Let Your Light Shine: transcript of Bishop Karen Oliveto’s final sermon as GLIDE’s Senior Pastor

From Rita Shimmin, GLIDE Executive Director: On August 14, 2016, newly elected Bishop Karen Oliveto gave her farewell sermon at GLIDE (see below). After the Sunday Celebration, we gathered to give the new Bishop a farewell party. Both her sermon and the party were filled with much joy and inspiration but also an underlying grieving as we lose our beloved Karen to a calling to serve in a new place. We are grateful for the joy and love she leaves in our hearts and celebrate her as she lets her light shine within a new community.

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Left to right: GLIDE Coordinator of Congregational Engagement Carson Perez, GLIDE Ensemble member Michelle Arce, Bishop Karen Oliveto and GLIDE congregants Howard Sanders Jr. and LeRon Barton.

It is hard to believe that this is my last Sunday at GLIDE. God’s call to the episcopacy, which came only as a whisper in May, has left me breathless with the swiftness of change. If you had told me two months ago that I’d be moving to Denver this coming week, I would have looked at you as if you had two heads.

But a day I could never imagine is upon us. Some say the United Methodist appointment process, the way pastors are deployed to churches, is like an arranged marriage: The pastor and the congregation are matched in the hopes that they will fall in love. Well, dear GLIDE family, I fell in love. I fell in love with your honesty and your vulnerability. I fell in love with the hope you hold on to and your commitment to make the world a better place. I fell in love with the way you challenged me to be a better person and pastor. I fell in love with your bling and your scrappiness. I fell in love with you and all that was made possible by our willingness to share life together: trips to Kenya and the relationships we built there; recovery circles where we helped each other move to greater wholeness, our trip to the Holy Lands, the pride activities, which always culminated in bringing GLIDE’s unconditional love and acceptance into the streets of San Francisco, the things we learned from each other through workshops, classes and demonstrations. I fell head over heels in love with you.

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And here is the hard part: If being appointed is an arranged marriage with the hopes of falling in love, then being reappointed elsewhere is like having to divorce a whole lot of people all at once, and the worst thing about it all is that you really, really love the people you need to say goodbye to.

So it is with an aching heart that I have been reflecting on our life together, and the goodbyes that must be said. When I think about this community, I am struck by our deep longing for connection. We are a species that is not meant to live in isolation from each other. We need each other to truly live. And yet we are so clumsy in the ways we get this very basic human need fulfilled. We mess up. We not only miss opportunities for connection, we bumble an awful lot of them. As a result, we wind up holding ourselves back from connecting with others, we make excuses for not showing up, we isolate ourselves. The problem is, everyone loses when we do that.

There was a story in the news this week that shows what a communal species we are, and what can happen when we decide to share life with one another.

Police were called to an apartment in Rome when neighbors heard loud crying. Officers rushed to the scene and were stunned at what they found: No one had broken in and stolen dear possessions, no one had experienced domestic violence, in fact, no crime had been committed at all. Instead, what the police found was an elderly couple weeping inconsolably. They were crying because they had been watching TV and were upset at the hatred and violence that seems to be the state of the world today. And with broken hearts, they were crying because they had not had a visitor in a long time, no one to share life with, to counterbalance the world’s negativity. As the papers reported, they were suffering from an “incurable loneliness.”

Do you know something of this incurable loneliness? When yet another mass shooting hits the news, when you hear of another bombing, when it feels like public servants have gone mad with ego, when you suffer from a loss, when your work has dried up, when you are on the verge of homelessness, do you run into the arms of community, or do you hide behind locked doors trying to protect your fragile heart, in the end simply compounding the fear and increasing the loneliness?

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IT Manager Kat Kimmons, Bishop Karen Oliveto, Senior Manager of Programs Barbara Lin and Pastor Theon Johnson III.

The police officers called an ambulance for the couple, but then they offered a healing that no medicine could provide. They cooked a meal for the couple. As a representative of the police said: There was no crime that they experienced so the police were left with a more daunting task: two lonely souls who needed reassuring. They understood that just a little human warmth would restore tranquility to the couple. So they made the couple dinner, pasta with a little bit of butter and parmesan that included a precious ingredient: humanity.

Humanity, which holds within its reflection divinity, is in dire need these days. Jesus, when offering the Beatitudes, said this:

13 “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.”

14-16 Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous God in heaven (Matthew 5: 13-16).

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Gettin’ down at Bishop Karen’s farewell! This dancer’s light can’t be contained!

If I could leave you with one directive for future action, one prescription as an anti-dote for the hatred, violence and intense loneliness of our current age, it would be this: “Let your light shine.” Because we live in a world that is in dire need of light. Specifically, it is in need of YOUR light.

Too many of you are hiding your light under a bucket. Some of you are allowing others to blow out your light. Still others are doing things to break your own light. Marianne Williamson reminds us: It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.

Too many of us play it small. Whether it is because others have belittled and berated us or because we have been bullied and beaten, we often cower in a corner, covering up our light.

There are some of us for whom systems and institutions have told us we have unworthy, unreliable lights, and we have believed the lies.

There are still others who have grown so accustomed to the dark that we forget we even have a light of our own.

You have a light to share with the world, one which is so unique there is not another one to be found anywhere. When you shine that light, your life changes. And, even better, the lives around you are changed—their lives are illuminated and warmed by the light you bear and like a mighty spark, they begin to shine their own light in the world as well.

During this time of transition, I have been thinking about those people who impacted my life, who helped shape and mold me into the woman I am today. One of those people is the church music director from my youth, Ken White. I can remember how much I just wanted to be in his presence. I wasn’t the only one. Children and teens, men and women were drawn to him, embraced by his warmth and good humor. When I think about him now, I realize that in his presence I felt loved. It wasn’t anything he said or did but just who he was and how he moved through the world. A light shone through him, and when I was around him, I knew God was real and that this God loved me. As a result, when I was in Ken’s presence, I felt myself being drawn out, to not only bask in this light but begin to let my own light shine as well.

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Bishop Karen delivering her final sermon as GLIDE’s Senior Pastor.

Have you had someone in your life like that? Someone whose goodness drew you to them? Someone in whose presence you just knew all was right with the world? Someone who lit up your life and brought out your very best self? Most often, these were not particularly special people. They weren’t famous, they weren’t celebrities, they probably didn’t have a lot of money. In fact, they were probably burdened with more problems than you were aware of at the time. When you think about what they did that made such an impact, it was probably the simplest of things, like, perhaps, serving you a plate of pasta. But they had within them a light that refused to be extinguished. You are who you are because they dared to let their light shine.

Be a light-bearer—let your light shine!

Jesus says these words because he knows something of the power of being a light to the world, as God’s power shone through him. So many were drawn to this light. Men and women traveled great distances over dusty paths to see him, listen to his words, touch his garment. As a lamp of God’s love, people found themselves transformed in no small ways. People dropped their old lives and grabbed on to the life he promised. A life in God’s realm. Those who brought their broken selves to him found wholeness and healing. Lonely souls were swept up in a new community. Families, towns and villages felt the effects of this blazing light that shone through him.

We are to be that lamp shining in a dark place, that peek-a-boo of divine glory that shows forth now at unexpected moments and from unexpected places. Our lives ought to reveal God’s goodness.

One of the most sober lines a poet has ever written was, “They died with all their music in them.” As a person of faith, I have been brokenhearted to preside at funerals for those who died with all their light hidden deep within them.

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Senator Mark Leno presenting Bishop Karen Oliveto with a special award for her contributions to California.

Like June Lee, Brian Sparkes is a Project ReMADE graduate. He said something about this that I have never forgotten. He said, “Imagine being at your deathbed and instead of your loved ones, standing around you are your unused talents, abilities, skills and dreams who tell you: ‘We came to you and because you didn’t use us we must die with you.'”

Claim the parts of you that the world desperately needs and live into them as fully as you can!

We are not to keep this light hidden away, tucked away in a corner. Whether as individuals or communities, we are to peel off the protective layers we have built around the light of God that is within us and risk exposing our inner selves so that others may see the light of God’s love. This is the source of all liberating movements. This is the cornerstone of a love revolution.

This is perhaps what I will miss most. I have watched, time after time, as so many of you did the healing work required to begin to let your light shine. Your lights have impacted me in more ways that you will ever know. Your light joined my own, and together we made a difference in this tired cold world. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Keep your light burning brightly, my friends. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

ko, rr, jm, cw

Bishop Karen Oliveto was the Senior Pastor of GLIDE Memorial Church for eight years. This summer, she made history by becoming the first openly LGBTQ person to be elected a bishop in the United Methodist Church. She and her wife Robin have just moved to Denver where Karen will be the Bishop for the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area.
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