Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
Swiss UCC, New G larus
ONA Celebration Sunday
Shreveport, Louisiana, was in the news this week.
It is in the deep south, a solidly red state, so it may have come as a surprise to learn that the Shreveport City Council adopted a “Fairness Ordinance,” a local policy “to prohibit discrimination from employment, housing, and public accommodations based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
There is a great deal of language to unpack here, cultural shifts and developments that are foreign to us.
Without getting too far into the weeds with details and definitions, suffice it to say that Shreveport City Council made it as illegal to discriminate against people with “non-traditional” personal lives and family structures as it is to discriminate against someone because of skin color.
The Fairness Ordinance was supported by all members of the council save one, Robb Webb, who launched an effort to repeal it. He visited sympathetic religious groups quoting the bible to argue his position, and he gathered support from those who thought the idea was….well….who think such laws defies all that is sacred, sane, and Godly.
So this week, the City Council held a hearing to allow public comment of Webb’s proposed repeal of the law before holding the vote.
But Mr. Webb found himself unprepared for a bible-quoting, straight-talking, transgender woman named Pamela Raintree
There is a sentence I never thought I be saying to you.
Taking the podium, Raintree said, “Leviticus 20:13 states, ‘If a man lie also with mankind as he lieth with a woman, they shall surely put him to death.’ (Video)
She then set a rock on the podium and said, “I brought the first stone Mr. Webb, in case your Bible talk isn’t just a smoke screen for personal prejudices.”
Talk about a mind-bender.
Here is a person who looks like a woman—earrings, hair, clothing—but sounds like man, and who chooses to be referred to as “she.”
She quotes the bible regarding relations between men, counting herself as guilty and thus deserving punishment by stoning.
It is pretty clear that neither Leviticus, nor any other book in the bible, has anything to say about transgender people.
The bible does have something to say about throwing rocks at people, and Jesus has a lot to say about religious people who use laws and tradition to justify cruelty to others.
Look: I make no claim to superior knowledge here.
When I read the story I googled “transgender” so that I could clearly and appropriately talk with you today about about Pamela Raintree. Pamela was born as a man but identifies as a woman. She has made the transition from one gender identity to another.
I should have already had a clear understanding of transitioning because I have been in heated discussions with my daughters and their friends about pronoun usage.
They came home from college after having taken a class in Gender Identity in American Society and started to lecture me—A FORMER ENGLISH TEACHER— that the pronouns “he” and “she” are offensive and inappropriate to people such as Pamela Raintree. They told me that I should use plural pronouns to refer to individual—singular—transgender person: he or she, not they or them…I was neither open nor affirming to committing a pronoun agreement error as a form of advocacy.
I tell them that you can’t just mandate a change of language and grammar because you decide it needs to be changed—grammar and language are products of the culture and people; language shapes and adapts over time to reflect the way we look at the world.
Usually, they are rolling their eyes at me and give up all hope of communicating with an old man like me, so I don’t have the chance to tell them that I remember a time—I think of the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill hearings as the start of it—when it became clear that a lot of men in positions of authority “just didn’t get it,” so “diversity” was the word of the day and institutions began requiring employees to take diversity training seminars; conservatives such as George Will coined the phrase “political correctness” to describe forced and mandated diversity policies that failed to get at the reality of human experience, the power of culture, and the intransigence of the human animal.
Now, in the UCC we have something called ONA, which stands for Open and Affirming.
Our church took a vote this fall to become an ONA church; you might have seen the lovely new banner we have on our Marquee and the banners that are on the Zwingli Haus; we have magnets and pins featuring a rainbow colored comma.
The UCC, God is still Speaking, rainbow comma.
The comma idea comes from Gracie Allen, wife of George Allen, who said, “Never place a period where God has puts a comma.”
A period is terminal punctuation; a full stop.
God said in Leviticus that homosexuality is a sin PERIOD.
A comma is internal punctuation—a pause, a breath, a way of coordinating things and ideas.
A comma says that the Spirit leads us to learn new ways to understand and adopt the kind of openness and affirmation we see when Jesus defends an adulterer from religious people who quoted scripture way back when the way some people quote it even now.
In other words, like a comma in a sentence coordinating two complete clauses, the truths revealed to us by our timeless God in the past need to be coordinated with the truths the Spirit is revealing to us today.
I guess you could say we are transitioning.
We follow the spirit to discern what God is saying to us about loving our neighbors today, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or grammatical rigidity 🙂
ONA as Spiritual Practice
However, we run the risk of something like spiritual correctness unless we understand ONA more broadly as a spiritual commit not only to LGBTQ folk—though it is right and fitting that we focus our compassion on those who for so long have been forced into invisibility and silence—but as a spiritual commitment to be open to the ways the Sprit challenges our comfortable piety and easy self-righteousness.
For someone like me who has many gay and lesbian friends, it is easy to throw stones at those who use the bible to condemn “homosexuality.” It is easy for me to use ONA as a weapon against them and their adulterated understanding of God’s love today.
When Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” he exposes religion used as power over others, religious rules and church traditions and beloved customs that intentionally or unintentionally exclude others.
Jesus gives a new commandment, a new rule. Love your neighbor, no exceptions.
We don’t aim and diversity in the church. We aim to learn from how difficult it is to love people who don’t follow our rules, whose lives don’t make sense to us.
ONA is about the spiritual practice of opening ourselves to the richness of God’s good creation and paying attention to what rises up inside of us that keeps us from opening ourselves to others and affirming people we don’t understand and who challenge our comfort, our traditions.
Like religious people in every age we must deliberately resist the tendency tolerate rules of “proper” behavior that exclude people wherever they are on their faith journeys. ONA is the spiritual practice of paying attention to what goes on inside of us when we find ourselves slipping into close-mindedness and justifying judging people as unworthy for whatever reason.
To follow the Spirit is to notice our urge to judge others, to open ourselves to find the part of within ourselves that is soothed by separating ourselves from them.
We affirm LGBTQ folk, but ONA spirituality means that we aim to be open to what we do not understand, to be open to those we disagree with, to be open to people and ideas and changes that causes us to feel uncomfortable. To be an ONA people means that we pay attention to the human tendency to condemn others as a way of defining ourselves.
To be open and affirming is a lot more than hanging a banner and wearing a pin; it says that we are open to learn and willing to affirm what is strange and foreign to us and what we don’t understand.
Council Rob Webb withdrew his petition to repeal the Shreveport’s Fairness Ordinance.
I do not know whether Mr. Webb’s change of mind was merely political necessity rather than a change of heart, but were he to practice the spiritual discipline we call ONA, he would thank God for the blessing of Pamela Raintree, the voice of our Still Speaking God, and he would be transformed by a transgendered woman who knows a thing or two about transitions.
God of grace and acceptance,
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, whose delight is in the law of the Lord, those who do what is right regardless of consequences, those who do not heed ridicule nor turn away when those they love abandon them. Happy are they, O God, for they will be like trees planted by streams. Their leaves, like our happiness, will not wither for they will draw from the waters of your Spirit, as we will be renewed when we follow your Spirit in loving our neighbors.
Teach us your law, we pray, and open us to your way, that we might see and affirm the gift of the moment of our lives, the treasure of friends and loves who journey with us, and the blessing of those we don’t understand but through whom you speak to us.
On this day we set aside to celebrate our congregation’s commitment to be open to and to affirm all people, we pray a willingness to sacrifice our own comfort to make room for those who are different than we are; we pray for a vision of what is right and good in people so that we might affirm all people and celebrate the gift of your splendid, diverse, complex, beautiful image within every human heart.
Give us the words to say when words are needed, and grant us the willingness to be silent when words are best left unsaid.
We pray for those we love and those with whom we struggle. We pray for those who suffer with cancer and the loved ones who care for them. We ourselves ask that you would show us the way to support them; help us to see what they need and to supply it for them. We pray for those who battle Parkinson’s and who now travel in the timelessness of Alzheimer and Dementia; we pray for families who wait many days for one good day. Open them to your Spirit, we pray, that they might find comfort and might know peace.
Epiphany Prayer: Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing. Let there be moments when the lighting of your presence illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that your light burns and the darkness cannot consume it.
Into your hands we humbly pray, trusting in your mercy, through Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray, saying…..