Waters of Solidarity – In Remembrance of Leelah Alcorn
Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Gospel of Mark 1:4-11
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Like most people, I make New Year’s resolutions. In the past, they’ve been the usually kind of things like go to the gym more, lose weight, be less stressed. And like most people, my resolutions don’t last too long. One year, I resolved to use deep breathing techniques to lower my stress… let me tell you, there is no amount of deep breathing to de-stress life with toddlers. I broke that resolution by January 2.

But this year, I didn’t make a resolution. Instead, I made a commitment.

A commitment to not give anyone the power to break my spirit. I made this commitment in memory of a girl named Leelah Alcorn.

Leelah Alcorn was a 17-year old teen who committed suicide. Leelah’s death is tragic. It’s tragic for so many reasons, but maybe above all because she never felt loved just as she was. Leelah was transgender. She was assigned male at birth but felt female. Leelah felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body.

When Leelah came out to her parents, they were disgusted and shamed her. Raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, Leelah’s parents believed being transgender was evil and against the will of God. That’s what they were taught to think by their church. That is what they heard from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. They wanted to save her from God’s wrath and eternal damnation so they took extreme measures to try to change Leelah, even subjecting her to conversion therapy. But, they don’t shoulder all the blame for Leelah’s death. Don’t get me wrong, I’m angry with her parents. I’m angry with any parent who doesn’t love their child as a precious gift. But the tragic truth is that when this family needed guidance and care, the church utterly and completely failed. And in their religious blindness, they couldn’t see Leelah as a beautiful child who just wanted to be loved the way she was.

As the church, when we are confronted by a tragedy like this, we have to ask ourselves, what is our response?

How do we who follow Jesus Christ take notice of Leelah’s story? How do we move forward in faithful ways when we learn the harsh reality of often-troublesome relationships between LGBTQ youth, their parents, and their church? Let me suggest to you this morning that some answers are found in Baptism.

In our passage, Jesus comes to his cousin John for his first public act, a kind of inauguration. Jesus has come to John to be baptized. Of course, you have to wonder: Why was Jesus baptized? John preaches “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” But, Jesus is the Son of God. The only sinless person, ever. He doesn’t need to be forgiven or cleansed of sin. The writer of this Gospel was either totally naive or extremely clever because he just marches right over this problem and keeps the narrative flowing. But, I want to tug on that string because I think the answer is the word we need today.

As Christians, we affirm Jesus is the perfect eternal Son of God, God from God, True Light from True Light, and all that good stuff. He didn’t travel all that way into the sticks of Judea, or feel John’s rough hands guiding him under, or get wet from the muddy waters of the Jordan because he needed to be baptized. Jesus choose to be baptized. In that moment on the banks of the Jordan River, God choose us, picked us, sided with us. And God did it with full knowledge of all that we are and all that we aren’t. Of all we have done, and all we have left undone.

In the baptism of Jesus Christ, God showed solidarity with humanity.

Jesus shows his solidarity with us, by accepting the sign-act of cleansing sinful humanity. And in return we see his solidarity with God, when the heavens are torn apart and the dove descends as a voice announces from the heavens: “You are my beloved son.”

In the baptism of Jesus Christ, God chooses to stand in solidarity with all humanity.

The wholeness of the Gospel is contained in that one word: Solidarity. Solidarity means all the ways we make real those unseen links between people, links based on love and trust, dignity, understanding, and respect. It means all the ways we’re in relationship with each other, how we stand with those who are in pain or sorrow, treated cruelly or unfairly, facing persecution or oppression.

Solidarity is what the church is called to be – Christians standing together, standing with the oppressed, and standing with Jesus Christ.

Every one of us is called to a life of solidarity, with God and each other. And it’s only possible because God did it first. When we follow Jesus through the waters of solidarity, sharing in the same baptism, we too are claimed and called by God.

It’s probably the case that at your baptism, the heavens didn’t tear open with a voice from heaven. But that doesn’t mean you’re any less claimed than Jesus was at his baptism. At the moment of our baptism, God declares you are a beloved child. In Baptism, we find our truest identity. In this sacrament, we hear an echo of God’s long-ago promises recorded in Isaiah: Do not be afraid; I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. I regard you as precious, and I love you.

Baptism teaches us who we are: God’s beloved children.

It bestows the promise of God’s unconditional love. Whatever else may determine who we are — whether we live in the same place we were born or move across the world, whether we are black or white, homeless or in the 1%; whether we abide with our family or create a new family of choice; whether we are liberal or conservative or can’t bother to care; whether we are born male or female or change gender identities; whatever else may shape out identity, in baptism, we have been claimed by God. We are God’s beloved children.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that. Many of us don’t remember our baptisms. Or maybe you haven’t been baptized. We can easily take for granted we’re beloved of God. I’m guilty of it. But I was recently reminded of its power. The power of God’s claim is made especially tangible when voices of rejection, hate, and criticism seem so loud in our lives. A 30-something gay man who’s been attending North Church for about a year, sent an email last week full of gratitude and praise. You see, here at North Church, he’s found a church community where he’s accepted. Unlike the church he grew up in where there were only voices of condemnation, now he hears Christian voices affirming him as a child of God, calling on him to share his voice, and live life abundantly. Here, in this place, he has heard: You are beloved of God. In our shared baptism, at our very best as a church, we stand in solidarity as children of God, affirming one another as beloved, just as we are.

With this claim, comes a calling.

When Jesus rose from the baptismal waters, he began his ministry. The same is true for us. Our shared baptism gives us not only a sense of who we are but also how we’re to live. After his baptism, Jesus didn’t hide out in a holy place somewhere and just hope things got better. He lived and moved and was in ministry to the world. Jesus proclaimed justice for the poor, the sick, and the lost. His ministry took him into back alleys and hostile territories, where he brought the good news of God’s kingdom to those who needed it most. Jesus was in solidarity with the least and the lost, the most vulnerable of society.

Jesus has called us to the waters of solidarity. To follow him into the world and work for the kingdom of God here and now, at this time and in this place. To be in solidarity with one another. What we do now matters. We are called to be agents of God’s kingdom in the world. When we stand with each other and Christ, we honor our baptismal call. Baptism is a commissioning to change the world. As John Dominic Crossan puts it, God’s engaging in the “Great Divine Cleanup of the World” through the Jesus Christ and the church.

In her suicide note Leelah had one request, she asked: “Fix society.”

It is time for us to stand in solidarity with all who are oppressed. To stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. With people like Leelah Alcorn. Even if you cannot completely understand or even if you don’t agree with their choice to live openly as an LGBTQ person, we are called to stand in solidarity with them as beloved children of God. In baptism, we are called to follow Jesus’ way to help fix society.

And that starts in the church. As the body of Christ we can recognize the truth of LGBTQ people: They too are beloved of God. We can be in ministry with LGBTQ people. Not just a mere tolerance, but affirming them as a fellow child of God. A place in the life and leadership of the church. To stand in solidarity through word and deed, in private and in public. To let the world know that LGBTQ lives matter to the church. I can’t imagine any of us want to read another article about an LGBTQ teen taking their life because their Christian parents don’t know how to respond in love.

We have to change. We have to talk. It is time to stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ siblings.

That’s why it’s so important for congregations like North Church to join Reconciling Ministries Network. Yes, North Church was welcoming and inclusive long before joining RMN. And yes, sacrifices have been made in joining RMN, the decision was painful and sad for some. And, yes, RMN isn’t perfect and sometimes it really drives me crazy. But at its best, RMN is a beacon of light in the world, a visible sign of an inward truth, proclaiming to all: There are places in the church where LGBTQ folks are welcomed as beloved children of God. As a member church of RMN, North Church is part of a larger network actively seeking to fix society.

I didn’t know Leelah Alcorn but I will never forget her.

And on this day, as we remember the baptism of Jesus, may we hear his call anew to follow through the waters of solidarity where we are claimed and called. Bound together by one Lord, one baptism.
My friends, may you hear the words you are beloved of God and we stand in solidarity with you.
Let me pray for us…

Rev. Danyelle Ditmer

Danyelle Ditmer serves as North United Methodist Church, Indianapolis, as the Pastor of Discipleship and Formation. She is the mother of two, Caleb and Micah, and married to a fellow clergyperson, Josh. She is an ordained Elder in the Indiana Annual Conference. Danyelle received a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Clemson University where she was mentored by the late Dr. Nancy Hardesty. She earned her Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School.

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