A Sermon about Journeys

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img_0899Preacher’s Editorial Note: I have the privilege of serving a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation, meaning they have made the decision to be intentionally welcoming and affirming of the diversity of God’s people, particularly those in the LGBTQ+ community. When I was looking for an internship site, it was important both to me and to the field education directors at my seminary to find a site that is RIC to provide me with a safe place to complete my internship year. I am grateful for Augustana’s welcome and also for their future support of an LGBTQ+ intern in the next academic year.

Today, Augustana celebrated nearly thirteen years of being an RIC congregation. Our worship was enhanced with the music of the River City Mixed Chorus (a choral ensemble made up of LGBTQ+ persons and allies). I also preached perhaps my most personal sermon to date, the text and recording of which follows below. I am happy beyond words for the support of all the communities along my journey that have made it possible for me to do what I am called to do. Deo gratias.


Augustana Lutheran Church
5 March 2017 + First Sunday in Lent (RIC Commemoration)
Matthew 4.1-11



I admit, when I learned that Augustana’s annual Reconciling in Christ commemoration would coincide with the First Sunday in Lent, I was nervous. Lent, after all, is traditionally a season where words like “repentance” and “sin” are thrown around in excess—words that have come to be triggering for many in the progressive church and especially for those in the LGBTQ+ community.

I’m also usually not one for diverting from the lectionary, but the texts assigned to the First Sunday in Lent this year—one from Genesis about the fall into sin (there’s that word again) and another from Romans, a letter written by the apostle Paul who is responsible for many of the “texts of terror” used to justify homophobic and transphobic violence—made even me take a few liturgical liberties.

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As I began to mull over what I might preach today, I found myself drawn to the gospel text, the one reading I did not change. It tells the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Much could be said about the story itself, but what most attracted my attention was the larger context. Immediately before this passage comes the story of Jesus’s baptism, which we just read moments ago, and immediately following is the account of the launch of Jesus’s public ministry. Taken together, this pattern of baptism-wilderness-ministry suggests the pattern of the Christian life—or we might say the journey.


My own journey began at the font at Trinity Lutheran Church in Utica, Michigan. The subsequent years of Lutheran schools from preschool through high school drew me to Concordia University in the near suburbs of Chicago, where I originally planned to study secondary education in English. After one field education experience in a 7th grade English classroom, that was enough of that for me, and I opted instead for the pre-seminary program.

Then, late in my senior year, I began the process of coming out as gay. While that task proves difficult enough on its own, it also meant that I could no longer in good conscience or for my own safety pursue ministry in the fundamentalist faction of the Lutheran church in which I was raised.

Enter Urban Village. The young, United Methodist church plant I discovered around that same time fully welcomed and affirmed me for who I am and invited me more deeply into the community. For the next two years, I found myself more involved in the life of the church than ever before, as my own theology began to be re-formed. It was also during that time that I began to pay attention to my call to ministry again.

The next phase of my journey brought me to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chicago, which in many ways felt like coming home to the rich heritage of my natal tradition but with a refreshingly progressive spin. The Holy Trinity community continues to support me through seminary, and I am grateful to call them family.


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The River City Mixed Chorus sings a trio of choral anthems for our Reconciling in Christ (RIC) commemoration at Augustana on Sunday, March 5, 2017. (photo credit: Josh Evans)

Today as we celebrate nearly thirteen years of being a Reconciling in Christ congregation, I tell you my story to tell you this: Inclusion matters. Inclusion matters because it saved my life. Inclusion matters because it reawakened my call to public ministry. Inclusion matters because of comments like this one that I received just this past week from a queer friend who also grew up in an ultra-conservative congregation: “Even something as simple as seeing someone like me at the front of the church means a lot even after having been out for years.”

Inclusion matters, but inclusion also demands confession and repentance of the ways we are complicit in systems of oppression. In a quote attributed to Indigenous Australian artist and activist Lilla Watson, we hear: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

The work of liberation and reconciliation is an ongoing activity. Being a Reconciling in Christ congregation today means that when we see the water protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe forcibly removed from their lands, we speak out. It means that when a presidential order threatens the lives of our immigrant and refugee siblings, we hold candlelight vigils and call and write to our elected officials out of the deep convictions of our faith. It means that when transgender persons of color are murdered at alarming rates, while our lawmakers are more concerned about where the hell they pee, we demand justice and accountability for their lives taken too soon.

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The struggle for justice is hard, and I’m  especially grateful this week for the new ABC mini-series When We Rise, chronicling the LGBTQ+ rights movement, beginning in San Francisco in the early 1970s. In the first episode, Ken Jones, a Navy officer in the Vietnam War who has just been reassigned to a base in San Francisco, struggles with coming to terms with his sexuality and, at the recommendation of a Navy chaplain, finds himself in the congregation of an anti-gay fundamentalist preacher. But as he leaves the service, he spots a gay bar down the block and walks in as a drag performer is singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” He’s greeted by Mama Jose, who says to him: “God has delivered you to this place of refuge.”

Not long after, that place of refuge is raided by police, who start beating and arresting patrons. While others lock arms in solidarity and protest, Ken runs away.

Later in the episode, he returns to the bar, apologizing for his cowardice and vowing to stick around the next time it happens. As he is welcomed back with open arms, and joined by the other main characters for the first time, Mama Jose declares, “All of you combined, locked arm in arm, are stronger than you know. You could lift us all up.”

The struggle for justice and the work of reconciliation is hard, but we always stand on the shoulders of those who came before and lock arms with those who fight alongside us.

For those of us who are Christian, Lent offers us the opportunity to return to the font, to remember our baptism, and to renew the covenant we made at the waters in renunciation of evil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin and oppression that draw us from God. It’s a tall order, but the promise of God is certain: In baptism we are named and claimed as God’s own, and throughout this season, throughout the wilderness journey, we are ever led back to the source and font of abundant life.

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Lessons Learned from a String of Yarn: Reflections for LGBTQ+ History Month on National Coming Out Day 2016

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Originally published in The Door, the student and community newsletter of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago


I often remark that I find it amusing that the first person to whom I came out was a pastor. That was in 2011 and all the more remarkable because it came on the heels of graduating from a college of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), the culmination of just over twenty years of growing up in that conservative, fundamentalistic tradition. That pastor to whom I came out ended up being the reason I gave his church—and the church—a second chance, and just over four years later, I would write of my call to public ministry in my endorsement essay (the second of three steps in the ordination process for my denomination): “I want to in some small way be for others what that pastor was for me—that is, an instrument of affirmation and reconciliation.”

Fast forward to this past April: I was sitting in the chapel at St. Francis Retreat Center, just outside of San Francisco, for my first Proclaim gathering. I knew only a small sliver of the folks assembled in that room for Eucharist. But then something amazing happened: we read a litany. It was a historical litany, marking momentous occasions in the history of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of the church—including the dates of so-called “extraordinary” ordinations (those not officially recognized by the denomination) and those that have happened since the ELCA’s 2009 vote to affirm LGBTQ+ persons in ministry. As the litany was read, those who were present were invited to stand as they heard their names and respond “This is my body!” They were also passed a ball of red yarn, holding on to part of the string before tossing it to the next person, and so forth.

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Proclaim Gathering 2016 + photo credit: Emily Ann Garcia

The text of the litany was printed in the worship bulletin, and so I could see where it ended: with a list of names symbolizing the future of Proclaim, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, and the wider church. My name, too, was on that list, and I, too, held part of that strand of yarn. Before long, everyone in that chapel was literally connected by a single red string of yarn, and even though I still did not know many of these people, I knew I was a part of that group, a part of the larger cloud of witnesses, both living and sainted, on whose shoulders I stand as I continue to navigate my own journey in ministry. This is my body.

When I think about LGBTQ+ History Month, I think of my own personal history, and I think of that first pastor to whom I came out and all the fabulous trailblazing queer pastors and rostered leaders who have made it possible for me to do what I love and that to which I am lovingly called by God. And I know, too, that as the years go by, my name will move further and further back on that litany of names and ordinations and that I will be a part of someone else’s history. It’s an incredibly exciting—and nerve-wracking—vision, but one I believe can be said of all LGBTQ+ persons in and preparing for ministry.

Dean Esther Menn quoted a verse from Isaiah during my incoming class’s orientation week: “[Thus says the LORD…] I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43.19). Now, she was talking about the new curriculum, and Isaiah was talking about something else entirely. But when I hear these words—I am about to do a new thing—I hear God’s promise as encapsulated by the ELCA tagline: “Always Being Made New.” Our church is always being made new, and God is constantly up to new things. Who knows what the future of mainline Protestantism and our small denomination within it will look like in ten, twenty, fifty years? But I do know that queer people will continue to be a part of it. Our gifts for ministry are important, and our history is a rich one. Our future, too, is one of promise. God is doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?

A Sermon for Those Who Have Been Told to Take the Lowest Place

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Augustana Lutheran Church
28 August 2016 + Lectionary 22C
Luke 14.1, 7-14



Wash your hands.
Pray before you eat.
Don’t chew with your mouth open.
Keep your elbows off the table.

All phrases that I imagine each of us has heard as children that teach us table manners.

And the fancier the meal, these table manners only seem to get more strict and more elaborate. Imagine Downton Abbey.

Or closer to home: when the good china comes out at Christmas or Thanksgiving, or maybe going out for a nice dinner at the best steakhouse in town.

And yet all these settings would probably pale in comparison to a candlelight supper, hosted by one Hyacinth Bucket. That’s B-U-C-K-E-T, bouquet.

If you get that reference, you have instantly 2073727127_a383fce445_zbecome of my new favorite people who knows and appreciates the television masterpiece that is Keeping Up Appearances.

The show follows the anything-but-ordinary life of Hyacinth Bucket, whose relentless and often exaggerated attempts at climbing the social ladder provide much of the show’s humor. In nearly every episode, Hyacinth goes to great lengths to steer clear of her much more “lower-class” sister Daisy and her husband, while constantly reminding everyone of her much wealthier sister Violet—all part of her ceaseless social climbing.


Jesus encounters a great deal of social climbing in today’s gospel. At the house of a prominent religious leader, all the guests clamor for the places of honor.

The instruction Jesus offers to the guests in his parable seems straightforward enough: Don’t scramble for the place of honor. If someone more important comes along, you might get bumped down lower. So instead, do just the opposite. It’s better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower. It’s advice straight out of the wisdom sayings we encounter in our reading from Proverbs.

But even more radical is what Jesus says in the follow-up to the parable where he turns his attention to the hosts. Don’t invite the usual suspects, but invite those who are poor, crippled, lame, blind—those who cannot invite you back, those who are explicitly excluded by first-century Palestinian “table manners.”

These are the ones who have had no choice but to take the “lowest place”—or no place at all—because that’s where the system has told them they belong. But they’re precisely the ones that Jesus would have at the table.


The church, too, is guilty of its own restrictive and exclusive “table manners.”

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Clare Byarugaba (photo credit: Timothy Meinch / Christian Century)

Clare Byarugaba is an activist who lives in Uganda. She also happens to be a lesbian.

 

She talks about growing up in the Anglican church in her hometown of Kabale, in southwestern Uganda. Her father played the organ, and she sang in the choir. Clare fondly remembers a happy childhood experience in the church: “I never really questioned my faith or the Bible,” she says. “I was in a certain place with God, and it was good.”

Even after she first noticed her same-sex attraction, and started bringing her girlfriends to church with her, she had reconciled her sexuality and her faith. Certain of her identity, she laughingly remarked, “God will deal with it.”

The church of her adulthood, however, holds a different opinion. Clare recounts one Sunday in 2009 when her pastor urged the congregation to sign a petition backing antigay legislation that would make provision for the death penalty in certain cases of same-sex activity. That day, she decided it would be the last time she went to church, reflecting later, “It was so, so painful… The people who were supposed to bring you closer to God were calling for your death.” [1]

Unfortunately, homophobia in the church is a phenomenon not restricted to Uganda and one we know all too well in our North American context. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals told they don’t belong simply because of who they are and whom they love. Or at best, welcomed, but with an asterisk to take the “lowest place.” Be celibate. Don’t get married. You can’t raise children. Don’t be too flamboyant.

There is no shortage of persons in our world who have been told they belong in the “lowest place.” LGBTQ+ persons are just one example.

A video produced by Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago highlights another. It’s called “Get Home Safely: 10 Rules of Survival,” and it features black youth offering advice to their peers on how to survive getting stopped by police. [2] Advice, I must admit, I never had to consider growing up white. Be polite. Don’t argue. Keep your hands visible. Don’t run. Don’t resist. In other words, take the “lowest place” because to attempt to do anything more is to risk your life.


When Clare Byarugaba decided to return to the very church that only a few years earlier had deeply hurt her, she walked in during an opening praise medley that included a song paraphrasing Isaiah 61:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

Words that should sound familiar because they are the very words spoken by Jesus that launch and define his public ministry earlier in Luke’s gospel. Words that give Clare hope for the future of her beloved church.

Words that declare that God is always and especially concerned for the outsider and the oppressed.

I am grateful to come from a seminary that embraces the idea of public church, because public church, too, is, at its best, rooted in these words.

The church declares that in baptism we are claimed as God’s own and marked with the cross of Christ forever. The church declares one’s worth is not dependent on where society tells you you belong—but that you are worthy because you are a beloved and redeemed child of God.

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And the public church proclaims that message of sacred worth to the world and fights like hell against systems that deny it to queer lives, to black lives, to refugee and immigrant lives.

Jesus’s insistence that poor and crippled and lame and blind lives matter enough to have a place at the table is much more than a lesson in simple table manners. It’s a radical re-envisioning of a world marked by God’s reign of justice.


[1] http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-08/unshakable-uganda

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqJ-psD9vJw