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Don't repeat the mistake on page 847 of The Prayer Book . Here is what God really requires from the chosen people:
A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
Matthew Shepard Day Sermon
By Jordan Goldwarg
Trinity Episcopal Church, Seattle
October 12, 2008
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord. Please be seated.
I want to begin by saying what an honour it is for me to be here today. Growing up Jewish, I certainly never imagined that I would one day be preaching at an Episcopal church, so many thanks to Trinity and Pastor Rachel for hosting me, and thanks to Nat Brown for inviting me and for organizing these annual Matthew Shepard Day events. As many of you know, we have just finished the Jewish high holidays of Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, which are kind of like the World Series of Judaism, when most of us spend far more time in synagogue than we would at other times of the year. As a result, I hope you’ll understand if my sermon today is slightly heavy with Jewish tradition.
Ten years ago today, a young man named Matthew Shepard died in Laramie, Wyoming. A few days earlier, he had been savagely beaten and tied to a fence by two men. The reason for the attack? Shepard was gay and the assailants believed that he had made a pass at them.
Although Shepard’s death was tragic, some good can sometimes come from tragedy, and in this case, the murder of Matthew Shepard helped draw attention to the continuing prejudice, discrimination, and—sometimes—hatred that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people face in the United States.
In the ten years that have passed, Massachusetts, California, and, as of two days ago, Connecticut have begun allowing same-sex couples to marry, three more states have passed civil union laws that afford same-sex couples the equal state benefits of marriage, and homosexuality has become infinitely more visible in popular culture and consciousness.
But make no mistake. Despite these advances, there remains much more to be done. The federal government still does not recognize any kind of same-sex union, which means that a man can be barred from visiting his loved one in a hospital, or a woman prevented from sponsoring her foreign spouse for green card purposes. In many places, transgender people can be fired from their jobs because of the biological reality of who they are. And worst of all, gay people continue to be targets of violence: earlier this year, a 15-year old boy in Oxnard, California named Lawrence King was shot and killed by a classmate simply because he was gay. All of these awful things need to stop. Why does the United States lag behind so many other countries in confronting the prejudice, discrimination, and hatred that too many gay people face? This needs to change.
Fortunately, my own experience growing up gay has been very different from Matthew Shepard’s. When I began coming out in college, I received nothing but love and support from my friends and family. I do not believe I have ever been discriminated against or threatened in any kind of way for being gay.
In fact, there was only one occasion when my coming out did not go according to plan. When my grandfather retired, he decided that he wanted to learn how to use the internet so that he could check weather and news, and e-mail with friends, children, and grandkids. My parents enthusiastically signed him up for lessons with a private tutor. Now, at that point, I had decided not to tell my grandfather that I was gay. He was getting old, my grandmother had recently died, and I thought it might upset him unnecessarily.
In his second lesson, he was finally ready to get online and learn how to use a search engine. His tutor suggested that he go to Google and type in our family name, Goldwarg, to see what turned up. Now, Goldwarg is not at all a common name, and so the search results were a little limited. When he hit that search button, the very first hit that came up was an essay that I had written for a website describing my experience coming out to my college ski team. Needless to say, he was a little bit surprised. His tutor, sensing the embarrassment, tried to convince him that it must be another Jordan Goldwarg on the Williams College Ski Team. There were only 10 men total on the team. A picture of me was included at the top of the essay.
In the end, though, everything was fine. My grandfather told me that he didn’t care and that he loved me no matter what and that I was still the same grandson I had always been.
But my experience, as I said, has been lucky compared to some. And even if I have not experienced outright discrimination, I still live in a world in which heterosexuality is the norm and in which I am frequently reminded that I lie outside that norm. And this collective struggle for acceptance that gay people face is actually indicative of something broader, and that’s what I really want to talk about today.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a Rosh Hashonah service in Boston. In addition to being the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashonah marks the beginning of a period of repentance and of seeking forgiveness for our sins and misdeeds. At the service, I was reminded that the Hebrew word for sin—Khet—has its origins in archery, where it meant “missing the mark.” The concept of sin in Judaism, then, can be interpreted as meaning missing one’s goal or missing an opportunity for kindness or losing sight of the important things in life. Repentance, in turn, can be seen as a process of turning to hit the mark and focusing on what is truly important.
This image of turning has stuck with me, in part because I think it is so difficult for so many of us to do. Whether it is learning to accept gay people as we are, or being comfortable with new immigrants coming to our country, or being able to see the perspective of someone with a different point of view on politics—why is it so difficult for humans to turn toward these realities?
A poem by Rabbi Jack Riemer helps shed some light on this difficulty:
Now is the time for turning.
The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange.
The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the south.
The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter.
For leaves, birds, and animals, turning comes instinctively.
But for us turning does not come so easily.
It takes an act of will
For us to make a turn.
It means breaking with old habits
It means admitting that we have been wrong;
And this is never easy.
It means losing face;
It means starting all over again;
And this is always painful.
It means saying: "I am sorry."
It means admitting that we have the ability to change;
And this is always embarrassing.
These things are terribly hard to do.
But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever
In yesterday's ways.
The novelist James Baldwin expressed similar sentiments in starker terms when he wrote, “Any real change implies the break-up of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one identity, the end of safety.”
At a time when we hear the word “change” mentioned on a daily basis in reference to our national politics, we do not hear enough about change on a personal level. As Riemer and Baldwin point out, change and turning are difficult. It can be scary. It often means admitting that we were wrong. It can mean reconceiving our place in the world. On a psychological level, it means putting ourselves out there, opening our souls to the world, and making ourselves uncomfortable.
But can there be any doubt that this fear and discomfort is worth it? That this fear and discomfort is, in fact, necessary? Where would our society be if we refused to change and grow, if we never turned?
Turning and change can be easier, however, when we attempt them together, as a community. As someone currently training to become a high school teacher, I see how much more difficult it is to learn on your own than in a community of learners. Learning and growing together allows us to bounce ideas around, to be challenged, to think critically. It also gives us the support we need to consider ideas that may at first seem unsettling, and to overcome the stubbornness and pride that often prevent us from changing. In today’s lesson from Exodus, we see that even God, upon seeing the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, decided not to punish them after being implored by Moses. The scripture says, “And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” Change is difficult, but it is possible.
When I was in college, my school sponsored a regular discussion forum named after a former professor of political science named Robert Gaudino. Professor Gaudino believed in what he called “Uncomfortable Learning,” the idea that meaningful education could best be achieved by exposing students to ideas and experiences that were unfamiliar, unsettling, and challenging. I think that most of us, at one time or another, have been in some kind of uncomfortable learning experience. For me, this occurs most often when I find that an idea or belief that I’ve held for a long time becomes—either gradually or suddenly—untenable because of new information I receive. For most of us, when we find ourselves in this kind of situation, we face at least two choices: one, we try to ignore the new information because we don’t want to admit that we were wrong, or the new information maybe clashes with our morals and values; or two—and I think this is more difficult—we try to find ways to incorporate this new information and change our beliefs.
One reason my college supported these discussion forums was because they helped to facilitate this second reaction to an uncomfortable learning situation. Forums would be held on topics such as abortion, terrorism, same-sex marriage, and multiculturalism. If we had simply read about these issues on our own, I’m not sure we would have developed more sophisticated ways of thinking about them. By discussing them in a forum setting, however, where we came together as a community, we knew that we were not alone in feeling uncomfortable about these ideas, and we could take advantage of our collective brainpower to think more deeply about the issues.
Given the importance of learning and turning as a community, I was so happy to find out that Trinity has officially become an Open & Affirming congregation. The process that you all went through to reach this point—although perhaps uncomfortable at times—was undoubtedly a valuable learning experience, and I hope that you were able to turn to each other for support and guidance. For those of you who are still uncertain what it means to be Open & Affirming, or who may still be uncomfortable with the idea, I urge you to continue speaking with your fellow parishioners to understand why Trinity took this important step.
Earlier, I mentioned that one of the underlying currents that affects our thinking about change is fear. As we’ve already seen, change can be a scary thing, and it takes courage to turn. Fear, however, need not be a debilitating thing for us. As Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, an 18th century leader in the Jewish Chasidic movement, wrote, “All the world is a narrow bridge, and the essence is not to be afraid.” “All the world is a narrow bridge, and the essence is not to be afraid.” We all walk this narrow bridge. What lies below can be different depending on the situation. Sometimes, on one side, lies intolerance and hatred while on the other lies an extreme form of moral relativism in which anything goes and there simply are no rules. And we are stuck on that narrow bridge, trying to forge a middle path. But again, we are on that bridge together, and we can help each other to not be afraid.
Other scholars, however, view fear as a positive thing, and it is actually our fear of fear that causes problems. Kathleen Norris writes, “I sense much fear of fear itself in the contemporary landscape. Having lost the ancient sense of fear as a healthy dose of reverence and wonder, we are left with only the negative connotations of the word. The ‘fear of the Lord’ spoken of in the Bible as the ‘beginning of wisdom’ becomes incomprehensible; instead of opening us up, allowing us to explore our capacity for devotion in the presence of something larger and wiser than ourselves, fear is seen as something that shrinks us, harms us, and renders us incapable of acting on our own behalf.”
Looking at these two somewhat conflicting messages about fear, the words I hear tell me that as we walk that narrow bridge, we should try not to be afraid. But if we cannot help but be afraid, we should embrace that fear, recognize it as a friend and as a common human emotion, and never let it paralyze us into inaction. After all, the only way to cross that narrow bridge is to keep moving.
I would like to conclude today with two short prayers. In memory of Matthew Shepard, the first is a selection from the Jewish Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer that is traditionally recited on the anniversary of a loved one’s death:
Y'hei shlama raba min-sh'maya v'chayim aleinu
v'al-kol-yisrael, v'im'ru: “amen.”
Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu
v'al kol-yisrael, v'imru: “amen.”
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
The final prayer is a multi-lingual one read by the congregation at the end of every service at Congregation Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem. Note that the word “Shalom” means “Peace” in Hebrew:
Source of Shalom, ruler of Shalom
Grant Shalom to your people Israel
Let the Shalom spread to all Your creatures
Let there be an end to hatred, jealousy
Competition between people
Let there be only great love and shalom between us all
So that we can all gather together
Everyone with their fellow
Speaking to each other
Learning the truth from each other
Allah huma – antas salam wa-minkas salam
Adon hashalom barchenu bashalom
Source of Shalom, bless us with Shalom. And let us all say, “Amen.”
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