Preached at MCC Columbia on Palm Sunday, March 20, 2005
4 The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. 5The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. 6I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. 7The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 8he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. 9It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up. Isaiah 50:4-9 36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ 37He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ 39And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ 40Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 42Again he went away for the second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ 43Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’ Matthew 26:36-46
There is an old classic song that begins, “Nothing could be finer, than to be in Carolina in the morning.”
I vehemently disagree. There are plenty of things that could be finer than being in Carolina whether it’s in the morning, afternoon or evening. I can think of lots of things. Being in Cancun in the morning would be mighty fine. Being in a warm cabin overlooking the mountains of Georgia would be mighty fine as well. Being in Atlanta, enjoying a brunch at one of my favorite restaurants near Little 5 Points would, for me, be the finest of them all. You see, I am not a South Carolina resident by choice and I fiercely miss my home in Atlanta. Instead, I moved here because I happened to fall in love with a woman who spent many years here and has family here – and felt a need to come back.
When people learn that I came here from the booming, gay friendly metropolis of Atlanta their question is always the same: “Why did you move from Atlanta to Sumter?” And they all say it the same way: they make a sour, incredulous face and say “Sumter?” – like it leaves a bad taste in their mouths. My answer is always the same: “Love makes you do stupid things.”
In fact, when we moved here, I wrote a not so flattering – okay, let’s just say mean – top ten list of the things I had observed about South Carolina. I will share with you five items from that list:
5. Even short residency exposure can make your partner exclaim, “I want a FULL-SIZE pick up truck with a KING CAB!” This little item has come to pass, by the way, and I must admit, that I really do like having the full size truck with the king cab! 4. The “Sumter Immersion Program” consists of going to the cable company to pick up a box, then relying on a tenuous cell phone connection with your partner giving you directions like “turn left at the package store” because she doesn’t know street names (since she grew up here and didn’t need to learn them). I understand – in my hometown I’d probably tell her, “turn left at the church, right at the post office and then look for the street where the old crazy lady with 27 cats lives on the corner.”
3. I thought it was my imagination that every car stopped at a side street would wait until I was right up on them to turn in front of me at the last minute, but then a car marked “driver training” did it and I realized drivers here are taught to do that. 2. They’re not trailers. They’re “manufactured homes,” thank you VERY much. 1. “Go Cocks!” is not a slogan for a gay bar.
About a year after we moved here, a friend of mine from Georgia was in town for a conference at the university. He stopped by my office for a chat. Now, in my office is a huge map of the state of South Carolina. When I took my current job, I realized it would include some travel so I needed to be very familiar with this state and the counties my job covers. I told my Atlanta friends, “I’m going to see every pothole in South Carolina.” Granted, I used a stronger word, but this is church, after all.
My friend and I sat staring at the map as we talked. Our conversation naturally came around to why I was in South Carolina in the first place and how, a year into being here, I was still not very happy about it all, even though I had gotten very involved in the church and working on justice issues.
“Do you know,” he said to me, “what the word ‘apostle’ means?”
“Um, sure,” I lied.
He graciously continued. “It means ‘one who is sent.’ You realize that you are an apostle to South Carolina.”
I don’t believe I have ever laughed as hard as I did in that moment.
An apostle to South Carolina. What a hoot!
But he was dead serious. He repeated it. “You’ve been sent here,” he told me. And after more conversation it sank it that he was right.
I never would have chosen to come here. The thought, “hey, let’s move to South Carolina,” would never, ever have crossed my mind in this lifetime. South Carolina was simply a place you had to go through to get to North Carolina, or Virginia, or anywhere else. It was a pit stop, not a place to stay and live.
I had to be sent here – and I think it’s been for a very good reason. In Atlanta, where the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is vibrant and in full bloom, there are really very few opportunities to do ministry in the way that it can be done here. When I arrived here and began to get involved in justice issues for our community, I found open arms and a place to begin to make a difference in the lives of the people in this community who are still closeted and fearful. Here, I found a place where I could serve a church, where I could serve a community, where I could find community support, love and chance to grow my skills as a minister. I never would have had these chances in Atlanta, where four queer couples trying to apply for marriage licenses elicits no more than a passing yawn from the media and city residents. Here, though, it means something – it has power, it has an impact. I’m grateful to have been given all the opportunities I have here to serve, to work for justice and equality. I never would have done any of it if God had not called me to be an apostle to South Carolina. I have done what Oriah Mountain Dreamer, in her book The Call, says we all must do – accept where we are and really be here:
“When we let go of wanting things to be a certain way, then we let go of our certainty that we know how things should be, we find ourselves letting go of resisting or resenting what is true in this moment, truly at peace with what is often an unpredictable and sometimes messy human life. [ ] And in every situation, no matter what options life presents to you, the choice about how to be where you are – here – remains yours.”
If I had my way, we would have never left Georgia, but look at what I would have missed! I no longer resent being here, I have chosen to be with what is, and it has brought me peace.
The Bible is full of people being sent places they didn’t want to go. Moses really didn’t want to go to Egypt to plead with the Pharaoh to let his people go. Jonah so didn’t want to go to Ninevah to warn the city to repent that God made sure he got swallowed up by a whale until he changed his mind. Paul, that man who first got the title, apostle, was sent all around the Middle East to teach and preach, even though his life was in danger wherever he went. And Jesus himself knows a bit about this kind of reluctance. John 7:1 reveals that Jesus didn’t want to go to Jerusalem because he knew the authorities were plotting to kill him. But, in Matthew 17:21-23, Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and face suffering and death. He didn’t want to go, but he knew that he was sent – this was his calling, and Jesus knew that love makes you do stupid things – like go where you know you’ll be crucified.
In the garden, Jesus is deeply grieved. He doesn’t want to die. He prayed, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” In this moment, Jesus accepts that he is being sent and has accepted where God has placed him. Shelley Douglas writes in Sojourners magazine:
“In the garden at Gethsemane, Jesus faces the consequences of living the life he has been called to live. He agonizes over his impending arrest and execution – and then accepts them. In accepting this ultimate price, death, he becomes free to be fearless and to acknowledge his own identity and his history.”
Love makes us do things we think are stupid – moving to a new place where we don’t really want to be, taking a new job we don’t really want, going to a place where we know crucifixion awaits us – but because we are acting out of love, we’re not doing stupid things – we’re doing redemptive work. If I had not done the stupid thing of moving to South Carolina, look at what I’d miss out on – an incredible chance to stand before a congregation such as this, a congregation that has welcomed me with open arms and has made me feel so loved. I would have missed out on a chance to be a professional lesbian, able to give voice to the voiceless, able to work for justice for those who are oppressed, able to bring peace to those who feel oppressed and downtrodden. Where would I be if I hadn’t done such a stupid thing as move here?
What if Jesus had avoided Jerusalem? What if he hadn’t done such a stupid thing as to ride in on a donkey and be hailed as a hero – only later to be spat upon and hung on a cross? He knew he would be betrayed. He knew those adoring crowds would turn into jeering antagonists in only a few days. Yes, he did the stupid thing – but he did it for love – a love that encompasses all of us, from jeering spectator, to the Roman soldiers who drove the nails, to the disciples who betrayed him, to the mother who wept for her loss, to the powers that condemned him. Jesus’ love was unconditional, a pure reflection of the love of the God who sent him. Did his actions look stupid three days later? Look at where you are today. Are you struggling against what is in your life? Are you fighting the reality of where you are? Are you unhappy in your job, your home, your relationship? Think about those places in your life that you simply don’t want to go – or the places you really don’t want to be. Could it be that you’ve been called to these places – to make a difference, to do God’s work in the life of even one person? I was called recently to go to North Carolina. I felt that God wanted me to go there – just for a day! Remember, the apostle Paul didn’t live everywhere he felt called to go! I went to Guilford College in Greensboro recently to hear a talk by two of my favorite authors – both Quaker ministers. Their presentation was excellent and edifying – but that was not the reason I was sent to this event. I was sent there for Michael.
After the talk had ended, we were invited to stay for lunch and continue our conversations. I was tired and wanted to go home. I had not wanted to go on this trip, even though I admired these men for their work and wanted to hear them. The trip involved two things that I don’t like to do – travel without Wanda, who didn’t want to go, which led to the second thing, driving, which I hate to do. I really didn’t want to go, but something pulled me there – a calling. At the end of the talk Michael approached me and asked me to have lunch with him. I hesitated because I truly wanted to go home, but I knew instantly that Michael was why I was there. I knew Michael’s story before he opened his mouth. He was transgender, but it seemed important for him to make this daring revelation to me and two other Quaker ministers who joined us for lunch. I didn’t want to steal his thunder because sometimes it’s important for us to be able to self-reveal to people in a safe environment. I wanted Michael to have that. Michael is attending a very conservative Quaker meeting.. The two other ministers at our table laughed to hear that a transgender person was teaching Sunday school at this particular meeting because of its conservative reputation. In their book, that was a miracle unto itself.
Michael doesn’t see it that way. All Michael wants to do is serve God. He’s going to seminary online, and one day he wants to be a minister. His question broke my heart. “Who will ordain someone like me?” he asked, with a desperate tone in his voice. “Who will let me serve?” All he wants to do is serve God, and he’s worried that he won’t get the chance. My advice to Michael is my advice to every one of you in this room this morning. I told Michael that it didn’t matter if anyone ever ordained him. His duty, his responsibility, was to say yes to his call. He has ideas of what his ministry will look like – he wants to be a Quaker minister, but will they ordain someone like him? He doesn’t know. But, that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that Michael says “Yes” to God’s call.
What’s important to each of us, my brothers and sisters, is that we say “yes” whenever God calls us. I told Michael, say “yes” when someone asks you to preach. Say “yes” when someone asks you to teach. Say “yes” when someone asks you to lead prayer. Say “yes” when someone wants to talk. Say “yes” – especially when you want with all your heart to say “no” and God will take you places you could not even imagine going. Will Michael ever be a Quaker minister? I don’t know – it will be the Quakers’ loss if he isn’t – but God will use him in mighty ways if he only says “yes” when God calls. God calls to us every single day in big and small ways. You may never feel called to preach or teach but it doesn’t mean that you’re not called to help the homeless, to help the poor, to help the hungry or the imprisoned. It doesn’t mean you’re not called to help someone in your office who is struggling, or a family member who needs you, or a complete stranger who needs you. There are so many needs in our world and so many ways to get involved. God calls us to be apostles, to say “yes” when we feel we are being sent. I used to say no to God a lot. Be ordained? No. Go to seminary? No. Do communion? No. Pray out loud? No. Preach? No. But then I started to say yes. Yes to seminary. Yes to ordination. Yes to communion. Yes to prayer. Yes to preaching. Look where it led me. Go to South Carolina? Yes. Go down the courthouse and try to register to marry? Yes. Sit on a panel on marriage? Yes. Sit on a panel on abortion? Yes. Work for other justice issues in the state? Yes. Talk to the TV cameras? Yes. Show others that God’s radical love is for everyone? Yes, yes, yes. When God calls my answer is yes – even though I may not want to do it. When God calls you and you answer yes, I can guarantee that you will be blessed – that you will see miracles – that God will use you in ways you never imagined possible. Jesus said yes and it got him killed – but God doesn’t send us to do stupid things. God sends us to do redemptive things. Even when it looks like we’ve been defeated, when things look grim, when it’s darkest before the dawn, when what we’ve been called to do looks like the stupidest thing we could ever do – God redeems us. God uses us to do great things – to rise up from our tombs of despair and gloom to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Our power lies in the resurrection – and we only get to the resurrection by saying “yes” to God. One of the things that sealed the deal and got me to move here, quite honestly, was Wanda’s promise that we wouldn’t have to stay forever – that eventually we could move back to Atlanta. For the first few months, my theme song was the Bad Company song, “Oh, Atlanta.”
Oh, Atlanta, I hear you callin’ I’m comin’ back to you one fine day!
I would sing that song every day, and Wanda always promised me that when things changed, when we were free from the circumstances that brought us here, we could go back. I clung to that promise like a life preserver. It’s not forever, I can go back. Recently, our circumstances changed. The reason that brought us here no longer applies. In essence, we are free to go, released from what bound us to this particular geographic spot. Now, staying here becomes our choice, we can leave, but I have absolutely no urge to go. In this place that I do not particularly like, I have been blessed – with many friends, with many adversaries, and most importantly, with a ministry, a calling, so much work to be done. I have honored God’s call – I have accepted being sent. I think God honors us when we, like Jesus, choose to be where we’ve been sent. The rest of the verse in “Oh, Atlanta” now becomes a theme song.
“No need to worry, there ain’t no hurry.”
Now, I feel no need to hurry back to Atlanta – no need to worry, there ain’t no hurry coz I’m, on my way back to Georgia. And one day, it may be true – but not for now. For now, nothing could be finer, than to be in Carolina in the morning, on a Palm Sunday morning at MCC Columbia. So, I am not a South Carolina resident by choice, but by the grace of God – because God called me to be here – to accept that call was hard, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I challenge you to find the places where you’re called to be, accept that call, even if it’s hard. I promise it will be the best thing you ever do. I recently discovered a Christian rock band that I really enjoy called “Farewell June.” Their song, “Glad I Did,” expresses my feelings better than I can and I leave you with these lyrics to ponder.
If anybody told me of the trials I’d face Walking in his footsteps, running this race Might not have gone there, Might not have found his grace, But I’m glad I did. Yes, I’m glad I did.
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians”, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.