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A New Heaven and a New Earth

This sermon references a much longer article in Narratively, which includes a pastor’s story of coming out as a Christian to his atheist parents and coming out as a pastor with a non-binary gender identity. You can read the full article here: https://narratively.com/the-holiness-and-heartbreak-of-a-nonbinary-pastor/.

I highly recommend it!

The sermon, based on Revelation 21:1-6, challenges us to consider what parts of Jesus’ message we personally struggle to accept and integrate.

Sermon: “A New Heaven and a New Earth”

Revelation promises a new heaven and a new earth at the end of days.

I admit, there are some things in my life, and in my community, that I’d like to see change.

(This weather, for one. Thank goodness, the solstice has passed, and the days will begin getting longer!)

But there are some things that I really like the way they are.

I like my comfortable lifestyle…

I’m not sure I’m ready for all of that to change.

And I suspect that if I were to really honestly and complete follow the teachings of Jesus, they would.

I’m not sure I’m ready for ALL of that yet.

I know Jesus calls us to radical living and radical generosity, but I’m taking my time…

And I’m not proud of that. But change is tough. And so I’m taking on the Gospels a little bit at a time, gradually wading into the deep end.

Because the truth is, change, even change motivated by faith, can be extremely difficult.

And it’s not always welcome…

We say every Sunday as a part of the Prayer of Jesus – “Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”

Do we really mean it?

What if God’s reign showed up tomorrow? Would we welcome it?

I suspect not – otherwise the reign of God would be here already!

At Christmas, we talked about God with us. And we celebrated the birth of this beautiful miracle, the baby Jesus.

And yet, if we read the Gospels – if we read the “Good News” of the Bible, this miracle has some pretty serious consequences for our lives.

Deitrich Bonheoffer writes, “It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God, whereas the WORLD fell into trembling at the idea of Jesus Christ walking over the earth…

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us.

We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us.

The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”

Frightening news for everyone who has a conscience!

He adds, “[Imagine] Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality. He asks you for help in the form of a beggar, in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing. He confronts you in every person that you meet. He walks on the earth as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, and makes his demands. That is the greatest seriousness and the greatest blessedness of the message. Christ stands at the door. He lives in the form of the person in our midst. Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?”

I have to admit, there are some days, I don’t even want to open the door for Boyscouts selling popcorn.

Would I really open the door for someone begging for food?

Would we as a church?

I’d love to say, “Of course! We’d open the door.”

And yet, I encourage us, as we enter this new year, to do a realistic assessment. To really challenge ourselves to consider – are we a church that is COMMITTED to creating a just world, through community, one life at a time…?

I believe we are.

I believe that this place, if any, is a place that can make that happen.

And yet, today, I’m going to share with you a story about a church much like our own that said a lot about welcome, but didn’t follow through when confronted with a situation that tested their conviction.

This story is about two friends of mine, an ordained UCC pastor named Ryan, their wife, Molly, also an ordained minister, and their family.

Ryan was pastoring a church in Iowa.

And for Ryan, I’m going to use the pronouns they and theirs and them, because Ryan identifies as non-binary when it comes to gender.

This is not a lecture on gender, by any means, but let me read to you Ryan’s explanation, because it was educational for me, and it may be for you as well. This comes from a magazine feature in a magazine called Narratively.

Ryan writes:

I always knew I was genderqueer, but I didn’t always have the language for it. When I was a kid, all of the adults in my life seemed to think there were only two kinds of people: females, like my friends Kristina and Marisa — they were called girls — and males, like Nicholas and Christopher — they were called boys. But from somewhere deep in my soul came the rejoinder: “I am a male — but I feel like Kristina and Marisa. What do you call that?

Rather than attempting to score goals on the soccer field, I picked dandelions. Instead of playing cops and robbers during recess, I put on musicals. My Matchbox cars sat unopened on the shelf while I spent hours in my Playskool kitchen. In my early teen years, I got ahold of a copy of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and was bemused to find myself squarely in the Venusian camp.

It’s not that I didn’t like boys. It was simply obvious that they weren’t my people. I didn’t talk like them, didn’t walk like them, didn’t stand and sit like them, didn’t communicate like them, didn’t play like them, didn’t care about what they cared about. Boys were fine, I guess. I just knew for certain that I wasn’t one.

Girls were so much more worth it. We got each other. We clicked. We knew what really mattered in life: love, babies, kitchen parties and The Sound of Music.

Nearly all of my friends were girls. Beyond a few physical distinctions, I couldn’t understand what made us so different. It’s not that I wanted to change my anatomical maleness — I was fine with my body the way it was. But the expectations everyone seemed to have about what my maleness meant — the expectation that I “be a boy” and eventually “be a man” felt maddeningly impossible to meet.

My family was certain I’d be gay. When I went through puberty and started finding myself attracted to women, even I was a bit surprised. Though my sexual orientation seemed to warrant the label of “heterosexual,” the frustration and confusion around my gender identity — what I later learned to call gender dysphoria — never went away.

Explaining this to a church, however — even a self-styled progressive one where I had served for almost six years — turned out to be more of an adventure than I’d bargained for.

I’m going to pause here – the church’s website, under “what we believe” says

that God is love
that God made all of humanity to love and be loved—no exceptions
that the community we call church is a school and laboratory in which we learn and practice the art of loving and being loved.
that there is room for diversity of thought and opinion within the church

So here’s what happened when Ryan came out to them…

[After preaching and doing some education about gender and sexuality, on Pentecost], I revealed to the congregation my own Spirit-given queerness. In the middle of that week, I sent out a pastoral letter to my congregation, further explaining my intention to live true to my gender identity, and I included a photo of myself as the nonbinary person I am, dressed in my clerical collar, a black pleated skirt, my favorite dangly cross earrings, and my favorite sandals — with my carefully pedicured toenails. What could go wrong?

A lot, it turns out…

Over the next seven months, tensions escalated. I wouldn’t — couldn’t — go back in the closet, and yet the experience of seeing their male-bodied pastor in skirts and dresses proved simply too jarring for some.

The church’s vice president, himself a gay man, yelled at me, saying I had no right to call myself queer — he saw me simply as a straight man who wanted to dress inappropriately at work.

An older parishioner said to me, “I’m so disappointed in you. You lied to us. If you had told us this when you interviewed, we wouldn’t have hired you. And if I had dressed like that when I was a kid, my father would have killed me.”

“I understand,” I said. “You didn’t sign up for this. But please know that I wasn’t trying to lie to anyone. I just didn’t know how to be myself. I was afraid that if I did, it would be just as you said: I wouldn’t be able to find a job — or worse.’

I reminded him that plenty of trans people do get killed for being who they are. But I confessed that I’ve become more afraid of the world I help to create by hiding my true self than I am of dying.

One influential member told me that he wouldn’t be back in church until I was gone and that he’d be doing everything in his power to ensure that it happened as quickly as possible. “How am I supposed to bring my mother to church with you dressed like that?” he demanded…. The congregation’s governing body began to take action to remove me, and I was finally asked for my resignation.

It’s a heartbreaking story.

But I’m not telling it to you to make you sad or to make you feel better about yourselves for how welcoming you are.

And I don’t tell you this story, because I think we as a church have any issues when it comes to welcoming people who are genderqueer (although if this story is jarring to you…it takes time to learn and adjust to new expressions of gender – be gentle with yourself while also remembering to keep yourself accountable).

I tell you this story, because Ryan’s church was a lot like our church.

It had a similar size, similar demographics, similar commitment to justice and welcome.

We too love the good news of Jesus – that uplifting news that Jesus loves us no matter what.

And we both love the idea of a new heaven and a new earth in which God will reign.

And… like that church in the Midwest, and like so many Christians around the world, we also struggle sometimes to embrace the tougher pieces of the Good News…

We struggle sometimes with the idea that if we are to truly embrace the teachings of Jesus, it’s not going to be EASY.

For this congregation, it’s probably not going to be gender or sexuality issues that will challenge us most.

So what do you suppose our challenge WILL be?

When Jesus shows up in 2019, in the form of a beggar, or an immigrant, or a person in need, or perhaps as someone offering US help, what do you suppose it will be that WE will push back against?

What will Jesus reveal as OUR challenge?

Will it be our wealth?

Our savior complex?

Our lack of patience?

This year, as God continues to create a new heaven and new earth, we WILL be confronted with the living Christ among us. We WILL be challenged…

The good news is, we don’t have to do it alone.

I already told you – the Gospels are something I personally struggle with. Jesus was a radical. I’m inching my way toward his teachings, but I’m not there yet.

Together, we can help each other along that journey – keep each other accountable, and support each other as we encounter road blocks along the way.

My invitation is for us to ponder this week: what part of the Good News challenges us the most? How do we benefit from not embracing that part of the Gospels? What might change in our own lives if we did let God drive that part of our lives…if we DID take one more step toward the teachings of Jesus? What might change in us…? What might change in the world…?

Speaker: Rev. Sarah TevisTownes
December 30, 2018

Revelation 21:1-6

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