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New Testament Reading-Luke 4: 14-21
In 1983, a twenty-year old from California named Bobby Griffith was in Portland. For the past seven years, Bobby’s life had been one of agonizing turmoil. At the age of 13, he went from being an outgoing youth to becoming suddenly withdrawn. It wasn’t just some “normal” teenage phase. Unknown to anyone else, it was more than that. It was not until a couple of years later that he confided to his older brother that he was gay. His brother was not to tell anyone, but when Bobby unsuccessfully tried to kill himself with an overdose of Bufferin, his brother decided to let the secret out unfortunately leaving Bobby to feel painfully “humiliated.”[i]
Bobby grew up in a Christian fundamentalist family. For a brief period, he was able to escape the confines of his upbringing in the freedom of a junior college where he was able to date and have boyfriends. Ultimately, however, the faith of his childhood was too well-ingrained. Years later his mother would explain that Bobby could never understand why a kind and decent person such as himself would be hated by others and considered an abomination by God. Bobby’s inner torment is documented in a dairy that runs over 400 pages in length. Christianity had sadly become the source of Bobby’s severe depression, and it was on August 27th, 1983 that he jumped from a bridge to his death on a freeway in Portland.
To give you a point of reference, Bobby died nine years before we became an Open and Affirming church in 1992. While it is to be celebrated that we and other faith communities now embrace and cherish LGBT persons as members and leaders, the fact remains that we could still open our newspapers tomorrow and read of another Bobby committing suicide for the same reasons. Anti-LGBT Christian fundamentalism still has a pervasive and devastating presence in our society. Without polemical sensationalism, one can quite literally say that this brand of faith is deadly.
In the news this past month, we have seen this in stark terms with the coverage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda. This bill threatens to impose death by hanging for “aggravated homosexuality” which could entail repeated, “serial” acts of homosexuality. This is in a country where homosexuality is already outlawed. When I see news coverage of this in the United States, I admittedly fear that the average citizen might view such real and potential laws as the product of the “backwardness” of African societies, but in truth it says at least as much, if not more, about the backwardness of a prominent force in our own society. As The New York Times pointed out in an article earlier this month, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was created in the zealous fervor that followed an event in Uganda featuring three Christian fundamentalists from the United States. According the Times, “for three days…thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality.” The speakers spoke on such topics as “how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how ‘the gay movement is an evil institution’ whose goal is ‘to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.” Even though all three speakers now disavow the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, one of them had in actuality met with Ugandan politicians to discuss the drafting of it. Without a negative reaction, he commented in his blog at the time that one person professed the campaign for the bill would be “a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda.”[ii] While a popular belief among supporters of the bill is that homosexuality was something brought to Africa by the West, the real truth about the matter was best captured by an observer who noted, “It’s not homosexuality that is imported. It’s homophobia.”[iii]
When I traveled to Uganda a few years ago as the instructor for a group of seminary students from Berkeley, we had to wrestle in a very definite sense with this Western legacy of homophobia. In a surreal moment, we met with Uganda’s Minister of Ethics and Integrity who we all knew was one of the country’s leading anti-gay crusaders. Because a number of the seminarians in our group were lesbian, for reasons of safety we had collectively decided to be careful as to what we said and did. As it turned out, I was given the dubious distinction of having to pray for those gathered as we closed our meeting with the minister. It was a morally and personally squeamish day of self-censorship for us, and the memory of it sticks with me as a prodding voice saying, “You can’t simply walk away and forget the mechanisms of oppression that you encountered that day. Something must be done.”
While not everyone may come face to face with the cabinet minister of an oppressive government, I am guessing that all of us at times come face to face with Christian fundamentalism and heterosexism that could be as close and as real as a family member. So it is that the question I want to place before you today is this: what, if anything, are we to do in response to what our Christian fundamentalist peers do and say? Should we have any sense of responsibility? Or, dare I also say a sense of calling? To some, responsibility might seem like a bit of an odd concept in this case. Isn’t fundamentalist heterosexism really akin to being a crime committed by someone else and not us? So why hold ourselves responsible? We didn’t do it. In truth, I tend to think of Christian fundamentalism as an utterly different and distinct religion from the one I practice. When someone tells me they are Christian, at a gut level I do not automatically feel an instant bond. In a reactive way, my mind immediately wants to know what kind of Christian they are before I determine whether I can identify with them in some way.
As different as we certainly might be from some of our more fundamentalist Christian counterparts, I wonder, however, if there is a danger that this kind of thinking could let us off the hook. Particularly for heterosexual people who don’t have to experience being the target of hatred, I wonder if there is a danger in becoming complacent about fundamentalism because well it’s not for us and we would rather not have to deal with heated debates about the Bible and what it means to be gay or lesbian. It is indeed nice to be in a safe space such as our church and not be divided like other churches over issues like marriage equality, but the really pressing question is whether we have any responsibility that goes beyond these walls?
For me, the responsibility is not one of guilt for crimes committed, although I am sure the UCC has had its fair share of those. Instead, the responsibility that I feel is of a different nature. To begin with, I am motivated by a sense of responsibility to the gospel. In our scripture reading today, Jesus in essence proclaims that the gospel testifies to a shackle breaking God who sets the captive and the oppressed free. How can we devote ourselves to this good news heralded by Jesus and at the same time allow others to go around putting the shackles back on in the name of some counterfeit gospel and phony Jesus? To put it another way, if someone was running around my neighborhood yelling Brooks hates gays, I don’t think I could just sit home and not do anything about it. I would want to put an end to the slander and set the record straight with my neighbors. In the same way, might we feel compelled to stop the slandering of the gospel and set the record straight?
This sense of responsibility, however, is perhaps secondary to what I believe is a more basic motivation for us as Christians and that is the sense of our own calling. The Jesus who proclaimed the gospel still lives and breathes in our own actions today if we let him. I am not just thinking about the Jesus who hung out with the outcasts and the despised. I am thinking about the Jesus who broke shackles, overturned tables, and challenged oppressive distortions of the Jewish faith. In an earlier sermon, I once talked about our not only being an open and affirming church but a liberating church. Jesus is our model for doing that. Through organizations like Community of Welcoming Congregations, we have the opportunity to follow in his footsteps and challenge those who distort our faith today. On more than one occasion, Community of Welcoming Congregations has publicly protested the events of anti-LGBT Christian fundamentalists. Twice James Dobson’s Focus on the Family came to Portland with its campaign to therapeutically convert homosexuals to heterosexuals. The campaign held conferences entitled Love Won Out, so Community of Welcoming Congregations responded both times with their own conference entitled Love Welcomes All.
When I think of the gospel continuing to challenge the status quo and set people free today, I not only think of the gospel’s liberating message for LGBT persons suffering from heterosexism. I also think of people like Mary Griffith, Bobby’s mother. In the words of Bobby’s biographer, Mary “was an extreme fundamentalist Christian who felt God was going to cure her son of homosexuality and badgered [him] for four years to cure himself through prayer.” She would later say that this kind of Christian belief was all she “had ever known.” She said, “We loved Bobby and thought that we were doing the right thing.”
As Mary worked through her grief, she gradually extricated herself from these former beliefs. For a year and a half, she searched her soul and read about the Bible and homosexuality. Eventually, she was able to come to the realization that what had happened to her son was a “terrible injustice.” Her son didn’t need to be cured of anything. He “was perfectly normal and healthy” the way he was. Looking back she would say, “I find some comfort in knowing that I can’t totally be held responsible for something I didn’t know.” She would continue, “There’s an awful lot of ignorance in the church.”
Mary ultimately devoted herself to doing whatever she could to help gay and lesbian teens along with their parents. She became a local leader of the organization P-FLAG, Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays. About Mary, Bobby’s biographer avers that she has arrived at a greater sense of peace from where she first began. She has realized that she has been able to help people and has potentially saved many other lives.
For understandable reasons, Mary is no longer involved in church life even though she maintains her own private form of spirituality. Nevertheless, I like to think that Mary is one of those persons in whom the gospel still lives today. I like to think that the real and true gospel comes to life whenever people like Mary are able to free themselves from oppressive beliefs. It comes to life whenever a teacher is able to offer support and affirmation to a lesbian student mired in shame and self-hate. It comes to life whenever the parent of one gay child is able to counsel and encourage the parent of another gay child. It comes to life whenever there is a Bobby who ceases to sink into depression but instead begins to flourish in a world of love and freedom. Amen.
[i] All the references to Bobby Griffith come from the following source: Jeff Walsh, “Prayers for Bobby: A New Book Examines a Gay Son’s Suicide, and His Mother’s New Life,” Oasis Magazine, (July 1, 1995), < www.oasisjournals.com/Issues/9512/fea0795-prayers.html>.
[ii] Jeffrey Gettleman, “Americans’ Role Seen in Uganda Anti-Gay Push,” The New York Times, (January 3, 2010), <www.nytimes.com/2010/01/04/world/africa/04uganda.html>.
[iii] Jeffrey Gettleman, “Gay in Uganda, and Feeling Hunted,” The New York Times, (January 4, 2010), <www.nytimes.com/2010/01/04/world/africa/04gay.html?ref=africa>.