The work of hope

Dr. Dorothee Benz

April 17, 2010

MIND worship service, Memorial UMC, White Plains, NY

Romans 5: 1-5

A number of people suggested that I use this time of reflection to share a more personal side of myself, talk about why I am committed to the work of ending the church’s prejudice and discrimination against gay and lesbian people, what keeps me going. So I’m going to attempt that. Though I think a better question is why did I volunteer to give a sermon in front of a room half full of professional sermon-givers? Talk about intimidating!

As some of you know, I had had hopes to become one of those professionals myself. When I went to college I had plans to become a minister. But the year that I came out as a lesbian was the same year that the General Conference of our denomination voted to bar lesbian and gay people from the ministry. I was outraged, and I abandoned my plans for seminary because I knew that I could not go back into the closet.

I spent the next 20 years in an odd combination of spiritual wilderness and faithfulness. I threw myself into social justice work, and made a career in communications and public relations in the labor movement. I was too angry to set foot in a church. Yet I couldn’t let it go. I wrote articles and letters to the editor on the church’s sin of homophobia. I never gave up my membership in the United Methodist Church. And because my father was the finance chair of my hometown church and he explained to me how apportionments work, I also kept up a pledge.

Then one day two decades after that General Conference vote, I walked into Park Slope United Methodist Church in Brooklyn and the first thing I noticed was the church’s creed, which explicitly welcomes gay and straight people alike. I knew that I was home, that I had found a church that accepted all of my God-given self. I hadn’t been at PSUMC long when the church leadership asked me to chair the Reconciling Committee.

I thought I said “no. “

I had just finished writing and defending my dissertation and I was busy falling madly in love with this incredibly charming alto in the choir. The last thing I wanted was some new project. But the “no” didn’t take, and the rest, as they say, is history. I went on the chair the Park Slope Reconciling Committee for three years, which got me involved in conference work, and I became a founding member of MIND and MIND’s chair.

So the first answer to the question “why do I do it?” is because I was called to do it. I didn’t choose this work, I didn’t want it, but clearly I was called to do it. So I’m doing it.

The second answer to “why do I do it?” and especially “why do I keep doing it?” has to do with a certain obsessive compulsiveness that comes with being an organizer.

I see opportunity and potential almost everywhere I look.

I think about our annual conference witness and I see the opportunity to speak directly to every church in the conference, the potential to turn the silent majority of liberal allies into a force of active resistance and opposition to church law, maybe even the potential to one day turn the stage of our annual conference into a prophetic pulpit for social justice.

I think about the hate crimes symposium MIND and MFSA and others are planning for November and I see the opportunity for healing and community, the potential for a new powerful coalition that brings together people across boundaries of race and ethnicity and sexuality. I see the possibility of breaking silences in communities where violence and oppression are not spoken about.

I think about meetings like the one I attended at SPSA last month full of passion for justice, and I see the potential for a transformative new ministry; or the people from Diamond Hill, which became a Reconciling congregation last fall, full of energy and ideas.

I think about our presence at the Gay Pride March, the opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands of LGBT people whose only experience of Christianity is one of rejection and condemnation and put a flyer in their hands that says “God made you queer. God loves you queer. Anyone who tells you otherwise is full of it.” I think of the enormous liberating potential in that message, and how powerful it would be coming from people whose own church perpetuates the rejection and condemnation.

But the thing is, realizing any of this potential takes work. That’s the secret of organizing, and it’s why organizers are always tired. It takes work. For Gay Pride someone’s got to write the flyer, print the flyer, get the volunteers to hand it out. At annual conference, if we want to change hearts we need to talk to people one-on-one. To break the barriers of silence around hate crimes, we have to build relationships. It takes phone calls and meetings and planning, over and over, time, energy, sacrifice.

One of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King is “Progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men [sic] willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

So, for me, I do the work because I see in each piece of the work the fruit it might bear, and I know that nothing will come to fruition without that “tireless effort” and “hard work” King talked about.

You know that circus act where the guy gets a plate spinning on top of a pole, and then he starts another plate spinning on second pole, and a third and a fourth, and then he runs back to the first one to give the plate another spin as it’s slowing down so it keeps going and he keeps running from plate to plate to refresh the spin to keep them all going?

Well, that’s kind of how I think about the work. Which is not to say that my life is a circus, though it certainly feels that way sometimes.  Here’s the annual conference plate…here’s the Web site plate…he’s the plate for Saturday’s meeting…oops, the hate crimes planning plate is getting wobbly, better give it another spin…

But the point of the circus act is that it’s one guy running ragged between all these plates, whereas my job as an organizer is to get a plate spinning and then grab someone from the audience and get them to keep it spinning. And the more people we can get up on the stage spinning the plates, the more we can get done.

But it’s not just about more people spinning more plates, doing more work than one person can.

There is something that happens when someone takes on plate spinning, something internal, transformative. When people take a step into active social justice ministry, they become actors rather than observers on the stage of life. They – we – become people who can no longer simply “accept” that things are a certain way; we know that we can act to change them. In the face of injustice, we come to understand not just that we can and must work to overcome the injustice, but that we can live justly now, even in an unjust world.

I think this is one of the meanings of the story in Luke chapter 4 (I know, that’s not the scripture for this morning) when Jesus stands up in the synagogue and reads from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

You know the story, right? He reads the scripture, sits back down and then says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Part of this story is about Jesus claiming the mantle as the anointed one, but the thing that jumps out at me is the “today” part. Jesus comes to proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free. He’s not waiting till the laws change and the captives are given amnesty or the rich agree to a redistribution of wealth to the oppressed. No, he’s here to claim justice now. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.”

Today is the day to let the oppressed go free. Today is the day to live justly. Today is the day to dissent in a nation that imprisons more of its population per capita than any other on earth. Today is the day to oppose the social inequality that gives the richest 1% in our country 70% of the entire country’s financial assets while one in seven people – and one in four children – live in hunger or food insecurity. Today.

We can live justly today, even in an unjust world. I am not saying that injustice will end simply because we choose to live justly; no. Though I am certain it cannot end unless we do. But what I am saying is that when we live justly there is justice present in the world even amidst injustice.

Justice, and hope.

I need to say a word about hope.

I’m no expert in scripture, so I can’t really explain this morning’s scripture passage from Romans [Romans 5:1-5]. I’m not so sure that suffering produces endurance or endurance character and character hope; the world is full of far more people who have been broken by suffering than those who have been strengthened by it. But I have always been struck by the phrase “hope does not disappoint us.”

I have never thought of myself as a very hopeful person. I’ve always fancied myself too world-weary, too sophisticated, too cynical to have much hope. It doesn’t really go with my image of myself. But in wrestling with this text this week I am finding that I am in fact a profoundly hopeful person.

Hope is not a passive thing. “Gee, I hope the church stops discriminating.” “I sure hope that immigrants stop getting scapegoated and exploited.” “I hope it doesn’t rain today.” No, hope is the belief that God is an active presence in the world, that justice is possible. Hope is the insistence that we live as though all things are possible in God.  When we live justly, even in an unjust world, that is what hope is.

And “hope does not disappoint us” because that commitment does not depend on outside events. It depends only on God’s presence, on God’s love “poured into our hearts,” “the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” We do not need to wait for human institutions to do right and live in hope. The Holy Spirit is in the house! We can be a justice-seeking people now.

Sisters and brothers, we do not have to wait until the Book of Discipline changes to stop discriminating against each other! We can decide to stop discriminating now. We can live justly now.

Why do I do this work? Because somewhere along the way this is exactly what I realized. I do not need anyone’s permission to live justly. Not the Book of Discipline’s. Not the bishop’s. Not the cabinet’s. And that’s true for all of us. To paraphrase Gandhi: We can BE the church we want to see in the world.

Isn’t that what being an Easter people is all about? Believing that God can do anything and living and working in the world as though the impossible were possible, even in the UMC, and making it possible by letting God work through us.

I hope so. That’s why I’m here.