It’s been a while, but this felt like a sermon worthy of a post.
“All you have to do is love her”
A Sermon for Mother’s Day
Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17
Listen to my entire sermon:
Here at Trinity Cathedral, we celebrate family in all shapes and sizes. Some of these families, including mine, have been a topic of national conversation this past week as President Obama indicated his evolving support for same-sex marriage in the wake of North Carolina’s passage of a referendum that will prohibit gay marriage and civil unions.
In our reading from The Acts of the Apostles, we hear the ending of a remarkable account about conversion and inclusion that might inform this national conversation. Let me tell you the rest of the story.
Cornelius was an officer in the Roman army who lived in Caesarea, a lovely seaside city. Cornelius was a devout man who worshiped God with his whole household. He practiced Judaism, gave alms generously and prayed constantly, but because he was not circumcised, he was considered a God-fearer rather than a full-fledged Jew.
One afternoon Cornelius received a vision from an angel of God saying, “Your prayers have been answered. Send your men to Joppa and get Simon Peter.” Cornelius sent two of his slaves and a devout soldier under his command to seek out Peter, first among the apostles.
About noon the next day, as the Cornelius’ entourage was approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray, but he was distracted by hunger and wanted something to eat. Waiting for his meal to be prepared, Peter fell into a trance and received a vision. He saw the heavens open and something like a large sheet being lowered to the ground by four corners. In it were all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds. Then he heard a voice: “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter refused: “No way Lord! I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice replied: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and then the sheet and the animals were suddenly taken back up to heaven. Peter could not figure what had happened.
At that very moment, Cornelius’ men arrived looking for him. While Peter was thinking about his vision, the Spirit spoke to him again: “Three men are searching for you. Now get up and go with them for I have sent them.” So Peter got up and went down and greeted the men: “I am the one for whom you are looking. Why are you here?” They answered: “Cornelius, a centurion, a God-fearing man, who is highly regarded by the Jewish people, was told by an angel to send for you so that he could hear what you have to say.” Peter invited them in and gave them a place to stay for the night.
The next morning, accompanied by some of the Christian believers in Joppa, Peter went with his guests to the home of Cornelius. When they arrived at Caesarea, Cornelius met them, immediately fell at Peter’s feet and began to worship the apostle. Peter said, “Stand up, for I am only a mortal.” They went inside and Peter continued: “You know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with you or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Cornelius replied: “Four days ago, I was praying and I had this vision. A man showed up in my house. He told me my prayer had been answered. He instructed me to send for you. And now you’ve arrived. So now we’re here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
Peter began to speak, delivering one of the great sermons in all of Christian tradition: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” He then recalled the story of Jesus. While Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers (that is, the Jewish followers of Jesus) from Joppa were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out – even on these Gentiles. Then Peter asked: “Can anyone withhold the water of baptism from these believers,” after which he baptized them, and stayed on for several days.
When the apostles heard about this irregular, unauthorized liturgical event, they criticized Peter: “Why did you go to uncircumcised and eat with them?” Peter explained everything that had happened. After telling the whole story, he said, “I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If God gave them the same gift God gave us when we believed in Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When Peter’s examiners heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God. Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church and the nation!
This is a Bible story about the tension between embrace and exclusion within the early Christian faith. Peter could have refused to go to Cornelius’ house. He could have visited with Cornelius and refused to eat with him. He even could have eaten with Cornelius and refused to share the story of Jesus. He could have even shared the story of Jesus and refused to baptize Cornelius and the other uncircumcised Gentiles upon whom the Spirit landed. Peter could have followed the rules to maintain the unity of the early church, but he didn’t. Peter, the first apostle, broke down the walls, gates, fences and boundaries erected by the early Christian faith. And in doing so, in opting for inclusion, not only was Cornelius converted to the way of Christ, but also Peter himself was converted to a new way of being in Christ.
When I re-read this story over the past week, I couldn’t help but think about the debate over homosexuality in this country, especially over the issue of same-sex marriage. The question asked by Peter: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have,” reminds me of the words once spoken by Episcopal gay activist and founder of Integrity Louie Crew: “Don’t baptize us, if you’re not going to ordain us or bless our relationships.” In other words, don’t offer us one sacrament and then withhold the others. If we’ve received the Holy Spirit just as we are, then make us full members of the Body of Christ and full heirs of God’s eternal kingdom. The same could be said in the secular realm. Don’t call me a citizen and deprive me of the full and equal rights of citizenship.
Coming out during college in the seventies, I have watched the issue of sexuality evolve in both church and state over the course of nearly four decades. I am convinced that our civil rights, and our ecclesiastical and societal inclusion, has resulted from of one-on-one relationships and first-hand experiences that have led family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even strangers to a moment of conversion and acceptance.
A number of years ago, I had a vision that everybody who was lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered would turn purple at the same time. Then my vision grew. I envisioned that everybody who had a LGBT spouse, parent, or child would turn purple. I envisioned that everybody who had a LGBT doctor, dentist, pharmacist, lawyer, accountant, realtor, insurance agent, teacher, hairdresser, legislator, rabbi or minister would turn purple. And then I envisioned that everybody who had a LGBT relative, friend, neighbor, student, employee, or employer would turn purple. By the time I was finished, the world was a beautiful tapestry of richly woven purple; and the conversation had changed, the hearts of the people had changed, the policies of our government had changed, and the practices of our faith communities had changed.
However, I never believed that it would happen that way. We have to turn ourselves, and those whom we love, purple. We have to change the conversation, win the hearts of the people, and secure our civil and religious rights one-step-at-a-time by being open and true to ourselves. God won’t do our work, but God will be with us in the trenches. That is the promise of salvation.
So, over the course of the last nearly forty years, I’ve done my part, and I have been grateful for others who have done their part. I’ve also held fast to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, remembering that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” But as President Obama reflected on the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, “The arc does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice.”
This past week, the arch was bent a lot. First it was bend backward by voters in the state of North Carolina, but then it took another bend toward justice as President Obama came to the conclusion that gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and privileges granted to heterosexual couples. Watching a series of videos interviews over the past eight years, you can see that like Peter, President Obama has evolved, maybe even has been converted, to a new understanding of inclusion. (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/05/10/us/politics/20120510-obama.html?ref=politics)
Some say, “How dare he.” Other say, “It’s long overdue. And still others say, “It’s about time.” But I say, “Welcome Mr. President and thank you!”
As you know, I am very careful not to make any partisan endorsements from this pulpit, and I’m not about to begin today. However, I want to give credit to the President of the United States for coming to a new and broader understanding of marriage, and of what it means to love all of God’s children and their families. I want to thank our President for supporting my civil rights and those of my gay brothers and lesbian sisters, and for coming out on this issue in spite of some pretty loud public opposition and potential political cost. I also want to praise the President for being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as he understands it.
One of the most difficult and courageous things a leader – especially an elected official and most especially an elected official during a campaign season – can do is change his or her mind on a controversial and publicly held opinion. It can make one seem weak and indecisive. And yet, as Peter demonstrated in his decision to baptize Cornelius, and as Jesus demonstrated when the persistent widow insisted on eating the crumbs under the table, there are times when we are called to change our opinion, our direction, and even our action. That is precisely what the President did with regards to same-sex marriage. He said: I have changed my thoughts on this matter. I have evolved to a new understanding about same-sex marriage. This is also what Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer recently said about the death penalty, a law that he helped to write as a young state senator thirty years ago.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus said: “There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend.” In the midst of a presidential election, on the heels of the North Carolina state referendum, President Obama took a risk and potentially laid down his political life for families like mine.
Christian discipleship is about being willing to lay down our lives not for our friends, but also for our neighbors, our sojourners, and our constituents. It applies to gas station attendants, shopkeepers and factory workers; doctors, teachers, lawyers, and clergy; corporate executives, mayors, governors, and yes, even presidents. Yes, the grace of God can be costly; it can even cost one his political career or her life, but that is what faithful discipleship is all about.
Jesus also tells us “to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” We all are called to bear witness to our faith. Married couples (gay and straight alike) are called to nurture loving and faithful relationships. Parents (gay and straight alike) are called to raise children in loving homes. Civil servants are called to protect the rights of all families (gay and straight alike). The Church is called is to welcome and offer God’s blessing and support for all of God’s children (gay and straight alike). And yes, the LGBT community and our allies (including our parents) are called to do the work of liberation – to come out and speak our truth in love – so that those who don’t yet accept us might evolve to a new understanding and be converted to the unconditional love of God as expressed by Jesus.
Often bearing witness is pretty simple. Emily’s mom demonstrated this to me a number of years ago. It was my first summer as chaplain and preacher at the Chautauqua Institution, and I was the first openly gay, partnered chaplain the Institution had welcomed to its pulpit. Emily’s mom and two aunts drove out for the closing service, and I acknowledged them in the congregation. Later that day, a man whose daughter had recently come out walked up to Emily and said, “My daughter has just told me that she’s a lesbian, and I don’t know what to do about it.” Emily’s mother, standing next to her, smiled at him and said, “Love her. All you have to do is love her.”