A Southerner To Remember This LGBT Pride: Rabbi Ben Zion Jernigan

During our time of remember LGBT heroes during LGBT Pride month, I can’t overlook a dear friend if mine who just passed, a hero in the fight for GLBT rights in my home town of Fayettevile  and the surrounding Ft. Bragg, North Carolina area.  Several of us who had joined in the fight for GLBT rights in the area joined to remember him at a memorial service a short time ago.

I feel he is a southerner worth remembering, whose life touched so many, so I am sharing the words I gave at his memorial.  I hope they inspire you and help you get a sense of this great man’s life.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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It is hard to sum up in a few words the life of someone who has touched you so deeply. I have to admit I tried several times and the words would not come.

I first met Rabbi Jernigan at a gathering at the Unitarian-Universalist church related to the movement to try and prevent an amendment banning same-gender couples from marrying from being added to the NC state constitution. We struck up a friendship right away. He was full of passionate opinions, full of colorful humor, and incredibly open about who he was. To be honest, at first with his many piercings, tattoos, and colorful stories I did not realize he was a rabbi.
Rabbi and the RevBut rabbi he was. I remember standing with him together, both dressed in the symbols of our faith, myself as a Christian pastor and himself as a Jewish rabbi, speaking together at a gathering organized by the Alliance of Fayetteville and Equality NC, speaking up against the move to discriminate against GLBT people done then by the state legislature.

He spoke of his own faith that day. He talked about the Jewish principle of tikkunn olam, which calls people of faith and of good will to join in the work of “setting the world right”. He spoke of that call of his faith calling him to work hard to help repair those things that are broken and off-kilter, including the way here in North Carolina so many face persecution for who they are. And this is what Rabbi Jernigan consistently did.

I learned so much from his friendship. First of all, he was like family to all who came to know him. He would fill your heart with laughter. He could be fierce in defending those who mattered to him, yet tender in friendship to those close. I still remember the laughing way he would reach out to pet Kat’s service dog Isaiah, or the way he spoke with fatherly kindness to the exchange student who stayed with us one year.

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Yet his example for justice stands out. While his own faith was deep and strong, rabbi Jernigan did not let barriers of culture or religion stand in the way of reaching out. From his example I learned what it means to see all as one people, regardless of culture or faith. He would show up alongside Christians speaking up for GLBT rights, joining arm in arm; among atheists and Wiccans; among anyone on the side of justice. He would speak up for their rights alongside his own. We were all one family to Rabbi Jernigan.
I still remember him saying at one point how much it bothered him that people thought they were being friends to Jews by mistreating Muslims. I have to believe if the shooting of three young Muslim students that occurred where I live had happened in his community, Rabbi Jernigan would have joined the many who stood alongside their families saying their lives matter, and that we are one regardless of our creed or color of skin.

And Rabbi Jernigan was never afraid to speak his mind and to be himself. I remember at one point him telling me, “they’ve been trying to keep me quiet my whole life. My people we tried quiet. Then they gathered us up – Jews and gay people – and put us in camps.” He then showed me a tattoo with the number a relative who was gassed by the NAZIs had. “I will never be silent again.”

I think those words still speak not just to me but to all of us today. Rabbi Jernigan would challenge us – don’t let anyone silence you or make you feel you need to be someone other than who you are. Don’t let anyone tell you to not fight for your rights. Be true to yourself. He would say that the world has had too much of good people being silence.
I think he would remind us that there is still a lot to repair in our world. We won marriage equality but already our state is trying to put loopholes in place to silence those who want equal rights and to make it so in not all areas will counties honor that law. They are trying to build walls to keep gay people out again. I think Rabbi Jernigan would tell us that though he can’t be present to keep this fight alive physically, we can and, if we go remembering him, he is there in spirit continuing the fight.

hATE NO FAMILY VALUE I think he’d remind us to realize we are all family, and to not let attacks on others who are different cause us to avoid being there for each other. I think he’d tell us to treat each other like family.
He’d remind us of youth gay youth, and youth who like these three Muslim youth in my town, who need someone to be the parent, brother, friend, aunt, uncle, that their own won’t be. Who need people to believe in them and say their lives matter.

Then I think he’d tell us a colorful story, or an off-the-wall joke. I think his living life to the fullest, being as fully who he is as he can be, was our good friend’s way of living out the traditional Jewish blessing of L’Chaim. To Life!
Let’s all honor that L’Chaim blessing. And live our lives so we can fully say “To life!”

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Daily Devotional: Remembering and Sharing Your Journey

barnsDeuteronomy 4:9-14 encourages us to take time to remember the work of the Lord in our lives, the ways in which God has guided us, led us, delivered us, and protected us, lest we forget.

The story of the Hebrew Scriptures is a tale of forgetting. God sends Moses, who with many signs confronts the emperor of one of the greatest empires of the day without a weapon, and sets free a nation of slaves.   Through him, they part the Reed Sea, walking through on dry land, and defeat the most powerful army of the day without raising a weapon.   God guides them through a winding journey to a rich and plentiful new home. Yet after the journey, the people forget God, turning on each other, oppressing the poor and stranger. When disaster comes back, they remember and cry out.

Moses-parting-red-seaWithout taking time to remember God’s hand in our lives, we can do the same thing. We can forget the lessons our lives teach, lessons God has provided us to show us the next step in our lives.   We can forget how God has brought us, becoming frustrated and impatient to not be as far ahead on life’s journey as we wish, forgetting how far we have come. We can forget that certain choices led to painful situations where we, like Israel, cried out for deliverance. Forgetting the deliverance, we can fall back into self-destructive patterns.

I know I find it easy to forget. So when I faced recently someone dear to me with life-threatening illness, I did not remember in the crisis how God had brought them and me through a time of fearful illness before and my heart sank.   When I turned to prayer and meditation, I remembered and though only a glimmer of light in gathering darkness, I did have a spark of hope to light my way.

In going through a career transition, I forget. I forget how far God has brought me, what doors I never expected God has opened, and both how long it took to get where I am and how hard it was to make that journey. I forget so when I see I am not yet where I want to be, I find I beat myself up. Yet when I pause to meditate and pray, if I let myself I remember and instead of frustration I am overwhelmed by gratitude. And I know God will get me where I need to go, if I continue to walk with Christ.

I could go on..

anabaptist baptizinThis verse speaks powerfully to me, because it reminds me to take time to remember, meditating on the journey I have been on and the many ways God has walked alongside me.

It also challenges me to instill this lesson in others.

I remember how my grandmother walked alongside me as a boy, up and down the street of Fayetteville, NC, my little hand in her wrinkled hand, telling me of her faith as a devout Baptist and life as a school teacher. She instilled in me a love for learning, and a recognition that God made me with a purpose.

I remember sitting by the fishing hole with daddy while he told me, pointing at the plants, the birds, the trees, how God made all of that and God made me. I remember, too, daddy telling me how his faith was borne in his soul, shaped in the forge of fiery preaching under a big tent in Jekyll Island, GA, while lighting and thunder shook the ground.

I remember my momma telling me to find my own path, and seek God for myself, knowing my faith need not look like hers and dad’s, and how that opened the door for the winding journey that leads met to where I am today.

I remember too an older gentleman named Eddie from daddy’s church whose find of faith challenged him to learn to read, so he could know the Bible’s words for himself and how those words helped him to discover “Eddie” and “the other Eddie”, learning to navigate how to be his best self, not giving in to that part of him that veered from the path of Christ.

I remember so many voices, faces, and examples that layed the soil, planted the seed, and watered the promise of an emerging faith in my soul.

I am reminded as I reflect on my journey the value of the admonition in this Psalm to also pass on our memories of faith’s shaping us to the next generation. My own faith was born in part out of the witness of these many who surrounded me.

Let us take time to remember, and to share the lessons our life teaches us, both that we may be true to the path before us and help others embrace the path God is setting for them.

A Southerner To Remember: Lee Frances Heller

lee frances hellerA southerner worth remembering this LGBT Pride month is Lee Frances Heller.

Though technically a “transplant” to the south, Heller’s unique contribution to southern Christianity and its call to include all people makes Heller note-worthy.  While born in Ohio, Heller is best known for a ministry called “Grace and Lace” in Mississippi.

Born Leo Heller, Lee felt like torn between the sense of being born feeling like a woman but having to live as a man. Trying to live as Leo, Heller ended up a Marine serving in World War II. Afterwards Heller jumped from job to job, briefly becoming homeless and living at Good Shepherd Mission. It is there that Heller found God and God began to transform Heller’s life. Even as a relationship with God grew, Heller felt that Heller was meant to be feminine, feeling trapped in the role of a man.

Out of the changes God did in Heller’s life, Heller became able to become the chaplain in the 60’s at the Mission, a position she served in until her retirement. During this times she began to find peace in the fact that her transgender identity was how God made her. After her retirement she had begun to publicly live according to her identity as Lee Frances Heller.

Finally at peace with who she was, Heller began a ministry in Mississippi in the 1980’s to reach out to transgender people like herself with the lesson God had taught her in those 20 years of walking with Jesus. She summarized this message by saying in one of her “Grace and Lace Letters” produced by her ministry (Many of which are included in her book By the Grace of God )* :

lee frances heller 2“God can give us an acceptance of ourselves and help us to stop fighting the losing battle against our crossdressing. In my ignorance, I fought it until I reached the age of 67 … I finally accepted myself for what God made me … a born-again Christian crossdresser. I came to realize I was created this way – accepted it in full faith and have taken my shield and warded off my critics for God to deal with, and He has spared me a lot of discordant situations with those who refuse to understand me. Those dearly beloved ones are His problems. He has given us our shield of faith along with the whole armor of God. If you have never bowed your knee to Christ and thanked Him for His sacrifice for our sins and asked Him into your life, you have no idea what is missing. By all means, do it.”

“I take great solace today in knowing God knew from the beginning I would be a transgendered person. This is the way He made me. To try to understand is far greater than our human understanding can conceive. The course of our lives was laid out by Him. God has given us a beauty of soul that only each individual person possesses. We are gentle, loving people. We are genuinely caring people. Our basic nature is inoffensive. He made us according to His plan and only His plan in us and for us can satisfy Him. Everyone, including the mighty bastions of the Church, has tried to remake us and it can’t be done. THEY are the ones mad at us. Not God. Stop pronouncing judgment on ourselves. ACCEPT the fact you are made as God made you. Too many are trying to live without Him because they believe the lie of Satan that they are not acceptable to God because of being CD/TG/TS.”

Let’s remember this trailblazer in the Christian church and in the transgender community who helped speak up for the full inclusion of all God’s children in God’s family and for the limitless length of God’s love.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

*NOTE: I know that Heller uses some language that is no longer mainstream for the trans* experience, but I include it as she wrote it to keep her quotes in her own words.  It reflects her experience at the beginning of the LGBT movement.

Daily Devotional: Experiencing and Becoming God’s Consolation

woman_praying12 Corinthians 1:1-11 has always been such a meaningful verse to me in considering our experiences of suffering and pain. If there is one part of human existence that is certain, it is that we will suffer.   This is why such old bluegrass and Gospel hymns as I remember my parents and grandparents sitting and listening to as a child have an undercurrent of sadness, struggle, and angst event when joy and celebration is the theme of the song.   In life, pain and heartache are what we may not hope to flee from, for they are an undercurrent of reality.

The Buddhists have a beautiful image of this truth in the Lotus. Buddhist authors I’ve read say that a part of the significance of the lotus is that it teaches them that to accept the beautiful flower that buds and grows to full blossom in a lotus plant requires also accepting as natural, a part of the lotus’ life, that do not seem as beautiful. It includes accepting the dirt that holds it in place, the rotting decayed materials used as fertilizer. It even includes accepting it will wilt at some point, for the passing nature of flowers adds to their beauty when in bloom and adds to their preciousness. Learning to accept both the pleasant and the painful as part of life is hard at first, but when one does it enables one to be fully present in each experience, in each moment. It enables you to appreciate the fullness and depth of your life in ways you cannot otherwise, and in fact changes your relationship even with the painful parts of your journey as they can become teachers readying you for the beautiful. And from them, in them, you can also begin to experience lotuses of beauty blossoming and growing.

jesus child abuse2 Corinthians 1 says something similar. It does not tell us why we suffer, but acknowledges our many sufferings as a part and parcel of human life, something that all will share in and cannot be avoided.   It encourages to accept suffering as something that is part of our existence, looking for lessons it can teach. Perhaps the greatest gift of suffering is the experience of comfort and consolation which God gives. This can come through mystical experiences in prayer. It can come through the feeling of being carried one gets through the practice of ritual, prayer, mindfulness, at the heart of one’s faith; or for some an experience of spiritual awakening in which God’s presence is felt near.   It can be experienced through God working through the hands of others – friends and family who are there for you, helpful nurses, social workers, chaplains who stand with you. It can come in the compassion expressed by a pet who nuzzles up to you in bed, giving you wet kisses that ease your pain. The experience of consolation is so beautiful and life-giving.

I have seen people discover beauty in such pain. It is one of the joys in my work as a chaplain, seeing how love, family, friendship, and spirituality are re-kindled in the face of loss, suffering, and pain. I do not know and cannot understand the answer to the question of “why” so many whom I support as a chaplain ask. That is one they must face, confront, chaplain 1and find peace with in their souls.   But I do know that I am amazed at the depth, compassion, love, peace, and friendship that emerge as God consoles them even when they do not have the language to call this One who embraces them in their pain Creator. Witnessing such life break forth in the midst of disease and death, hope break forth in despair, and love break forth in the midst of sadness in concrete ways in the lives of others is a part of what I love about work as a chaplain. Its why I rise with joy to the work of accompanying others into these liminal spaces at the edges of life and death, healing and sickness, which are the spaces in which I am called to serve.

2 Corinthians suggests our experience of being so consoled is not just for us alone, but is a type of fertilizer laid so that more beauty like lotuses can blossom into the world through us.   I see this, too, in my work as a chaplain. So many people enter hospice as family members needing support as their loved ones suffer through illness and death, yet return later as volunteers. These volunteers are quick to share their stories of how others consoled them, acting as the ones who helped love, hope, encouragement, friendship, and strength emerge in their darkest moments.   They were consoled, and so they console.   Whether they know it or not, they are living out this beautiful passage, becoming vessels of healing through whom God can continue the work of comfort.

I see it also beyond my work as a chaplain. As a pastor so often the people doing the most good in the church & community did so out of experience of brokenness in which healing or comfort came unexpected.   I think of a soldier nearly broken by addiction who found recovery through a 12 step program and became a voice for recovery in the church, and now is a veteran working to become an addiction counselor.

I think of many in churches I have served who were rejected by family and church for their sexuality or gender identity who found in their own soul a feeling that God did not abandon them, but loved and embraced them. Experiencing that led them to reach out to hurting LGBT people who experienced rejection, sharing their consolation, comfort, and acceptance with them.

I think of my wife who experienced horrible bullying as a teenager with a disability over her disability and ways it made her not fit the form, and later too about her sexuality, who found consolation in God, in friends, and in mentors in her life. She now reaches back, out of this experience, to comfort those who are so bullied through volunteer work with an organization called Operation Bullyhorn and also though her work as a minister.

All of these examples remind me of the beautiful ways when we accept our suffering as a part of life, we can find God granting consolation and comfort to us unexpectedly.   I am reminded to as we change our relationship to our experience of pain, how that consolation can begin to spill out into us becoming those channels of comfort, consolation, love & peace to others.

May it be so.

A Southerner To Remember: Rev. Dr. Gayle Felton

In my continued celebration of LGBT Pride month, I’m sharing a remembrance on the passing of a dear pastor, Rev. Dr. Gayle Felton.  I wrote this following her passing.

–Micah

 

gayle feltonIn the spirit of my previous posts celebrating folks who have been inspirations I connected with “in the communion of the saints”, I would like to share about a dear pastor who is a progressive southern preacher whose example lights the way for me.

A few months ago my wife Kat and I were blessed to go to the memorial to Rev. Gayle Felton, who I knew as one of the pastors at Calvary Methodist Church in Durham, NC. When I shared with co-workers about Pastor Gayle’s passing I was surprised to hear the Methodist chaplains at the hospital I am currently serving at knew Gayle.  They did not know her as Pastor Gayle, however, but as Doctor Felton.   I found Doctor Felton is a household name to many Methodist preachers.  My fellow chaplains knew this woman I knew as a dear pastor as a Duke professor who was one of the leading theologians on Wesleyan theology, who helped renew the Methodist understandings of grace and the sacraments. And what’s more she was one of the ministers really pushing the Methodist church to open wide its idea of open table to not just make room for all people to take the bread and cup but to truly open wide the table of fellowship to embrace all so that people’s sexualities, gender, and gender identities are a gift. She spear-headed organizing the Reconciling United Methodists, a movement of clergy and lay people in the Methodist church working to improve the understanding of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people by the church at large.

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Calvary Methodist, Durham, NC. “The Church with the rainbow over the cross”. A beautiful image of welcome and embrace.

I didn’t know all this about her. I did not know her as Dr. Felton the theologian, or even Gayle the advocate, but as Pastor Gayle, the plain spoken preacher at a southern church that was for me an oasis of healing in a time that healing was deeply needed. When I came to worship at Calvary Methodist, it was the year after my wife Katharine and I had to close up shop on a church plant in southern California. That church plant had been our first experiment in progressive church planting – an attempt to reach out with a message of love, inclusion, and grace to the transgender and disabled community of the Inland Empire of California. We had worked our hearts out there.   We began that work after seeing a transgender person whom we had come to know and love practically thrown out of a church in Grace Communion International, the evangelical denomination I was a minister within. We poured our heart into the lives of the people in that church-plant, without yet having healed (at least in my own case) from the heartache I felt from seeing the harm the church could do through the ministry I’d been a part of. And, in looking back, though my heart was in the work I was doing, I had not properly counted the cost, and the finances to stay on in California and finish that work did not last and we were unable to stay with that ministry. The shame and pain of trying to begin that good work, with all the best intentions, but not being able to continue on, hit me like a ton of bricks. (The church actually would continue, without us, in the hands of a gifted lady who herself was a part of the transgender community, and last another five years, though I had no way to know that would happen at the time). The heartache of seeing friends I had felt were so close and true from the Christian college I had attended, and the church I had been ordained, distance themselves and look down on me for choosing to welcome “people like that” cut me deep. And the strain of it all stretched my marriage to a near breaking point.

I was a broken hurting man when I began to attend Calvary. I remember, in moving to NC to pick up the pieces, find work, and begin to move forward, not having a clue where I would find a place to worship. I knew, for all the ways I was facing up to how the church had hurt others and hurt me, that a place of worship where I could sense God’s presence was what I needed to have the breathing room, the space to heal, I needed. I saw the website for Pastor Gayle’s church, and saw it proudly proclaim that the ministry there grew out of the inspiration brought by the stories of faith of gay and lesbian Christians, and thought “perhaps this is it”.

calvarymethodist_032811The sight I saw at Calvary Methodist – of grand old southern bells, who so reminded me of my own dear grandmother, wrapped arm in arm with young gay couples, singing the old old story that I knew so well, brought tears to my eyes. One of the things I talk about sometimes in my ministry are the words of Jesus in John 3 – “You must be born again”. Nicodemus answers him asking how we can return to the womb when we are old, and Jesus never denies that we must, but instead talks about being born not of water but Spirit. To me that means that, yes, in fact sometimes we have to return to the womb again, going back to the womb of the Holy Spirit who travails like a mother in labor pains to bring forth our healing, our rebirth, our new beginnings.

For me that time at Calvary Methodist was a returning to the womb again, it was a time I could put away my feelings of shame and failure, put aside my experience of rejection and pain, and rest – rest in the loving embrace of the Holy Spirit, letting Her do the work of healing in my life, to allow me to see the world again with new eyes, the eyes of a child.

Pastor Gayle, with her rich southern accent, speaking the words of Scripture which I had2014-02-01 14.11.07 learned in an old, old way sitting on a rug at my mother’s feet playing with action figures in the church I grew up in, was a voice of the Holy Spirit to me. Gayle spoke with confidence and strength, speaking the language of faith, the same language I had heard used in so many ways to control, to abuse, to hurt others – and which I was coming to realize had been used in the same way toward me – and revealed in her straightforward way what I had always felt deep in my soul: their true message was freedom.

The way in which Gayle brought out the old language of faith, the old old story of Scripture, and showed it as a path to freedom, fit the image I heard at her memorial of a quiet revolutionary for full inclusion. The way Gayle’s progressive faith was not a tearing down of what had always been, as I feel too often progressive Christianity at its worst can become, but instead a bringing out the riches of the church long forgotten – its sacraments and songs, its liturgies and lived beliefs – fit so well the description of her as a theologian reviving much that had been forgotten in the church.

For me Gayle will always be one of the pastors at the church where I found healing and sure footing to continue my Christian journey, to fall in love with the Bible again as a book of healing, and to see how the best of my tradition as a very southern Christian can be a source of healing and freedom. Bringing the best of southern culture, and Christian tradition to bear as a gift of freedom makes her for me the epitome of the best of progressive Christianity here in the south.

So I tip my hat to her as a progressive redneck preacher, and thank God for the gift her life and ministry has been to me.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Daily Devotional: Giving up Making Others Get It

phoenix1 Corinthians 2:1-13 tells us that when Paul preached he tried to present the message God gave him in simple, straightforward terms without a lot of show or philosophical shine because he knew that many would not get it.   He knew this because it was not one’s scholarly ways, academic standing, or powerful place in the world that allowed one to have an awakening from God. Only the Spirit of God moving with you can bring spiritual awakening, and this is something no person can manufacture.

This text makes me think this morning about times I’ve had what I feel were awakenings in my soul, that caused me to see the world with new eyes. I can think of when I first began to grasp the concept of grace, that God loves me for whom I am and nothing I can do can add or take away from God’s loving acceptance of me. I think about when I was awakened to the experience of LGBT people in our communities, seeing them as beloved children of God just as they are, and realizing my old way of treating them with judgment or prejudice which I had been taught in the Adventist and evangelical churches of my childhood was not how Christ was calling me to act. I can think of when conversations with some people who’d experienced systemic racism awakened me to the way in which our society has stacked the deck against people of color and the way racism unconsciously expresses itself in so many daily interactions

templeofGod_000Each of these experiences opened me up to life in ways that have helped me exercise more compassion, understanding, and care in ways that I feel help my relationship with God and help me be a person following Christ’s foot-steps in work of love, justice, and compassion.

Each time I can also think of times I tried to show what I’d discovered to others, and how it would end in hurt feelings and argument, as we each tried to convince the other which way was right.

I think Paul is suggesting giving up trying to convince others because ultimately an awakening can only happen by the Spirit.   We can only share our story, speak our truth, and seek to live it out.   We cannot make another see the world with new eyes. Only God can. We must trust if we share our story, speak our truth, and live it that God will open hearts and minds when they are ready. Though speaking our truth and being ready to answer honest questions about it can be transforming, trying to convince another of what they are not open to now will only bring heartache and alienation. We have to learn to trust the Spirit to awaken when others are ready

I think it is also an encouragement. I don’t know about you, but I often have times I get really frustrated with myself. I look and see so much about myself I wish were different. I have character flaws I’ve been trying to improve for years that linger despite my best efforts. In such times, we can shake our heads, throw up our hands, and say “what’s the point?”

We are reminded our own awakenings are what begin to transform us, and they happen not by our own action but by the move of the Spirit within us. And though we have practices in our lives like meditation, mindfulness, prayer, devotional practices, that can help us become open to Spirit and ways we can follow up on our experiences of awakening, ultimately the awakening itself comes when it comes.   We must be patient with ourselves, continuing to seek healing, growth, recovery, and liberation in our own lives.

This is why the image for the spiritual life is often a tree of life. Planted in the ground, it grows when it is in good soil, when it drinks deep the waters.   That growth is natural, inevitable, when planted by the riverside and no amount of berating or correcting it will speed it up.

So with us.  Our growth will come naturally, as we continue to open ourselves up to Spirit.  We need to not judge ourselves or berate ourselves at its speed of progress, but instead continue to place ourselves in situations in which we can open for more fully to Spirit.

Week in the Word: When Jesus Met a Gay Man

I had a different message lined up to share for the week in the word this week, but in light of the recent SCOTUS ruling I thought it would be wonderful to share a sermon I preached while I was pastoring in Blessed Family of God in Fayetteville, NC, as I began to become involved as a Christian pastor in the fight for equal rights with GLBT people.  At time of preaching this sermon, not only did DOMA and Amendment One still stand, but Don’t Ask Don’t Tell still held sway at Fort Bragg NC where many of the members of my church either were working or had previously worked as soldiers.

I hope it blesses you, and reminds you how far God has brought us!

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Our Gospel reading today comes from Luke 7

1 After he had finished speaking in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum.    2 A certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and at the point of death.    3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and save his servant.    4 When they came to Jesus, they begged him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy for you to do this for him,   5 for he loves our nation, and he built our synagogue for us.”

6 Jesus went with them. When he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof.  7 Therefore I didn’t even think myself worthy to come to you; but say the word, and my servant will be healed.    8 For I also am a man placed under authority, having under myself soldiers. I tell this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.

9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude who followed him, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel.”    10 Those who were sent, returning to the house, found that the servant who had been sick was well.

These are the words of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

I want to begin my sermon today by reading an excerpt of a story about a young man named Josh Melo, taken from http://www.suicide.org/memorials/joshua-melo.html

“I had to cut my son down from the tree,” said John Melo, father of 15-year-old Joshua Melo, who died by suicide after being relentlessly bullied because some students thought that he was gay. “I told the kids at the funeral that if you don’t get together and confront the bullies, it will be your parents cutting you down. You guys have to stick together, stand up to the bullies, take away their power and they will back down. If you guys don’t do it, the system won’t.”

“All I could hear was John’s screams,” said Maria Melo, Joshua’s mother.”He came in like a madman. Joshua was already so stiff. John couldn’t pull him down. He was cold and John was hugging him. I started to scream.”

“[After Joshua was cut down from the tree], I just went outside and hugged him…I just hugged him,” Maria said. “I told the coroner that I needed time to hug and kiss Joshua before they took him away.”

John has since removed the tree. “The tree is already gone,” said Maria. “John cut it down and burned it.”

Joshua Melo was a sensitive, shy, polite, caring, talented, and intelligent 15-year-old 10th grader who attended Strathroy District Collegiate Institute in Strathroy, Ontario, Canada.

Joshua hanged himself on November 26, 2004; he was suffering from severe depression after enduring endless bullying because some bullies at the school believed that he was gay.

“Last Friday, Joshua couldn’t take it anymore and took his own life,” said John Melo. “Something went really bad and he just snapped. He couldn’t take it anymore. Joshua was the type of boy to bottle everything up inside and this had been going on for a long time…It’s more than heartbreaking.”

“He had been harassed daily,” said John. “He had been subjected to constant homophobic slurs.”

“Joshua couldn’t walk down the hall without someone laughing and teasing him,” said one student.

“It’s like they were trying to torture him,” said another student.

“This situation makes me sick, real sick,” said another student. “Joshua was a good guy. Many things have to change at our school. How could this have happened? How? This is horrible, and I think that the people who did this to Josh should be in jail. I am so sad about all of this.”

And another student said: “They hated Joshua because they said he was gay, so they called him every ‘gay hate name’ that they could. It just didn’t stop. They never left him alone. And now I know they are happy he’s dead.”

Last Saturday night Pastor Kat and I were blessed to represent our church and our community as the only two pastors at Fayetteville, NC’s Equality NC gathering, in support of civil rights for all Americans.  While there, the hosts of the event shared equally chilling tales from towns and neighborhoods in our own state in which young men and women felt so bullied and put down based on the fact their classmates – and, at times, their churches – thought they were gay that they too saw ending their own life their only options.  Many of these young teens – some who were young and gay, some just young and misunderstood – actually reached out for help from their schools, their families, and their churches and only found equally heart-breaking judgment.  In fact, studies have shown about one out of four gay teenagers attempt to take their own life because of the rejection at the hands of family, friends, and faith leaders.

I want to suggest to you that the experience of this centurion, who experiences Jesus healing his “servant who was dear to him”, is an experience that speaks volumes to all people who have felt like outcasts, especially to gay and lesbian people.

Who was this centurion?  What was his experience of Jesus, and why do I say it speaks to all outcasts, especially those made to feel like outcasts because of their sexuality?

I feel this centurion’s experience of Jesus speaks directly to the experience of those who feel like outcasts, especially gay and lesbian people, because despite his power and wealth this centurion was in many ways the ultimate outcast; because despite the centurion feeling he could not approach God due to being the sort of outcast he was, Jesus shows him that he is no outcast to God because God honors and accepts the fact that the centurion is reaching out to God even though no-one else does; and finally Jesus’ responses teach the centurion and us that being an outcast, even for being gay, cannot keep you from becoming a shining example of faith to others.

At first glance, without knowing the back-story to this encounter, we can wonder “how in the world could this centurion be an outcast?”  After all, he has power – the full power of the Roman empire behind him.   After all, he has wealth from Roman taxes in his pockets.  After all, when he speaks and acts, people have to listen.  And after all, doesn’t even the leader of the synagogue, who is a leader in the Jewish community, even respect him.

But often there is more to a person than the world sees, and someone who presents themselves as a happy smiling face, as a good straight-laced guy, whom the world looks at as “having it good”, isn’t.  The centurion is in fact a stranger in a strange land, an outcast in Israel. To begin with the centurion was the enemy and unwelcome among Jesus’ people.  The centurion was the soldier for the Romans, a foreign power that the people of Israel and Capernaum hated.  No doubt he heard cursing and insults muttered under the breath on every street he marched by local people, even though he knew he was just doing his job, defending his country.  Have any of you ever gotten the message from those around you that “your type” is unwelcome in their neighborhood, their job, their community because of your background – whether the place you were born, the color of your skin, your accent, or the person you loved?  I know many who have, including gay people, and feel this soldier’s experience speaks clearly to that.

What is more, he was outcast from his own faith.   The fact that this Roman soldier was so well-spoken of by the local synagogue leader but yet was not accepted into the synagogue itself shows that he was in a group of people known as “God-fearers”.  What was a God-fearer?

A God-fearer was an outcast.

God-fearers were individuals who had met Jewish people, who worshiped the God of the Bible, and become convinced the God of the Bible was real.  They had read its pages and seen its faith lived out.  They had become convinced that there was no God but the Creator of the universe, the one who thundered out the ten commandments on Mount Sinai.   This soldier had come to believe in and worship the God of the Bible, then, as a God-fearer.

But a God-fearer was also an outcast.  A God-fearer was one who had come to worship the God of the Bible, had tried to join the people of the Bible – at this point, the Jewish people – and been told your kind are not fully welcome here.   These were people who, for as many reasons as there are laws in the Old Testament, had been told they were not fit to join the faith of the Good Book.   Sometimes it was because they would not have the surgery of circumcision, sometimes it was because they had a job that got them in touch with people who made them too unclean to go to the temple.  And there were other reasons I will get to in a minute. But being a God-fearer, someone the synagogue leader respected and spoke up for, but also said “he is not a member here”, meant that this soldier when he tried to join the faith of Scripture, the faith of Israel, had been told “your type isn’t fully welcome here”.  So even in the realm of faith, when he opened his life to God, he was told he was not quite good enough to belong.  He was an outcast.

Have you, friend, ever been told your kind was not good enough to join the faith of the Bible?  I have known people who were told because they were divorced, because they were married to someone of a different race, because they were poor or homeless, and yes because they were gay that the faith of Scripture had no place for them.  Oh, how the centurion’s experience speaks to us today!

But there is something else about the centurion, something theologians have been trying to push into the closet for centuries, but now modern scholarship has begun to uncover: the centurion’s lover was a man.

Isn’t it interesting how carefully worded the description for his sick friend is placed in our modern translations: a “ certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him”.  But even there the wording is clear: his dear servant, his dear companion.

You see in the Roman world it was outlawed from about 10 years before Jesus’ birth til about 150 AD for a Roman soldier to marry and have a wife and family while in the service.  The reason?  Because  than he would be divided and afraid of fighting on the battlefield.

But there was a way around this rule.  Soldiers were allowed to carry their personal slaves or servants with them wherever they went.  These kept up their homes, provided their meals, and provided what else was needed for their “master” but if they had any children, the army did not recognize them as the soldier’s and so no money needed to be set aside for them; and no apportionment of money could be justified for any “family” that was produced if their marriages were recognized.   So their expenses had to come out of the soldier’s own income.

So a man who wanted a wife would convince the woman he loved to get a job as his servant, and she would become his entemous doulah, his maid-servant who was dear to him”.  And everyone with a * wink wink * and a nod would acknowledge that she was his lover with that phrase.

But some soldiers – and many in fact – would go another route.  These, like Alexander the Great before them, were not interested in wives, but in –  for lack of a better phrase –  husbands.  And what would they do?  Well they would convince the man they fell in love with to become their man-servant.  And he would be called theirentemous doulos, their man-servant, or sometimes just “servant who was dear to him”.

You see this phrase in Luke was a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that the man who was sick and near death was in fact this soldier’s male lover.   That phrase, together with the Greek phrase pais or “beloved boy”, was known by all Greek-speakers to be like the phrase “partner” in American society.  Certainly it can mean someone you work with in business.  But it also can clearly mean someone you love, you share your life with, that is for all intents and purposes your spouse.

The fact this was no mere servant but this soldier’s beloved, his life-partner, the man who had his heart, is made even more clear in the Greek of Matthew 8, which calls this man not his doulos or servant but his pais, or “the boy he loves” which can literally be translated “boy-friend”.   Pais would have been understood by anyone who had to been to Greece as a term used for man’s long-term male romantic partner.

I think personally this relationship may very well have been the reason the leader of the synagogue who readily admits what a good man this soldier was, how much he loved God, and did in the community, could not in good conscience let the soldier move from being a God-fearer, still an outcast in the house of God, to a full member of the synagogue.  “Sure, centurion, you paid to build a synagogue, sure you  help the poor and needy, sure you read your Bible and pray, but not only are you a different race and a foreigner, but you are dating a man?  If I let you in, who knows what my synagogue members will do?”

So you see now that this man’s experience of Jesus speaks directly to the situation these young men and women I spoke of earlier have had, speaks directly to all outcasts, and speaks pointedly to other gay and lesbian men and women in all ages and times.

What did this experience teach us?  What can a real experience with the living Jesus speak to us, especially those of us who feel like outcasts cause of our background, our race, or the person we love?

The centurion’s experience of Jesus, I believe demonstrated to him that though in the eyes of the world he was an outcast, he was fully and completely accepted by God because God saw his heart was open to God.

To me it looks like the centurion actually had begun to begin the lies the world had thrown at him, the lie that he was somehow less than other people because of his race, because of his background, because he loved a man and not a woman.  I say this because the Gospel of Luke makes it clear that even though Matthew says the centurion begged Jesus, the centurion did not actually do it in person.  No, he did not feel worthy enough to go and approach Jesus, the Son of God, and ask for help – let alone for his life-time male lover.   I have been told all my life what a shame it is to be who I am; I must be shameful he must have thought.  No, he doesn’t even approach Jesus himself but has others go to Jesus for him.  He doesn’t feel worthy to talk to Jesus for himself.

How shocking it must have been for him that Jesus said immediately when he saw the love this man had for his life-partner, when he saw the faith this man had not only in God but in Jesus as God’s Son,  that he would come into his house.  But, wait, the man must have said to himself, how can the Son of God come into my house?  Though I love and long for God, I have been told all this time I don’t deserve to be fully a part of his family because of who I am and who I love.

Now, suddenly, he finds himself loved, accepted, and embraced by God not as from a distance, but as God’s own beloved child in whom God was well-pleased.  And Jesus not only says this in words but demonstrates it by healing the man this man loves by the power of God.

You know for years this man had kept his faith in God, even though he had been told he was not acceptable and probably told his love was dirty.  This man’s faith reminds me of the lyrics of a song by Boyzone I heard one year at a Pride event where I was ministering.  Listen with me to this song for a moment.

I believe, deep in his heart, this man chose even in the face of rejection by the people of God, to keep to his faith in God because like the singers of Boyzone, he knew if what he heard was true – if God really heard his prayers, one day he would hear from God  that it didn’t matter what people said, and who attacked, that God’s love for him was true and would last.

And now, in a moment, Jesus had declared it and he knew in God’s eyes he was fully accepted.

Friends I believe that this is what the God revealed in Jesus is saying to you, to me, to all the struggling children told because they are gay, because they are different, because they are “sissy” or “tomboys” or whatever that they are not good enough.  God is saying yes every prayer will be answered, yes every tear heard, and if you can just listen you will hear it doesn’t matter how they answer, it doesn’t matter how they attack, my love for you is true.  You – just as you are, not as others wish you to be – you, just as you are,  are my Beloved Child and in you I am well-pleased.

Friend, if we are truly his Body, isn’t that message – and not the message of rejection, the message that leads young men and women to think the noose and not the altar  of God is the place to find freedom – what we need to tell those young people?  And if we don’t, if we reject them, do we not also have their blood on our hands?

Finally, I want you to notice that not only does he discover that God accepts this centurion and his love as God’s very own – not despite his differences, but even including them – but actually discovers that he can become an example of faith to others.  A part of why he and his boy-friend aren’t fully welcomed by the synagogue and kept at a distance is the same reason gay couples often are told “you can’t be a member of the church”, because being a member means you can be a leader.  And being a leader means being an example of faith.  Culturally, this man’s life was “too wrong”, “too different”, for him to be an example to anybody in the eyes of that culture.  After all, who would want a foreigner, a person of a different race, a gay man in the military, to be their example of faith?

Jesus has the perfect opportunity to declare for all time that being gay is wrong, horrible, and sinful here if he felt that way.  In other accounts of healing, if someone is sinning Jesus turns to the person and says “go and sin no more”.  If this man had been sinning by loving who he did, Jesus would have said that to him.  He doesn’t.  Instead of doing that in this passage, Jesus actually holds this man up as an example that the “good upstanding Bible-believing” people who have excluded him need to imitate.  Notice how Jesus says … “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel.”  I like how Matthew renders Jesus’ words in His account of the same events in Matthew 8:10-11– ““Most assuredly I tell you, I haven’t found so great a faith, not even in Israel.I tell you that many will come from the east and the west, and will sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven “

You see Jesus holds  this centurion up as an example of faith and even goes so far to say this man proves what Jesus has been saying all along: that God’s love isn’t limited to “Israel”, to people who fit the picture of good, religious, Bible-believing folks.   No people from all over – from East and West – have a place at God’s table and, if they reach out to God, will be welcomed.

Jesus’ words to this gay soldier suggest that what makes you different can be not a hindrance, but something holy.   Those very things others put down in you, if you give them over to God, can be a blessing to others.  And who you love can become a holy thing.  Yes, you can be a gay saint.  Yes, you can be not just a soldier but a Christian soldier.  And yes God can use the fact of you being who society calls “the wrong race,” “the foreigner,” “the outcast”as a blessing.  You are no mistake – God does not create any garbage.  You, just as you are, are God’s beloved child in whom God is well-pleased.