Jeffrey Sartain Dec. 17, 2017
Scripture Luke 1:39–40, 46–56
The last few weeks I have thought about the significant comings and goings in my life: The liberating sayonara I said to my high school as I headed to college; no love lost there. The tearful and melodramatic goodbyes at summer camp on the shores of Lake Carlos; the counselors signed one another’s canoe paddles and made promises to keep in touch. There have been final and painful goodbyes too; goodbye to dear friends, to scores of parishioners, goodbye to my mom, my mother-in-law and so many other family members as we gathered to sing and pray and remember.
Goodbyes are part of life’s journey, or as Plymouth member David Waterbury suggested to me this past week, maybe it is better to call life a tour. A journey sounds sort of labored. A journey sounds like there is one particular destination in mind. A tour, on the other hand—well, we plan to move along on a tour. On a tour we take notice where we are, and, at the same time, we recognize we are not planning to stay there forever. Our hearts might even break from the beauty we encounter. We might meet tremendous friends, even fall in love on a tour, but we know that part of what we have signed up for is to keep moving on, to see other beautiful views, take a picture, treasure what we have experienced and then get back on the bus.
So, I am sad today, but I am mostly grateful and amazed. Coming to Plymouth to be one of your ministers was an absolutely astonishing experience in my life—and it has been a long stop on my life tour. I’ve lingered longer than I thought I might because there have been profound blessings here. Not the least of those blessings was being able to be my full self with you—to be a gay man called to ordained Christian ministry. But your acceptance has been deeper than that. In this church and with all of you I have had a deep and healing blessing in the sort of mind-blowing affirmation that you have wanted me to be one of your ministers. The more honesty I showed, the more I shared of my own faith, the more of my frustrations or sorrows—you welcomed it all—called it out of me and blessed me with your care.
When I came, I was sort of a nontraditional choice for the search committee. I had no East Coast credential, no Ivy League degree, no sixty-four-thousand-dollar vocabulary. I’m not trying to be falsely humble: I had a good enough education and, like our president says about himself, I have a good brain, but it was a workhorse education. State schools. Denominational seminary. And on top of all that, I had been baptized, confirmed, indoctrinated and educated a Lutheran—of all things. As far as clergy went, I was something like a rescue dog. My pedigree was in question. My home had rejected me, even though I wanted nothing more than for them to love me. And you took me in.
The Sunday the congregation voted to call me back in July 2001, I gave the pastoral prayer. I wore a borrowed black robe and after worship was ushered to the parlor to await your deliberations. It took longer than I anticipated, and when I came back into the sanctuary to hear the news that I had received a unanimous affirmation, there was also a sense that something had been at issue. I got a clue when more than one person whispered on their way out, “I used to be a Lutheran, too.” The topic of the discussion was confirmed when former member Jackie Beebe took my hand in hers and said with conviction, “Don’t ever be ashamed to be a Lutheran.” Then she added, “They are so dear with all their little sins and everything.”
This calling out my Lutheran background surprised me. After all, when I came here I had already not been a Lutheran for more than a decade. I hadn’t seemed so Lutheran to people in the United Church of Christ churches I’d served, but here in this sort of hard-core, old-school Congregational church, my upbringing stood out. It was like being a brunette in the St. Olaf Christmas Festival: No one noticed so much anywhere else, but on the Plymouth stage I looked a little more Lutheran than I did anywhere else.
The Lutheran Church of my upbringing was always my safe place from my very earliest memories. The warmth, mystery, challenge and grace of worship and community life claimed my heart. The church was a refuge, a place I could be myself, and thrive and be affirmed. That was up until I was about to cross a very significant threshold—my coming out. Then every Lutheran door closed. One bishop said to me bluntly, “There is no place for you in the ministry of the church.” I guess he hadn’t heard about Plymouth. What did he know?
Martin Luther wrote, “[God] is like an eternal, unfailing fountain. The more it pours forth and overflows, the more it continues to give.” Luther did not add, “Except if you are gay.” Except if you are a man. Except if you are cis-gendered. Except anything. I had to leave the tradition that formed me in order to live in a way that was consistent with the tradition that formed me. Thanks to the bold witness of this church, I was able to live and preach and teach the radical, open, unconditional love that is not contained in or constrained by any system or doctrine or policy here—and for that I am and will always be so grateful.
You have taught other congregations by example how to live in grace. And lo and behold, when people of God do the right thing and without hesitation or apology keep on doing it, eventually the world starts to turn and things start to change.
It was on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that a Lutheran congregation voted to call me to be one of their clergy. After the vote that Sunday, a retired minister in the congregation asked if he could pray. He offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the witness of Plymouth and of the UCC for keeping me, for supporting me, for receiving my ministry.
Now my tour and your tour are between stops. My itinerary is slightly more clear than yours. I know I will be meeting a new congregation and serving a new church when we turn the calendar to 2018. But there is a lot I don’t know. We are all now in a liminal state. We are on a threshold. That is appropriate for Advent. Like Mary in our lesson today, we are expectant with hope. This is a time pregnant with possibilities. It is a time fertile in its potential. We are neither here nor there—but between. We’ve left the station, but we’ve not arrived at the next stop.
One great blessing that I have had while at Plymouth has been leading tours to Cuba, the Baltics and Scandinavia. When the itinerary has us riding the bus longer than we hoped, or when the lunch is delayed, when the hotel isn’t anything like how it looked like in the brochure, Mark and I have discovered that one great way to lift the spirits is to sing. Sometimes “The Minnesota Rouser.” Other times some old campfire favorite. Sometimes we sing a hymn.
That brings me around to the sermon title today. What song will we sing? As this unsettled time unfolds, I want you to consider what melody will carry you until the next stop comes into view. When the desire to know what is next is strong, but the answers are still murky; when fear grabs ahold of you, or irritation, or frustration—do not turn on one another. Don’t complain to the tour guide. Don’t cut the tour short and stop at the nearest wayside area because it looks good enough. Stay the course. Pull together and sing.
Mary sang, or we call it her song, when she was in her liminal time. Pregnant by the Holy Spirit, the story goes. Uncertain of the outcome, fearful of what might be next, facing seemingly insurmountable difficulties—she sang. She sang, “I am blessed.” She rooted herself in God’s promises and sang, “God has done great things for me.” There were other songs she might have sung—but she stood strong in the whole history of her people, drew up confidence in God’s love, and Mary, in her time of uncertainty, claimed the certainty of faith. She sang of justice. She sang of hope. She sang of God’s love that goes with us as it went with the people of Israel, through the turbulent waters, through the desert times, through wanderings that seemed to lead nowhere—God was faithful.
Good, bold people of Plymouth—sing the songs you know in this time.
First of all, sing of unity. You are a covenant people, so come together. You need to gather. This is not the time to take a church vacation. Come together in this space that has held your dreams and convictions for more than 100 years. Worship and pray and listen intently for God’s word—and sing. Let your songs be full and tender. You have a tendency at times to be hard on one another. When you have disagreements, sit face-to-face, honor your covenant as a sacred tie and remember that all of you are here to walk together in God’s ways as they are revealed to you. That revealing of God’s way can take time. It takes tender, open hearts to discern what is being revealed.
Sing of that unity—and sing of God’s faithfulness. This church has been through other uncertain times. Through fire. Through ministers coming and going. Through debates that tore at the fabric of our community. Through world wars and riots and the deaths of pillars of the community. In our erudite and liberal faith, it can be easy to turn away from belief in God’s providence and guidance, and instead to think this is all up to you. It is not all up to you. God is God, and we are God’s people. This is God’s church. Don’t neglect your prayers. Turn daily to reminders that we serve something greater here than our own best idea. Sing of the faith that sustained generations before you and know God is working a purpose out. Sing of God’s faithfulness.
Finally, sing always of justice. By that I mean even though there is a lot that feels uncertain here, it is not uncertain at all what you should do in the meantime. Do the good work God is calling you to. St. Augustine wrote: “Pray as if everything depended on God. Work as if everything depended on you.” Give your pledge. Serve those in need. Tend to the suffering among you and around you. Prepare a home for those now in prison who will need your support. Create shelter for East African women escaping domestic violence. Lift up the arts as an expression of hope for children in an inner city school. Rebuild homes in Cuba. Teach the children among you about God’s love and God’s desires for the world. Proclaim beauty and tenderness to vulgarity and immorality. Dismantle racism in your hearts and in our systems. Visit those who are ill and dying. Surround the grieving with your care. Be God’s people together in this place. Don’t hold back—let justice pour forth from this place as it has since its inception. Be God’s church in the world. Sing out justice and let it roll like a never-ending stream.
Sing unity. Sing faithfulness. Sing justice.
I think that is all I have to say. Actually, I think that is all I’ve ever had to say—to tell you how you are loved and then to challenge you to live like you know it to be true. To proclaim to you what you have proclaimed to me: You are God’s beloved—imperfect, sure, but called to ministry here and in a world in need. You are God’s beloved—human as human can be, but filled with the light of the Divine. You are God’s beloved—sinners, yes, sinners, it’s true, but by the grace of God, you are saints of love and justice.
Thank you so much for this beautiful time we have shared. My gratitude comes from the deepest place in my heart. We’ve seen something wonderful, but now the bus is waiting. We might not know which stop is next, but we can trust with the certainty of faith that something good is awaiting us. Amen.