I’m about to fall asleep, lying down on the ground in a carpeted church hall in Gulf Shores, Alabama. To my right and to my left are my fellow undergraduate classmates. We’re all on a habitat for humanity spring break trip through our Catholic church. I’m the student leader, the “one in charge,” since the church chaperone couldn’t join us this year. The room is quiet. We’re in that space between staying awake and falling asleep, our bodies relaxed, and ready to rest up before another long day. I overhear a few of my fellow students talking in the corner of the room, quietly enough that some of the others probably couldn’t hear, but enough for me to hear them clearly. “She’s a lesbian!” followed by joking and restrained laughing.
I lay there, holding my breath, trying to listen in a little deeper. I quickly realize these three boys are talking about me, and not just talking about me, they’re laughing at me. My heart starts pounding. I feel a rush of heat all over my body. I’m thinking to myself, “Oh god, they know. They know about me, they’ve found me out, what I’ve been trying to keep hidden all these years.” I ask myself, “Do I stay here, pretend to sleep, pretend I don’t hear the laughing, and act as if nothing happened tomorrow morning? Or, “Do I stand up, confront them, claim who I am…what do I do?” To my surprise, I did the latter. I burst up out of myself, yelled, screamed even, telling them to stop, to get to bed, even swearing because I was so angry. Nothing else was said. They stopped, walked back to their beds, and the room fell silent again. As I laid back down into myself, my mind was racing. “Did the others hear us, does everyone know who I am now, what am I going to do?”
A few days later, we traveled back home, unpacked the vans, and went our separate ways. I told no one. I never shared what happened with the leadership of my church. I never sought council with my priest. I was ashamed that I had been found out. That day, I left my church. I stopped attending mass, I stopped volunteering. I ran away from the church that had been my home for the last four years, believing I was unwanted, unwelcomed, unloved.
This, fortunately, and unfortunately, was the first time I was discriminated against because of my identity. And it came from the church, from other young Catholics, from justice-seeking students, who I believed sought to follow Jesus, to love and accept all people, as he did. This was the last place I had expected to face hate and rejection. How could I show love in return, when I felt so much anger?
Our scripture this morning, one we’ve heard time and again, urges us to love God, and to love others, just as we love ourselves. Even beyond that, to love our enemies, that is what God has commanded of us. The author of Matthew tells the story of a scholar among the Pharisees, who in an attempt to question Jesus and his authority, asks him a question. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus responds, “You shall love the Lord the God of you with all the heart of you and with all the soul of you and with all the understanding of you. This is the greatest and first commandment.” Jesus continues, “And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.” Ending his teaching he says, “On these two commandments the entire law hangs and the prophets.”
We can find these two commandments throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and into the Christian Scriptures. It’s a lesson throughout history. We learn these commandments as children to a point where we can recite them by heart. We probably get annoyed and mumble under our breath when we find out that THIS is what the sermon is going to be about. It’s true! We’ve heard this scripture a thousand times, what more is there to learn? I learn new things each time I read scripture. This text in particular has so much to offer, let’s see what can be revealed for us today.
In this passage, Jesus is encouraging the Pharisees to stop focusing so much on the details of the law, to stop being so infatuated with the rules of the law. Instead, Jesus pushes them to read and study the law through the lens of love. It’s a call to action, of sorts. Jesus is emphasizing to the Pharisees that they cannot love God, something they devote their entire lives to, without loving their neighbor - neighbor meaning everyone, even their enemies. They need to live out the law, not just through devotion and study, but through action, through commitment to their community.
This text encourages us to love one another, that’s clear. It is so comfortable and easy for us to be nice to those we love, at least most of the time. It’s fulfilling and rewarding for us. This text also calls us to love those we don’t feel love for. This is more challenging, to show that same kind of love to those we don’t know, those who are strangers to us, those we don’t understand, those who make us angry. What a demanding risk we are commanded to take on. This is a radical love - an unapologetic, unconditional, full and whole kind of love, the kind that comes from God, the type that Jesus lived out every day from his core. Can you imagine taking on this radical love? It’s not an easy task, to exemplify the radical love of Jesus through the way we live our lives, through our behaviors, how we treat and respect people. Jesus is asking us to care when we don’t care, to be universally responsible for those we encounter every day.
I remember as a young kid, rummaging through my dad’s drawer of buttons, hundreds of political buttons, campaign slogans to reelect so and so or pass this issue. I came across a black button with white lettering, a very simple pin. It said, “give a damn.” That phrase, in some small way, changed my perspective on life. Of course, the phrasing was racy because I could pin something to my shirt with a swear word on it. That was exciting! But it was a simple phrase that urged me to look beyond myself and my circumstances, to give a damn about people. Not just my family, not just my friends, but everyone. In this text, Jesus is asking us to “give a damn about one another.“
It took many, many years, before I could begin telling my story of rejection from the church, and to no longer feel shame for who I am. It took even longer to feel comfortable in church again, to create a spiritual practice for myself, to dive into social justice work, based entirely around faith, gender, and sexuality. It’s still a struggle every day. My experiences have created a drive in me that gave me no choice but to commit myself to justice, so that those who experienced discrimination could feel the unapologetic, unconditional, full and whole love of God. Radical Love.
Although I’ve developed a less angry approach to my story, it’s still challenging to love radically every day. One of my favorite quotes that has become a bit of a mantra of mine comes from one of my seminary professors, Dr. Cornel West. “Justice is what love looks like in public.” I’ll say it again. “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Could there be a better reminder that we are called to love?
Clearly I’m here today as Suzy, the queer catholic woman, sharing my personal story with you. I am also here as Suzy, the Faith Organizer of Equality Ohio. I am here with a request – a request to express your love through justice, to express your love through action, to give a damn. To commit yourselves not only to the ones you love, but also to the larger community. Although I have a deep love for Ohio, a love some find annoying and over-exaggerated, there is one thing that makes me feel ashamed as an Ohioan and as a person of faith. There are no statewide protections for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. I can be fired, denied housing, and even denied access to public accommodations, like restaurants or hotels, because of who I am.
My experience is my experience. There are many others here in Ohio who experience discrimination in a very real and harmful way, because they do not have equal protections. Here are some of those stories:
I am an elderly gay man, my partner is dying, I lose everything when he dies because he owns the estate we’ve shared for forty years.
I am a transgender woman who is denied an interview because my future boss is uncomfortable with how I dress.
I am a scared child of two moms who is unsure who will take care of me because my biological mom is sick and my other mom can’t adopt me.
I am the father of three children and partner to a wonderful man. When we sit down to enjoy a family meal together at our neighborhood diner, we are kicked out because the manager disapproves of our family.
My best friend is gay. Every time we walk through the school doors together, I see him tense up. Knowing it is just another day of taunting, pushing, and bullying.
My daughter is a lesbian. She and her fiancé have to travel to another state to be married, even though we all want them to be married at home, among family.
I am a genderqueer professional. I’ve been with the company for five years. I applied, but I wasn’t offered the promotion, even though I continue to watch my colleagues move up in the company.
After three years, my boyfriend and I finally took the plunge and applied to rent an apartment together downtown. We’ve done all the paperwork, called the office, and even stopped by in person, but were told our kind was not welcome.
What is your story? How have you experienced discrimination? How have those you love experienced discrimination?
Your mission here at the Village Church is, “Follow Jesus, Change the World.” Today is your chance to love radically and put that mission into action. During our moment of reflection, I am asking you to share your story, to share it not just with anybody, but to share your story with your legislator. They are the decision-makers who will decide whether or not LGBT people deserve protection from discrimination when they vote on the Equal Housing and Employment Act. Shortly, a few items will be passed around to you - you will receive a pen, a blank piece of paper, a step-by-step letter-writing guide, and an overview of local state senators and house representatives, to assist you in locating your legislator. Share your story as a person of faith, as a follower of Jesus. Tell them why it is so important to have protections for all people in Ohio, especially LGBT people. They represent you, tell them that justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is what love looks like in public.
God of transformation, God of justice, God of radical love,