by Rev. Laura Rossbert
a sermon preached at Christ Church UMC, Denver, Colorado
Please pray with me: oh God, may your Word be preached and may your word be heard.
It is a joy and a privilege to stand before you today. I’m excited to be appointed as a commissioned Deacon to Christ Church United Methodist, where I get to interact with the wonderfulness that is the people of this staff and congregation when I’m not flying here there and everywhere!
Today we’re going to talk about the power of stories, because that is a core of my theology – and I believe who we are called to be as the church, especially the Reconciling United Methodist Church. Our stories shape and influence our world, and our stories have the ability to break down barriers and open hardened hearts. So, with that, I want to share a bit about my story of why I find myself standing before you today as Director of Regional Organizing for Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN).
When I graduated from college, where I had been worshipping in a UCC church, I moved to DC to work for The Human Rights Campaign – an organization that works for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer equality (LGBTQ) in more secular politics. Of course, upon moving to a new town, I was also looking for a place to worship. I started visiting a variety of churches of all denominations each Sunday. In DC, after asking your name, they immediately ask you where you work – to properly put you on one side of the political spectrum and make judgments against you. Of course, I was proud to work at HRC – it was work I felt called to, was meaningful and was seeking to create a world I could believe in. But, Sunday after Sunday, I would not be invited back to worship – people would cross their arms and step away during our conversations – communicating without concrete words of harm – but reminders that I was not welcome there because of where I worked.
So, I took a break from church for about a year. I tried the Unitarian Universalist Church up the street from me, and while I loved the people and the diversity – I just wanted a little more Jesus. For me, the story of Jesus is one that compels me to be my best self and live into my values. I respect the beautiful religious diversity of my own extended family – from practicing Jews, to a Buddhist living in Buddhist community, to an atheist and others. But, for me, on Sunday mornings I want to hear the radical teachings of a man who turned tables over when people wouldn’t listen, who stood with the oppressed and for his values even when that literally meant his own death. So, I was saddened that even in Washington, DC, I couldn’t find a church that welcomed me.
Around this time my grandpa Jim passed away. He and my still-living, amazing 92 year old grandma, are Methodists. I offered to my dad that I’d be happy to work with the pastor and speak at Grandpa’s funeral. This meant I got time with a great Methodist minister who encouraged me to try just one more Methodist Church after hearing my struggles. So, in memory of my grandfather I did – a few Sundays after the funeral I walked into Capitol Hill UMC. I walked in 5 minutes before the service started – as an introvert it meant that I didn’t have to really talk to anyone, but I didn’t make a fuss by coming in after the choir. I grabbed a bulletin, sat down in the pews and stared at the beautiful stained glass. The choir started processing and Pastor Ginger Gaines-Cirelli got up in front of the church and said “no matter where you are coming from or where you are going, no matter what you believe or what you doubt, no matter what you feel or just don’t feel today and no matter who you love – all of who you are is welcome into this place to be met by a God who knows you by name and wants to have a relationship with you.” Tears welled up in my eyes, and I finally looked up and looked around to see the beautiful congregation of people around me. People who exuded the love of God, a broad diversity of couples and families with their arms around each other, sitting comfortably in a church where they were truly known.
But, the day that I joined The UMC, is the day that I joined Reconciling Ministries Network. I knew I could not join a church that discriminated if I didn’t do everything in my power to change that discrimination. And, that’s why you all have an option to sign up as Reconciling United Methodists in your bulletin today (yes, shameless plug) – it not only is important that Christ Church as a community is a prophetic witness in our church – but we need individuals, as well. Signing up means that your voice will be added to many that say that any barriers we erect as a church to God’s work is a sin – these numbers demonstrate that the Spirit is moving and encourages The UMC to change it’s discriminatory laws.
So, for me, as we walked through Lent, as we let go of our fear, as we asked ourselves what it means to be people who believe in resurrection experiences – I kept turning back to stories. For, our Bible is just that – a book of stories – of individual lives and communities that name their faith in communities of doubt, that speak prophetic words into being. Just like we heard from 1 Peter 3 today, “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind…Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”
Let’s here that last verse again: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;” – always be ready to speak about the hope that is within you. That, to me, is the core of the Gospel message – I must always be ready to “preach, pray or perish” in the words of John Wesley. That idea, that we must always be ready to share our stories in relationship, to speak truth into being, is the heart of my theology and is crucial for the church and reconciling people.
You see, what I believe is one of the most beautiful pieces of Christian theology is that we believe in the trinity - we can see the significance of authentic relationship within the Trinity. Each piece of the Trinity must act in a way that honors their unique attributes. Together, through relationship, they become the being that is needed for the creation, redemption, and liberation of the world. This liberating love focused on relationship is a model for how humans are invited to act - where community is built, power is shared and others become the focus of your work. It is by interacting with others and seeing people as they are, listening deeply to people’s own stories, not according to the minimizing lens of our own experience, that God’s kin-dom can break through.
As Methodists, we also believe in the importance of experience to inform our Christian world view. Thus, the experience of all people is critical to fully understand God. As James Cones notes “When people can no longer listen to other people’s stories, they become enclosed within their own social context, treating their distorted visions of reality as the whole truth.” In this way, we must appreciate the embodiment of all of God’s children, trust that all are made in God’s image, and allow for the experiences of all to inform our understandings about God and God’s people. Serene Jones writes, “theological reflections…need to be measured against the lived experiences and traditions of persons who seek to know God truly and to live faithfully.” So, we have to be able to share our stories to be able to walk together as a community. A theology that cannot be lived, a theology that cannot be heard in the voices of others is unhelpful as we seek to understand how God chooses to communicate with humankind.
This, to me, relates to what it means to true be the church. The true church is one where all of God’s children are welcome, where all parts of the body of Christ can be appreciated, celebrated and noted for their inherent worth. The true church is where God’s radical vision of community and relationship is celebrated and God’s presence is welcomed through leadings of the Spirit and the embodiment, model and transformational presence of Christ. The true church is a place where hope is present, but pain can be acknowledged as a genuine experience of God’s children. What does a church that embodies those values look like? Serene Jones describes her church as a place of “bounded openness.” This openness acknowledges that the Spirit moves through and with all people. This group experiences the vision that God places before them through the inner workings of the Spirit in the lives of the members, in the lives of the stories that are celebrated and honored in the space.
And, so, for me, I have experienced the Holy Spirit showing up in communities when people come together and speak their authentic identities, and it is only in doing that that the Spirit can move us forward to create real change in the lives of ourselves and others.
As I understand it, speaking stories is speaking truth into being. When we come together and claim our true stories – those things that force us to be vulnerable, to put down our barriers and see each other and ourselves as beautiful and beloved children of God, then the Spirit is speaking a new world into being, a new kingdom – one based on love and honesty – and not shame and judgment.
I see this new community being birthed in places like Jackson, MS where Connie and Renee, friends of mine, live their out open and honest married lives in the workplace, in their home and at church. I see this in my friend Giselle, who is an outspoken advocate for justice and equality in Georgia, creating hope for people in a hurting world and being the best evangelist for church and reconciling I’ve ever seen - and shares openly about what that means for her as a transgender woman. I see this in my friend Greg, a man who brings so many gifts of word, sacrament and service to the church – who serves as a Music Director in churches in Atlanta, but doesn’t have the joy of being ordained as God is calling him because of who he loves but isn’t afraid to share his story with anyone he encounters to remind them that those words in the Book of Discipline of our church aren’t about an “issue” they are about real human lives – about real callings from God that are being limited because of injustice. I see this in all of the people who bravely speak up, share their stories of who they authentically are. I see this with Pamela and Lauren, a part of this marvelous congregation, who stood on the steps of the District Court a few weeks ago and talked about the importance of marriage equality for them, as faithful people – both to their beliefs and to each other. For Brian and I, as a United Methodist clergy couple currently a part of the Tennessee Conference it means speaking up when we have the opportunity, because we have privilege and the only reason we can ethically hold that privilege is if we take it and use it to make a new way forward that allows for the flourishing of all and not just some.
To me, as we leave Lent, I think about the ways that fear can inhibit us. I think that the greatest sin of fear is that it silences us. It causes us to go inward, into our own selves, into closets – to feel shame and loneliness – instead of reaching out to others for community and love. To me, I believe that we birth new community, we birth the beauty of what the great Divine is calling us to do, when we listen to God and ALL God’s children WITHOUT exception, when we speak up and when we claim that all are welcome at this table. We don’t have to agree, for certain, but we have to allow each body to show up – to name who they are – and to move forward together as a community.
Sometimes the change that we seek to create in the world can feel so absolutely overwhelming, it’s hard to remember where to begin. But, God has placed a story in my life that I am committed to sharing. And, when I go out there, live authentically as I am, and share that story – amazing things have happened. The Spirit, that “Divine troublemaker” as I like to call her, calls us forward, even when our voices shake or tears well up in our eyes. And I know, that there are hundreds of stories that we all carry about the ways that God is calling us to be open, to love and to create justice. So, together, in community, let us share those stories on our hearts, follow God’s calling and speak that beautiful freedom into being. Amen.
 James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, 94.
 Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology, 10.
 Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology, 169.
. . .
. . .
Rev. Laura Rossbert joined RMN as the Director of Regional Organizing in July 2013. She oversees RMN’s regional organizing and resources the Southeastern jurisdiction as an organizer with a focus on LGBT matters within faith communities. Laura is a Commissioned Deacon in the Tennessee Conference of The United Methodist Church. She has a Masters of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School with a focus on gender/sexuality and is active in the local LGBT community in Nashville to connect people of faith to enact political change.