First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Philadelphia, Pa.
Readings for the Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 35:1-16, Luke 1:46-55
One of the characteristics of the life of faith is the experience of counterintuitive joy. Just when the logical response to external circumstances would seem to be anger, or frustration, or despair, the person of faith may experience a strong, deep sense of confidence and gladness. In the midst of suffering and disappointment, laughter wells up from the depths of a person’s heart. In times of terrible losses and setbacks, a person nevertheless discovers a song in her heart.
I’m not talking about the way hard times help us appreciate the easier times, or the way losing something of great value, like health or a relationship or a good job, can help us appreciate what we still have. I’m not talking about a Pollyannish insistence on looking at the bright side. Instead, I’m talking about a joy that bubbles up in and through us precisely at the hardest times, and that doesn’t externally seem to make any sense at all. I’m talking about a joy that is God’s gift to us at some of the most painful moments in our lives. I’m not talking about escaping from sorrow or denying grief. I’m talking about the discovery of a deep, resonating note of hope and purpose that incorporates suffering into a profound and beautiful harmony.
I’m talking about something I experienced during my church trial December 1st and 2nd. It was weird: all through that hard experience, with all that was overwhelming and sad and unreal and new and absurd about it, I felt for the most part really pretty good. I felt deep-down, in-my-bones good. I felt hopeful. I felt intensely present to the moment. I felt strong. I felt peaceful. I experienced much that humbled me and filled me with gratitude. And jokes and little ironies struck me funnier than usual. At moments waiting with my family for word from the trial court, sharing a moment of strategy and hope with my legal team, or talking with Chris on our way up and down the hill I actually laughed harder than I think I have in years.
Over and over, the Bible bears witness to this experience of joy that can’t be explained by external circumstances. The Scripture readings today describe that joy as the people of God experienced it on two occasions. Isaiah expresses the joy of the Israelites in exile in Babylon, longing for their own country and rejoicing in a vision of the desert in bloom as the Lord’s ransomed people stream homeward. The Israelite’s captors must have thought they were crazy to sing out joyful words like these:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert and shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
The burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water.
The ransomed of the Lord will return,
and come to Zion with singing;
Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:1-16)
In the Gospel reading, Luke gives us the words of Mary’s joyful song as she, an unwed mother-to-be subject to shame and stigma and the misunderstanding of others, celebrates God’s very life being born in her. Anyone who knew Mary, anyone who had some inkling of the suffering she would experience, especially if they didn’t know or believe what was happening inside her, must have been incredulous to hear her sing:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-55)
These readings today are just two examples of the counterintuitive joy that makes its appearance again and again in the Scriptures. Just when the prophets of Israel ought to be giving up on the mixed-up people who can never get their priorities straight, they utter hopeful words about Gods promised future of justice, peace, and redemption. The Psalms echo with extravagant, joyous praise of God back-to-back with expressions of sorrow and despair. And Jesus himself commands his followers to rejoice when they are persecuted and hurting:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12)
This joy that people of faith can experience in painful times is a gift from God. It is as if God has opened a window into the alternate reality She has planned for us, and invited us to look through. We look through that window and see, as clearly as if we could touch it, the future in which the poor and lowly are lifted up, the hungry are fed, the blind see, the deaf hear, the ransomed return home and even the desert bursts into bloom. We recognize that this future isn’t imaginary; it’s as real as the suffering we experience now, if not in fact more real.
In the past two weeks, I’ve had profound moments of looking through that window into God’s future. I’d like to share a few of them with you.
During a break on the first day of the trial, a man I didn’t recognize came up to me. He was very emotional, on the verge of tears. He said, “I just want to talk to you for a second. He said, I’m as confused as hell about this issue of homosexuality. I am just as confused as hell. I wish the Almighty would write the answer in the sky and we would all know. I really don’t know what the answer is. But I want you to know that I’ve learned a lot from you today. I wish I could say something better or more helpful. But if you’re ever in my area and you’d like to talk, would you give me a call. I’m just as confused as hell.” And he said his name, and that’s when I realized he was the pastor of a large evangelical church in our conference, a pastor I had been told was very conservative. That moment made me feel that perhaps the trial had opened up some sacred space for real listening and growth. Perhaps the eyes of the blind would be opened.
The weekend after the trial, I got a call at home from a member of the trial court. He said, “I just want you to know that I never want to go through anything like that again. I really felt trapped by the church law. But I want to do everything I can to see that you get your ordination back someday. I want to help change this law. I’m totally committed to it now in a way I wasn’t before. If you can think of anything I can do, just let me know. Perhaps the trial did something to take away the complacency of moderates in the church, so that we all might see the pain and harm of an unjust law and work harder to change it.”
Early last week, I got an e-mail from a member of this congregation who had gone to the mall on Sunday afternoon to do some Christmas shopping with his daughter. They were both wearing their “Beth is my pastor” badges. A young couple at the mall recognized the badges from TV and angrily took issue with the view they represented: that Christianity has room for gay and lesbian families. Now, this is a person who has a temper. I’ve been on the receiving end once or twice. But on this occasion, as he felt his anger rising, he did the Christian thing and walked away, not even responding when the couple called out after them, shouting a very un-Christian antigay epithet. When I read his email, I was amazed at how this heterosexual mans simple expression of solidarity with his lesbian pastor had become so much more, as he literally made himself vulnerable to the same suffering gay and lesbian people experience and fear every day. Perhaps the trial helped members of this congregation enter into a deeper solidarity with one another, truly sharing one another’s hurts as the church is called to do.
Here’s what I think makes me appreciate Gods sense of humor the most: Listening to members of this church talk about their experiences over the past two weeks, I realize that if Fred and Melody and I had worked for six months to come up with a plan to force you to talk about your faith and your congregation in your schools and workplaces, we couldn’t have done any better. This experience of the trial has made evangelists out of all of you, and you don’t even like the word evangelism. How funny is that?
I could give you more examples, but these will give you some idea of the window God opened for me in the middle of this trial, and the counterintuitive joy God gave me. I can see Gods future as clearly as if it had already happened, even though it is clearly still very much under construction. I see a United Methodist Church that could be a meeting ground for people with different experiences and theologies, rather than a battleground. I see sacred space for real, deep, true, compassionate listening to one another, which can lead to conversion and transformation. I see the possibility of the kind of growth and vision that we experienced when FUMCOG became a Reconciling Congregation, only on a much larger scale, through which some of the very people who have the most questions might become the staunchest advocates of a fully inclusive church. I can see the day when people will recognize that God blesses all loving families. It might not come today or tomorrow, but it will come.
Four years ago, when Chris and I had our commitment ceremony, Patricia Pearce, the pastor of Chris’s church, reminded us that Jesus commanded us to rejoice. She told us: You see, people for the most part don’t care much for alternate realities. They like what they’re comfortable with, and because of your relationship you will challenge some people’s comfort level and elicit their disapproval or even hostility. There is only one thing you are commanded to do when that happens. Go out dancing. Or partying. Or gather together in the company of friends to share a meal and laugh together. Celebrate your relationship. Rejoicing in the face of persecution is the ultimate subversive act, because it is the way you reclaim the truth that you are blessed and that you are not alone.
After the trial, we did that. We obeyed Jesus’ commandment to rejoice. The night of the verdict and the penalty vote, my family and I went out to dinner with a few of the people who had given literally days and weeks and months of pro bono work to craft my defense. It was an evening of eating great food, telling family stories, and laughing together as we shared our various experiences of the trial. Fred was with us, and as we gathered there was such a spirit of joy and optimism in the room he said, If this is losing, what does winning feel like?
I won’t say I haven’t felt sad, or frustrated, or disappointed, or angry. But through it all God has also given me a sense of counterintuitive joy. My prayer is that you can experience that joy as well, and this joy will be a source of strength and hope and perseverance for all of us.