Sometimes you find topics for sermons: often, the topics find you. A couple of weeks ago, the topic of transgender sexuality came knocking at my door, and I had to answer it.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. ~ Matthew 5:48
Sadly, the child of a good friend of mine committed suicide recently; sadder yet, I learned about it first from a news story. It turns out my friend’s child was transgender, came out in front of high school classmates at a school assembly, sunk into a depression, and then took her own life. That was a wake-up call of major proportions. But then, two days later, I got a message asking for pastoral guidance and support from a family living in another country. The family was struggling with how to parent their transgender child who was a student at a nearby university.
I have worked with issues surrounding the support of transgender people in the past, as these people just tried to live their own lives in peace. This was different. This was, it seemed, God speaking to me through my broken heart, and trying to find God’s loving righteousness in the middle of it to speak to others. My pain was not one and the same as God’s pain. My concerns were not necessarily one and the same as God’s concerns. The policies, polity, and culture of The United Methodist Church are all over the map when it comes to issues of human sexuality. That is, in a sense, a good thing, since it leaves room for discernment and dialog, but that doesn’t always make discernment and dialog a comfortable experience.
I had to have lots and lots of conversations with trusted people, including our church’s pastor. Some of these conversations were very difficult. Some were very informative and compassionate, especially the Trans Life hotline, which I recommend strongly as a resource for people trying to find an informed and loving way to approach issues of trandgender identity. I also had to accept, as I did some outreach on this child’s campus, that young adults seeking their adult identity today have a wide variety of sexual activities actively encouraged in their campus culture. It is one thing to have or to explore a sexual identity; it is another thing to have people exploit or confuse that identity, for their own selfish purposes.
I am for the people known as children of God, that is, people who are created and sought after by a loving God to grow in grace, not in death. I am not for a culture of death, which treats children of God like scary “others,” simply because they exist in a way that we don’t understand or accept, or that treats them selfishly, like disposable objects, or as slaves to someone’s desires.
None of us are perfect children of God; it is only through God’s grace that we are saved by faith, and learn how to become new creations of Christ, the children of God who are willing to mature in God’s love, not simply to accept it. If we do not mature spiritually, we die a spiritual death, even as our bodies live. I am for life, and life eternal, now, and forever.
However, this is not the sermon that I delivered last Sunday. After much supportive conversation, prayers, and dozens of editings, I came up with a sermon that fit the real needs of the people to whom I was preaching, respects the families whose stories God has brought to my heart, and which, I hope, leads people to understand how Jesus’ commandment to “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” is not about acceptance or rejection based on human ideas of perfection, but, rather, how to grow towards the complete image of who we are, prepared for us beforehand in God’s loving heart.
The living Word of God has answers for us in the midst of life’s greatest challenges. Human sexuality is one of those challenges, but it is only a part of who we are as children of God. May we all learn how to grow in God’s loving grace, a day at a time.
The text of the sermon is below and in PDF format here.
[PRAYER] Good morning. I hope that you’re well, and I pray that we can all celebrate the love of a living God with joy, gratitude, and hope, in this less than perfect setting. Well, let me take that back a bit. In a lot of ways, worshiping in the Elks Club is perfect. We have stripped away everything about our faith that we might have held on to, instead of the love of God and one another that gives us hope. If our faith can make it here, it can make it anywhere! That’s faith that can grow God’s church, and I am grateful to be helping us to grow that kind of church.
That word “perfect” can be daunting. We encounter it at the end of today’s gospel reading, which gives us one of the biggest challenges offered by Jesus. Last week, we heard how Jesus wanted our hearts to go well beyond not hurting others through murder, adultery, and swearing oaths. Now, at the end of Matthew 5, Jesus invites us to move our hearts far beyond popular ideas of love, peace and justice when others hurt us.
Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” Whaa? Turn the other cheek when someone hurts you. Grrrr. Give someone suing you for the coat off your back your second coat, also. Huumph. Go twice as far for someone who has already taken you a mile out of your way. Ooooh. Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. Please! “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Ok, Jesus. Let’s get real for a minute – at least our version of real. “Perfect?” Are you kidding? Sure, we’ll try not to hurt others, even in our hearts, but when others hurt us deeply, steal from us, treat us like dirt, well, that’s pushing it. That’s being a victim, and they owe us. What is God trying to do to us, make us superheros? We’re not like those characters in the movies or on TV that can lift whole buildings – that’s all special effects! We’re just flesh and blood, like Jesus, a man who bled on a cross.
Oh, wait a minute. Jesus was more than a man. Maybe we’re more than we think we are. And maybe God knows that already. Maybe this idea of being “perfect,” as God is already, is not what we think it is. Maybe we’re actually captive to our own ideas of what “perfect” is all about.
In Matthew’s gospel today, Jesus would agree. You see, what our English bibles call “perfect,” Matthew called something else in Greek. Its meaning is more like ‘complete.’ ‘Mature.’ ‘Fully grown.’ These seemingly impossible things for us to do when we get hurt, like turning the other cheek, and being generous with ungenerous people, are not pass/fail tests. They are what God hopes that we’ll grow to become in the fulness of time, because God knows that we are more able to be like God than we think we are. God gives us in Jesus’ words a healthy and heavenly growth plan, not a human plan for unhealthy perfectionism. John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, knew this also. The Methodist doctrine of “Christian perfection” is about growing in grace towards being the kind of Christians that God knows that we can be, if we stick with God’s plan and God’s help.
Our misplaced attachment to human ideas of perfection can sneak up on us in all sorts of unexpected ways. Think of our family portrait photos, for example. You know, the ones that we want to put in that special place in our homes, the ones that show our lives as we really want them to be. We look the way we want to. Family members, friends, pets, crowd in, the way that we always dreamed they would. In the family portrait world, everything is perfect – because nothing ever changes. The moment is captured in a picture, but the moment is already gone. And yet, we can hold ourselves captive to that moment, imprisoned by a vision of perfection that no longer exists.
Recently, I responded confidentially to a parent of a young transgender adult. The parent was seeking prayer support and guidance. In learning about their situation, the parent sent me a beautiful family portrait photo. It was, indeed, the perfect family portrait. But not. Both the parents and their child were struggling with the painful gap between their different perfect visions of themselves and their family, visions that the picture didn’t complete. It broke my heart, because their struggle made it so clear to me how hard it is for so many people in a complicated world to find God’s simple and loving family portrait.
In our families and our own lives, we all have family portraits in our hearts that we hope will liberate us perfectly, pictures of our own ideas of perfection that can turn unexpectedly into cages filled with despair, empty of God’s promises of hope and joy. Growing up, my family portrait was broken by the hurt and the anxiety that I experienced from the alcoholism and mental illness of family members. My pain fueled resentments that hurt myself and others, and threatened to lock my heart in a cage, where it would die a slow death.
These cages are of our own making, not God’s. We mistake our desires for our story to turn out the way that we want it to for God’s desires. We may lean on family portraits of past times that cannot be restored, or lean on people and institutions that promise us perfect family portraits if we support their business, their political cause, their ideas, their negative lifestyle. Sometimes we not only lean on them, but surrender our lives to them, simply because we are afraid of not getting what we want. We pressure everyone and everything to fit the family portrait version of our lives through all the means at our disposal; all life really offers us, though, is snapshot moments, with no special effects. But we should not turn to despair when we face the raw truth in these snapshot moments; if we look carefully, God is in the picture, always perfectly loving, inviting us away from hurting ourselves and others.
You have heard that it was said, “You must conform to a family portrait of human expectations.” But God says, “In Christ, you are more than just a human, you are a child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made by the divine Creator, and born anew in the Holy Spirit. Be the person who I have made you to be. You will never be far from my perfect love if you let me help you. And know, beloved child of God, that I have done this already for you in Jesus; I know how hard and painful it can be. I will be with you all the way.”
You have heard that it was said, “You must be the authentic individual who you want to be, to work as hard as you can to fulfill all of your dreams and desires, to take back all that’s been taken from you.” But God says, “What is more authentic than my everlasting love, already paid for on a cross? What is more fulfilling than working as the family of God to have eternal peace, now and forever? What is more rewarding than to be just, as I am already just? Break out of your cages of self-justification, resentment, and grief now, while there is still a chance to love life on life’s own terms, instead of closing your heart to life. Turn the other cheek, give up your second coat, go the second mile. Be the authentic, beloved child of God I have made you to be. We can do it together.”
You have heard that it was said, “You will never be as perfect as God wants you to be, as others want you to be, as you want to be.” But God says, “That’s your expectation, not mine. Remember what kind of “perfect” that I want you to become in the fullness of time: ‘complete.’ ‘Mature.’ ‘Fully grown.’ My idea of ‘perfect’ is a growing child of God who is willing to trust that my story has the best ending possible, a trustworthy ending that offers you the best family portrait of all right now, if but in snapshot moments. It’s such a big and beautiful and amazing picture, I can only give it to you in small pieces. Be patient with my story, with your story, and with other people’s stories, for I am patient with yours. In faith, you will grow, and you’ll make it, a day at a time.”
So here we are, in an Elks Club, a snapshot church if there ever was one. Some of us have been here for a while, and we know what family portraits we’ve had to give up to come this far. Some of us will look at our own lives, our own joys, our own losses, our own dreams, and wonder, where is God in my snapshots? Some of us will look at the empty spaces next to those snapshots in our hearts, and wonder, what will be the next photo that God wants me to treasure? Or, which photo must I put aside lovingly to make room for it? And some may look at photos that we pushed away from our hearts, and realise, “My bad. Let’s try to love that some more, even if it’s not a family portrait.”
God’s perfection in this life is about growing in the perfect image of things to come as God’s children in Christ, not being a finished product. And the church that’s growing in God’s perfection is the church that people who come through our doors want to find. A church that is growing not just in numbers, but in God’s perfect love. A church that struggles with the people and events that are hard for us to love as mere humans, but lovable and even joyful when we come together as children of God. A church that looks at the false images of perfection in the past, the present, and an imagined future, sweeps them aside, and says, “No, God’s future is all that matters, and we can trust in it, because of the promises of God’s perfect love that God’s story offers us through all time. Nobody owes us a thing, because we owe everything to the perfect love of our saving God, now and forever.”
With God’s help, we can do this. And in our United Methodist traditions of growing in grace, we are in a church that is designed to do this. And through grace, and with one another in Christ, God will make us…perfect. Amen.