I originally preached this sermon at the Northeast Gathering of the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), May 3, 2014, at MCC Hartford, CT.
Scripture: Luke 18:1-8, the parable of the widow and the unjust judge.
Before I start, I want to thank all those of you who organized this gathering, and thanks to the members and friends of MCC Hartford, and Aaron, for your hospitality. MCC ministry can be very lonely, and it is always good to have a chance to gather together. Thank you for making that happen!
The theme for today’s gathering has been “A Year of Spiritual Growth and Social Justice.” As I meditated on this theme, I remembered a dear friend who was my first teacher in the intersection of spiritual growth and social justice. Joe was the friend who, in the words of some Christians, “brought me to Christ”, who invited me to stretch my spirit in ways that would spark my conversion experience. He got me started questioning what I’d been taught about gay and lesbian people when he came out to me. When he told me of his diagnosis, I became a person consciously affected by HIV. Joe was the friend who introduced me to MCC. But most of all, Joe taught me how to work for justice in the name of Christ; and when anyone accused him of being a troublemaker, he would smile and say, “Jesus Christ was a troublemaker.” Which, of course, is true.
As we consider the story of the widow and the unjust judge, let us meditate on the calling of Holy Troublemaking. This afternoon, I offer three words as a framework: Persistence; Pride; and Perspective.
Persistence is how the widow in this story gets the justice that she deserves. The judge refuses to hear her, but she refuses to give up pestering him. Finally, the judge says, I had better get her off my case before she comes and punches me in the face. No struggle for justice is won easily; if getting justice were easy, there would be no need for a struggle. When one’s rights are systematically denied, securing justice requires persistence.
The struggle for marriage equality is a case in point. In three weeks, Sharilyn and I will have been married under Massachusetts law for ten years. But before that civil wedding day came, thousands of ordinary people, gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and straight, religious and secular, had been working for almost as long to make civil marriage for same-sex couples a reality. When I began with the Religious Coalition for Freedom to Marry in 1998, I honestly doubted that we would ever be successful. But we kept on talking, and organizing, and six years later we had gone from a list of fifteen supportive clergy to a roster of one thousand. To work for justice is a commitment for the long haul, if not in fact a commitment for life. The first requirement of Holy Troublemaking is persistence.
One of the dangers of a ministry of Holy Troublemaking, however, is that one can easily become discouraged. Systematic injustices are entrenched, and political adversaries can be just as persistent as we are. As a GLBTQ community, we have seen a real sea change in attitudes toward queer people over the past few decades; at the same time, we still have adversaries who refuse to treat us with respect – whether it is the would-be politician who says that gay men and lesbians deserve to die, or the well-mannered church official who agrees that I am a child of God, but can’t allow me to serve as a minister of God. In the face of setbacks and hostility, those of us who would be Holy Troublemakers also need pride: not pompousness, but a healthy sense of our own goodness as human beings worthy of respect, and life, and love.
A little over a half-century ago, feminist theologians began talking about gendered definitions of sin, particularly about sins like “pride”. As a sin, pride means to think too highly of oneself; to place oneself in a position of domination over others. But in a society in which men are privileged – or, at least, men with a certain amount of wealth and a certain skin color – perhaps the spiritual failing of women is to acquiesce to the pecking order in this “Mad Men” world; to not think highly enough of ourselves. Our friend Patrick Cheng picks up on this theme in his book From Sin to Amazing Grace: for queer people who have grown up and come out in an atmosphere of shame and condemnation, our spiritual health depends on taking pride in who we are. We will need Pride celebrations to sustain us, for at least as long as we are made “less than”. Pride allows us to stand our ground: to not meekly back away from asserting our rights, but like the widow in Jesus’ story, to stand our ground, secure in the knowledge that we are deserving of justice.
Holy troublemaking requires persistence and it requires pride, and it also needs perspective: perspective about time and success, as well as perspective about the interrelation of all issues of social justice.
We need to keep our actions in perspective, in the sense that we cannot rush or compel the process of gaining justice, any more than I can compel my tulips to all bloom at the same time. Some of them just need a longer period of time to grow and flower! In the middle of making justice, we can stop for a rest, to refresh ourselves, to trust that God is in charge. If we are speaking, for example, of the rights of queer people, we are talking about shifting the attitudes in entire cultures, which does not happen easily or quickly. Fifty years ago, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman reminded his readers that changing laws is only a preliminary step towards justice; the hard work of changing attitudes would still remain. In fact, that hard work is far from finished today. And in the same way, our struggles for respect as a queer people are far from complete. After laws are changed, the task becomes one of changing hearts. So we do well to keep our legal successes in perspective.
The task of changing hearts suggests a second, and deeper, kind of perspective: a recognition that there are many social injustices, and when we view our world through the lens of other people, we may find ourselves in the role of the judge rather than the widow. A widened perspective leads us to examine whether we, ourselves, are in the position of denying the personhood of someone else. For those of us who are privileged because we are white, are we in solidarity with people of other colors? Do we respect others who have a different native language? A different level of ability? For those of us who are G or L or B, are we supportive of the T, the trans folks among and around us – and vice versa? THIS… is where the deepest spiritual growth occurs.
In my own work of Holy Troublemaking, I find myself again and again being invited to open my heart to something or someone that I found frightening. Will I sit down and have a morning cup of coffee with a homeless man or woman? Will I have a conversation with someone who just got out of jail? Having discovered pride in myself as a white feminist, will I re-think my assumptions about people of other colors and cultures? Will I open my mind, and my heart, to the face of Christ in someone who seems very different from me?
As we approach a time of healing, I invite you to listen to the Spirit within you. What is your soul crying out for? – a spirit of persistence? A healing from shame, into pride? A healing of perspective, from the need to control outcomes, to a trust in the Spirit’s timing? Healing of openness to something new? Or something else entirely?
Jesus said, Ask and you shall receive.
Holy Spirit, fill our hearts and prepare us to receive a blessing.
© 2014 The Rev. Dr. Joan M. Saniuk