September 25, 2016 at Crossroads United Church | Luke 24: 13-35 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
Sermon preached at Crossroads United Church, North Delta in celebration of their recognition as an Affirming Congregation in the United Church of Canada
One bright February morning over 21 years ago now I looked at myself in the mirror and saw standing before me a person I no longer recognized. Up until that moment, the person I had previously known myself to be had been happily travelling along the road of my life, studying for ministry, preparing to graduate from the Vancouver School of Theology, wondering what congregation I might be sent to serve, getting ready to launch out into the world to share the Good News as a well – adjusted heterosexual woman.
Up until that moment I considered myself to be pretty self-aware. I had a fairly good sense of the path on which I was travelling and the direction in which I was heading. But suddenly here was this stranger staring back at me from my mirror, challenging everything I thought I knew about myself. In an instant I realized the road of my life was about to take a very sharp turn. All the privilege and security I had lived with, all the self- confidence with which I walked in the world, so much that I had just taken for granted had been stripped away, all because I had fallen hopelessly in love with the girl next door, something up until then I had not even thought I was capable of doing. Which is why the woman staring back at me from the mirror seemed so foreign to me. Although I was incredibly happy to have found the person I knew wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I was at the same time absolutely terrified of where this journey would take me. I was lost and confused and halted in my tracks.
In the story of the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion are also brought to a stand still by the sudden appearance of a stranger on the road. Everything in their lives is about to change. They too are feeling lost having previously thought they knew where they were going, certain in their knowledge that Jesus was the Messiah, the one to redeem all of Israel. But in the days and the weeks leading up to the moment in which we find them on the road, their secure and certain path had taken a dramatic turn. This Jesus they had thought they had known had been crucified and laid to rest and they hadn’t even seen it coming. The pathway to justice and freedom with which they were becoming familiar was now suddenly strange and unrecognizable. Who were they to become now that things had shifted so dramatically? What would become of them now that they had to reconsider everything they had known? Surely these were the kinds of questions they were pondering that day along the road.
As we gather this morning to celebrate the Affirming Ministry you are embracing, I’m wondering how you felt back when Rev. Cari first suggested you launch out on this journey. I wonder if it stopped you in your tracks. Afterall you already knew were a welcoming community didn’t you? You knew you were perfectly fine with gay and lesbian people. Many of you had even had a lesbian minister for many years even though you may not have known it at the time. You threw a shower when she and her partner had their first baby. You went out of your way to show up when their children were baptized. You sponsored an openly gay candidate for ordination, your family members and some of your best friends were gay. Perhaps you wondered where this road would take you or why you even needed to be on it?
Back in February 1995 when I was first confronted with the stranger in my mirror, this woman who thought she was straight but suddenly wasn’t, I realized there were a lot of things about my life I was going to have to let go of, pieces of my core identity I was going to have to lay to rest. At one point I had to come to terms with the fact that although I thought I was an open-hearted and welcoming person, I didn’t even know how to be open-hearted and welcoming towards the stranger I was discovering myself to be. I had to struggle with the homophobia I had towards myself. It was a very startling experience to discover the depths of some of my own prejudices.
I wonder if there is anything about the way you have thought of yourselves as a community of faith, or how you have identified yourselves that you have had to let go of or die to on this journey towards becoming an Affirming Ministry? Have there been any moments when you discovered you weren’t as open minded as you thought you were? Has there been anything that startled you? Maybe you were surprised to learn that not everyone knows that the United Church is a welcoming place, or that many, many people would not consider any church a safe place to be just because of their gender identity or their sexual orientation. Maybe you’ve wondered why the church is even having this conversation at all? How have your eyes been opened? What are the new ways of seeing you have adopted?
Sometimes the only way for Jesus to get our attention, the only way for love to open us up to the more that is possible when our vision of who and what we are has become short sighted is to come to us in the unfamiliar, to interrupt our conversation and enter into our lives in ways we had not previously anticipated, to say to us you thought you knew who I was, but I am more than you imagined me to be and so are you. Your love can be greater. Your heart can open even wider. Your vision can be even more expansive.
Brenda and I have been talking a lot lately about what seems to be a resurgence of interest in congregations becoming Affirming Ministries. Many of us have thought we had already arrived at that place of being a radically inclusive and welcoming community. We thought we didn’t need to go through the learning and discerning processes outlined by the national church. Someone said to Brenda recently “I thought all United Churches were affirming.”
It used to be that the only way gay and lesbian ministry personnel could know for certain it was okay for them to be open about their sexual orientation was if a congregation declared itself to be Open and Affirming. But that’s no longer the case. Many congregations that have never gone through the process you have just gone through have openly declared homosexuals serving them including my own congregation. Although it is still often a topic of conversation for search committees, it’s not like it used to be.
What is an issue is our need to be more aware of and more accepting of transgendered people. Brenda will tell you that at Vancouver School of Theology there is an increasing number of transgendered people studying for ministry. In our own circle of friends, we see more and more children struggling with their gender identity, some of whom do not want to be recognized by any gender at all.
Last Christmas we found ourselves feeling like strangers in our own dining room when one of the teenagers seated at the table asked that we refer to them in non-binary language. For the rest of the evening we stumbled through conversations laced with inaccurate pronouns and gender blunders. We went to bed wondering how we feminist lesbians had suddenly become so old, so conventional, so out of date. The next generation, who are open and inclusive beyond anything I have ever been, are now unexpectedly coming alongside us and interrupting our conversation in ways we could never have previously imagined.
And isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t it wonderful to know God hasn’t finished surprising us yet?
The pattern of our lives is that one moment we have it all figured out. We know who we are and where we’re going, we’re comfortable and secure in our knowledge of ourselves and the world in which we live and then suddenly without warning, we are stopped in our tracks by something that causes us to lose our way. The pattern of our life of faith is that we are lost and found, we die and rise over and over and over again. The presence of the one we call the Christ is forever and for always interrupting our lives, coming to us in a thousand different disguises, luring us towards life that is challenging and complex, delightful and diverse.
One of the things I love about the story of the road to Emmaus is that moment when Cleopas and his companion invite the stranger who has surprised them on the road to stay with them and share a meal. In that moment when the stranger takes the bread, blesses it and breaks it and their eyes are opened, they recognize him for who he is, there is suddenly confusion over who is the host and who is being hosted.
That’s what happen sometimes when enter into the practice of welcoming strangers. We think that we are the ones extending the welcome but so often the tables get turned around and we find our own insecurities, our own need to be loved and accepted, our desire to make a difference in the lives of others welcomed and received by the people we think that we are serving. Suddenly our lives are changed just as much if not more sometimes than theirs.
The other thing I love about the story that takes place on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus is the way the travellers are intentional about their invitation for the Risen Christ to stay the night with them. He seems quite ready to continue on his journey with or without their company. He doesn’t force himself on them. He leaves them free to carry on with or without him. But think of all they would have missed if they hadn’t invited him to stay.
I celebrate with you today the intentionality with which you are opening your doors and extending an invitation for people to come in and stay, so that you can get to know them and they can get to know you, so that your lives can be transformed while you are opening yourselves up to the possibility of being part of transforming the lives of others. In a world where many people do not feel welcomed by the church, it matters that you are publicly declaring the welcome that is here. It matters because as Lukas reminded us on Friday night, there are lives being lost by people who think there is no welcome for them in this place or in any place. There are youth who need us to open our eyes and see the Christ within them. There are adults who have spent their entire lives unable to accept and welcome themselves simply because they know that they are different.
It matters that you have opened your hearts to seeing more clearly the Christ that dwells within yourselves and the capacity you have to love others.
It took me a long time to become comfortable in the skin of the stranger who first stared out of the mirror at me over 21 years ago now. Having children helped a lot. You can’t stay in the closet when you have kids who are outing you all the time. But what really helped was having people around me who welcomed me into their lives with unconditional love and the church that recognized me long before I recognized myself. It’s that love and that recognition that has challenged my judgements and helped open my eyes to the amazingly beautiful ways Christ is present in people from many different backgrounds and many different walks of life.
As you carry on this journey you have started by becoming an Affirming congregation may God continue to interrupt your conversations coming to you in surprising new disguises, may your hearts burn with the love of Christ as you welcome people to your table and as you offer hospitality to others may you too find the radical welcome of the living Christ.