This message was delivered July 2, 2023, at Parkview United Church of Christ in Aurora, CO.

Brothers, sisters, friends, and family, it is good to greet you this morning on behalf of the First Baptist Church of Denver and it is even better to be joining you in worship this morning. We are much closer than we are even physically, as your pastor shares membership in our church – one of those interesting Baptist things. Our pastor, Rev. Henderson, always says that there is more we can do together than we can apart, and I’m pretty sure this is one of those instances. So, in that sense, it is a joy to be with you not just as strangers but as a fellow sojourner on the path.

I have just returned from the American Baptist Biennial Mission Summit in Puerto Rico, which I keep telling folks was a great time filled with meetings and fluorescent lights rather than a week-long beach worship party. That is mostly true, however I must admit that I did spend some good time sitting in the upstairs lounge of the hotel with some close colleagues, where I found myself giggling frequently at the stories they’d share about how little they were taught in seminary. I have many of my own, even in this early stage of my vocation. This week contained no less than three such occasions.

The first was to make a video for the congregation that outlined my experience in Puerto Rico, sharing all about what our denomination is doing and, ultimately, where our money is going. This one was easy, thankfully, as I called upon the first skill not taught in seminary: making something out of nothing in an exceptionally short amount of time. The second was to unclog one of our outdoor drains that’s in a window well – not too bad, except for the fact that I was dressed in my fancy shoes, khakis, and the whitest shirt I own. As I took off my shoes, shirt, and rolled up my pants to prepare to reach my hand into a rotting pile of leaves, debris, and dirt, I wondered what it was my degree was preparing me to do exactly – what am I getting into? Then, as the water receded, I was reminded that the true work of resurrection involves getting more than a little dirty once in a while.

The third and final occasion where I realized I was in the middle of something more than what I had been taught was as I was standing next to an American Flag in the press room of the Supreme Court building in downtown Denver. I had just woken up from what may have been a fever dream, originally consisting of me and several other clergy standing with the director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado to make a statement condemning the decision that was released just hours before. I was then tapped on the shoulder by the Associated Press to make a statement, which I hesitantly agreed to. Seminary has taught me to say yes.

As the reporter prepared to interview me, I took an assessment of the situation, which reminded me starkly of David as he prepared for battle. The reporter began setting up his camera in front of me, making sure it was just a little bit taller than me, hopefully to make me look better. I watched as the camera’s lens moved in and out as the reporter focused on my face. At that moment, I became hyper aware of the facial expressions I was making – should I smile? Should I frown? I’m angry, after all. The lights became suddenly brighter though nobody touched them. I began to sweat. The reporter handed me a microphone that felt heavier than normal, and he instructed me to hold it about chest height, making sure to tell me not to hold it like a “rapper” – thankfully, I knew my words wouldn’t remotely be as eloquent as the artists I listen to. Was my hair okay? Should I have closed my top button?

The interview began and ended just as quickly as it began. The reporter then told me to stand still, so he could get some footage of the stole I was wearing. The stole was, of course, not mine; borrowed in good faith from my pastor, whom I was filling in for. I suddenly noticed how long and heavy this stole was around my neck, in a beautiful rainbow pattern that symbolized much more than just the yoke of ministry. Around my neck, as well as right in front of me, was a yoke of responsibility to stand up and speak for my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, who had suddenly become strangers in their own land.

Around my neck was the weight of a symbol just as significant as the one that the reporter had positioned me next to – the American Flag – the contrast of which had suddenly become as apparent as the heat of Egypt. The reality of what has taken place in our country this week did not set in for me until that exact moment. I have had the privilege to be the person I was created to be in a country I perceived as and up until now has, for the most part, been affirming of that. As I stood next to that American flag in my bright rainbow stole, I thought about the divide that has been created between these two symbols, that now one cannot necessarily exist in true harmony with the other. One of these symbols is now objectively lower than the other, even when one represents a yoke placed upon me by a God that transcends everything that the stars and stripes stands for.

It would seem to me that our lives as people of God and simply as humans is meant to perpetually exist in the middle ground between the already and the not yet. How wonderful it is to live in a country that allows our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters to love and marry, and yet how unfortunate it is that they do not have the ability to enjoy a website that celebrates that love, a service that is provided to everyone. How wonderful it is to know that our Christ has died to set us free, and yet how unfortunate it is that our Christ has not returned to complete the transformation of this world. How wonderful it is to be given a land of milk and honey, and yet how unfortunate it is that they have not yet made it there to bask in it.

The Israelites in our text this morning are in the middle of the already and the not yet. Promised to be given their land, freed from the wilderness, released from the bondage of their ancestors, they approach the land with a confidence that any wandering sojourner would have after being given that which they’ve promised for generations. Finally, progress is being made, because of the work that one individual has done to petition for his people to live yet another day.

That progress is celebrated, and welcomed, because of the memory engrained in each of them of the persecution endured in their past. While we are aware of the Israelites’ shortcomings at each and every narrative point, God reminds them that the one thing that will persist is memory, and that only the force of this memory is strong enough to form a counterweight to hate.

David was young when he fought Goliath, yet not young enough to be totally free of the memory and knowledge of his ancestor’s history. He knew what he and his relatives had done in the power of the living God, and had remembered what the Lord had done for him. “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” Although his armor didn’t fit, and although he was just a wee lad, the power of his memory and history was strong enough to defeat even the most hardened Philistine.

As I stood next to that American flag, I was reminded not of the relatively short history of my own identity journey, but rather the history of those who have fought for the very thing that was being taken away by a court that claims to be bound to the most basic freedoms of our country. For decades, the LGBTQ+ community was thought to have a disease – of the brain, of the physical body, and of our identity that would be transmitted to anyone who came within touching distance of us. For decades, someone like me would not even be considered to preach this very message to you this morning or to wear a yoke of ministry in liturgical colors let alone the bright rainbow of God’s promises. I stood next to that American flag as a beneficiary of centuries of work by people that have died for this privilege. In that moment, the weight of that was not lost on me.

The Israelite people in our text today are a generation removed from the generation of the golden calf, and stand on the shoulders of those who were required to perish in order for their predecessors to thrive, and in that context, they are warned to befriend the foreigner, for they were once foreigners themselves.

That word – foreigner – creates a certain image in our minds. When we hear foreigner, we think of the 10,000 Venezuelan refugees that have come across the border into Colorado since January. When we hear foreigner, we think of the people that don’t look like us, that speak a different language than us, and present themselves as something “other” than us. While that is a valid translation of the word from Hebrew, a couple others could be used in its place: sojourner, “resident alien,” or “dependent stranger.” Beloved, the stranger is not just the other, the obvious departure from the relatively homogenous culture we find ourselves in. The stranger – the foreigner – is also us. If we once stood where the foreigner was, then the foreigner will one day stand where we are currently standing.

If the foreigner is a human, so are we – and if they are less than human, so are we, suggests Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
In this country, we were all once foreigners. This is a known fact that some like to ignore, but for the most part, that is something we all agree on. This is not our land, rather it is land that was stolen for the benefit of few at the cost of many. As we approach another celebration of our nation’s independence, it would be easy to stop at this reminder, but as I stood next to that American flag on Friday, I lived the reminder of our text today. The Supreme Court has decided what it has decided. Plenty could be said regarding that, but I live in the fact that our God is the God of Gods, sovereign of sovereigns, never to choose favorites or be bribed. What a blessing that this is a fact: that whatever the corruption of our leaders and our world leads to, we yet have a judge in God that is beyond and above all of that.

Praise God that a court that treats ethics as though they were simply guidelines is made illegitimate by a God whose ethics are rooted in a love that is unconditional by its very nature. Our text today reminds us that there is power in our memories and our history. We have a lived experience – a lived experience that God has led us through and has planned for us that has built us into who we are today. Our experience as foreigners, even in a community that we claim to be a part of, prepare us to be the hands and feet of Christ for a people that will continue to be persecuted just for being who they are. We do not feel like a foreigner until someone erases the identity that we have built upon the shoulders of others, and the decisions made this week have proven that the identity of anyone can be erased with a simple majority opinion.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Venezuelans, and they came for the LGBTQ+ community, and they came for the homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill, and for Frederick Douglass, and I did not speak out – because I was not Venezuelan, LGBTQ+, homeless, addicted, or mentally ill, or a slave.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

May we take every opportunity to not just befriend the foreigner, but to stand up and with the foreigner, because the foreigner is us, and it takes only a simple decision for any of us to become the foreigner. May we never forget the history we stand upon and the history being made this very moment, lest we forget what we are being brought from and being born into.

May it be so. Amen.