Pride & Prejudice
Happy LGBTQ Liberation Sunday to you. We are truly blessed to be gathered here in this sacred space in a spirit of inclusion, and freedom, and pride… celebrating and affirming each and all whom God has made in God’s own image.
Today, in part, we celebrate this church’s heritage of liberation and hospitable welcome to all experiencing various forms of oppression, namely on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. In 1970, it was in the building of our own Washington Square United Methodist Church (one of the congregations that makes up the Church of the Village) that the leading radical gay liberation groups that formed immediately following the Stonewall Uprising, the Gay Liberation Front, had one of its early meetings. And as many of you know, it was also in this very building that the first formal meeting of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, as it was formerly known) took place in 1973. Also, we remember one in the pastoral lineage of this church who was the first openly gay minister with a congregation in a major Christian denomination in the U.S., Rev. Paul M. Abels. And, there’s many more stories like these about our community for which we give thanks to God. It is truly among our greatest commitments to God and to one another and this wider community, to uphold and continue to expand that legacy of welcome, developed all those decades ago.
And, so, I would like to offer up for our own theological, ethical, personal and political reflection on this significant day, the sermon “Pride and Prejudice.” Is anyone here familiar the novel by Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice? Well, full disclosure, my sermon has nothing to do with that book. At least not that I know of… I just thought it was a cool title. But also, I think pride and prejudice are really helpful starting points as we hear what the Spirit might speak to us in light of today’s celebrations and today’s scripture.
I remember once a few years ago, I posted a quote on Facebook from the labor movement leader and activist, César Chávez, that read, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.” Immediately, the religious police descended upon the comments section of my page to tell me what the scriptures says about “pride” and how God condemns such an expression. Well, it’s true… In our faith tradition, pride is often identified as the root of all sins thanks to Augustine. One scripture utilized against the Chávez quote was from Proverbs: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” So, needless to say, in Christianity, pride in general gets a pretty bad rap.
Though I think it’s clear that this person and I weren’t talking about the same kind of pride, it seems helpful for us to think about pride more deeply as a faith community because of the negative perception of pride in our religion. Contrary to some church tradition, I think scripture and Christian experience demonstrate that pride is a very righteous thing to have… something that each child of God should strive to embody. And in part, its Paul’s letter to the Galatians that leads me to this conclusion.
A moment ago, Jenn read the words for us, “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.” Or, as another translation says, “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The situation in Galatia is that Jewish followers of Jesus are telling Gentile followers of Jesus that they have to be circumcised—or to have their traditional outward symbol of their relationship with God. They are saying if you believe in Jesus, you have to go through the way that we came. From the scripture, it’s as if Paul is saying, “No! These extra requirements to enter a loving relationship with God, these practices that do more to honor cultural norms than God, this letter of the law that ignores the spirit of the law is bondage… it is a yoke of slavery and Christ, through whom God has called you, has made you free! You don’t have to perform these acrobatics to be accepted as God’s own—God says that you are free! So you’re free.” Paul wants them to take a pretty bold and audacious step, one that requires some risk. They’re pretty new to the faith and Jesus was Jewish. So, “Surely the Jewish followers know better than we Gentiles,” they may have thought. But, no, Paul was telling them to tap into something deeper than tradition, deeper than religion or norms… to believe themselves worthy because of something that God had planted deep within them.
You know, I don’t know the religious affiliations, if any, of the people (except for one) who nearly 47 years ago threw off the shackles, the bondage of state and social oppression by fighting back against raiding police in what became known as the Stonewall Uprising. I think that in part they were led by something deep and enduring within them… something that caused them to stand firm, and never allow themselves to be bound again, as they had been so many times before that moment. And, I think that thing… that strength… that intrinsic anchor that caused them to tell themselves that they were worth fighting for… that iron-willed spirit sprang forth from pride. Pride that takes a powerful stand and says, “No! I know who I am. I am not ashamed of who I am. I am proud of who I am. I embrace and celebrate who I am. I fought hard to be who I am. I am here. We are here. And, no, you cannot beat us, and treat us like nothing because of who we are.” Pride stands against the harness of oppression, and demands freedom.
A similar thing seems to be going on in Galatia. “You are children of God,” Paul is saying to them. “God has called you. You are no lesser and no greater than anyone else, but you are God’s beloved. This may seem strange to disobey those who seem to have the authority, but the One who is above all authority says that you are in the family of God, and there’s nothing anyone can do about that. You are free, and don’t let anyone make you believe that you are not. You are free.” That’s the pride that the children of God, those made in God’s own image, have; that’s the inheritance of those who know that they are the beloved of God.
And this identity is something in which one ought to take pride. Because it’s this pride that leads to freedom that humanity did not give, and humanity cannot take away. But, it’s not just freedom for freedom’s sake. It’s not freedom that says “I can do whatever I want” because that would mean being a slave to one’s own desires. It’s a freedom that takes us and expands us beyond the little box that is only concerned about the self. (Concern about the self is important. But there’s more than just the self.) It’s a freedom, according to today’s scripture, that leads to love. Love of self? Yes. But also love of your neighbor. If freedom does not lead us to be whole in love, it’s not freedom. It’s bondage.
And that’s what Paul’s long list is about. In the NRSV of the Bible, he says “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Maybe that list sounds familiar to some people. Maybe you’ve heard it among the long list of things you can’t do if you want to be acceptable in God’s sight. But, it seems to me, the treasure of this scripture is in our freedom, in our liberation, in our free will we often long for things that promise fulfillment but never truly gratify—which is what I think Paul, in his 1st century way, is pointing to. Things that promise joy and happiness, that promise and promise and promise but never come through. And they leave us feeling empty… unfulfilled. That’s not the abundance of life and joy that God wants for us. Feeling incomplete… never really moving toward wholeness and healing… That is not the kin-dom of God. And even though Paul says, “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God,” it’s not to say that seeking after these things get us kicked out of God’s kin-dom… but rather, they so distract us from living into that kin-dom that leads to wholeness and fulfillment that we prevent our own selves from entering. And yet, thanks be to God, the good news is we are always welcome, and that invitation is always open to try again as long as we are here.
Friends, the scripture is revealing to us today that real freedom, true liberation frees us to love. And that’s not a cliché… it’s not a sentimental statement that everything is beautiful and okay, and we can skip in gardens hand-in-hand, and dance with the butterflies, and play all day because love is the way. There’s a time for time for this sort of lightheartedness, but that’s not all love can be. Love is not a license for inaction and passivity. Rather, love is our only and greatest means for transformation of ourselves and of our worlds for the better.
So love may look like a hug and a kiss after an argument. Or, love may look like demanding a change to our gun laws so that our siblings in a school, or in a theater, or in a dance club may be safe. Love may look like making sure trans folks, black or Latinx folks, women, immigrants, persons of differing bodily and cognitive abilities, and persons of lesser economic means are centered and listened to first even when it decenters me or stands against my own self-interests. When the time comes, may we who are made free in order to love know what love would do.
Now, I hope that I have not given the wrong impressions about pride and freedom and love, or that I haven’t given the sense that any of these things come easily. I am sorry if I have. I think this moment that we are commemorating through the Pride March, this anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, gives us a very clear example of the cost of pride and freedom and of love for oneself and one’s community. It leads us to ask, what do we do when our walking with pride is halted by the brutal and unfounded notion that we don’t deserve to have this dignity? This civil and social equality? What do we do when prejudice clouds the way to freedom?
Prejudice: a powerful and dangerous form of bias. U.S. history does a notable job of showing us the power of prejudice… that it’s not just as simple as disliking someone or a group of people for no reason, but that prejudice in the hearts and hands of the powerful can mean discrimination, can mean enslavement, can mean deportation, can mean death.
The four people on my shirt—Sylvia Rae Rivera, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Stormé DeLarverie, and Marsha P. Johnson—all women of color, three trans and one lesbian—serve as reminders, for me as a queer woman of color and for us here, they are reminders of the cost of freedom, but they are also signs of hope. They were at the front lines of the Stonewall Uprising, standing against the power of the state and a sociocultural setting that declared the existence of their communities unlawful and deviant. Already minoritized in a variety of ways, these women each took an active role in their own physical and social liberation (because inside they were already free) paving the way for so many of the freedoms that lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and questioning people and any others whose identity is labeled as sexual or gender deviant—those freedoms we experience today are because of them and those like them. Now, I’m not making an argument here for violent revolution or physical violence in general, but in their stories, in their witness there is a truth of what we must do when prejudice threatens our freedom.
When prejudice prevails, it is then that pride becomes even more vital. The strength to counter shame and bondage and danger with the acts of being more proud and more free and more committed to radical and transformative love is the most potent weapon we have against prejudice and its effects for ourselves, for our neighbors, for our world. When prejudice tells Syrian and Latin American refugees that they are not worthy of freedom, or that trans people are not respectable enough to be a part of gay liberation histories, or that Muslims are our enemies… all for no reason but unsubstantiated bias… that’s when we must even take pride in others as beings of sacred worth, and walk with them in the way to freedom.
And, even when our own judgments of ourselves based on internalized shame, guilt, and hatred tell us– and I’m not just talking to LGBTQ people here— it speaks to us all saying, “I am not worthy. My life does not matter. No one cares about me”… we have to listen for the voice of truth that says that are most authentic self is treasured in God’s sight, that we matter, that we are beloved just as we are.
And in that pride, we are empowered to do the difficult things that life sometimes demands… empowered to stand firm in the freedom that God has given us… and empowered to fight like hell if anything dares to take that freedom away.
May it be so.
Scripture Lesson: Galatians 5:1, 13-25