Making Room in God’s Embrace

Faith United Church of Christ, Dayton, Ohio
Readings for the Second Sunday after Pentecost: Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

In my first preaching class in seminary, our professor, a dry stoic Dutchman named Syd Greidanus, told us that the best way to start off every sermon is with a story, a story that captured both the theme of the sermon and the attention of the congregation. It can be a funny or a sad or an exciting or a profound story, as long as it IS a story and serves those two purposes. But the scripture reading today, Galatians 3:23-29, doesn’t need a story. It is so fantastic, so alive and bright, it can stand all on its own.
Now, before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized onto Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

“There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are on in Christ Jesus.” THAT is the Holy Grail of preaching texts. I got lucky that I get to preach that for my first sermon here at Faith United Church of Christ. This text is, as far as I am concerned, a representative of all that is best and brightest in the Christian faith. It is about unity, and it is about God’s love, and it is about how God can make US loving, and it is about HOPE for the life we live here on this planet. If I really wanted to hit a homerun with my first sermon here at Faith, I would just read that passage from Galatians again, and send you all home feeling the Christian Warm-Fuzzies, and the sermon would end right now. Can I get an Amen?

But unfortunately I don’t get paid for 3-minute sermons, and worse than that, I am a student at Chicago Theological, and we can never just sit back and preach the expected sermon. We have to problematize the text. Which, actually, isn’t too hard in this case. Because for all the idealistic hope that resides in this verse, all of us here know that just because someone claims Jesus Christ, they don’t stop being male, or female, or African American, or European American, or straight, or gay, or from Dayton, or from a small town in New York State, or a computer technician, or a florist, or whatever words this world uses to describe that person. The real differences and prejudices that make it so hard for people to get along don’t disappear when we join the Church. They are still there. What DOES happen when we join the Church is that we become FAMILY. And the old cliche is true: You can’t pick your family. And that is exactly what we are here at Faith Church, and that is exactly what Christians and humans all over the world really are — family — whether we like it or not.

Now, as I look out at all of you gathered together to worship here today, I can see that you here at Faith know all about Family Diversity. And you know that it is a wonderful thing given to us by God, and you know that it is hard work to blend traditions and personalities and theologies and goals. And that is exactly why I am here this summer, because at Faith you are committed to being one in Christ, and you are doing that hard work, and you can teach me a little something about it that I can take to another church someday. All that to say that I am NOT going to preach to the proverbial choir today about honoring diversity in the body of Christ. You all know about that, and the endless discussions and meetings and compromises and frustrations and joys. You know. Instead, today, I want to talk about something a little harder than mere diversity in the body. Today, I want to talk about those in God’s worldwide Church, those members of our family, who are demon-possessed.

We don’t talk too much about demons in the United Church of Christ. For that matter, we don’t talk too much about demons in the modern Church at all. Just the same, part of our lectionary reading for today is Luke’s version of Jesus and the man possessed by a Legion of demons. This story, for some reason, was so important to the earlier followers of Christ that it also made it into Mark and Matthew as well. It must mean something, if all three thought it was significant enough to include…so, what do we modern, scientific-minded folk do with it?

It just so happens, despite what I said at the beginning of the sermon, that I DO have a story for today, and excellent story, the best kind of story, because, this story is about ME. But I think you all will be fascinated with it despite that because it really happened, and has all the drama and trauma that makes for fascinating soap operas and Shakespearean tragedies. So here goes: I think that most of you got my introductory letter. If you did, and if you actually READ it, then you know that I spent the first two years of my seminary education at Calvin Theological, a very conservative seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And you also know that that two-year segment in my life ended when I came out there as a lesbian. What you don’t know is that that ending coincided with a betrayal by a close friend, and was surrounded by gossip and innuendo and fear and alienation: I went down in flames, not out in a blaze of glory.

Someday this story will make an excellent novel and then a blockbuster movie, with Jodie Foster playing the role of Paige Wolfanger, kind but misunderstood seminarian. But for now, I will give you the condensed sermon version. My best friend and housemate for two years was a woman I will call Joyce. When Joyce asked me about my sexual orientation, and I told her in a flush of relief to be finally able to talk to her about it. She assured me that although theologically she thought I was wrong, she would continue to be my friend and support me. She also said that she would never tell anyone at school. Two weeks later she…

  • kicked me out of the house we were sharing.
  • went to the Dean of Students behind my back to ensure he “knew where she stood.”
  • campaigned with the Dean and Director of Housing to convince them that, once she kicked me out of the house, I shouldn’t be allowed to stay in seminary housing either.
  • put me into a prayer circle among some of my best friends and peers at school, this ensuring that everyone were as nervous as deer in headlights during hunting season around me, whether during class or when I ran into them in the hall.
  • got a number of local pastors together to call the President of the Seminary and demand that I be disciplined.

In short, Joyce made my last semester at Calvin a waking nightmare. I lost sleep. I lost confidence. I lost friends. I lost my community.

Now, I tell you this story neither to be a martyr or a crusader. That’s what the Jodie Foster movie will be for. My goal is not to garner pity from you. Because likely everyone here today has a story of some sort that is worse than mine. And my goal is not to preach on the evils of homophobia. You all know about the evils of homophobia. No, this story is just an illustration of my main point. The reason I tell this story today is because Joyce wasn’t just someone who disagreed with me theologically, she wasn’t just a friend who hurt and betrayed me…all of that I could have dealt with. What I couldn’t deal with was that Joyce was a SISTER of mine in CHRIST who hurt and betrayed me. We were supposed to be ONE, UNIFIED in our brother Jesus. Now, I have a lot of other friends, my parents included, who disagree wholeheartedly with me about this subject, and I do my best to make room for their growth and mine. But they never hurt me on purpose, and they never betrayed me, and they never acted like my sister Joyce. And that’s the real rub here. That’s what baffled me the most, that we both claimed Christ, and she hurt me on purpose.

I WAS baffled, so I thought a lot about this, and the only thing I could come up with, the only reason I could find for her behavior was that Joyce was demon-possessed. Now, when I say that, I do mean it metaphorically. I don’t think that she had a strange scaly gargoyle lodged in her brain. But I do think that, in some way, she may as well have. She acted bizarrely, like the man in Luke today who hung out in the wilds and wore no clothes. There was something in her, something beyond her ability to control, that made her act the way she did. I really, as honestly as I am able, believe that. But the scariest thing about it all is that Joyce, as honestly as she is able, believes exactly the same thing about me. And here we are, sisters in the same family, whether we like it or not. You can’t choose your family.

This leads me back to why I think we read the story of the demon-possessed man today. It is to remind us that in Christ’s body it is not just with the differences with each other that we have to deal. It is, rather, the demons that we all carry and think we can see lurking in the shadow places of our brothers and sisters. The Church has never been the place where the healed and holy gather, no matter how much we like to pretend that we are indeed perfect, or sanctified to use a good churchy word. No, the Church is the home of the broken and the addicted and the angry and the sad, which is frankly the only reason I can still call it home, because I too am broken and addicted and angry and sad. (Let me clarify right now that I do not think that homosexuality is something from which I need to be healed. When I speak of my demons, here, I mean other things…my fear and anger and anxiety, for some.) But it means that all of us broken and addicted and angry and sad people are milling around bumping into each other and jarring each other’s wounds and rubbing each other the wrong way and even actively hurting each other sometimes. So what do we do? As much as I would love to write off the Joyces in the Church and say, “She can’t be a real Christian because she isn’t as broad-minded as I am,” I realize that isn’t going to work. Because she thinks the same thing about me, and both of us, somehow, have found room in God’s Universal Church to hold us while our demons are getting exorcized. I’m not going anywhere and neither is she.

See, that’s the problem with God. God fishes with a net, because God wants everyone. And that means that God is going to get everyone, and God is not waiting until we are healed before we are allowed into God’s loving embrace. No, it is in that embrace where the healing happens. And we Christians, who have all been netted by God’s love, find ourselves in close quarters with a family we haven’t chosen. And God said, “This family won’t work unless you get along. Put your differences aside, and love each other just like I love you all.”

When I talk about God’s Family, I am not just talking about Faith Church, or course. I am talking about all of us in the United Church of Christ, and our interactions with each other, and with our brothers and sister the Presbyterians, and the Methodists, and the Baptists, and the Catholics, and the Pentecostals, and the Episcopalians, and the Metropolitan Community Church, and the Seventh Day Adventists, and the independent bible churches and on and on. And I am talking about all the stuff we fight about, be it dumb or radically important, be it how to read the Bible, or who Jesus really is, or how best to baptize, or whether we have Communion every Sunday or just every four months. God said that in Christ, we are all one, and we have to get along.

That’s the rub. A liberal sort of Christian lesbian gal like myself can demand tolerance and justice and equality and quote Galatians 3:28 to make room for myself and oppressed others all I want, and I should, and so should you. But I have to remember that God’s embrace includes a whole lot of people, a whole lot of people with demons and doubts. And it is certainly not my job or my privilege to write off others who God has wrapped her arms around. We are all here in God’s arms to stay, and I have to do the work of finding out how to be one in Christ with everyone squashed here with me. I am not allowed to wait for them to make the first move, because they might never.

We are all here, with all our differences and all our demons, the gays and the homophobes, and the trick is not to just hope that saying we are one in Christ long enough will sooner or later make it so. The trick is to WORK, long and hard, and to pray without ceasing, and to reach out, and to trust in God and God’s love that is big enough for everyone and strong enough to cast out the demons, even our own. We must reach outside our own congregation and denomination to find common ground with others who claim Christ. We must start talking to them, about the things on which we agree, and about the things on which we disagree, and even about the things that make us raise our voices. We must be willing to get angry and get hurt and get forgiven again and again and again. We must be willing to change some of our opinions and our actions on those things that don’t matter as much as Christ and our sisters and brothers. This wonderful, messy gathering of different and ornery people who make up God’s Universal Church testifies to the fact that there is room in God’s embrace for anyone. We must pray that God makes room in our embrace for anyone, too. Amen.