We Are All Still Here

Rev. Vicki Flippin
August 30, 2013
RMN Convocation, Chevy Chase, MD
Acts 16:23-34

Watch the sermon here

I want to tell you some stories tonight. They are sad stories for now.

The first story comes  from Harlem, right across from my apartment building is Harlem Hospital. And this past Thursday, there was a sleeping beauty at Harlem Hospital. A 21-year old African American transgender child of God lay in a bed, peaceful as can be, as the machines that were keeping her alive were, one by one, switched off.

You see, two weeks ago, she was walking in front of a police precinct. And she caught a young man’s eye. But when he found out that she was born a man,  he hit her. She fell backward and hit her head on the pavement. And then he hit her again. And again. When he walked away from her, she was brain dead.

Her name was Islan Nettles. The man who walked away from her is today out on bail with a misdemeanor charge.

The second story comes from the Village in Manhattan. Just a few months ago, a child of God—an African American 32-year-old gay man—Mark Carson was walking with a male friend just a few blocks away from my church in the West Village, just blocks away from Stonewall. He was living his life the way he felt called to live: out, proud, sporting a handsome tank, cut off shorts, and boots. A group of men approached Mark and his friend and started harassing them about being gay. Then one of the men looked at Mark and asked, “Do you want to die here?” And he took out a gun and shot Mark Carson the face. Mark died that night.

The third story is a story that we tell in the church.Two men were walking together down the street, being themselves, living their lives the way they believed they were called to live. But someone who didn’t like who they were or what they did grabbed them and dragged them to a nearby police precinct. He told his friends that these two men were different and were doing things that were foreign and unnatural. And so they hit the two men. Then the police officers from the precinct walked over to protect and serve, and they tore the clothes off the two men so that they were naked.And they hit them with rods.

And when they all got tired of beating them up, they took the men to jail and walked away. One of the men was named Paul. His friend was Silas.

Before they walked away, the police ordered the jailer to keep them locked up tight. And the jailer followed orders. He put the badly beaten and bloodied victims in the most isolated cell and shackled their feet to the ground.

Now, I want to stop here and say something about the jailer. Because, as a United Methodist clergy person, there’s something about the jailer that I understand. In a way, I used to be him. I used to follow orders…even if it hurt people. I used to follow orders even if it hurt people who walked through my doors already beaten and bloodied. I used to tell people, “I believe God loves you just the way you are, but I have to follow orders. And my orders are to chain you in this back room of the church where you can wait separate and unequal until the day they decide to liberate you.”

I may not be the violent bigot or the corrupt police, but I understand the jailer.

After the jailer followed orders, Paul and Silas, bloodied and shackled, victims of hate violence, stopped and frisked, harassed, hurt, and held without charge, prayed and sang songs to God.

Ok….now this story is getting to be a bit of a downer! Let’s get to some happy in this story. Let’s get to the part we’ve all come out to Chevy Chase, Maryland to hear. Ya’ll, give me a happy drumroll.

Around midnight, the earth moved so violently that the foundations of the jail were shaken, And immediately all the doors of the jail were opened! And everyone’s chains were unfastened!

Yay! We’re free! Earthquake! Churchquake!

Ok—I have to tell you that when I heard that the name of this convocation was going to be Churchquake, My first thought was, Wouldn’t it be awkward if, right before Convocation, there was an actual churchquake? Like somewhere in the world there was a horrible earthquake and some church was destroyed and everyone died? That would be really bad and make everything very awkward for us here.

This earthquake seems like a happy earthquake that liberates the imprisoned and vindicates the oppressed.

But really earthquakes are kind of horrible.

It’s like polar bears: You know polar bears are the only bears that actively hunt and kill human beings, but then there’s that really cute stuffed polar bear cub that you buy for your little niece to cuddle with because that polar bear would never actively hunt and kill your little niece because it’s way too cuddly even though you know logically in real life it would actively hunt and kill her and then eat her mauled face off.

The polar bear and the earthquake are very similar. Even the story calls the earthquake so violent that it shook the foundations of the jail. It probably downed buildings. And killed people. And terrified people. And it was all happening in the spooky, uncertain darkness.

It’s the same with a churchquake. Sounds fun – but can you imagine if all the foundations of the church were shaken? If the institutional structures and the walls we put up to separate the sacred from secular, the clean from the dirty, the righteous from the unrighteous—if all that was shaken?

Sure, it would be liberating, but it would also be violent and terrifying. And we would be in the dark as to who and what would still be standing after it was all over.

When foundations are shaken, it is not cute and cuddly.

The civil rights movement was not a dreamy Dr. King standing  20 feet high looking off into the hopeful future with the light of heaven glowing down on his face. That may have been one aspect of one day of the movement, but more often it was organizers sweating it out in church basements in the South. It was unnamed people being beaten and arrested. It was subtle and not-so-subtle forms of intimidation and marginalization. The quake that shook the foundations of America’s racial segregation was bloody and sweaty and risky and uncertain for over a decade before any doors opened or chains unclasped.

So in this churchquake that we are witnessing in our time, we know that there will be liberation. We know that the doors will open and the chains will come undone. But we also know that there will be struggle and hurt and ugly.There will be risk and uncertainty and scary moments. And so we are here not only to sing and celebrate. But we are here to work our butts off and to strategize and to commit and risk our blood and sweat for this struggle.

So, to conclude that point: Earthquakes, churchquakes, and polar bears are terrifying and risky and difficult.

Alright, so back to the story. Violent earthquake, doors open, chains open. And the jailer freaks out. When he realized the doors were open  his response was to take out his sword to kill himself.

Now friends, this is deep.

This is not just some order-following yes-man. This man has had seen some deep and scary stuff if he would rather die than face the consequence of this. Maybe—I don’t know—he has heard of other jailers who have been put on trial and lost their jobs, who have been publicly maligned and censured and ostracized and shamed because they did something the system didn’t like.

Or maybe the jailer really believes that these walls and these chains are the only thing protecting the world from sin and perversion. And his life depends on the controlled, ordered, disciplined structure of this institution of “justice”. And so, when the walls and chains no longer hold, when all the foundations are shaken, there is nothing left to do but take his sword in both trembling hands, lift it high, and leave this world.

But then Paul shouts out of the darkness, “Do not harm yourself! Because we are all still here.” And because of those words, the jailer lowers his sword and lives.

We are all still here.

Now the first thing thought I have when I hear Paul say these words is, Why? Why are you still here? You are free. Go, live your lives. Shake off your chains,  and never look back at these walls that once held you captive. Why are you still here?

Sisters and brothers, look around you. We are all still here. Why?  We are free. We have felt in the darkness and realized that the shackles of fear and shame, the locked doors of self-loathing and Biblical confusion are all undone. We are free to just walk out of this walled institution that holds us back from the lives we feel called to live.

And yet we are all still here. Why?

Some of us are here because of mercy and grace. Because we used to be jailers.  we used to believe that those walls were the only thing that stood between us and chaos. We used to guard those locks and chains on others or on ourselves, terrified of what would happen if the shackles were broken. But one day, our foundations were shaken. and we came to love ourselves. We came to love the Queer people around us. We grew up and stopped believing the harmful things they taught us about what the Bible says. And everything about this whole church institution thing started to crumble around us.

But then someone—maybe a campus minister or a youth pastor or a friend in a progressive church—maybe someone sitting next to you right here in this room—shouted out in our darkness and confusion, and said, “It’s ok! We are still here.” We can live on together and we can worship God and we can cherish the Bible and we can resist evil without putting up walls, without keeping some people in chains. We’re going to be ok. We’re still here.

We get the jailers.

And we know that a lot of the people who still guard those walls and chains—a lot of them are just terrified hearts like we were,  and we want to still be here when God shakes their foundations so that they may live and be saved.

So some of us are here because of grace and mercy.

And some of us are here because of justice and righteousness.

You know, later in the story, the authorities send their minions to tell the jailer to release Paul and Silas. But Paul says to them, “Hell no!”

He says, “You know what?  We are no different from any of you. We are citizens of this empire. And these people dragged us through the streets, stripped us naked, beat us up, and threw us in jail. All for no reason. There is no way we are just going escape into the night like we did something wrong.”

Some of us are still here because we refuse to escape quietly into the night. As though we have been on the wrong side of the church. No, the authorities and the magistrates and the crowds of this church have done wrong. And we will stand here proud and strong, and we will witness the moment when God’s justice and goodness comes to the United Methodist Church.

So whatever our reasons, we’re all still here.

The jailer put down his sword and fell trembling before Paul and Silas and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

And Paul and Silas had an answer right away, like they get asked this question all the time! They looked at that jailer and they said,  “Well, Dummy! All you have to do is believe in Jesus!”  And then they led him through a three step process to salvation.

Step 1. He invited his whole entire family to join him in following Jesus.

Step 2. He washed the wounds of the people who had been hurt.

Step 3. He—a Gentile jailer—invited these Jewish prisoners to step out of the walls and chains that used to divide them, and he welcomed them into his home to eat at his family dinner table.

And that is what his salvation looked like.

And that is what our salvation looks like.

Now, let me ask you a question If a representative of the church institution that has hurt you and pained you came to this Convocation and was convicted of the church’s sin and kneeled down trembling before this body and asked, “What must we do to be saved?” what would you say?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I came here to dream up an answer to that question. I’m tired of waiting for the church to save itself. I want to be the saved church. I want to be the church that follows Jesus. Later, when they ask, we can show the rest of the church what salvation looks like. But I want to live it out now.

So dream with me: What would a saved church would look like? How about a church that washes the wounds of those it has hurt. How about a church that preaches that the most important thing about you is not who you love but how you love, is not your sexual organs or gender expression but your heart for God and your expressions of love, justice, and courage.

Or a church where—now this is a tough one—a church where we examine our privilege. Our white privilege, our U.S. privilege, our heterosexual privilege, our gender-conforming and cis privilege, our class privilege. So that the people of color among us from every nation, the gay and lesbian and bisexual and trans and gender-nonconforming and intersex folks among us, the homeless and impoverished youth and adults among us can find a truly safe sanctuary, a true home at God’s table.

How about a church whose whole family, not just the northeast and northwest, not just the white liberal churches, not just the U.S., but the whole family is baptized in the waters of grace and reconciliation. So that our Queer youth and adults can walk into every United Methodist Church in every hometown and find a safe space.

How about a church where all pastors and bishops fear God more than they fear losing power and authority.

Now, that would be a saved church, don’t you think?

A saved and a saving church, where people could actually be saved in the church rather than from the church.

I’m excited to be a part of that church!

And I know we’re on our way. And we’re gonna get there. Because we are all still here. And God is still here. And it’s gonna be risky and uncertain and hard…and awesome.