A liturgical year ago, last Pentecost, I had the honor of preaching at a friend’s ordination in Michigan. Ordinations are always festive; all the clergy dress up in red and process down the aisles, and the candidate gets to pick all their favorite music, and everyone is usually really happy, and there’s lots of laughing and crying because you get to see this long journey come to fruition. The Pentecost decorations gave the church some added pizzazz, although I have to say, it was not nearly as pizzazz-y as this. But the paraments were red, and they had released red balloons that morning, which hovered all over the ceiling.
For this particular ordination, however, there was even more celebration than usual. We were ordaining the first openly gay person of color in the Reformed Church in America. And we were feeling extra celebratory because getting to his ordination had involved a whole lot more trouble than usual. His home church withdrew their support and wouldn’t let him be ordained there. People who had promised there would be no problem suddenly turned their backs on him, including writing letters to every other church in their area expressing disapproval. We worried about complaints being filed, and possible protesters showing up at the door, and whether we would have a quorum present to make the ordination legitimate. So you might say that our relief lent considerable extra joy to our celebration.
And then my friend Jonathan stood behind the table to preside at communion for the first time, and a lot of us already had tears in our eyes. But as he spoke the invitation and the prayer, one of the balloons started to drift down from the ceiling. I suppose I should have been concentrating on my prayer instead of looking around, but I couldn’t take my eyes off this single red balloon, slowly falling right over Jonathan’s head. He, being a good new minister focusing on doing his first communion properly, had no idea any of this was happening. But when he prayed, “Send your Holy Spirit upon us, we pray,” that red balloon dropped, and rested on him.
It’s unfortunate that most of the detractors didn’t attend his ordination, because I think it would be really difficult after that service to keep believing that the Spirit had not called and gifted Jonathan for ministry. But then, I don’t think it should take a wonky balloon to see that, either.
LGBTQ inclusion and affirmation has been part of the identity at Mt. Auburn for a long time, and here it is assumed. It is a given that we will celebrate Pride month, that we will open our arms to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, that we will see the Spirit’s gifts poured out over LGBTQ people just as the Spirit is poured out over straight and cisgender people. We take this for granted, because we see it all the time. This is us.
But for a huge part of the wider church, this is unbelievable. Even more than that; it is unallowable, that openly and proudly LGBTQ people should be equal recipients and conduits of God’s Spirit.
It was unbelievable, and unallowable, for a tiny, traditional church I knew in New York near the one where I served. But then they were in a pinch and needed a part-time pastor, and it was my friend Jonathan who happened to be there and readily available.
Now, if I had said to them, “I have a gay, Korean minister for you,” I think they would have had a collective heart attack. But they needed someone, and so they accepted Jonathan, even though he is obviously Korean and doesn’t exactly fly under the gaydar. This church was full of pretty conservative people who struggled with their theological convictions about homosexuality, but they love Jonathan and see the gifts of the Spirit in his ministry with them.
Slowly over his months with them, they have started to wonder if maybe their theology and their experience could be reconciled somehow, and so they asked him to lead them in a study of sexuality and gender in the Bible and Christian theology. And the strangest things have started to happen in this tiny church that was on the verge of closing its doors. People have started to talk about their gay and lesbian children, who they always thought the church would judge. And some of those children have started coming to church with their parents, now that they know it’s safe. Members have reconsidered their positions on marriage – even that one conservative guy everyone thought would never be able to move an inch (you know there is always one in every congregation). The pews are fuller, and the church doesn’t look quite so much like it’s on its way to ending its days. There’s an energy there that hasn’t been there for a long time. They are being renewed, as they open themselves to the idea that the Spirit is poured out on ALL people, even those they least expected.
As I said earlier, we sometimes take this for granted around here. You all have been explicitly including lesbian and gay people for longer than almost anyone in the mainline Christian church. But one of the points of Pentecost is that everyone was caught by surprise: at the wind rushing inside a house, or these weird flames hovering over everyone’s heads, or the sudden sound of their own language coming from someone who had no reason to speak it, or the fact that this was all happening to and through a bunch of Galileans who had been hiding out, waiting who knows how long for God knows what, and were discredited as drunks. The Spirit is going where she will, and no one can predict her, and no one can limit her. In fact, she seems to delight in showing up exactly where she is least expected.
And although we might find it easy to believe that the Spirit is poured out on LGBTQ people, it’s likely that there are other works of the Spirit that we would find a little more unbelievable. Maybe even unallowable. But where we would predict and limit the Spirit, there’s a good chance that we will find her, wild and holy, challenging our assumptions and pushing our boundaries, always expanding our ideas of who and how God blesses.
So the challenge for us is not to think we’ve already got it figured out. Because I have a hunch that we could be doing better with the beloved bisexual, transgender, and queer people of God, and with asexual and intersex and other people whose letters get trailed off the end because there are just so many letters as we expand our language. We could be doing better with people of color, or with people who live in poverty, or with immigrants who don’t share our language or customs. We could be doing better with…well, we don’t even know who the Spirit is breathing on and through that we don’t expect.
In addition to being Pentecost, it is Pride month, and I understand that it’s usually a month of great celebration here at MAPC. And we will be celebrating during June, and giving extra emphasis to our history as a congregation with a long history of including and embracing those who have been outsiders to so much of the church. But this year we’re going to build up to that final Pride weekend with the parade on Saturday, and Pride Sunday worship, and my installation in the afternoon on June 25. We’re going to build our rainbow throughout the month. And with each week and each color, we will explore some of the ways the Spirit is poured out in ways that we perhaps do not expect.
In the meantime, I want to invite each of us to use this month to think about what limits we try to place on the movements of the Spirit, in ourselves and in others. We will have several opportunities this month to consider who it is that we would find unbelievable, or unallowable. How might we begin to open ourselves to the movements of the Spirit, even when they are unexpected? Who is God speaking to and through? Who is the Spirit calling us to speak to in their own language – even if we don’t think we know it? How might we build a rainbow in earnest, not just in our worship space but in our lives, embracing all the broad diversity of God’s creation?
I also used this Mary Oliver poem in worship as a benediction, and God bless my congregation, almost all of them let me anoint them with glitter as they left, as a reminder to shine with the firelight of the Spirit that has been poured out on them.
likes to dress up like this:
shoulders, and all the rest
in the black branches
in the morning
in the blue branches
of the world.
It could float, of course,
but would rather
plumb rough mattter.
Airy and shapeless thing,
the metaphor of the body,
lime and appetite,
the oceanic fluids;
it needs the body’s world,
and the dark hug of time
to be understood,
to be more than pure light
where no one is —
so it enters us —
in the morning
shines from brute comfort
like a stitch of lightning;
and at night
lights up the deep and wondrous
drownings of the body
like a star.