"The Promised Land" Message from Pride Sunday, June 20, 2021
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Deuteronomy 34:1-5
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
Listen to podcast | Tithes and Offerings
In the summer of 2015, my family and I met my parents in Vancouver, Canada to see several games of the Women’s World Cup. They flew from the Midwest to Seattle then took Amtrak across the border. We drove. As we crossed the border from the US into Canada, the border control agent at the booth asked us the typical questions, “What’s the purpose of your trip?” “Who’s in the car with you?”
These are simple questions, but the latter question, “Who is in the car with you?” doesn’t always have a simple answer. The answer requires describing our family, two moms and two kids. It has involved a million, minute calculations, sometimes happening before the moment in preparation, sometimes on the fly when I didn’t see the question coming. It has been a balancing of safety with the importance of affirming with clarity who we are as a family headed by two lesbians.
I don’t remember exactly what I said that day, but I do remember what I said on the way back. You see, while we were in Canada, a long-held hope for LGBTQ persons and our allies became the law of the land. Well, the law of the land in the US at least. You remember what it was. Marriage Equality. Though LGBTQ marriage was legal in California, in June of 2015, it became legal in all 50 states. And so as we pulled up to the border booth, I remember feeling full of pride and without equivocation, when asked, “Who’s in the car with you?” I said, “this is my wife and these are our children.” Was this the promised land I was entering?
But marriage equality wasn’t the only thing that happened back in the US while we were in Canada that year. At the same time, activist Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina statehouse and removed the confederate flag flying there. She said she was compelled by the hate-shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Church that had just occurred where 9 persons were killed. During Bible study. Newsom was arrested upon her descent. This was not the promised land.
The idea of the promised land stems from the beginnings of the Bible when God said to Abraham, “to you and your descendants I give this land.” And then somehow indicated that “this land” was the fertile and beautiful stretch from just inside modern-day Egypt stretching through Palestine and Israel, encompassing most of present-day Lebanon and pieces of Jordan and Syria. The biblical description of the promised land has often been taken literally. And yet, this geography throughout most of history has been contested territory, no peaceful haven.
When we think about “the promised land,” we have to ask, “what exactly is the promise?” and to whom is it promised, and by what authority? The violence we witnessed last month in 11 days of destruction in Israel and Palestine suggests that a narrow and literal understanding of “promise” being about this specific land, and a specific people, will always be problematic.
But what if we understand “the promised land” being about inhabiting God’s vision? What if the promised land is the destination of our hope, rather than the destination of our bodies? What if “the promised land” means to live in the fulfillment of the law and the prophets which call us to love and justice, freedom with responsibility, and compassion for all?
In our scripture today from Deuteronomy, Moses stands with the presence of God, looking out at the geography that has been connected with the term “the promised land.” And God tells Moses he will die before he enters it. After 120 years of struggle, the promised land will remain a goal and a hope, even for Moses. Many have wondered why God would not reward Moses after his life of courage and faithfulness. A minor line in scripture tries to offer an explanation that Moses disobeyed God by striking a rock with his staff instead of letting God speak from a rock. And that for this one infraction, Moses was punished in this way. Do you buy that? Seems far-fetched to me. Seems like some biblical gymnastics to support a literal understanding of “promised land.”
So much had happened in the 40 years the Israelites were in the desert. And of course we know that the journey they actually took if you take the idea of “land” literally, didn’t need anywhere close to 40 years. If you treated their journey literally, like a hike with a destination, it would have taken somewhere between 60 to 100 hours of walking. Most hikers I know could do that in an easy month of walking. Some could do it in a week.
So why couldn’t Moses get there? Why all that time in the desert? As Deuteronomy closes, Joshua is named as the successor to Moses, to lead the people “into the promised land.” The suggestion is again, of a literal geography, but God’s instructions to Joshua also include this: “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
And then Joshua leads an armed takeover of the actual and literal land, already inhabited by others, which leads to an ongoing need to defend, protect, fight various wars, differentiate between friend and enemy, included and excluded, good people and bad people, for the millenia to come. Was this God’s promise? And was this a faithful response to God’s admonition to follow the law in all ways? The law that required hospitality to foreigners above all else, care for the orphan and widow? No, it seems this way of being actually created orphans and widows.
Sometimes when I am in conversation with United Methodists, particularly clergy from other parts of the country or world, I have a sense that the Western jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church seems to them like the promised land. You may have had similar conversations with friends and family. The freedoms and affirmation here, by comparison, can seem like a land flowing with milk and honey. There is truth in this perception and untruth as well. Even while I celebrate the relative freedom and affirmation that LGBTQ persons enjoy here, this will never be the promised land until all are free, until we don’t have to defend its borders. Until all have the opportunity to live with health, wholeness, affirmation and love.
I wonder if the reason Moses couldn’t pass into the promised land is that NONE of us were there yet, and what I mean by that is that we still and our ancestors still lived with our own internalized homophobia or colonial mindset, or smallness or fear. Just because we can see the promised land doesn’t mean we are there yet. But that also doesn’t mean that the vision isn’t essential. The hope of a promised land was essential as the Israelites lived in the desert unlearning a slave mentality. Embracing themselves as good and whole and blessed. And learning that freedom is about more than just one person or one group, but about faithfulness to ordering our lives in such a way that God and God’s ways and God’s call for all people will always be our guide no matter what land we live in.
Make no mistake about it: we are on a journey to the promised land. This is God’s promise to us. This is our inheritance: to be with a community that strives to be God’s people, to live in love and faith and hope and justice. But we don’t yet live in the promised land. When more than 1 in 3 LGBTQ persons, including 4 in 10 LGBTQ persons of color and 6 in 10 transgender persons have experienced discrimination within the last year, we don’t live in the promised land. When 3 of 10 LGBTQ persons faced difficulty accessing medical care last year, including over 50% of transgender persons, we don’t live in the promised land. When the racial disparities in police shootings has remained unchanged, we are not in the promised land. When we continue to incarcerate persons who enter this land at the border, we are not in the promised land. When our own denomination still doesn’t recognize the full humanity of all LGBTQ persons, we don’t live in the promised land.
What is God’s promise to us? God’s promise is that God will be with us on the journey. God’s promise is that though the desert may be a hot and desolate place, there is enough food, enough to stay hydrated, there is community, and that we will hear the voice of God directly. The desert clarifies what is important, and helps us understand the true purpose of God’s law, God’s ways: which is to be in beloved, just, joyous community with all of God’s people. And all means all. None of us can fully inhabit the promised land until we all do.
And so on this Pride Sunday, we celebrate our journey toward the promised land, and the distance we’ve covered. We honor each advance, hard won by the ones who died as a result of the injustice of AIDS, who stood up at Stonewall and in marches everywhere, who came out and said love is love. But let not our Pride turn to hubris, thinking that all is done, the promised land has been reached, rest and defend. For there are still children searching for affirmation for who they are discovering themselves to be, there are still persons trapped in gender identities that do not match God’s vision for them, there are still persons who cannot express the most basic and essential of human emotions: love.
When I think back to that moment at the border, I see now that it’s not so much the answer to the question of who was with me in the car that indicates our freedom, but the presence of a border at all that tells whether or not we are in the promised land. What was happening there was a sorting of who was acceptable and who was not. In the promised land, we know we all belong, and in all ways love, authenticity, compassion and courage rule. Let us keep journeying toward that place. And may this vision create the reality we live in now. Amen.
Order of Service (Bulletin) - Sunday, June 20, 2021
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost; Celebrating Pride
The Community Gathers
Prelude: "Just As I Am" (revised, 2021, David Ourisman 'with sincere apologies') - sung by "The Church Ladies"
Just as I am, but with a mask,
To get back to church is all I ask.
Praising our Savior is now our task,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Covid inflicted this terrible time,
While worship on Facebook has been somewhat fine,
Seeing each other is simply divine,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
We’ve been the Church in different ways,
Gathered together while wearing PJ’s,
But here in the pews is the best place to praise,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
So joining together our voices at last,
Connected in person, not by a broadcast,
To seek a new future and build on the past,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Welcome and "We Are One in the Spirit" Liturgy - Rev. Kristin Stoneking & Judy Kriege
Opening Hymn: "For Everyone Born (A Place at the Table)" Worship & Song #3149 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Melani Gantes
Invocation - Charlotte Rubens
To Hear the Word
Scripture Reading: Deuteronomy 34:1-5 - Charles Lynch
Children's Message - Susan Jardin
Anthem: "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell- Paloma Campi & Judy Kriege
Message: "Greetings from the Promised Land" - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
To Respond and Renew Commitment
Hymn of Response: "For All the Children" - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Margot Hanson
Call for Prayer - Emilie Bergmann
Special Music: "Waterfall" by Cris Williamson - Judy Kriege
The Prayer Jesus Taught - Gregg Richardson
Call for Offering - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Offertory: "Closer to Fine" by the Indigo Girls - Erin Adachi-Kriege & Judy Kriege; Thanks to everyone who submitted "Show Us Your Pride" Images
Prayer of Dedication - Aimee Reeder
To Go Forth with Love and Compassion
Closing Hymn: "Draw the Circle Wide" Worship Song #3154- Rev. Jerry Asheim & Margot Hanson
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Postlude: "Ours the Journey"- Rev. Jerry Asheim I wrote this setting of “Ours the Journey” to honor the composer of the hymn, Julian Rush, a gay United Methodist elder. He was appointed to several churches by Bishop Wheatley of Colorado. The Bishop was tried by the Judicial Council for appointing Rev. Rush, but was exonerated. This hymn was published in The Faith We Sing, but the verse which lifts up LGBTQ people was omitted. When we sing it at Epworth, we include that verse. - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special Thanks To
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Erin Adachi-Kriege, Emilie Bergmann, Paloma Campi, Melani Gantes, Margot Hanson, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Charles Lynch, Aimee Reeder, Gregg Richardson, Charlotte Rubens. Extra special thanks to the “Church Ladies” for our prelude music, written by David Ourisman
Video producer: Tai Jokela Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
Prayers © 2021 enfleshed.
Hymns reprinted/streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE # A-733809, CCLI Copyright license # 20022935, & CCLI Streaming license # 20476749. All rights reserved.