Summit Presbyterian Church
June 26, 2011
Matthew 10: 40-42
When we read this passage without reading what comes before, it doesn't seem controversial. Jesus is talking with the disciples about the importance of hospitality: to , missionaries, to the prophets and the righteous - - and to the "little ones" -- which scholars tell us means disciples, not children. Jesus says that whoever welcomes them welcomes him, and - by extension - the one who sent him. He assures them such hospitality will be rewarded, even when it's something as simple as the giving of a cup of cold water. Now if there's one thing on which all Christians agree, it's that churches should be welcoming. If you click through church websites on the internet, almost every one of every size, every denomination and every theology has the word "welcome" on the front page. Now, even with the best of intentions most churches are not as welcoming as they claim -- it's not easy to practice hospitality - but this teaching of Jesus doesn't seem to be one of the more difficult, dangerous or kooky ones -- unlike praying for our enemies, turning the other cheek or giving away all our possessions.
But these words are the last ones in a long set of instructions that Jesus gives to the 12 before sending them on a mission to proclaim the good news. And if we read the whole speech, we see that Jesus believes the mission will be dangerous, both for those who are sent out and for those who offer them shelter and food. Deborah read the first part of those instructions, and they get scarier. Jesus says he's sending them out like sheep in the midst of wolves; that they will be handed over to councils and flogged, that brother will betray brother to death, that children will rise against parents, and that the disciples will be hated by all because of his name. He encourages them not to fear those who kill the body and that whoever does not take up the cross and follow him is is not worthy. Just before he says whoever welcomes you welcomes me he says, "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." Welcome visitors! (Don't forget to join us for coffee hour).
Now it may seem that Jesus is speaking only to the early church, the twelve disciples or the church of Matthew's time, a church that was living in the midst of chaos and suffering after the Jewish rebellion. The temple had been destroyed and the people scattered; many were killed, families were divided and the community was in conflict over what to do next. His words may also seem relevant to Christians in the days of Roman persecution, or to missionaries who faced suspicion and hostility in far-away lands. But we aren't persecuted by the state or by our co-religionists; we get tax breaks. To say you're a Christian and go to church isn't a risky undertaking, at least on the face of it. Granted, some people think we're naive or deluded. Going to worship means giving up a leisurely Sunday morning. And building up the church requires time, energy, and sacrifice. But it's a respectable thing to do, even required if you want to be President of the United States. It may not be the road to social advancement that it was 50 years ago, but joining a church is not dangerous.
At least not immediately dangerous. For we can still get into trouble. Seeking to truly follow Jesus, proclaiming the kingdom of heaven and welcoming prophets and righteous persons can mean conflict, fear, loss, even danger.
Today is the Gay Pride March in New York City. Thousands of people - some of them not wearing a lot of clothes -will be marching down 5th Avenue or riding on elaborately decorated floats and dancing and singing to loud of music. Hundreds of groups have registered, including the Raging Grannies, Queers for Economic Justice, Mercy for Animals, the Brearly School (very swish), politicians galore, Broadway Bodies, Wells Fargo and Delta Airlines. The sidewalks will be lined with mostly supportive spectators and I imagine this year will be especially festive, as late on Friday night New York became the 6th state - along with the District of Columbia - to legalize same sex marriage. The grand marshals are Dan Savage and Terry Miller, who began the "It Gets Better" video project to counter teen suicides and bullying, and also the Reverend Pat Baumgarter, pastor of the Metroplitan Commmunity Church of New York City. The Presbyterians will be out in force, with an additional reason to celebrate, for this year the denomination got rid of language from the constitution that was used to bar Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people from ordination as ministers, deacons and elders. They'll be handing out cards to bystanders with the names and addresses of welcoming Presbyterian churches, and I'm sure they'll be celebrations well into the evening. I look forward to seeing the pictures on Facebook.
But the march wasn't always this festive. It began as a civil rights demonstration in 1970, the year after the Stonewall riots. I've been told it was always fun, but the early marches were smaller, riskier, more political. After all, "Coming out" in 1970 could mean losing your job, alienating your parents, being attacked on the street or losing custody of your children. (Those things still happen, but less so). Coming out meant facing the condemnation of your church -- none of the established churches taught that being gay was to be fearfully and wonderfully made. In the Presbyterian Church, homosexuality was considered sinful by most everyone -- insofar as people talked about it -- and most GLBT church goers were in the closet, some more deeply and painfully so than others. In those days, to proclaim that homosexuality was part of God's good and created order, to proclaim that Christ loves gay and lesbians as they are and calls them into loving relationships, was not only controversial - it still is - but lonely. Such prophets and righteous people were few and far between and they didn't receive a wide welcome. They didn't face death or flogging, but they were brought before councils, they lost church jobs, pastors counseled them to change, and they were often told they'd be happier worshipping elsewhere. I'm sure they felt like sheep among wolves.
But that didn't stop them from proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of heaven was near. David Sindt was one of those early prophets. David was an ordained Presbyterian Minister and social worker who served as a pastor before working full time in the foster care field; in the early 70s he "came out" and remained active in the Presbyterian Church. On the floor of the General Assembly of 1973 - in a meeting of thousands of church leaders from all over the country, he stood up with a couple of friends and held up a hand lettered sign that said, "Is anyone else out there gay?" After that David couldn't get an ordained position - fortunately he had other work and loving family and friends - and sadly, he died of AIDS in 1986. Many remember his courageous act as the beginning of the conversation, and soon groups such as Presbyterians for Gay and Lesbian Concerns began their mission of proclaiming God's love for gay and lesbian people as they were.
Martha Juillerat and Tammy Lindhall were two closeted lesbian pastors serving rural churches in Missouri, in the Presbytery of the Heartlands. They began to "come out" in 1992 to families, friends and their church; and as they began to take part in dialogues around the Presbytery, they faced a "barrage of opposition" and even death threats. They lost their jobs and had to put aside their ordinations. Martha began a project called "Shower of Stoles" where she asked people to send in stoles representing GLBT ministers, elders, deacons or members of their churches. These stoles became a visible sign of the often invisible GLBT people serving the church, and most of them came with a story about the person, sometimes a hopeful one, but often a heartbreaking one of loss, loneliness and fear. Martha turned the stoles into an exhibition that traveled all over the country. She says that in giving up one ministry she discovered the best ministry she could ever hope to have. She found her life, but first she had to lose it for the sake of the gospel. (see Shower of Stoles online exhibition).
But it was not just Martha and Tammy, David and many others - Lisa Larges, Scott Anderson, Janie Spahr - who had to lose their lives to find them, but also the churches that welcomed them. Churches that joined the More Light movement, gave money to the Covenant Network, put up a rainbow flag or called lesbian pastors. And I'd bet every church that did so has known conflict, controversy and loss -- some more than others. When churches move towards that kind of welcome, especially when they sign on the dotted line by becoming "More Light," some people leave, others stop pledging, some withdraw. Many who leave or oppose such a step are faithful or deeply committed Christians. They might say that truly welcoming GLBT people means teaching the truth of God's intention for human sexuality, preaching repentance and forgiveness of sin. They might also say that in proclaiming their understanding of the gospel they also face opposition, conflict and loss -- and that's true, at least in certain circles. As an unrepentent lesbian I disagree with their position, but I also wonder if the King of Glory won't be most disappointed with those of us in the mushy middle (and I include myself most of the time). Those of us who believe that GLBT people should be welcomed and supported in their relationships, but who don't say it too often or too loudly because it makes people uncomfortable and could lead to a church quarrel. Or those of us - on the other end - who may be uncomfortable with gay marriage but don't want to say so and start an argument. I keep hoping this isn't true, but today's scripture lays it out: preaching and living the gospel is not for the faint-hearted or conflict avoidant. Summit knows this. From what you tell me, as a white church in the 50s, when Summit began welcoming African American members - however hesitantly - the church found controversy, conflict, loss of members and hardship -- both among those doing the welcoming and those brave disciples who crossed the threshold. You also tell me that Summit found its life in that time - but first it had to lose it for the sake of the gospel. We can think of other examples: Preaching forgiveness and the possibility of redemption for all when politicians are vying to build more prison, throw away the keys, and execute more people. Proclaiming and living a theology of "enough" in our consumer-driven world. Proclaiming God's call to welcome the stranger - for you were strangers in the land of Egypt - in a time of economic anxiety and hostile legislation. And none of those struggles for justice are over, including the ones against racism and homophobia. "Do not think I have come to bring peace to to the earth," says Jesus, Matthew 10:34, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." (A metaphorical sword).
I know. You're hot. I've already preached a longer sermon than usual. But I can assure you you're not nearly as hot as the people who will soon be marching in the gay pride parade, even though everyone is so grateful it's only going up to 80 today, another reason it will be such a festive year. Right now folks are beginning to gather at their assigned spots in midtown. They're scheduled step off in a couple of hours, but it will be three or four. They'll be sitting on concrete curbs with no shade from the midday sun. They'll then begin a three hour walk with many stops on steaming, black pavement. Some unfortunates will be in costumes, but even the most appropriately dressed will soon be hot, tired and thirsty. So by the time they reach the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, at 11th Street and 5th Avenue, they'll be ready for a cup of cold water that members of the church will have ready for all the little ones, not just the Presbyterians. A cup of cold water - or two or three - provided by the Evelyn Davidson Water Project, named in the memory of a life-long activist, deacon, elder and trustee, wife of the pastor of the first More Light Church in the country, probably the first Presbyterian Church to formally declare "welcome" to Gay and Lesbian people. A cup of cold water for prophets and righteous ones, for missionaries and little ones, for all proclaiming the wideness of God's love on this glorious afternoon whatever their faith or belief. And all who drink and all who serve will enjoy a prophet's reward -- not only in heaven, but here on earth, in fellowship and joy, finding lives they thought were lost. For whoever welcomes you, said, Jesus, welcomes me, and the one who sent me. What a fellowship divine!