by The Reverend Nancy L. Wilson, Moderator of Metropolitan Community Churches
Text: Luke 1:26 to 38
Our gospel text for today is the very familiar story of the Annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel appears to Mary.
And this story reminds me that one of the great gifts of MCC to me over the past 33 years has been to open my heart and spirit to the belief that angels really do speak to us.
On that day long ago, Gabriel spoke three "words" to Mary. I believe they are words we need to hear today.
We need them -- for those gathered here in New Orleans, and we need them for all of us in MCC worldwide. And they are desperately needed by all who need a word of hope today.
The first word the angel Gabriel says to Mary is: "Greetings, favored one, God is with you!" God is with you! Imagine, God is truly, literally Emmanuel: God with us.
These are the words that begin our communion liturgies. And in that sacred, holy moment together, we know -- above all else -- that what "communion" really means is that God is with us. And angels are with us -- our communion of saints.
Liberation theologians, decades ago, helped us to understand God's bias for the poor and oppressed – that God is mysteriously, amazingly present with those who have felt abandoned and even betrayed by the world. God's favored ones are the oppressed.
Today, there are so many here in New Orleans, and many temporarily away from New Orleans, who feel abandoned and betrayed. As if they are yesterday's news. I've been listening to the U.S. congressional testimony of how race and class are such obvious factors in the devastatingly inadequate and bungled response to human needs here in the Gulf Coast.
So many have lost family, friends, parents, children, loved ones, community, homes, jobs, routines.
And so many continue to wonder: When, in God’s name, will help arrive?
Just one year ago, a tsunami swept across Southeast Asia, killing nearly 300,000 people. Only weeks after Katrina and Rita, an earthquake in the mountains of Pakistan left hundreds of thousands homeless and stuck in the mountains for a long winter, where many may not survive.
In the midst of so much abandonment and betrayal we must ask: What can it mean that God is with us?
"Greetings, O favored one." That must have sounded strange to Mary. She had no reason to believe herself to be privileged in any way. She was about to become pregnant before marriage. Favored one? Are you kidding?
Yes, God is with us, we are told.
We are not alone in our suffering and in our struggles. God is with LGBT folks in Jamaica today, who risk their lives to be open and to fight homophobia. God is with terrified, questioning gay Catholic seminarians today. God is with people in the places where MCC is not yet present. God is with those today who are strung out on crystal meth and feel so far away from God -- people we are preparing to welcome without judgment.
The words of the angel are meant to be shocking: God is with us? With me?
And they are meant to say to us: Don't give up!
You see, God knows who you are. God knows your situation. And God is in the midst of all of this in ways you cannot yet see or imagine.
God may be using you to turn upside down what is, and to expose the corruption, bankruptcy and greed that dominate our present system. "To bring down the mighty from their thrones, to lift up the lowly" -- powerful words from a pregnant Mother of God. God may be using you and me to bring truth and hope to some who find it hard to believe that God cares about them at all.
Don't give up. Never interpret your dilemma, your hardship, your suffering as God's punishment. Instead, believe that God is with you in it, and will help you through it, and will get you on the other side of it.
Secondly, the angel says, "Do not be afraid!" As you read the Bible, always remember this: When an angel says “Do not be afraid,” something is up! Now, we don't really know if Mary was afraid. I think she must have been, at least at first, or shocked. Certainly, she was incredulous: "How can this be?" she asks, with such innocence.
We may even hear her in our own cries of, "This can't be happening! Why is this happening to me, to us?"
Fear is a natural reaction to real or perceived external threats. Fear is an appropriate stress response at time. But when we are in a constant state of fear it affects out minds, bodies and spirits negatively. It causes chemical responses in our bodies that wear us down, sap our strength. Fear can cause us to be reactive, defensive, even hateful. It isolates us from one another and from community. It can be debilitating.
In the midst of the long winter of the Great Depression in the U.S., President Franklin Roosevelt told the American people, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." The Depression had caused many to live in a constant state of worry and fear which was paralyzing. It was Roosevelt's bold leadership that put a nation back to work and moved against the paralyzing fear into action and rebuilding of lives, jobs, families.
In Jamaica, today, there is a terrible, escalating rate of HIV infection. And it is due, in part, because homophobia is so intense. No one will dare come forward to be tested or treated for HIV, because that might mean admitting they are gay. Many have been beaten and murdered just for being suspected of being gay. Public officials are afraid to stand up to this fear.
Sometimes our fears are founded, sometimes not.
Some of you may have been in MCC long enough to remember that in 1984, Rev. Elder Don Eastman was stabbed after leaving a neighborhood gay bar and attempting to get into his car. Don’s wounds were very, very serious. For nearly 24 hours we were not sure that he would survive this vicious attack. Meanwhile, all of us were on our way to an Elder’s meeting and Clergy Conference in Kansas City. We did not know much about the circumstance of the attack. And we thought that if they knew who Don was when they attacked him, then some of us might be in danger as well.
The Elders gathered quietly in a very small meeting room of the hotel in which we were staying. We prayed for Don. And we were talking among ourselves. Then there was an enormous bang on the door, and the door suddenly burst open. All of the Elders jumped up from our seats and cried out in one dramatic fear response. It turned out to be a former Elder, Rev. John Gill, who just wanted to say hi to us! Our fear scared him to death -- as we all tried to calm ourselves and reassure John.
Years later, we held some meetings just prior to the World Council of Churches meetings in Harare, Zimbabwe, with members of GALZ, which is Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, a human rights groups there. And their members were being persecuted by the government of Zimbabwe. We met in this very crowded, tiny classroom, and we knew that were secret police infiltrating our meetings. Even though E.T. Thomas from MCC LA was guarding the door, we braced ourselves every time the door opened, not entirely sure that our meeting would not be declared illegal, or that we might be arrested by the police. The fear was visceral. I remember meeting Keith Goddard, the President of GALZ, who spends every day of his life managing that kind of fear. And yet, meeting him, working with him you would never know it. In fact, he was our angel, telling us not to be afraid.
The angel Gabriel knew that Mary had a long journey ahead of her -- not only the journey to Bethlehem, but also the journey home to Nazareth, and later, to Jerusalem, on more than one occasion. There would be a journey to Calvary, and to a new life in this fledgling Christian community. Mary had no idea what she was being asked to do, beyond carrying the Messiah in her womb. It was what she would have to carry in her heart, her mind and body and spirit for the rest of her life that might have made her too afraid to say yes.
Being afraid is natural, it is unavoidable, and sometimes useful. But being in a constant state of fear, as a lifestyle, is damaging and will keep us from experiencing all that God has for us.
Be angry, be excited, be hopeful, be courageous, be questioning, be skeptical, be believing, but don't be afraid. Not for long.
"For," as the angel says, "nothing is impossible with God." That is the third and final word from the angel that day to Mary.
Nothing is impossible with God. What if we really believed that? What difference would that make in our lives, in our church, in our ministry?
But, we have evidence of the truth that "nothing is impossible with God." We have evidence. And we are evidence.
We, MCC, are an impossible possibility of God. Who could have possibly believed, 37 years ago, that today, all over the world communities would be meeting, worshipping, praying, saving lives, touching lives in the name of Jesus, in this wonderfully queer, amazing church?
We have the evidence. There was a time that HIV/AIDS could have wiped us out. It could have destroyed our community, our hope, our movement. But it did not. In some ways, it made us stronger. It showed us how much we could love, care, give and sustain our communities in the midst of such terrible loss. We learned about the power of prayer in new ways. We learned about death with dignity. We learned about love and healing touch and what it means to be family.
Years ago, I was pastor of MCC Los Angeles, and we had been through hell and back with our building and property in Culver City. We had spent 18 months working on the building and earthquake–proofing it, and in the midst of that, the Savings and Loan with which we had our new mortgage collapsed in the first S&L scandal. Our only option was to refinance with a bank that was gouging us with outrageous interest rates and high re-financing costs. This caused our monthly payment to soar, and we were faced with losing the property.
I fasted for more than 30 days and we were able to find a solution. We found a bank that gave us a conventional loan, and enough money to carry us through that first year. And no sooner had that happened than the city red-tagged our building -- which meant we could not meet there the following Sunday. We were totally panicked, exhausted by our recent struggles, and had no political clout to get us through.
So we prayed. My friend Norm and I went to City Hall, prepared to beg, to plead to ask for a little time to do whatever they needed us to do. We had already seen city inspectors for fire and safety, and we thought they seemed satisfied with what we had done. But we had no idea what they were now going to require of us.
We got there and said one more desperate prayer in the parking lot. We went up to the window, said who we were. The clerk said, "Just a minute." He came back and handed us a Temporary Occupancy Permit. Just like that. No questions asked of us. Nothing further to do in that moment. Norm and I stared at him, open-mouthed, and stammered, "Thank you," and we walked out. To this day, I have no idea why that happen, or who prepared that permit, or how things got waived. I don't need to know, but it was evidence, that I accept gratefully.
We are evidence, living proof that nothing is impossible with God. My own life is proof of that, and so if yours.
MCC New Orleans you are evidence of that. You lived through the terrible fire 33 years ago There were those who doubted you could ever come through that, and yet you did. You saw resurrection.
And, today, you are all the evidence we need. The hurricanes and floods have battered you, and taken away your meeting place, dispersed many of your members. But you are here, today, worshipping, praying, and being part of the solution, part of the hope the re-building of a community and a city and a region of our country.
We are with you, and God is with you.
Mary had her say too. She had to give her consent, say yes to the mystery, to the impossible possibility that was forming in her womb and in her heart and imagination.
Today, I thank you for saying "yes," -- for being here, for saying "yes" to the journey of MCC New Orleans.
I am grateful to you – to your pastor Rev. Dexter Brecht, and to all of you. Just by opening your doors, you are proving that God is with you.
Today, next week, the week after that, someone will walk in this door who needs the life-saving message of Jesus and of Metropolitan Community churches.
Don't give up!
And don't be afraid.
For nothing is impossible with God!
For additional information, contact:
Rev. Jim Birkitt
MCC Communications Director
8704 Santa Monica Boulevard, 2nd Floor
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Tel. (310) 360-8640, x226