A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on January 15, 2023
Scripture: Psalm 40:1-6 (The Message translation)
I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened.
He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from deep mud.
He stood me up on a solid rock to make sure I wouldn’t slip.
He taught me how to sing the latest God-song, a praise-song to our God.
More and more people are seeing this:
they enter the mystery, abandoning themselves to God.
Blessed are you who give yourselves over to God,
turn your backs on the world’s “sure thing,” ignore what the world worships;
The world’s a huge stockpile of God-wonders and God-thoughts.
Nothing and no one comes close to you!
I start talking about you, telling what I know, and quickly run out of words.
Neither numbers nor words account for you.
Doing something for you, bringing something to you—that’s not what you’re after.
Being religious, acting pious—that’s not what you’re asking for.
You’ve opened my ears so I can listen.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
In 2018, the Hartford Courant ran a story about our celebration of twenty-five years of being an Open and Affirming Church. In it, Wally Many, that long-time, well-loved leader of our church, said:
“I hope the people who are gay and lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, whatever, they feel free to come here and see what we’ve got to offer,” said Wally Many, who led the church’s original effort in the late 1980s and early 1990s to become Open and Affirming.
When I read this psalm, I think about the people who, like Wally, worked so hard, so persistently to make a vision of inclusivity come true.
I didn’t know Wally at all well. I was friendly with Dody’s wife, Selena Blackwell, and so I heard of him, and saw him at various Connecticut Conference meetings in the years I was active in the Conference. I’m grateful for the words of Bill Roberts, reproduced in this Sunday’s bulletin, to give us a wider picture of Wally and the gift of his life for all of us – not just here in First Church, but to Connecticut and all the world.
Because Wally, and other brave people like him have changed our world. And the patience of God was one of their most effective tools.
I want to remind you today of what the world used to be like, so that we can all appreciate what’s changed and how Wally and those who stood with him used patience and persistence to make a better world for all of us.
Fifty or so years ago, you could not easily, and in many cases safely, live openly as homosexual people, much less be openly transgendered. There was a time when – at least in California – if you were discharged from the military for being gay, you were automatically reported to the police as a sex offender. That meant that, anytime a child disappeared or was attacked, you were hauled in by the police as a suspect in the crime – not because you had any history of pedophilia, but because you were gay, lesbian, whatever.
The very thought of gay marriage, gay people adopting children, gay people being normal, not people to fear… that which now exists in some part of the US, existed everywhere, even in our liberal New England states and churches.
Fifty years ago, we all lived in a world where men were men and women weren’t. We knew that men were smarter, stronger, absolutely leaders – and the taller the better, the whiter the better, the straighter the better.
It took patience, it took courage, to step out to share the truth.
Now think about patience. It’s one thing to have the patience to wait for dinner, but it’s quite another kind of patience to work to change the world. And our psalm reading makes it clear that if we are impatient, we’re not the only ones. The writer says, “I waited and waited and waited….”.
I think we all know how hard it is to wait, how hard it is to see any progress when we’re in the midst of change. That’s one of the reasons it’s important to remember Wally and the others who, like him, worked so hard to make those changes. We respect his courage, and learn from him what change-making requires of us.
Like the psalmist, we learn from our companions on the way that patience and persistence are the essential elements of change. Not the only elements in change-making, but essential all the same.
The psalmist reminds us that, in the in-between times, we are not alone. That when we rely on God, we are standing on solid rock. That solid rock sustains us when we’re struggling. That solid rock points us in the right direction, gives us the courage to go on.
Now, of course, while the psalmist talks about rocks, they’re not talking about rocks, like East Rock in New Haven, or Mount Mansfield in Vermont. The psalm is saying that God is like a rock, that when we’re in the presence of someone who is leading us on, we grow in our own strength, deepen our own courage. Wally was a rock for us and for those he met through the United Church of Christ, in the same way Martin Luther King, Jr. was a rock to all the world.
I think, every time I look back so far as the sixties, I’m shocked at how much our world has changed. I’ve mentioned the book Bill Roberts recommends in his essay in today’s bulletin – and it reflects a stuffy, buttoned-up, world where everyone knew their places and the world was built to keep us there.
It was not easy changing that. Neither Wally nor Dr. King stood up one day and spoke freedom to folks who waved and cheered and immediately changed. Right here in this church, nasty words were spoken. People got angry with Wally and with one another. Dr. King was spit on, jailed, and eventually murdered because he spoke truth.
So there are those times, when we are speaking truth – or when we are hearing it, willing or unwillingly – when we need that rock.
That rock is the foundation of our community. It is built out of our love together for God, our love for one another, and the witness of those who have gone before us – not just the world famous, but people like Wally; that’s why those who knew him in real life so honor him; that’s why we’ve told his story today – to honor and continue to remember his witness.
We will struggle from time to time, for sure. It’s not always easy to discern where we are being called to go. There are times today, there will be times in the future, when we’ll need to remember that our God is like a rock in a weary land. Listen for God’s voice, and answer God’s challenge, blessed with the solid rock of God’s love.
© 2023, Virginia H. Child