Jesus, Harvey Milk, and Us: That All May Be One
Jesus, Harvey Milk, and Us:
That All May Be One
A More Light Sunday Message
Elder Sonnie Swenston
First Presbyterian Church
Baldwin Park, California
Gracious God of all peoples, we pray today for the church:
not just our congregation,
but all of your followers all around the world.
Help us all to proclaim the good news about Jesus
to everyone we meet.
Help us to get along with one another and, when we disagree,
to still respect one another and to celebrate our differences.
Help us to live our lives the way Jesus lived his,
loving and forgiving others,
that the whole world might know that Jesus is your beloved child,
and that you love all people. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Today is a day of celebration for this church. Twenty-one years ago this small congregation made an active choice to affirm our welcome for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. Although most of us weren’t a part of this congregation at the time, it is still “our” decision. We reaffirm this decision each week by printing the excerpt found on the back of our worship bulletin. We reaffirm it by claiming our identity as a More Light church in a designated service of worship each year. You may remember that last year we heard from Michael Adee, the Executive Director of More Light Presbyterians. Today you get me. John Calvin, the founder of Presbyterianism, thought that all elders—both teaching elders and ruling elders—should preach from time to time, so I’m here in the pulpit to deliver the message this morning standing on his shoulders.
More Light Presbyterians is a coalition of congregations and individuals in the Presbyterian Church (USA) committed to increasing the involvement of all people in the church, regardless of sexuality. More Light churches endorse this mission statement:
Following the risen Christ, and seeking to make the Church a true community of hospitality, the mission of More Light Presbyterians is the full participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry, and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
We of this church also reaffirm this decision with our financial contributions to the inclusive church-related organizations of the denomination: The Covenant Network of Presbyterians, That All May Freely Serve, and More Light Presbyterians. Melinda and I are proud to be a part of this congregation, and when we got legally married there was no place else that we wanted to be on that special day than here.
Not all churches share our celebration; not all churches share our belief that God created us with a variety of gifts—including the gifts of sexual orientation and gender expression. Not all churches would want to hear the words “gay,” “lesbian,” bisexual,” and “transgender” spoken from the pulpit in an affirmative, joy-filled way.
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to do that this morning. Know that the whole world is celebrating with us, as tomorrow is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Being a More Light church, being welcoming of anyone and everyone who finds their way here, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Nanette Sawyer, a minister in Chicago, has written, “when we make choices to become more hospitable, we find that we become more whole ourselves—open to the world, to life, to relationship. Living centered in hospitality is living centered in love, trust, possibility, and hope. When we allow God and true self to come together in our inner core, we find ourselves filled with a love that we can’t help but share.” Isn’t that the Good News that we want to share with the world?
The official policy of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is to allow same-gender-loving people to join the church, but to exclude us from leadership positions: the ordained positions of Deacon, Elder, and Minister of the Word and Sacrament. Again, this congregation has disagreed with that position, and has chosen to ordain the people who God has called to leadership, regardless of sexual orientation. While enforcement of this prohibition is becoming a thing of the past—particularly in the cases of Elders and Deacons—it is still on the books. The upcoming national convention of the church, the General Assembly, to be held in July in Minnesota, will once again have the opportunity to pass an overture to remove this prohibition from the church’s constitution.
Again, thank you. Our financial gifts help contribute to that work, and I will again be attending as part of the TAMFS contingent to work for the cause of an inclusive denomination in whatever way I can—on your behalf.
Today is the seventh and last Sunday in the season of Easter. Easter is the time when we Christians emerge from the bleak darkness of Lent into the beautiful light of the Resurrection. Listen to these words from the Rev. Janet Edwards, Co-Moderator of More Light Presbyterians, from her message, “Easter Hope Is an Action”:
Easter dawns; the tomb is empty. The women rush to tell the other disciples that Jesus has risen. Then He comes to them on the road, in the workplace, in the upper room. The hope this experience inspired in Jesus’ followers powerfully reverberates into our lives this Easter [Season].
So what does it mean to hope?
… [The renowned theologian] Rudolf Bultmann summarizes our common understanding of Easter hope: “If hope is fixed on God, it embraces at once the three elements of: expectation of the future; trust; and the patience of waiting.”
But hope is not only patiently waiting and trusting in the future. It is an action. Indeed, in the Gospels, hope is only used in its verb form. If Jesus’ disciples had lived their hope by patiently waiting, none of us would know of, and embrace, Jesus as [the Christ, our Savior], now thousands of years later.
For those things over which we have no control, no possibility of impact, trusting in God and patiently waiting is the way in which we must hope. But in this beautiful world, given to us by God’s grace alone, we have infinite ways to make an impact and so, as God’s arms and legs in this world, we are compelled to act on our hopes. We create God’s Realm here and now, where we are, among ourselves, and invite all we meet to join in. That’s exactly what the disciples did starting on Easter.
Hope. Hope as an action. We are called to “live into hope,” as the hymn says. Although I love all of this hymn, my favorite verse is its last:
Live into hope of captives freed
From chains of fear or want or greed.
God now proclaims our full release
To faith and hope and joy and peace.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a strong proponent of hope, said, “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” Being a More Light church, an inclusive church, is being a part of that struggle. Hope is a vital element in all civil rights and justice movements, part of what motivates us to move forward in a positive way. Each movement has its own leaders, but each leader expresses hope. Think of Frederick Douglass, of Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez. Each of them filled with hope for a better world—not just for one cause, but through their focused causes, for everyone.
The State of California has a new holiday this week. This year, and each year from now on on May 22nd, we remember a civil rights leader who served the people of the City and County of San Francisco as an elected member of their Board of Supervisors. This man’s name is Harvey Milk. You may have seen the movie based on his life that came out a couple of years ago. Harvey Milk was a world-changer who was assassinated—murdered—by one of his fellow Supervisors in 1978. Harvey Milk was a gay man.
Not unlike Jesus and Dr. King, Harvey Milk knew that his very being was a threat to the established order of things, and he knew that there was a great likelihood that he would be killed. He wrote letters to friends and sealed them in envelopes marked, “to be read in the event of my assassination.”
Even so, Harvey Milk lived into hope, and encouraged LGBT people—and all of us—to live into hope.
Harvey Milk was an orator, a street statesman. One of his most famous speeches is called The Hope Speech. (Some of you will not remember Anita Bryant, who he mentions. She was a beauty queen and a spokesperson for Florida orange juice; she also was a strong opponent of the gay rights movement.) Hope was a theme that Harvey Milk constantly reiterated. Toward the end of this speech, he said:
And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. And if you help elect … more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.
Hope. Hope based on action. Hope that moves the world forward.
These are words that will be spoken and taught in schools, community meetings, in our State Capital in Sacramento—and even from some pulpits in churches and synagogues and other houses or worship—during the coming week. Sadly, those who most need to hear them are those who object to the establishing of this commemoration, those who see LGBT people as evil or as lesser beings, and they will likely never hear these words.
The Presbyterian Church has two parts to its Constitution. One is The Book of Order, the “rules and regulations” part. The other is The Book of Confessions. When a person is ordained to serve as Minister of the Word and Sacrament, Elder, or Deacon, she or he takes vows “to be obedient to Jesus Christ, to place themselves under the authority of Scripture, and to be guided by the confessions.” Some of these confessions go back a long time, to the 1600s, while others are much more contemporary. Hear these words from the most recent of the confessions, A Brief Statement of Faith, adopted in 1991:
In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of people long silenced and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
I love these words. In one short paragraph, we hear so much about what the church is called to do: pray without ceasing; serve as witnesses to Jesus Christ; unmask idolatries; to hear the voices of people long silenced; to work for justice, freedom, and peace. Wow! These are words that we are pledged to be guided by, folks! These are those hope-in-action words.
Let’s return for a minute to our scripture reading for today. This passage is part of a long sermon, a dissertation by Jesus, as he prepares to go to Jerusalem to his death. Some time, sit down and read the whole thing, preferably aloud. It’s quite a sermon. A little bit earlier than today’s reading in chapter 16 is one of my favorite passages in all of the bible, where Jesus says,
I have much more to tell you,
but you can’t bear to hear it now.
When the Spirit of truth comes,
she will guide you into all truth.
She won’t speak on her own initiative;
rather, she’ll speak only what she hears,
and she’ll announce to you
things that are yet to come. [John 16:12-13]
Just like the words from John Robinson that we said in our Call to Worship this morning, Jesus is saying in his own way that God has yet more light to break forth from the word. We don’t know what it is that God is going to say, but we need to be open to more—because Jesus himself said so. Our UCC friends say “never put a period where God has placed a comma.”
But back to today’s passage. In it, Jesus talks about unity, about oneness. He’s asking God to consecrate the disciples—just simple, everyday, trying-their-best-to-get-by folks like you and me—and to make them holy. Even while preparing for his own execution, Jesus is talking about hope, because he knows that his message will be carried forth even after he isn’t able to say it himself. Jesus isn’t naïve, of course. He’s watched these followers for a few years now. He knows their human frailties: the brashness of Simon Peter, the ambition of James and Andrew, and the upcoming betrayal by Judas Iscariot. But Jesus is hopeful, calling on God to make them as one. He says, “To them I have revealed your Name, and I will continue to reveal it so that the love you have for me may live in them, just as I may live in them.” Hope. Hope in action, hope in love.
Let me conclude with a story. This is a story that most of you haven’t read, but it is a beautiful story about this very church. It’s part of a book of stories, Called Out: The Voices and Gifts of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Presbyterians. This could be a bitter story, but instead, it is told through love, and through hope.
Robert and Eddie are no longer here, having moved to Massachusetts a number of years ago, and our dear Helen Sloss is now 98 years old, living in Yorba Linda in Orange County to be closer to her family. The greeter mentioned is Cheryl Holland. Also, the very composition of our church has changed for the better since we have become much more multi-everything.
With that little aside, listen to this part of our own story, part of our history:
The Baldwin Park Mouse That Roared
by Elder Robert Ochoa-Schutz
The warm sanctuary packed with Presbyterian clergy and elders sat in stunned silence on that March day in 1994. Elder Helen Sloss, a diminutive figure of intense resolve, had just informed the San Gabriel Presbytery that the Session of First Church of Baldwin Park would not comply with the Presbytery’s request to rescind my ordination as elder because of my gayness.
That evening our small church from Baldwin Park roared at the Presbytery mightily. Baldwin Park, in Southern California, is by no means a haven for the gay and lesbian community. In a city of 70,000, a majority of whom are blue collar Latinos, First Presbyterian Church of Baldwin Park is a remnant of Anglos who twenty years ago began their exodus to other communities. They are steadfast in another way as well. This congregation of silver-haired angels—most over sixty—have become our guardians in the fight against the injustices towards lesbians, gays, and bisexuals done in God’s name.
Flashback: the First Sunday of Advent, 1990. I had decided to visit this “More Light” congregation, to confirm a friend’s claim that this small Presbyterian church welcomed ALL people, including gay and lesbian people. This meant that gays and lesbians would be fully accepted as members, elders, deacons, and ministers of Word and Sacrament in the life of the Church.
I was skeptical. It’s one thing, I reasoned, to issue a statement on principle and another if gay and lesbian folks actually begin to attend. But I decided to give this church the benefit of the doubt. It was crisp and cool that Sunday morning as I got into the car and headed for the church. As I approached, I became very nervous.
“What if this is a mistake?” I thought. After all, I REALLY didn’t have proof that this congregation was a More Light church. What if my friend had unintentionally misinformed me about her church’s outreach to the gay and lesbian community?
My body began to tremble slightly. Fortunately, my friend was serving as greeter that morning. “Hi!” she cheerfully welcomed me at the door. “It’s so good to see you.”
Her smile and warm embrace calmed my nervous soul. All the same, I chose to sit in the pew closest to the rear entrance for a quick getaway should the pastor decide to make any negative statements about my people. But as I read the program of worship, my mouth dropped open. Tears clouded my vision. Written for the world to see was the “More Light” statement.
“Acknowledging that, because of the reality in the Church, as well as in society at large, gay and lesbian persons may have justifiable reason for uncertainty as to their reception, we act here, in this statement, to make clear, explicit, and real, our genuine welcome of all persons. This explicit welcome, we believe, is warranted and right.”
To my amazement, however, I was the first “avowed” gay person to walk over the threshold and into the lives of these good folks. It was not my last visit. In my small city I was blessed to find a congregation willing to accept me and my spouse Eddie as a couple (we had been together 11 years at that time). They took us in fully and without reservation. In my city of Baldwin Park! I wept.
Four years later, at the San Gabriel Presbytery; a motion was made to affirm and commend Baldwin Park’s ministry. We braced ourselves, knowing that the motion would certainly fail, but heartened that it was made in the first place.
After a few speeches about homosexuality as sin just like murderers, thieves, and drunkards, the motion was tabled for two months so that Presbytery members could study the report issued by our church.
Flashback: Fall 1991. One year after my first visit, in the presence of family and friends, I knelt as Pastor Donn Crail and members of the congregation surrounded me and another person for the laying on of hands. As we rose from that gift of empowerment, I felt a surge of joy: I was now an ordained elder! My mother, sisters, nephews, and nieces, and most importantly my mate, Eddie, witnessed and celebrated this special event.
After serving a year as elder, Eddie and I were introduced to two wonderful women. Sonnie and Melinda radiated warmth, and we were immediately connected in a common bond of love and commitment. As a lesbian couple, they were overjoyed to have found home—especially Sonnie, who grew up at First Church Baldwin Park. But our home was soon under a state of siege. Our church was accused of committing an “irregularity” in the allowance of my ordination. The struggle of conviction and prayer led us up to this Presbytery meeting, where Sonnie and I sat, both tense and proud of our small, fierce congregation.
Regardless of the outcome, our ministry in the San Gabriel Valley will repeat the victorious message that God’s people includes ALL people, and that the redemption through the death and resurrection of Christ is claimable by all within our lesbian and gay community.
As for me, the VICTORY came when Helen read these words to the San Gabriel Presbytery on March 8, 1994: “In good conscience, the session voted unanimously to re-affirm its action of January 9, 1992, in finding Robert Ochoa-Schutz fully qualified for the office of elder and that the congregation should proceed with his ordination and installation to that office.”
A roar was heard throughout the Presbytery of San Gabriel.
We are, indeed, the “mouse that roared.” Let us continue to roar! Happy 21st anniversary, everyone, and many happy returns. Continue to be beacons of light in this often-dark world. The world needs it—needs us—and it is who Jesus calls us to be.
Eternal One, You created us b’tzelem Elohim, in Your image, filling us—as You are filled—with hope, hope that we might yet bring to fruition Your vision of cooperation and harmony, of wholeness and peace. You imagined such a world, Holy One, and then instilled within us the ability to imagine it too. You hope even now for such a world, Holy One, knowing You created us with the desire to give each other hope like Yours, hope that tomorrow will find us finally ready, finally able, to bring Your imagined world into being. Blessed are You, Hopeful One, creator of hope and of those who bring it to the world.
• Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Beth Chayim Chadashim, Los Angeles