sermon-2015-06-14 Pride Service

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
St. Paul’s PRIDE Service – June 14, 2015

Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.

What God has made clean, you must not call profane. God’s declaration to Peter asserts that it is humanity, not God, which has been preoccupied with the labeling of people and practices as “unclean.” It also gives us permission to transgress and transcend the human constructs that prohibit and ostracize certain individuals and ways of living. As we celebrate our Pride this evening, we can find inspiration and strength in Peter’s dream to proclaim our cleanness in spite of the fact that many have called us and people like us profane. Peter’s vision helps us remember that it is human beings, not God, who have passed judgment on and condemned us.

But in reading and interpreting the story we heard earlier we should not lose sight of just how radical Peter’s dream was. Peter made no minor shift in deciding to expand his palate. It wasn’t as if he suddenly decided to try anchovies after years of sticking his nose up at them. Jewish dietary laws, before that dream, were at the center of Peter’s religious, cultural and ethnic identities. He had been taught them from birth and had accepted and followed them all his life. Peter’s abandonment of them had dramatic implications for his own future and the future of the religious movement he had helped to shepherd, causing him to distance himself from the traditions he had always held fast to and opening up the still forming religion of Christianity to a group of outsiders that no one was yet sure could fully belong. Peter’s embrace of all animals as clean led him to walk away from his past and, in the process, to completely change the whole world.

Over the past few decades, we have seen a different kind of radical shift take place. We know, of course, that there have always been people who have differed from the norm in how they have identified or expressed their gender or sexuality. Only recently, though, have we seen a surge in the public acceptance and approval of people who inhabit alternative identities and expressions quite openly. Not too long ago, loving a person of the same sex was thought to be a crime and a mental disorder, an inclination that could get you in serious trouble with the established authorities and the population-at-large. Not too long ago, making a change in how you identified your gender would have been considered impossible. I don’t want to deny or minimize the current struggles LGBTQ people face—they are real and they are many, both here in Norwalk and around the globe—but we have come a long way.

And in the process we’ve become a little less radical. Even by the time I was a teenager, the Stonewall riots were a distant memory, HIV/AIDS was the disease that defined a different era, and the killing of Mathew Shepherd was, though only a few years prior, nonetheless firmly in the past. There were debates about morality and policy, for sure, and it didn’t seem easy to be gay, but it also didn’t seem horrible or dangerous. It certainly wasn’t unimaginable. In the past few years, the standing of LGBTQ people in the US has arguably improved at a far greater rate than seemed possible even a short time ago: athletes and CEOs are gay, celebrities are trans, and marriage equality is the law of the land in 36 states. Again, I don’t want to ignore the fact that suffering still exists—the closet is still a prison for so many, and people are still sadly hated and disadvantaged for who they are. I also don’t want to downplay the real progress all of this change represents and all of the real benefits it has had and may in the future have in people’s lives.

But the truth is that with acceptance and inclusion and respectability come the strings of establishment. If you were at Pride in the Park yesterday as I was, you saw all of this play out quite concretely. On the one hand, it was an amazing, joyous triumph—the biggest Pride celebration this county has ever seen, a demonstration of just how far LGBTQ people have come. On the other hand, however, it revealed just how cozy the established order has become with its LGBTQ friends. Corporations, government officials and places of worship were all on hand to court what is now a significant constituency. LGBTQ issues and people have become just important enough that these places and people know they have to show up to attract and retain their customers, their employees, their congregants and their votes. A good thing? Probably. Progressive? Perhaps. Radical? Probably not.

I want to stress that I don’t think this is some tremendous tragedy for which we need to atone. Such integration of the LGBTQ community into the rest of society was largely inevitable, and I, for one, have no desire to roll back the clock to another time. Yet I do wonder what, in proudly and openly taking our place at church, in the boardroom and on the campaign trail, we lose.

In the selection from Matthew we heard this evening, Jesus shares with his disciples words that at first seem like they came from a motivational poster for LGBTQ Pride. “Have no fear,” he tells them, “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” His words encourage the same authenticity and vulnerability that fueled many of our own journeys and helped us become as comfortable as we are. They surprise us with how applicable they actually seem to our own situations: we too know the power of uncovering what was once hidden and saying out loud what was once secret. But right when we think Jesus thinks exactly the way we do, he jars us with these lines: “do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” This is when many of you who just an hour ago thought it was just fantastic that churches were in the business of having Pride services begin to get confused. I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother? Those who find their life will lose it? What are these horrific, violent, distasteful words? Why would Jesus encourage people to lose their lives? Why would he want families to collapse? A sword instead of peace? Isn’t peace on earth the whole point?

But if you have these hesitations, I’d like to ask you to take a step back and think about everything a little more carefully. Remember that for many people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, gender non-conforming or with some similar designation, the journey of navigating gender and sexuality has involved a lot of risk and instability, even in these seemingly more accepting times. For some, deep rifts have been opened up within families: a man has literally been set against his father, and a daughter has literally been set against her mother and in a sense their foes have become the members of their households. On an even more dramatic scale, some LGBTQ individuals have literally lost their lives. In exchange for one kind of peace—the peace of living authentically and vulnerably as the person they knew they really were—many LGBTQ individuals received conflict, discord, violence—a sword. Viewed in this light, Jesus’ statement is not a denial of peace but an illustration of the possible consequences of peace. Jesus is not saying that he wants families to split up or terrible things to happen. He is saying that to truly live openly and authentically and with a great sense of purpose one must be willing to face the risk that not everything will be easy or turn out all right.

On this Pride weekend of 2015, we have so much to be proud of. We have persevered with our own struggles with regards to gender and sexuality, and over time our society has learned—albeit very partially—to begin to accept the ways in which we identify and express ourselves. As we bathe in our growing sense of legitimacy, however, we face a choice: whether to join the establishment we have labored to be part of for so long or to continue to question and challenge it. Was the point of our long struggle to win victory for ourselves or to break down the categories of purity and impurity that oppress so many kinds of people? Was the point to advance the particular needs of our specific subgroups or to champion the values of diversity, openness and vulnerability altogether? We can, if we choose, dare to stay on the margins; to declare people clean whom others continue to call profane; to bring light to all the dark secrets that so many don’t want told. If we can manage to do some of that, we just might have even more to be proud of.

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