June 25, 2023 — The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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You could say it was about sex but that isn’t completely true.  There was so much more.  There was racial, ethnic and national prejudice.  Jealousy and resentment (of course).  Income inequality and a huge power differential between rivals.  And there was fear for the child.  Would he experience abuse?  Would he be denied privilege and primacy?  Would he be supplanted by another? 

Sarah had waited years, decades even, for a child.  She had given up hope in her old age until the laughable proclamation by a strange messenger promised her a son, an heir for Abraham, one who would make their faithfulness and the journey from their home to a foreign land, their hopes and dreams come to fruition.

Hagar was the problem and her son Ishmael the obstacle.  You see Sarah couldn’t trust that the angelic message would come true so she encouraged Abraham to do something he had never done in their long marriage.  He took on an Egyptian concubine who conceived immediately and gave birth to a son, Ishmael, her firstborn and Abraham’s also.  Insurance against the threat of having no heir, one who would inherit, carry on the name and the bloodline.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than the alternative.

Until the unbelievable happened.  In their old age, Sarah and Abraham conceived and Isaac, the child of the promise was born.  On the day he left infancy, Sarah determined that any threat to her child must be removed.  Hagar and Ishmael had to be shunned, cast out, removed.  Abraham was reluctant, distressed, torn in two.  Until God steps in and instructs Abraham to do as Sarah has requested.  This is the first time that Abraham agrees to sacrifice a son with God’s encouragement but it will not be the last. 

And so Hagar is cast out with her young son.  They are banned from the community, sent into the wilderness unprotected and near death.  It’s a heart-rending story and God’s participation in their suffering is incomprehensible.  But this child, Ishmael, is also a child of promise.  Hagar hears the voice of God.  God speaks directly to this North African slave woman who is poor, powerless, marginalized and desperate.  Hagar and the child are rescued and with God’s providence Ishmael becomes the father of a great nation.  Scripture states clearly that God was with him.  And God was with Hagar.

Centuries later the first Jewish followers of Jesus were expelled from their synagogues.  They experienced conflict with family members.  They were rejected by parents and siblings.  Friends shunned them.  They were in danger of government persecution under laws that prohibited them from the practice of their faith.

In the midst of their suffering and the many challenges they faced, the words of Jesus and his example of faithfulness in the face of persecution gave them courage.  They left the darkness of fear and proclaimed the love of God in the light.  Instead of protecting themselves by keeping their identity secret, they risked being known as Christians.  They refused to hide undercover, and were open about their willingness to be a fully inclusive community: Gentiles and Jews, slaves and free, men and women all together sharing a common meal and a radical faith.

Friends, it’s PRIDE month.  It’s actually PRIDE Sunday.  Some of our dear ones are out marching in the parade, representing the love of God and a fully inclusive Episcopal Church to a world that too often rejects, demeans and causes suffering and harm to LGBTQ+ folk.  This month we’ve had beautiful prayers from Jennifer, lifting up the Queer community before God.  This week’s newsletter offers a super message from Spiro who is a lay leader in this congregation and whose marriage to Lauren was the first same-sex Christian marriage for St. Luke’s.  Today Mother Hillary will host a conversation with a Queer pastor as they unpack the harm done by using Scripture as a weapon against the community.

But today you have me.  An older, White, heterosexual, cis-gendered woman.  I don’t speak as a representative of the LGBTQ community.  Rather than being on the margins, fearful for my rights, hiding my true identity, shunned and rejected, I represent the majority, one with religious authority, holding the center.

I speak to you as pastor and priest, as one who is trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus in this complex and difficult world.  For me to follow Jesus is to be identified with those who are embattled and defenseless, those who have been rejected and persecuted, the ones on the margins who are not free to be their full selves.  To be a Christian for me is to speak the truth about the love of God for everyone, but particularly those who are suffering, alone and fearful.  To be honest and live with integrity is to acknowledge the harm done by the Church to Queer people and to confess my own failure at full acceptance and affirmation.  It is to stand up for and with those who are oppressed.

It means action in the voting booth to prevent the passage of laws that will harm and suppress the true identity of the people I love and care for.  It means advocating for access to all the sacraments, including marriage and ordination for every member of the Church.  This requires us to counteract the hate directed towards the Queer community from strangers, politicians, church members and even family.  It requires an open and curious posture, the willingness to listen to the lived experience of LGBTQ+ folks, and a visible, vocal support for a fully inclusive society at every level.

I have been pastor to a college student whose church publicly outed him and whose family sent him to a re-programming camp.  When he sobbed in my office, he was close to suicide.  Twenty-five years later he is loved and living a full life.  His family has completely embraced him and his father is now an Episcopal priest.  When I think of Hagar’s rejected and abandoned son, left alone in the wilderness under a tree, near death I remember Scott.  I mourn the damage done to him in the name of a God who instead desires mercy, not sacrifice.  With PRIDE I celebrate the beautiful, vibrant human being he is.

Over the years I have married many couples but the first time I planned and participated in this celebration of faithful love and commitment was for a dear friend and her partner who couldn’t be legally married and whose relationship was not allowed to be blessed in the church.  My friend’s job as a teacher was at risk.  It turns out my curacy at the church was at risk too.  And so we gathered in a rainy Oregon garden, friends, family, church members and a gaggle of clergy.  With PRIDE we celebrated, blessed and hallowed their loving union.  When the walls of the institutional church could not make room for Carol and Marilyn, God blessed them in a garden.  They just celebrated their 26th anniversary.

But this isn’t just about the past.  There are parents of trans kids whose love and fear for their children put them in the wilderness, feeling abandoned and threatened by the institutions that should love and support them.  They are afraid to cross the border into states where their rights will be curtailed and where simply being who they are is a danger.  When Matthew Shephard was brutally murdered and strung up on a fence in Wyoming in 1998, his family, members of an Episcopal Church, fought for legislation and protection so that something like this would never happen again.  That fight is not over.  The persecution and violence has not ended.  While we celebrate, we are also impelled by Jesus to uncover what has been covered up, to proclaim from the housetops what has been hidden in secret or shrouded in shame.  With the God whose eye is on the sparrow, we are compelled to acknowledge the worth, beauty and dignity of those whose very identity is threatened.

We are disciples of the One who calls us through our fears into faith, who gives us courage to live freely as our best and true selves and to love others as we love ourselves.  We are to live with PRIDE, celebrating the beautiful, powerful, creative Spirit that inspires the great diverse expression of life, love and light in Christ.  When evil threatens to silence the voices of our beloved ones, shunning them, removing their witness, threatening their very existence, we affirm our unity.  We are part of one Body, we belong to one another, we are the Beloved Community reaching towards the vision of the holy and heavenly reality where all are loved and valued as children of the One God. 

Christians are no strangers to oppression and persecution.  “The people to whom Jesus came lived with many fears:  living in terror of the power of Rome, intimidated by threats from the teachers of the law, separated from God by fear of God’s anger.  Into this fearful context Jesus speaks the words, ‘Do not be afraid.’”  Pagola, The Way Opened by Jesus (p. 104).

Be bold little flock.  Be strong and courageous.  Fight the good fight.  Live in faith.  Stand up with PRIDE.  Amen.

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