May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, oh Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer.
I have heard Pastor Ginger and countless other pastors offer a form of that opening for as long as I have gone to church, and I confess to you today that this plea takes on new and special meaning. I stand before you as someone who has given countless public talks but never have I stood in a pulpit and been asked to reflect on the word of God. This is my way of asking you for leniency for a first timer.
If ever I was going to be asked to preach, however, I couldn’t be more pleased that it comes at the convergence of two moments: it is Pride Sunday. As a gay man, I’m honored to be here to share thoughts and reflections under the sermon series we begin today of “Lessons from the Journey.” And, perhaps more importantly, Pastor Ginger comes back in two weeks, so if this really bombs, hang tight: the pros will be back in the pulpit soon!
I confess to you that as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I come to you this Pride Sunday deeply concerned.
When I was coming out in the 1990s, I remember thinking that the world for LGBTQ folks was pretty scary. The stigma around HIV-AIDS was still acute while the medical solutions were still too few. We were unable to visit our partners in intensive care units as we weren’t seen as family, and gay marriage was a far-off dream. It was still the case that some in the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC would withhold their names as singing members from the printed program because they could be fired for being publicly out, and my dear friend Bishop Gene Robinson was consecrated wearing a bullet-proof vest because some thought it OK to use lethal force to stop a gay man from being consecrated a Bishop in mainstream Christendom. In those days, our community’s acronym was shorter. We had yet to fully contemplate or embrace issues of gender identity, and our siblings in the trans community did not receive the welcome they needed and deserved. In the 1990s, the thought of declaring one’s pronouns would have been seen as nothing more than a bastardization of grammar.
Over the course of the past couple of decades, we started to have reason for hope. Equality laws were advancing, our stories were becoming a part of mainstream culture, and even our own beloved Foundry took a stand in 1995 that all our welcome in this sacred place, and it only made us stronger. While I could not have fathomed it in my earliest days as an out, gay man, I married my husband almost three years ago, and we share a rich and wonderful life together. While there was and is much, much work to do, I began to believe that truly, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “the arc of the moral universe may be long, but it bends toward justice.”
And yet in the past few years we have seen too many states passing anti-LGBTQ laws, our trans siblings are being targeted and painted as violent even as they are the victims of some of the greatest violence we have seen, and the thought of a drag queen reading to a young person has been held up as somehow scarier than the senseless gun violence wreaking havoc on our schools and our communities. Just last week, the Human Rights Campaign declared a national state of emergency for the LGBTQ+ community.
In short, we have turned back time in so many ways to the LGBTQ+ community being painted as the face of what’s wrong in the nation. So, on this Pride Sunday, I stand before you deeply, deeply alarmed. And I am sad to admit that for the first time in many years, while I have never been more proud to be a member of this rainbow community, I find myself afraid: afraid for the narratives that live in the hearts of so many, afraid for the future of the laws that protect my marriage, and some days, afraid of my ability to escape violence simply for who I am and for whom I love. I know how lucky I am to be a member of this welcoming worship community, and yet I admit to you today that I am afraid for my LGBTQ+ siblings who do not even have a safe place to worship.
Some of you may know that I serve as President of Chautauqua Institution in Western New York state. Chautauqua will be 150 years old next year. It’s a storied place that has sat at the intersection of the nation’s most pressing conversations. President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his “I Hate War” speech from Chautauqua. It played heavily in the women’s suffrage movement, and to this day invites to its stages and its grounds the leading speakers, thinkers and preachers of our time to discuss and unpack the most pressing issues that our society is facing. This sacred place was created to help all who want to make the world a better place to understand the thorniness of issues, to be educated about divergent viewpoints and to craft a dynamic response through that education.
It is a place that invites all of humanity’s brokenness to be laid bare while also offering so many moments of joy. That interplay between what’s hard and what’s wonderful creates a special magic at Chautauqua, and I’m deeply honored to be a part of its leadership.
And while all that Chautauqua stands for should be celebrated, I am struck by how polarized our world is, how much we struggle to hear disparate voices, and how quick we want to silence those who do not think like us, act like us or believe what we believe, even if it means resorting to violence. That violence was brought to Chautauqua last summer when a young man viciously stabbed author Salman Rushdie more than 20 times on the stage of our amphitheater just before a talk that was intended to highlight freedom of speech and expression and the power of storytelling to combat ignorance, hatred, and bigotry. I watched with my own eyes what happens when silencing another is seen as a victory.
People struggle to live in the duality of brokenness and joy. As a society, we seem to struggle to live with duality or tension at all. If one doesn’t believe what another believes, that person will at a minimum ensure they don’t have to engage with a differing viewpoint. If that doesn’t work, perhaps violence will work. We see it too often: we live in a society that demands that we cancel voices we don’t want to hear, or we demonize those voices to make them acceptable victims of violence.
We recently lost Dr. Robert Zimmer, the long-time President of the University of Chicago, who was a tireless advocate of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I am reminded of something he said just a few years ago. He noted of this time, “Fundamentally, people are very comfortable with free expression for those that they agree with. And for those they find disagreeable or wrong, they’re not that eager to have people hear from them.”
Recently at Chautauqua I’ve found my own community struggling with this. When we present speakers or preachers or artists who disagree with a particular mindset – whether left or right – there are an increasing number that claim we should not give our stages over to these voices because they find alternative viewpoints “disagreeable.” And to double down, it is often the case that if we disagree with ANY position a person holds, we want to disqualify the person from being able to publicly speak on ANY other topic. It’s as if a person holding one contrary viewpoint has to be completely erased as a person if we disagree with a specific thought they might have.
A columnist in The Washington Post recently noted that expressions of intolerance and bigotry that once were relegated to the fringes are migrating to the center, at the cost of common ground and the common good. It’s as if the very notion that there might be a common ground or a common good is something we’ve decided we shouldn’t work toward unless that common ground or common good is OUR definition of those two phrases.
And at this point in my reflection, if you’re thinking my first time out offering the meditations of my heart involve only gloom and doom, I’d understand, but that’s not the main point of my reflection. On this Pride Sunday, I am reflective by how difficult it has become to live with duality: the duality of thoughts, of perspectives, of believing that for some to win, others must lose — but I am also hopeful because today’s Gospel reading from Matthew reminds us it need not be that way.
We hear today in Matthew an answer to this tension of our time in the example that Jesus provides.
As he so often does, Jesus breaks through the cultural clutter and gives us such an obvious answer. So often our friend Jesus gets used as a weapon in our culture wars. Those who feel marginalized rightfully say that Jesus would rather hang out with those on the margins. Others go for a literal translation of our sacred texts to provide reasons to exclude others, weaponizing what were intended to be messages of love to set up a class system of right or wrong.
Matthew tells us that we have much to be hopeful for on this Pride Sunday. We are presented with a great example of an “us/them” dilemma in two women in need of healing.
Matthew tells us that Jesus is asked to heal the daughter of the very people trying to discredit his teachings: the privileged elite. He also introduces us to a woman who has suffered for more than a decade, one who would be considered very much on the margins of what society understood at the time. What a perfect metaphor for our great debates in today’s society: who deserves the redeeming love of Jesus? Who deserves our love? Is it the privileged who already have so much? Or the woman who society has overlooked for too long?
What does Jesus do with this dilemma? He chooses not to choose. He heals the 12-year-old daughter of the privileged and the woman who has suffered for 12 years. He calls both “daughter.” He restores both after a request for help is made, and he does not distinguish or make a claim that one is worthy over another.
Matthew reminds us that Jesus does not look at what is his to do as an “either/or” choice. There is no litmus test for who is worthy or who is not worthy. There is not an emphasis on who is right but on who is suffering.
What can we take from this lesson of a Jesus who is present to all who are afflicted? How might we make a different choice in this polarized world where we are too ready to classify winners and losers, right and wrong, justice and injustice?
Where do we see Jesus working in and among us, and what are our modern-day examples that might provide another way to tackle the divisiveness of these times?
At my own beloved Chautauqua, on that fateful day in August when Mr. Rushdie was attacked, scores of Chautauquans did something countercultural: instead of running away from violence, they ran toward it. Not only did they immobilize the assailant until police could secure him, doctors and nurses and non-medical members of the audience rushed to provide life-saving care. Recently, Mr. Rushdie in his first public appearance accepting an award for courage noted the courage of those Chautauquans. While I hope that we and you never again have reason to run toward violence, what might it look like to walk toward another, just one step, who may hold opposing views to our own?
One of my favorite trips when I worked at Youth For Understanding was to accompany the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington on a civil rights tour of Cuba under the patronage of Mariella Castro. We spent the week in a country with a less than stellar LGBTQ civil rights record not protesting but singing, bringing expressions of love to all that wished to listen (and I suspect some that didn’t). I have thought about that trip countless times since then. We could have chosen not to go. We could have said that the government’s policies were so outrageous that we could not be seen there; that we wouldn’t become a sound bite or an odd symbol of endorsement by participating, but I’m glad we didn’t take that tact. Instead, we chose to meet a lack of understanding with love. And we realized that almost no country, and especially no person, is monolithic, including those in power. In 2022, the country passed the Cuban Family Code referendum, which brought legal recognition to gay marriage and same-sex adoption. And while I am not drawing a straight line between our trip and this massive social change, I’d like to think that a few hearts and minds were changed by our presence, because we sat in the duality and the complexity of humanity. How different could our world be if each of us refused to view situations as a zero-sum game?
There are many reasons I am proud to stand witness as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but perhaps the greatest one of all is that our community strives for full, not selective, inclusion. Today we start a series of reflections on “lessons from the journey.” Our own journeys have taught us that “othering” does little to get us closer to the beloved kin-dom. Jesus reminds us that we are not called to pick winners and losers but to love all those in need.
On this Pride Sunday, I am reminded of the duality of Pride: that it both celebrates who we are and how far we’ve come but also challenges us to keep doing the work. And that work is not just about what we need. The harder work is to engage with those, even those who may hold the most hateful thoughts about who we are and who we love, not to accept what is said but to refuse to be diminished by segregating ourselves from the conversation. For every member of the LGBTQ+ community and our straight allies, what if we took the lessons from our own journeys, the tremendous reservoir of strength and courage we’ve amassed, and made a choice to engage more broadly, not even necessarily to change someone’s mind but to stand witness to a greater truth of the love we find in Jesus? It’s a tall order and can sometimes feel an unfair ask.
But if we make that choice, our witness need not be about winning or losing, silencing or embracing but rather a choice to live in Jesus’s example with an acknowledgement that all of humanity – those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree – has a seat at God’s table and are all a part of the beloved kin-dom. And wouldn’t that create a “report that spreads throughout the district.”