A sermon in response to Orlando — June 19, 2016

“Good Religion Provides a Prophetic Voice”
Amos 5:21-24

By Emily Bowen-Marler

Audio via YouTube

Last week, I stood before you during our time of prayer shaking as I shared the updated news that there were not 20 people killed in the gay night club in the wee hours of Sunday morning as originally reported, but 49 people killed. 49 people killed by a hate-filled man wielding a semi-automatic rifle. A self-radicalized man who proclaimed allegiance to ISIS right before the attack, but who was an American citizen, born in New York and living in Florida.

I must confess, this has been a hard week to get any work done. I spent a great deal of time pouring over my newsfeed, reading the reflections of my friends and family in the LGBTQ community, listening to their anguish and fear and desperate attempts to choose love in the face of such hatred, reaching out when I could, sharing messages of love and comfort. There were pleas from some to not use this massacre as a means to pit two marginalized groups in our country, the LGBTQ community and the Muslim community, against one another. It’s been an inspirational week as I read stories of solidarity between these two groups: in one community, a gay minister sharing that the first clergy to reach out to him in the wake of the Orlando shooting was the Imam from the local mosque. I learned that in Tulsa, there is a history of the LGBTQ and Muslim communities showing up for one another whenever one or the other group is the target of hate. I read speeches by some who confessed their former poor treatment of gay people and then publicly apologized for that bad behavior It’s been a galvanizing week as I’ve seen allies all over the country speak out or sing out their solidarity and love for the LGBTQ community.

We are in the midst of a sermon series The Answer to Bad Religion is Not No Religion: A Guide to Good Religion for Seekers, Skeptics and Believers. In the book of the same title, the author highlights characteristics of bad religion and some of those characteristics played a role in Sunday’s mass shooting. But lest we give into the temptation to lay all of the blame at the feet of the religion practiced by the shooter, let me remind you that we live in a city where it was Christian communities of faith that bolstered the repeal of the nondiscrimination ordinance in April of 2015, removing protections for those in the LGBT community as far as employment, housing, and public services are concerned. We live in a country where the response to the Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality last June has been a rash of hysterical anti-LGBT bills. And that’s not an exaggeration; there have been over 100 anti-LGBT bills debated in states across the country this year. As one internet meme pointed out: “You say, “How could this tragedy happen?” It happened because Omar Mateen’s hate was born and bred in America, not overseas. Just 2 weeks ago you were calling trans women child predators. 1 year ago you were saying that our marriages shouldn’t be recognized. 6 years ago you were saying that gay men and women couldn’t die for their country. 10 years ago you told us we didn’t deserve job protections. 13 years ago it took Lawrence v. Texas to decriminalize our sex lives. 18 years ago you took Matthew Sheppard. 23 years ago you took Brandon Teena. 36 year ago the American Government began their 5 years of silence as 10,000 gay men were massacred by the AIDS virus. 43 years ago we were still considered mentally ill. And 47 years ago the riots of Stonewall began. For centuries this country has bred homophobia into our history, in our schools, and into the very fabric of society. Oman Mateen was the product of American hate…America, you taught him this and even sold him the gun to do it.” Islam does not have the monopoly on anti-LGBT sentiments and behavior and it’s time for America to look in the mirror and see the ways it has contributed to tragedies like that one that took place last Sunday.

I was listening to a podcast last week and those on the panel were discussing the shooting and the fact that the shooter was Muslim. One person said that fundamentalist Christians may stand on the streets with hate-filled signs to protest against and spew hatred toward the LGBTQ community, but it is only Muslims who would perpetrate a violent act like the Orlando shooting against those they abhor. I’m here to tell you that while there may not be cases of fundamentalist Christians entering gay night clubs with semi-automatic rifles to kill and maim innocent people, the hateful rhetoric spewed forth from their mouths, from their pulpits, to their members who are in the LGBTQ community has taken many more lives than were taken at Pulse last Sunday morning. Those sermons of hate, words of judgement and damnation from a God who they claim loathes a certain segment of our society have placed guns in the hands of untold members of the LGBTQ community and all but pulled the trigger, taking precious lives through suicide. Don’t tell me that the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric of fundamentalist Christianity doesn’t kill, IT DOES!

A friend of mine wrote a post earlier this week trying to explain to her straight friends and family the reality of being a gay woman in the United States of America: 

“Here’s the thing you need to understand about every LGBT person in your life.
We’ve spent most of our lives being aware that we are at risk.

When LGBT folks say ‘It could have been here. It could have been me,’ they aren’t exaggerating. I don’t care how long you’ve been out or how far down your road to self-acceptance and love you’ve traveled, all of us are always aware that we are at some level of risk.

 When I reach to hold my wife’s hand in the car, I still do the mental calculation of ‘ok, that car is just slightly behind us so they can’t see, but that truck to my left can see right inside the car’. If I even think about kissing her in public, I’m never fully in the moment. I’m always parsing who is around us and paying attention to us. There’s a tension that comes with that… a literal tensing of the muscles that brace me for potential danger. For a lot of us, it’s become such an automatic reaction that we don’t even think about it directly any more. We just do it.

And then… over the last few years, it started to fade a little. It started to feel like maybe things were getting better. A string of Supreme Court decisions. Public opinion shifting to the side of LGBT rights. Life was getting better. You could breathe a little.

I’ve had some time to adjust to the idea that people hate us enough to kill us. Matthew Shephard was my first real lesson in that. So this weekend was a sudden slap in the face, a reminder that I should never have let my guard down, should never have gotten complacent… because it could have been me, my wife, my friends.

Every LGBT person you know, knows what I’m talking about. Those tiny little mental calculations we do over the course of our life add up…  and this past weekend hit us with a stark reminder that those simmering concerns, those fears… they probably won’t ever go away. 

Additionally, now we just got a lesson that expressing our love could result in the deaths of *others* completely unrelated to us. It’s easy to take risks when it’s just you and you’ve made that choice. Now there’s this subtext that you could set off someone who kills other people who weren’t even involved. And that’s a lot.

But we will be doing those mental calculations for the rest of our lives. 
Those little PDAs you take for granted with your spouse. They come with huge baggage for us.

So do me a favor. Reach out to that LGBT person you know and let them know you are thinking of them and you love them. That will mean the world to them right now. I promise.”

As I reflect on the grave ways the LGBTQ community has been harmed in the name of faith, in the name of Christianity, I feel shame for these practices of bad religion. It is tempting the turn one’s back on faith when so much damage has been done in its name. But instead, I hold onto the very best aspects of faith, the teachings of love and inclusion shown by Jesus Christ. The prophetic voices crying out in Hebrew Scripture, voices like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos. Voices that shed a light on the injustices in their world and proclaimed a different way in the name of God. Good religion does not stay silent in the face of injustice and hatred. I have long been an ally of the LGBTQ community. I grew up in an open and affirming congregation. I had two gay youth group leaders, I have lifelong friends who are gay. I do what I can to speak and act in love and support for the LGBTQ community. But something in my friend’s post galvanized me to do something more. With it being Pride week, I wanted to do something special, to declare my love and support in a way that would clear be to all who saw. So I made a sign. A sign inspired by the benediction we say at the end of every Sunday morning worship service here at Brentwood Christian Church. And I thought it was important that everyone would know that I am a clergy person saying this, someone raised in the church, someone following the way of Jesus, someone trained in the Bible and theology. And so I made a sign that said, “As a pastor, I want you to know that you are LOVED beyond your wildest imagination JUST AS YOU ARE.” My sign had bold letters and bright colors, because I’ve been to Pridefest other years and I’ve seen signs of hate held up with bold letters that tore down and demeaned the LGBTQ community. I took my sign with me and carried it as I walked in the Equality March yesterday morning. And then I set it up at the Brentwood booth for all who walked by to see. One woman stopped by with her wife to color an affirmation card we had on the table. After she finished coloring, she said, “I have to tell you. Thank you so much for this sign. Thank you for saying this, for showing us that the church can have a message of love for us. Because too often all we’ve heard is a message of hate and rejection.” She started to cry as she told me of how the church she and her wife attended, the church her wife grew up in, had kicked them out of the ministry they were an integral part of, how after that, they had also been asked to leave the church. How one of the women in the church tried to give them a hug as she said, “We only say these things out of love.” Tears came to my own eyes as she said. “This message of real love you’re sharing, it is so needed. Thank you for being here.” She and I hugged and cried. Person after person came to our booth, telling us how happy they were to see a message of love and welcome coming from a church. Throughout the morning and over the noon hour, we’d seen the signs of protestors spreading a message of fear, judgment, and hate, but it seemed like they weren’t making a big disturbance at first. But after a while I could hear shouting and I thought, OK, it’s time to take my sign of love to the streets. If there are going to be signs of hate out there, I want to share my sign of love in that space for all to see. So I made my way into the heart of the Square, following the raised voice of the preacher shouting out hellfire and damnation for my LGBTQ friends and family. I walked into the crowd that was gathered around and held my sign high. Between that and my shirt that said “As a Christian, I am sorry for the narrow-minded, judgmental, deceptive, manipulative actions of those who denied rights and equality to so many in the name of God,” I made quite the counter-display to the yelling preacher. Someone cried out, “That isn’t speaking in love, THIS IS!” as she gestured toward me. People started clapping. And then one by one, total strangers came up to me, hugging me, some with huge smiles, some with tears in their eyes, some with wavering voices, as they thanked me for standing up in love, as they told me stories of how their churches had rejected them or their loved ones. It was incredible, the need for people to hear that message of love. Especially in the wake of Orlando, when their illusions of security were shattered with gunfire and their fears were ripped wide open.

If we are to practice good religion, we must have a prophetic voice. We must not stay silent in the face of hate. We must not stay silent in the towering shadows of those who might try to bully us into keeping our mouths shut. We must not stay silent when people respond, “Now, let’s not get political!” For too long, we have allowed the accusation that we are venturing into the territory of politics to keep us quiet. It’s time we realize that the politicization of every issue that actually matters was done on purpose to divide and conquer, to silence the masses and stymy change. We must not stay silent in the barrage of attacks on the transgender community through bathroom legislation. We must not stay silent when 49 people are killed and 53 injured in a mass shooting at a gay night club. We must not stay silent when it seems that a person’s right to own a semi-automatic rifle is more important than another person’s right to dance with their friends without fear of being gunned down. The time for silence is over. We’ve held vigils and those were necessary. We need time to mourn, time to grieve the devastating loss of life. But these deaths must not end in our silence. It’s time our nation woke up to this culture of hate for the LGBTQ community that has been bred for far too long.
Our scripture reading for this morning is one I go back to time and time again when I wrestle with issues of injustice in our world. 
The prophet Amos says to us:

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

In the face of injustice, Amos cried out. In the wake of exploitation of the poor, Amos was not silent. Amos decried the solemn assemblies where people offered prayers and burned offerings, because he saw that nothing ever changed. He saw that their action ended with their prayers, rather than began with them. Theologian Karl Barth got it right when he said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” So may we go from our candlelight vigils as people changed. May we go from our moments of silence as people transformed. May we go from our houses of worship with our mighty voices raised proclaiming a message of hope and love for all of God’s people. Voices raised proclaiming an end to hate and fear and war. Voices raised celebrating the dignity and worth of every human being. With our voices raised, we can begin to see justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Thanks be to God.