[Sermon] Transcendence: A Heretic’s Call to Service

I led my first worship service this morning, marking the official start to my career in ordained service. Several folks who could not attend have asked for a copy of the text of today’s message, and so I have elected to post it here.

I wanted our hymns and special music to be an integral part of the narrative arc of my call to service, so the sermon was delivered in three parts (see reflections, below.) The fact that I knew I wouldn’t make it through the whole thing in one shot is irrelevant 🙂

Without further rambling, here is the text as written for the three reflections and centering that made up today’s worship service. I suspect there were minor variations between the written text and what I delivered, but such is the way of things.

Reflection #1 – Remembrance

When Sean asked me to prepare and lead this service, he did so because my journey to ministry, to service, had officially restarted. He felt – and I agreed – that this beloved congregation deserved to hear my authentic voice, telling my story, and enjoining us together on a most noble path.

To that end, you should know that I have spent the vast majority of my life very angry with God.

As a child, I would demand answers to childish questions. Why, God, wasn’t I born a girl? Why, God, do my prayers for relief go unanswered? Do you even exist, God?

And when those answers didn’t come, I got angrier. Much like a child, I threw tantrums in the face of the Divine. Then, as an adolescent, I asked questions full of faux intellectualism, yelling and shaking my fist at clouds in the sky.

I asked questions like: If God is in everything and is everything, how can others blindly cling to doctrine that says otherwise? What does the conflict between Church laws and compassion do in our society except perpetuate pain and misery? Does God even exist?

The youth culture I grew up in reinforced the “Believe in God as we present Him or burn in hell” philosophy. This is the culture that railed against games, against music, against free expression and intellectual rigour. This was the Moral Majority in action, and it convinced me that my gender identity was nothing more than a delusion, my unique cross to bear, something that I could be cured of if I just prayed hard enough.

I was on the threshold of adulthood when my Methodist pastor at the time, Rev. Dr. Henry Oakes Jr, sponsored me in a three-day spiritual retreat. This retreat contained an silent and solitary overnight vigil in the spirit of contemplation and reflection. As I sat in the pre-dawn silence then, I heard the words of John 1:5 ring clear: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” That verse still resonates with me today as strongly as it did then, and I have had twenty years to hold in my mind. It brought all of my adolescent struggles to a peak, I forged a relationship with Dr. Oakes based in my questioning of Scripture. Dr. Oakes asked me during one of those discussions to consider a career in ordained ministry. To enter a period of discernment and contemplation. To accept the call I had that morning and be confident, to be bold in my commitment.

The verse gave me a new mission, a new lease on life. My personal mantra became “I am not broken; I am not overcome.” Plans were laid, conversations were had, and my fourth day began.

That all changed at the end of my sophomore year in college, when the Church demanded a sacrifice. Myself or my calling. My identity or my ministry. “You cannot serve two masters,” they said. “Choose the Church or choose yourself.” I could only serve by living a lie, and I raged.

I raged against the temples of wood and stone, temples built to capture and contain the boundless Divine. I raged against the hypocrisy that denied a woman her ordination and her service because her name happened to be Andrew when she was born. I raged against the Divine over my own Sisyphean stone, and asked again those early childish questions of why I was born into this world, why does my suffering go unresolved, why.

…and when it all became too much to bear, it was made clear that there was no longer a place for me in the church of my youth, and I turned away with a broken and defeated spirit, bitter and wounded by the sting of betrayal.

I tried other careers instead of a life of service – soldier, peace officer, data analyst – all of which starved my soul, all of which reminded me that I was ignoring my call. Over time and through the influences of abusive partners, I forgot who I was, who I should be, and what I was capable of doing. I was a broken vessel, my heart turned out upon the sands.

By the time I moved to Chicago, I forgotten how to love, how to trust, how to hope, how to dream – all because I had forgotten how to believe. I had forgotten how to stand in the presence of Divine and say in my own voice “Hello and welcome! Hosanna! Shalom Aleichem! As-Salam-u-Alaikum! Merry meet and merry part!”

(Here is where our Music Director performed “If I Stand”, by Rich Mullins)

Reflection #2 – Prescience

As the recession wound down in 2010, I lost my job when my division was sold to a competitor. That was when I found myself sitting on my porch in Humboldt Park, holding vigil, sitting shiva with my life, and staring a pre-dawn sky oddly reminiscent of one twenty years prior.

“I cannot go on like this,” I said to the moon as it shone bright over the lake. “This is not who I am, this is not what I should be doing.” I quit fighting the darkness and surrendered to it, allowing what light I still carried, a tiny candle burning in rage, to be snuffed out by fear.

As I sat in the quiet, the cigarette in my hand burning low, I remembered that verse from long ago – “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” I latched onto it as a newborn latches onto a blanket, and I held it as a balm to my scarred heart. It was time to build some new way, whatever way that was, however it may be, however it may come, because the status quo was no longer sufficient.

 

The Greek word, αἵρεσις (phonetic: airetikós), has its roots in the verb “choose”. This word evolved into the English word heretic, meaning one who does not conform to an established attitude, doctrine, or principle. An iconoclast, dissenter, freethinker. The night I chose to be true to myself first and foremost was the night I chose a path which was at odds with the orthodoxy of the world. There was no place for me in the faith of my youth, for I had grown beyond the need for faith – or so said my anger issues with God.

As I began living an authentic life, I reclaimed parts of myself lost along the way. Poetry. Art. Writing. Yes, even faith, hope, and Love. In those ditches of self-reincarnation, I rediscovered my long forgotten call to service. With that call came new religious questions. Deeper questions. Better questions.

My personal theology became a constant reminder that I cannot see the totality of the Divine; that it is far too great for me to comprehend. Instead, each of us holds a shard of a broken mirror, and only by combining those shards can we see a reflection of all that is, and only then can we truly see and understand our own selves in the context of the Universe.

I believe that being called to be a heretic is being called to be someone who dares to defy the dogma of intolerance and hatred in our society. I now understand that I am called to be Love in the world, to bring my passion and my pain to bear against the injustices, the hatreds, the discords that ripple through our collective consciousness. I am called to be someone who can enkindle a fire for Justice and for Love, a fire which will inevitably shake the very foundations of our world.

The Love I am called to be is the Love that transforms the weak and reforges the broken. This is the Love that defeats those who stand against Her, and shelters those who stand in Her arms. Love sheltered me and taught me the most the most unorthodox lesson of all, how to love myself, and now it is time for me to learn to love the world.

(Here, we sang hymn number 1017, “Building a New Way”)

Reflection #3 – Transcendence

The first time I attended services here, it was this beloved congregation’s motto that struck right and true: “Rooted in Love, Reaching for Justice”. Coincidence? Not likely – for the Universe often thinks she is quite funny.

Love has come to define my actions – and it empowers my activism, the same as it does for each member of this beloved congregation. We are one family, and we are all called to be heretics: to hold our religious views in such a way as to defy the world’s belief that not all of us deserve the basic affirmation of our inherent worth. We must be bold in preserving our fire of commitment to love the world, expecially when we would prefer to burn it down.

If we are to reach for justice, we must act in spiritually grounded ways at all times. If we are truly rooted in love, then we must be bold in the openness of our vulnerability. We must, to quote Brennan Manning, find where the outcast weeps. We must sit with them, and each other, holding the broken pieces of ourselves, hands outstretched, saying “Here is my heart, show me yours.”

To reach for justice and affect spiritually grounded social change is to not be driven by visions of a utopian ideal, but rather by compassion and empathy. Every one of us is broken in some way and loving that brokenness means engaging with the marginalized and the oppressed from a place of vulnerability – vulnerability to their anger, to their rage, to their pain, and especially to their humanity. Spiritually grounded social change is allowing ourselves to be small in the light of those voices we would rather forget exist – and to lift them up and celebrate them anyway.

This kind of social change is compassionate in its application. It is meeting another person in the darkest of the dark places, sitting with them, and simply listening. It is affirming the essential humanity of us all, and it is being comfortable with the reality of always being uncomfortable. It is radical and intentional inclusion – it is loving all whom we would not choose to be our neighbours. It is loving ourselves, and learning to love others. It is being Love in motion.

When I revisited that twenty-five year old call to service, I realized that I had been asking the wrong questions – and I began to ask not why, but how: how to transform, how to serve, how to give voice to the voiceless. How to heal others using the empathy and wisdom I have gained by knowing so intimately what it means to be broken. How to guide, how to lead. How to say “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out together.”

The more I asked myself how to serve this ideal, the more I learned to love myself. As I learned to love myself, I learned how to forgive God. I continue to forgive God each time I choose to love this conflicted and troubled world, and I forgive God each time I dare to love a world that chooses hate and violence time and time again.

These days it is not just Brennan Manning who echoes in my head. I have Audrey Lorde in there reminding me to care for myself, Tolkien reminding me that wandering does not mean I am lost, and Rumi reminding me to be quiet and still and loud and passionate. I have Maya singing my soul to rise, I have Emily reminding me that the sky is painted with many-coloured brooms. I hear Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas: “Split wood, I am there. Lift a rock, and you will find me.”

I am called to be heretic, but I am not alone. We are each called to be heretics, placing ourselves at odds with orthodoxy, loving a world that forgot how to love itself. As I begin this long-delayed journey to ordained ministry, I ask each of you to search for the outcasts, the misfits, the broken among us. If we can recognize the broken without, then we can celebrate the broken within. We can be bold in our vulnerability from a place of empathy and compassion.

Once an outcast herself, this heretic has found a home. A home where she is affirmed, where she has learned to trust again. She stands today in this sacred space, on this holy ground, and she asks you the question that lives at the heart of her call and her personal theology: How can I serve?

Centering

Please join me in a moment of centering, in the spirit of prayer or meditation.

In this silence, this quiet we have created for ourselves, let us look inward and find the flame of our love for the world. Find it, cradle it, nourish it – let it grow in both brilliance and strength. Let it break over you like a wave. Let it fuel your soul’s rising, let it fuel your heart’s call, let it fuel your hands in service. Let it fuel us, in union and in concert, as we break words with the world and as we act in the name of Love and Justice. We will now hold this space for the period of several heartbeats.

[Pause]

Amen

Blessing/Benediction:

May the Divine of our understanding be with us this week, as we move about and love this unloving world. May we remember that we are our harshest critics, and may we remember to love ourselves as we would love each other.

Be well, gentle people, go in peace. Amen.

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