This is a sermon I delivered this morning as a guest preacher at Canadian Memorial United Church for their “PIE Sunday.”
Thanks to Rev. Beth and the Affirm team
for inviting me to preach
on this intriguing theme of “giving up silence for Lent.”
I considered beginning my sermon by coming up on stage
and just standing here silently.
For a long time.
And you’d all wonder if I was okay,
if I was overcome with unexplained emotion,
or frozen in fear,
or whether I’d tried to memorize my sermon (unsuccessfully)...
but slowly it would sink in
that it was just a pretentious attempt at a sermon illustration.
I know guest preachers can get away with all kinds of things,
but I don’t want to push my luck
with awkward silences.
Have you ever had something you needed to say,
but your body just refused to let you say it?
This happened to me the very first time
I attempted to articulate the words, “I’m attracted to women.”
(At that time, there was no way I had the courage to say “I’m gay.”)
It was 12 years ago, and I was lying on my pastor’s couch.
She already knew from context exactly what I was trying to tell her,
and still, I couldn’t do it.
It felt like that scene from the Matrix where Keanu’s mouth vanishes.
Fear and shame had stolen my voice.
I didn’t want to use words to give tangible shape
to something that until then
had lived quietly, if uncomfortably, inside my head.
Once spoken, I would never be able to take those words back.
My pastor sat there patiently
for what seemed like an hour,
as tears streamed down my face,
until I finally wrestled the words from my throat.
Her empathy and refusal to judge me
took the shame that had me tied in knots... and unravelled it.
I felt one hundred pounds lighter as I danced home.
I had spoken, and I had survived.
If you were to ask God today
what silences God is asking you to give up for Lent,
what pent-up words you need to set free,
what would they be?
Maybe, like me, it’s, “I’m queer.”
Or, “I’m a Christian.”
Or, “I don’t know what I believe anymore.”
Or, “I love you.”
Or, “I’m not okay. I need help.”
Or maybe it’s something like, “Black lives matter.”
Or, “That joke you told was hurtful.”
Or, “I’m sorry.”
Or, “I forgive you.”
There are so many silences waiting to be broken.
Why are we silent?
What holds our tongue?
Often, I think, it’s fear.
Fear is a powerful mute button
silencing us by making us captive to worst-case scenarios.
Audre Lorde, a queer black womanist poet and activist, writes,
“When we speak,
we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed.
but when we are silent, we are still afraid.”[i]
“While we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness,
the weight of that silence will choke us.”[ii]
I think she’s right.
We can be so afraid to speak,
not realizing that silence is actually what we should fear,
that silence itself is the killer.
The psalmist writes in Psalm 32,
“When I kept silent, my bones wasted away.”
I can’t tell you how many queer Christians I’ve met in my work
whose years in the closet have taken a toll on their physical health.
There’s a famous evangelical worship leader named Vicky Beeching
who was finally compelled to come out of the closet
when her body literally began consuming itself
with a stress-induced auto-immune disease.[iii]
That’s why I’m so grateful that Canadian Memorial
has walked through the Affirm process,
creating a safe space where queer folks can find healing -
not from their queerness,
but from negative effects of the silences that stifled them.
Because for queer Christians like me, our default is to assume
that churches are unsafe for us,
that we will need to silence a key part of our being
just to walk in the doors,
to be welcomed and to belong.
One of my jobs is working for Generous Space Ministries,
supporting LGBTQ+ Christians across Canada,
and this year, we’ve launched a campaign for Lent
challenging straight, cisgender Christians
to give up their silence for Lent
and tell their pastors that they’re affirming.
There are so many pastors out there who have no idea
that there are allies in their churches who want inclusion.
Again, you’ve already surpassed that step here, which is fantastic!
I’m sure Pastor Beth already knows you’re affirming.
(Though if you still want to support and share our campaign online, we’d be grateful!)
Today I celebrate PIE Sunday with you,
as we remember that our affirmation of LGBTQ+ people
must be public, intentional and explicit –
must be spoken clearly and often
so that queer people know there’s no stained glass ceiling here.
Of course, there are still other glass ceilings in our world,
other injustices we need to address,
oppressive silences that need breaking.
I don’t know about you, but for me,
often what keeps me silent about matters of justice, is not just fear
but also the perfectionism
of not wanting to say the wrong thing.
“What if I use the wrong words, and people misunderstand me,
or worse, they mock me on Twitter!”
Or what if I speak up for someone who’s been victimized
only to find out that, like in the case of Jussie Smollett,
the story was more complicated than I thought?
But one of my favourite authors, Brene Brown,
will not let me off the hook here.
She says that “opting out of speaking out
because we may get criticized
is the definition of privilege.”[iv]
The risk of minor embarrassment is nothing
compared to the potential good our words could do
for people who daily risk so much more than embarrassment.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “in the end,
we will remember not the words of our enemies,
but the silences of our friends.”[v]
Recently a conversation with my wife helped me see
that I had been deliberately opting out
of conversations about trans people online
because I was afraid of getting into arguments
with some radical feminist friends
who do not see trans women as women.
I couldn’t see a good way to have that debate online
so I had just been choosing to ignore it.
Reluctantly, I acknowledged that my comfortable silence
made me complicit in the violence
that disproportionately threatens my trans friends.
But not every silence calls out to be breached on Facebook.
It’s okay to be creative and find methods of communication
that fit how God’s wired us.
As for me, I’m great at building slow bridges, and I really like food.
So I emailed one of my radical feminist friends
and we went out for an uncomfortable breakfast
where we hashed out our views and what was at stake.
It was awkward, but so worthwhile.
Next time we meet,
we’re each bringing another friend to the conversation.
If we need inspiration around the many ways silence can be broken,
we’ve got a whole Bible full of examples.
Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann
traces a pattern through scripture
of silencers and silence breakers.[vi]
He notices that the silencers are usually kings, priests, and scribes,
people of privilege who benefit from maintaining the status quo,
who muzzle anyone seeking change.
The silence-breakers tend to come from the margins of society.
They are often people of imagination,
performance artists and poets and storytellers who risk everything
by speaking the inconvenient truth to power.
God’s people cry out in slavery,
and to confront their oppressor, Pharaoh, God chooses Moses,
self-described as “slow of speech and lacking eloquence.”
God sends Nathan to break David’s guilty silence
by telling stories about sheep,
and commissions Elijah
to challenge and taunt the wicked king Ahab.
The Spirit touches Isaiah’s lips with fire.
She puts words in Jeremiah’s mouth.
and feeds them to Ezekiel in an edible scroll.
Zechariah is silenced by God,
then uses his first words to name his son John,
a son who was later killed after telling King Herod the truth.
(Silence breaking can be dangerous!)
But don’t worry, women are also qualified for this dangerous work!
Esther risks her life,
“coming out” as Jewish to King Xerxes
in order to save her people.
The Syro-Phoenician woman talks back to Jesus
about deserving crumbs from his table,
and her faith is rewarded.
And then we have this parable that was read for us earlier from Luke 18
about the widow, perhaps the most marginalized person of all,
the original per-sister,
whose constant nagging changed the mind of a powerful judge.
She seems to be Jesus’ way of giving us permission
to be incredibly annoying when necessary.
It can be confusing to interpret this parable,
because Jesus says it’s a story about prayer.
This usually leads us assume it means we’re the widow,
and God is the judge we’re trying to convince through prayer.
And yes, there is precedent for crying out and making a case before God,
asking God to break God’s silence.
But in this story, I don’t think God is the judge.
After all, the judge is explicitly described here as “having no fear of God.”
No, in this story, I think God’s mouthpiece is the widow.
God is the sender of the silence-breakers.
And I think it’s a story about prayer
because every word spoken on behalf of justice
is itself a form of prayer -
no matter whether it’s spoken to God or to a human power.
Now I don’t think reality is so neat and tidy
as to cast each of us as EITHER a “silencer” OR a “silence-breaker.”
I think most of us are a complicated mix.
In some situations, we cry for freedom,
and in others, we can be indifferent in our privilege.
So we can’t romanticize things
or pretend that any speech is always better than silence.
After all, words can heal, but they can also dehumanize.
They can stoke fires and launch wars.
Even when our intentions are good in breaking silence,
sometimes we’ll do so in reactive or thoughtless ways
and end up breaking other things in the process.
Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time to speak,
and there is a time to remain silent.
There are some silences we need to resist giving up.
Silences that should be kept.
Before I close I want to mention the silences we should keep.
I give you permission
to keep the silence of survival.
There are some situations where truth-telling carries risk of physical harm.
For example, situations where coming out as queer
risks homelessness, imprisonment or death.
If these are the kinds of consequences you face,
please don’t go it alone - wait and build a network of support first.
I urge you to keep the silence of listening to the margins.
Yes, please speak up for marginalized people
in situations where they would be abused or ignored,
and absorb the potential harm on their behalf,
but in situations where they could use their own voices,
instead, build them a platform,
pass them the microphone, and listen to them.
We need to keep another silence:
the silence of sitting at God’s feet in holy awe.
Contemplative silence is what grounds us for activism and speech.
When we sit quietly with God,
we become aware of at least of two things:
(first), that there is so much we do not understand,
which keeps us humble, teachable, and soft-bellied.
and (second), that our core identity is “beloved child of God,”
that with God, we belong.
This is what strengthens our backbone.
A soft belly and a strong spine is exactly what we need
to speak for justice in ways that heal instead of harm.
(Note: I’ve borrowed this idea from Brene Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness)
At Lent we remember that Jesus remained silent when put on trial.
He did not defend himself.
His words from the cross were few,
but carefully chosen,
words like “Forgive them,”
spoken not with resentment,
but with a soft belly and strong spine,
carrying us way beyond “an eye for an eye,”
charting a new healing path for humanity.
So tell me,
what are you waiting to say?
Whether you write your words on a sign,
type them on the internet,
tell them in a story,
or air them over an awkward shared meal...
I urge you give up some silence for Lent.
First, find your muse.
Draw on the strength of those
who swallow their fear,
banish their shame,
accept their imperfections,
sacrifice their ego,
and speak up anyway.
Channel the courage of the persistent widow.
Or of St. Patrick, who spoke of God’s love to those who had formerly enslaved him.
Or of Audre Lorde, or Martin Luther King Jr, or Nelson Mandela.
Or of the sisters of the #metoo movement.
Or of the students who walked out of school on Friday to save the planet.
Or of the Muslim man who greeted his murderer with the words, “Hello, brother.”
We never know when death will come,
so let us not leave things unspoken.
Don’t let the words waste away your bones.
Instead, know deep in your bones
that your belovedness is unshakeable,
that no faltering word from your lips
can possibly diminish God’s love for you.
Let this strengthen your backbone
as you wrap words around your reality,
as you speak your loves and your losses, the things that break your heart,
as your truth becomes a prayer.
Your words might just pester their way to justice.
Your words might just unravel someone’s shame,
cushion someone’s fall, or help someone stand firm.
Your words might even echo those first words in Genesis
and speak into being a new creation,
sparking imagination for new ways to be human together.
So use the voice God gave you.
Tell it like it is.
If you don’t,
the very stones may cry it out.
Take courage, friends,
now is the time.
You were not born to be silent.
A benediction from Proverbs 13 –
“Open your mouth. Judge righteously. Defend the rights of the poor and the needy.”
As you go, may your lips be unsealed.
In the name of the Creator who spoke everything into being,
the Son, who is the Living Word,
and the Spirit, who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. Amen.
[i] Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/147275/a-litany-for-survival
[ii] Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” https://wgs10016.commons.gc.cuny.edu/lorde-poetry-is-not-a-luxury/
[iii] See Vicky Beeching’s book, Undivided: https://www.amazon.com/Undivided-Coming-Becoming-Whole-Living/dp/0062439901
[v] Martin Luther King Jr, The Trumpet of Conscience, Steeler Lecture, November 1967.
[vi] Walter Brueggemann, Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out, https://www.amazon.com/Interrupting-Silence-Gods-Command-Speak/dp/0664263593