"Where Lamps Go on Lampstands," by Claire Helton
Mark 4:21-23, 26-32
A reading from the gospel of Mark:
Jesus also said to the crowd, “Would you bring in a lamp and put it under a bushel basket or hide it under the bed? Surely you’d put it on a lampstand! Things are hidden only to be revealed at a later time. They are made secret only to be brought out into the open. If you have ears to hear, then listen!
Jesus said further, “The reign of God is like this: a sower scatters seed on the ground, then goes to bed at night and gets up day after day. Through it all the seed sprouts and grows without the sower knowing how it happens. The soil produces a crop by itself – first the blade, then the ear, and finally the ripe wheat in the ear. When the crop is ready, the sower wields the sickle, for the time is ripe for harvest.
Jesus went on to say, “What comparison can we use for the reign of God? What image will help to present it? It is like a mustard seed which people plant in the soil: it is the smallest of all the earth’s seeds, yet once it is sown, it springs up to become the largest of shrubs, with branches big enough for the birds of the sky to build nests in its shade.” This is one of our sacred stories, Thanks be to God.
I brought a prop with me today. It’s this book from James and Peter’s bookshelf at home called The Marvelous Mustard Seed, based on the parable of the mustard seed that we heard today. It’s written by Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine and a rabbi named Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, who together have produced several wonderful children’s books that attempt to help us get in the mindset of Jesus’ original Jewish hearers, to try to cut through all the centuries of interpretation these teachings have endured through the lens of Christianity and all that it would become. This one explores the image of the mustard seed from an angle I hadn’t encountered before reading it with my kids. I had known this parable to be about how the smallest of seeds, when planted and nourished, could grow up into something so much larger and more impactful than the actual seed that it had come from. I was reading it with a “great things can come from humble beginnings” sort of a mindset, and certainly that message seems to be present in the parable.
But the approach this book takes is based on the idea that Jesus’ listeners would have expected a mustard seed to grow into a bush – maybe four or five feet tall. (Maybe you can see here the illustrator’s contrast between a giant oak or cedar and the ordinary mustard bush down here at the bottom of the page.) A nice size shrub, but nothing big enough for birds to nest in. And so, playing on the mixed meaning of the word that is translated sometimes as “shrub” and sometimes as “tree,” this book chooses to hear Jesus saying that the tiniest of seeds can grow into not just something so much larger than itself (than the seed), but something so much larger than even the most experienced gardener could have imagined or predicted. The challenge the parable offers is in our expectations and the limits they impose on what the seed turns into: not just a bush, but a whole tree, one large enough that birds can call it home and rest in its shade – and the people look on in wonder. (Closing illustration.)
This is what the kingdom is like. The kingdom of God, the reign of God, the place where God’s Love is the law of the land, where Love has its way, this is a place of surprising hospitality, of welcome, and rest, and shade on a hot desert day. The parable is offering us a vision not of a kingdom that is so expansive that it covers the whole earth, but a place and a way of being that offers grace we did not expect to find, and perhaps, that we didn’t even know we needed.
As I’ve spent time reflecting on Northminster these past few weeks, that metaphor has struck me as incredibly meaningful and representative of the kind of community this congregation is in our area, the way Northminster embodies the kingdom of God. This is a congregation that will list “inclusivity” in its top 3 values every time. (Much like Jesus would, I would add.) It’s a place where there is room for thinking differently while holding space for one another, where the atheist seeking sacred community is every bit as welcome as the cradle-roll Baptist, where LGBTQ members will never have to question their status or worth – not inside these doors. I could go on about the many ways this church has embodied inclusivity, in ways that, perhaps, go beyond what those who began it could have ever imagined or predicted. But because of our focus today I want to emphasize that last point. For years and years now, that spirit of welcome has been obvious to anyone who’s gotten involved in the church, because our LGBTQ members make up so much of this faith community – and not just our membership but our leadership. Y’all, I don’t know if you know how unique that is, even for “affirming” congregations. Y’all have been ‘doing the thing’ for so long it may not even seem like a thing, but it is.
And I know many of you can immediately call to mind stories or people for whom it has mattered that this was a place that offered this kind of holistic and mutual welcome. Today I want to tell you one more.
I remember vividly the night I learned about Northminster for the very first time. We were at the annual gathering of the Alliance of Baptists in the spring of 2018, and there we met a lovely, sort of silly man named Steve Jolly. He was serving as your interim pastor and we were looking for a pastorate, so someone thought to introduce us. He told us about how unique you were, how open, how generous and good.
But mostly what I remember is how, later that night while we were stuck in the dark hotel room, the only light coming from the iPhone screens illuminating our faces because the boys were so little – and what are you supposed to do when you’re all in one hotel room? – I remember scrolling through the Northminster website on my phone, and looking at that photograph of this gorgeous room that I’m standing in now, and feeling the knots in my stomach begin to form. I was scared.
I was scared of just how generous you were. I was scared of what it might mean to be a part of a place that did rock the boat – and even on purpose, sometimes. And I was just scared of the unknown. I knew what it was like to be a part of a church where being gay was a sin, where being trans wasn’t even talked about. I knew what it was like to be part of a silent church, not necessarily a “don’t ask don’t tell” culture but a “why make waves when we’ve been doing just fine” kind of place. I even knew what it was like to be a part of a church, even to help lead a church, that was in the process of moving out of that space and into being an affirming community of faith, a church that had declared itself a safe space for the LGBTQ community. I was working at one of those at the time. And I think what I even knew intuitively then but didn’t yet know how to put words to was this truth that Northminster would teach me in time: it’s one thing to hold discussions and write a statement that declares you to be LGBTQ-affirming. It’s another, and entirely different, thing to live it. Northminster lives it.
And for someone who doesn’t like to rock the boat, whose greatest sin is – I know – my conflict avoidance, the thought of attaching my name to a congregation where this was not a topic for discussion but a long-settled issue was actually terrifying to me. In that good way, when you know you’re scared because you’re being pulled forward out of what’s comfortable and into what’s more true and more beautiful. And God knows, this place is beautiful.
I was scared right up until you welcomed us and loved us so hard and so fast we almost didn’t know what to do with ourselves. I was scared until I started hearing your stories, as LGBTQ brothers and sisters and as those who love someone in the queer community, until I started coming to know you as whole people, with complicated lives and plenty to teach me about grace, and perseverance, and hope.
In the series of essays that our first reading was drawn from today, in the book Untamed, the author, Glennon Doyle, writes about an encounter at a stop on one of her book tours. And in the time since the book had been published, Glennon had only very recently come out of the closet and married her wife. So on this night, as she opened up the floor for the Q&A, a sweet older woman with “GRAMMA” puffy-painted across her sweatshirt stood up to ask a question and timidly took the mic. The woman said something like, “Hi, Glennon. I’ve been following your work for years now, and I came here because I wanted to ask a question I’ve been afraid to ask anyone else. You see, my nephew is now my niece; my granddaughter took a boy to homecoming last year and a girl this year – and now, you’re gay too? I don’t mean any offense, it’s just: Why is everybody so gay all of a sudden?
As you can imagine, the room got really quiet – everyone probably feeling some version of what we’re all feeling right now. Conscious of the very strained energy in the room, Glennon responded by thanking the woman for asking a question that most are too afraid to admit they have. She said, “You know, unasked questions become prejudices. So your niece and your granddaughter are lucky to have you. Will you tell me your name?”
The woman said, “It’s Joanne.” And Glennon replied, “Okay. I do know why everybody’s so gay all of a sudden. It’s those damn GMOs, Joanne.”
A wave of relief flooded over the room, as Glennon went on to describe this coming-out phenomenon we’re witnessing as she sees it – a story of one brave soul who stood up and spoke her truth. And then another, who saw the first one and allowed himself to ask, “What if I’m not alone?” And then he stood up too, and then another, and another, in a chain reaction of truth, of hope, of freedom.
Glennon concludes that essay with this assessment: I don’t think that gayness is contagious. But I am certain that freedom is.
So, to get back to my story: As we stepped into a place, here, where “Pride” (the good kind – the kind that’s the opposite of shame) was the norm, I was scared. And that fear hasn’t gone away. But this place has taught me how to let courage speak louder than the fear. We talk a lot about echo chambers in our culture today, and when it comes to the news or media we’re consuming – sure, they can be problematic. But I think there are healthy echo chambers, too. Places that amplify the voices of the brave ones. This place is an echo chamber for love, an echo chamber for courage and freedom. Or to put it another way, it’s the kind of place where no one lights a lamp and places it under a bushel basket, or hides it under a bed. No. Here, that lamp goes on a lampstand. And from that place of prominence, of pride, it not only illuminates the one who put it there, but it lights the path for all the others who are still struggling to find their way.
I was still struggling to find my way when I walked through these doors. So yes, I was scared. But you showed me how to love, and to be loved, past the fear. And on that day, I came to know something new for me, except it wasn’t really new, which is that I am a part of the LGBTQ community – and of course the truth is that I have been all along.
Friends, your freedom here is contagious. Your courage here is contagious. Without them, I might have spent much longer than 29 years repressing the bisexual part of what makes me who I am, and maybe never fully understanding why it was that I’ve always been so drawn to the beautiful community that makes up the LGBTQ family. As it turns out, it’s not just because rainbows are pretty.
Now because if it hasn’t already crossed your mind it will later, I want to go ahead and clear a few things up: I’m not using this sermon to announce that I’m actually a lesbian or that I’m leaving not just Northminster but Zach too (surprise, honey!). He knows I’m bisexual, and has been my most supportive ally in this journey of self-discovery. Nothing is changing about our marriage – except for the better. And he’s supported me through the discernment of whether or not it made any sense to share this publicly since I knew nothing had changed about my commitment to this marriage or my love for him.
But when it came time to decide whether or not to share this with you during this Pride month before we go, that choice was much easier than I ever thought it would be. Because this is a place where lamps go on lampstands.
This is also a place where we have named out loud since our very first day in this pulpit that we each carry within us the image of God, and that when we each bring our full selves to the table, we can all see that image a little more clearly. And to the contrary, when any one of us obscures a piece of our deepest and truest selves, when any one of us feels that we have to hide or avoid the spotlight so we don’t attract attention to the thing that makes us feel vulnerable, whatever that may be, when this is not a place where we can all be fully seen and fully loved, we are missing out on the fullness of the very face of God. So in many ways, lately, I have been learning to practice what I preach.
You lit the fire of courage for me, but I know you know I’m not the only one in this city or this community who needs what you have to offer. And I am not the only one who has already found this congregation to be a place of such surprising hospitality and grace that they could not help but discover and own who they truly are, who we truly are.
Northminster, you have been in the habit of lighting lamps and filling up the room with lampstands to put them on so that this community shines brightly – shines with Pride – for all to see. On this Sunday in Pride month, and in all the months and years to come, may you continue to shine as a beacon of hope in this community, as a place where God’s uncompromising, all-encompassing love throws wide the doors for all to enter in. May you shine, may you shine, may you shine.