Monday, October 11, 2010

Van English's Sermon: Coming Out: A New Covenant With God

This photo of Van and I was taken today in front of the KHRO radio studios after his interview where we celebrated the 18th anniversary of his coming out on National Coming Out Day. Below is the transcript from the sermon Van delivered yesterday at the Metropolitan Community Church in El Paso.

Coming Out: A New Covenant With God
by Van English on Monday, October 11, 2010 at 10:15am

Good morning, happy Sunday, and thank you all for being with us this morning as we demonstrate and celebrate God’s love for all people at Metropolitan Community Church of El Paso!

I’m grateful to see so many members and friends, and especially to have so many visitors with us. I’m Van English, a member of the Board of Servants here at MCC El Paso, delivering today’s message in the absence of our senior pastor Reverend Kati Houts, who is in the process of moving her partner Melanie to El Paso from their former home in Florida.

Today is a significant day in many ways for MCC Worldwide, our denomination:

* It’s Anniversary Sunday or Fellowship Sunday, commemorating the founding of MCC on October 6, 1968, in the living room of Reverend Troy Perry in Huntingdon Beach, California.
* It’s the eve of National Coming Out Day, founded in 1988 by activists Jean O’Leary and Rob Eichberg, and now celebrated around the world every year on October 11.
* And finally, it’s also the anniversary of the acts of violence that began on the evening of October 6, 1998, inflicted against a young college man named Matthew Shepard, who died on October 12.
* Oh, and one more thing, which is rather fun: Today is 10/10/10—a sort of magical numerological event, a trinity of numbers, if you will.

All in all, this is a day to commemorate, contemplate, and above all celebrate, because this truly is a day our God has made just for us, and we do rejoice in it. Amen.

In this morning’s scriptures, we have examples of people who were diseased, distorted, unattractive, not "normal." They were ashamed. They appealed to Jesus, who healed them and gave them the courage to face others. I am particularly struck by the one man--the "outsider," the Samaritan—the only one out of ten who came back to Jesus and thanked him. Jesus told the lepers to go and show themselves to the priests. They had to get the priests’ approval that they were now "clean" versus "unclean" and be able to re-enter the society/synagogue and temple. So what of this Samaritan? He was an outsider anyway! Cleansed of leprosy, he was still a Samaritan. He does not go and show himself to a priest (or does he?); rather, he comes back to Jesus—whom he considered his high priest--to give thanks.

This man practiced the graceful art of giving back: Jesus gave the Samaritan the miraculous gift of healing. The Samaritan’s simple act of going back and saying “thank you” was in turn a gift back to Jesus.

More about Samaritans is found earlier in Luke, in Chapter 10, verses 25-29, where we have the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the Gospel of Luke, the parable is introduced by a question:

A certain lawyer stood up and tested Jesus, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read it?"

The lawyer answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus said to him, "You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live."

But the lawyer, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?"

Jesus then replied with a story: "A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw the man, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the half-dead man was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set the man on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, as the Samaritan departed, he took out two silver coins, and gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, 'Take care of this man. Whatever you spend beyond this, I will repay you when I return.' Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?"

The lawyer said, "He who showed mercy on him."

Then Jesus said to him, "Then you go and do likewise."

There are several things we can connect with here:

* Whose approval do we really need? That of human-appointed or -elected authority figures? Our own? Each other’s? God’s?
* Saying “thanks” is part of our healing. It leads to a fuller, richer life—the healing of the body-mind-spirit, which are all undeniably connected.
* Living authentically involves living a life of gratitude. Who ultimately gives us our healing and deserves the ultimate gratitude? God!
* Showing mercy and compassion in the most powerful way is also part of our healing and of our living out and proud, without sacrificing our own needs or identities, and without expecting anything in return.

People need to hear us acknowledging and thanking God as the source of our healing and our life. Our thanksgiving is another witness of our faith. This is key to the concept of coming out.

In the scripture from Kings, someone is asked to do something very simple in return for being healed, yet he is resistant. God invites us to do the simple thing to find healing. It's so simple to say “thanks,” yet we keep looking for something more complicated and we miss this simple direction towards our full healing and authentic living.

How does this apply to coming out? Our personal true self is a gift from God. At first, what ever that truth is might feel like a disease or a burden, because it doesn't look like the gifts others have. So we turn to God and ask for healing. God heals us; i.e., God gives us the courage to face others who seem more "normal" to us, to exhibit our true selves. We can honor God by giving our thanks and praise, bringing the gift full circle. When we do that publicly—even to one or a few others—we are coming out.

The need to be "out and proud" about whatever we're withholding is not for the other people in the world; it's for our own well being. Keeping secrets about ourselves because we believe we are somehow "less-than" is damaging to our self identity and to our ability to contribute to society. In a society where the very essence of who people are is often questioned, dismissed, attacked, and invalidated by others, the process of coming out is, in fact, about not being all that different from others. Indeed, coming out is about the psychological wellness of each and every one of us, and it’s also about the psychological wellness of our entire society.

I invite you to look into the eyes of any human being, whether you know that person well or not. Look that person in the eye and take a moment to be present with him or her. You will each know that you were created just as you were by the same God, each one slightly different from the next, but both essentially the same. Looking into the other person’s eyes, connect with the soul. Unless you have no humanity, all the "differences" of this existence we call life will disappear, and you will be at one with each other. You will experience what some faith traditions express as “Namaste”—the essence of two people connecting with each other’s God-given divinity.

This whole thing about coming out has been blown way out of proportion. Yes, I, the gay homosexual said that! What I mean is that coming out is such a simple thing—rather like the Samaritan or the guy in Kings saying “thanks.” Coming out is nothing more than telling the truth—what ever that truth is—and it is about way more than one’s sexuality.

There are many, many things we can come out about. For example, I’ve been out about my sexuality for 18 years, as of tomorrow. (Yes, I came out on National Coming Out Day and I didn’t even know such a thing existed!) Just recently, I’ve begun to come out about other things—such as being bullied when I was a child in school. You might have seen me talking about this on the 10 o’clock news the other night. As Job 7:11 says, “I will not stay silent” about this any longer!

We have to give others the language we want them to use about us, or they will make up their own language, which might not be accurate. For example, we have straight people in our church—a growing number here at MCC of El Paso, and many, many others in our 250 congregations around the world. If they don’t come out about being straight, others might presume they’re gay just because they’re members of MCC. Just imagine the possible conversations that can come from that! Just imagine all the things straight people can come out about—things that have nothing at all to do with their own sexuality.

Every conversation, every question from someone you encounter, presents an opportunity for you to come out powerfully and confidently. For example, weekend before last I went back to my college alma mater for a fraternity reunion. One of the things my fraternity requires of its pledges is that they obtain every active brother’s interview, plus as many alumni interviews as possible. So on Saturday morning at the fraternity house, I was surrounded by college freshmen wanting my interview. At one time, I gave a group interview to about 20 of them. They asked some pretty routine questions at first and then came, “Are you married and do you have children?” This was an opportunity! I could have said simply “no” or I could latch onto a real opportunity to either get my tail whipped or do a bit of educating. I took a breath and I looked all of them in the eyes. I said, well, this is not going to be a short answer. I am in a long-term, committed, monogamous domestic partnership with another man. We’ve been together a little over 11 years. We have one son with four legs.” They all wrote furiously and suddenly one of them looked up from his paper at me and said, “That’s cool.” And the rest of them nodded in agreement. I made that trip with my former roommate and best friend Robin, who is also a member of my fraternity and who is also gay. He had similar experiences with the pledge interviews. Later that day, we went to the football game (yes, I went to a football game and understood most of it). Rain started pouring in buckets and we were soaked. Robin and I walked back to the fraternity house in the rain, where we found that most of our brothers were smarter than us and had stayed back to watch the game on TV. So we walked in to rounds of laughter and cameras flashing—the two gay guys sopping wet. In a minute, one of the young guys said, “Y’all come with me. I’ll give y’all some clean towels and I might even have some tee shirts.” That night, there was a big party at the fraternity house with lots of loud dance music. With reckless abandon, I danced and so did Robin. At about the same time, we noticed that other guys were dancing all around us—as if gender and sexuality didn’t matter. And really, it doesn’t, does it?

Troy Perry, the founder of our denomination, had many things to come out about. He was a preacher in the Pentecostal tradition. He was married to a woman. He had children. Yet, he knew in his heart that he was a gay man. He struggled with that for many years until he reached the point of suicide. God spoke to him and healed him and Troy Perry found the strength to keep on living and to come out of that closet, which had become a tomb for him. He came out even farther by putting an ad in the gay paper in Los Angeles, listing his home address, advertising the start of a new church for gay people. And on that first Sunday, there were 12 who gathered in his living room. I’m so glad Troy Perry came out—aren’t you?

Last Sunday, David and I had the pleasure of hearing Troy Perry preach at the MCC in Abilene, and let me tell you, it was worth every inch of the 458 miles we drove to get there. In that sermon, Reverend Perry told us he’d recently come out about something else. As founder and former moderator of MCC, Troy has been entertained at the White House three times, the first two by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Recently, he was invited to go there a third time, by President Obama. But this time, he didn’t say “yes” right away. Instead, he came out and said, “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I’ve been to the White House before, and neither time was my partner invited to come with me, so I don’t think I can come this time without him.” And guess what the response was: “Oh, Reverend Perry, yes, your partner is invited.” See, Reverend Perry is nearly 70 years old, and he’s still finding things to come out about! And he’s still getting positive results, just by speaking his truth. What other well-known people can you think of who have come out and are coming out, and who are creating positive results for themselves and others?

Let me digress for just a minute and say something about Abilene, Texas, where we heard Troy Perry preach last weekend. We’re talking about a city of 115,000 people, with a major Baptist university, a major Methodist university, and a major Church of Christ university. And in the middle of all that sits the headquarters of MCC Worldwide and one of the most successful and diverse MCC congregations—Exodus MCC, which last weekend celebrated its 30th anniversary. Their congregation is packed with straight people and children of all ages! So never again do I want to hear the excuse, “Well, this is El Paso.” If Abilene can do what it’s done, El Paso certainly can! And will!

I look forward to the day when coming out is no big deal at all, when all the barriers are down and everyone just gets to live in truth and harmony, without judgment. I think that’s what God intended and the reason God sent Jesus as an example of how it ought to be.

Until then, though, the world still needs to hear us come out as people of faith! Come out with your story of what God has done for you! Come out with your story of amazing grace. Come out today, come out tomorrow, and keep on coming out every day as we give God thanks and praise for healing, for hope, for promise, and for a future. Amen!

Sharing of the Peace

Since this is such a special day in our church, I’d like to do something just a tad different with this time we call the Sharing of the Peace. The original tagline for National Coming Out Day was a very simple invitation: "Take your next step." Depending on where you are in your own personal process, the whole enchilada might seem too big, and it’s easier to take things a bite at a time. What can you come out about? What new truth can you tell? I invite you during the Sharing of the Peace to share briefly with someone else what your next step will be.

(Special thanks to Reverend Troy Perry, Judith Johnson, David McGurk, Honey Ward, Michael King, and Reverend Colleen Darraugh for suggestions, ideas, excerpts, and feedback as I prepared this sermon.)

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