Responding to #metoo

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This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 22, 2017 to mark the 5th Anniversary of First Church becoming an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ.

Isaiah 45:1-7

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Last week, I noticed that many women were making the same short, cryptic post on their Facebook page, writing simply #metoo (see my sermon title for how that is written). At first I couldn’t figure out what these women had in common that would cause them to all say #metoo, they were young and old, gay and straight, black, white and brown, and liberal and conservative. I soon learned that these posts were meant to draw attention to the sexual harassment and sexual assault of women at the hands of men. Each woman was saying that she too had experienced such sexual violence.

Dozens of women, including A-list stars, recently came forward to charge Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein with sexual harassment and sexual assault. It is said that Weinstein asserted his power to touch them, expose himself to them, and rape them. In such cases there are always some who first blame, then try to correct the women, if only they would wear longer skirts and less makeup this wouldn’t happen. In response to these stories and attempts to defend this behavior, women, including some members of this church, began posting #metoo, some with accompanying stories, to draw attention to how prevalent this abuse is, and make it clear that such behavior is entirely the responsibility of men.

I sat with this all week, aware of the years of trauma represented by these #metoo posts, scrutinizing my own behavior for ways I am complicit. I wondered about an appropriate response, aware that denial and silence render this violence invisible.

This is the 5 year anniversary of this church’s commitment to become Open and Affirming. This means that we seek to be intentional in our welcome of all people without regard to gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, skin color, class, marital status, or ability. We are justifiably proud of our Open and Affirming identity.

When I think of what it means to be Open and Affirming, I imagine that every person who walks through the door is greeted with the same genuine smile, warm handshake, and words of welcome without regard to differences. No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And I think we do a pretty good job of this. Not perfect, but pretty good.

But #metoo has me wondering if there isn’t more to being an Open and Affirming church. Though we all deserve kindness, we aren’t all the same. As we have been so painfully reminded, women and men have dramatically different experiences with regard to sexual harassment and assault. So, I wonder if being an Open and Affirming church requires that we work to acknowledge, understand and respond to such differences, not just between men and women, but between all the aspects of our identity that I mentioned.

The passage I read from Isaiah informs this perspective. I’m really only going to focus on the very first line, “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus.” Cyrus is the Persian ruler who conquered Babylon 539 years before Jesus was born. When Cyrus came to power, the Jews had been in exile in Babylon for some 60 years, taken from their homeland of Judah, forcibly removed from the presence of their God in the temple in Jerusalem.

Note, our text calls Cyrus “anointed.” The Hebrew word translated here as anointed is Messiah. How about that? The prophet Isaiah is calling this Persian, to be clear, a non-Jewish, conqueror, Messiah. The only other one referred to as Messiah in the Hebrew Bible is King David. And the Greek translation of this word Messiah? Christ, a word we only associate with Jesus. Wow! What’s going on? Well, it was Cyrus who saw the plight of the Jews and allowed them to return from exile to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple there. He saw their suffering, took responsibility, and set them free.

This is my point. Cyrus, as the Jew’s oppressor, has an essential role, an anointed, meaning God given, role, in liberating the Jews from Babylon and restoring them to their proper relationship with God. To be clear, that role was not to fix the Jews; there was nothing wrong with the Jews. Cyrus’ role was to represent the cause of the Jews to the Babylonians. To use his understanding and influence to lead his people. We might imagine his position wasn’t popular. There would have been those who protested, insisting the Jews didn’t deserve or weren’t capable of a renewed relationship with God. But Cyrus saw the Jews’ humanity and persisted. And the Jews were liberated.

Using Cyrus as our example, let’s return to the #metoo posts. How should men respond to the sexual oppression of women, not to fix them, but to lead other men? I think Pastor and author John Pavlovitz gets it right when he says:

Guys, while we may not believe we have committed direct acts of violence against women (however given the statistics, this is quite likely), we have each participated in a culture of misogyny and sexism that continues to victimize and traumatize, to steal safety and generate fear, to deny humanity and to cultivate disrespect. We are fully complicit in these #metoo stories.

We should be the ones stepping from the shadows right now.
We should be the one laying our souls bare.
We should be risking the judgment of strangers.
We should be the ones demanding renovation.

We are the other side of the #metoo stories.
We are the writers of these awful stories.
It’s time we owned this sickness.
It’s time we stopped it. 

Maybe this is what it means to be Open and Affirming. Acknowledging, understanding and responding to differences between us, and taking responsibility for ourselves when we have caused harm.

This week, I attended a two and a half day racial justice training with a group of Hartford area clergy. Some forty of us have been meeting monthly for over a year, developing the relationships necessary to launch a faith-based community organizing effort. The group included about 30 white and 8 black ministers. One of the exercises invited the white ministers to name what we liked about being white. Going around the circle, we named things such as, I like being considered safe, being the majority, being presumed knowledgeable, having ease in life, I like being welcomed everywhere, and having educational opportunities. The African-American pastors were then asked what they liked about being black. Their list looked very different; they affirmed their resilience, creativity and innovation, their history and sense of community, and their faith. I don’t know if we could have been so honest with each other if we hadn’t spent the past year building the relationships among us. Nevertheless, I felt anxious when the facilitator asked my black colleagues how it felt looking at the two lists. I felt certain they would express disappointment, hurt, sadness and anger that us white people had named the benefits we experienced as a result of our white skin. So I was surprised when more than a couple said they felt affirmed. By this they meant that what we named affirmed their experience in the world. Our words didn’t surprise them, they lived with this reality; it was a relief for them to hear us speak it aloud. One friend, an African-American woman, said, “Finally, I know I’m not crazy.”

As with misogyny and sexual violence against women, denial and silence have rendered racism and its impact invisible, even to the point of causing my friend to doubt her sanity.

Here again, the value comes, not in ignoring differences and settling for a smile and a handshake, nor is the intent to try to fix black people. No, the value comes from naming the difference in experience, then seeking to understand, confront, and take responsibility for the hurt caused by the resulting inequality.

Cyrus saw the unique trials faced by the Jews in exile, spoke up, took responsibility for his role in these trials, and used his power to work with his people to set the Jews free. We are called to do the same.

Violence against women is a men’s issue.

Racism is an issue that must be addressed by white people, not by correcting people of color but by taking responsibility for our own beliefs and the institutions we create and manage.

Equality for gays and lesbians cannot be the exclusive responsibility of the LGBT community.

Tonight, our PF youth group will welcome gay and lesbian speakers from the Stonewall Speakers Bureau who will share the challenges they have faced and overcome. This coming Friday the 27th we will welcome the recently retired President of Hartford PFLAG, Lori Davison. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) was founded in 1972 by a mother wanting to support her gay son. Now with over 400 chapters in all fifty states, PFLAG offers support groups for both adults and youth. Lori will help us answer the question, “What do we do now?” meaning how do me move beyond the smile and a handshake welcome as an Open and Affirming church.

And in the coming months we will begin hosting monthly PFLAG support groups here at First Church. Our Open and Affirming Committee has been working tirelessly for the past six months for First Church to become part of the Hartford Chapter of PFLAG that we may offer this essential affirmation and support to LGBT people and their families.

This is what I’m saying. If you are a man, if you are white, if you are straight, if you are cis-gendered (do you know what that means? It means you identify as the sex you were born with, as opposed to being transgendered), if you are abled in mind and body, you have a unique responsibility to make First Church truly Open and Affirming, not just with a smile and a handshake, but by seeking to understand and by taking a stand, each of us claiming our own privilege and using our particular power and influence to confront the trauma caused by misogyny, racism, hetero-sexism, and ableism. This good church is then called to represent this perspective to other churches and to our community. This, is what it means to be Open and Affirming, this is what it means to be anointed.

 

 

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Love and Moral Outrage: From Nashville to Connecticut

truck parking

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on September 3, 2017.

Romans 12:9-21

Yesterday morning, I pulled into the Starbucks parking lot looking forward to my weekly spiritual practice of sermon writing. The first thing I noticed was how full the parking lot was, but to my delight there were two parking spaces directly in front of me! But wouldn’t you know it, the huge pickup truck ahead of me took both spaces, clearly over the line, making it difficult if not impossible for me to park in the other space.  Immediately annoyed, I pulled up a little, making clear my intent to park in the other space, expecting him to move to make room for me.

There was a bit of a standoff, his reverse lights went on, then off again, and in the end it became clear he intended to stay right where he was. Now I was more than annoyed, and wedged my car into the half-space that was left, leaving little room for either of us to get out. As I squeezed out of the car I came face to face with the man in the truck and said, “Excuse me sir, you are taking up two parking spaces.” In hind sight, I recognize my polite words were not the least bit consistent with how I was feeling inside. He dropped any pretense of being polite, not passive aggressive but just plain aggressive he said, “Ya think?! Did you really need to park in that space!” We both walked away in a huff.

But it quickly became clear to me that we were both headed to Starbucks, and wouldn’t you know it I ended up right behind him and his wife in line! I was feeling righteous anger, clear I was in the right, and shaky from the confrontation. I began to imagine all sorts of terrible things about him. But I heard him order, and he sounded like a pretty normal, decent guy. I took a few deep breaths and tried to gain some perspective. After all, I’m the Pastor of this prominent church, I can’t just say and do whatever is on my mind. How could I have approached this differently? What could I do now to redeem the situation in a way that would be authentic for me?

Even though I recognized that I had played a part in our confrontation, I wasn’t going to apologize. After all, he did take two spots! But maybe I could say something like, “Look, we got off on the wrong foot. I’m pretty sure you are a nice guy, and I’m a nice guy too. My name is George.” I was rehearsing variations of this speech as I waited for my coffee, and suddenly, there he was walking toward me. I took a deep breath, but before I could say anything he reached out his hand and said, “I’m sorry about that. I am driving a borrowed truck and was worried about damaging it.” I shook his hand and laughed, “I was just going to say something too, I’m sorry about that. My name is George.” He responded with his name, Bill, and that was that! He left with his coffee, all the tension I had been feeling left my body, and I sat down to write my sermon.

That said, I am still clear that I correctly judged his actions. He was wrong. He asserted all the space as his own, thereby excluding others. His justification for his actions didn’t change this. But as a result of the words and handshake we exchanged in Starbucks I can now say this without anger or malice.

In his letter to the church in Rome Paul writes, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” This brings to mind the popular aphorism, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.”

This saying has rubbed many a progressive Christian the wrong way. Often applied by evangelical Christians to the treatment of gays and lesbians, it strikes me as an insincere way of expressing love, and a backhanded way of judging people.

On Tuesday, a group of conservative, evangelical religious leaders released a “manifesto” they named the Nashville Statement, asserting their belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and condemning what they called “homosexual immorality and transgenderism.”

I had the same reaction to this statement that I had to that man taking up two parking spaces. I felt my blood pressure rise  and my stomach clench. Here they were trying to claim all God’s space as their own while excluding others.

The Nashville Statement is a series of short, tightly argued paragraphs for what they believe to be true about sexuality and gender. And sure enough, it includes a call to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” not in so many words, but using the well-known corollary, “to speak the truth in love.”

But here’s the thing. My Starbucks acquaintance can justify his choice to take two parking spaces, he was trying not to damage a borrowed truck, but that doesn’t make it right. I don’t agree with the Nashville Statement’s justification, specifically their definition of sin and truth. Those who signed this statement claim that homosexuality and being transgendered are behavioral choices, sinful ones; I assert that variations in gender and sexual orientation are aspects of identity, part of the beautiful diversity of God’s creation. “

I am not alone in this, of course. Just days after the Nashville Statement was released, Episcopal clergy in Connecticut responded with what they call the Connecticut Statement, saying:

We put forth a different vision: one in which God made diversity as one of God’s first creative acts; in which God infused that diversity into the human species; and in which God invites us to celebrate the vast array of identities that all weave together to make the tapestry of humanity. We believe the Biblical witness supports such a vision and that the Holy Spirit is moving the Christian Church to acceptance, celebration, and full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and indeed of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, ages, and abilities. Far from being antithetical to the Good News of Jesus Christ, such movement fulfills the dream of God that all be welcomed and affirmed as God’s beloved children.

 

The Nashville Statement seeks to exclude. This is, in fact, a way to understand sin, acting in a way that seeks to separate people one from another and from God. While the Nashville Statement separates, the Connecticut Statement lays claim to a God whose love embraces all people.

As I always affirm at the beginning of each service, we are an Open and Affirming church, meaning that we have a statement of our own, that says, “Led by God’s spirit, we welcome, respect and affirm all people, without regard to sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, race, ethnicity, gender, age, marital status, economic circumstance, or physical, emotional or mental ability.”

Though I have never liked, “Love the sinner; hate the sin” civil rights activist Ruby Sale recently said something that sounds similar. “In these times,” she says, “we must learn to hold together both love and moral outrage.”

This is not unlike Paul’s challenge to us in Romans to:

  • Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
  • Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

So how does one go about this? What might we learn from my encounter at Starbucks?

As I took time to reflect on this experience I realized a few things. I recognize the way I responded in the moment contributed to the conflict between me and the driver of the truck. Pulling up close to wait for him to move communicated my irritation and impatience, then to be fake-nice in telling him what he already knew ramped up the existing tension between us.

Sharing the same neutral space for a time was helpful for both of us, to observe one another apart from our disagreement. We both had to arrive at a place where we were prepared to acknowledge our role in the conflict and apologize for that.

Now notice, I am not saying we let go of our beliefs about the thing itself, merely about how we had behaved in response. I still think he was wrong to take two parking spaces, and he may still believe he was justified in doing so. Yet we were both able to recognize that the ways we acted toward each other were not helpful and act to change that.

There is the underlying right and wrong of a thing. Then there are the layers of emotion, the righteous anger, the moral indignation, and the judgment of character that we heap upon the other. We end up responding as much to these feelings as we do to the underlying disagreement.

So, let me offer a couple cautions before posing a question.

I am not suggesting a moral equivalence between taking two parking spaces and condemning gay and transgender people; one is a  minor annoyance, the other ruins lives. If there is any value in the parking space story it is only as parable and metaphor.

I also recognize that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people need to safeguard their physical and emotional well-being, and this may mean choosing not to directly engage in any way those who judge them.

With these qualifications in mind, I am left to wonder how we can create neutral settings that allow us to encounter those with whom we have strong differences, metaphorical Starbucks lines that could allow us to experience one another in a less threatening way, giving us time to reflect upon and accept responsibility for our own role in conflict, shake hands and learn each other’s names.

Amen.

 

Let’s Talk!

Here is my column from the May issues of the First Church, Cornerstone, newsletter.

Building a strong, healthy, community of faith requires communication. I don’t mean the weekly church email or monthly newsletter, but earnest, open conversations about our thoughts, feelings and beliefs regarding the important things of life and faith. People too often avoid such substantive conversations out of a concern that disagreement might lead to conflict, or because they fear being judged. I have found that church members can sometimes be reticent to talk to their pastors when a sermon has touched a nerve or raised a concern. Preachers most often hear such concerns second-hand in the form of someone-said statements, as in, “I heard someone say they had a concern about your sermon on Sunday.” I have heard a few of these someone-saids about the Easter sermon I preached with Rev. Kev.

For those who didn’t hear it or read it online (see the church website for a transcript and recording), Kevin and I brought a resurrection message that encouraged everyone to exit the tombs that hold us back in life that we might live fully into the people God created us to be. Kevin used the example of a widow who experienced a joy-filled life following the death of her husband by becoming like a mother to a young woman, a Sudanese refugee in need of maternal support. I drew on my experience leading an AIDS service organization in the nineties, using AIDS as a metaphor for a tomb, and the example of men “coming out” as gay as a symbol of resurrection. Recognizing that there were children in worship, I sought to craft my words in a way that would be both accessible and appropriate for young listeners.

I had a meaningful call from a parent who told me that my sermon caused her child to ask a number of questions that she wasn’t ready to address. She affirmed the content of the sermon, but said that from a parenting perspective, explaining the relationship between AIDS and sexual orientation to her child presented real challenges. She would have much preferred to talk to her child about such things in her own time on her own terms. I hear this. And I have been pondering the choices I made in preparing and presenting that sermon.

As for other concerns, a certain amount of guess work is involved since these perspectives have not been shared with me directly. But from what I hear second-hand they are along the lines, “It was a good message, but not appropriate on Easter.” My initial response to this is, we are an ONA church fifty-two weeks a year. And what better Sunday to demonstrate this than on Easter Sunday when the church is full of people who might be here for the first time.

But I have also thought that there might be more to this “just not on Easter” perspective. I know many people bring family members to church on Easter, parents, grandparents, or adult children. I know of particular cases where these visiting family members hold more religiously conservative views than those represented here at First Church. The discomfort of these folks may have been quite apparent to family members, and may have even led to difficult conversations over brunch. I am sympathetic. I like a happy, tension-free Easter brunch as much as the next person!

Let me share a few things about what led to that particular sermon. I did not choose my sermon illustration to be intentionally provocative. Instead, my sermon emerged organically, bringing experiences in the church and in my life together with the story of Christ’s resurrection. Did you know that since the church year began last September, at least a dozen visitors or members have come out as LGBT to me or Rev. Kev? This includes a number of our church youth. Some of these folks have been harshly judged in other churches before venturing into First Church. I am forever inspired by the courageous decision LGBT people make to come out, whether to family, friends, clergy, or the world. These good people were on my mind as I prayerfully contemplated the significance of the empty tomb, and this led me to recall my own, life changing experience of loving people who live with AIDS.

I had another meaningful conversation with a parent, this one with a child who “is on a gender journey and is contemplating precisely what (the sermon) was about.” She thanked me, saying that she found the sermon to be profound, and that it touched her child deeply. While hearing the “just not on Easter” concern, and empathizing with those who might have experienced tension-filled Easter brunches with family, exchanges like the one with this mom might suggest an alternative perspective, “especially on Easter!”

In the past week I have thought deeply and prayerfully about all these things, trying to hear and understand various perspectives. Here are some closing thoughts.

We are indeed an Open and Affirming Church fifty-two weeks a year. Using legal language, our ONA identity is the equivalent of “settled law.” We won’t retreat from or qualify this covenant we have made.

I am sensitive to the concern of parents who feel like they were thrust into difficult conversations with their children without notice or preparation. I will continue to reflect upon the implications of this perspective for future sermons.

And I realize that we need to do a better job preparing and equipping our members to think and talk about such things. Let’s work together to develop the capacity of our congregation to have these conversations with one another.

And I conclude as I began. Let’s talk! Especially if you recognize yourself as one of the someones in someone-said, let’s talk! One of the reasons I wrote this is to provide some entry points into a conversation with you. Find something in here you agree with, disagree with, or would like to explore more, and let’s talk. Faithfully engaging such important topics in a way that we can all learn and grow together is what it means to be the church.

 

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