Preached at MCC Columbia, in Columbia, S.C., on January 2, 2005
Readings: Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3 Galatians 3:23-29
This sermon though was not an easy one to write. I usually can write a sermon in a day – two at the longest, but this one took about three days. It reminded me of the old joke where a little boy quizzes the pastor about how she comes up with sermons each week.
“Well,” the pastor says, “I simply write down what God tells me.”
The boy looks perplexed and finally asks, “So, why do you keep scratching things out?”
This sermon is the result of a lot of scratching out. Paragraphs I had nurtured from just a few words long to their full glory were moved around, shortened, lengthened and often just plain deleted. I just couldn’t get it to hang together. I had so many great ideas but they went nowhere. Finally on the third day I said, “Okay, God, what do you want to write?” The sermon then practically wrote itself. So, the lesson is whenever I try to write a sermon it goes nowhere, so I have to simply write down what I believe God tells me. These are the parts that I didn’t scratch out.
The slogans of this season are “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas” – but for many people the holidays, particularly Christmas, are anything but happy or merry. Holiday depression is a huge problem in our nation. For one reason or another this season brings nothing but sad tidings instead of great joy. For many the reason for their depression revolves around difficulties with family. In the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, the reasons are fairly obvious. Many of us have been ostracized by our families, cast out of the holiday cheer of family gatherings and holiday celebrations. Instead of joy, this season brings tears, a sense of loneliness and feelings of being rejected by the very people who are supposed to love us the most – our family.
Often in our community we’re forced to build families of choice when our biological families abandon us. We turn to our friends to fill the role of brothers and sisters, or mothers and fathers. This web of friends often becomes our surrogate families where we spend holidays or birthdays, or just lazy days hanging out.
I’ve been thinking a lot about family this year. I’m lucky in many respects. My mother, even though she believes homosexuality to be against God’s will told me when I came out to her as a teenager that even though she didn’t understand and thought it was wrong, she loved me and that I would always be welcome in her home. She has always been gracious to my partner Wanda and there are times that I think she loves Wanda more than she loves me. I’ve never felt like an outcast in my family because of my sexual orientation. Instead, I’ve felt like an outcast because of my political beliefs, which are definitely in the minority. Christmas was always the worst, especially back when I was writing news at CNN and my brother Doug, a dedicated fan of FOX News, would berate me for working for what he lovingly called the “Clinton News Network.” Needless to say, sometimes Christmas mornings could get a little tense.
Doug is two years older than I am and when we were kids one of our favorite TV shows was Batman. I remember we’d watch the show and then recreate the fight scenes in the living room. BIF! BAM! BOOM! WHAM!
Being the youngest, I was of course, relegated to the role of Robin, which I hated. I always wanted to be Batman. But, as the lowly sidekick I got to exclaim such great things as, “Holy, molars!” or “Holy bat-trap!” or “Holy semantics, Batman!”
Those are actual Robin quotes, by the way. I had forgotten just how much of a civics lesson children got when they watched Batman. The dialogue was always campy but reading it now as an adult I realize that Batman and Robin, along with their alter-egos, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, had a lot to teach us about the world. Just take these gems as examples:
Dick: “Awww, heck! What’s the use of learning French anyway?”
Bruce: “Dick, I’m surprised at you! Language is the key to world peace. If we all spoke each other’s tongues, perhaps the scourge of war would be ended forever.”
Dick: “Gosh, Bruce, yes. I’ll get these darn verbs if they kill me!”
Robin: “Gosh, there could be diplomatic repercussions if we fail this time, Batman.”
Batman: “That’s not the point, Robin. What’s important is that the world knows that all visitors to these teeming shores are safe, be they peasant or king.”
Robin: “Gee, Batman, I never thought of that. You’re right.” Batman: “It’s the very essence of our democracy.”
Batman: “Nobody wants war.”
Robin: “Gee, Batman. Belgravia’s such a small country. We’d beat them in a few hours.”
Batman: “Yes, and then we’d have to support them for years.”
Holy prophesy, Batman! Those are wise words from our caped crusader.
I think Batman makes for a fitting hero for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. Unlike virtually all of the other super-heroes out there, Batman has no supernatural abilities. He cannot fly, he can’t create a spider web to swing from building to building, he does not have x-ray vision, he’s not faster than a speeding bullet and he can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. No, Batman must survive on his wits – and whatever neat gadget he’s got in that utility belt. He must face situations head on and work out the best solution using his head, using reason, outsmarting the enemy at his own game and always believing that in the end, justice will prevail no matter how unstoppable the villain of the day may appear.
Batman, too, came from a bad family situation. For those unfamiliar with the Batman story, Batman is Bruce Wayne who as a teenager witnessed the murder of his parents and vowed to avenge their deaths by bringing the criminals to justice. Using the vast wealth left to him by his parents, he studied criminology, forensics, the martial arts and other tools to fight crime in his hometown of Gotham. He decided to dress as a bat to strike fear in the “cowardly and superstitious” hearts of criminals.
Without a biological family to support him, Batman goes about building his own family. John Francis Moore, one of the writers of the BATMAN: FAMILY comic book series, said:
“One of the things that makes Batman such an enduring figure-beyond his own bad self-is his supporting cast. And one of the greatest ironies of the Batman mythos is that for a supposed dark and brooding loner, Batman has created a surrogate family that he relies on not only to fight crime and corruption in Gotham City, but to anchor him emotionally. I contend that without Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl and Alfred, Batman would be crushed by the overwhelming weight of his crusade.”
Holy family, Batman! Even a superhero needs the support system that only a family, even a family of choice, can offer.
Jesus understood this concept. His family did not understand him and he found he could not perform miracles in his hometown so he left his biological family to build himself a surrogate family consisting of 12 disciples and some friends, many of them women like Mary Magdalene and Martha. When his family came to visit him once he asked, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples he said “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50)
Jesus had created a surrogate family that he relied on, not only to spread his message of love and grace and fight injustice, but to anchor him emotionally. I contend that without the disciples, Mary and Martha, Jesus would have been crushed by the overwhelming weight of his crusade.
That’s nice that both Batman and Jesus could form those surrogate families that supported them – but what about us? What are we to do if we are feeling that we don’t belong to any family this holiday season? How does hearing about two other surrogate families help us?
The good news comes to us from Paul’s words in Galatians. Just like those 12 disciples and Mary and Martha, we are part of Jesus’ surrogate family. We have been adopted into the Holy Family – a family, like Batman’s family – that seeks to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
“… in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
Holy family, Batman! We are heirs according to the promise! We are in Christ’s family – called children of God through our faith. This family is not grounded in moralistic laws, but in grace and in grace there are no human barriers – there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female – we are made one in Christ Jesus!
Before our adoption into the holy family, Paul says we were under the law, but now we are under grace. By grace I mean God’s unconditional, unfailing and radical love for us, no matter who we are. When I say grace I don’t mean something that is earned or something that is a reward to the few or the chosen, but when I say grace I mean something we all can receive. Grace means that God loves us all and is committed to reconciling herself to every single one of us.
It’s amazing to me how many people who claim the title Christian still don’t get that. They have a long list of “thou shalt nots” that they say we must follow or else we will not earn, or be worthy of, God’s grace. They limit God’s grace by talking a lot about morality and how we should live our lives.
As Episcopalian priest Lesley Northup in Coconut Grove, Florida, said in a recent sermon:
“Jesus very seldom talked about ‘thou shalt nots’ – about terrible things you weren’t supposed to do. His morality was about what you were supposed to do. He was crystal clear about ‘thou shalts.’ Here is what morality is, according to Jesus: Feed the poor (there are about 12 million people in our country who worry daily about whether they will have food); comfort the prisoners (probably includes not torturing or shooting them); accept the outcast (the queer, the single mother, the street person, the Muslim); shelter the homeless (and stop creating more of them); be good stewards and shepherds (stop raping the environment); depend on God, not on wealth (and don’t collect it at the expense of the poor); treat others as you would have them treat you. And FIGHT for justice.”
Holy family, Batman! That’s our call, our inheritance – to fight for justice wherever we see injustice taking root whether it is in our world, our church, our jobs, our homes and especially in our government (whether that government is led by Democrats or Republicans). Right now, there are seven anti-gay bills that have been pre-filed in the South Carolina legislature that would deny us the right to marry and would even outlaw civil unions. One of these bills is so mean-spirited it would make even the issuing of a marriage license to same-gender couples a criminal act! This is not the definition of grace or the definition of justice.
Perhaps we should stop here and define exactly what kind of justice we’re talking about. When we hear the word justice we’re most likely thinking of retribution. I think Batman’s idea of justice is retribution – seeing that the wrong-doers get their comeuppance. But, God’s idea of justice has little to do with retribution. Instead, God’s justice is what theologian John Dominic Crossan calls “distributive” justice. For Crossan, God’s distributive justice is outlined in Psalm 82:3-4:
“Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Justice means the fair and equitable distribution of God’s blessings on earth, which would not include writing laws that intentionally block people from gaining equality.
Isaiah, who is also an adopted member in our holy family, gives us instructions on how to conduct ourselves as those who fight for God’s distributive justice. “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.” Centuries later, the Apostle Paul echoes Isaiah’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:13 – “we too believe, and so we speak.” For the sake of not just our nation, but the whole world, as believers we cannot keep silent, we must speak out.
In our modern times, Jesuit priest John Dear writes in his book Living Peace:
“In our world of war, starvation, and violence, you can no longer just try to do good. You also have to resist evil. If you do not publicly resist evil, your goodness merely quietly props up the structures of evil, which destroy the lives of the poor and marginalized. The times have forced us, whether we like it or not, to resist evil as well as to do good.”
Whether we like it or not, we cannot rest until we see God’s distributive justice spread throughout the world. We must speak truth to power. We must publicly resist injustice when we see it. We must take our place among the holy family of justice seekers and spend our time, our talents and, yes, even our money, on fostering equality, justice, peace and harmony in our world.
We can do this in many ways. Get involved in organizations that seek equality for gays, lesbian, bisexuals and transgender people like the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement. Get involved with organizations that seek to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and visit the prisoner. Get involved with organizations that seek to protect the environment.
But, most importantly, every single day of your life practice the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do not keep silent, do not rest! We too believe, and so we speak. Fight for justice, for peace, for a renewal of Christ’s message of unity and equality. Fight for God’s inclusive, radical love to come into the world.
On the Batman TV show, most shows ended with a cliffhanger – showing Batman and Robin trapped by the latest villain like the Joker, the Penguin or Catwoman. The announcer breathlessly warned us to “Keep your batwings crossed until tomorrow! Same bat time. Same bat channel. Same perilous predicament!” Surely it was curtains for the caped crusaders, but they always found a way to survive, a way to come back and defeat the evil that faced them. In the end, justice always prevailed.
After one of their many brushes with death, Batman asked Robin, “Haven’t you noticed how we always escape the vicious ensnarements of our enemies?”
“Yeah,” Robin replies, “because we’re smarter than they are!”
Batman says to him: “I like to think it’s because our hearts are pure.”
It may sound corny, but we always escape the ensnarements of our enemy when our hearts are pure – when we are focused on seeking distributive justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God. Sometimes it may look like we’re done for and that the enemy will win, but take heart, my brothers and sisters, God’s justice always prevails.
Whenever the times seem dark always remember that as God’s adopted children we are the light of the world and we cannot hide that light under a bushel. Shine your life like a light – embrace your place in the holy family – a family of justice seekers.
Take these words from Jim Strathdee’s poem, “I am the Light of the World,” with you this week:
I am the light of the world!
You people come and follow me!
When you follow and love
You’ll learn the mystery of what you are meant to do and be.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the magi and shepherds have found their way home
The work of Christmas is begun.
To find the lost and lonely one,
To heal the broken soul with love,
To feed the hungry children with warmth and good will,
To feel the earth below, the sun above!
To free the prisoner from all chains,
To make the powerful care,
To rebuild the nations with strength of good will,
To see God’s children everywhere!
To bring hope to every task you do,
To dance at a baby’s new birth,
To make music in an old person’s heart,
And sing to the colors of the earth!
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.