Sermon: Wrestling with the Angel of Forgiveness

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/12/16 as part of our annual LGBT Pride Sermon and in conjunction with the installation of our Black Lives Matter banner. Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence.

 

This week has been one of many firsts in our nation and in our world. The glass ceiling of the White House is seeing some cracks in it; for the first time in our history, a woman has been selected as the presidential candidate for a major political party. Whatever the outcome, and whatever your political leanings, imagine what that looks like to young girls today. Imagine what that looks like to young boys today?! Let’s take politics out of it for the length of this sermon and this worship. When it’s possible to imagine role models for the highest position of power and authority and leadership – irrespective of gender – it may be empowering for young girls growing up, and it may be critically instructive to young boys growing up, to better understand the genders as intrinsically equal. I don’t know what may come, and regardless of the outcome of the elections, I am hopeful that girls will have a little more space to grow freely, and boys will have a little more room to be themselves because the ideal of power and leadership might possibly look different. And when we slowly inch toward a world where we put less bias into gender discrimination, I pray for a time where young trans youth can grow into themselves with safety and confidence.

But sexism is still alive and well. The news this week told us that women who are rape victims, with all the evidence in the world, may not see their attacker live out a real sentence if the attacker is a privileged white male with a promising future and an expensive lawyer. We know that in too many states, Transfolk are challenged when they attempt to use a public bathroom that conforms to their gender. A young white college student criminally assaults a woman – with witnesses who testified – and the judge will express concern over the impact a punishment will have on the assailant – yet instead of looking to the real problem, there are states that are policing bathrooms for mythical Transgender attackers. When the story gets so out of whack, like the stories we’ve heard this week, it’s a sign that it’s not about what it says it’s about. Something else is at foot. Hans Hoffman, a 20th century Abstract Painter once said, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” This month we are imagining what it means to be a people of simplicity. When the world contorts itself to see threat in places and people who are safe, and seeks to protect or go lenient on people who are a known threat, we as consumers of the media need to learn to simplify by eliminating the unnecessary in the story, so that what is necessary may speak. Gender terrifies some; or our sense of power connected to gender terrifies. Some men become violent, some seek to possess, some seek to control and mitigate those that blur the lines. When we become a people of simplicity, when we have cultivated a discerning lens through which we take in what the world is giving us, we learn to see through all the smoke screens that seek to confuse and separate those with common cause.

Pride month is a time of celebration. It’s also a time of memory; a time to remember the movement for LGBT equality began with Transgender People of Color, who were leaders in starting a riot in the West Village because enough was enough when it came to the police abrogating their civil rights through harassment and arrest. With that broken glass, I doubt this gay minister would be preaching from your pulpit today. It’s a time to remember the lives that have been lost over the years to hatred and fear; a time to remember that our LGBT youth still kill themselves at a radically higher rate than straight youth. What is it about our society that teaches victims to blame themselves? When you cut out all the chatter of politics and popular culture – we get to the question of why – why do we do this to ourselves; why do we teach our youth that brutality is something to be tolerated and managed? That’s the simple question for the day.

We have dreams for our kids. We imagine schools where they learn about the world; where they learn to live with folks who are different than they; where they learn to find and be themselves. We send them off so that they can figure out a little bit more how to make it on their own – whether they’re 5, 13, or 19. And sometimes, try as we might to be the most supportive, nurturing parents with the best intentions we can be, not all of us have internalized the lessons of compassion and morality we might hope for. We all have flaws and blind spots. Coming to accept who our children are when it doesn’t fit the neat description we have woven over the years, isn’t always an easy task. This isn’t just an LGBT issue, as many parents in this hall today will attest. Raising a child to be their own self means we have to accept what comes, even if it isn’t our design. But for the sake of today’s topic, I want to focus on the family dynamics of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. Some parents, who learn their child is not heterosexual or identifies with a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth, simply don’t know how to cope. Sometimes it all works out. But sometimes, the results are catastrophic. Sometimes, our hearts break.

I can relate to that heartbreak. I am, after all, a gay man, and I, too, have felt the seemingly insufferable burden of simply being who I am. I can relate to the LGBT youth who succumb to despair in a world of violence. And I see it intrinsically connected to a culture that protects sexual assailants over their female victims. I was the target of violence, largely due to my sexuality, from the age of 8 to about 13. Fists, pipes, wood, metal – groups of young teens working in concert at a time, weekly or monthly, for years. …

Parents who truly care for and love their children unconditionally want to imagine that when these sorts of things happen to their kids, they’ll know right away and know how to help. Many of us imagine that our children will come to us; that they’ll tell us. But that isn’t how it works much of the time…How many times did you hide something painful from your parents, because you were ashamed or afraid or confused or couldn’t imagine that they could possibly understand or help?

Many injuries fall below the neck so they can be hid – I remember protecting my face so that others wouldn’t see the bruises and know that I had been subject to violence. Kids don’t speak up all the time.

All too often, the people a child in this situation most looks to for help, the teachers and principles with all their schoolyard authority, simply want the problem to go away. Parents protect their little-bullies. Politicians claim it’s not that frequent, or not their problem, or that boys will be boys (forget about girls just being girls, because we almost never talk about that.) I was angry with the people who attacked me, yet I blamed myself. Shame trumped safety. I couldn’t forgive myself for letting it happen, or face my differences long enough to seek help. For all the LGBT youth whom we’ve lost to suicide, I can not just see, but I also feel how shame won out over safety for these young people.

At some point in my early college years, I realized that the violence against me wasn’t my fault. I think I made the connection listening to a talk on domestic violence – which was not my situation exactly but one to which I could relate, and the connection clicked. I learned how to shift the blame rightfully off myself and onto the perpetrators. It wasn’t an easy process. A lot more anger bubbled up. I remember the anger often being crippling. My new burden was learning to forgive, although definitely not to forget. Lance Morrow, a long time writer for Time Magazine, once wrote, “Not to forgive is to yield oneself to another’s control…to be locked into a sequence of act and response, of outrage and revenge, tit for tat, escalating always. Forgiveness, on the other hand, frees the forgiver. It extracts the forgiver from someone else’s nightmare.” This was true for me, although it would take me years to learn it. Forgiveness is not easy when the stakes are high, yet forgiveness extracted me from a nightmare of shame and violence that belonged to someone else, not to me. It freed me.

The sad thing is, some of those boys who tormented and beat me later would be men whom I would occasionally run into at various gay settings. They were people who allowed their blameless self loathing to bring them to harm the very thing they were seeking, which is validation of their identities as men who love men. As a child and as a teen, I was subject to their personal nightmares, and as an adult I had to do the long work of releasing myself from their hold.

I’ve never said what those other kids did to me was OK. I’ve never said they weren’t responsible for their actions, no matter the causes. And I am very aware that they’ve never done the hard work of coming to me and facing honestly the effects of their actions. But I’ve learned to let it go, to forgive.

I wish we had a word in the English language that meant, “What you did was horrible. What you did to me was not and will never be OK. But I have to let it go. I have to move on. I release your hold over me.” Until we come up with that word, I’ll continue to use the word “forgive.”

We often mistakenly think that in forgiving someone for their actions – particularly when their guilt is so extreme, that we’re condoning what they did. We fear that we’ve let them off the hook. That somehow the world is still not right, and our being easy keeps it so. I feel the truth is this – the world is still not right, but our forgiving or not-forgiving will not make the world right. We need to allow the other to seek whatever repentance they need, and not hold their actions over ourselves.

The justice system is an important element here. It’s one that has many failings, true, but one that also has so much potential to help. The inner spiritual work that we do individually to release ourselves from the pain of injustice through forgiveness, is different from the lengths society as a whole must take to address this problem. I began this sermon lamenting a very public injustice that impacted the life of a woman who was sexually assaulted. The work we victims must do to come to a place of wholeness – of our own striving – is separate from the work the judicial system must do in order to have earned its title and complete its duty.

There’s a lesson in the Hebrew Scriptures that’s helped me for years. It’s the story of Exodus. The Jewish people are enslaved by the power of Egypt. They’re caught up in a cycle that tells the world that folks that look a certain way, or share a particular culture, or lift up one set of values over another, or whose faith is different from another’s, deserve being enslaved. Oppressor and oppressed are captured, like bugs in amber, within the system of violence, within the system of hate and power; their shared humanity is drowned and paralyzed. The story teaches us that we are not born to remain in that nightmare. The sacred scriptures teach us that we are born to live free of the trap; free of the cycle. They teach that we are to move on; we are to build new communities, to live different lives. But in the scriptures, God commands that we not forget the story. Each Passover Seder we relive the pain long enough to teach the lesson that demands we live in relationship with one another; so that the next generation knows what exactly is at stake. In my case, the college educator teaching about domestic violence shared in her own way her Egypt’s lesson of retelling for me. She told me the path was trod by someone else before that was different than my own story but in some ways the same; there were lessons learned; and there is a way forward.

From the perspective of a Unitarian Universalist, here is how I see the core of the religious message: We should be alive to see this life, this world, this crazy, frustrating, awesome and humbling world. We should strive to forge real connections with the people and creatures we share this small planet with. We should have the opportunity to be ourselves; to find the abundant newness of creation; to love and to be loved. We should be alive to see it. When we get trapped in amber like bugs in the cycle of oppressor and oppressed, we lose what is necessary about life. Trapped in unnecessary hate, and greed, and fear, and brutality, we cease to live.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin once wrote, “I would feel far more sanguine to learn that the various world religions could agree on the desirability of teaching their followers, from childhood on, the significance of moral distinctions; to teach them that forgiveness is almost always a virtue, but to teach them that cruelty is evil and the murder of innocent people an unforgivable evil. In other words, to teach people the harder, more morally worthy path – to repent of irrevocable evil before, not after, they commit it.” His writings were in reference to the Holocaust of the Jewish people, not gay or gay-seeming teens. But we know as well that the the broader Queer community was most assuredly targets in the Holocaust. Rabbi Telushkin’s request is one that resonates today with the challenges our liberal faith is facing.

How do we repent before, not after – as the Rabbi demands? Do we acknowledge the wrongness of the systems of violence, and fear, and ego that lead to feelings of shame among our queer youth (and frankly all the youth of the world)? Do we acknowledge the stories of Egypt that tell us silencing our pathfinders by denying them the rights the heterosexual world enjoys, hides the truth to our gay children that they can in fact grow up to be in loving relationships? Do we acknowledge that learning healthier morals and values grounded on our faith tradition’s call for compassion, equity and justice in human relations is lifesaving?

Friends – repentance – yes repentance – starts with us by acknowledging these truths. Denying one people a right to their role models denies the  right for them to convey the morals and values that they believe are the most critical to their children.

We may not be able to change the lives of all those touched by loss and violence. We are not culpable for the actions of the teens or adults who set these spirals in motion. We very likely do not even hold world-views that contribute to the pain that sparks such tragedies and all those other stories we will never hear about. But we have it within our power to transform our corner of the world. We have it within our power to repent, as the Rabbi put it, of those inactions and views that keep this world forever punctured with these horrors. We have it within our power to live to our fullest potential now, here in this Sanctuary, in Huntington, New York in 2016 on this beautiful June Sunday morning.

The first steps are acknowledging all these wrongs, and failings, and short-comings that we are all guilty of on infinitely lesser scales and in often unrelated ways. The media often focuses LGBT equality on the issue of marriage, maybe job protections, maybe hospital visitation rights, and lately on bathrooms. But in a week in our nation’s life when gender and sexuality have so clearly intersected in so many ways with the horror of violence, I want us to remember our youth who continue to be at risk of violence done to them by others, or done by themselves from a shame they somehow learned to feel. Today, I’m thinking of the teens our world has lost to suicide. In honor of all those youth known and all those others who will never be named by our national media, I want to call you to remember their stories when you see the faces of the congregants around you. Our adults, our children, our youth. Think of your connection to your neighbor. That is what these teens so desperately were craving while they were alive and clearly could not get enough – safe connection, approval, respect. That is the way to stand in solidarity with these teens. That is the way to make a difference. That is the next, most immediate, way forward.

You see, Rabbi Telushkin isn’t saying we’re guilty. The Rabbi is saying if we know the things that contribute to the great evils of the world, and we can name what they are, then we are duty-bound to seek, in every way possible, a different path that leads elsewhere. We as the Unitarian Universalists of the Fellowship of Huntington seek to do this every week in our Religious Education classes. We seek to teach our children, youth, and adults that there is another path. We teach about consent. We teach about bullying, and boundaries and support. We seek to teach that there are stories worth retelling to release ourselves from bondage. When I speak with you and say that it is so very important that our children, youth and parents commit to attending these classes regularly – it’s because I believe it can help us avoid these stories of tragedy. It’s a way to create bridges of understanding that set a path forward, rather than one that harms. And it’s not just for the years we teach Our Whole Lives – our comprehensive sexuality education we affectionately refer to as OWL. It’s not just for the years of Coming of Age – where our youth learn to wrestle with forming their own sense of meaning in the world in the light of our shared values. It’s not just for our Adult Journey Groups – where we covenant with each other to support and nurture one another on our shared and individual paths. We need parents to be involved in every year and in every class. Soccer can wait. The violin class can happen another time. There is a dream of a world we hope to build, and we need to take the time to remind ourselves that there is, in fact, another way. Time for reflection in community is lifesaving, in so many ways.

Education is lifesaving – in the literal sense. Compassion in our daily human relations in this very building and this broader world is lifesaving – in the literal sense. A commitment to justice crafting in our nation and our towns is lifesaving – in the literal sense. To do any of these things is to be living hero. To do all of these things is a living miracle. This is the path this liberal faith calls us onto. This is the path of religious conviction. This is the path of standing in solidarity, on the side of love, with all those who will never be named by our society.

Last night in Orlando, Florida, a gay nightclub was shot up. I don’t know all the facts yet because it was too painful to read through all the news feeds, and information is still coming in. But as of this morning, over 20 were killed and over 40 were hospitalized and the gunman is dead. It was so bad, that some messages overnight were saying there was a suspected terrorist attack in Orlando. I don’t know what the whole story will tell us in time. But as a gay man, at a time of year when much of our nation is celebrating LGBT Pride – this service included – I can’t help but look at the timing and the focus and wonder – was the gunman merely overcome with violence, or were they overcome with violence toward the LGBT community. When I thought this was a terrorist attack, I felt one set of emotions. When I learned it was a terrorist attack targeting my community, I felt another set of emotions.

When you’re community is targeted and you feel like the responses are too weak, you feel the need to say that our gay lives matter. When women are sexually assaulted and the judicial system fails in treating all assailants equally, women feel even more unsafe. We call for increased awareness around sexual assault. We don’t say that other forms of assault don’t matter, but we say that addressing this form of violence needs to be handled with more care. And when we hear story after story of black lives not mattering in our courts and our streets, we reaffirm that Black Lives do Matter. Black Gay Lives Matter. Black Lesbian Lives Matter. Black Trans Lives Matter.

As our service comes to a close, I’d like to return to where I began. The LGBT civil rights movement – the moment that finally propelled us forward, was notably begun by Transgender People of Color starting a riot because their lives didn’t seem to matter in the eyes of their neighbor or the authorities. The free exercise of the civil rights that I enjoy today are based on the protests started by a Black Transwoman and all the others that screamed out in rage when she said enough is enough. Following the benediction, we’ll process outside to join our youth who have been working all morning to install our Fellowship’s Black Lives Matter banner on our front lawn. Black Lives do matter; and considering who helped to kickstart the LGBT civil rights movement, I am so personally glad that our statement of solidarity will be publicly blessed in this national month of LGBT pride.

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