shattered with grief and shock.received_10209500990260091-02

We learned this week the Pulse nightclub was co-founded by Barbara Poma in 2004, named Pulse. She named it Pulse to honor her older brother, John, to whom she always looked up. He had died after a long battle with HIV/AIDS in 1991 and the club was a way for her to keep him alive for family and friends. Named Pulse for John’s heartbeat, so that it might hold to a vision which according to its website is “Pulse Orlando continues to make strides towards equality awareness and LOVE for all.”

And it was just a year ago nine people murdered in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Beloved Mother Emanuel church, just a five-minute walk from the harbor where 40% of North America’s enslaved Africans arrived on these shores in chains. Fort Sumter, sits in that same harbor, where in 1861 the state staked its secessionist stand and the Civil War broke out.

The first church of the AME denomination in the deep South, formed by freed blacks over and against the white-led Methodist Episcopal church. In 1822 one of its founders, Denmark Vesey, was discovered to have been planning a slave rebellion to begin on June 16th.  Veseye and over 30 others suspected co-conspirators were hanged. The original church burned to the ground in vicious retaliation. Subsequently, South Carolina enacted a ban on African American churches holding services without a white person present.
After the Civil War, a new church building was built. And Mother Emmanuel continued to be a place of shelter, just as it had been in the days in which it played a part in the Underground Railroad, a source of strength for those who had been brutally, systematically oppressed for generations. (2)

I’ve never been to Pulse, the Orlando nightclub. Yet the idea that it too was a place of sanctuary for members of the LGBTQ community rings true. In the 80’s in my college town, there was one gay club, Chester Street. I went there a few times. It was a place where people danced, really danced, not like most of the college bars, which were too packed with people to move. Everyone was dancing. We were a mix of straight and gay friends going to a place where everyone felt safe to be who they were. No one had to worry about being attacked.

As a straight female, I didn’t realize how rare that safe haven was.

Last Sunday night, I was in another club. This time it was Kingston Mines, a famous north-side Chicago blues club, founded in 1968 by Doc Pellegrino. Opened during the civil rights era with an expressed vision to be an interracial club that would highlight blues music.  In the beginning all the musicians were black, and half the employees were African-American. In remembering those early days, Pellegrino says the Blues are about things that happen to people: love, abuse, having high aspirations. The Blues are not sad music, but has “aspirations for things to get better and a willingness to fight for that.” (3)

I thought about the Pulse night club as I listened to Claudette Miller belt out the Blues into the wee hours of the morning and I watched folks dance. I saw a group of seniors from Australia out on the dance floor really putting a groove on. I saw young folks newly graduated from Northwestern University. I saw groups of friends dancing in larger circles. I saw couples dancing to the music: gay and straight, a mix of races, skin tones, ages, sexual orientations. Everyone out to enjoy good music and celebrate life.

2016-06-12 23.17.14

Claudette Miller with Tenry Johns and Ric Jaz, Kingston Mines, Chicago, Illinois

 

And as I watched the joy and celebration on the dance floor, I found myself checking to see where the nearest exit was and wondering if I could make it to the door if a shooter targeted this club, on this night, if hatred reared its ugly face on the north side of Chicago.

There’s too much death, and there’s too much hatred, there’s too much division.

It is far too easy to lose heart; the pain too deep, the divisions too entrenched. The fear paralyzes us; it shuts down our ability to imagine the world differently.

The psalm read today is a song of lament; it’s not the appointed psalm for today, but one I chose for us, in light of so much pain in our world. Eugene Peterson’s rendition of Psalm 77:

 I yell out to my God, I yell with all my might,
   I yell at the top of my lungs. He listens.
I found myself in trouble and went looking for my Lord;
   my life was an open wound that wouldn’t heal.
When friends said, “Everything will turn out all right,”
   I didn’t believe a word they said. (The Message)

Have you been there? Do you feel that pain? The psalmist puts words to the desperation of his heart, a hopelessness that threatens to overwhelm him. And yet, it’s not just him, but the whole community who feels it as well.

The psalms are a gift from our Jewish brothers and sisters, an ancient songbook, which offers up the richness of human experience, all the joys and sorrows, all the dreams and deep, deep pain.

As people of faith, it is a gift that our tradition does not lead us to discount grief and does not deny despair. Rather, from the example of Judaism, from the faith that nurtured Jesus and raised up Paul, we find an acknowledgment of pain in the precious psalms of lament.

I’m awake all night—not a wink of sleep;
  I can’t even say what’s bothering me.
I go over the days one by one,
  I ponder the years gone by.
I strum my lute all through the night,
   wondering how to get my life together.

Tragedy has the unfortunate ability to leave us at a loss–a loss of words, an inability to see a way out, a despair that can mire us in darkness and hopelessness.

But the lament of the psalmist doesn’t leave us there stranded without hope, voicing despair merely for the sake of despair. It is a public airing of hopelessness, anger, griefwhich refuses to let God off the hook

Will the Lord walk off and leave us for good?
  Will he never smile again?
Is his love worn threadbare?
  Has his salvation promise burned out?
Has God forgotten his manners?
  Has he angrily stalked off and left us?
“Just my luck,” I said. “The High God goes out of business
  just the moment I need him.”

And yet, just when it seems the psalmist is giving up, just when he seems to throw up his hands and admit that God has left the building, he reaches into the past. He remembers the stories of old–the times of God’s rescue in the past. He begins to recount the ways in which God has show God’s amazing love for the world, when salvation came in the nick of time.

I believe the church is called to be a place of sanctuary for those who are in moments of lament, we are called to pray alongside those who are hurting, we are called to welcome those who are doubting that God still cares, we are called to stand with those who feel under siege.

When we hear words of lament, we can recognize they open up a space for people to grieve, they open up a space for people to air their feelings of doubt, abandonment, hurt, and fear.

These words are a gift, a precious gift the church has been given. Which is why in so many times of national tragedy, houses of prayer become places of welcome for all to come and mourn.

We haven’t just been gifted with a vocabulary of lament.

We have also been given the gift of repentance. We practice repentence together each Sunday in public. From our prayer of confession this morning:

For mistakes we cannot redeem,
for things we have left undone
and for all the times we falter in your way
we need your forgiveness
and we seek your understanding.

The practice of regular confession, done in public, in community, with brothers and sisters in Chris reminds us of our frailty and also keeps us from thinking a little bit too highly of ourselves.

And in days such as these the church needs to be reminded of the ways in which we have remained silent in the face of injustice,
the ways in which we have contributed to a culture of intolernance
the times when we have excluded in the name of God
the times when we have fallen short of our call to be sanctuaries of hope, to be houses of prayer for all people.

When I was living in Eugene, working at a Christian college, it quickly became very apparent LGBTQ students did not feel accepted or supported in that community as a whole, by either the administration or fellow students. And the uncertainty of their status as students worried them.

In a small act of defiance (very small, for too often I am not a brave soul), I changed my screen saver to an inverted pink triangle. That symbol, originally used by the Nazis to denote gay male prisoners had been claimed as a sign of defiance in those days, for HIV/AIDS awareness and as a sign of solidarity for the LGBTQ community. It was a small sign, but it marked that my desk was a safe place, my office was a place where students could talk in confidence.

I knew the importance of safe spaces.

My first year of seminary in Kentucky, a fellow student, who had been struggling with their own sexuality, and was trying to articulate he knew he was gay, confided to the wrong person,  someone who broke confidence. And the seminary, citing its student code of conduct, expelled the student.

I had friends, talented and gifted by God to be ministers, who because of their sexual orientation or their gender, would never be called as pastors in the southern baptist denomination.

In addition to lament, the church needs to model repentance for the ways in which we have failed to live out the way of Jesus in our world.

But it’s not just lament and it’s not just repentance, because the church has been gifted with a vision of the kingdom of God, a vision of the world as a new creation in which the old ways of being no longer hold sway.

An article in a Columbia, SC newspaper tells of a recent Wednesday night bible study at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. Their new pastor, Rev. Betty Deas Clark led about 40 people, 2/3 black, 1/3 white in a small group study on “How to Be a Good Church Member.” During the study she said,  “You’ve got to learn to love the hell out of other people,” she goes on to say,“I tell people all the time, the way I use ‘hell’ in church is totally different from the way you use it at home. ’Cause you do use it. You know you use it.” (4)

In the face of evil, the church has been gifted with a radical vision of God’s inclusive love, a love which you and I are called to live out, within the church, but also outside of the church.

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, we hear, what has been called the church’s Magna Carta.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)

Many scholars think Paul is quoting liturgy here likely a baptismal formula, the church would have recognized as part of their communal worship. What Paul is doing is challenging them to take their worship seriously. You know these words we say when we come together on Sunday mornings? We might want to live them out, Paul says.

If we have been baptized into Christ, if we claim there are no distinctions that matter in the church, if there are no insiders or outsiders, if there are no positions of power over one another–then guess what, Paul says, we’d better start living that way!

What are you waiting for?

There’s no longer Jew nor Greek.
There’s no longer slave nor free.

The problem for us is these words don’t shock us anymore. The categories seem ancient and far removed from us. But wait…

There is neither native born nor illegal immigrant…
There is neither privileged one percent nor working class poor…
There are neither people of color nor people of no color…
There is neither Republican nor Democrat, nor Tea Party nor Green Party…

Am I stepping on anyone’s toes yet?

There is neither gay or straight, transgender or cis-gender…

For you are all one in Christ.

The biblical scholar Beverly Roberts Gaventa writes, “Paul manages to offend virtually everyone” in this passage.

You who claim Abraham as your ancestor–you have no special privilege over those who have a different heritage. What are you talking about?

You who have money, power, connections, who own slaves, who hold the lives of others in your hands, you have no special status over those whose livelihoods you control.

And then Paul really does it.
There is no “male and female”

Here the language changes. It’s not “or.” Paul shifts to “and”.
And in doing so he intentionally echoes the second creation story in Genesis

So God created humankind in his image,
   in the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them.

The ways in which we have structured the world, the hierarchies of power which have been impressed into our systems:

treated women as less than men
with restrictions on their rights
with differing social norms and expectations
inequality in pay
in access, in support,
heck, even in something as minor as gender-defined toys in Happy Meals…

Paul boldly asserts these unequal structures are no more. And Paul throws down the gauntlet here with those against him in Galatia. He targets those  who have been arguing for Gentiles to follow Jewish law–Your whole way of understanding our relationship with God is built on a faulty foundation. God does not distinguish between Gentile or Jew, but God is making a new creation. those differences no longer matter before God; slaves are indistinguishable from their masters; women & men are one in Christ.

Is Paul preaching conformity? I don’t think so. That teeny, tiny word “and”, male and female.

The differences do not disappear magically. We do not all become the same in the body of Christ. It’s that those distinctions which society has used to prop up some and press down on others no longer have any power within the body of Christ.

Paul sees the strength of the church not in its uniformity, but in its diversity, which is why in so many other places we see Paul lifting up the variety of gifts. He’s not asking for conformity, Paul is saying that no one is privileged.

What do we as people who claim to walk in the way of Jesus do in times such as ours?

We join in lament, with those who mourn.
We repent when we have been the cause of division and injustice.
And then we join hands with one another to create a church in which all are welcome and to stand in solidarity with those who have been marginalized.

It’s not enough to whisper “all are welcome” at the communion table inside these walls. We need to be public in our living out the gospel; subtlety will not suffice in these days. To borrow a phrase–we need to be loud and proud about God’s welcome at God’s table.

In my first year here, current events and the lectionary readings conspired against me as a new preacher. I don’t remember what was in the news or even what the gospel reading was, but I do remember when the two came together as I worked on my sermon, I realized homosexuality was the clearest example of where the church needed to be a witness.

But in 2001, as a new preacher in a new church, I was a bit fearful. How would my preaching be received? Would people leave? Would I have a job the following week?

I talked it over with my husband, and said, “I’m going to do this. And you may need to be prepared that we may be looking for a place to live  next week.”

Now think about that.

I was the pastor of the congregation, and I didn’t know where the congregation stood. I didn’t know how they would hear what I was going to say. How in the world can we expect LGBTQ community outside these doors to know what we will do? to know if we will welcome or not, if the pastor didn’t even know?

We need to be strong and public in our living out the gospel. We must commit to create a world which reflects the radical hospitality of God, not just for those who walk through our doors, but for everyone.

For everyone.

Because at this table where you and I have tasted the grace of God, we must make room and we must declare with determination and love
that “for everyone born there is a place at the table.”(5)


1 http://www.emanuelamechurch.org/churchhistory.php
2 https://web.archive.org/web/20151026132459/http://www.pulseorlandoclub.com/about-barbara-poma/
3 http://projects.medill.co/kingstonmines/
4. http://www.thestate.com/news/state/article82748672.html
5. Following the sermon we sang “A Place at the Table.” Words by Shirley Erena Murray and music by Brian Mann. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kf05yJLNGQ&list=PLSesdRFEohF_MGEkVlKJDFrhaoshiaVfk&index=1

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