Holy Trinity Metropolitan Community Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
Readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; Luke 4:14-21
I appreciate that it is a long time since anyone suffered the dubious pleasure of hearing me preach but some of you may remember the general difficulties that I have with religion in general and the Bible in particular.
You are probably wondering why then I’m here this evening.
I thank God that I belong to a Church which values me in my doubting and my questioning. So many Churches try to make you fit your faith into a faith shaped box, of their creation. I have always found MCC to be a Church which encouraged me to build my own faith shaped box, my own, personal relationship with God.
My issues with religion I have sometimes described as psycho-theological. They come as much from my own issues and experiences as they do from standard theological issues.
Our readings tonight pushed all my buttons when I first read them.
Our focus is God’s law.
Fair enough you may think. We are a Church and focusing on God’s law may not be a bad idea.
But part of me is uncomfortable.
The words are oh so like those fellow Christians who, to my mind, go out of there way to cause misery and suffering to those they do not approve of and then use “God’s-so-called-law” as their justification.
Our Psalm tonight says:
the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
When first reading it in preparation for tonight I was struck by how I could imagine this passage being used by the religious conservatives.
Some of the more austere denominations have been know to tell us that dancing and other forms of fun are sinful and that true happiness is only ever found in following their version of God’s law.
It goes without saying that those of us who may be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or in any other way “different” from this narrow view of what is expected of us should be very afraid that we are not following God’s law.
We must end our sinful ways and indulge in what the psalmist describes as the “pure” fear of the Lord.
If we were to do this we would discover how much fun all this obedience was.
Rejecting my sinful gay lifestyle, or what I manage of it anyway, would be, as the Psalm says “sweeter than honey.”
The reading from Nehemiah particularly throws me when it tells me to rejoice in all of this.
I am more like the people in verse 9 who wept when they heard the words of the law.
On reading things like this, all my old resentments and hurts, and some of them, as we all know from the Section 28 campaign, are less than a year old, come to the surface. I am a victim of all this God stuff and I want nothing of it. This scripture is abject nonsense!
But is it?
Is it that simple?
Should I give up that easily?
At times like this I have to own up to my own damaged state. I have been hurt by the forces of religion and, like so many, I transfer my hurt and my pain onto God and the Bible.
When I read the Bible it is so much easier for me to see echoes of bad experiences than anything good or loving.
So many people are the same. There are so many victims of what MCC academic Rembert Truluck calls “Bible abuse.” Another term for this oppression is Rev Mel White’s phrase “Spiritual Warfare.”
LGBT folk have been in the front line of this for too long. Those of us have done evangelism and outreach work for the Church know the response we often get. LGBT folk often are not interested in what we have to say. They have heard so much condemnation from the wider Church that they have closed their mind to any positive message.
And that’s what I did on my first reading of this passage.
How could the “joy of my God” be MY strength?
But, I also know that I am giving in too easily.
I have just finished reading Rev Nancy Wilson’s book “Our Tribe: Queer folk, God, Jesus and the Bible.”
This is a great book, I’d recommend it to you all.
Among the many lovely stories she tells is one of a visit she made to All God’s Children MCC in Minneapolis.
The Church had at that time three soft ball teams. Softball, as far as I can understand, is a game not unlike rounders and it is very popular with lesbians. But the Church also had a team made up of young gay men. These guys were very unconventional in their hair styles, dress, etc. True MCC individuals. That team wore T-shirts which proclaimed:
“Made in the image of God: well, maybe not YOUR image of God!”
That message spoke loudly to me. I have allowed others to dictate my image of God. I have taken onto my own shoulders the stern God of condemnation so beloved of so many Christians as my God and then disliked the result.
Maybe I should stop blaming others and start looking at what I have allowed to happen to me.
Despite still returning in my heart to bouts of negativity like this, my time in MCC has been one where I have had the chance to learn again who God is.
Every Lent we run weekly Bible studies as a Church and I have found that I have grown particularly during these.
Each week I have had the chance to look at the Bible through new eyes. To be with a group of supportive friends and to explore the words for myself, finding out that there is more to the Bible than my prejudices built from hurt and rejection.
And today’s readings read so differently to me when I step back from my hurt and open my eyes to the message.
Our Gospel reading today has Jesus back in his home town. He takes the opportunity to speak in the synagogue and rather than speaking his own words, he goes back to scripture to proclaim the purpose of his ministry. Quoting from Isaiah he says:
“The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
He could so easily have stood up and condemned the audience as sinners but instead he concentrated on a passage from the Old Testament which both foretold the fact of his ministry and the nature of his ministry.
His ministry was to be one of liberation.
That’s not saying that Christ’s Gospel does not challenge us to reach our full potential as people of God. We are encouraged to cast aside those things that are holding us back. But the whole purpose of God’s law is one of love and liberation.
God’s law is not something that we have to make people hate themselves.
Condemnation for condemnation’s sake has no place in the Gospel.
The purpose of the God’s law is to make the world and our lives the best they could be – to make God’s realm real on earth.
Now this is exciting. Now this is something that makes me joyous.
I don’t think for a moment that it will be easy – I know how lacking I am in the selfless love which is at the heart of God’s law – but when I allow myself to have a relationship with our God of love and liberation it does seem tantalisingly possible.
So I am going to try to give up guilt, rejection and despair. I am going to try to accept God’s will in my life more joyously. It is not a threat to me, but an opportunity for me.
We should measure our success not by how many people we make feel bad about themselves as a result of our ministry but by how many we transform for despair to joy.
How many people we can convince that God’s realm of love and liberation is possible for us all and the Gospel can help us create it here on earth.
For the potential within in us to make this world a better place is very real. We can do it. With God, we have the power.
With God, we have the strength.
And it is the Joy of our God that will be our strength.
Stephen Harte is an attorney living in Edinburgh, Scotland.