Sermon, May 8

Preached by guest preacher and friend of St. Dunstan’s, Fred-Allen Self.

Gospel of John, chapter 17, verses 20-26: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

In our Gospel text from the Gospel of John this morning there are some fantastic statements there and a continual repetition and variation of one phrase “that they may all be one.” It also ends with the prayer of Jesus with the words, “…so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Several weeks ago Miranda reached out to me and asked if I would like to preach here. I immediately agreed. She asked me to look at the upcoming scriptures in the lectionary and see if there was anything that jumped at me. I have to admit, this was one of the first that jumped out to me. You see: when I look at St. Dunstan’s, this is what I see. I see this love. An all-encompassing, welcoming, embracing love. That kind of love that has the potential to change the world.

Over the last several years, St. Dunstan’s Church has become a very important place for myself and my family. This community has come together and helped me through some of the darkest times of my life, and has helped me to heal in ways that I can’t even begin to describe. This happened through nothing other than that willingness to just love. To love, to embrace, to recognize the ugliness of life, and just keep loving and supporting through it all.

If I may, I would like to back up and share a bit of my personal history and how St. Dunstan’s came to be a part of my life:

I grew up in a radically different religious world. It was a Christian world, but it was one in which love, even God’s love, was incredibly conditional. You are loved if… you are loved when… you are loved because…

At no point was there just the simple statement of “you are loved, period.”

In this world there was a very narrow mold into which you had to fit in order to be worthy of real love. Until you fit that mold you were “loved into” the mold, which to be quite honest never felt very good. That form of love felt more like judgement and condemnation.

The biggest problem with all of this is that I had something in my life, something in the core of my being, that kept me from ever fitting into this mold that was worthy of love: I am gay.

For years I lived with this secret truth. I made decisions that wrecked my own life and the lives of others until finally, I came to a point where I was broken. I felt truly worthless. I honestly believed that God didn’t want me, God didn’t love me or even like me, so therefore, why should I love myself? Why should anyone else love me? At the age of 25 my marriage was over. I lived in Wisconsin and my entire family was a world away in Arkansas. I felt utterly alone, lost and helpless. It was at the point that I hit rock bottom that I reached out for help. I went online and I looked up “safe churches for LGBT people.” I saw several church names that I didn’t recognize, but one jumped out. Yes, it was St. Dunstans. I knew the Episcopal Church from high school. My high school choir director had been an Episcopalian and she was one of the great mentors of my life. So, I took a chance and sent an email. I didn’t know who I was reaching out to, the site I had found only had the email “rector@stdunstans.” In retrospect I guess I could have done a bit more digging to figure out to whom I was writing, but at the time it just didn’t seem that important. I sent the email explaining my life story and that I needed help. I honestly didn’t expect to get a response.

Nearly immediately I received a response from a Rev. Miranda Hassett inviting me to come to the church and talk. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. However, that fateful conversation would go on to change my life. In our brief conversation, the first of MANY, Miranda invited me to worship that coming Sunday, an invitation which I tentatively accepted.

It was a Sunday in September of 2011 that I first walked through the doors of St. Dunstan’s to attend worship here. Walking through the door that Sunday took a great deal of courage. You see, just about a month before then I had come out to my family and friends. Though my immediate family, my parents and my sister, were very supportive, the same couldn’t be said for much of the rest.  The ensuing weeks resulted in me being beaten nearly black and blue with the Bible and with the brand of “love” I had grown accustomed to from the church. That Sunday, though, so much changed.

I sat quietly in worship that day, no one really knew who I was, I didn’t know who anyone was, but there was a love in this place that was palpable, a welcome that was real. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as welcomed as I was that day. From that point I began to become more involved with the St. Dunstan’s community. As I became involved many people began to learn my story and my history. At first, this really scared me, you see, I had found a place I loved. The last thing I wanted was for my story and my history to become known and I have to leave yet another place that I loved… but a wondrous thing happened: the more people learned my story, the more love I felt given in return.

I’ll be entirely transparent: before I came to St. Dunstan’s and experienced this community my life was falling apart. I was lost, I was in a spiritual crisis, and I was in very real danger of harming myself. The love and nurturing that I found here truly saved my life in so many ways, and for that I am so incredibly grateful.

The Gospel lesson from this morning ends with the beautiful prayer from Jesus, “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” This is what I found here, and this is why this scripture jumped at me so much.

That love, that radical love that doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t have conditions, that’s what it’s all about.

Through the help of the community at St. Dunstan’s I found a new form of faith. This form of faith wasn’t built on fitting the right mold. It wasn’t built on “loving” someone into a correct way of being. I was a form of faith built on loving everyone, not matter who you are, no matter where you are, no matter how we may agree or disagree. It also taught me that sometimes love is a challenge. It’s a choice, something that we have to choose regularly. Yet, while it can be a challenge, it is a challenge that is always worth it. The most important lesson I think that I learned during that time was this: we are all beautifully and wonderfully created. At some point someone here told me, “God created and said, ‘it is good.’ Who are we to declare otherwise?” Who indeed?

In time I became a fairly fierce advocate for inclusion in the church for all people, regardless of orientation, gender identity or expression, or any other factor. It was this that lead me to answer a call to ministry. At the time I had no idea what that looked like. At first I thought I was going to be an Episcopal Priest, then a United Methodist Elder… yet neither of those were meant to be it seems. In the end I found an organization called the Progressive Christian Alliance. About three years ago I began a process of discernment and a year ago became a PCA Pastor. What drew me to them was that, much like the community of St. Dunstan’s, their focus was on love, radical love that looked nothing like the world had to offer. Their mission was to get the church outside of the walls and into the world. That definitely sounded like something I needed to do.

At this point I’ve talked a good deal about my story and how St. Dunstan’s community and love changed my world and my life. One of the biggest reasons I wanted to talk about this today is this: rarely in this life do we get to see what kind of impact our words or actions have on another person. Rarely do we get that chance to see how we have impacted, whether negatively or positively, the lives of others.

In my own story there were people that drove me to the point of wanting to end my life. Many of them never laid a hand on me, but their words left scars that are still there today. Their action, and in many more cases inaction, left indelible marks on my life. In that same way, there were many people who helped me to come to the place of self-acceptance and self-love and who have supported me in my ministries and who have continually built me up, through both words and actions, that have left just as indelible marks.

My point in all of this is that, whether we intend to or not, we leave marks everywhere we go. Each one of us, in our daily lives, have the chance to impact many people. In each human interaction we have a chance to leave a mark. Many times we leave a mark whether we have intended to or not. This is something I’ve started to become increasingly aware of in my own life. During my time of pain and hurt I lashed out. I lashed out a lot… I was angry, I was hurt, and in my anger and hurt I caused more anger and hurt. I left marks, some of which I’m still learning about. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn of some of the positive marks I’ve left as well. Sometimes through small things that were so insignificant to me that I didn’t even think of them, until someone pointed out to me how huge these things were to them.

In each human interaction we have a chance to show love, to show that type of love Jesus talks about. Each time we step out our door, no matter what we are going to do, we have a chance to share the Gospel, not through preaching, but through our lives. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary use words.”

This community preached the Gospel to me. St. Dunstan’s made the Gospel come alive in a way that I had never witnessed before. Suddenly, for the very first time in my life the Gospel was Good News. It meant that I was loved, it meant that I was valued, it meant that I WAS good enough, it mean that God did value me, and it mean that I should value myself. St. Dunstan’s didn’t preach to me or lecture me or anything like that. The people, the community of St. Dunstan’s preached the Gospel through their actions, through their deeds, through their love.

This is a challenge, and this community has risen to this challenge time and time again. On my life, at least, you have left a lasting mark, one that has helped me to become a person I could never have been without this community.

When you leave these doors today I want to challenge you: what mark are you leaving on the people around you? Do you know? Remember that in each human interaction we have a chance to share the wonderful and radical Good News of the Gospel, without ever saying a word. We have a chance to show love. Sometimes that may be the only love a person sees in a day.

God is good. God is love. Praise be to God that this love can indeed move mountains and change the face of the earth.