The following sermon was preached at Grace Lutheran Church in Evanston, Ill. where my husband and I are members for their annual Pride worship service.
To begin, it’s an honor to have the opportunity to preach on what we’ve decided to designate as Pride Sunday here at Grace — though I have to admit, this year has been an odd year for celebrating Pride. It’s been just over fifty years since the uprising that took place at the Stonewall Inn in New York City — that messy, unplanned, property-destroying riot that was set off by the spark of police violence against the queer community that was ordinarily just a fact of life of our existence, but in that moment became the catalyst for an explosion of power from a community that had been trained to think of ourselves as powerless. That riot, the Stonewall riot in June 1969, is the event that put June on our calendars and it was the annual summer street parades commemorating that event that eventually came to be known as Pride in the LGBTQIA+ communities.
But, in the beginning, those annual parades were nothing like they are now. Nowadays, Pride parades wind their ways through streets with storefronts decked out in rainbow colors with floats featuring rainbow versions of corporate logos aimed at the eyes of tens of thousands of spectators who show up to treat the occasion like a sequel to Mardi Gras. It was not always this way. At first these gatherings took places only in the big cities. They were called marches, not parades, and the onlookers were more likely to be accidental bystanders with looks of shock and revulsion on their faces than anything else. It wasn’t until the 1980s and the advent of the AIDS crisis that the annual Pride marches across this country coalesced into a show of force calling for a recognition of the full humanity of people who were fighting for their lives against a pandemic the federal government was slow to respond to, even as it laid waste to a generation like a fire burning through dry summer grass.
Yes, it’s an odd summer to be celebrating Pride, with the constant sparks of police violence against Black and Brown communities and the tinder of a mismanaged pandemic once again setting the stage for uprisings and unrest.
The gospel reading for this morning opens in the middle of a rant by Jesus against those who fail to discern God’s power at work in their presence despite all the evidence of their senses. Earlier Jesus has sent the twelve out to proclaim the good news of the reign of heaven come near. He commands them to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons” (Mt. 10:8) When John the Baptist, who by this point is in prison, hears what is happening he sends his disciples to gather more information. They ask Jesus, “are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?” (11:3) Jesus replies, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” It’s that last sentence that really jumps out at me, “blessed it anyone who takes no offense at me.” (vv. 4-6)
Who would take offense at the miracles Jesus describes here? He is talking about healing and liberation for the disabled, the diseased, and the destitute. That’s a pretty powerful coalition, come to think of it. Can you imagine what it might have looked like to see these communities coming together — people with disabilities who’d been blamed for the conditions of their birth, people with disfiguring diseases who’d been blamed for their illnesses, and people living in poverty who’d been crushed by an economic system that showed no regard for their inherent worth and dignity. What an amazing coalition of the dispossessed that would be! Can you imagine all they could accomplish if they found common cause with one another?
Here’s a story about a moment in my own life when I saw what can happen when the dispossessed find common cause with one another. It was ten years ago in 2010, the year after the ELCA voted at its 2009 Churchwide Assembly to allow for the ordination of queer clergy and consecration of same-gender marriages. Now the church had to decide what it was going to do with the nearly twenty clergy, including myself, who’d been extraordinarily ordained from 1990 to 2009. Some of the bishops were saying we should be sent back to the candidacy process to start all over again. Others were saying that we should be re-ordained. We believed that our ordinations were valid, along with the ministries we’d been carrying out for the many years it took for the church to come to a place where it could recognize the evidence before them: that people were finding healing, liberation, and new life in communities served by those queer disciples whom Jesus had sent out ahead of him to proclaim the good news of the reign of God come near.
As it worked out, I was in the room where it happened — at the meeting where the bishops were to decide what to do with us. A few of us from Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries and ReconcilingWorks were seated in the back of the room with no voice and no vote in the matter. We’d been granted observer status for the deliberations, but that’s it. Then something unexpected happened.
Bishop Stephen Marsh, bishop of the Southeast Michigan Synod and one of the only African American bishops in the whole conference of bishops at that point, stood up and addressed his colleagues. “Dear brothers and sisters,” he began, “earlier today, as part of our commitment to ongoing anti-oppression work within our church, we spent two hours discussing the idea of privilege — what it is and how it operates within our church. And now here we are, discussing what should happen to a group of people who are literally in the room, without even taking the time to ask them what they think and to listen to their voices.” Then Bishop Marsh made a proposal that we be granted voice at this meeting, to speak on our own behalf.
This, evidently, required a suspension of the rules — which required a vote by the bishops. I would have thought that vote would have passed easily. Who would take offense at the idea of allowing people to speak openly about their lives and their experiences? I was surprised to see how many bishops voted against having to listen to what we had to say before casting their vote on what to do with us. In the end we were told that one of us could speak and for no more than two to three minutes.
Our little group huddled together to decide how to proceed. The decision was that I would address the bishops. My friends circled around me and together we prayed for the Holy Spirit to grant us words to fit the moment. Then I spoke to the bishops. With the few minutes I’d been given, I asked these leaders to be mindful of what they wanted to accomplish. The decision before them contained within it an opportunity to either advance the cause of healing for between people who’d been hurt by the church or to cause new harm to those same people. Rather than focus on precedents established in the past, I asked them to look to the future we might build together.
I’ve gone back and listened to the recording of my remarks that day. They’re alright. As is my habit, I stammer here and there, trying to maintain a clear train of thought while composing my remarks on the fly. But my memory of the event is different from the recording. In my memory I could feel the Spirit moving between us all, and when I speak to others who were there that’s what they remember as well. The Spirit had something to say that day and it kept moving among us, trying to get its words out. It took Bishop Stephen Marsh, a Black man, pointing out the obvious dynamics of power and privilege to make space for me, a gay man, to tell our story in our own words. It was an unplanned action arising from a coalition of the dispossessed.
After Jesus sends his response back to John, he turns to the crowd and says, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” (11:16-17) He tells them that they are like children play-acting at life. Sitting in the marketplace, showing up at the office, going about their lives, saying to those who are breaking ranks with the status quo to awaken them to the truth, “you’re not playing by the rules!” I can’t help but remember the bishops who cast their votes against us speaking up at their meeting: “you’re not playing by the rules!”
And they’re right. We weren’t. We weren’t playing by the rules when we reclaimed the power granted to us by our own Lutheran confessions to call and ordain our own pastors in defiance of the church, long before policy change took place. Bishop Marsh wasn’t playing by the rules when we threw his lot in with the most powerless people in the room instead of his esteemed colleagues. The entire history of liberation for the disabled, the diseased, and the destitute — for the dispossessed and disinherited peoples of the earth — is one of breaking the rules.
But you know the saying, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
And you know who said that, don’t you? That’s Mohandas Gandhi, the architect of the non-violent liberation movement that helped free India from British rule. The one whose tactics inspired another freedom fighter here in the United States, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, crusader against segregation and author of the original Poor People’s Campaign, which drew people together across lines of race and class to form another coalition of the dispossessed with the goal of dismantling the structures of oppression at the heart of American civil life since the birth of this nation. That movement seeded the ground for other, later actions in the long march to freedom, like the die ins on the streets of New York and Washington, D.C. at the heights of the AIDS crisis, as the government held up access to clinical trials and life-saving medications.
At every step of the way we’ve been mocked for the company we keep. They said to Jesus, “a friend of sinners and tax collectors!” They say to us, you’re too loud, you’re too weird, you’re too disruptive, you’re too disorganized. You’re a movement of drag queens and transwomen of color and anarchists and socialists.”
Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.
We’ve been in the fight so long now and it’s nowhere near over. And by “the fight” I mean the great moral fusion fight, the “everyone in, no one out” fight. I mean the “forward together, not one step back” fight. I mean the Movement for Black Lives. I mean the struggle for Native sovereignty. I mean the rights of immigrants and refugees and dreamers and against borders and walls. I mean safety and success of women and girls and femmes from all walks of life. I mean an end to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and the false moral narrative of Christian nationalism. I mean homes for the homeless. I mean mental health care for the cast aside. I mean equal access regardless of ability. I mean healthcare for the sick. I mean dignity and homecomings for queer people — with bisexual, trans and non-binary people at the center and not the margins. And more, and more, and more, and more, and more. If you heard the Rev. Dr. Barber speaking at the end of the moral march on Washington two weeks ago, then you heard him say, “the danger in this moment of awakening is that we will ask for too little.”
I do not want just a little. Just enough for me and mine. I want more. I want it all. A place at the table for everyone born. Everyone in, no one left out. Forward together, not one step back. Then you win.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Yes, let’s lay these dividing lines down. They are too heavy. I don’t think we can bear them anymore. Let’s bury them deep in the ground and then let’s enjoy the rest that comes when the dispossessed and disinherited finally find their homes in each other. Let’s share the load, spread it across all our shoulders. Let’s stand up and use our voices to make space for the ones granted no voice and no vote, the ones in the back of the room. Let’s do this together.
That’s what Pride means to me.