Sermon “The Left Hand Church” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
Friday was National Coming Out Day, a day that is celebrated every year on October 11, the anniversary of the first “great March” on Washington in 1987.
The message and lesson of that march was simple: if every gay man, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person in the country were to come out of the closet and boldly proclaim themselves to their loved ones, there would be not one single person in the nation so could claim they’d never met one of us.
As the love that dared not speak its name was proclaimed, borders would be broken down. The feared, unknown would be made human. Hearts would be won.
I was there in 1987. The image I still have etched in my mind is after the event folks of all ages heading north up I-95 in Greyhounds, school busses, minivans and Mercedes convertibles, with rainbows all over themselves and their vehicles. We waved to each other in excitement. It felt like a convoy of queerness, and nothing was going to stop us.
Until we had to pee. Then, in the rest areas, there were so many of us in our rainbow glory that somewhere in New Jersey a woman ran out of a restroom screaming “they’re everywhere! Get me outta here!”
If I thought there was anybody in my life who didn’t know before that weekend, all pretense was blown away after that, so I acknowledge that weekend every October, resolute in the belief — no, the knowledge — that my feeling safe enough to come out made easier the lives of young people who continue to come up and come out behind me.
National Coming Out Day has always been celebratory. But for me, this year, it’s been hitting me hard.
We have a rainbow flag out front. Yay, us! And...it’s been stolen. Twice. In just a couple weeks. We had to move the third one onto the tree further from the road to keep vandals from getting it.
The Supreme Court this week, in the words of Masha Gessen in the New Yorker, “was hearing oral arguments in three cases, from New York, Georgia, and Michigan. Two had been combined, because both involved men who had been fired from their jobs after coming out as gay. In the third case, a transgender woman, who had been living as a man, was fired after she informed her employer of her identity and declared her intention to live and work as a woman. In all three cases, the plaintiffs were arguing that what had happened to them constituted discrimination on the basis of sex, which is banned by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
In other words, lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender folks may now have the right to marry on Saturday, but as we’ve known all along, we can still be fired on Monday for doing it, and this very conservative Supreme Court may just affirm the practice of discrimination for employers, landlords, and healthcare providers everywhere.
As more as our neighbors and families may be accepting, things haven’t changed for everyone.
Billy Bean knows this. He was the first Major League Baseball player to come out of the closet, back in 1999. Friday, during his City Club talk here in Cleveland, he said that everyday LGBT folks are put in the position of potentially saying or doing something that could rupture a relationship that is important to them, by simply being themselves.
That’s how real it still is in many places, the fear and mistrust of LGBT folks. Especially — and he acknowledged this — transgender folks, whose struggles, no matter well articulated they are, always seem to come down to the comfort of straight people in restrooms.
So it heartens me that here at East Shore, yesterday, true to form, we had a multigenerational salon, screening the 2017 Katie Couric documentary “Gender Revolution,” focusing on the experiences of transgender and intersex individuals. The hope, in showing this, is that we can provide a place of belonging for folks who don’t necessarily belong on either end of a gender binary.
In the midst of all of this, a couple weeks ago I read She’s My Dad, in which Jonathan Stone tells the story of his father coming out and transitioning to a new gender and a new identity as Paula Stone Williams.
Paula went through hell during her transition, being thrown out of the Evangelical “nondenominational” church. After a career of planting huge, successful churches — like start-up businesses with multimillion dollar budgets — all across the country, she was removed from leadership of her own organization.
The transition was also hard for Jonathan. He was a fourth-generation evangelical minister — on both sides! — and the lead minister in new and very successful huge church plant on Long Island. He lost his father, even if that father was just an image, and went through grief not unlike he would have gone through had Paul died. Jonathan experienced anger, denial, even bargaining — in the form of statements like “my father isn’t well... if we could just get him the right kind of psychiatric care — and finally just settled into acceptance. Even if it was difficult at first. Even if he consumed a lot of booze and botched a lot of sermons. He made it. With enough grace and personal growth to be able to share honestly about it.
The best thing about the story to me is that Jonathan was able to turn his church around. He and his ministry team lost a lot of members, but countering the teaching of their network of churches they came out in support of not just Paula but all LGBT people everywhere.
They turned their church from a profit-centered business into a CHURCH, driven by the mission of inclusion and a super-liberal theology I would call Universalist. And Jonathan himself says that It was Paula’s transition that led him to Redemption, to his belonging fully, for the first time, to the church Jesus intended.
AND Paula went on to co-found the Left Hand Church in Longmont, Colorado, where they are thriving.
The Left Hand Church. Isn’t that a great name? It conjures up so many images.
I think about how “Left” is shorthand for liberal, not just on Capitol Hill, but in the world of theology. We who believe in the the primacy of the human experience in making meaning of our lives and understanding the divine... we are lefties in the world of mainline Protestantism.
I remembered the old Muslim adage regarding charity and justice: never let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. There’s subversiveness there, within the expectation to act on behalf of the greater good.
I imagined the left hand church reaching out to the “undeserving poor,” the imprisoned, the queer; all the people left outside of the church, because when I thought about the Right Hand of God, and how when my mother was a kid in Catholic school, she got the last-handedness beaten out of her by the nuns.
I always knew that Jesus is said to sit at the right hand of god. Knowing that Satan was a fallen angel, I figured he sat at the left hand of God. Or at least someone really really bad. Like God was the guy looking into his fridge with Jesus sitting on his right shoulder telling him to have an apple and Satan sitting on the left telling him to go for the ice cream.
It got me wondering: am I right? Does Satan sit on the left side of God?
Well, it turns out lots of people do. Right there, right at god’s side on the left is the archangel Gabriel, who is said to have brought the news to the teenager Mary that she would soon be giving birth to a son who would be called the son of the most high.
But in the heavenly host, the panoply of saints and angels, the constellation that many UUs call the “Great Cloud of Witnesses,” a whole bunch of people sit all around God. On the right and the left.
There really is nothing wrong with the left, nothing to be healed or repaired. “The left hand,” means nothing like I thought it did.
On their website the Left Hand Church says “we chose our name because our location is on the south side of Longmont, Colorado, where Left Hand Creek joins the St. Vrain River.”
Businesses in the area have names like Left Hand Cafe and the Left Hand branch of the public library. The name had nothing do do with mission and everything to do with location.
The website continues. “We wanted a name grounded in the earth, in a specific place on our vulnerable planet. ... As a church committed to racial reconciliation, we also identify with the Native American chief after whom Left Hand Creek is named.”
So, their name DOES have something to do with justice and healing. Just not what I thought. And they have a great mission statement, even if it is long.
Married, divorced and single here, it’s one family that mingles here.
Conservative and liberal here, we’ve all gotta give a little here.
Big and small here, there’s room for us all here.
Doubt and believe here, we all can receive here.
LGBTQ and straight here, there’s no hate here.
Woman and man here, everyone can here.
Whatever your race here, for all of us grace here.
In imitation of the ridiculous love Almighty God has for each of us and all of us, let us live and love without labels!
How’s that for a mission statement?
I especially enjoy that last part. “In imitation of the ridiculous love Almighty God has for each of us and all of us.” It’s something to aspire to.
I could get comfortable with that. How welcomed into a place would you be if they offered ridiculous love? Crazy, limitless, joyful love? Not that they’d be perfect at it ... but they’d offer it. And work to make it happen. How welcomed would you feel?
Parker Palmer, author and spiritual guru, who also happens to be Erin Lane’s boss at the Center for Courage and renewal, says “If the church cannot encourage and support us in our full humanity, it does not have a future,
nor does it deserve one. Belonging is a lost art, up and down the generational continuum and all of us, no matter what our age, need [Erin Lane’s] lessons in belonging.” He describes the lessons of her book, Lessons in Belonging, this way:
Belonging to one another is our birthright gift.
Belonging is not a set of feelings we depend on but a set of practices we enact.
Belonging requires a choice to trust others and risk the consequences. When we risk trust, we risk vulnerability, which is what ultimately deepens our belonging.
Belonging requires discernment about which relationships and which communities can help us be and see ourselves rightly.
Belonging gives us what we yearn for—an exchange of gifts that brings reconciliation.
I don’t know about you, but I still like my own idea of the Left Hand Church being about mission and not geography. I like the idea of East Shore being a Left Hand Church that is liberal theologically, progressive socially, subversive in reaching out and advocating for the the cast-offs of the world, the people like Paula Stone Williams, whose very existence makes people question everything they think they know about gender or any other controversial topic.
The Left Hand Church I imagine isn’t one that pretends to be perfect. To fit everyone like a glove. It’s an organism, a dynamic entity that gets it wrong frequently, but learns from experiments. The place that says to any newcomer “if you’re worried that you can’t belong, because of the things you’ve done in the past, you needn’t worry.”
The left hand church that lives in my brain is the church that actually exists for Erin Lane and Parker Palmer and Paula and Jonathan Stone, whose faith isn’t just a set of beliefs or the group of people they hang out with. As imperfect as their denominations may be, and as much as they may have to change ranks in order to live it out, their faith is a way of life. The way of Jesus of Nazareth, who was an enemy of a colonial oppressor, who challenged the status quo firmly upheld by the prophets of his faith, prophets who slowly morphed into legalistic power brokers.
Their faith strives to be the way of a man who did everything to turn reality upside down by befriending the outcasts, touching the untouchables, learning from women labeled hysterical, and trusting them with the future of his people.
Whether you believe he was the messiah or not, those are lofty aspirations, and Lane, Parker and the Williamses have that kind of commitment. Their faith, if I believe their writing, is about that kind of commitment.
It leaves me wondering, “what does Unitarian Universalist faith look like?
Is there any?
Are we just holding on to some past glory that was all about being freethinkers in a world of “mad men” marching in lockstep with the expectations of a culture that demanded conformity, consumer consumption and cultural optimism in service of capitalism ... even as it blacklisted so-called communists, imprisoned queer people and devised basic rights in a system of separate but equal?
I don’t think so. I think we are more than just “free-thinkers.”
You may not know it to read the tepid language of our seven principles, printed so thoughtfully in the front of both of our hymnals, but this is a faith that demands participation, in our congregations and in the world.
Our UU faith demands that we place ourselves on the side of love in the culture wars, whether that happens to be on the right or the left or in the middle or up where there is no light or gravity and we can’t even tell any more.
We really are that left hand church that I imagine.
The left hand church is the one that gathers and works with the people of other faiths who are actually doing the work of their justice-loving prophets, as we follow in the footsteps of our prophets like John Adams, Hosea Ballou, John Murray, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Theodore Parker, Olympia Brown, Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Melissa Harris-Perry.
We gather with our Great Cloud of UU Witnesses, and do the work that we are called to do together, on National Coming Out Day or any day of the year. Even though each of us has felt those moments of disillusionment, when we’ve been out of step with the majority, or feeling put off by something someone else said it did that was hurtful or inconsiderate, we stay.
Because of this commitment our faith has to living in the tension of affirming individual worth and dignity and the interconnected web of all existence.
We stick together and stick it out, even when we feel frustrated at the pace of getting it right, even if we feel like giving up or taking a hammer to it once in a while, denoting it up so we don’t have to preserve a perfection that never really existed.
It’s good work we do with this Great Cloud. We are this Great Cloud.
May we do this work with the neighboring churches who share our values and commitment. May each of us be part of that work and share the ridiculous love we have for each other, our neighbors and the world.