Sermon in the Streets

Supply preaching is a strange phenomenon, but I gladly provide the supply myself. I have decent tolerance for strange situations, and I’ll include last weekend in that. I was supply preaching at a former church of mine, the one where I’d served as Intern and then Summer Minister, the same church that later became my ordaining congregation. I have a great fondness for it still. It’s located in midtown Manhattan, a place rarely crowded on a Sunday in summer. Unless – and this is a considerable exception to that generality – that Sunday comes at the end of June, when the Gay Pride Parade marches down Fifth Avenue.

This year, the Pride Parade fell on the day marking the one-year anniversary of the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York, so the crowds were even thicker than usual. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folk were out in full force, and there was palpable jubilation in the air. Jubilation – that’s a word I don’t get to use often enough, but it fits beautifully here. It did not fit so neatly that morning, however, on the streets and sidewalks of the city. Because I was travelling from the West Side, I needed to walk across Fifth Avenue, which was slated close at 11:00 am. I planned on arriving at the church at 10:30 am, so I didn’t really think I’d have much of a problem.

Until I saw the barricades and the uniformed police officers – then I knew what scope of problem I was confronting. The police were redirecting pedestrian traffic, but I decided to press beyond the people getting turned away. I felt real desperation rising from my chest into my throat. I couldn’t help but imagine myself being barricaded from entering the church, stuck a block and a half away as the choir and the music director shuffled their sheet music nervously, the Sunday visitors started to get suspicious, and the assembled congregation all found themselves at a loss for a worship leader just at the time the service was set to start. Suddenly standing before one of the officers, I was nigh in a panic.

“Hey, hey, hey – no crossing here!” the officer told me. He was stout and ruddy, sent straight from NYPD central casting to thwart lawbreakers with a glance.

“But I just need to go another block or so that way,” I pleaded.

“No can do,” he said. “This is a frozen zone, nobody in, nobody out.”

At that point, my inner drama queen unleashed herself and there was no stopping her, no how, no way. I didn’t bother trying.

“Listen,” I told him, as opening oratory. “I am a preacher.” My hand clapped over my heart, lending this declaration a rousing sound effect. “I swear to God!” Then my hand flew heavenward, for emphasis. “And that –” Here arm flew outward as I pointed with real dramatic flair directly across Fifth Avenue, in an exceeding vague approximation of the locale; call it poetic kinesthetic license. “That is my church.”

The officer stared at me for a few moments, caught in his own frozen zone, testing his belief of my impassioned testimony. We faced one another a while, without further words, before he broke.

“Okay, okay,” he said, waving me past. “But move quick!”

Quick would have been a leisurely pace for me; I nearly flew the remaining blocks to the church, where I caught the church choir just finishing its practice. No one even noticed my delay, much to my relief, but my heart continued to pound for some time. I kept replaying my sketchy if brief encounter with the law, over and over again in my mind.

Listen. I am a preacher. I swear to God! And that – that is my church.

Listen. I am a preacher. I swear to God! And that – that is my church.

Listen. I am a preacher. I swear to God! And that – that is my church.

Did I bear false witness? I had begun to wonder… The truth of the matter is that this was my church for the space of that Sunday morning service alone. I was only the supply preacher, simply passing through a slow week in summer. Meanwhile, throngs of LGBT folk, their friends and family, advocates and supporters, were moving outside in a celebratory mood, gathering around the edge of the frozen zone, hoping to get a good sight line on the parade. Their presence on the city streets testified the certain triumph of love over fear. Something sanctified was in the midst of all that.

Wasn’t the Pride Parade my church, too?

Yes, I crossed a boundary erected by law because I felt bound by sacred obligation and compelled to decisive action. But the boundary yielded to me rather easily. My LGBT friends, families, and neighbors have had a much tougher go of it; marriage equality failed before it passed in New York, much to their dismay. Often they don’t get the kind of thorough hearing that I did when I claimed my clerical privilege on Fifth Avenue. There are varied and numerous barriers to their entrance to church, unfortunately, in too many congregations across our country where the sanctuaries refuse to bid LGBT folk welcome. I felt – and continue to feel – humbled and chastened by that fact. So who am I to preach?

When I served as seminarian at another former church of mine, I was given the marvelous opportunity to perform my very first wedding. I was co-officiant at the ‘Holy Union’ of one of our church members and his domestic partner; we called it Holy Union because same-sex marriage was not yet legal in any state and also because we lacked a certain courage of conviction. I love officiating at weddings, and I’ve been able to do it more regularly in recent years, but that seminal wedding celebration continues to hold a tender spot in my heart.

I know a sacrament when I see it, and I tell you that wedding was every bit an act of matrimony, only braver. Those two people openly proclaimed a love that others would ridicule and denigrate. They invited us to celebrate and bless a union that we were not then bold enough to call a marriage. I’m embarrassed by what we clergy once considered magnanimity on our part. Since then, I’ve joined Pride in the Pulpit and repeatedly endorsed marriage equality and issued calls to conscience for all our states to legalize same-sex marriage. To the extent that strings of words are meaningful, I’ve signed my name to them. And yet – my signature strikes me as pallid and inadequate. Perhaps because I was able to marry at a time when many of my dearest friends were denied that option on the grounds of who they loved and how they loved.

On Pride Sunday, I may have run the ramparts, gotten to the church on time, and preached with the sort of sincerity a native daughter should express on her return home to a beloved faith community. But other people have crossed much higher hurdles than I to gain entry to the sanctuary. Besides, I definitely was not supplying the best sermon that day. The finest sermon — by far — was being supplied by my fierce sisters and brothers out on the sidewalks and in the streets, where church also is. My spirit stands in no doubt of that, whatever testimony you hear tripping from my tongue.

© 2012

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