By the sheep gate | 17 May 2015

Speaker: Carol Wise

Texts: Psalm 32; John 5: 1-9a

In my opinion, no other book in the Bible quite captures the depth and the breath, the valleys and the peaks, the challenges and the comforts, the joys and the anguish of faith quite like the Psalms. The simple movement from one Psalm to the next can take us from proclamations of hope, expectation and beauty then rudely thrust us into the painful realities of betrayal, struggle, violence and even death. The intensity of the psalmist’s swing from lamentation and groaning to shouts of ecstasy and victory is disquieting and has a way of catching us off guard and unprepared.

Sometimes in my work with the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, I feel as though I inhabit this intense, unpredictable and wonderful world of the Psalms in an almost frenetic and pervasive way. Life, as I have experienced it within the BMC community, often seems like a jarring oscillation between powerful forces where fragile hope is met with bitter disappointment, quiet joy with broken despair, fresh idealism with aching tragedy.  I cannot tell you the number of times that I have been ready to throw in the towel when suddenly I catch a whiff of something in the air, and I lift my head and inhale and, alas, it’s the sweet scent of hope, and I’m hooked again. Such turmoil can leave even the strongest of us unsettled and weary.

I am reminded of the magnificent novel by Toni Cade Bambara entitled The Salt Eaters.  It is an intriguing story about a Southern community’s complicated terror, fear, strength and deepest desires as they confront the struggles of a racist and wounding environment. The tireless, ever sturdy and dependable Velma has suddenly spiraled into the depths of despair. She is lost and sick, weary and forlorn, tired and broken. The old women of the community gather around to try and bring her home.

Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? …Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well. So speaks Minnie Ransom, the wise, eccentric healer to a confused and comatose Velma.

No sense wasting each other’s time, sweetheart…Can you afford to be whole? Can you afford it, is what I’m asking you, sweetheart, Minnie persisted. The women concentrate in silence and patience, for as Bambara tells us, they knew that “…sometimes a person held on to sickness with a fiercesomeness that took twenty hard-praying folk to loosen. So used to being unwhole and unwell, one forgot what it was to walk upright and see clearly, breathe easily, think better than was taught, be better than one was programmed to believe – so concentration was necessary to help a neighbor experience the best of herself or himself. For people sometimes believed that it was safer to live with complaints, was necessary to cooperate with grief, was all right to become an accomplice in self-ambush.”

There are many within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and allied community who are of the opinion that those of us who persist with the Christian church are deluded, naïve and compromised. The more vocal charge that our participation in these institutions of corruption and violence makes us culpable in our own oppression, an accomplice in self-ambush, in need of chastisement and repentance. Those of a more gentle persuasion may quietly suggest therapy. Others just shake their heads.

Although it pains me to say this, the critique has merit. We know that the Mennonite Church has hardly been a shining example of welcome and love towards lgbtq and allied people. Occasionally unwittingly, but now often quite intentionally, the church has done a great deal of harm to us, to our families, our faith and basic sense of human dignity and worth. It is convenient to characterize BMC as unruly militants who live to disrupt and cause problems for very innocent church leaders. However, in actuality much of our time is spent cleaning up the mess that the church has left behind in its pursuit of ideological purity, or its avoidance of conflict, or its deep seeded fear, or its preference for the comforts of ignorance and cheap stereotypes. Absorbing the blows of rejection, invisibility, fear and disappointment is a tiresome task that has a way of seeping weariness into your bones, of trying your patience, stoking your anger, and testing your resolve. 

Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? Echoes of the words of Jesus to the sick man by the Sheep Gate … Do you want to be made well?

This is a question that the lgbtq community has pursued with a painful and purposeful vengeance for decades. So used to being unwhole and unwell, we forgot “what it was to walk upright and see clearly, breath easily, think better than was taught, be better than one was programmed to believe.” Far too many of us sought healing in the hands of charlatans, or surrounded ourselves with walls of denial, or soothed ourselves with false promises, or wallowed in the depths of self hatred and despair, or agonized in the tormented silence of the closet, or found refuge in suicide.

But there was Harvey Milk encouraging us to come out to our families, and Audrey Lourde reminding us that our silence will not protect us, and Bayard Rustin calling for legal rights, and Martin Rock organizing gay and lesbian Brethren and Mennonites, and parents declaring unconditional love, and welcoming congregations opening their arms, and young Pink Mennos singing with a fierce pride and hope…so many nameless people and courageous acts until finally, finally through the din of despair and hopelessness we could hear the voice of Jesus, “stand up, take your mat and walk.”

It isn’t easy and our steps often falter. But I don’t worry a whole lot these days about the health and soul of our lgbtq and allied community. We have been bruised and battered, bewildered and betrayed, derided and debased, yet we are still here, laughing and singing, dancing and praying, speaking the unprounceable, loving and living with an elegance and pride that is persistent, resilient and wonderfully defiant even as we continue to swing between the confusing turmoil of the Psalms. Like the psalmist we heard today, we have confessed our sins of silence and shame and have been released to shout for joy in our liberation.

The broken, wounded and very fearful group of people that was at the focus of BMC’s outreach some forty years ago, has through its struggle and commitment to honesty and life, developed a passion, a spiritual grounding, a sense of purpose and meaning that is compelling and good, strong and sacred, hearty and healthy. The waters have been stirred up and although challenges always remain, as I look to the future my heart is made glad by the energy and quality of emerging leadership, the clarity of vision and the generosity of spirit.

Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? Yes, we’re sure! It’s hard work, but we’re all keeping at it.

And then my heart is broken. For there among the blind, the lame and the paralyzed, there sits Mennonite Church USA, the Church of the Brethren, Mennonite Church Canada: these stubborn, fearful, stumbling and hurting institutions that we still care deeply about, sometimes in spite of our better judgment. To these institutions we carefully pose two simple yet treacherous questions:  Do you want to be well? Are you ready to be healed?

Time is growing short. This obsessive, offensive, even perverted debate about lgbtq lives by non-lgbtq people is fast becoming stunningly obsolete. The issue that needs to concern us is not the morality of homosexuality or bisexuality or a queer or transgender identity. Rather, it is the morality and character of a church that persists in its hurtful practices of injustice, inhospitality and violence towards a particular group of people. The questions that I wish to explore are questions like these:

 What happens to the soul of a church that willingly and knowingly participates in the oppression of another?
 What does it mean for an institution to sacrifice a vulnerable group of people in order to maintain structures of power and control?
 What happens when sacred texts are used to justify these actions?
 What are the implications for our individual and communal lives when we impose moratoriums and demand silence about our lives and families?
 What does it say about our communal health when any discussion about the mystery and gift of sexuality becomes an invitation to judge the value of lgbtq lives?
 Who are we when our faith demands that a parent choose between her church and her child?
 How can we move beyond this fear that has so perniciously cast out love and diminished our ability to bring good news to all people?

Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? …Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.

It is not easy. It is going to take a lot of work and a lot of pain and a lot of faith to heal this fragmented and troubled soul that is the Mennonite Church. There are a lot of wrongs to be corrected that will require individual and institutional courage, risk, leadership and hope in things yet unseen. It will mean abandoning the presumed safety of conformity, linking our private confessions and our public statements, lifting a voice that resonates with our hearts.  It will mean breaking the awful silence that we think protects us, letting go of our fear, acknowledging our complicity, leaving the false security of privilege and place. It will mean relinquishing the morally dubious position of being personally supportive but publicly ambiguous. Most of all, it will mean approaching the dangerous, uncomfortable margins where the transforming spirit of God awaits.

While perhaps intimidating, welcoming congregations know that we need not be fearful because we do not come unequipped and we are not alone.  After all, between the pacifism and the feet washing and the holy kiss and the simple life, and the persecution, as Anabaptists we already have a sense of what it means to be a queer people at the margins. We get this! It’s in our bones as a people, as a movement that risked mightily for the sake of a pious hope, a spirit fed vision of what the kin-dom of God on earth might be like.

And as a church we also have our BMC community, this ragtag group that knows far too well from our days of shame, self hate and despair at the Sheep Gate that wholeness is no trifling matter. We are here to help. We are not going to beg, and we’re not going to do work that isn’t ours, and we’re not going to stop moving forward because we have toiled for too long and come too far to turn back now; but we are here. And we know, as you know, Columbus Mennonite Church, that in spite of all the risks and in spite of all the fear and anxiety and uncertainty, yes, yes, it is worth the struggle. There is “a lot of weight when you’re well,” but what joy, what freedom, what possibility, what hope. 

We all have lingered too long at the Sheep Gate. Across the centuries the voice of Jesus still beckons:  “stand up, take your mat, and walk! “

Carol Wise
May 2015