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Perhaps you know the story – about 50 years ago the Stonewall bar there was police raid that lead to six days of skirmishes between young gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals and the New York Police Department in Manhattan’s West Village. The New York Postreported on June 28, 1969, that hundreds outside the bar had been observed chanting “Gay Power” and “We Want Freedom.” It was a major milestone in the fight for LGBTQ rights. And while Stonewall is a symbolic “line in the sand,” it is only a part of the story.
Stonewall was more than a bar. As reported in a piece from The Atlantic by Garance Franke-Ruta, Stonewall, “operated as a sort of de facto community center for gay youth rendered homeless by familial and institutional rejection, who had taken refuge in New York City in hopes of finding a place where they could be in the world. This continues, decades later, to be a major problem…about 40 percent of clients served by 354 youth service agencies were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, and…the top reasons they were homeless were that they ran away in the face of family rejection or were kicked out by parents who could not accept their sexual orientation or gender identities.” And we are now living in a time in which some very hard won victories are being reversed by the current administration – specifically for transgender persons, who are being systematically written out of protections for housing, employment and healthcare. Now is when we need each other more than ever. See, it was Stonewall that started something – not an LGBT rights movement, that had already started long before, but perhaps, at least for the people in and around the West Village, and it was the idea of an LGBT community. And it’s the memory of Stonewall that symbolizes that idea to this day. We are no longer going to just “take it.” And we’re NOT going back.
Now, I think that it’s fair to say that this is a message you won’t hear from many pulpits in Tulsa today, and certainly not the day after that same church drove it’s float in the PRIDE parade. And I probably don’t need to remind you all of that, you are quite aware of the church you attend, and maybe that kind of pro-LGBTQ+ stance is one of the reasons you come here. But I thought you might want to be reminded, or to know in the first place, whywe take this stance.
We could start with the 6 passages in the Bible that supposedly condemn same-sex relationships, the so-called “clobber passages,” often the primary reason that other churches give for their stigmatization, and sometimes persecution, of LGBTQ+ persons, but that’s another sermon altogether. Suffice it to say that we simply don’t read the Bible the same way that other expressions of Christianity do – we are not literalists, we look at translation issues with the text, cultural differences between us and the culture of the Bible and we acknowledge that whatever Paul or Leviticus “supposedly” said about gay people, Jesus said zeroabout it. And since we are followers of Jesus, then we try to live how he would live…and we don’t think that hatred of people for how they were created.
But that position comes from somewhere. The reading you heard today is part of a larger prayer that Jesus prays for his disciples, for his community. It is only found in John’s gospel, and it is much longer than the snippet you heard. It asks for God’s presence among the people, for protection even, and for the words and deeds that Jesus has left us to still be with us, guiding and shaping them so that they might not be part of “the system,” which exploits and abuses, but set free, instead, for Love…sanctified in truth. It is a lofty prayer.
The part that we heard this morning also contains, as luck would have it, the foundational passage of scripture for our denomination, the United Church of Christ. It’s chapter 17, verse 21 – that they may all be one. Yes, sometimes verses of the Bible spring up right in the middle of sentences. That’s because for a long, long time, the Bible didn’t have chapter and verse, they were added later, apparently by monks who had been sampling too much of the ale they were brewing. So, here’s our founding slogan, partof a sentence in a singleverse from a singlechapter of onegospel.
“That they may all be one,” is the prayer. Besides protection, presence and this amazing wish for us to be in this system but not of this system, Jesus prays also for unity. That Greek word there is a conjugation of henosis, a word that comes from Greek philosophy, Neoplatonism to be specific. It doesn’t mean just “one,” like the number, but is a word with lots of mystical connotation. It means one-ness or union. The reason I think that’s important is that when we form community, one of the pitfalls is that we think that the forming has a finish line. Often with good intent and justifiable need for identity, we close the ranks of the club and while that might be good for those who are already members, it often perpetuates the same exclusion that made the need for the “club” so important in the first place. And it doesn’t foster anything even remotely like unity, which ought to mean something more like wholeness.
The cry for “unity” , however, is so often used as a silencer of dissent, it is used against people as they raise the subject of injustice and get accused of being “divisive.” Why don’t we all just come together – without changing any of the power structures? This is what makes “unity” so difficult to achieve – it cannot be about agreement. People can disagree and still love each other, which is a kind of unity, but they can’t do that if the disagreement is rooted in someone else’s oppression, or the denial of their humanity. Too often the call for unity is just a chance to flex power or privilege.
Unity can also be used to say, “Well, you are welcome…you are welcome to come here and be just like us.” In other words, the unity is connected to your capitulation, to your ability to “fit in.” Unity, however, has to change everyone involved, or it isn’t unity, it’s uniformity, defined by the people who are already in. We can only find something as elusive and mysterious as “unity” in the journey, working together to seek something that none of us possess, having the courage to seek encounters outside of our bubbles, and the willingness to be changed by those encounters.
The UCC was formed in 1957 in order to seek this so-called unity by joining together different denominational expressions of Christianity, a task that made little sense on paper and proved to be much messier and more complicated than any of us imagined. It began and continued on this notion of drawing the circle wider. And, as it turns out, when you draw the circle wider you find out that you just need to draw it wider still. As the UCC drew new circles on race and gender and sexuality we kept finding the need to expand.
This prayer, in John’s gospel, is how Jesus leaves his disciples, at least in the physical sense. If he had wanted to, Jesus could have given us a bunch of structure, some set liturgy, rules and policies. But that’s not what he did. He gave us set us up to be flexible, open to the movement of the Spirit, searching for the work of a God who is still-speaking, still creating new things in a world that seems hell-bent on trapping God in the concrete of certainty. Jesus give us the gift of a life of faith, uncertain and forever changing, just like the boundaries of our circle should be – growing, expanding, forever becoming new.
If you ask me, that’s part of the joy of PRIDE. Sure there’s some celebration of freedom there, a chance for some to wear outfits out in public that they don’t get to wear any other time – and in a few cases, probably for good reason. It’s party time for some, time with friends and family, a time to sing and dance and be happy. And it is also a time in which that circle, drawn wider, is visible. Six city councilors marched in the parade yesterday, for the first time the city was represented. So many corporate and civic groups, churches and synagogues, temples and the organized atheist community all there to make claim on the wider circle. It is a chance, on a large scale, for people who are scared and lonely and hiding to see others telling them that they are not a mistake and they are not alone.
That is the same reason we are an open & affirming church, because we believe that message lines up exactlywith the message of Jesus. We are to be a place where people can feel loved, not judged, where people can be hugged and accepted, not shunned and rejected. We think that church ought to be a place where God’s Love is writ large, and God’s Grace known to everyone, inside these walls and beyond. We work here to give the rights to everyone that we claim for ourselves, because that’s what we mean by unity.
The dream of this prayer is still not real. We still have much work to be done on justice not only for the LGBTQIA+ community, but for so many other marginalized groups. And at a time in which there is much effort to move us backwards, so much violence and anger and hatred, we must first pay attention to our own circles, making connections when and where we can, seeking understanding and shared witness, coming again to the table where all are welcome, drawing our circle ever wider. For this prayer still works on us, pushing us to seek our wholeness in the wholeness of others, to build on a foundation of love…the love that exists beyond “like,” the love to which we are subject, like a discipline, that asks us again and again to look at what we create…where are the boundaries of our circle? Because here, at this church, we know that whatever border we establish, Jesus is likely on the other side of it.