The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8A): June 29, 2014
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:24-39
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
As many of you know, my husband Don and I traveled to Texas a couple of weeks ago. A trip that was planned to help celebrate my father’s 80th birthday found a new and unexpected purpose: Don’s mother Agnes, who had languished in hospice care for three-and-a-half years in the grip of dementia, took a sudden turn for the worse, and died four days after we arrived in Texas.
Despite the fact that Don and I have been together for more than 24 years, I had actually met very few of his family members. You see, they are mostly conservative evangelical Christians. And not just any conservative evangelicals—Don grew up in Waco, Texas, the epicenter of the Southern Baptist Convention, and most of his relatives are or were Southern Baptists. When Don and I met in 1990 there was simply no chance that they would understand or approve of our partnership. And so, as so often happened then, and still happens today, they were not part of our lives.
Of course, Agnes’ death was an occasion for the gathering of the clan, and it became, for me, a crash course in the Temples family. I met aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, old family friends—my head swirled. And as I was introduced to each of them as Don’s husband, I noticed something quite remarkable: not one of them flinched! These people, who come from some of the most conservative quarters of this country, seemed to take in stride that Don and I were married. They shook hands and cordially engaged us both in conversation.
I have to say I was shocked, as I have been over the last few years, at the pace of the change in attitudes in all corners of our society.
This morning the lectionary invites us to think about welcome—about hospitality. That seems like a perfectly reasonable topic for the Gospel—but on this weekend this reading from Matthew has a particular resonance for me.
Of course, today is the occasion for our city’s pride march. There will be many of us marching today, celebrating the changes that are taking place in our society at a head-spinning pace. This week two more states found their prohibitions against same-sex marriage struck down by the courts. It was just last week that the Presbyterian Church voted to broaden its definition of marriage, joining the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Church of Christ in recognizing and performing same-sex marriages.
It was a year ago this past Thursday that the Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. It was three years ago this past Tuesday that our State Senate passed the Marriage Equality Bill, allowing same-sex marriage here in New York. And it was only 45 years ago yesterday that the Stonewall Riots took place in Greenwich Village, beginning the gay rights movement here in the United States.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But it feels like that arc is not quite as long as I thought.
This morning’s gospel reading comes from the conclusion of the Missionary Discourse of Matthew, one of five discourses, or sermons, in this gospel. These words are directed to the disciples, to help them understand that, as they go out to preach and heal as Jesus has commanded them, they are sent forth not alone, but in the very real company of Christ. But perhaps we can understand this to be more than just a historical record of Jesus’ assurance to the disciples.
As I read this passage, I am most struck by the fact that I, the reader, am in the place of being welcomed, rather than being the one doing the welcoming. As a person of privilege in our society, I am used to doing the welcoming—I am used to having the upper hand. In this passage, as well as in the recent actions of society, I realize that I am the one who is welcomed.
As a gay man, the primary emotion I have felt through the events of the last few years, and still feel today, is joy at being accepted. With increasing frequency, the courts, the legislatures, the American people have said that I am welcome to take my place in this society. That I have the right to express my love, and live my life, as I know is right for me.
This joy is at times overwhelming—not just for gay people, but for our straight allies. As one straight friend of mine in Indiana said on Wednesday, following the announcement that a federal judge there had struck down the ban on same-sex marriage, “I didn’t think I would be so emotional about this. I can’t stop crying!”
Reading her comments on Facebook, as well as those of many other friends in Indiana, felt like a welcome, as did the words of my newly-acquainted sister-in-law just a few weeks ago, who said, “You are family. I am only sorry it has taken us so long to get to know each other.”
Whatever progress we have made as a society, whenever individuals are going through the coming-out process, at whatever age and at whatever stage of the process, it is a challenging thing.
Revealing one’s true identity to others—each of whom carries different and complicated baggage about homosexuality—makes one fragile and vulnerable. If you have friends or family members who are coming out, please know that your gentle, easy welcome—your love and acceptance stated for the first time or the thousandth time—is not just important; it is a lifeline.
I feel blessed by all of the words of welcome I receive. And I know that the hand of God is in this welcome. More and more people are able to look beyond the contrary messages they have heard in their past, to see God in me, a gay man. To see that I am worthy of welcome.
But as I look at that long arc of the moral universe, I know that there are still hurdles to be overcome. It is an all too real part of being human that we find others to scapegoat and mark as other. Sadly, there seems to always be some group that society does not wish to welcome. I know that there are hurdles I need to overcome in offering welcome – people for whom I need to sharpen my focus in order to see God in them, looking for my welcome.
Just as we are honored by the moments when others see Jesus shining through in us – when they recognize our sacred worth, just as we are – we must examine our own welcome and see how we can make it wider.
The ways that I fail to extend a hand of welcome may be much more subtle: I think I put up blocks against those who have less education than I do, or whose emotional and psychological range is not in sync with mine, or who are in some other way, not like me. And certainly I need to work on my welcome to those whose politics don’t match mine.
I recall the statement from Bishop Provenzano of the Diocese of Long Island upon the occasion of the passage of marriage equality three years ago. He said,
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” These words taken from the promises in the Baptismal liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer can be prayed more clearly as the Gay and Lesbian community and all of [us] begin to live into the reality and joy that same gender marriage is now law in New York…. Respecting the dignity of every human being will also be lived out in our continued care for those who do not celebrate this milestone in the lives of God’s people. Respecting the dignity of every human being includes those who feel a sense of loss and anger. The love and charity of Jesus Christ proclaimed in the gospels does not have winners and losers.
The point is this: we are called to see God in everyone. EVERYONE. No matter what we think, God has a bigger plan. God has made all of the world in the perfect image of God. And we are called to welcome everyone, because all are part of God and God’s good world.
What does this mean for each of us and for St. Michael’s Church?
First, that each of us must think about our own welcomes, and consider, in every interaction that we have, how we embody that welcome of God for others. As a congregation, we must reexamine how we are embodying welcome for those who come through our doors, for our neighbors, and for those who are not like us.
Second, we need to learn to better accept that welcome from others – we must be willing to be seen as a reflection of God, and then realize what that means in our lives as individuals, and in our life as a parish.
And finally we must rejoice in the power of the Holy Spirit, which has brought us to this point in our history and which will carry us forward.
This past week included the feast day of James Weldon Johnson, the African-American poet perhaps best known to most of us as the author of the song known as the African American National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” He wrote those words, which were set to music by his brother Rosamond, in 1901 in celebration of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. It is appropriate to remember some of those lyrics this morning – they give voice to the joy—and the work—of welcome.
Lift every voice and sing,
till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.
The arc of the moral universe—of the realization of the welcoming love of God—is long, but it bends toward justice. AMEN.