Sermon: A River Called Resistance by Rachel Warner
One Sunday when I was about 10 years old, a group of us piled into a van and headed out into the misty forests of Oregon’s Pacific Coast Range. This event was supposed to be the most important spiritual moment of my life. It was the day I was to be taken into the river and baptized. I grew up in the charismatic pentecostal movement, and in some ways it was a very exciting way to spend a Sunday. Our family attended a church called, The Living Word Fellowship. Every Sunday, we would enter the church, into what was the equivalent of a shabby store front, file into folding chairs and over the course of the next hour or two enter into what seemed to be- a totally transcendent reality. We were the equivalent of Jedi Knights wielding the power of the Force in epic spiritual battles between good and evil. Through vibrant music.. (and that would be rock music).. the adults around me were often elevated into ecstatic states of prayer by speaking in tongues, and members of my congregation would often practice active faith healing with the laying on of hands. Our services would culminate in the people walking up front, hands raised, and as the preacher would touch their foreheads they would fall to the ground, having been “slain in the spirit”. And this wasn’t just on special occasions, this was Every. Single. Sunday. In some ways, these experiences created within me a deep connection to a greater mystery and faith, that as a young kid growing up in a “spirit filled” community, made me feel like anything was possible, and we were all empowered to change our realities. Well. I could also go on and on about how experiencing this form of religion growing up was at times scary, and the dogmas attached to this tradition were often hurtful and at times harmful. At the same time, these experiences have informed me and made me who I am today. I have begun to uncover, just how much these spiritual roots have shaped me.. and as it turns out, in ways the authorities in my church may not have intend. That day as we traveled to the river together, I had many questions. Baptism, I was told, was an act of obedience symbolizing the burial of the old life and the resurrection of a new life and walk in Christ Jesus. So of course, I was filled with anticipation.. Remember, we all believed anything was possible- for all I knew the clouds would part, angels would descend, and Jesus himself would pat me on the head and give me some sort of light-saber. Well, as I stepped into the water; I made my way to the leaders of the church where I was prayed over and then fully immersed into rushing the waters of the Wilson River… and as I emerged.. I felt…. well, COLD. It wasn’t the exactly experience I had been hoping for, but I had faith, that in some unseen ways- I was made new. Now. A few short years later. In 1992. A measure was introduced to the Oregon State legislature that would go on to divide my home state of Oregon in historic ways. Ballot Measure 9 was a legislation in hate that’s sole purpose was to strip the civil rights of the LGBTQ community. BTW, If you haven’t heard about this measure, there’s really good documentary I’d recommend titled “Ballot Measure 9”. This measure being passed would have added the following text to the Oregon State Constitution: “All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality or pedophilia. All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided.” In short, this measure would criminalize the LGBTQ community, and it’s introduction incited wide-spread violence, division and fear. Neighbors, families, and communities- were pitted against one another. Oregon descended into a very dark time in it’s history. In fact, along with a rash of vandalism, harassment and hate speech; activists fighting against this measure had even been killed in a fire-bombing. At 13 years of age, I wasn’t yet completely aware of the stake these events could eventually have in my own life. But I knew there was something, not quite right here, and as my heart began guiding me away from the voices in my religious community, I began to rely on another moral compass one that was birthed in that same community but was leading me in another direction. There were definite voices rising up in resistance against this measure, in fact, the renowned Unitarian Minister Rev. Marilyn Sewell having just arrived at the First Unitarian Church of Portland, as her first act, wrapped a red ribbon around the block and declared it a Hate-Free Zone. But from where I stood in a different part of the state, all the adults around me were in favor of this measure. I distinctly remember after church one Sunday people were organizing, handing out buttons and pins and I was handed a placard that read- “Yes on 9- No “special rights” for homosexuals” (Sound familiar?). As it turns out.. it was THIS moment, not the one down by the river, that turned out to be the most important spiritual moment of my life. It was a moment, when blatant bigotry was laid out before me by the adults in my community, (who were supposed to be my examples) but was rejected, because my connection to “spirit” was no longer attached to dogma and prejudice, but was working to LIBERATE me from them. I made a decision to turn inward and listen to my own leanings, my own heart and my own experience.. and to lean into what I knew to be true, that we were all connected and EVERYONE around me were INDEED my neighbors. It was a “spiritual reckoning with the truth”, where in witnessing the hateful events and attitudes of that particular time unfold around me, I decided to bury my old life and begin a new walk. A new life. It was baptism of sorts, one that, over the course of many years, many mistakes and learning experiences has led me to question and to act against the many oppressive structures of our culture. For one, this walk has led me here where I have committed my time, my talent (hopefully) and financial contributions to this congregation. Indeed, here in this sanctuary, I have found many peers, young people and especially elders who have become the examples I wish I had in my youth. Ballot measure 9 was defeated in a general election through the hard and often dangerous work of the political activist of the time. Justice this time had won out. But as I stand here today, it seems clear to me that there is no guarantee that the vote will always prevail on the side of justice. And it’s with real sadness, and maybe a little fear, that none of us can say there is any assurance that love will always win the day. But what I do hope for is that there are people, (and particularly young people) in this country, who against every environmental or cultural influence can find a way to connect to that “spirit of connectedness” and say NO to injustice. Who can reject the bigoted authorities they may face in their homes, communities, and yes, on their TV screens in the form of a US President. Who experience, THIER OWN “spiritual reckoning with the truth”. Perhaps it happens in the streets, at a rally or march, in a coffee shop or art gallery, or maybe it happens in a Unitarian bus headed down to Washington DC… or a temple, or synagogue or mosque. Maybe even in the shabby store front of a little church out in rural Oregon. My religious upbringing was many things.. but what I take with me is the faith that anything is possible and we are all empowered to change the world around us. Right now the world needs that faith, it needs examples- I need examples, like those I’ve found right here in this community. Like Rev. Marilyn Sewell creating hate-free zones in an environment that was hostile and dangerous. Like those Queer activists and allies who fought and triumphed against a government who was in dire jeopardy of turning against it’s own people. Indeed we see those examples, in the form of people standing up for black lives and shutting airports for immigrants and refugees. When I look back, it turns out the river I was baptized in was not a literal one, but one of Questioning, of Reflection, of Resistance and of Justice.. sparked by a “spirit-filled” rejection of hate. And thats one river I hope people are diving into head first, ACROSS THIS COUNTRY, Right. Now.