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Based on the Lectionary readings for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 1:20-23
Mark 8: 27-38

2003 September 14
Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

The Cross and Joy of Love

Nearly twenty years ago, I was the director of the Maine Women's Lobby, which meant that Bean's didn't have the only double-L in the state: I was a Liberal Lobbyist. One of the groups that I represented was the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance. Its founder gave me this stole when I was ordained, and I wear it proudly for every wedding that I perform.

In 1985 my lobby had a bill before the legislature to guarantee equal employment rights to gays and lesbians working in public schools. It was pretty basic but also controversial. When the hearing day came for the bill, the Christian Civic League bused large numbers of conservative activists to the state Capitol to pack the public review session. I testified in hearings on a weekly basis, usually to a group of about twelve. On this day there were hundreds in the room, which happened any time a similar issue was raised. But I remember that particular day with visceral clarity.

In the beginning I stood to face the committee and its chairman for my testimony. After I followed form and gave my name, group, and then spoke the words "I am here in support of this legislation," audience boos began. And all of a sudden I felt very vulnerable with my back to an angry group. As I went on, some in the room began to hiss and gesture at me, and I can still feel the feeling of being covered with goose bumps and tense with fear due to the movement behind me and the requirement that I face forward. Finally, my testimony done, I left, shaken by the Back to topway I felt exposed in that place.

I usually left the Capitol around 6 or 7 at night, by which time it is pitch black during Maine winter. As I walked along the street to my garage, I realized that I was being followed by perhaps two people. When I turned, they turned. Where I went, they went. When I sped up, they did too. My locked car was in the dark. We didn't have those buttons to push on key rings in 1985. But I jumped in and raced away from the garage, and no one followed. I would testify many times more on this same issue and also face opponents in its debate, and blessedly I never had a similar experience. But that day and night, as Carol Jensen said to me, someone was trying to terrorize me for my beliefs and commitments, my associations, in a way for my identity. And it worked.

This second week of our fall program year, I wanted to talk about recent events in the news - what we learned this summer from the various struggles of the Christian Church and its Christians in Boston, New Hampshire, Alabama, and beyond. And in keeping with the startup sentiment, I wanted to keep it light. But some more recent news has pressed itself onto my heart and into our parish. This past week the church office received three threatening telephone calls, saying that we would "get it" for "what we had done." And then sometime Friday night, the banner which advertised the appearance of the Gay Men's Chorus next Saturday was torn from the fence over the "T" tracks two hundred feet from where we sit. Yes, the police have been informed. But somebody is trying to terrorize us for our beliefs and commitments, for our associations if not our identity. They tore down our rainbow signs several months ago. They disrespect our property, and they attack our piety. And this is another of the current events in our news, although it is not a new story. And it weighs very heavily upon me as I embrace this good people and this good community Back to topand as I quest for freedom from terror for persons of every identity and faith.

I was in a great mood yesterday morning, as I began preparing my sermon on the feminine images of God in the wisdom tradition of Proverbs and in Christology. I wanted to talk about The Da Vinci Code. I had been to a wonderful Red Sox game Friday night (they won) and had eaten blueberry pancakes with my family before coming over to the work day at church. I was still high from the Fenway and reading some feminism. Then Randy Ellis came in and told me about the banner, and I felt my eyes get heavy and my countenance drop. I felt that feeling of another nail in the cross with which we crucify some Christians. And I didn't know how to change my sermon, so I walked down the street to see the empty place on the fence to prove to myself that the banner was gone. And it was. And I touched the fence and said a prayer. And I went home for a minute. And then I came back to my desk to write.

The Christian Church and its Christians are in the midst of an internal examination and a culture-wide consideration of who belongs, who is good and evil, what we hold as the responsibilities of faith. We are asking whether we will find the answers to our questions by looking backward or looking forward. We are living in an era when belief is often engaged as a consumer issue: what do we want to make us comfortable? We are living in an era of fear. We are living in a time when we are alienated from creation, from God, from one another, from ourselves. And we are living all of this in a hurry with our cell phones and Blackberries and deadlines.

One of the characteristics of this troubling list of challenges is a propensity to identify enemies, problems, exiles. Although throughout history, we've done all that without our present challenges

At this junction and in this moment, some have identified gay men - rarely lesbians -  as somehow part of the problem and, if exiled, somehow a part of the solution. Gene Robinson, Episcopal bishop-elect in New Hampshire, now lives with at least two bodyguards and often wears a bulletproof vest in his ministry. His life is regularly threatened. Our rainbow signs and advertising banners hardly compare to his plight. Or the plight of Matthew Shepherd, literally crucified on a fence in Colorado for his identity, or Charlie Howard, thrown off a bridge in Bangor, Maine to drown for his.

Based on approximately five Biblical phrases, usually mistranslated, that appear to condemn homosexuality, we have this modern tragedy. Leviticus has two chapters on skin diseases and two phrases on same sex behavior; Paul renounces gossips, liars, and general acts of infidelity, and then same sex relationships in passing, but when have we seen a movement to isolate those with skin problems or the inability to tell the truth or keep a secret? Why do I tell you this? So that you know: the Biblical ark of specific condemnation for homosexuality is empty. That cupboard is bare. In fact, that word didn't even exist in the ancient world, and our modern condemnations are generally just that: modern. Back to topSo how do we respond to them?

Please educate yourselves and your friends. Discover what our Bible does and doesn't say about these issues. Know that any religious critique of homosexuality is an interpretation, not a direct word or literal translation of some scripture. If someone beloved has personal moral or philosophical concerns with gay or lesbian persons, let them be just that: personal and respectable but not grounded in God's message or the Church's way. And furthermore, know that no critique of any behavior in the Bible - lying, gossiping or even blasphemy - includes a call to condemnation. Our scriptures do not rally crusaders to conquer but inspire new ways of living in relationship to God and to one another. Didn't Jesus call off the stoning of a woman until everyone was sinless in their own lives? Violence and terrorism are not the fruit of God's Spirit. Inclusiveness is.

There is a powerful synchronicity in the scriptures for this day. Wisdom, called both hokmah and Sophia in the Bible, is with God at creation, says Proverbs. She, yes "she," becomes manifest again as the Gospels suggest because Jesus is "the wisdom of God." The purpose of wisdom is to teach us how to live, how to conduct ourselves. And the central message of this cosmopolitan, intellectual perspective is to foster "the fear of the Lord," which means a full relationship with God that doesn't claim the divine responsibility for ourselves. That is, revere God, and don't be God. But be compassionate or merciful, wise (it says) even against the trends of culture.

The Gospel offers a heavier text today. One commentator says that it shows how revelation and misunderstanding live side by side. What God shows us and how we interpret it are different. But it doesn't take any commentator to read the lines within, the lines that say if you want to be part of my fellowship, you will have to deny yourself and take up a cross to follow. To which Peter says, isn't there an easier way? There must be an easier way! And Jesus calls that perspective evil. For God knows that good news is also hard work.

Our culture, our community, has not come to a final insight on the issues of gay and lesbian identity. But this church has pledged to follow Jesus' spirit by being Open and Affirming, even when it is hard work.

Our era, like Lot's wife, is often confused about whether we will find divine insights by turning backward or by looking forward. Lot's wife turned to a pillar of salt when she looked only back. We embrace something risky and unknown whenever we go forward, yet like the disciples moving on from the cross, that is what Jesus calls us to do. Back to topEven when it is hard work.

Now it is time for us to learn our foundations, such as the scriptures and to determine if we will continue to seek the way that is wise, even in its humility, and the way of new life, even if it means some measure of suffering and even crosses. That is, will we be among those who exclude others or among those who work to embrace all God's children?

I was very hurt yesterday, and angry, that some fool is harassing us. No one I know supports this type of hidden and destructive behavior. Yet I realize that my pain and anger are still called to the behaviors of love. As Joseph Campbell says, the most radical core of our faith is to love our enemies. And Jesus says to pray for those who persecute you. Which I do not characteristically like to do. But it is the solution here. It is the way out of this cycle. It is the good news for this day. It is a new way to heal brokenness. A new way to mend what is torn. It is a look forward, not back. So it is my only option. And it is the way of the cross.

Even this morning as we gather at church, a group here will prepare a new banner to proclaim the good news of our concert. A banner to be raised up in another hour or less. As we wrestle with our experiences, we will continue to hold a variety of insights and perspectives, interpretations even, on all of the issues at hand. But I pray that we will be unified in our critique of destructiveness and terrorism and unified in our effort to meet them with love. As I've encountered this event I've asked, "What is God able to reveal to us here?" and I answer "a renewed call to go deep, to work hard, to love."

Love is patient and compassionate.  It does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. It is good news. It will get us through today and this week and this life. Thank God.  Amen.

Copyright 2003 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

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