Who Do You Stand With? A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday – Part 1

I preached this sermon on February 23, 2020, ahead of a vote at my church to become a Reconciling Church and join the Reconciling Ministries Network, a network of churches advocating for full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons.  This issue has been a contentious one in the United Methodist Church for decades, coming to a boil when the 2019 General Conference of the church voted to uphold the “Traditional Plan,” maintaining and tightening restrictions on LGBTQ+ persons and clergy who supported them in such things as marriage.  Due to technical issues, a video of this sermon may not be available.  It will be posted if it does become available.  What follows is a rough recollection of what I said.  After reading this Read PART 2.

My "paddle" award from the Minority Students Association. See text for what's inscribed on it.

My “paddle” award from the Minority Students Association. See text for what’s inscribed on it.

I guess, given the vote we’re taking after this service, this is a kind of hot-seat sermon.  I’ve spoken a lot at hot-seat times, and want you to know—I don’t like it!  I even brought this paddle to defend myself just in case.  It’s one of my most prized possessions.  The plaque on it is inscribed: “DR. RICHARD GUZMAN.  The Minority Students Association presents this to you with whole-hearted gratitude and sincere appreciation for your support.  P.S. You can use it to defend yourself against all the people whose feathers you ruffle for us and others.”

But when I see this paddle it mostly reminds me of what more I could have done, and how little it took to encourage these students.  I spoke up a few times.  I stood with them a few times.  And it didn’t cost me all that much. I really don’t deserve it, though many have said to me, “You don’t know how much it meant to us when you stood with us.”

This is Transfiguration Sunday, when we celebrate the time when Jesus took his disciples up to the holy mountain and was transfigured before them.  It’s represents the end of the Season of Epiphany which began with a burst of light in the sky: the star that led the Magi to the Christ Child.  Now that season ends with another light: the light transfiguring Jesus and leading us into the Season of Lent and His death.  There’s a lot to say about this, but since I have to try to be brief, we’ll focus on just one theme: who Jesus was standing with.  He appeared bathed in a bright light and standing with Moses, who led the Children of Israel into physical freedom and gave them The Law. So likewise Jesus led us out of spiritual captivity and summed up all the Law and prophets, saying, “You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, mind, and strength…and your neighbor as yourself.”  And he stood with Elijah, who defeated false prophets and warned us of the idols which bind us—something that Jesus would also do with even greater depth.  I want to ask this morning: Who do you see yourself standing with?

Three quick scenes.  One. I’m 17, a good guy doing good deeds—I was president of our high school club Princeps, for example, which was our honorary service society—and thought myself pretty smart.  I hated religious fanatics, and especially those who handed out pamphlets.  But one day I’m in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and when I get back Stand1to my car I find…a religious pamphlet on my windshield.  I rip it off, stick it in my back pocket, all incensed, and when I get it home rashly flip it open, finding on page one Romans 3:23—“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  What a stupid thing, I thought; I bet it’s not even in the Bible.  So I grabbed the Bible I’d gotten when I was baptized as a child, a Bible I don’t think I’d opened much, if at all, since then, turned to Romans and…there it was: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  I broke out in a cold sweat.  I kept telling myself for two solid weeks that this reaction was stupid, too.  I brought all the reasoning skills I could against it, but this feeling—a feeling I recognize now as the Holy Spirit working me over—wouldn’t go away until I finally admitted, Yes, I too was a sinner, no matter how smart, how nice, how many good things I did.  I realized, in other words, that I stood with all sinners.

Scene Two.  During my long career I’ve met lots of famous people, so I have lots of names to drop.  But the one that’s affected me most is meeting Maya Angelou, the great American poet, actress, and activist.  I brought her to my college long ago, and one of the people who came to the show was…Oprah Winfrey, who calls Miss Angelou “Mother.”  It was quiet an evening, and I’ve written about it in more detail in a piece on my website you can read HERE.  It was widely re-posted after Miss Angelou’s death in May 2014.  In her performance that evening at the college her theme was “You have already been paid for.”  That is, what are you going to demand of yourself, how high will you set the bar for yourself, because you have already been paid for.  Who do you see yourself standing with?  In the 12th chapter of Hebrews, Paul tells us we should run and finish the race before us because we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Maybe this cloud includes Moses and Elijah, but I feel it also includes all those ancestors, all those loved ones, who have gone before you and are watching, cheering you on.  They have paid a price for you to be here today, to be still in the race.  I especially think of those who fought to be free so you could be free.  This is Black History Month, a time to think of all those Civil Rights pioneers who bled and died.  They did this for all of us, you know.  Do you stand with them?  Do you see yourself standing surrounded by them, speaking with them, like Jesus was speaking to Moses and Elijah?

Scene Three.  We were supposed to go to a Valentine’s Day concert with Efren and Kim Ramos until Kim’s knee surgery got scheduled for…Valentine’s Day.  So Linda and I went and experienced something we’ve experienced at virtually every live concert we’ve ever been at.  The leader of the band shouts, “Everybody feeling alright?”  And the crowd shouts back so luke warm that he r she has to shout out again, “I can’t hear you. Everybody feeling alright?!”  And has to do it again and again and again until he or she gets something—anything—back that resembles enthusiasm.

  OTHER SERMONS (most with VIDEO):  “Pentecost Means No ‘Supremacies,’” “Sacred Doing,” “It’s Not What You Know But Who You Know,” “Elijah: The Growth of a Prophet,” “Searching for Prophets.”

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Who Do You Stand With? A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday – Part 2

This is PART 2 of a sermon I preached on February 23, 2020, ahead of a vote at my church to become a Reconciling Church and join the Reconciling Ministries Network, a network of churches advocating for full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons.  This issue has been a contentious one in the United Methodist Church for decades, coming to a boil when the 2019 General Conference of the church voted to uphold the “Traditional Plan,” maintaining and tightening restrictions on LGBTQ+ persons and clergy who supported them in such things as marriage.  Due to technical issues, a video of this sermon may not be available.  It will be posted below if it does become available.  What follows is a rough recollection of what I said.  Read PART 1.

Stand-BonhfrI love the church, so it really pains me to say that, on the whole, the church has not been good standing with or speaking up for people who are fighting for freedom, equality, and inclusion, people asking—crying out—for help and protection.  You against racism?  And the church kind of whispers, “Oh yeah, we’re against that.”  I’m glad that this year’s Laity Convocation had as its theme “Unpacking Racism” (see link below), and I’m really glad I could participate.  I know the UMC has a commission on race, too, and I’m happy about that. But it’s 2020, nearly seven decades after Brown vs. Board of Education and we’re still talking about unpacking racism. The church could speak up louder with more vitality and conviction, instead of—on the whole—mumbling, “Yeah, we’re against racism.”  We kind of stand with people, but it’s a weak, droop-shouldered stance.  Our voice has been tepid, luke warm, and worse: often the church, instead of standing with these people, has acted to keep them un-free, un-included, and in danger.  Of course, of course, there are exceptions.  Martin Luther King, Jr. came out of the church, as did many, many who fought and continue to fight for Civil Rights.  But on the whole the church’s response has not only been tepid; it remains to this day one of the bulwarks of racism, and Sunday remains perhaps the most segregated day in America.

It’s been similar, sad to say, in our stance against sexism. Again, the church has provided some place for women to develop their gifts and to lead, but on the whole, when it speaks, that voice, too, has mumbled around for decades, and very often those in the church who would keep women subservient have spoken up much louder and with greater conviction.

The ultimate example of the church’s luke warm, whispering voice, its slack-shouldered stance, was in Nazi Germany.  Again, there was opposition to Nazi rule, and the so-called Confessing Church spoke loudly against the regime.  One of its leaders was Dietrich Boenhoeffer, who wrote the great book The Cost of Discipleship, which begins with that startling sentence, “The great enemy of the church today is cheap grace.”  We want all the advantages of grace but don’t want to do anything for it.  We don’t want to stand with people, speak up for them.  Bonhoeffer was executed.  Another leader of the Confessing Church was Martin Niemoeller, who uttered the famous words: “When they came for the Communists, I didn’t say anything because I’m not a Communist.  When they came for the Jews, I didn’t say anything because I’m a Christian. When they came for the Trade Unionists, I didn’t say anything because I don’t belong to a Trade Union.  And then they came for me, and it was too late.  There was no one to speak up for me.”  Niemoeller spent seven years in a concentration camp.  But on the whole, the traditional German church whispered its objections.  Its virtual silence enabled the horrors of the war and the concentration camps, and much of the church openly stood with that evil regime.

Stand-NmlrWe could speak louder.  That’s what the vote to join the Reconciling Ministries Network really amounts to today.  It’s amplifying our voice for, and standing stronger with LGBTQ persons. We won’t even be the first UMC church in our district to do so.  We also know that the vast majority of American UMC congregations—something like 85%—do not support the Tradition Plan passed by the last General Conference.  But my own sense is that that opposition has been spoken with the church’s usually whispered voice, “Oh sure, we’re against not fully including LGBTQ people.”  We could speak up louder, stand with LGBTQ people stronger.  Does this church have to do it now?  No.  We could do what’s usual and wait until it’s safer.  But that would lead, again, to us joining in on a general, luke warm whisper—as usual.

I want you to know that in many ways I get it.  It’s normal not to want to take strong stands. But there’s more.  I know we also come to consider a church a family, and, of course, there’s two things we’re warned never to talk about with family: politics and religion.  It’s strange, isn’t it, that we don’t even really want to talk about religion in a church!  We’re afraid of splitting the church, but that’s because we haven’t yet learned to live with diversity.  This church in particular prides itself, rightly so, on its diversity.  But diversity means more than just diversity of race, ethnicity, age, and the like. It’s diversity of opinion, too.  Most of us want to be in a church where we believe everybody thinks alike.  That’s more comforting, certainly, but that’s not really a vital church.  It’s a cult.  The great historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote a book on Lincoln titled Team of Rivals.  It was his genius, she says, to put diverse, conflicting views in his cabinet.  We need both people in this church: those who oppose becoming a Reconciling Church, and those who favor it.  I favor it, but I’ll be here no matter what the outcome is.

I urge a yes vote because I believe unless more churches speak up louder now, take stronger stands now, it’s possible we could be talking about full inclusion years from now.  But unlike racism or sexism, I think our society as a whole—and especially its young people—have already largely moved on in terms of LGBTQ+ inclusion.  They’re for it and don’t see what we’re fussing over.  So when society—and especially its young—see us still arguing inclusion years from now, the church’s weak stand will make it seem to more and more people that we have not just a weak voice, but an irrelevant one, too.

  OTHER SERMONS (most with VIDEO):  “Pentecost Means No ‘Supremacies,’” “Sacred Doing,” “It’s Not What You Know But Who You Know,” “Elijah: The Growth of a Prophet,” “Searching for Prophets.”

♦  Go Here for the Lead Post in a series of articles on the Unpacking Racism Laity Convocation.

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Unpacking Racism: “Noble” Sentiments that Keep Us from Talking About Race

RaceConvo4

This is the lead post in a series of articles based on “Unpacking Racism,” the theme of the 2020 Laity Convocation of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, held on February 8, 2020.  I and three other panelist—Rebecca Fraley, Judy Siaba, Chris Pierson—plus moderator Rev. Alka Lyall, spoke and answered questions on race.  See end of post for links to other articles in this series.

 

For years I have written and said that Americans would rather talk about anything—absolutely anything—but race.  So when Mark Manzi was coordinating the panel discussion for the 2020 Laity Convocation and suggested topics each one of us might speak to, I immediately chose the questions: Can we even talk about race?  Isn’t that racist in itself?  Such questions, I said at the event, are classic ones we use to avoid talking about race and imply that race isn’t very serious or important and, finally, that racism is so easy to solve it will just go away if we ignore it.  But we talk about everything…unless we’re too scared to face it.  Let’s just think about physical ailments, I said.  Will not talking about cancer make it go away?  If our grand child gets a tiny cut or scrape don’t we at least try say something comforting?  We rarely remain silent, but it’s one of our deepest American wishes that silence will make racism go away.  That simple.

There’s a naivete to these questions.  Other things we say to avoid talking about race, however, don’t sound naïve.  In fact, they sound noble.  Two of the noblest statements came up during the panel and in the questions asked afterwards.  One attendee suggested we were being dismissive to criticize them.  They are:  “I don’t see color” and “We’re all human.”  First, I want to say that in many cases I know these statements are said with good will.  For years I’ve taught graduate courses on race and ethnicity to teachers who earnestly—and, again, with good will—say they only see students who need good teaching and affirmation and grounding in our common humanity. They don’t see color, they just see human beings.

DifferencesThese two statements, taught to them by other professors—mostly of good will—are the legacy of modernism, a complex system of thought that, among other things, sought to find something solid to stand on amid the chaos and carnage of Western wars starting in the late 1800′s, leading through the horrors of the Holocaust and Vietnam, and hundreds of other conflicts, many continuing to this present moment.  People wanted universal principles of good conduct that would eradicate our differences.  The thought was: we perpetuate horrors upon each other because we focus too much on differences, not on our common humanity.  That’s true to some degree, but the emphasis is almost backwards. We’re terrible to each other not mainly because we’ve forgotten our common humanity, but mainly because we don’t accept—even embrace—our differences.

Our strongest human bonds are made with those whose differences we’ve accepted, not with those we affirm our common humanity with.  Doing the latter is easier because it presupposes you already recognize their humanity, which usually means you think they’re already enough like you.  Jesus asked (Matthew 5:46), “If you only love those who love you, what reward will you get?”  This principle works out in everyday life all the time.  How many times (a lot!) has a young man come into my office deliriously happy because he’s found the girl of his dreams.  “We’re so much alike! It’s like we’ve known each other forever! I don’t even have to finish my sentence; she already knows what I’m thinking!” etc. etc.  And two months later he comes back, dejected, saying, “I thought I knew her.”  It’s over because he found out she was actually a different person, not a clone of him, and couldn’t handle it.  I say to those teachers who don’t see color: My goal is to make you see it.  However, when I’ve tried to make people see color, whether in class, or in other arenas—like when I led in writing the Diversity Plan for Naperville School District 203—I’ve gotten hit over and over and over with the “I-don’t-see-color” bat.  If we’re ever going to deal seriously with racism, the swinging of that bat has to stop.

The evidence is absolutely overwhelming: color matters.  There’s no way I could italicize or bold that statement enough.  Color—”whiteness” in particular—gives astounding privilege to some, but places absolutely enormous, untold disadvantage on “people of color” in virtually every aspect of their lives.  And saying “I don’t see color” or “We’re all human” are, finally, noble-sounding versions of “Isn’t talking about race racist?”  It means, “I myself don’t have to talk about racism, I’m innocent.  (And my family didn’t own slaves.)  We’re all human.  All the same.”  But we’re not all the same.  We’re different—sometimes really different.  Deal with that first, and maybe someday we can embrace our common humanity, a humanity that’s precious not because we’re all alike, but because “being human” means being able to embrace human diversity.

*  For more on being “hit by the bat of color-blindness” see articles like “Race aside…” (partly about the killing of Trayvon Martin), and “Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack.” Also go to the Teaching Diversity page on this site.

  ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:

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