Benediction Online

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sheep with Megaphones

A sermon preached at the Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd, Philadelphia

What a delight it is to be here with you today on Good Shepherd Sunday! My thanks to your rector Jon for giving me the privilege of sharing with you this morning.

I love the image of the good shepherd. It is deeply comforting to think that God cares for you and for me as intimately as a Middle Eastern shepherd cared for his sheep. Jesus says that those of us who are enrolled in his reign - those of us who are like his sheep -  hear his voice and follow him. That’s a sweet image.
But there are downsides to being a sheep. As well as ticks and fleas and burrs and the smell of raw lanoline, there are… the other sheep. Biblical sheep always live in flocks – you’ll remember Jesus talked about the good shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the flock to fend for themselves while he searched for and brought back the one who was missing. You don’t get much alone time if you’re a sheep.

I grew up in the flock. My particular fold was a small Anglo-Catholic parish in the Church of England. Then I went away to college and at college I found out things about myself that made me think there was no place for me among the faithful. I found that I was gay, and though for many years I prayed and studied and prayed some more, God did not choose to make me heterosexual. So I stayed away. I stayed away for over a decade.  I continued to hear God’s voice - the good shepherd did not let me go. But I was sure that I would never be welcome in the flock again – that somehow, however discreet I was, that I would smell different and they would sniff me out. Sometimes I went to church, sitting at the back, close to the exit. But I always left quickly, afraid to get involved.

I am glad to say that, in most parts of this country, things are very different now. We have realized that for decades good and godly Episcopalians have been lesbian, gay and transgender and that that has not stopped the good shepherd calling them and using them in powerful ministry. The courage of those who have stepped forward and said “Yes I’m gay” or “My loved one is gay and that’s Ok with me and with God” has led to tremendous change in this Episcopal Church of ours. I am not afraid to tell you that God has called me to be in committed relationship with another woman for over twenty years. I am not afraid that I will be cast out of the flock.

But I am one of the lucky ones.

There are still many, many gay, lesbian and tranz people who don’t really believe that there’s a place for them in the flock. They may hear the good shepherd calling them but they’re not about to come out of hiding because they don’t think the other sheep will like them, let alone love them. It’s easy for us to say “I wonder why we don’t see more gay people, more poor people, more immigrant people, more disabled people, when we’d welcome them just like we welcome each other”. It’s easy for us to say that, safe within the fold. But they can’t hear us. We’re not making enough noise. We’re not making it clear that God loves everyone, no exceptions and so do we!

In fact, there are sheep in other folds who have megaphones which broadcast the idea that God loves everyone as long as they look and act like straight white people. They have done such a good job getting their message across that ours isn’t getting heard.

One of the problems is the noise that goes on in the heads of many gay, lesbian and tranz people. I know that Jon has told you that today is the launch of a short tour during which I am visiting churches and groups in the north-east to talk about the work of Integrity, the gay and lesbian ministry in the Episcopal Church and to introduce my new book, “The Thorn in the Flesh.” One of the reasons that I undertook the research and wrote the book is that I needed to quieten the voices in my own head. Even after ten years in the Episcopal Church, even after being ordained as a priest, there were still times when the idea that God didn’t really like me that way I am became a deafening sound. At those times, I thought that maybe those people who say that being gay and living in a loving relationship is against God’s will were right.

By taking a close look at what has happened since Louie Crew first started a newsletter called Integrity Forum for gay Episcopalians in 1974; by carefully charting the to and fro of argument and persuasion, the political ploys, the declarations of crisis and predictions of disaster, I have concluded that our church has not been engaged in a forty year theological debate about God’s reign but in trying to protect itself from the change which is happening in the whole of our society as patriarchy gradually gives way to a more egalitarian and inclusive world – what Dr. King called “the beloved community.”

As I look around this church this morning I see people who are beloved of God. People who have been called to love and to serve in this fold. I see sheep who hear the good shepherd’s voice calling them loud and clear, and I rejoice.

But Jesus told many parables, and he made it quite clear that those who are called and who are safe in the fold have a responsibility to get out into the streets and share God’s amazing and unconditional love with those who can’t believe it’s for them. I don’t know what this looks like for you. I don’t know whom God is calling you to love for him. Perhaps there’s a house for developmentally delayed adults in your neighborhood who need people to love them for the unique humans that they are.  Maybe you are being called to provide hospitality for students at the university who are a long way from home. I do know that there are thousands of gay and lesbian people living in this city who have no idea that they are welcome here. I do hope that this summer you will reach out to them during Gay Pride and let them know that the Good Shepherd is calling them too. I also hope that you will seek out ways to actively meet and serve those who are gay, lesbian and transgender and whose ability to hear has been damaged.

“Build it and they will come” is only partially true. Our welcome to all of God’s people cannot be a passive waiting with open arms but must be an active seeking out end engaging with those whom God is calling but who have no idea that there really is a place and a welcome for them. Just this week I had an email from a person wondering whether she or he would be welcome in my parish. Why? Because in private he likes to dress as a woman. For many years he has heard the sheep with megaphones announcing that dressing like a woman is an abomination unto the Lord. He is afraid it is true, and yet he longs, she longs, to be part of the beloved community and to share God’s love with God’s people.

It is the tremendous privilege and challenge of those of us who have found a safe place within the fold to get up and go out with the shepherd as he seeks those who are lost, as he looks for those who are hiding, for those whose ears are filled with the dull roar of rejection, and then to love them and to witness to God’s amazing love for us.

For it is as each one of us allows the warmth of that love to penetrate even to the parts of ourselves that have been most damaged by rejection, by loss and by fear, that Jesus’ resurrection life bursts forth and we can truly say, “Alleluia, the Lord is Risen.”


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