Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sermon: "Moving from Acceptance to Celebration"—An LGBTQ+ Pride Sermon

For Scarsdale Congregational Church

I remember with some embarrassment my past ministry: a Local Minister for the Church of the Nazarene, with a special vocation as Evangelist.
My job was to fill-in when other ministers in my district wanted a break from preaching a sermon.
Or if they wanted some inspirational southern gospel singing for their church, I was their man.
The role of the Evangelist is more than pulpit supply. The Evangelist is expected to bring a fresh message, to stir-up emotions, and to bring… revival.
Whenever I felt I made a particularly insightful remark, I would ask the church-goers present, “Can you say Amen?”
And they were encouraged to reply, “Amen.”
And if they didn’t say it loud enough—I would tell them to say “Amen” louder.
And they would—otherwise, their neighbor would think badly of them.
And then, there were those ladies who would wave their hankies in the air and say, “Well?”
In the Nazarene tradition, it was even socially acceptable to run the aisles when the excitement just became too much to handle. And the runner would say something like, “Glory!”
For the Evangelist, spirituality is best measured by emotional outpouring.

As I graduated from Bible College…
already having served three years as Local Minister through a large congregation,
and already having taken part in leading more than 15 week-long youth revivals throughout MI, IN, IL and WI…
I became aware that my definition of spirituality and revival / was incomplete.
As if stepping outside myself, I looked from an outsider’s perspective into all the emotion-filled singing and gut-wrenching prayers of people who felt they needed more of God…
And I realized: this is not grace, an unmerited gift from God.
This is not mercy, undeserved pardon of sin.
This kind of ‘revivalism’ was one-dimensional—limited only to the emotional.
It was not pumping people up with spirituality.
o It was dessert / with no nutritional value to sustain them, since I never challenged them to go deeper.
You know when you at first fall in love with someone.
o You obsess about them, and love feeling those tingles, and you can’t wait to hold hands with them.
And some young people think feeling this magic is all that love will ever require of them. 
It’s not that these romantic feelings are wrong; there’s just so much more to love than that: like compromise in order to live together. /
In much the same way / revivalism acts as though emotionalism is all that is required in order to become spiritually mature.
o Emotion is great and all, but there’s just so much more to spirituality than that: like compromise in order to live together.

When I had entered seminary:
I had not yet learned that emotionalism was OK.
Instead, I over-corrected—rejecting any spirituality that involved emotion.
I read the Stoics and Existentialists religiously.
I was waking up to rationalism… and was looking for genuine spiritually without any of the trappings from my ministry in the Church of the Nazarene.
I was seeking something deeply and profoundly true.
Without realizing it, I was seeking a different kind of revival.


“I was seeking something deeply and profoundly true.” But what is true for me? For you as individuals? And for us as a community?

I often hear the call for “church” to be an inclusive place for LGBTQ+ individuals.
This is Pride Month, and this is the very day of the largest pride celebration in the history of the world—just minutes away from this place, in Manhattan—and we are only two weeks out from the Orlando Massacre of LGBTQ+ individuals… so being inclusive at least deserves a mention here today.
What precisely are we including?
And is being inclusive enough?
Is it enough to say, “yes, ‘they’ can be here, too,” or does our commitment as an Open and Affirming congregation go deeper than that?

Because of our commitment as O&A, we fly the rainbow banner in June.
(That banner is one of the things that attracted me to this place, by the way.)
And, here, we preach that God made a diversity of identities—ranging in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, size—and that we are born into different situations—such as socioeconomic status and creed.
Let us, today, reaffirm that we are inclusive of all of these identities.

But what if we took it a step even further?
What if we declared that we are not only inclusive, but we celebrate these differences?
…That we honor the richness and giftedness that diversity brings to this community!
What if we said we are “Open”… and then leaned into what it means to be “Affirming.”

How might we be different? And are you ready to make that mental shift? I imagine if we Congregationalists had a revival, it might be of this sort.

In the 19th century, the original Age of Aquarius was dawning—something even more radical than Woodstock:

Revivalism emerged in the 19th century in the “Second Great Awakening,” in one of many responses to cultural breakdown and frantic search for meaning.
Along with Revivalism, other groups emerged:
And religious response to slavery, which was the key issue leading to the American Civil War.
If any nation needed a “Woodstock” at that moment, it was the adolescent United States.
Not surprisingly, Congregationalists didn’t fit-into the mold of individual nationalism at first, but there was a place for them:
Congregationalists—were different.
They were very successful at adapting to the shift from Predestination to Free Will.
They taught that we need not wait for God, but instead, we can change society if we want to do so.
And so, Congregationalism played a key role in America to solve social ills of the day, such as speaking in favor of Abolitionism and individually engaging in civil disobedience, such as disobeying the Fugitive Slave Act,
Or speaking to abolish the death penalty
Or in favor of women’s suffrage…
o But, instead of adapting to the wave of Revivalism, Congregationalists experimented with one of the other emerging religious groups: Transcendentalism.
This means that they engaged in these actions because of the individual truth found within.
In small numbers, the Congregationalists took their self-determined individualism to the streets and fought for the emancipation of slaves and women.
Congregationalists individually fought against the social ills alongside—but in discord with—Revivalism: as Transcendentalists.
And we were the first major denomination to ordain a freed slave and a woman.

I think our Congregational heritage—and how far we’ve come from the days of Puritanism—is noteworthy, to say the least.

Despite all these great advances that our forebears brought us, I will argue this:
Just as I probably over-corrected when I completely rejected any kind of emotionalism, it is also possible that Congregationalists—collectively—may have overcorrected when they almost completely rejected the cultural elements (along with emotionalism) that go along with Revivalism.

Rev. Dr. James Freeman Clarke, not a particularly memorable minister, nonetheless, preached a sermon that was published in an 1866 magazine.

Clarke says…
Maybe revivalism isn’t such a bad idea.
Let’s scrap the stuff that doesn’t ring true for us.
Let’s think about what a Congregationalist revival might look like.
If we want to experience revival, all we have to do is look around and observe the divine all around us.
He even says God is here all the time, and the thing we want is already happening around us:
He says we should be like the flowers that reach for the sun: Flowers do that because that’s what flowers do.
He says “That is the sort of revival we expect: the dear sun shining into our hearts, and our hearts turning up to the sun, and then we cannot help having one” (a revival).
(This is very Transcendentalist language, by the way.)
He continues: “Not a spasmodic revival; not to anything like a nervous outbreak, to be followed by a nervous depression: but because we see the steady progress towards the heart of // humanity.”
Can you say Amen?

Rev. Clarke was challenging his audience to be spiritual / because humans are innately spiritual beings.
And his audience probably agreed with him—because other writings of the time indicate an awareness of that all-pervasive spirituality.
// Today, I think Clarke would find a less receptive audience.
o // How many of us would describe ourselves as spiritual?
o // Of those who do, how many have spiritual language to describe the renewal we have experienced, and have we shared that with anyone?
o // How many of us do spiritual acts because we believe it is in our DNA?
Forget about waving hankies and running the aisles; how about giving thanks for lunch?

Some of us come from Evangelical backgrounds.
Maybe we heard those preachers and evangelists preach, and we felt good at first, but then that feeling went away.  And then we were empty.
I can’t speak for you, but, as I mentioned earlier, when this was my experience, I completely wrote off spirituality and emotion for a long time.
I needed a mentor.  I needed someone to tell me there was a middle way.  I needed a Rev. Dr. James Freeman Clarke 
o to tell me that I need not over-correct.
o that I could be spiritual without having a spasmodic, nervous outbreak.
I could re-imagine myself as a being that cannot help but find spirituality wherever I look.
I could re-imagine myself in service to all humankind—because that is the essence of who I am.
Clarke says the point of a meaningful revival would be this: so we see the steady progress towards the heart of humanity.
This is not a quick fix.  It requires steady plodding.
And we will see ourselves as alive… in order to reach humanity—like a flower turning up towards the sun.

A Congregationalist Revival is this: to find and live truth—one that is so personal, one that is not only inclusive but also one that celebrates the richness that diversity brings, and it is like an instinct to us—together in community.
To get rid of racism, pride, and straight privilege.
To find and connect to a source of vitality.
If we don’t nurture that source of vitality, how could we possibly love our enemies, create peace, end our dependence on fossil fuel, stop the death penalty and gun violence, or pursue any of the abolitionisms that help us truly live our faith?

If we are not plugged into who we are and whose we are (our Source of vitality) how can we expect to act from a place of conviction and love?

Our spiritual life does not have to be spasmodic or saccharine.
We do not need to feel anything to make it real.
We need, only, to find and live our truth
o Instinctually.
o Communally.
With the support of each other, may we find ourselves in the midst of a Great Awakening—awakening to each other / and to our Source of vitality.
That is what makes us so different from other organizations:
Together, serving humanity
Together, finding truth
And together, we turn to the One that gives us strength.
Let your truth radiate… and be, for yourself and others, progress towards the heart of humanity.
Amen and amen.

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