Guest Preacher: The Reverend Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr.
Open my eyes that I might see glimpses of truth thou hast for me.
Place in my hand the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free.
Silently now, I wait for thee. Ready, my God, thy will to see.
Open my eyes, illumine me, spirit divine.
I am delighted to be in your presence and in your pulpit today. And I am thinking it’s been such a long time. I remember when I was at Riverside Church, you came over to preach for me. Reciprocity suggested, I should have been here before to return the favor! I am delighted to be here especially on the occasion of new things – the new choir today. Not the Broadway choir but the Park Avenue Choir. I am delighted to have the privilege to be with you.
Now, I am delighted to come particularly on Justice Sunday. Justice has been the theme of my ministry – justice and righteousness in the power of the Spirit. So this is a good day to be with you here at Park Avenue United Methodist Church. And, the truth be known, I’m really happy that I’m here on Gay Pride Sunday. I would like to say that this is a very special day and that explains why my manner in your midst is not just usual pulpit antics. I’m looking forward to celebrating what I do when I’m up here.
So you might as well get loose and I want to say to you – if it goes as I have planned, the sermon today will actually end with some choreography. And you are going to be my dance partner! And just to make sure we got it right, let me practice it. It’s good to have a landing strip before you take off.
I’d like to begin however with the delight in having my wife Betty with me. We’ve been married for 53 years. And we look forward to many more years of ministry together.
I learned that sometimes in marital life or partnerships we don’t always say what we feel with the exuberance that is appropriate. So I was taught that you ought to get enthusiastic about your partner. So Betty, whenever she’s with me – I have Betty’s ministry. I call it the Betty Forbes Ministry – there are some words I say to Betty that I then try to share with others.
So I’m going to be asking my dear wife in a moment to stand, but then I’m going to be asking other couples. Now let me explain what I mean by couples – either you are married or you have a committed relationship. I would like all people that have a coupling dynamic in their life and your partner in here today. Please stand up wherever you are.
So if your partner is not sitting next to you at least be prepared to establish eye contact so that you can repeat these words after me.
What I say to Betty, you’re going to say these words, and if you’re close enough you can give either a handshake, a hug, or a kiss, or whatever seems appropriate to your style of public display of affection.
Repeat after me, these words I say to my mate:
You’re the cream in my coffee.
You’re the sugar in my tea.
You’re the gravy on my grits.
And the only fish in my sea.
Now give a hug or kiss or something.
I chose to speak from the passage in Genesis, the Old Testament Lesson. It is a wonderful text for a day of festivity. In that text, we are told about an episode in the life of Abraham and Sarah. But actually, the episode is framed with laughter. I mean, some men of divine bearing come to Abraham and after Abraham shows the hospitality that is required, they ask “where’s your wife?” and he says that she’s in the tent.
They make a statement that is startling because way early in their lives Abraham and Sarah had been told that they’re going to have a child and the child is going to be the one through whom the Nations are going to be blessed, except the years kept passing and passing and now they are senior citizens! They are too old to even imagine that anything like that could happen. I like the way the bible says that the ways of women had passed Sarah by.
These men say “Your wife, Sarah, is going to have a child.” And she hears them saying these things and so she laughs, “are you kidding me? I can hardly move myself around! I’m going to have a child?”
God hears Sarah laugh in her heart and asks, “Why is Sarah laughing? Is anything too wonderful for God?”
It turns out that Sarah is so embarrassed that she says “oh, I didn’t laugh!” And the Lord says “you did, you did!” Maybe they chuckled about it.
Just like the men said, Sarah found herself in her nighties, pregnant! Now you all know that this is a bible story. Now you know these bible stories… they always come up with stuff that feels like, well, is it really literally true? The text says she got pregnant.
And when she did she says, “oh my, people are going to be laughing WITH me, I thought they were going to be laughing AT me.” But when she had born the child she said “Now they will laugh at me! Look. God can do stuff that you can hardly imagine possible.” So the story is about laughter.
The reason I want to use it today is because as a child I learned from my father that there are times when God laughs. There’s a passage in Psalm 37 where it says when the wicked prowl and act like they can reverse the will of God, that they can oppose God effectively, and when they put down God’s people, especially God’s anointed, God will look at them and LAUGH at them!
My Dad used to say that the worst thing in the world would be for God to laugh at you – “Who do you think you are?” He would say, “that you think you have the power to reverse the Will of God?” And dad used to say, “Please make sure in your behavior that you never do anything to make God laugh at you.”
When you do not trust God, when you do not obey God, but more importantly when you stand up to resist the will of God and arrogantly assume that you can get away with it… God just hauls off and says, “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?” That’s one kind of laughter.
It reminds me this day as we’re going to be engaged in gay pride. You know when it speaks about laughing, that word goes back… I grew up in the Evangelical Church where preachers used to talk about folks whose orientation happened to be different from the orientation that they considered to be the only orientation that God could actually smile upon. In fact, open confession is good for the soul. I remember when I got to be the Pastor for Riverside Church, and when I had to go on on my first Pride Sunday, I remember walking down the street and I could hear Mother Tapna from St. John’s Holy Church saying ‘Boy, what in the world are you doing with the gay people today? Man, you’re gonna lose your soul!’
See, a lot of people know what it’s like to be laughed AT because they’re different. Laughed AT because somehow, their orientation was not the prescribed one by the norms of the community. And when you’ve been laughed at, looked down on, left out, laid aside, it imprints you deeply and even the words LAUGHED AT remind you – I know something about that.
That’s why I’m so glad today that I’m not going to be talking about God laughing at anybody. I’m going to be talking about how God in God’s extraordinary grace actually turns the tables and laughs WITH folks that have been despised and rejected and looked over and left out of the benefits of life. How God goes to work and turns things around and laughs.
This business about laughter also goes deeper because in a sense the devil, the evil one, is always laughing at God when something goes wrong. The devil laughed when the children of Israel were finally out and had crossed the Red Sea and were in the wilderness with nothing to eat. The devil comes laughing “Hey Yahweh! You delivered the people! But looks like you didn’t do good logistical planning! There’s nothing for them to eat out here!” The devil is always laughing at God when God’s work seems to be threatened or imperiled in some way. In fact, the devil laughed that day when Jesus was finally put on the cross. He laughed, “He was supposed to be the savior!” And sure enough, when they put him in that stone cold tomb, you could hear the devil laughing all through hell: “Ha ha ha! He’s supposed to be the Savior but look where he is now. He’s still in a Stone cold tomb!”
May I pause to tell you an experience I had a child – I always wanted to be a doctor and I had that proclivity from the beginning as a young kid. When I was maybe 5, 6, 7, I don’t remember exactly, my mother found me expressing gynecological interest in the girl next door. And she called me and my punishment was – she put me in a closet/
Now my mother was a wonderful woman. But she thought that she should try to teach me the right way to be functioning and she put me in the closet. And I was afraid – the closet was dark! I scrambled and tried to pull the knob and actually I pulled the knob out of the door. Here I am, in a dark closet, with the knob on the floor like NO EXIT HERE! How will I get out?
Ever since that day, I can’t stand closets. I’m clausterphobic! I’m against folks having to act like they’re one thing when they’re another. I’m against folks having to box themselves into prescribed manners of being and thanking and behaving. I don’t like closets!
We are supposed to be Free – Free to be who God made them to be – Free to live out their destiny according to the plan built into their DNA, not my DNA, superimposed. I like for people to be what God made them to be, fully free to be what God had in mind for them, rather than what I had in mind.
The point I’m making is that when someone has been closeted and confined into conventionality of expectations, when God sets them free, that’s the occasion when God gets a chance to laugh WITH them!
I remember the time we used to sing this song – “Satan had me bound, but Jesus set me free.” But when you get FREE, when you get to the place that you know that God loves you for who you are, that God affirms you in your own uniqueness, when you get to the place that God says to you ‘you believe what I said more than what the crowd said or what the preacher back down south said” … when you get the place that you believe God, then you and God can have a laugh together. And that’s a wonderful laugh.
I know it doesn’t sound like it’s biblical. That’s why right now I’m going to read this text and you’re going to see that God knows how to be exuberant. When you believe that God’s love is greater than your faults. When you believe that God’s love is more powerful than anything you ever understood…
There is a text in Zephaniah that I just love to read and I’m gonna read this, and then I’m almost ready to laugh. We’re gonna have our little dance up here.
In Zepheniah:3 listen to these words about how God gets exuberant:
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
Well, I say that’s proof enough for me that when you have been bound in grief, in guilt, in remorse, in shame, in a sense of nobodyness, and God says, “I made you. You are the apple of my eye.” And you say “I am? I am free? You mean you forgive what I’ve done? You are no longer worried about it? You no longer see me under the rubric of my past transgressions?”
And you’ll say “Alleluia! Thank you Jesus! I’m free!” And you laugh and God laughs with you. And what a joy that is. When you and the God of creation can laugh together about who you are and what you’re going to do together and how the world is going to be a different place because grace abounds and love actually sets the boundaries of possibility.
I close this way – I’m working up on the dance now – usually when I preach this sermon, I suspect there’s someone out there who is thinking, “I don’t necessarily agree with what he’s saying about God accepting people for who they are. I know how folks are supposed to be.” There’s always one. And that’s how I tell about the prodigal son because the father was in the house dancing and laughing and having a wonderful time because the prodigal had come back home. The older brother was outside saying “Oh this can’t be, I know how God is, I know what God likes, I know what God affirms. And it was God who said ‘look man, he was dead and now he’s alive.’” We ought to have a Gay Pride parade. We ought to kill the fatted calf. We ought to celebrate. And so the Lord just went back in and started having fun.
I wonder what kind of dancing they were doing in this parable. So only as a liberal I’ve come to think, Reverend Gilliard, I think they were doing the electric slide!!! And so if you know any of the moves, this is the prime time that God laughs with us when we are free to be what God says we’re going to be.