Fifty-one years ago today, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. It would be correct to call the Stonewall Inn a gay bar. It would be more correct to call the Stonewall Inn a sanctuary, a refuge in a world where it was effectively illegal to be gay. In this period, there was longstanding discord between the police and members of the LGBTQ community, but this raid became a turning point. It ignited a series of riots that erupted for days when the queer community and its allies fought back. The Stonewall Uprising is credited for beginning the gay rights movement in the United States.
Fifty-one years ago today, the world was changed.
And if this sounds eerily familiar, it sure is. Try to imagine a single act of police violence, that represents a larger conflict between police and an oppressed community. Then imagine that act provoking an uprising that will not be silenced or settled! Make no mistake, the world is still changing.
Last year, on June Sixth Two Thousand Nineteen, New York Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill apologized for the conduct of the police officers involved in the raid at the Stonewall Inn. He said, “The actions taken by the New York Police Department were wrong —plain and simple… The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive, and for that, I apologize.”1 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/06/nyregion/stonewall-riots-nypd.html Talk about a one hundred and eighty degree shift. And it’s not just the police!
In the past fifty-one years, our nation has largely changed its mind on what it means to be gay, or queer, or trans. Now to someone from the future who might only know about these two events— the Stonewall uprising and the police apology— it could seem like this shift was magic. Someone from the future, who doesn’t know better, might arrive at the conclusion that in Nineteen Sixty-Nine, the country was one hundred percent homophobic, then Abracadabra! In Two Thousand Nineteen, we became one hundred percent supportive of LGBTQ folks.
Now of course, you and I know better. Not only was this shift not that extreme, it’s also the case that so much of the world-changing work has been happening in between the events that get featured on the news.
In the fifty years between the riots and the apology, there were milestone legal victories like ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and achieving marriage equality. But there’s also the trans teenager who was raised as a girl, then came out to his family as male and found that his grandmother was not only accepting, but she couldn’t be prouder of him!
There’s the Christian who attended a program on what the Bible really says about being gay. When he learned that those few anti-gay verses have more to do with our interpretation than with what the biblical authors were intending, he found that his mind is starting to change; his heart is staring to turn. In between the events on the news, there’s a world-changing spectrum of light. There’s a whole rainbow.
It could be that you have your own story of how your mind has been changed. Certainly many of us have our own testimonies about how we have overcome—and are still overcoming— our homophobia.
What if this spiritual transformation is making us change, not so we’ll become different people, but so that by changing, we could become more fully ourselves…
What if all this spiritual transformation is working in the background to make possible the lasting significant progress in the world…
Today our scripture comes from the portion of Isaiah that rose up after the exile. The people who had been displaced are finally allowed to come back home. There’s the expectation that things should be returning to normal, but the people are learning, it’s not that easy. The people have fallen back into their old ways of evil, ensnared by systemic oppression.
Right away, we hear the problem. The people want to worship. Something inside them is holding open the luminous longing for God! But no matter what they try, their worship isn’t working. They complain, and the LORD our God listens to them.
Why do we fast, but you, O God, don’t even notice? Why do we go to all the trouble of showing up for church and you don’t even care… Well I’ll tell you, says the LORD. You come and sing the songs while the people who bag your groceries can’t afford health insurance. You preach self-congratulatory sermons but what are you doing for the people who are locked up or homeless, for the children who are bullied? What are you doing to end racism? You try to get close to me by following the liturgy of the playlist, says the Holy Spirit, but you don’t even notice people who are suffering!
And the problem is, God is right.
God is furious with the audience of Isaiah, and you and I know, he’s outraged with us too. But here’s the thing. God does not say, Because you oppress the poor, that’s it, the covenant is over. Forget it! You might think God would say that, but he doesn’t. Instead the LORD looks at us and says: You are not living up to your truth. I know you. I made you! I love you.
The Spirit tells the prophet to tell the people: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness… Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
This is not a God who hates us. This comes from God who remembers the rainbow, who pours love into our longing to be close to her.
Now we’re receiving this scripture as people from the future. If we didn’t know better, it might look like God is demanding that the people make a one hundred and eighty degree shift. You who are benefiting from the exploitation of workers, stop it! Work for justice instead! As though we could confetti-bomb from one extreme to the other like magic!
In between the riots and the apology, in between the economic abuse God condemns and the justice God announces, there’s a whole story of turning. There’s a whole rainbow of promise.
The first thing to know about this turning: It is slower, and harder, and far more colorful and beautiful than we might realize. The second thing to know is this world-changing work is actually far more possible than we might realize.
Because it’s not magic. It’s tender, intricate, heartbreaking soul work. It will take fifty years, then another fifty years. It will make us look back and think, how could I have said that?! We’ll confess, and repent, and try again and again… We’ll try to prove Maya Angelou right who says, “When you know better, do better.”
The reason God wants us to change is not so we can become somebody we’re not. Exactly the opposite! God wants us to change —and keep changing— so that we might become —and keep becoming— who we really are…
This is how we can live into the fullness of our truth. This is what it is to let our light shine. Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s magic. It’s not magic; it’s a lot of work. Don’t let anybody tell you that your light doesn’t matter. Letting your own light shine is how the world gets changed.
On January Twenty-Seventh Two Thousand Nineteen, the people of Church of Peace United Church of Christ voted to become an Open and Affirming congregation by adopting our ONA covenant. And it’s not like doing this flipped us from being anti-gay to —Abracadabra!— now we’re gay-friendly. That’s not it.
For as long as I’ve known Church of Peace, our church has been genuinely welcoming. We’ve had openly gay individuals serve on our church staff and on our church council and preach from our pulpit. We have received visitors with authentic kindness.
We’ve also been a little fearful of our own welcome. Look it would be fine if a lesbian couple or a transgender person happens to find us, but actually going out and inviting people to church, that’s different.
We’re a little afraid of what might happen if we hang a rainbow flag outside. Maybe that will make us look liberal, and we don’t want to alienate the conservative members of our family… Maybe the flag will offend passersby who happen to be homophobic… I mean, is that what we’re worried about?
I know we’re a little afraid of putting ourselves out there. But I also know, this fear is not our truth. Our truth is our deep compassion; this compassion is the heart of Church of Peace. God knows that. We know that. All our German ancestors, all those who have gone before, all the saints of the church know that our compassion is our truth.
Our Open and Affirming Covenant is one part our best attempt to honestly and accurately name what our welcome really means. It’s also one part the commitment to keep changing, to keep becoming who we really are until we’re not afraid of our own compassion.
Isn’t this the worship I choose, says the LORD, that you will not hide yourself from your own kin… Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.
With this covenant, we’re a people making the commitment to let our light shine. Don’t let anybody tell you that’s magic. It’s not magic! Don’t let anybody tell you that our light doesn’t matter. Letting our light shine will change the world. It gives glory to God who knows us and loves us.
Then the Holy Spirit who sings the earth into being, who puts confession into our hearts and apologies on our lips and rainbows in the sky, the Spirit will see Church of Peace coming out, our light breaking forth like the dawn, and she’ll say, O Hallelujah! I’ve been waiting.
Footnotes [ + ]