Preached November 27, 2005 at MCC Columbia (S.C.)
First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for God.
You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Creator; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
Second Reading: Mark 13:24-37
But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Human One coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then God will send out the angels, and gather God’s elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that God is near, at the very gates.
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Creator. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.
Therefore, keep awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else God may find you asleep when God comes suddenly. “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
I was raised with a keen sense of fairness. Probably one of my most uttered phrases as a child was, “It’s just not fair!” Being the last of five children there were many occasions where that phrase came in handy. The older kids got to stay up later – it’s just not fair! The older kids got to ride in the front seat, while I was relegated to the back seat – it’s just not fair! The older kids got to go to PG or R rated movies – it’s just not fair! And, the real unfairness of it all came right before school began when the older kids got to go shopping for new clothes and I got to go shopping in their closets, year after year dressing in hand-me-downs from my brothers and sisters – but mainly my brothers – it’s just not fair!
The best story I can tell you though to show you just how deep my sense of fairness goes back to is when I was a very young child and felt terrible dismay when I saw an advertisement for Red Goose Shoes. The commercial tagline was, “Half the fun of having feet is Red Goose Shoes.” I remember asking my mother, “What about those people with no feet? They’re missing half the fun!” Even as a youngster it just didn’t seem fair to me that some people would miss half the fun simply because they were different in some way. Apparently, my penchant for activism emerged at an early age.
Of course one of the most recent examples of just how unfair life can be came last month when New Hampshire’s senator Judd Gregg won more than $850,000 in the Powerball lottery. Now, that’s just not fair. And what makes it even more unfair is that this man chairs the Senate Budget Committee, so we already know that he’ll just waste that money! Come on! If life were fair then that money would go to someone who really needed it and would appreciate it – like me! Say it with me now, it’s just not fair!
Next November, this state will be faced with a ballot measure that is all about fairness – fairness for families that may be a little bit different from the norm – fairness for families, who like those mysterious footless people I thought of, are missing out on half the fun. Our legislators, in all of their collective wisdom, have seen fit to ask the good people of South Carolina to approve an amendment to our state constitution that would define marriage as being between one man and one woman. But, that’s not all that this amendment will do. There’s a whole other paragraph after that one that just isn’t fair to the thousands of gay and lesbian couples in this state, many of whom are raising children.
What this amendment really says then is that no matter how many years they build a life together, regardless of the children they raise together, gay and lesbian families would be denied any form of legal recognition, rights, responsibilities and protections available to all other South Carolinians. If the amendment passes, gay and lesbian South Carolinians, and their children, will be relegated to second-class citizenship.
It’s just not fair.
As gays and lesbians, we’re accustomed to working twice as hard to protect our relationships. A DVD, produced by the South Carolina Equality Coalition, outlines just some of the ways we’re already discriminated against because we cannot get married.
[In the DVD excerpt, local attorney Harriet Hancock outlines the mountain of paperwork that gays and lesbians must execute to protect their relationships and how that is not fair to these families.]
This is a simple issue of fairness, fairness for all families in South Carolina.
When Wanda and I spent time at the South Carolina Equality Coalition booth at the State Fair last month, we were surprised to find out just how many people did not know about this amendment – they had no idea they’d be asked to vote on the rights of an entire class of people in our state. Even more amazing, many of the gays and lesbians we met at the Fair had no idea about this amendment either!
An interesting contrast came out of our experience at the Fair. The Republicans had a box where people could vote yes or no on the amendment, and their poll showed that people overwhelmingly supported the amendment. But, their ballot only included the first paragraph of the amendment that asks if marriage between one man and one woman should be the only lawful domestic union in our state. At our booth, we told people the rest of the amendment and how it would adversely affect the more than 250,000 gays and lesbians, many of them raising children, who live in our state. Our poll, which was taken from a larger sample of people than the Republican poll, showed that people would overwhelmingly vote against the amendment.
What was the difference? The issue of fairness. Once it was explained that this amendment does far more than define heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable form of marriage in this state, but would also deny benefits to children being raised in same-sex households and single out gays and lesbians for special discrimination, people said the same thing – “It’s just not fair!”
The other lesson I learned from the State Fair is that it is imperative for everyone in our community to come out – even if it’s to just a few people. What became clear is that those who knew a gay or lesbian person or had gays or lesbians in their family were more likely to vote against the amendment. I realize it’s hard to be out in this state, especially if our jobs and livelihoods depend on us not being out, but as ACT-UP used to shout from the rooftops – “Silence Equals Death.” Our silence as gay and lesbian, and even the silence of our allies, will spell the death of our rights in this state. If we don’t speak up for ourselves and educate those around us about our lives, then the voters in this state will change the Constitution – a document designed to grant rights to all citizens – to deny equal rights to our specific community.
Earlier this month, Texas became the 19th state to amend its constitution to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples. Most of these amendments are like the one we’re facing, not just outlawing marriage for gays and lesbians, but going even further to deny any form of legal recognition like domestic partnerships or civil unions. South Carolina is not the only state facing a ballot measure next year, so even more states could soon pass these kinds of amendments.
It’s just not fair!
It’s enough to send one into despair – wondering if we’ll ever have equal rights. It’s enough to make one wonder if God has forsaken our community. We lament with Isaiah that God is angry with us and has hidden her face from us. It is in that despair, however, that we find hope, because Isaiah reminds us that we are the clay, and God is our potter – we are all the work of God’s hands – we are all God’s people, each and every one of us. God has fashioned us – made us what we are – gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children of the living, radically loving, God. But, just because we are God’s children does not mean that we will never face trials or suffering. Just because we are God’s children does not mean that things will always be fair.
When we look around and all we see is the unfairness of life, it’s easy to get discouraged – to stop paying any attention to the things that might discourage us. It’s easy to fall into a sort of a spiritual sleep – to forsake this world for the next. It’s easy to look at the evil and the problems in the world and dismiss them as beyond our concern, and most definitely beyond our ability to change them. We feel overwhelmed and turn our attention to the trivial parts of life. We’re more concerned about the cast of “Lost” than we are about our own civil rights. We’re more concerned with who won the latest “American Idol” than how many people went hungry in our own nation today. We’re more concerned with a lost teenager in Aruba than we are about the lives lost every day in the ever-increasing quagmire of war. We’re like Tom Cruise in “Risky Business” – the parents are gone and we’re in charge of the house and instead of caring for the house, we’ve decided to have a party. And just like Tom, see how much trouble we’ve gotten ourselves into?
But, really who can blame us? It’s easier to throw a party and be lulled into reality-avoiding sleepiness than to stay alert to our world and figure out what needs to be done to heal it. But, Jesus’ command to us is clear – we are to keep awake – to stay alert. We are the slaves who have been left in charge of the master’s house. This world – our world – is the master’s house and right now, we’re in charge. It is through our action or our inaction in the world, that the master’s house is either protected or left wide open for the thieves to carry off.
Jesus warns us to stay alert because we don’t know the time that the master will return. This passage is usually preached as an end-time prediction – that we won’t know the exact date that Jesus will return. But, the Greek word used for “time” here doesn’t refer to chronological time, instead, the word “kairos” is used – which refers to a “crucial time” a “decisive moment.” If we are not alert, we will miss those crucial times, those decisive moments in our lives when we can be fully spiritually awake – working hard in the master’s house to make it safe and secure not just for ourselves but for everyone. This is why we work for fairness and justice.
Mandy Carter, the director of a group called Southerners on New Ground, based in Durham, North Carolina, gives an example of how we must keep alert and work for the good of everyone who resides in this world – our master’s house. A few years ago, the migrant farmers who work at the Mt. Olive pickle company in Mt. Olive, North Carolina were going on strike over unfair work practices. Mandy called up one of her lesbian friends to tell her of a march against the company. Her friend’s response? “What does that have to do with my lesbian rights?” Mandy was appalled, and we all should be appalled. The first question should have been, “When and where?” We’re not the only ones in the master’s house who are being marginalized. If we’re truly a community dedicated to fairness, then we’re dedicated to fairness for everyone. We’re about “justice” not “just us.”
Brothers and sisters, as a body of faith we are now living in that “kairos” moment. This is a crucial time for us. As we move into a new building, into a new identity, we will be taking on new concerns beyond those of just our community. We must be ready and willing to fight for fairness for all South Carolinians, including those who we may not personally like – but we are called to work for the good of all – to stay spiritually alert so that we can better care for our master’s house – to tend and grow the Garden of Grace that we are now planting.
As our garden grows – as those who are yet to be gathered begin to be planted and take root in our garden of grace – we may find ourselves drawn into other areas of justice. We may feel moved to do something about the homeless in our midst. We may feel moved to fight for the rights of oppressed workers or those living in terrible poverty. We may feel moved to fight more openly for our transgender brothers and sisters. We will definitely feel moved to do more than stamp our feet and shout, “It’s just not fair!” As the garden of grace takes root in our hearts and in our wider community, we will grow to understand that justice can never be about “just us” but must be about fairness for everyone.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent – a time of watchfulness, a time of waiting for the first time that our master, our Christ, appeared in our world. Advent marks the beginning of our waiting for God’s justice in the form of Christ – this is just the kind of “kairos” moment that Christ talked about. During advent we keep alert, knowing that the crucial time, the decisive moment of Jesus’ birth into our world brings the healing, the justice and the peace that we seek.
When Christ returns we will see that final justice – but for now we are the one’s watching over the house. It doesn’t seem fair! Why can’t God just make things right? Why can’t God just end all the evil in the world, make people love each other and put us all in right relationship right now? Why are we the one’s left in charge of the house when God knows we’re a bunch of irresponsible teenagers? It’s just not fair!
These are tough questions, and I’ll tell you honestly that I don’t have all the answers. On those days when I despair over the sorry state of the world – how people kill each other, hate each other, destroy each other – I ask all those questions. I want God to make it easy – to do the work for us, to make the world right in one grand gesture. But, that’s not how God works. We’re in charge of the house – it’s our house to destroy or protect. We must be alert. We must stay awake and be about our Creator’s business while we are here.
We must make our decisions daily – will we continue our spiritual sleep, neglecting God’s house while unfairness rules? Will we simply protest, “It’s not fair!” and leave it to others to work on correcting the injustices in the world? Or, will we keep alert, stay awake and hear Jesus say upon his return, “Well, done, good and faithful servant” because we have seen the unfairness and have been moved to fight against it with everything we have?
We understand, though, that all of our efforts will fall short in this world. We will never correct every injustice, because evil will always exist in this imperfect world. But while we await the birth of our savior this advent season we understand that it is Christ who brings final justice. Our task is to stay alert and work for justice now, as we await its perfection in Christ.
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.