Who is my neighbor?

This sermon is from July 10th, 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, in Georgetown, Washington, DC.

The text is Luke 10:25-37

We’re going to do a little congregational participation to begin today. I need everyone to look at the books on the pew in front of you. There are a number of little red books. In Episcopal world, we call these the Book of Common Prayer. I would like everyone to pick up a Book of Common Prayer, or to share with your neighbor. If you would, please, open your Book of Common Prayer to page 851. This section is known as the Catechism. The Catechism is a summary of the beliefs of a denomination, in this case, the Anglican Church, asked in questions and answer form. As recovering trial attorney, I love how the questions are written so that they lead into one another!

I highly recommend reading through the Catechism, but not right now. Right now I encourage you to listen to me! We are going to look about halfway down page 851, to the question “What is the Summary of the Law?” The answer is: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and the great commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

A lot of time is spent of the first part of the great Commandment, as it should be. Loving God with all of yourself is crucially important. But much like the lawyer in the Gospel today, there is clarification needed to determine the second part of that commandment: who is my neighbor? Today, I want to talk about that. (and you can put away the Book of Common Prayer if you’d like)

In a time like what we are living in now. Where there is violence and terror in every corner of the world and in our cities, and the world is so connected because of the news, the internet, and social media, how do we know who our neighbors are?

My answer to you is that as the world becomes more and more connected, and people become closer and closer regardless of miles between them, who our neighbor is grows and grows. Out of this Gospel I learn the lesson that when we see our neighbor, we should be nice to them. Regardless of if the person is someone we consider friend, or enemy. Just be nice to each other.

Funny thing about neighbors, we don’t get to choose who they are. And we don’t necessarily understand the struggles of their lives, even if we actually live next door to one another. I can’t tell you what it’s like to be African American and living in this society. I can’t tell you what it’s like to be a Muslim in America. Or Asian. Or Middle Eastern. Or a Combat Veteran. Or a police officer.

But I can tell you about being Gay in America. There is violence, and injustice, and fear that is swirling in so many aspects of American life today. But I am going to talk to you about my lived experience. Because I am your neighbor. And even though you know me, you don’t know the struggles I go through daily.  I am going to attempt to explain the depth of the tragedy of Orlando. I do so as the voices have started to go silent. The flags are no longer at half-staff.  The candle light vigils are over. I do so knowing that we are in the midst of so much pain, with so much injustice swirling in so many aspects of American society.

I begin 2,000 years ago. Because 2,000 years ago, the Christian Church began as a place where Christians came to be together. Share a meal together. The same meal we still share today. Gay clubs and bars fill a similar role today.

The earliest Christians were a minority. They were hunted, hated, unsafe, even in their own homes. They could never tell even their closest friends that they were a Christian for fear of persecution.

Those in the LGBTQ community today (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) are a minority. We are hunted, hated, unsafe, even in our own homes. We fear telling even our closest friends that we’re gay for fear of persecution.

I don’t consider my sexuality as something that needs to be talked about a lot from the pulpit, or in general, really. Because it’s just a part of who I am. Why does who I’m attracted to really matter, in the grand scheme of things? But today, it matters. It matters because I come out to you today, not as gay, but because I’m scared. I’ve been scared, since long before I came out. Fear is part of what you live with as a gay American. I’m afraid of how people will react when they know. Will they still listen to me? Will they turn around and walk away? Will I be able to do my job as a Chaplain, or priest? Will someone assault or kill me because of who I love?

So today, I come out to you as afraid.

I have one of the most supportive mothers in the history of mothers. I knew that she would love me no matter what. But coming out to her was still one of the most terrifying things I have ever done.

Because coming out is scary.

For me, coming out meant admitting that I’m not what society said I’m supposed to be. Like so many people who grow up struggling with their sexuality, I was bullied as a child. Part of the struggle for me to come out was also admitting that those who bullied me were right: there is something different about me.

I hated being different. I always knew I was, but I lied to myself. I lied to everyone. To my friends, my family, and to my God. The day I came out, I stopped lying. I stopped lying to myself, my friends, my family, and to my God.

When I came out, it was like colors became brighter. Life meant more. There were more possibilities. I was finally able to be the full and complete rainbow of a person I was created to be.

But I also learned how to look over my shoulder, how to not trust anyone until they prove themselves safe. This isn’t new for a woman in America; we are taught early on to avoid situations where we are at risk. Cross the street when you see a man walking towards you. Never lose control of yourself. Always be aware of who and what is behind you.

Being gay in America forces you to be even more aware of what and who is around you. You take your life in your hands if you hold the hand of the person you love in public. Having short hair as a woman opens you up to ridicule. Wearing the clothes you feel most comfortable in is the equivalent of walking around with a target on your back. You must develop a thick skin. The alternative is to attempt blend in, which is possible for some, but not for all.

Church began so that Christians could be together, be safe together. Learn together. Eat together. Find strength in each other.

Gay bars and Pride festivals began so that the LGBTQ community could be together, be safe together. Learn together. Eat together. Find strength in each other.

Gay bars and clubs aren’t just places to pick someone up. These are sacred spaces. Spaces where we can actually be totally and completely who we are. There’s no worry about how someone will react if you are holding your partner’s hand. You can dance how and with whom you’d like. You can wear whatever you want. You can be yourself.

All of that ends the second you step outside.

All of that ended a few weeks ago when Omar Mateen walked into Pulse and started pulling the trigger. Our safe space is no longer a space where we don’t have to look constantly over our shoulders. This not only scares me, it breaks my heart.

I tell you these things because I am your neighbor, and I need you to understand. I’m a white woman, and you are a group of almost entirely white men and women. This is a moment when you need to understand your privilege. Understand that it is a privilege, not a right, to walk down the street holding the hand of whom you love. It’s a privilege to not feel ashamed to introduce your significant other.

It’s a privilege for society to not make you feel less than, like an “other”, unwanted, different.

Society makes me feel like all of these things. Every day.

I don’t say these things because I need a hug or to be reassured of my worth.

I KNOW I am a fantastic young woman. I’m intelligent, I’m educated, I’m attractive, I’m employed, I have an incredible network of friends, both gay and straight, my family is amazing. I’m single, but it’s because I know I’m a catch and I’m accordingly picky.

Society still sets me aside as different. Not because I’m a solid 8, nor because I’m among the most educated people in the world. I’m set aside because I’m attracted to women.

And that’s wrong.

What society says about me is wrong. And make no mistake about this: it is society that caused the massacre in Orland. We can place blame anywhere we want, but a society that normalizes homophobia, misogyny, racism and sexism, and puts masculinity on a pedestal caused Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, and St. Anthony to happen. God or religion didn’t cause this. WE caused this.

As a Christian, I’m not okay with this.

As a Christian in leadership, I’m looking at all of you, and saying it’s time to stop this.

We have an example of Christ who loves and cares for all. But we also follow the teachings of a man who got so pissed off he literally flipped over tables and drove people away with a whip.

There’s a time to pray, and there’s a time to stand up. This is the time to stand up. It’s time to change the society that makes it okay to say something is “gay”, when they aren’t talking about a happy person.

We stop this by doing a couple of things. First, and most important, we must be aware of ourselves. How we are privileged, and how our privilege causes us to miss the struggles of others, and how our privilege causes the struggles of others. Second, when you see something, say something. When a man bullies a woman, stop them. When someone says something is gay, tell them that’s not acceptable. Don’t judge people because they’re different, disabled, or for the color of their skin, and don’t let other people do so either.

This stuff needs to stop. And it needs to stop now. We are the cause, and we are the solution.

God calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. God doesn’t tell us that we get to choose who our neighbors are. The only time in Scripture that humans tried to choose who their neighbors would be, God said nope, and in the Tower of Babel story, God separated people to the far ends of the earth.

We as Christians are called to be counter cultural. It’s not easy to be counter cultural. Ask Jesus. Or Paul. Or Peter. Or any Disciple. It’s hard to go against the grain of what society says you should do and be.

But you know what: do it anyway.

Jesus tells you to.

I need you to. My life literally depends on it.

In this Gospel story, a man was in a ditch, through no fault of his own. Society said to ignore him, let him save himself, or die. It took a man from another society to save him. The man in the ditch suffered two injustices: he was attacked, and his life and death struggle was ignored by the elite in his society.

God calls us to see, name, and stand up to injustice. What happened to Alton Sterling and Philano Castile was an injustice. They were our neighbors. Our neighbors lives literally depend on us.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”


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