In my previous post I outlined 4 different components of my personal spiritual path. One of those components was identified as being a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence. I noted that even though the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is not a religious organization, that I experience being a Sister as part of my spiritual path. Last week, I received a short notice request to be the guest speaker at a local church. The invitation was to preach in full habit as a Sister Krissy Fiction. This then, is the sermon I delivered on Sunday, November 6th at the evening Elevation service for the Metropolitan Community Church of Portland.
The MCC is a Christian church, and the sermon I shared is within the Christian paradigm. I have to admit, it’s been a couple of years since I have intentionally worked within that specific paradigm, and it was interesting, considering that in the sermon I talk about struggling with the label “Christian” and I no longer use that label as a descriptor of my spiritual path. I originally wrote the sermon when I was serving as a Youth and Family Minister at a United Church of Christ denomination after I read Stealing Jesus by Bruce Bawer. His depiction and interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan really opened it up for me. I retooled the sermon for this occasion and included the mission of the Sisters in it. So despite these little qualifications, it was a fun experience and I’m still proud of the sermon.
Promulgate This! The Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Gospel of Radical Inclusion
You are, after all, hosting official heretics. The story goes that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have actually been declared heretics by the Pope himself, but whether that is history or legend is hard to tell, as is true with much of our colorful history. One thing I do know is that Bill O’Reilly doesn’t like us, and that’s official enough to be considered a heretic in my mind.
In reality, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is not a religious organization. We are a modern day order of queer nuns who are striving to serve, educate, and heal our communities. Many times we do this through promotion of safer sex practices. We do fund raising for HIV/AIDS service organizations. And sometimes we try to raise people’s level of consciousness also. There is no requirement as far as belief goes to join. We have members who are very spiritual and we have members who are very NOT spiritual. Some Sisters are true atheists. Some consider themselves spiritual in a general way, but not in any specific way. Some consider themselves Pagan. Some consider themselves Buddhist or Hindu or what have you. And yes, some do consider themselves to be Christians.
For myself, my spiritual label has been something I have struggled with. Although, that has not always been the case. Let me share with you a little bit about my background. I’m now 40 years old. Yes, it’s true, clown makeup does wonders for your skin. I came out as gay when I was 18. At the same time I was getting interested in church and spirituality. I started attending a conservative Christian denomination. There was immediate conflict between what I perceived as two different sides of me… and over the course of a year or so, the conservative Christian side won out. I started to believe that homosexuality was a sin and became involved in the Ex-Gay movement. Blah blah blah, I’m sure you all know the drill, right? So I got more and more involved in my church, and over time I decided I wanted to go into ministry. That’s exactly what I did. I went back to school in Minnesota to train as a minister in my denomination’s ministry training school. After graduation I was assigned as a Youth and Family Minister at a congregation in San Antonio, TX. After that, I was assigned to work with youth at our mission in Dourados, Brazil. And during this whole time I was doing the ex-gay thing. I even got married to a woman. And I did not struggle with my identity as a Christian. In fact, I knew I was a Christian and everyone else was getting it wrong.
But I *was* struggling with who I was as a sexual person… which eventually did lead to a crisis of faith… which lead to me leaving my wife, leaving the church I was in and relocating to Oregon. And so here I was. I didn’t throw away my spirituality, however. I eventually moved into a more progressive form of Christianity and got back into ministry. I served as an openly gay youth and family minister at a United Church of Christ congregation in Beaverton. I was serving in a CHRISTIAN church. You would think I wouldn’t struggle with that label, would you? But I did struggle.
I’m going to tell a quick story that illustrates that struggle and then I want to hear from some of you.
Who here remembers when the move The Passion of the Christ came out? It received a lot of attention from conservative and Evangelical Christians at the time. I decided I wanted to go see what all the fuss about. The movie came out on Good Friday, and so before the movie I went to a church service. It turned out to be a very moving church service. I recall that it had a big impact on me and that I left the service feeling… CONNECTED and part of the Christian community.
After the service, I walked out of the church and back into the real world. I got in my car and headed over to the movie theater. Standing in line, I had a very different experience than I had just had in the church.
As I stood in line, I was immediately aware that there were other Christians there also. In fact, many churches had strongly encouraged all of their members to go see the movie. Waiting there for the movie to begin, I overheard snippets of conversations, people talking about their faith, and I realized that many of the people around me experienced their Christianity in a very different way than I do. In fact, an older woman standing next to me saw that I was reading a book. It was a book that I was reading for one of my classes at Marylhurst, with something vaguely religious in the title. She smiled at me, nodded approvingly and asked, “Oh, so you are a Christian?” She said it more like a statement than a question. I didn’t hesitate in my reply: “No, actually. I’m not.”
My reply didn’t seem to register with her. She simply continued smiling and turned back to talk to the people she had come to see the movie with. I watched the film, but on my drive home I thought about what happened. Why had I answered her question that way? Was I a modern-day Peter, denying Jesus in the face of persecution? The woman certainly posed no threat to me. Hadn’t I just come from an experience where I felt a deep affirmation as a follower of Christ? How could I go from one extreme to the other in one single evening?
But really, I know why I answered that woman in line the way I had. I knew that I was not a Christian in the way that she probably understood what it means to be a Christian. I knew that, even though I belong to a Christian church, and identify as a follower of Christ, I probably did not fit inside her box labeled “Christianity.”
Have you ever felt that struggle? Have you been embarrassed to state what your spiritual preferences are? [Allow time to share]
Part of the problem is our use of language. There are so many words that are just loaded with assumed meanings and history of meanings. Sin. Salvation. Bible. God. Even Jesus. And Yes, Christian. All of these are words that convey meanings to us. To some of us, they are words that have been used to injure and hurt. Sin is a biggie. How many of us have had that word pointed at us as if it were a weapon? Even the words salvation and Jesus can be used to hurt when they are used in a way that leads to exclusion and oppression.
The word Christian, in today’s society has almost come to be synonymous with conservative, evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity. How many times have you read an article in the newspaper or in a magazine that refers to “Christians” but after reading it you think, “That’s not the kind of Christian I am!” What the author of that article was really talking about was conservative Christians.
The religious right have defined the word in a specific way: To be a Christian you need to believe a certain way. You need to give intellectual assent to a certain set of formulated propositions. Primary among these is that the Bible is completely infallible and without any error. Following from that you must believe that God created the world in six literal days. Adam and Eve were literal historical people. There was a real worldwide flood. The virgin birth is historical fact. Jesus lived a perfect life and the depiction of his actions in the Gospels are true historical facts down to every single detail. And there are, of course, more. If you give intellectual assent to these facts, then you are a Christian, saved and bound for heaven. If you do not, then you are not a Christian, destined for an eternity of pain and torment in hell. So much for God is love. This is what the word Christian has come to mean for many people. It has been swiped out from underneath us and ignores the spiritual experience of many in this church and other mainline protestant churches.
So I move through this life sometimes feeling like a follower of Christ, but seldom feeling like a Chrisitian.
I find comfort in the story of the Good Samaritan. It is one my favorite stories from the Bible. The story goes like this: One time a lawyer came up to Jesus and asked, “What can I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, who was always a good counselor, asked him a question in return. “What do you think?” The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “You do this and you shall live. You do this and you will live eternally.” The lawyer, being a little defensive, asked Jesus to clarify: “Well, who is my neighbor? What do you mean, neighbor?” Jesus looked at the young man and said, “Let me tell you a story. There once was a man walking down a road…” And Jesus tells the well known story.
What Jesus talks about in this parable is a road, and he tells us which road it is – it’s the one between Jerusalem and Jericho, two cities in the heart of Judea. On that road, a man is beaten by robbers and left half-dead on the roadside. Since the temple was in Jerusalem and since many religious leaders lived in Jericho, it’s not surprising that the first two passersby are Jewish religious leaders, a priest and a Levite. Both ignore the dying man. But a Samaritan – a native of Samaria, whose people were despised by the Jews of Jesus’ day – comes along the road, sees the man dying, binds up his wounds, takes him to an inn, cares for him, and pays for his lodging.
Which of these people, Jesus asks, proved himself a neighbor to the man? The lawyer gives the obvious answer: the Samaritan.
But the parable is so familiar and has been told so many times that I think that it has lost much of the impact of its original telling. For us today, a Good Samaritan is someone who does a good deed. In fact, there are hospitals all over the country named after the Good Samaritan, bringing home the point that one of the messages of this story is that we should be reaching out to those in need. Our neighbor is the person who is hurting.
That certainly is one of the messages of the story. It is not the only message of the story. The beauty of the parables that Jesus told is that they often work on so many different levels. They are detailed, deep, profound, and they often have several truths buried deep inside them.
One of the most comforting truths found in this story would also have been one of the most shocking to Jesus’ listeners. Perhaps the only way to really convey how shocking this story really was would be to retell it from a modern perspective. [Acted out charades style by volunteers from congregation] So, imagine if you will, a woman traveling on Interstate 5 between Portland and Seattle. She gets a flat tire on her car, so pulling to the side of the freeway she stops and flags someone down to help her. Only, instead of help, she gets robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road. The first person to pass by is a fundamentalist preacher. He sees her body, but assumes that she is dead. “She must have been a horrible sinner,” he thinks, “For God to punish her this way.” He hurries home and writes a powerful sermon about the wrath of God and the danger of sin. The second person to pass by is an Evangelical pastor. He sees her body and wonders if she had accepted Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior before she was attacked. He rushes back to his church and organizes a big evangelism event to bring the Gospel message to freeway rest stops, so that people will have an opportunity to ask Jesus into their hearts before anything bad happens to them. The third person to pass by is a Moslem. The Moslem pulls over, calls 911, goes to the Hospital with her, and spends the night with her until her family shows up and he is sure she is okay.
Jesus’ question would be this: Which of the three acted as you would expect a Christian to act?
Actually, today’s Moslems and the Samaritan in Jesus’ story might have much in common. Both come from a foreign land where the customs are misunderstood and looked at with suspicion. Both were feared and hated by those in religious power at the time. Both are the last person that most people then, and people now, would expect Jesus to hold up as an example of what it looks like to please God.
There are many truths told in this parable. Most sermons will dutifully, and rightly, point out that one of the truths of this story is that the message of Jesus crosses all national and racial borders. We too should to reach out beyond national and racial borders. Recasting Jesus’ story in the south during the Civil Rights Movement might have the Samaritan as Rosa Parks.
But there is another truth in the story that I think is even more radical than the message of racial and national equality. In fact the story was so radical it might even go beyond casting the Samaritan as a Moslem, as I did. We could recast the Samaritan as a gay man or lesbian. Or even better yet, a Wiccan or modern-day Goddess worshipper. Someone who would be seen as anti-establishment and totally out of favor with the religious powers-that-be.
The shocking, radical truth of the Good Samaritan is that the one who is considered outside of God’s kingdom is the model of what it means to live a Christlike life.
If the Samaritan could be lifted out of Jesus’ story and set down among us today as an actual living person, practicing the same virtues that he does in the story and the same syncretist faith that an ancient Samaritan would have practiced, many of today’s Christians who claim to accept this story as a lesson in what Christianity means would insist that despite his virtues, this man’s failure to confess Christ as his lord and savior condemns him to hell.
Yet the very point of this story is that in the only sense of the word that would have mattered to Jesus, the Samaritan is a Christian. He is that model of what it means to live a Christlike life. He hasn’t been baptized. He doesn’t go to church. He doesn’t believe the right doctrine, and nowhere in the story does Jesus ever say he converts or imply that he should. What the Samaritan does is simply this: He loves his neighbor – and he recognizes that a neighbor is not just somebody who lives next door, or looks like him, or shares his beliefs and prejudices.
This is an incredible truth. It gives me hope, and it gives hope to others like me. Other outcasts. Others whose spirituality defies easy descriptions. Others who are living spirituality outside the box. The truth is that God’s box is always bigger than the boxes others make for us or that we make for ourselves.
In fact, this is really what the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is all about. As part of our vows as Sisters we vow to “promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.” Big words there. I’m going to break it down in reverse order. Stigmatic guilt. What the hell is that? Who here has been stigmatized? Give me some examples… [wait for response] So stigmatic guilt is the labels that have been placed on us. You’re a fag. You’re a dyke. You’re a tranny. Even heterosexuals get it. You’re too sexually promiscuous. You’re a whore. You’re a loser who will never amount to anything! But what does expiate mean? Anyone know? [Response] To repair. One of the main ways the Sisters do this is through humor, irreverence. Many people have been hurt by organized religion. Far from mocking religion, by bringing humor into the situation and allowing to people laugh at and with the Church, we allow them to heal from those hurts. How about promulgate? Who knows what that means? [Response] It means to announce. So we are announcing universal joy. Within the Christian framework that might be announcing agape love, unconditional love.
So putting it all together, our message is this: You are not defined by the labels that other people have placed on you. You are loved and worth loving, just the way you are. No exceptions. Period. Exclamation point. And we are here to remind you of that as often as we can.
Our mission, and one of the key messages of the story of the Good Samaritan is a challenge to practice radical inclusion. And you know, before we all get too smug, this is not as easy as it seems. I know that many of us are part of a minority that has been particularly excluded. It’s easy for us to sit here and say, “Yeah! Include me you jerks!” But it goes both ways. Conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican are just more labels. For some of us in this room, the shocking truth of this parable would challenge us to reach out and help the Fred Phelps and Maggie Gallaghers of this world. It would challenge us to stop shouting at each other and build bridges. They won’t listen? They won’t change their mind? Even more of a reason that the burden is on us. Anyone can reach out to someone who is grateful and gracious. Profound teaching comes when we can reach out to those we dislike, and even hate, or hold resentment towards. Just something to think about.
How has this church has reached to practice radical inclusion? What are areas for growth? As a church? Personally? [Conversation with the congregation]
I invite you to be a Samaritan. I invite you outside the box with me. I take joy knowing that many of us are already there. I look forward to exploring together as a community – both as the LGBT community and a spiritual community – to “go and do likewise” following the model of the Samaritan. I rejoice that God’s love is big enough, deep enough, and wide enough, to include all of us.
Amen. A-women. A-transexuals too. A-whatever. Can I get a hell yeah!?