Rev. Danielle K Bartz June 26, 2022
1 Peter 2:4-10 “Come As You Are”
For the closing worship of the MN Conference Annual Meeting, our guest preacher was Rev. Dr. Justin Sabia-Tanis. He is the new professor of Christian Ethics and Social Transformation at United Theological Seminary, the UCC seminary in Minnesota. It is the tradition of the annual meeting planning team, of which I was most recently chair, to invite new UTS faculty to participate in some way during the annual meeting. It is a way to introduce the faculty to members of the Conference and remind them of our connection to the seminary.
The scripture he was preaching on was the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John. In that story, Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, and friend to Jesus, has died and been buried for four days. Everyone grieved his death, including Jesus. And they beseech Jesus to raise Lazarus from the tomb. In the end, Jesus does. He goes to the tomb, followed by the family and friends of Lazarus – tells the people to roll away the stone, and yells, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus is raised from the dead and everyone rejoices. Rev. Dr. Sabia-Tanis, our guest preacher, in his opening “joke” to warm up the crowd for his sermon, speculated out loud that the planning team had invited him to preach because he was a gay, transgender man and had been ‘coming out’ for most of his life in one way or another. Who better to preach on Jesus’ command for Lazarus to ‘come out’ he said.
As I said, that was just an opening moment of levity, a common tactic of preachers to draw people in, especially people they don’t know well. Everyone laughed and he moved into the core of his sermon (which, to be clear wasn’t about coming out at all). I didn’t think anything about it. It wasn’t until the next day, while I rested and thought about the meeting, that I realized how rare and extraordinary my lack of notice was. Because, at the pulpit of our denominational meeting, the preacher was a gay, transgender man – and I think many, if not most, in the room took little notice of it. Not because his gender and sexual identity are not important, but because his inclusion in the full life of the church wasn’t a question, and not a rarity. And, speaking as the chair of the team who asked him to preach, the only criteria we were looking for was a male preacher, because most of our leadership during that meeting were women and we wanted some diversity of voices. He fit the bill: a new seminary professor in Minnesota, who identified as a male, with a reputation of being a good preacher. It was never discussed in our planning that he was a transgender man, again, because that wasn’t a factor in our decision making.
But, taking a step out of my UCC bubble, I now realize how extraordinary that is. We weren’t putting him front and center as a way of showing off how inclusive we are because all one had to do was take a look around the room for the diversity of gender and sexual expression to be obvious. Take as an example the team I worked with to plan the annual meeting, as a microcosm of the Conference. Excluding Conference staff, the team consisted of a bisexual woman, a straight woman, a lesbian, a straight man, and a transgender woman in a nonbinary relationship. All but one is ordained. While the UCC still struggles a great deal with racial diversity, and the Minnesota Conference is not an exception, we have long been a place of welcome and full inclusion for people whose gender or sexual identities do not conform to the forced binaries of so many other Christian traditions. This is something for us to be profoundly proud of, to celebrate, and shout from the rooftops. But this is not evidence of our forward-thinking, trend-setting ways of engaging our faith. This is, I believe, evidence of our desire to never forget what Church was at the beginning and was supposed to be all along.
Take, for example, the early Christian communities that were being written to in the first letter attributed to the Apostle Peter that I read from this morning. These very early churches, gathering in the first decades (not centuries) after Jesus, raised the ire of, and become a target of, the Roman Empire. They were considered dangerous because of their inclusion. Servant was sitting with master, women and men were both in leadership, everyone was welcome at the table, just as they were, hearing stories about a radical Jewish preacher, an iconoclast, whose words sought to remove divisions, uplift the poor, and liberate the oppressed. It was not just their burgeoning faith in Jesus and his radical idea of God’s Kingdom that was considered a threat, it was their very openness to inclusion of everyone, no matter what, that was a threat to Empire. Because if everyone was given a seat at the table and an equal voice – well, that is the makings of a powerful community. One powerful enough to confront and even overthrow Empire. This letter was meant to offer courage to those communities for the threat they faced from the Roman Empire. It was meant to remind them that they were all leaders, or as the letter says, a “Royal Priesthood, a Holy Nation, God’s own chosen people.” All of them, even those others chose to reject.
At that time, of course, there was not the sophisticated understanding of gender and sexuality that we are beginning to understand today. The language we are beginning to learn today to extend beyond assumed binaries didn’t exist yet. But the intent was clear – the Good News of Christ is for all, no matter what. In this community of faith, you are all equal in the eyes of God – the scripture says. In the words of Idina Menzel, come as you are to the table. The earliest Christian communities were ones of such radical inclusion they were deemed a threat by Empire. Of course, as we know, as the Christian Church grew, power became centralized and was used as a weapon – and a faith that was once considered a threat of Empire took on many of the characteristics of Empire itself. Rules were created, divisions were constructed, and far too many people were and are barred from the table. This is a legacy that the Church must confront and repent of. And it is a legacy the United Church of Christ is working hard to undue.
This doesn’t mean we still don’t have a long way to go. We must continue to confront hate and fear and ignorance. We must continue to listen to our neighbors, and in particular our children, who are teaching us new language and ways of identifying ourselves. We must set aside our assumptions about one another, ask questions in a spirit of genuine love and curiosity, and – even if it makes us uncomfortable – always remember that a person’s sense of self cannot be forced upon them by others.
And, I know that at times all of this can seem overwhelming. Because the language we are using for gender and sexual identity is in a season of creation – by that I mean in flux and it can be hard to stay current. We worry about saying the wrong thing or are frustrated that what was once acceptable is no longer that way. I get that – but if I can give you just one piece of advice coming from my privilege as someone so entrenched in the UCC I have a community of friends and colleagues who are a full spectrum rainbow of identity – my advice is this: ask the question. If they use a pronoun you are unfamiliar with – ask about it. If they tell you about their nonbinary, polyamorous relationship, ask about it. Ask the question in a spirit of genuine curiosity, with a desire to fully understand that person as God created them. Because if the questions are asked in that way, in my experience, they are received in the same way. An honest dialogue is born and a true relationship is formed, and in the midst of it all the Spirit of Christ is dancing with pride.
June is considered Pride mouth. In the United Church of Christ we have a lot to be proud of. Yes, we still have a ways to go, but we have a lot to be proud of. Most other Christian traditions are struggling to break down the barriers they have constructed. And some continue to hold fast to those barriers or are even building new ones. And the LGBT community continues to be highly suspicious of Christians, and rightfully so.
And that is why what we do here matters so much. It matters that we have a rainbow banner quite literally bolted to the side of the church. It matters that our table is not closed to anyone and everyone is welcome to come as they are. It matters that we are trying to adjust our language and ideas about gender and sexuality, even if we stumble more often that we walk smooth. It matters that we are the only Christian community in Winona, and the county, that doesn’t have in our practices or bylaws barriers to full inclusion. It matters greatly and we cannot take our role for granted. We have to shout this from the rooftops. We have to live our pride each and every day – not only because it just might save a life of someone who thinks no one will accept them, but also because it is our imperative as Christians. It is built into the foundation of our faith. In a world that says Christianity isn’t relevant anymore, we must refuse to believe it ourselves. And live our faith out loud and proud. Amen.
Great and Good God, you created us in your image and in full celebration of all that you are. Because of this we are more than we can ever know, a beautiful spectrum of color and a reflection of your glory. We are so grateful for this and it is in this gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
We celebrate with pride our denomination’s and community’s genuine efforts to welcome all. While we know there is still more to do, we pause and hold a moment for joy in all that we have done so far. We can see around us in our wider community a better image of you because of our beautiful diversity.
We hold in our prayers all of our neighbors whose identity is not accepted by the people they love or the religion they want to claim. For the children whose families are not acceptable or whose sense self is dismissed, we offer our prayers for their comfort and safety. We know that you, God, love them just as they are and we work and hope for the rest of the world to do the same.
Even as we pray for those around us, God, we also remember to pray for ourselves. In these moments of silence we turn over to you the cares of our spirits…
Rainbow-laden God, for all the ways you create us we give thanks. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, who welcomed all just as they were. And we pray now in the way he taught by raising our voices together…Our Father…