We Journey Together

A Sermon on James 2:1-17 Bertram_preaching
By the Rev. Bertram Johnson

Covenant Network of Presbyterians
Regional Conference
Mercer Island Presbyterian Church
30 January 2015

Good afternoon. It is my true and humble pleasure to be here with you all to take part in this Marriage Matters conference for the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. As some of you know, I was ordained a mere 53 weeks ago today. And I can’t imagine that I would have this opportunity to live into the calling God has placed upon my life as an out, gay man had it not been for advocacy organizations like Covenant Network, More Light Presbyterians, and Parity (formerly Presbyterian Welcome) who championed equity on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender people within the PCUSA. I am forever grateful for the women and men who have called our denomination to an ever-increasing sense of God’s grace and created pathways for me, and a growing number of LGBT followers of Jesus Christ, to live the life that God has set before us.

For those of you who don’t know it, my journey toward ordination was a bit more circuitous than that of the average seminarian. I started seminary in 1993. Brian Ellison and I actually lived in the same residence hall in 1995-96, the year I graduated. And although I was not out or accepting of myself at the time, I knew that I had to reconcile my sexual orientation with my identity as one called by God if I were to go forward in ministry in the Presbyterian Church.

After seminary I spent over three years working in the Mission Department at University Presbyterian here in Seattle. For some of you, it might be shocking to learn that it was while at UPC that I really began the process of coming out and accepting myself as gay, whole, and loved by God. But as my sense of being who God created me to be grew stronger, my sense of call to ministry became more fragile.

During that time the PCUSA was embroiled in heated debates on sexual orientation and church leadership. And as more restrictive language was adopted into our constitution, it became evident that ordained ministry would not be for me. I told myself that maybe I was mistaken about my calling. And after years of internal struggle between the person God created me to be and the person the church required me to be, I quietly declined pursuit of ordination.

Years later, in 2011, when the polity surrounding ordination was amended, I recall feeling a bit numb to the news. Sure I was grateful that LGBT Presbyterians now could follow the call of Jesus, as affirmed and respected pastors in our church, but I was out of the ordination process. In my mind I had moved on. “Why do I want to be a part of a group that doesn’t want me,” I asked myself. I didn’t want to be a pastor anymore and God knew that. Or at least that’s what I told myself. When friends called encouraging me of the opportunity to pursue again pastoral ministry, my statement was clear. “If God wanted me to be ordained God needed to work that out.”

Fast forward a couple of years to a very pointed question from Pastor Mark Zimmerly, and I was fearfully, yet faithfully making my way back toward ordained life. As the saying goes, the Lord works in mysterious ways. Or as I say it, “God is weird.” But I am humbly resigned to the truth that God has called me to service in this denomination. This is my church, and nearly twenty years out of seminary I’m finally learning what it means to live into the role and responsibilities of a pastor – in particular, an out, gay, African American Presbyterian pastor. And to be clear, the learning curve has been steep.

On the night I was examined for ordination by the Presbytery, just minutes after I was approved, another pastor pulled me aside. I was still reeling with joy that my two-decades-long journey of faith and doubt and service and prayer was coming to completion. Although I didn’t know him well, I recognized him from my years in the Presbytery. He told me that the conservative members of the Presbytery knew me and loved me, and that no one had openly opposed my ordination. He also informed me that there were some churches that had left and there were still others considering leaving the denomination over the ordination of people like me. So to preserve the peace, purity, and unity of the Presbytery, he asked that I not do anything to draw undue attention to my ordination. Keep it quiet. Don’t make a big deal about it.

I was shocked.

I realize in some ways I’m preaching to the choir here, but ordination is a big deal. And he knew that too. But what I heard him requesting, if not telling me to do, was don’t celebrate this work of God in your life. Don’t rejoice that your wounds are just now starting to heal. Don’t do anything that’s going to make the rest of us uncomfortable. Don’t be gay. Just sit over there quietly and we’ll all act like you’re not here and nothing has happened.

Children of God, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in the amazing love of Jesus Christ? For if a heterosexual couple comes to your church, and if a same-sex couple also comes, and if you say to the straight couple, “Welcome, we’re glad you’re here. We hope you feel at home,” while to the same-sex couple you say, “You are welcome here, but I’m sorry we don’t support your lifestyle,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become oppressors of your siblings?

In this passage we are reminded that since its inception, the Church of Jesus Christ has been the dwelling place of great blessing, comfort, and healing, while at the same time, a source of profound division and judgment. This book is believed to be one of the earliest Christian scriptures, preceding even the Gospels. The disciples of Jesus were still a fledgling community finding their way in this new expression of faith, taking on the teachings of Jesus. But it’s evident from the beginning that this vision of the beloved community, ignited by the power of the Holy Spirit, where all were together, united in Christ, generously sharing what they had for the blessing of everyone, was more of an aspiration than a sign of Christ dwelling within them.

James gives the example of favoritism of the rich over the poor as a clear contradiction to the teachings of Jesus, who came not to uphold the hierarchy of our social inequities, but to revoke them. But think of the many battles, both religious and political, that were fought, and even lives lost, because one group of Jesus’ disciples didn’t tolerate or agree with the interpretations or practices of another.

Throughout our history Christians have been divided over whose authority to follow. “I follow Paul. I follow Peter.  I follow Apollos.” Apollos, really? There were debates detailing what was acceptable for our bodies – to circumcise or not, what to wear, eat, and drink. Churches have split because of the leadership and voice exercised by women. Nations have fractured and wars have been waged rooted in theologies that condoned the subjugation and annihilation of those deemed less worthy of life and freedom. And although LGBT ordination is now possible, we know there are many in the Church, like the pastor who confronted me, who will not embrace or accept us as colleagues in ministry called by God.

James admonishes us, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law, the one upheld by Jesus, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as sinners.

Through our acts of partiality, of favoritism, of judgment, of limitation on not just LGBTQ people, but on all God’s people, we pit the truth of God’s grace against itself and show our hypocrisy and lack of faith. As these first century believers dishonored the poor by favoring the rich, we continue to dishonor God’s people by creating divisions and obstacles to God. Through our biases the Church becomes a stumbling block and an exclusive club to those who seek to know God. We do this because we fail to believe that Christ’s sacrifice is big enough, wide enough, and deep enough to heal all our human-made fears and prejudices. When I’m faced with such opposition from my brother and sister Christians, like James, I ask do we really believe that the power of God is for all or is it that we think it’s only for some?

I assume that because you’re here today you believe that same-sex marriage as well as the dignity of LGBT people are concerns that are dear to the heart of God. And even if you’re still unsure, your being here is a sign that you’re walking with God along this path.

Two weeks ago Amendment 14-F was passed in Seattle Presbytery. I am hopeful and pray that through its ratification our witness on marriage will grow to reflect God’s blessing upon loving, committed same-sex couples as the church already does for heterosexuals. Although we know this would be a great disappointment to some in our church, for many it will be a testament to the belief that the PCUSA is still working out our salvation, reforming our church to reflect the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

It’s been made evident in many ways today that marriage matters, that being advocates for marriage matters. But that is not enough.

James reminds us that it’s not enough to uphold one part of the law while we neglect another. We can’t seek mercy for some while others perish because we fail to put our faith into action. As we journey together to seek justice for same-sex couples, we cannot forget the suffering and oppression of others within our community.

Leelah Alcorn was born in 1997 into a conservative Christian home in Ohio. Although she was named Joshua at birth and raised as a boy, she knew from age 4 that how she looked on the outside didn’t match her true identity on the inside. At 14 she learned what it meant to be transgender and she “cried with happiness” because she “finally understood who [she] was.”[1]

When she came out as transgender to her parents and pleaded for gender reassignment therapy at 16, it was their religious beliefs and the teachings of their church that compelled them to deny her request. Instead they sent her to reparative therapy and isolated her from her friends, classmates, and social media. Leelah wrote,

My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parents’ disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness. [2]

Thirty-three days ago, early in the morning, when the loneliness, and desperation of not being free to live as who she knew she was became too great to bear, the 17-year-old walked into oncoming traffic on a darkened highway and ended her life.

In her final words she wrote:

The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, [and] they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s [effed] up” and fix it. Fix society. Please. [3]

Research shows that queer and transgender youth are 3-4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Our children would rather take their lives than live in a society that forsakes the beauty of who they are in the eyes of God.

In the battle to honor and save lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender lives we must put our faith to work because, I believe, in the Kingdom of God transgender lives matter.

As the number of unjust deaths of African Americans continues to grow it’s grossly apparent there is a resurgence in racialized violence, police brutality, and America’s cultural bias toward white supremacy. Earlier this week this Presbytery hosted a conversation for pastors on talking about race. I wasn’t able to attend, but based on my experience, I realize that sometimes in these conversations people feel uncomfortable. But for a majority of black and brown people in this country we’ve always lived discomforted lives.

Everyday it seems like I am assaulted with the truth of some African American man, woman, or child for whom justice, compassion, and respect were denied.

This week alone I could illuminate for you the trials of Marissa Alexander, a woman in Florida recently released to house arrest after years in prison for firing a warning shot to protect herself from her abusive husband. Obviously, stand your ground laws only work to protect some. There is Ty Underwood, the transgender woman in Texas who was shot to death in her car, the victim of a hate crime; the Yale undergrad leaving the campus library who was detained at gunpoint by security because he “fit the description”; or William Wingate, the 69-year-old gentleman in Seattle who was coerced by police into taking a plea bargain on a crime he didn’t commit. His unfounded offense, threatening an officer with the golf club he used as a cane.

As people of color are vilified, brutalized, and victimized by law enforcement and the culture at large, the church of Christ Jesus needs people who will put their faith into action to confess racial injustice, whether it be in thought, word, or deed, so that through our repentance we can be cleansed of our sin and allow the Holy Spirit to change our hearts to see that we too are children of God and, indeed, Black lives do matter.

Two weeks ago I was in Atlanta over the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial weekend and got to worship at Ebenezer Baptist, where Rev. King had been pastor under his father. Last Saturday I gathered with a group sponsored by Bethany Presbyterian to see the film Selma, chronicling King’s efforts to ensure African Americans were truly free to vote. It is significant to me that the anniversary of my ordination falls on the Saturday following the King memorial. His life and legacy are exemplary reminders of the depth of commitment and faith required of disciples of Jesus. His tenacious pursuit of justice and the radical, liberating love of God for all people reveal for us the power that can come from a life dedicated to the teachings of Christ.

In his epistle to the believers in Birmingham, King writes,

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. [4]

He goes on…

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of [those] willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. [5]

James and King are in agreement. Faith without works is dead. I believe they also agree with the theme of this conference. Marriage Matters: We Journey Together.

To achieve the Kingdom of God among us we must put our faith into action. To achieve the Kingdom of God we need more than acquaintances who say they love us, but relegate us to second class status in the household of God. To achieve the Kingdom of God we need more than allies who comfort us when we’ve been hurt, but forget our plight when we don’t raise our voices.

To achieve the Kingdom of God we need advocates who will stand up, proclaim, and pursue justice even when justice doesn’t come easily or impact them intimately. We need straight people and queer people, rich people and poor people, and Asian and Latino and white and black people, because we are all the people of God.

And as we journey together no one gets left behind – neither conservative nor liberal. We reach back and extend a hand to those who don’t move at our pace. We lead those who cannot see the fullness of Jesus’ radical gospel of inclusion and we are led by others who call us to a truer, more prophetic expression of Christ’s unconditional love. We may not make it there at the same time, but by grace and faith we get there. As Rev. King said, “I may not get there with you… [But] mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”[6] And in God’s glory same-sex couples stand with dignity alongside heterosexual couples, our transgender brothers and sisters sit, serve, and speak at Christ’s table with the same welcome as any other child of God. In that glory black and brown people are safe from harm and we can lay our burdens down. In God’s glory all are fed, housed, and clothed. And only when we do this will we achieve the peace, purity, and unity of the church.

In the name of the God who created us, loves us, and sustains to do God’s work. Amen.

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[1] http://www.lgbtqnation.com/2014/12/transgender-teen-struck-and-killed-on-ohio-interstate-in-apparent-suicide/2/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 3, 1968) “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

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The Rev. Bertram Johnson is Worship Pastor at Madrona Grace Presbyterian Church, in addition to his work at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Legacy Project, where he raises awareness about advances in HIV/AIDS clinical research among communities disproportionately impacted by the virus. He holds a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and Master in Social Work from Rutgers University.

Comments

  1. Great message. You made some really convicting points (the silence of so many of us). I noticed Mark Zimmerly’s name. I’ve known Mark’s family since before he was born.

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