In this wonderful season of growing – when we see leaves on every branch and flowers emerging with beautiful colour and scent – we find at the centre of our gathering today an odd sort of display.
Bare branches. They are here to represent those among us whose own growth and flowering is thwarted. Some of us, because we are different, can not find a place where we are comfortable and safe enough to be ourselves so that we may grow toward wholeness.
Tomorrow is IDAHO – that’s not the state in the US most famous for producing potatoes. It is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Since its beginning in France seven years ago, IDAHO has grown and gained strength. This year, events will take place in over 75 countries around the world.
IDAHO focuses on the bias that is found throughout the world against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender – GLBT – people. For centuries – and continuing to the present day – people whose sexual orientation or gender identification is different from that of the majority have oppressed and persecuted. Even in the most enlightened places, they continue to experience an ambivalent environment of tolerance and suspicion – acceptance and fear.
I was personally very proud to sign in support of IDAHO’s appeal to religions – the words you heard in our first reading this morning.
That appeal states very accurately:
“Across the world, in many different social and cultural contexts, homophobic and transphobic violence is being propagated by people who use religious arguments to justify their positions.”
People who oppose equal rights for GLBT almost invariably turn to religious arguments. Some of us might not easily use the word religious in describing ourselves, but most others would certainly call us that. As we here singing hymns, and listening to readings and sermons, and since we have the word “church” on the front of this building, it invariably becomes important for us to speak to the religious justification of discrimination, and even violence, against GLBT people.
Here is something of what the bible says
“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.”
A great many words have been spoken and written about the guidance of the bible about GLBT people. There are certainly some harshly disapproving passages in there. For some of us, this is neither here nor there. We understand the bible as a human work that has good parts and bad – and we see it as a work that is captive to attitudes and the context of its time.
Those who see the bible in this way will be convinced by the argument that there are an awful lot of other commandments and prohibitions that we now find absurd or offensive – like the ones so tidily lampooned in the “letter to Dr. Laura” that we heard earlier. They will conclude that we need to exercise a great deal of discretion in our engagement with all potential sources of wisdom and inspiration, recognising that none of them are entirely right and true.
For those who do understand the bible as a divinely inspired work, it may be harder to put aside the biblical proscriptions. I won’t go into detail, but I assure you that there are some very sophisticated and persuasive analyses of these biblical laws that help to put much of the anti-GLBT material in context. In many cases, it seems that the biblical authors were railing against pagan practices that involved sexual activity. According to some scholars, it was the paganism that the biblical writers hated more than the specific sexual practices. Remember that the God of the bible is a deeply jealous God. “You shall have no other gods before me” begins the Ten Commandments. This is long before we get to such niceties as banning murder…
The bottom line is that a liberal interpretation is possible and it can open the way for those with more attachment to the bible to find a way to be tolerant with GLBT people and especially to find a way to accept their own sexuality.
Unitarians have long taken a position on GLBT issues sharply contrasting with that of most other faiths. We have supported full civil rights for GLBT people, we have advocated equal marriage rights, we have welcomed GLBT people as full members of our congregations, our leadership, and our ministry.
Across our movement, this position is accepted, although not always fully embraced. There are, sadly, still congregations where GLBT people will still receive less than a fully warm and welcoming reception. Overall, though, our record has been outstanding.
How has this come about? Are Unitarians simply very different and more tolerant people than other religionists?
The answer, I believe, is in our very way of being religious. However they begin, most religions enter into a process of codifying their beliefs and carving them in stone. Religion eventually becomes a process of referring to an established truth – a scripture – a church teaching. Such a way of being religious is deeply challenged to move and evolve as the world and the human condition change. If the development of justice is an ongoing process – a continuing revelation – these systems eventually come into conflict with that more powerful and true flow of life.
At the heart of our way of being religious is a recognition of the worth and dignity of all people and the interconnection of all life. These two great convictions themselves could become lifeless creed were it not for our approach.
Our way is not reference to established truths, but an ongoing cycle of observation, questioning, and commitment. We look afresh at the world around us – at its challenges, its strengths. We look at the suffering of GLBT people under the oppression of attitudes and institutions and we ask if this is right. We ask how this can be acceptable in light of the worth and dignity of each person. We ask how we can be informed by the teachings of religion, philosophy, nature, science, art and by the urgings of our own hearts. And finally, we ask what we must do. And we commit to action - to making a difference in the world – to making a difference in the lives of real people.
Crucially, even in our action, we continue to question and to begin the cycle once again.
I am proud to be a Unitarian as IDAHO approaches. I think we have done well – and this congregation especially has stood out from others in this country in its commitment and courage.
And yet, there is more to do. Our questioning reveals that, despite improvements in legal equality in this nation, that deep suspicion and fear of GLBT people remains. Hate crimes against GLBT people remain prevalent. And in many places throughout the world, the treatment of GLBT people is atrocious – same-sex love can be punished by prison, brutality, and even execution.
We must continue to question – to ask how we can change what has been a destructive influence of religion toward GLBT people toward a sustaining and supportive one.
Part of that work must happen in our own hearts.
I was recently very touched to see an article in the New York Times about a small Mexican town in the very southern-most part of Mexico. We often think of tolerance as being an attribute of the most urbane and educated people, but this town – Juchitan [pronounced hoo-chee-than] is not such a place. It is an agricultural area populated by indigenous people. The photos accompanying the article show people with worn clothes and dilapidated homes.
In Juchitan, the world is not divided simply into the categories of gay and straight. Attitudes toward sex and gender are astoundingly elastic – recognising the continuum of sexuality that is more the truth than the rigid categories we live with.
The locals of Juchitan readily make room for a third category of people called “muxes” [pronounced MOO-shays] – males who, from childhood, have felt themselves drawn to living as women.
My own biases tell me that such people would be shunned in a poor uneducated community. Instead, the muxes are an accepted integral part of their society. The father of Alex, a 16 year old muxe says “It was God who sent him and why would I reject him? He helps his mother very much. Why would I get mad? God sent him for both of us. Why would I get mad?”
Carmelo Lopez Bernal, is a 13 year old muxe who lives with his grandmother. When asked about her grandson, the grandmother says: “I feel normal about it, it is how God sent him, and I love him even though he isn’t a woman. Who knows what kind of person he will be...” We can learn a great deal from people like these, whose acceptance and love seems so outstanding.
It is love and active acceptance of this sort that changes things – that makes a difference in the lives of people who are different from the majority. It is love and acceptance that can give them the opportunity to grow and flower as we would hope all people can.
We have been looking at bare branches, as we think of people who – because they are different from the majority in their sexual orientation or gender identity – have not had the opportunity that others have had to grow and flower.
Let us show our commitment in a physical way now. If you come forward to the table, you will find tags of paper and segments of string. I would like you to tie these onto the bare branches for people who have suffered for their differences. You may want to write a name or initials on the tag, but you may also leave it blank knowing that even today, even here, difference can be difficult to reveal. You may create and hang one tag or several.
Let us continue to question. Let us continue to challenge injustice and suffering wherever we find it. Let us continue to challenge the biases and preconceptions we find in our own hearts.
Let us be biased only toward love. In this way, we can help each person to grow and flower into their own wholeness.