A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
When I finally admitted to myself that I am a lesbian, one of first people I came out to was my therapist. She was a conservative Christian who was studying for ministry from the same school I had just graduated from. I remember the conversation very well: I walked in the door and told her that I had fallen in love with someone. She was ecstatic "Oh, this is so good. You are so ready for this. Who is he?"
"Well, actually her name is Barbara."
She freaked. She threw me out of her office telling me that just looking at me was turning her stomach. But before I left she warned that if I went ahead with this abominable life style, the only people who I would ever be able to preach to would be gays and lesbians like myself. I have to admit my initial response to this prophecy was disgust. Four years later here I am, and I am proud.
I want to tell a story this evening. It's a variation of the story we just heard from the Book of Acts about the Ethiopian eunuch. Like thousands of pilgrims, Jewish and Non-Jewish, he had gone to Jerusalem to worship during the feast of the Passover. He had heard the rumors of this Jewish messiah who had healed the sick, raised the dead, preached every day in the temple parables proclaiming that God's kingdom had now come among us, only to find himself on a cross outside the city walls on Friday morning. Like many other pilgrims in the city that year, the reports thrilled, confused, and terrified him.
However, when he tried to stop people in the street to find out more, no one would talk to him. They were too busy gawking at him. For one thing, he's an Ethiopian. He's most likely tall and thin with dark skin and sharply defined features. No doubt, he's one fine brother, but he's like no one they have ever seen before. The poet, Homer refers to Ethiopians as "farthermost of men." He comes from the most remote corner of the known world.
To make matters worse, he's a eunuch. If Jerusalem had TV in those days, this brother could have done Jerry Springer and Rikki Lake back to back. He is, hands down, the queerest character in the Bible. He is probably wearing something that identifies him as a court official of the Candace, or the Queen of Ethiopia. Back in the day, people understood that sex is dangerous. Men who worked for the Queen were castrated because if they had got it on with the boss, it would mess up the line of succession. If you wanted the job, you had to meet the requirements. These days, for a job like this, they would expect you to give up your life. Back then they were satisfied with your balls.
So the brother has questions but no answers. He senses that something entirely new is going on around him. Something wonderful, or at least, earth shaking. But he has no information; no context to hang his impressions on. All he has is a scroll of the Book of Isaiah. He is returning home, seated in his chariot while another member of his company reads aloud to him. He gets to the part in Isaiah which we call "the song of the suffering servant" where the prophet predicts that God will send a righteous man whose suffering will make us right with God.
He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces. he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
As he hears these words the Ethiopian senses that he is close; that the answer to his questions is right in front of him, but he still can't get to it. He cries out to God in frustration, "Please, have mercy and send a teacher who can make sense of this for me." Just then Phillip shows up along side the road they are travelling on. The Ethiopian recognizes immediately that Phillip is a Jew, someone who knows the story from the inside and can answer his questions.
He stops the chariot and asks Phillip if he'd like a ride. Phillip takes one look at the strange man and jumps three feet in the other direction. "Why do you want me to come in there? What do you have in mind?" The Ethiopian responds "Sir, I mean no disrespect. I thought that maybe you can help me understand these verses I am reading from Isaiah. I need to know who this prophet of yours is referring to when he talks about this One is coming to suffer. Do you know?" "Yes, I know," Phillip responds, "but I can't tell you." "Why?' "Because [Deut. 23:1] No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted into the assembly of the Lord." "But you don't have to admit me into your assembly, just answer one question?" "Listen you freak, I don't talk to people like you. Just looking at you turns my stomach." The Ethiopian takes off, resigned to forever being an outsider to the story that has captured his heart.
I have a feeling that for most of us here today this story is more familiar. We've walked into churches seeking the Truth but the people inside couldn't see us as anything other than a freak. They don't want to look at us. They don't want to talk with us. They'd like to pretend that we don't exist at all. The last thing they are about to do is admit us into their fellowship. The straight people in the congregation today may think that I am exaggerating or that I'm talking about a time that was. Things like this don't happen anymore today. Yet, I have been to churches in this city, on this isle of Manhattan, where if you are a gay or lesbian they won't even allow you to read from the Scriptures or help the minister distribute communion. They think that because we love who we love that we are unworthy to have holy things in our hands. Every one of these institutions is lead by a straight man who has decided that all he has to do to be holy is not have an abortion and refrain from sex with men. How convenient! Funny how their holiness is not measured by other considerations such as how they have cared for the poor, honored their wives or loved their neighbors? How much easier it is for them to think that they can stand in the presence of Almighty God just because they are not one of us. "I thank thee O God that I am not like him, or her." If it wasn't so evil, it would almost be funny.
In the passage I just read from John's Gospel some Greeks have arrived at the camp where Jesus is staying. No doubt they, like the Ethiopian, have heard enough about the Jewish Messiah to sense that something huge and amazing is going on, and they want in. They approach one of the disciples and say "Sir, we wish to see Jesus."
The disciples are thrown into a panic. These Greeks aren't supposed to be there. First of all, they're Gentiles. But more importantly, if Jesus is the Messiah, he is the Jewish Messiah. The promises God made to Israel do not include these Greeks. The Hebrew Scriptures are available in their language, if they want to know more they can read. They can even attend their services so long as they restrict themselves to the court of the gentiles. [That offer applies to these Greeks only. Sexual freaks such as the Ethiopian couldn't even cross the gate.] We can understand how they could want to worship our God, but at the end of the day they need to stick to their own tribe and not think that they can share our company as if they were one of our own. It's nothing personal. It's just the Law.
The disciple, Phillip, doesn't know what to do so he goes and gets Andrew. Andrew doesn't have a clue either, so they go ask Jesus. Jesus offers a cryptic response "Now the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified." He goes on with this story about a grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies so that it can bear fruit. The Greeks are still standing outside.
I'd like to tell you that Jesus said, "Sure boys, let them in." but I can't. Because for the time being his disciples are right. The law is the law. But Jesus will not tolerate a world where there are insiders and outsiders, where people who want to know Him are excluded because of some artificial boundary. In order to tear down that boundary he has to die. This is why Jesus calls the cup of wine at the Last Supper "The cup of the new covenant in my blood." When Jesus agrees to become the suffering servant, the old covenant becomes old news. What else could the law of sin and separation need to satisfy itself when the Righteous One has given Himself?
The death and resurrection of Jesus abolishes all the boundaries defined by who we have been from birth. As Paul will later say, "In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female." If he knew our stories, I have no doubt that he would have added, "gay or straight" to the list.
The truth of the Gospel is that Jesus wanted to talk to the Greeks so much that He died for them. He died to establish a new covenant where all are equal, and all are welcome. The Spirit of this new covenent drives Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch to proclaim to him that even he can be baptised into the family of God. When he asks Philip "what is to prevent me from being baptized?" Philip can't find any reason to object. They go down into the waters of baptism together and emerge strangers no more, but brothers. This is what the new covenant is supposed to look like. This is the kingdom of God in our midst. Everything else is old news. And anyone who would tell you otherwise is returning to the "us and them" world that Jesus died to abolish. His "so-called disciples" may shun us, but the King of Love will never turn us away.
My former therapist told me that when she first met me she was overwhelmed by how much shame I was carrying. After three years of therapy she could not figure out where the shame was coming from, when of course, the answer was staring us both in the face. Once I accepted the fact that I am a lesbian and understood that this is part of who God made me, the shame rolled away like the stone on Easter morning. It was like this great big stick that the evil one had been using to beat me every day was suddenly gone forever. It's amazing what speaking the truth about ourselves can do. The thing that you had kept hidden out of fear, in the farthestmost region of your consciousness, is now out and - wonder of wonder - it is beautiful. That's what speaking the truth about my sexual orientation has done for me. That's the power of gay pride.
But the same way that we cannot deny the truth about who we love, we cannot deny the truth that we seek Jesus. That there is something about God that has draws us to Him. We have to insist that we are both gays and lesbians and lovers of Jesus, followers of God. Just like we can't be turned into straight people, we shouldn't allow homophobia in the church to turn us into heathens. To make us ashamed to believe in God or confess who He has been for us. Many of the Christians who get it into the news media make me want to tuck my cross inside my shirt and run to the nearest bar. Not that bars are bad, what is bad is what we do to ourselves when we act like we don't care about God anymore. When we forget that God loves us, we will put all manner of poison into our heads and hearts. Once we remember how much God loves us, we can hope for a lot better than phony highs and meaningless sex. The real deal, the joy God offers us everyday as we walk in Him, is so much better than all that. I need to remind myself of this when Christians on TV make me cringe.
We need to hold onto the church, even when it is ugly because the truth is that God has held onto us when we were ugly. God never says, "You've embarrassed me in public one too many time. Get out of my life." We must show the same mercy to his church because sick as it may be, it is a place where God is acknowledged. Where you can always come to be reminded that His love is real.
So my prayer for my community on this pride weekend is for God to give us the strength to hold onto all of the truths about who we are. As we prepare for Holy Communion, let us bring our whole selves to Him without shame and return to the world with the assurance that He is always with us.
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