Sunday, June 16, 2019

Pride Sunday Sermon

What you can bear to hear
Rev. Jennifer Garrison Brownell
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 and John 16:12-15
Pride Sunday/Trinity Sunday at Vancouver UCC
June 16, 2019

This year marks the 50th anniversary of stonewall uprising which most historians consider the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich village was one of a kind in the late 1960’s New York.  Racially integrated, it was frequented by a mix of gay men, butch women, street kids who lived in the park near the bar, prostitutes, drag queens. It was the only bar  in new York at that time where men could dance with each other
            It was most definitely not a glamorous place – there was no running water behind the bar, so they would rinse the glasses in tubs and then pour more drinks into those glasses.  The walls and ceiling were all painted black and lights were dim. Toilets frequently backed up.  
            The Stonewall Inn was run by the mafia with back up from the police. The mafia who owned the club would pay the police and the police would inform them when raids were going to happen.  As often as monthly, the lights would cme up and everyone would be lined up and have to show id cards. Men could not be in “too much” drag and women had to be wearing “at least three items of women’s clothing.”
            But one night in June, instead of lining up like usual and producing their ids, the patrons of Stonewall Inn refused arrest.  Pushing and shoving turned more violent – at first they threw coins as a way to mock police corruption. The police barricaded themselves inside the bar for almost an hour.    

Michael Fader was there: “We all had a collective feeling like we'd had enough…It wasn't anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration... Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us.... All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren't going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around… There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we're going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren't going to go away. And we didn't.”

Press coverage of the event was not kind at the time.  And even other organized groups of gay people (or homophiles as they called themselves at the time) wished that the whole thing would calm down, go away, be quiet.  But in a world set up for sameness, for what we now would call a heteronormative experience that day in June an alternative expression burst out of those dark and cramped and smelly walls and into the streets the world was changed for ever.

Today, by a quirk of the calendar, is both Pride Sunday and Trinity Sunday.

Trinity Sunday reminds us that God’s first impulse is relational, about connection.  God comes to us not as one but as three – each part of the trinity is distinct and unique, but also inexorably linked.  On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate our fundamental relationality as God’s creations.

And Pride Sunday, too is at its core about celebrating our impulse for connection, our fundamental relationality as gods’ creations.  

I’m celebrating that both Pride and Trinity are together on one day, because  our sexuality and our spirituality are so fundamentally connected – both are the deepest parts of our beings and both are born of our most profound  longings for connection with others and with the divine.  

Pride for me personally is a joyful occasion this year as I step into the fullest expression of myself. 

I was just asked to introduce myself via email to a group of new friends and I said: In January, I would have proudly told you about the rest of my drama-free settled life, but in February of this year that life was unsettled by new love sprouting from an old friendship.   I was married for many years and I was proud  of my marriage– but the hubris kind, not the kind that is the opposite of shame. I was proud – the hubris kind - of how well ordered my life seemed, even to myself.  It was reassuring to live within the bounds of cultural expectation – but I have been reminded again and again in the past few months, that’s not how God’s love works.

As one love has diminished and the other grew,  became poignantly aware of how separation is always complex. Separation comes in stages not all at once. I know from experience that you can live in the same house with someone and be separate from them. And I know that you can live apart, and still be connected. And we feel the complexity of separation deeply, since connection is our most basic impulse.  

It’s been 50 long years since the stonewall uprising, but stories of coming out are still happening.  I want to tell you a little of my story this morning. I grew up in a  family and church and culture that was very open and accepting.  In the town I grew up in, no one ever told me that being gay was an abomination, no one fired me from a job or kicked me out of my family.  And yet, in my early twenties, I was very tentative when I told my parents on a long dark car ride that I thought I might be a lesbian.  I guess I had been acting weirder than usual, because my mom’s response was, “Oh, thank God!  I thought you were on drugs!”

In the years that followed I became active in the LGBTQ movement, had a serious relationship with a woman and lived pretty openly as a gay person. But when I fell in love with a man and married him, I put that time behind me. It was more comfortable to hide in the privilege of what people assumed about me than to be out, and so I went in.

There is still so much discomfort with being born different from the dominate narrative.  God’s call is persistent.  It took me a long time to stumble into my call to ministry (for a long time, I tried to work at other, more normal jobs!) and a long, long, long time to come out fully to myself, to my family and to you.

For many years, I have told you and others and in my ministry that God calls us to be who and what we are created to be – to be authentic and to have integrity.    Just at the time as I came into a more authentic acceptance of how my marriage had changed, I also came into acceptance of what it meant to live fully as a same-gnder loving person. So while this has been a difficult time, it has also been joyful – as I become more and more who God made me to be in a relationship that is spiritually and emotionally connected.

For some of you, I know this has been an unsettling and difficult.  As I have shared my story with you, many of you have opened up and shared your stories with me. And I have learned again what I thought I already knew – that most people’s lives are way more complicate than you’d think. Life is a web of relationships built over time – some painful, some joyful – most a mix of both. For some of you, hearing of the ending of one relationship and the beginning of another has brought up issues of promises broken, and this has been very painful for me, as being trustworthy is an important value to me.  I’m not sure how to heal this, except to continue to be as trustworthy as I know how to be and that Spirit who has been there since the mystery that is before “in the beginning”  has brought you and I into relationship too.

Wisdom is still dancing, and God – who spoke a word and from nothing created mountains and oceans and snails and whales and eagles and drag queens and daisies and you and me – is still speaking.  It’s ok if my experience, if experiences of others is hard for you to understand – even Jesus said some things you can’t hear until you’re ready.  God understands and continues to draw you and me and all of us into a dance of conversation and relationship.

I feel so blessed to be on this particular journey in this particular time and this particular place.  We are an Open and Affirming congregation, joining other UCCs in articulating that because the dominant religious message is anti-gay, it is tremendously important that we are explicitly Christian and explicitly welcoming
And now,we have an openly gay pastor.

Hearing your stories and telling mine reminds me that the fight that began on the streets in NYC 50 years again front of the Stonewall Inn is not over – we have a long way to go.  But this new day is a new opportunity to walk our talk – celebrating the diversity of relationship that makes us who we are – God’s love created new each day – a joy and a delight.   


Thursday, December 13, 2018

An Advent Journey

Our faith in Christ Jesus, who was himself an immigrant and whose untimely death came at the hands of agents of a militaristic state, compels us to speak truth to power, to cross borders and boundaries, and to stand with those on the margins. Especially in this holy season of Advent, we are called to embody our faith in a real and transformative way.

For many months, I have been praying for guidance on how to respond to the crisis at the border.  A couple of weeks ago, when I heard about Global Immersion’s Day of Learning and Solidarity, I knew immediately it was what I had been seeking.  Here was a chance to learn directly from those most affected by the immigrant caravan – those in Mexico who are working with the travelers on the front lines – and to hear from them directly how people of faith in the US can be helpful advocates without getting in the way.

Guidance was sought and arrangements were made and now the time has arrived.  Tomorrow, along with my 16-year-old son Elijah, I will travel to San Diego along with more than 150 other people of faith from around the nation.  We will spend a long day in Tijuana on Saturday December 15th and then return early Sunday morning (in time for church!). 

Our day on Saturday will include a visit to a church that has become a shelter for Haitian and Central American immigrants where we will meet the pastor and bring supplies he requested – ponchos, sleeping pads and activity books for children.  Then we will have a visit to the border wall, where we will spend some time in prayer and participate in a Las Posadas litany with participants calling across both sides of the border. Finally, we will engage with some local activists about how to best be supportive of immigrants and activists going forward.

I’m so inspired by - and grateful for - the powerful and faith filled testimony of American pastors and people of faith who are protesting and have risked arrest at the border in recent days.  Protest is an important aspect of our faith expression of resistance.  The particular day Global Immersion has planned and in which I am participating is for learning and growth and building of solidarity.  Although these are also acts of resistance, it is not our plan to risk arrest on the 15th.

I’m so grateful for the support we have already received, especially from my husband Jeff and from the people of Vancouver UCC.  Some of you have asked how you can also support this trip.  This would be helpful for me:
-       Pray for and with all those traveling to San Diego and Tijuana on December 15. If fasting is one of your spiritual practices, you might declare a fast day.
-       Come to the airport to see us off!  We will be gathering near the Alaska Airlines ticket counter from 10:00-10:20 am TOMORROW Friday, December 14 for a farewell and blessing.
-       Check social media on Saturday, December 15 – I’ll be posting as I can throughout the day.

With love, Jennifer

Monday, June 25, 2018

Sunday, June 24 Sermon

May the Odds Be Ever In Your Favor
1 Samuel 4
By Jennifer Brownell
At Vancouver UCC
June 24, 2018

In the book and movie trilogy, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, young people – children really -  are selected from among the many regions of a starkly divided culture to participate in a televised game in which they must fight to the death. As they are sent off to the competition, one of the organizers of the games trills “may the odds be ever in your favor.”  It’s creepy every time, because of course the odds were never in the favor of the young people. The whole game is rigged by those in power, who use The Hunger Games as a method of distraction and control of a populace that is always teetering on the brink of revolution.

One reason the book and movie resonated so strongly is that we recognized so much of our own culture in it, perhaps particularly in regards to our collective treatment of children and our willingness to put them in harm’s way.  

In 1991, Patrick ONeill, a unitarian minister included this story in a sermon (
 “Among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai. It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Masai warriors: "Kasserian Ingera," one would always say to another. It means, "And how are the children?"
It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children's well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, "All the children are well." Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place. That Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities. "All the children are well" means that life is good. It means that the daily struggles for existence do not preclude proper caring for their young.”

It's a great story, but it’s not true.  The Masai, as do most people in the world, greet each other with their version of hello (sopa) ( As you do, the Masai  might follow this initial greeting with questions to catch up on things:  'How is the homestead?', 'How is the weather?', 'How are the cows?' and also perhaps 'How are the children?'

But we keep telling and re-telling that story I think because it’s comforting and sweet, to imagine the Masai people - far away from Washington on the plains of Africa - exchanging this greeting with one another “How are the children?”.  In his story, ONeill describes them as “fabled” (meaning practically mythical) people who we can maybe picture from our elementary school perusal of national geographic. Asking first and foremost “how are the children” is just another one of those exotic and unfathomable customs that “those people over there” participate in, one that -  told the way it’s usually told – is impossible for us to imagine US doing.

How are the children?  We can’t bear to ask because we are instead sending them empty thoughts and prayers, trilling “may the odds be ever in your favor,” when we know the odds are against them from the start. We can’t bear to ask the question “how are the children,” because cannot bear to hear the answer.

Can hardly bear for even 5 minutes to hear the wails of children broadcast in our halls of government.  (

Can hardly bear to learn that this week yet another black boy - Antwon Rose Jr -  was killed by a police officer – shot in the back by Michael Rosfeld, a police officer who had been on the job only three hours, who’d been fired in January from his previous job as a security guard at a local university for brutally beating a black student.   (

Oh Antwon, the odds were never in your favor.  You knew that when you wrote this poem in school a couple of years ago: (

“I’m confused and afraid. I wonder what path I will take/I hear that there’s only two ways out / I see mothers bury their sons / I want my mom to never feel that pain / I am confused and afraid.
“I understand people believe I’m just a statistic/I say to them I’m different/ I dream of life getting easier / I try my best to make my dream come true / I hope that it does./I am confused and afraid.”

How are the children? “Confused and afraid.” Antwon answers for himself, for a generation of young men of color, for children he has never met, confined in cages on our southern border: confused and afraid.

Confusion and fear are not, of course, new to us.  We did not invent them in this generation.

They are as old as our bible stories. Picture this.  A large plain, surrounded by hills. On one hill – the soldiers of Gath.  On the other – the army of Judea.   Goliath stands in the front of all his men, gathered high on a hill, and all day he shouts insults and challenges at the men of Judea, standing high on another hill. Wait, did I tell you that he stood in front of all his men?  Not quite right – because his shield bearer stood before him.  See, even with all that enormous, powerful and painfully detailed armor on, he still had to have someone ELSE stand in front of him, holding up a shield.  Maybe for all his bluster, Goliath knew he was not quite as all powerful, maybe not quite as undefeatable, as he would have you believe.

So Goliath stands in front of all his men, except for that one holding the shield in front of him, for days and days and days. And for all that time he’s…tweeting. Broadcasting the fake news that he is unbeatable and his opponants are third-rate clowns, sad failures.

Early this week, Gary Roberts told me that his grandpa, the logger  used to say, “It’s easier to believe a lie you’ve heard 1000 times than a truth you’re hearing for the first time.”  And after all the bluster, those Judeans really started to believe it.  “Maybe he IS unbeatable,” they murmured.  “Maybe we really just have to sit here and listen to him.”  They had placed their trust in institutions of the state, system of government and military and religions that had served them all along,  and those institutions were not acting to put an end to Goliaths taunts and threats.  Everyone was frozen, cynical or despairing or afraid to act. 

Then, into their midst came a country lad, a guy who was unplugged from the social media machine and so hadn’t caught the taunts and the threats, a kid who had never heard those lies even once, let alone a thousand times, a young man who nevertheless knew enough to understand the urgency of the situation, to see how dire it was, this vicious stalemate. David realized at once that cynicism and despair and fear were not the answers, that taking action was, even if it meant putting himself in harm’s way.  But he did not go alone.  He was not just a little guy defeating a big guy, he was a young man who knew God, and knew that God’s love prevails.

As Michael curry wrote this week, meditating on the crisis on our border, ( “Strength does not require cruelty. Indeed, cruelty is a response rooted in weakness. Jesus was clear about what true strength is and it always is driven by love. There may be many policy prescriptions, but the prism through which we view them should be the same: does the policy treat people with love, acknowledging our common humanity? If the answer is no, it is not a Christian solution.”

The young man knew that cruelty was not strength, indeed it was a sign of weakness.  He knew that God’s way was strong but never cruel.  The seasoned leaders and soldiers, the older and experienced ones, tried to talk him out of it. 

“You will never succeed,” they cried.

“God is with me,” the young man knew, and so he said again that he would go.

“Well, here, at least take these with you!”  

David tried on Saul’s armor but it did not work, the tools of empire did not fit him, would not protect him in the battle ahead.   “For the master's tools,” as Audre Lorde said,  “will never dismantle the master's house.”

David needed something simpler, and so he went out into that field to meet Goliath. (And the shield bearer? We don’t know what happened to him, maybe he ran away altogether, abandoning the great fighter. Eventually it happens that all bullies find themselves standing alone)

And David famously knocked him down with a single stone, the weapon finding it’s way past the bluster and taunts and landing on the one place that was not covered with armor. God’s power is stronger even than giants, even giants with really loud voices, and seemingly insurmountable power

We are in the hills my friends, and Goliath is out there, taunting us. Our Goliath is despair and cynicism and fear, and he strides onto the battlefield in a coat of armor emblazoned with the words, “I don’t really care, do you?”

According to journalist Giovanni Tiso, (  I don’t care (me ne frego) was the slogan of Italian fascists in the first part of the twentieth century and is still associated with European fascism today.  Originally it may have meant “I don’t care” in the sense that “I’m not afraid of death,” but  today “menefreghismo (literally, ‘Idontcareism’), has come to mean a cynical individualism, one that openly does not care for the suffering of others.

Goliath totters before us, spouting his lies.  Too long, those in opposition to his message of cruelty and hate have cowered on the far hill, believing what he says, frozen in fear.

There is no time left.  No time left for Antwon Rose Jr.  No time left for the children at the border, and their families, who fled places of violence in a last act of desperation with the one hope of sparing their children’s lives, holding them in sight of them on all that long trek, only to be torn apart at the end.  

The time is now for giants to be defeated. The time is now to stop sending our children into harm’s way with the offhand, “may the odds be ever in your favor,” or “I don’t really care.”

The time is now to act.

The time is now to tell your own stories of immigration, sanctuary and refuge.

The time is now to pray as hard as you’ve ever prayed, for God to show God’s power in and through you.

The time is now to speak up.

The time is now to call congress.  

The time is now to look idontcarism in the face and proclaim with all that you are, all that you have “Yes! I really care!”

The time is now to respond with valor and confidence to the uncertainty and confusion of others.

The time is now to talk to your neighbor about how, whatever you your politics, it is not Christian to put children in harm’s way.

The time is now to put aside the empire’s weapons, the empire’s ways of fighting evil.

The time is now to lace up your marching shoes.

The time is now to recall that we have defeated the powers before, and we will again.

The time is now to step boldly up to Goliath, holding only the tools we have been given, and realizing that he is not as powerful as we had believed.

The time is now to say God’s name aloud, and to proclaim that God’s work will always, always, ALWAYS be more powerful than any earthly power.

The time is now, brothers and sisters.