Making All Things New
First Sunday after Pentecost • June 16, 2019
Scripture Lesson: Isaiah 43:16-21, Matthew 21:42-43
(New Revised Standard Version)
I was talking with a friend recently, when all of a sudden he turned to me and asked me this question: “Do you think the church is dying?” So I stopped and thought about it for a moment. The first thing that came to my mind was how much how much I love the church– how much I love the church and how much I want to see it thrive. The second thing that came to my mind was how I had just gone to school for three years to earn my Master of Divinity, and how the little job security I had was wrapped up in the continued existence of the church.
But then I thought about what happened at General Conference earlier this year– where the Methodist church voted to reaffirm their discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ people. And I thought about the recent statement coming from the Vatican, which claimed that trans and gender-nonconforming people are unnatural. I thought about the many white churches and wealthy pastors lining up to support cruelty and evil in the halls of power, and the many more churches that have chosen to remain silent… I thought about small churches all over the world that are struggling to exist simply because human beings are struggling to exist.
So I turned to my friend and I said, “Yes, I think the church is dying… but we know from the Christian scriptures that death is not the end of the story. In every death there exists the possibility of new life. And as resurrection people, we know that there are forces in this universe more powerful than death.”
Something you might know about me is that one of my pet peeves is when people make broad, generalizing statements. So I’ll have to beg your forgiveness because I’m going to test out a broad, generalizing statement right now. I think that every single person in this room has been hurt by Christianity at some point. Every single person in this room has been hurt by Christianity at some point in their life. Maybe it was the workings of the institutional church, or maybe it was denominational politics, or maybe it was simply the actions of people who claim to call themselves Christians. Every single person in this room has been hurt by Christianity… And yet every single one of you decided to be here this morning.
You know what that tells me? That tells me that every single one of you knows what it’s like to love something that has failed to adequately love you back. That your faith has seen injustice, it has seen heartbreak, it has known loss and rejection. And yet– your faith is deeper than all of those things combined. So when I say the church is dying, I look out at all of you, and you know what I see? I see the resurrection.
I want to talk to you this morning about faith. Not the faith that comes from a list of doctrines but the faith that lives in your bones. Faith that abides with you in every breath. Faith that holds on to hope even when there is no apparent reason for hope. Faith that carries you in your most sorrowful moments. I want to tell you about both the faith of queer people and the queerness of what it means to have faith.
Sometimes it can feel like the walls of reality are closing in. No matter how hard you try, you can’t get the results you want. Maybe you’re struggling with addiction and every attempt to quit seems like it falls flat. Maybe you’re facing an illness right now and it’s hard to get the treatment or support you need. Maybe you’re facing rejection from your family. Or maybe you’re looking at the world around you and noticing the many ways that injustice rears its ugly head. It can be hard to believe that a better future is in store.
But we heard two promises from God in this morning’s scripture. The first goes like this: “Do not remember the former things,” says God, “I am about to do a new thing.” -- A queer thing (that part is my translation). “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Can you imagine that. If you are living in the desert, there is one thing that is both scarce and necessary for life and that is water. But God will make a river anyway in the barren places of your soul for the sole purpose of sustaining you. Would you be able to trust in that promise? It’s not easy. Cornel West said it well, “I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope.”
Now everybody knows how to be optimistic. Optimism means that you have looked at the circumstances, and measured the odds, and you think it is more likely than not that you will get the results you want. But optimism is bound to disappoint you eventually. Because optimism means you think you know exactly what your deliverance will look like. But God does not operate that way. If you call out to God in the midst of your own personal wilderness, God will show up– I guarantee it– but God will almost never show up in the way you are expecting.
That’s where hope comes in. Hope means having faith that God will make a path in the wilderness long before you actually know what that path will be. In fact, it may be the case that you will not even see the path until after you have finished walking it. And you will turn around only to find that while you took each step in faith alone, God was carving out a path for you the whole time. There can be new life, even in the midst of struggle- especially in the midst of struggle- but first you have to believe that new life is possible.
The second promise we heard goes like this: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Allow me to tell you a little about what a cornerstone is, if you’re unfamiliar. In a building, the cornerstone forms the foundation where two walls meet. It’s literally the stone in the corner. But here’s the thing– it’s the most important part of the whole building. Without it, the rest of it comes crumbling down.
So God is doing a new thing. And this new thing will not be brought about by the rich and powerful. God has chosen the poor, the week, and the outcasts to build a new reality. Not only are they building it, they are the most important part of God’s new thing. Without them, it would crumble.
Now this is a very queer thing. Because trans and queer people know what it’s like to be the rejected stones. So allow me to say very clearly for you right now: queer and trans people are the future of the church. We are the cornerstone and without us, everything else will crumble and God will do a new thing elsewhere.
But God’s new thing is also queer in this way– God is will break down the harmful binaries, expectations, and stigmas that imprison all of us, and not just LGBTQ people. Because we’re lying to ourselves if we don’t think that cisgender and straight sisters and brothers aren’t also hurt by homophobia and transphobia.
It is this vision – that liberating vision– that gives me enough faith to hold on to hope. God is doing a new thing. God is doing a new thing here at Church of the Village. “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
I want to tell you a little bit about my journey with you here at Church of the Village. When I arrived at this community, nearly three years ago, it was during a transitional period in my life. I had just moved to a new city, to attend a new school, to follow a calling that God had placed on my heart. I knew two seemingly impossible things: the first was that my denomination would not ordain me because of my queer identity. And the second was that God was leading me to ministry anyway.
I was born and raised in the Mennonite Church, where LGBTQ people are treated like lesser members of God’s family. So one of the burning questions on my heart was whether I should find a denomination where I would have an easier time being ordained and getting a job. That’s when I found you all. Here at Church of the Village, I found the same struggle I had left back home– a denomination that refuses to honor and respect all members of its family. But I also found something new that I’d never seen before. There’s hope here. There’s joy here. There’s love and community and life in the midst of the struggle. This is the kind of church where, just a couple months after the denomination voted to condemn LGBTQ people, we decided to throw a whole worship series about ‘Celebrating Queerness.’
Coming here I learned a valuable lesson, God was not calling me away from the struggle of my denomination. God was calling me to find life and hope in the midst of struggle. God is doing a new thing here at Church of the Village.
I feel at home in this church in a way I had never felt at a church before. I am not simply tolerated here. I’m not treated like an issue that needs to be discussed in hushed tones. I’m celebrated here! My queerness is celebrated here!
So I have been journeying with you for nearly three years. Last month I graduated from Union Theological Seminary with my Master of Divinity, ready to see where my path would lead next. Truth be told, I had thought that maybe while I was in seminary, there would have been some change in my denomination. Some reason to hold on to hope. But that change never came. My denomination still will not ordain LGBTQ people.
I applied to pastoral positions anywhere I could but I ran into brick walls every time my queerness came up in the conversation. Most Mennonite churches believe strongly that LGBTQ people should not be welcomed within their walls. Some churches said “we welcome LGBTQ people as members here but we haven’t discerned yet whether you can be a pastor here.” Others said, “we’re afraid if we hired you, it would make this church a target” Still others said “We’re sorry but we just need more time.”
I had believed that if I took a leap of faith by going to seminary, God would catch me on the other side. But that didn’t happen and I found myself in the midst of a new spiritual wilderness. All I had was my faith to sustain me– faith that God would make a way in the midst of this new wilderness.
When I was a child, one of the great stories of faith that was told to me was that of Joshua and the city of Jericho. Joshua and his friends had journeyed to Jericho. But when they got there, they found that Jericho was surrounded by one very large wall that could keep them all out. But God said to Joshua that if he believed enough, the walls of the city would crumble at the sound of seven trumpets.
So Joshua, got his pals together and they blew into their trumpets, and sure enough, the wall of the city that was meant to keep them out, came crashing down at their feet. The moral of the story, I was told, was that anything could happen if you have enough faith in God.
But the part of the story I wasn’t told, is that before the Big Event, God told Joshua to gather his friends and march around the city once a day for six days. That means that Joshua had his little pride parade around the city six times with no tangible results before the miracle could happen.
Can you imagine how foolish they must have looked to the people of the city? If I were Joshua, by the third or fourth day, I would have considered throwing in the towel and going back to the drawing board. But Joshua was motivated my hope, and not optimism. He had no earthly reason to think that the sonic vibrations of his trumpets could collapse a fortified stone wall but he had enough faith to know that God would show up somehow.
But isn’t this so often how it goes for those of us involved in the struggle? We resist, we persevere, we march, we give of ourselves and yet six times out of seven we do not see the result we are yearning for. And yet we are sustained by our hope in the new thing that God is doing. And in the meantime, we struggle, and that is never easy, but there is life to be found in the struggle. God will make water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert!
I have to imagine that, even if it made no sense, for the six days that Joshua and his pals marched around the border of Jericho, they were happy, they were celebrating, they were throwing a party. In the same way that LGBTQ people marched in pride parades for decades before gaining a modicum of respect in this society, but knowing that the struggle would become meaningless if it were not a joyful one, Joshua celebrated long before he could see what God would do. But he did know, like we know today, that God is doing a new thing. “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
So I can’t help but think about the walls that the institutional church has built to keep me away from what I am called to do. And if they have not fallen yet, it only means that the 7th day has not yet arrived. But I will continue to march, and to celebrate, and to live in defiant joy until it does. And in the meantime, you– all of you in this church– have shown me what it looks like to have joy, to have community, to have hope, and to have life in the midst of struggle.
What are the walls in your world that need to come crashing down? What is the path that God is calling you to march? What is the melody that God has put in your heart that is so potent no wall meant to divide people can remain standing once you have sung it? You are powerful beyond measure, precisely because of your faith. The fact that you are struggling does not make you weak, it only makes you human. But God will show up. And it will almost certainly not be in the way you expect.
There was a moment several months ago when I had just come out of a painful meeting with a representative from the the church. This is the gist of what they told me: you can’t work at any of the churches in our area. We won’t hire you because we can’t ordain you and we won’t ordain you because we can’t hire you. You can hear the circular reasoning. I was bewildered. I want nothing more than to humbly serve and you won’t allow me to do even that.
After the meeting ended I needed some fresh air. I was furious with God so I went for a walk. And this is the prayer I prayed:
“God, I am only doing what you called me to do. You brought me to New York. You brought me through seminary. But now you have abandoned me when I needed you most. God, I’m not going inside until you explain yourself to me.”
And so I went to Riverside Park. And I marched. And marched. And marched and marched and marched and marched. And it was still winter so it was cold outside. I started to lose feeling in my toes and my face began to sting in the cold air but I kept marching, waiting for an explanation from God.
Finally, I stopped. Do you ever reach that point when you’ve been angry for so long that even you start to get over yourself? Well I reached that point. I was cold. I was tired. I was standing in the midst of my own spiritual wilderness. And there was a certain quietness in my soul. So I looked down at the ground this is what I saw: There was a crocus plant that withered and died during the fall and froze under snow during winter. And at the center of the corpse of this crocus plant, very near to the soil, were the tiny bulbs of young flowers emerging from the frosty ground.
For every death there is a resurrection. For every ending, a new beginning. For every winter there is a spring time. For every old thing, God is doing something new. Even the earth radiates with the resurrection of Jesus. So who am I to lose hope now? I follow a God who leaves no wall standing that is mean to keep people out. “I am doing a new thing,” says God, “A queer thing. I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”
So I went back inside, having heard the voice of God.
I don’t know what the future holds for me. But this is what I do know: God will show up. And until the day when all struggles end, I will continue to find life and hope and joy in the midst of the wilderness. God has not brought me this far only to abandon me and God will not abandon you either.
God is doing a new thing. God is doing a new thing in your life. God is doing a new at the Church of the Village. In this community, built from rejected stones, God is doing a new thing through each and every one of you. It gives me hope. You give me hope. Because the resurrection is already here. It is in this room!
So let’s share God’s new thing with the world. Let’s show them, even in the midst of trials, how joyful we are. How deep the bonds of our community run. How powerful our relationships grow. How much we support one another. The kindness in our hearts. The hope that keeps us moving. The faith that sustains us. The pride we have to be who we are. The boldness of our convictions. And the love we share for the Earth and all its inhabitants. “Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”
Copyright © 2019 by Scott Sprunger
All rights reserved.