of Metropolitan Community Churches
The Rev. Nancy L. Wilson
"Shaking The Foundations!"
by The Reverend Nancy L. Wilson
Delivered at The Fellowship's Annual Conference, Dallas, Texas, on June 25, 2008.
INTRODUCTORY NOTE FROM REV. WILSON:
I delivered this sermon at the opening service of the Annual Conference of The Fellowship in Dallas, Texas. We were blessed by so many musical guests, including the choir and orchestra of the Cathedral of Hope. MCCers were present from throughout the Dallas Metroplex, ushering and participating in the conference, along with clergy from across the U.S. Members of the MCC Board of Elders who were present were Rev. Darlene Garner, Rev. Lillie Brock and Rev. Jim Mitulski, and we were joined by Dr. Cindi Love. The United Church of Christâ€™s Coalition for LGBT Concerns was also meeting at the same time; MCC denominational leaders and the Coalition leaders met for dinner and fellowship together during the Conference. I was also invited to participate in the Fellowship's baptismal service, and MCC's Rev. Candy Holmes conducted the Mass Choir one evening. I invite you to read a more extensive report on the conference at the end of the sermon.
Scripture: Acts 16: 25-34
It is my joy and honor to be with brothers and sisters from The Fellowship and the UCC Coalition here in Dallas, Texas today. Thank you for your incredible hospitality.
Bishop Flunder, as you celebrate eight years, and as Metropolitan Community Churches prepares to celebrate our 40th anniversary in October of this year, isn't it amazing what God is doing?
Everywhere I go, there is a buzz about the relationship between The Fellowship and MCC. I talked to a news reporter earlier today who asked, "What is happening with MCC and the Fellowship?"
And the answer is, "We are on a journey together."
What you are doing, Fellowship, is so important -- as you confront homophobia in your cultural context, as you bring healing and hope to so many, especially to those from the African-American Pentecostal/Evangelical tradition. We are one with you and together we celebrate, as your conference theme declares, "One Table and One Tribe!"
It was in this very hotel, then under another name and different management, that I was ordained as MCC clergy in 1975. I knelt on the ballroom floor, trembling, as Troy Perry and other Elders laid hands on me at age 25. That day, 33 years ago, is as real to me right now as it was then, and I will never forget what making that passionate and solemn commitment has meant in my life.
So this is holy ground. And it is made more holy by you this week and by what we are doing together to change the world!
I love the book of Acts in the Bible; it tells of an "unhindered gospel." The 16th chapter begins with the Macedonian call, Paul's vision of being called to reach outside his comfort zone and beyond familiar territory. In this chapter, Paul and his ministry partner Silas meet Lydia, whom the Bible describes as a "seller of purple" and the female head of household. (Bishop Flunder and I can identify!)
On a high from the success of their mission, Paul and Silas are strolling through the market in the ancient city of Philippi, when a slave girl, described in Bible as "possessed by a spirit of divination," starts pursuing them and calling out to them -- she makes quite a public scene!
The Bible says that out of pure annoyance, Paul healed her. Only the Apostle Paul would heal someone out of sheer annoyance! But it's a reminder that God can use our unique personalities to accomplish great things.
So the slave girl was healed of whatever possessed her. But her good news wasn't good news to everyone. Suddenly, she was then no longer valuable as a possession, as a commodity. Her oppressors and abusers could no longer benefit from her; they could no longer capitalize on her suffering, which today we might call schizophrenia or some other psychiatric label.
Now, the story as told in the Bible leaves out some important details. As a healed slave who was now useless to her abusers, it's likely that she had no family to turn to and nowhere to go. I'd like to think that Paul and Silas sent her to Lydia's people; anyway, that's my fantasy.
Then there was Paul and Silas. Again, the good news they delivered to the slave girl wasn't good news to everyone. They had upset the system; they were considered to have broken the law. For this, they were beaten and thrown into jail, into the deepest recesses of a dungeon, and locked in chains.
And that's where today's scripture begins. The Bible says that at midnight, Paul and Silas were singing hymns. I know Jim Mitulski loves this part of the story. We are not told exactly what they were singing, but I am sure it wasn't, "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, nobody knows but Jesus..."
No! I am sure they were singing loudly and joyfully. Maybe they sang, "I've Got a Feeling, Everything Is Gonna Be Alright!" They sang to comfort themselves and they sang to lift each other's spirits. I bet they laughed and cried, and sang their hearts out, all the while wondering how this turn of events had occurred and how God might use what was happening to them.
The Bible says the other prisoners were listening to them sing. I wonder if they thought Paul and Silas were crazy, or if they took comfort, too? I wonder if some of them might have joined in the singing? Now, the text doesn't say any more than that the other prisoners were listening, but just that sentence is enough to make me think: You never know! And you never know who is listening to you! What do people hear when you open your mouth?
I also think they were singing, because, frankly, no jail could hold them! No prison could chain their spirits; no jail could keep them from being entirely free in Jesus Christ. So they sang the songs of every Freedom Rider, the songs of hope and liberation.
And here our story takes another turn...
Suddenly there was an earthquake -- an earthquake so violent that it shook the foundations of the jail. Chains broke free. Doors flew open. I think in those circumstances, I might well have said, "Thanks, God, I'm outta here!"
But not Paul and Silas.
They simply waited. They waited in the silence, that still, eerie silence that follows an earthquake.
The jail keeper awoke with such dread and angst that he immediately took out his sword to kill himself. He feared his bosses so much, feared they would blame him for losing these prisoners. He, too, was trapped in a prison, a prison of his mind. He had so internalized his oppressors that killing himself seemed the only option.
And at that very moment, there's a shout, "Don't harm yourself, we are all here!" It was Paul, speaking with authority on behalf of all the prisoners.
That word became the transformative moment for the jailer. It was the Voice of God, announcing mercy, grace, love and solidarity. In that moment, they were One Community - jailers, Paul and Silas and all those nameless prisoners. The one who was the jailer discovered he was trapped in a prison of his mind. Those who had been trapped in prison found themselves free! Reversal upon reversal.
The jailer had encountered these two wild men of faith, who knew there was something more important than escaping from jail at that moment. Through Paul and Silas, the jailer had encountered Jesus.
The jailer fell on his knees, begging Paul and Silas to tell him what it is they have, because he wants it. He, who was not willing to risk being blamed for an earthquake, who was afraid of his own shadow, who felt worthless about his life, suddenly was risking everything! The Bible says he took Paul and Silas to his home, fed them and dressed their wounds! He listened to them; he witnessed their faith. And then he asked to be baptized, accepting that freedom for himself and his family.
Bishop Greenlee, could you have imagined yourself, 20 years ago, doing what you are doing today? Isn't freedom amazing? Jim Mitulski, Lillie Brock, Darlene Garner, Bishop Flunder, could you ever have imagined? What a gift freedom is, and what amazing doors it opens to God's love and mercy and grace!
So what do we find in this story that is for all of us, here, at the Fellowship's Annual Conference in 2008?
1. God Is Shaking The Foundations!
We are not here solely to create safe space for LGBT, queer, same-gender-loving people and our families and allies to worship, although that is still a great need, even in the US in 2008. It is about much more than that. We are here to shake the foundations of injustice, and to challenge systems and slavery -- economic, political, and spiritual slavery.
There is real slavery still going on, in alarming numbers, all over the world. People are sick and dying because of slavery in all of its forms -- to racism, sexism, and gender oppression, to drugs and substances that mask reality and deny us our full potential, to judgments directed at us by others and, worse still, the judgments we impose on ourselves -â€“ all those things that numb our spirits and breed hopelessness.
And let me say this: Too many of our own people -- our own LGBT sisters and brothers -- are still in mental and spiritual slavery to notions of a God who oppresses, rather than liberates.
In Jamaica today, LGBT people are being killed and harassed. The legacy of colonialism has twisted race and sexuality into a lethal braid of homophobia. But our people are rising up for justice and hope, and we need to be with them! A recent poll showed that 70% of Jamaicans do not support gay rights and it's worth noting that this reflects progress! Three years ago, before there was an MCC in Jamaica and before the recent public campaigns, I'm sure it was greater than 90%.
Jamaica's Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, recently told the BBC that he would not appoint a gay person to his cabinet. Now, the truth is that he probably already has gay people in his cabinet and just doesn't know it; we really are everywhere.
Meanwhile, the reality is that no LGBT person in Jamaica cares if he wants to appoint someone gay to the cabinet -- they just want to stop being killed! They want police protection. They want civil and human rights.
Here in our own county, in the U.S., our government is engaged in an horrifically expensive (in human life, as well as in lost opportunities for peace and in fiscal costs), illegal war in which unprecedented war profiteering goes largely unchallenged. But God is shaking the foundations and God is inviting us -- The Fellowship, MCC, the United Church of Christ, and many, many others -- to resist and stand up for justice, peace and hope.
2. Interpret Your Earthquakes!
Now, I know something about earthquakes. I am familiar with earthquakes. I lived through the 1994 Northridge earthquake, in which MCC Los Angeles' building was destroyed, one of 80 such buildings in Los Angeles County.
Now, no Baptist or Methodist or Catholic whose church was damaged or destroyed wondered if God did this to punish them. But you can be sure some folks at MCC were talking about it. Homophobia, including internalized homophobia, sometimes runs deep, doesn't it?
So, I preached against the homophobia, saying no way did God send the Northridge earthquake just to tear down our building!
But I must confess, I held this deep, dark secret: Two nights before the earthquake, while hosting a church growth conference, I had struggled and prayed about the fact that our newly renovated church building was too small and the foyer was too narrow. And I wondered how many years it would take for me to convince the congregation to sell and move closer to West Hollywood, or somewhere a little closer to the LGBT community.
Then two days later, rather unexpectedly, I no longer had that worry.
I didn't tell anyone about that prayer and conversation with God for years, actually, for two full years, until we were moving into our new church complex in West Hollywood -- that's when I decided to revise my theology! Maybe God did tear our building down after all, not as a curse, but for blessing, so we could partner with MCC globally and invest in that property together!
You have to rightly discern those earthquakes! Understand your grief, losses and challenges. Let God help you understand the Divine Wisdom at work in even your most painful and difficult circumstances.
The Holy Spirit would not let Paul and Silas interpret that earthquake as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card! No, God's greater purpose was the life of the jailer, and his extended family, and his circle of influence. God's greater purpose was Jesus' love and mercy, and it was God's amazing grace and liberating power!
Paul and Silas waited in the stillness to hear the Voice of God interpret that earthquake for them, and we can, we must, do the same.
3. Free The Jailer, Too
When Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa in that stunning non-violent revolution that ended apartheid, he hosted a special inaugural luncheon to which he invited his white jailers from Robben Island, where he had been confined as a political prisoner from 1964 to 1982. In that gesture, he painted a picture of a new South Africa, of a higher calling and standard. He embodied that special grace and forgiveness that can free the oppressor, and in his case, those low-on-the-power-grid oppressors who are themselves so oppressed and afraid.
I met John (not his real name) in New York in 1981. MCC had just sent our application letter for membership in the National Council of Churches, and John had told us, through the New York Times, not to bother.
But a couple of months later we were meeting him and the membership committee of the NCC in New York. And two hours into our meeting, John broke down and apologized, saying he was so stunned about MCC's ministry, and he had had no idea, etc., etc.
And the membership committee unanimously voted that MCC was eligible for membership within the National Council of Churches.
Two years later, the members of the Council would reject their own decision and indefinitely postpone any vote on our membership. John was heartbroken, deeply disappointed with the Church. That night he knocked on my door and cried; he was so angry and so hurt by the Council's treatment of MCC. At the same time, he was also going through the pain of a divorce, and he had just been let go from his job, because, he was told, he had lost his objectivity about the MCC application.
Fast forward five years. I was at a National Council of Churches' meeting celebrating Church World Service -- and there was John, beaming! He rushed up to me, said he had left New York and had gone half way around the world to Bangladesh to find himself and his vocation. And during his journey he had found himself again, he rediscovered his calling -- and he had also met the love of his life, Mary; he introduced me to her there, on the spot. Then he said to me, "All of this is MCC's fault!" We have to free the jailers!
Here is the how Acts concludes the story: The next morning the authorities come to the jailer's house; they tell him he can quietly release Paul and Silas. But they didn't go quietly. They informed them that they were Roman citizens and had been treated unfairly -- so they were provided a special escort and were thrown out of town in the nicest sort of way!
And here are the lessons for us:
We must be willing to risk it all to shake the foundations and to reinterpret our earthquakes in the light of God's purposes.
And while we are at it, we must also free the jailers.
May God bless the Fellowship in your conference this week. May you be everything God has intended you to be in the Church and in our world, for all who need you.
And may we be One Tribe and sit at One Table, in Jesus' name.
Sermon Delivered By:
The Reverend Nancy L. Wilson
Metropolitan Community Churches