[This is my first sermon! Special thanks to the good folks at Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Bloomington, MN for asking me to be their preacher during their celebration of Reconciling in Christ Sunday. For an audio version of the service that included this sermon, click here.]
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Well! Today’s Gospel text is a bit different from last week’s, isn’t it? Just last Sunday Jesus was calling us the salt of the earth, and the light on a hill, and the week before that he was dolling out blessings left and right like Oprah! But today we hear Jesus dig deep into the law, and it’s almost like he’s making up for all those nice things he said at the beginning of his sermon on the mount with an equal number of new rules and requirements. Those of you, like me, who tend to be a little skeptical, are probably thinking, “well, that just figures. Here I thought Jesus was inviting me into his family and calling me all these nice things, but now I just have another laundry list of things to do and not do.” And not only is Jesus upholding the old laws like “do not murder” and “do not commit adultery,” but he’s also making them infinitely more difficult to keep.
Let’s be honest—at first glance, this is a scary text, full of divorce and dismemberment and other things that we’d really rather not think about. As the kid of two divorced parents who have both remarried, it's a little uncomfortable. This is a text all about The Law.
For queer- and LGBT-identified folks like myself, this concept of The Law—with a capitol L—can be a frightening thing in and of itself. Oftentimes when I go to speak with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other queer folks in secular spaces, I get asked why on earth I went to seminary to learn about the Old Testament. They say things like, “Isn’t that part of the Bible filled with the stuff those street preachers scream at us?” and “why would you want to spend time reading about that angry Old Testament God??” And right after I explain the Marcion heresy to them [ha ha, that's a seminarian joke], I always tell them that it’s because I find so much life and love and hope and freedom in the Hebrew Scriptures, and I don’t want LGBTQ folks to miss out on it just because there’s some difficult stuff in there too!
Today our text from Deuteronomy explains that the whole point of the Law—the whole point of the rules for humanity that God lays out in the first five books of the Bible—is so that we can choose life. And Deuteronomy isn’t talking about everlasting life, or life after death, or anything like that. It’s talking about right-now, here, on-this-planet, with-each-other kind of life. God wants to give us life, and the best way to do that, is, surprisingly, to command us not to kill each other. Who’dve thought?
But for anyone who’s ever experienced rejection, for any reason, rules like the ones Jesus lays out here in Matthew 5 can still seem terrifying. Instead of seeing a list of things that can help us choose life together, you may see a whole list of different ways that you can get yourself kicked out of God’s family. Ask any gay or transgender person what their experience is with the word “sin,” and you can guarantee that they’ll have more stories to tell about the way that word has been used to describe their very existence than stories about its use in reference to things like stealing or lying or adultery. We get skittish about the concept of sin because it feels like the prelude to a blow. Scripture, the concept of sin, the kind of “tough love” that goes around pointing out all the ways you don’t measure up—these things have been used against LGBTQ people for so long it’s honestly a miracle we’re still here. And I’m not using that word facetiously, either—I consider it one of the greatest miracles that God has not allowed the Church to ruin love and grace and faith for many of us.
But what if what Jesus is presenting here is not a threat, with dire consequences if you put a toe out of line? What if it’s not a list of rules to follow, and instead more of an instructional video on life together? Let’s take a look at an example. First, Jesus says, “don’t get angry at your siblings, don’t insult them, and don’t use harmful and disparaging words against them. It’s just as bad as physically harming them.” Well, unfortunately, based on the way we’ve all been talking and thinking about each other over the past election season and throughout the last few months, we’ve all failed pretty miserably at this command. If this were strictly a list of demands and consequences, we’d all be in pretty bad shape.
But the good news is that Jesus knows us, and so what we see in the very next verse is instructions for what happens when you DO fail at following the plan. Jesus says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your sibling has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your sibling, and then come and offer your gift.”
So for those of us who are nervous about being kicked out, know that this isn’t a one-strike-and-you’re-out system—this is Jesus understanding human nature in deep and sometimes uncomfortable ways, and showing us that we can try again.
For those of us who have long been a part of a church that’s complicit in harming others, though—we need to hear this as a call to action. Jesus is saying that we need to do the hard work of reconciliation with our siblings before we try to “get right with God,” as the saying goes.
So what does it look like to work for reconciliation? How, for instance, can Christians reconcile with the LGBTQ people who we’ve hurt? Well, the first step is to listen. Here’s what it looks like to be hurt by the church—how it feels to be hurt by the people you thought loved you. It looks like my friend H., who said that she once asked a question about being gay in her youth group, and was then told by the leader to leave the room, and to call her mom to come pick her up immediately. The next week the pastor of the church mailed her parents pamphlets full of hellfire and suggestions for conversion therapy. She never went back.
Being hurt by the church looks like the death of Leelah Alcorn, who was sent to faith-based conversion therapy to try to “cure” her of her gender identity before finally becoming so sure that the world couldn’t let her live, that she walked out in front of a truck on the freeway. That pain was less than the pain of living surrounded by parents and a faith community who tell you that they love you, but hate your sin, which is just another way of saying, “I love the you I think you should be, but I hate the you you are.”
How can we possibly reconcile with each other when pain and destruction and death like this stands in the way? Well, thankfully, we believe in a risen Christ who not only suffers with us in the darkest places--who was with H and with Leelah in the midst of their pain--but who also brings life out of death. Pain is not the last word.
Reconciling with our LGBTQ siblings means listening, and then it means confessing what we’ve done wrong, as individuals, and as Christian communities. We take responsibility for the things we did intentionally and the things we had control over, and we at least acknowledge the existence of the things that were unintentional. Then, we ask for forgiveness—not expecting it immediately, but doing the hard work of humbling ourselves and allowing another person to show us God’s grace in human form.
Then, we roll up our sleeves, because it’s time to start changing things. Reconciling to and with each other means not just stopping the bleeding in the body of Christ, but bandaging each other up, paying for hospital care, and moving together through physical therapy.
So, let’s get down to some examples. My name is Austen, and I’m a transgender man, which means that when I was born the doctor took one look at me and said, “It’s a girl!” and then it took me about twenty years to get back to everybody and say “aaaactually, not so much.” My experience in the church includes hearing sermons about the evils of homosexuality as a kid, which convinced me that my also being bisexual was essentially a “go straight to hell, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars” card. I spent a lot of years in youth group, just waiting for someone to find out and give me the final kick. I lost my faith there for a while.
But no matter where I went, it seemed like God was following me, caring for me, standing with me when things were the hardest, and I couldn’t ignore that, even though I really, really wanted to. I began searching scripture for a way to understand this kind God, who seemed to love me not in spite of my sexuality and my gender identity, but because those things were a part of me. I found passages in the Bible like Isaiah 56:1-8, which tells eunuchs, people who were outside of the boundaries of sex and gender in their time, that they are welcome in God’s house, and that God gives them a special blessing. I found a church that accepted me for everything I am, and believes that I bring something essential to Christian witness. I began bringing my whole self to worship, rather than spending my time praying with one eye open, wondering who was going to find out that I didn’t belong.
And let me tell you—when you bring your whole self into God’s house, you quickly find yourself wrapped up in the reconciling work that got you there in the first place. You get caught up in GOD’S reconciling work. God starts stirring up holy trouble in you, and calling you to stand with all kinds of other oppressed people—people who wrestle daily with racism and sexism and ableism and xenophobia. Becoming reconciled with one sibling leads to work for reconciliation with everyone else!
Now days I give thanks all the time for my life as a bisexual, transgender Christian, because those very labels which I was taught were a liability have turned out to be the greatest gift. I’m not saying that they’ve been EASY gifts to receive, but I have come to find myself in the midst of a life full of blessing that I’m called to pass on to others.
The churches that I have belonged to in my adult life have practiced reconciliation seriously—not just in name, by becoming part of an official program, though that’s a really great start. They’ve practiced reconciliation by listening, by confessing where they’ve done wrong, by asking for forgiveness, by committing themselves to learning about LGBTQ identities and experiences, and by enacting new policies like asking people’s pronouns and training pastors and youth leaders in active allyship. They’ve recognized me as an integral member of the body of Christ, and like Paul says, "the hand cannot say to the foot, I have no need of you." We don’t get to decide who belongs in God’s family—only God gets to decide that, and if scripture is any indication, God calls the people we LEAST want to share the table with.
So as you, Transfiguration Lutheran Church, celebrate Reconciling in Christ Sunday today, let’s remember that this vow to work for full LGBTQ inclusion and affirmation is one you’ve made to each other, and to God. Let’s let our yes be a true yes, okay? Not a yes we say once a year and then forget about, but a yes that says “I’m going to do the hard and beautiful work of lifting up my siblings every day of the year, and making sure they can bring their whole selves safely into this community.” Let’s let our yes be yes within these walls, and throughout the rest of our country and our world. Let’s let our yes to each other be a yes in the streets and in the voting booth and around our family tables. And then, hand in hand, we can come offer our thanksgiving for this beautiful life together before God.