Become You (Psalm 139)

Sermon Preached at Tuesday Chapel at Methodist Theological School in Ohio as part of a three week series entitled “Silent No More” shaped around a re-kick-off of their Gay-Straight-Alliance November 8, 2011 by Rev. Audrey Connor (audreyinlynchburg.blogspot.com)

“Become You”

Psalm 139

I am not sure of all of the dialogue that went into coordinating all of the worships and speakers this week on campus... perhaps in some conversations, I might have overheard

Is-this-really-an-issue?

What-if-the-alums-get-upset?

Shouldn't we leave this for-individual-churches-and-denominations-to-fight out?

Why trouble the campus with this topic?

Why-are-we-making-people-issues-anyway?

Why-haven't-we-done-this-earlier?

This-is-not-the-time-in-the-seminary-to-tackle-such-a-thing-we-need-to-think-about...  you fill in the blank.

Talking about sexuality in church requires all of us to come out of the closet of our own prejudices, fears, questions, and uncomfortableness so that we can say together in this sacred space:

All of us are created in God's image – no matter our sexuality or identities.

Dan Savage does not have a “lock” on the idea in his “it gets better” campaign.

We are also here is because one of the main perpetrators of hate speech against lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and questioning people (LGBTIQQ) comes from us: our religious institutions.

Some of you might say:

but I am from a welcoming or open and affirming denomination

- or -

I'm open and affirming

- or -

or my church is special.

This isn't my problem – it is THEIR problem....

We all sit here together in a world rampant with homophobia. With suicides on the rise in the LGBTIQQ community, the institution of marriage still blocked here in Ohio, in a world where to be gay is okay as long as you sing and dance and make us laugh and not point to the sad injustices that exist in our world.

All of us sit here together.

Unable to hide from any of it as we listen to this psalm this morning... -------------------------------------------------

You know when we sit down and when we rise up;

  you discern our thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down,

  and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

  O Lord, you know it completely. (Psalm 139:1-4)

For me, I am here after a long time of hiding -      Thinking I could evade myself -      or that I could evade god.

C.S. Lewis likened following God’s call to a man in a boat who is rowing seemingly in circles. It is when he sees an arrow and follows it that he has what we might call a “born again” experience.  Lewis makes clear that first arrow is important, but it is not the last. After that first arrow, there are more arrows given that the person in the boat must continue to look for and follow.

One of the first significant arrows in my life was in the decision to enter divinity school. It led in a fantastic experience where I was also able to see many more arrows along my journey.

My first time coming to a seminary happened when I was about five or six. After working with youth at Northwest Christian Church in Columbus, my mom decided to take a couple of classes here at Methesco to be a better youth minister. She realized God had different ideas for her after a semester or so and was soon a full-time student and then ordained into ministry.

You can imagine that since I had already been to seminary with my mom = attending Peanuts plays, going to her graduation, and playing with her classmates kids (those are my main memories here!), I felt I had already been there and done that!

Ok – not entirely true, but I will say that the choice to enter seminary/divinity school was hard -- making sure I was not doing what everyone said to me: “i see you are going into the family business”....

Ack.

I did not want to follow anyone anywhere, but I did have this nudge…  And after much discernment and conversation prayer and more conversation… I ended up at Vanderbilt Divinity School – a good place for anyone still wrestling with a “nudge” from God. I fell in love with the course work, the ministries I participated in including summer missions, CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), congregational internship, and working in a congregation abroad. The arrow to serve the church seemed bright neon after my experiences as a student in Nashville.

During my time there, I also fell in love with another woman.  I say “another” woman because she was not the first and she would not be the last.... I had found women attractive first when I was in high school. It seemed unnatural and I tamped down those inconvenient feelings and tried to stay away from women I might find attractive. Then, in college I met another woman who I felt attracted to again. Once again, a terribly inconvenient thing as the friend was very straight and I was not about to ruin that friendship. Since then, I had avoided close friendships with women. But as I began to take myself more seriously, I began to take all parts of myself more seriously – even the ones I did not want.

The psalmist writes....

You hem me in, behind and before,

  and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

  it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?

  Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

  if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. (Psalm 139:5-8)

Experiencing intense feelings about a woman while also living into my vocation helped me to see that those feeling were not bad. In fact, the intense love I felt was helping me to understand love between God and humanity …

Even the darkness is not dark to you;

  the night is as bright as the day,

  for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:12)

And as I wrestled with the darkness, in the darkness, I began to trust those feelings.  I stopped hiding or running. Maybe this is what “normal” people experience when they fall in love, I thought. Perhaps this is not a problem.  Maybe this means I am not straight at all and that is okay....

It was a scary thing to think and even scarier thing to say aloud. I found a trusted counselor who listened without prodding or poking and then a friend who just reaffirmed her love for me... And instead of the world collapsing, I began to feel more happy and alive – not less.

Maybe this is not something to run from.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;

  you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

  Wonderful are your works; (Psalm 139:13-14a)

My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

  intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

  all the days that were formed for me,

  when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:15-16)

When the Christian Church in Ohio ordained me into Christian ministry – three and a half years after the start of following a wonderful arrow from God at Vanderbilt, I did not have all the answers figured out but was confident God would be with me as I lived through them. I found myself on the steps of First Christian Church Bowling Green, Ohio promising to love God’s people and serve in the entrusted role of minister with the help of God.  I remember many things about that special day. One that stands out was when my mom presented a stole and said to me that she had been so fortunate in her ministry, and she hoped I had as many wonderful years in ministry in the church.

With so many amazing ministry experiences directly in my rear-view mirror, I could only see possibility and adventure in the church that raised me up and taught me how wonderful it is when you work with others for the glory of God.

I already accepted my first call as an associate minister in Knoxville, Tennessee – three hours east of my Alma Mater and close to recent grads and friends. The church hired me in large part because of my strong mission focus.  They wanted to be better at reaching out to those on their doorstep who were homeless and those in their neighborhood who were different than them.

It was not an open and affirming church, but I reasoned that I was not entirely open and affirming either…  Well - I was affirming, but not open.  I remember sharing with the senior minister, Scott Rollins, my topic for my thesis at div school: “Why the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) should become Open and Affirming” in a one on one interview.  He did not flinch.  Instead, he shared with me how he had been taking the congregation’s spiritual leaders, the elders, through our denomination’s discernment process on that issue.

I had no idea what was ahead, but all directions pointed to ministry. And all ministry I knew did not point to focusing on issues of sexuality.

….

I came out to my associate regional minister that first year in Knoxville while seeking advice about how to integrate my personal and professional life. More specifically, I wondered how to do church camp with integrity. I did not want to feel like I was putting the camp in a bad position as a lesbian pastor in a camp system that had no policy about LGBTIQQ counselors. She told me not to worry about church camp – just be myself and come!  And she offered her friendship for the journey acknowledging there were no clear answers.  “The road is made by walking, my friend,” she said.

I was outed to my senior pastor after six months in Knoxville and his response to this knowledge was a tongue lashing for not having shared earlier. Immediately, he tried setting me up with women, giving me advice on women, and be my most firm emotional and spiritual support throughout my time there.

It was these friendships and more which supported me when I wondered why I was putting myself in a situation where I needed to date in secret, when I listened to church leaders share that our church was not ready to be O&A or that homosexuality was against the bible (they were always the minority).

I could keep those people and those thoughts at a distance during that time in my life. And it worked on me.

In those four and a half years of ministry, I learned a lot about transformation in a congregation as we worked with the Center for Parish Development.  I saw small progress being made with the Tennessee Commission on Ministry for LGBTIQQ ministerial candidates going through the process as I sat on that committee – in the closet.  I worked hard at my job doing Bible studies with the homeless and members of the church, starting two annual mission trips and local missions with the church, and developing a youth and children’s program.  And I learned to spend time in retreat and prayer through a Lilly funded program for new ministries: the Bethany Fellowship. Often, I heard through prayer on those retreats a nudging from God to stop hiding.

And I chose what messages to receive from God.  And which to send back. I found myself talking back to God in silent retreats-

Not yet. This isn’t the time.

It could destroy your church

It could destroy me

It could destroy my best friend and mentor, Scott.

Not now God

Not yet.

And I waited.

And I learned.

And I listened.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

  How vast is the sum of them!

I try to count them—they are more than the sand;

  I come to the end—I am still with you. (Psalm 139:17-18)

I reasoned that the church I worked for was not O&A and neither was I. The denomination of which I was part was not ready to confront issues of homophobia and neither was I.

And life kept on.

Finances for an associate minister in my church were dwindling due to no other cause but long-standing attrition and perhaps too much reliance on past savings. While I continued to grow and slowly felt myself become more and more O&A as a person, I also grew more and more discord within in my calling in Knoxville. I began interviewing for the perfect job where I could be an “out” minister and continue this vocation in the church.

And I would be patient.

Then, on Sunday, July 27th, 2008, a mentally disturbed man walked into the Unitarian Church in Knoxville with a shot-gun in his guitar case, he took it out, and began shooting people while yelling hateful things during the children’s performance of Annie.  This particular morning, I was preaching and my partner opted to hear me instead of attending her regular service at that very Unitarian church where two people were killed and several injured before a member and hero wrestled the shooter to the floor. The man with the gun, Jim Adkisson, planned on being shot by the police and left behind a manifesto that he was motivated to kill by hatred of Democrats,  liberals,  African Americans, and homosexuals.  Apparently, his food stamps had been discontinued, and he blamed the liberals for the problems with the government not working as it should.

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,

  and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—

those who speak of you maliciously,

  and lift themselves up against you for evil!

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

  And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

I hate them with perfect hatred;

  I count them my enemies. (Psalm 139:19-22)

There are things that happen in life with results that we cannot see without time. I could not see it then, but this event in our community had a profound effect on me.  I remember anger surging through me for the lack of solidarity with the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. How could this tragedy not move “moderate” churches to stand in solidarity with those groups who are marginalized? Is not the entire church charged with standing with the oppressed – why is only the Unitarian Church sharing boldly with the public its love and acceptance for LGBTIQQ people (The United Church of Christ congregation too!).  Adkisson was obviously disturbed, but the literature he left behind was common place in many homes: books by Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage. Adkisson's logic of hate as a response to social problems and his homophobia was not bizarre in a society with media that perpetuates drama, debate, and divisiveness between groups. His extreme actions were.

PAUSE

At the same time, my attempt to find a church as an “out” minister was feeling futile. The church I served loved me but did not have enough money to support me. I was ready to leave as well as I outgrew their own brand of homophobia. But where would I go?

Interview after interview pained me more and more as I tried coming out at various stages in the interview process.

I also started to reach out the local PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter in Knoxville and got to know the adults who were making a real difference in the lives of LGBTIQQ youth growing into themselves. I was so impressed with these kids with more courage than I had. And I heard over and over again stories echoed by these youth. Stories of violence, fear, hatred... The more I heard, the more I understood the misguided actions of Adkisson were being repeated over and over again all around us – through bullying at school, parents kicking children out, and churches connecting all the violence against LGBTIQQ to sin of LGBTIQQ persons, and churches just being silent...my church... had been silent...

I had been silent.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

  test me and know my thoughts.

See if there is any wicked way in me,

  and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)

I waited to hear God's call when it was convenient for me. I expected the church to keep homophobia at bay so that I could have the career that I thought God wanted for me.

I had been silent.

As we gather together, celebrating new hopes here in the Methodist School in Ohio for all the church to be one and to share the good news for all people through a re-formation of a gay-straight alliance, I have nothing to share with you all but my own prayer of authenticity and hope for us – the faithful - that we might have the courage to own those places in our lives and in our churches where we continue to struggle with homophobia and that we may have the bravery to do something about it.

If you are here today because you are struggling to come out or not to come out or to go into ministry or not, know that you are not alone. There is no place you can run from God and you are fearfully and wonderfully made. While I am by no means a person with any answers, I am along for the journey. And I would be happy to walk with you.

If you are here as one preparing for the ministry in whatever congregation or denomination, know that I am not alone. We are everywhere. We are in your churches, we are children, we are silent adults, we are elders, deacons, and we are often just outside the church, peering in and we are hungry. We are hungry for words of hope and encouragement and we are hungry for the knowledge that this is a safe place for us.

In the last year, finding an open and affirming church allowed me to do other kinds of ministry that I could not do “in the closet”. I organized congregations to speak out for people who are lesbian,gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, questioning, and queer so that they know there are welcoming faith communities in my current city of Lynchburg, Virginia on National Coming Out Day this year and last. My personal belief is that many churches understand all sexualities and identities are welcome in God’s eyes, but they need help in proclaiming it so the LGBTIQQ can hear the Good News. It is slow going - this year our list expanded to a neighboring Lutheran Church, the local synagogue, and parts of Lynchburg College including the spiritual life center.  This has been a great joy to me personally and a wonderful way of building solidarity with those in the church most vulnerable to messages of self hatred.

This is something that I can do as a clergy in the community and as a person who likes to organize things! Other people in our community started LGBTIQQ Bible studies and still others hold monthly gatherings at a local Unitarian church for all people looking for safe space.

My friend Scott was not able to make our church in Knoxville open and affirming after I left for work in the non-profit sector. I never came out to the congregation while in ministry there, and with me gone, he tried hard. But most of the leadership disagreed that it was a good time to make those changes.

He did not stay there much long after . There were many reasons, but this was a significant one. ------------------------------------- What I know about all of our churches is that there are no easy answers. When I hear anything that pretends that there is, I usually have trouble listening. People will say:

It is a gay problem – or a straight problem.

Or it is the problem of regions or conferences

or congregations...

its a lay problem or a clergy problem.

Or a theological problem or cultural or biblical or whatever else.

All I know it is a big problem – it belongs to us all

It is not enough to be silent

It is not enough to preach tolerance from the pulpit from time to time.

It is not enough to simply SAY you are welcoming...

I want to close with a prayer for us all as we listen for how God is knitting us together in secret so that we might come out as one people – God's people of love for all the world

Search us, O God, and know our hearts;

  test us and know our thoughts.

See if there is any wicked way in us,

  and lead us in the way everlasting.