Sermon by John Russell Stanger at the MLP National Conference at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Tucson, AZ on Friday, September 27, 2013.
Leviticus 19:33-34 & Acts 10:9-16
Little John Russell grew up on a cattle ranch situated miles outside of two tiny Texas towns. Unlike most kids in the county, growing up on Stanger Ranch meant feeding cows on cold Christmas mornings, riding horses through rain and woods, repairing barbed wire fences, and knowing the monotony of mowing pastures all summer.
But like everyone else who grew up in Brazoria County, I breathed air so thick with religion, there was no doubt the Second Coming was just a few church potlucks away. Sure, I loved being at Bethel Presbyterian Church, asking every question about that ancient book I could think of, but when you’re fourteen, little ‘ole Bethel couldn’t hold a candle to the cultural center that was FIRST BAPTIST!
Because all my friends were Baptist and their church had goateed youth leaders with big budgets, I constantly asking my parents to drop me off in front of that colossal red brick building at the center of town.
Wednesday nights I was writing down my sins and nailing them to an old rugged cross. Summers we got to meet up with youth groups of approved theology. Once I had the pleasure of knocking on doors, dripping in sweat from nerves and the Texas heat, and invited people to church, our youth leaders in their khaki shorts and Jesus sandals looked on with pride as we stumbled over our lines.
But Spring was my favorite. The approach of Easter meant the annual Passion Play. Now, Patrick Evans, I may meet every one of your Broadway references with a blank stare, but I’ve seen how fancy lighting, well-produced dance numbers, a booming chorus, and a shirtless man can save souls. I acted in that Passion Play for years, and once they even gave the Presbyterian a single line.
I went back week after week, prayin’ and singin’, raising my hands occasionally to make it count. But I never felt at home there. I was out of place, a stranger. That queer kind of strangeness, where you’re a stranger in the midst of the people that are supposed to be your people.
When the lights were dimmed for prayer and we were invited forward to turn ourselves over to Christ, I’d look around wondering if the others were as uncomfortable as me. When they asked me, “Are you saved, John?”, all I heard was, “Are you gay?”
It would have to be one or the other. “Because God is holy, only the holy can be with Him in heaven.” And there is only one other option. That’s what I thought I knew. That was the vision in my head as I tried to sleep every night.
I’m guessing Peter knew what it felt like to be the stranger. From his time with Jesus to the planting of his 1,001 Worshiping Communities, he’d probably become numb to showing up in town after town where he knew a few people at most.
It’s exhausting being the outsider, and I’m guessing Peter and his company of new church developers are run ragged when we meet them in tonight’s text. It’s no surprise that it takes stopping to pray to realize how hungry he is. And judging by the trance he enters, he may have skipped more than one meal.
Peter’s vision is simple and clear. A sheet holding animals of all kinds–clean and unclean–lowers from heaven. And despite his light-headed hunger, when God tells him to eat from this Noah’s Ark 2.0, Peter actually says, “By no means.” Though the voice of God says otherwise, Peter is certain of what it means to be Christian, to be holy.
My visions and certainty as a young gay boy were just as strong as Peter’s. I’m guessing many of you survived them as well.
But we are here because we’ve learned what Peter learned on that roof, that we must not call profane what God has made clean.
We are here, surrounded by these majestic mountains, because we are committed to building a church that reflects God’s heart, that sees the Sacred in every child of God.
We are here, to be refreshed and rejuvenated in the work, because we will not rest until every trans, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and queer youth grows up knowing without a doubt they are good and beloved by God, the Church, and the World.
Our calling is far from complete. Queer, and particularly trans, youth still face extreme rates of homelessness, assault, and suicide. It is no wonder there are so many communities working toward making sure that no LGBTQ youth lies awake at night with visions of flames.
You may have heard about an online media project that launched earlier this month. It’s called “Not All Like That Christians” and it’s a website that hosts videos of numerous people–mostly white straight allies–delivering a simple message in their own words: not all Christians believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are unworthy of God’s love.
LGBTQ youth need to hear that God loves them as much as possible through every avenue possible. And the Church has the responsibility of speaking up and healing the hurt that has been done in its name, by calling and treating queer people as sacred. The Not All Like That—or NALT—project has joined its voice with ours in making sure that we no longer live in a world where the good news hidden.
But I’m afraid the NALT project reveals something hidden about our own movement for inclusion.
At the beginning of the summer, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a setting 14-year-old ranchers’ son John Russell could have never dreamt he’d reference in a sermon, I had lunch with Mieke Vandersall, my boss and warrior queen for all us queer future pastors, and Carmen Fowler LaBerge, Executive Editor of the Layman, a publication that serves the interests of far right Presbyterians. (You may have heard of it.)
Y’all, this lunch felt about as bizarre as it sounds. And, then… Not.
I sat at the table with Carmen and Mieke, and listened to two women leaders—something that wouldn’t have happened just decades ago—connect over their shared experiences as heads of organizations in their respective movements.
Over that shared meal we each clarified what was really important to our ministries, what excited us, frustrated us, saddened us. It was one of those moments where genuine conversation and dialogue rise about abstract politics and theologies. It was the kind of experience that reminds me the Spirit is alive and well… And very mysterious.
In all our sharing, one thing pierced through my cynical generalizing about the far right in the church. Carmen told us that many conservative Presbyterians now relate more to other conservative Christians, than they do to most Presbyterians. They have of feeling of being deeply out of place, strangers, in their own denomination.
This makes me incredibly sad.
I’ve known what it feels like to exist as a stranger in the midst of the people that are supposed to be my people. And I know I’m not alone in this. We have each lived through the experiences of feeling like a stranger to ourselves, our families, our churches, and even the love of God.
We have also felt what it means to belong to the Presbyterian family. That almost indescribable sense of community when you meet with Presbyterians from anywhere in the world. That sense of Eucharist as we gather together.
As someone who loves that connection, that feeling of home that many of us have in the church, to know that so many have lost that, brings me no joy.
Now let me be clear, I am not here to gloss over conservatives’ contribution to the world’s sin of oppressing and abusing queer people because they see us as less human, less sacred, less worthy.
My story and many of your’s are of the survival of this very oppression. My calling and your callings are to create a world that reflects Christ’s love of the stranger.
Sometimes separation is necessary, even best, especially when there has been too much pain. I’ve said myself, “Just let them go.” But the pain of divorce, estrangement cuts deep. And we must still grieve, because the pain of others does nothing to heal our own.
So what Carmen shared with me grants me no joy nor reconciliation.
It was that lunch, my work with LGBTQ youth, and my own childhood, that flooded my mind when I witnessed the launch of the Not All Like That project.
While well intentioned, these videos by queer-loving Christians don’t actually move beyond our Peter-like need to categorize people as sacred and profane, they simply relocates the categories: “dirty Christians” are those who are responsible for all that has been done and said against LGBTQ people and “clean Christians” are those of us picking up the pieces. If only it were truly that simple.
Maria is a 17-year-old leader in her youth group. Maria’s multicultural bilingual Brooklyn church has not taken formal steps to become a Pres Welcome, Covenant Network, or More Light church… And probably won’t for a while, if ever. In NALT’s book, they are those other Christians.
But Maria came to me recently, tasked as the preacher for youth Sunday. She told me she knew of people afraid to come to her church because they are gay and asked for help addressing this in her sermon. We worked on it together and celebrated afterward when her congregation, for the most part, received the gospel and Maria with open arms.
Maria’s church isn’t putting a rainbow flag on their sign tomorrow, isn’t even ready to say that being LGBTQ is good, but they aren’t “like that” either, they are listening and growing.
NALT puts in place a paradigm where others are either with us or against us. This kind of framework attempts to recreate Carmen, Maria, and many others as strangers.
My friend Alison Amyx, queer advocate and Senior Editor at Believe Out Loud, said it best: “It distances us from people I love—people like some of my extended family members, compassionate and loving Christians, who still believe my gayness is not ‘God’s best’ for me. I am not comfortable putting these Christians in the same category as extremists like Pat Robertson.”
Like Alison, I’m uncomfortable with NALT because I believe it is reductionistic, but also for one very pragmatic reason. What we have gained, what we have won since our more inclusive ordination standards is not an entire denomination. What we have lost are too many conservative faith communities into which queer children are being adopted, born, and raised without hearing that they are beloved.
Turning our back on conservative Christian communities is a non-option.
But finally, I’m uncomfortable with saying we are Not All Like That because it is a lie.
Our confession-loving Reformed tradition reminds us that we are, all of us, always, broken. We never get it completely right. We never escape participation in systems of injustice.
How many pastor nomination committees of welcoming churches, when presented with a sheet from heaven full of incredible, gifted queer pastors, have called a straight one.
Many of our congregations haven’t begun to think through hospitality to transgender people.
And the inclusive movement in the PC(USA)—currently staffed entirely by white people—has ignored the particular concerns and struggles of queer people of color far too much.
We are racist. We are sexist. We are transphobic.
Yet, in Christ we have been redeemed. We are, all of us, beloved and called sacred by God. We are holy because Christ is holy. We remain human, beloved children of God, no matter what.
So, if being like that is being like Carmen, being vulnerable with strangers whom she believes should not be leading the church…
If being like that is being like Maria, unsure what sin has to do with all of this, but confident that queer people should be welcome in her church…
If being like that is being like Peter, constantly discovering that in Christ there are no longer categories of sacred and profane…
If being like that means never getting it entirely right but being held in Divine Love all the way through it, then thank God we’re like that!
John Russell Stanger is the Organizer of Mission and Advocacy at Presbyterian Welcome in NYC. He was raised on a cattle ranch in Texas but went all the way to India as a Young Adult Volunteer to discover that studying theology was the only way he could understand the brokenness of the world. While coming out as gay during seminary he realized his place was not in the hallowed halls of the academy, but in communities helping youth find their voices to advocate for themselves and work for a more just world. Since completing his Master of Divinity at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, John has served with Presbyterian Welcome, where he preaches, teaches, and facilitates discussions about faith, gender, and sexuality with youth and adults. You can read some of his writing at PluckyPresby.com.