A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
A Sermon by The Rev. Elizabeth M. Kaeton
Preached June 24, 2004 - All Saints Church, Atlanta, Georgia
[The Rev'd Elizabeth Kaeton is rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Chatham, NJ -- LC]
"What then will this child become?" Luke 1:66b
What a delight and a joy it is to be with you tonight! I've only been here a few hours, but I am already the thankful recipient of your legendary "southern hospitality." It hasn't taken me much time at all and I - even I, whose hearty New England roots have been transplanted in the tough soil of New Jersey for more than a decade - am beginning to sound softer and gentler to myself. I hear myself saying a genteel Atlanta: "Heyyyy! How are ewe!" rather than the customary salutation from North Jersey: "'Eh! Ow you doin'!" "Heyyyy!" sounds ever so much nicer. I wonder what would happen if I walked into Pascarelli's Pizza Parlor in Passaic and said that?
I've been getting some practice with my accent. I'm staying over at the Renaissance which is filled with Evangelical Christians here for a conference by the famed preacher, Rev. T.D. Jakes. The women's conference is entitled, "Woman Thou Art Loosed." You'll be happy to know that I am in a hotel filled with loose women! Heyyyy! How are ewe? With the city full of Evangelicals and Queers, no wonder they call this "Hot-lanta!"
There's a great deal of good news to preach tonight, so let's get right to it. Tonight is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, the prophet and legendary forerunner of Jesus. His was the miraculous conception and birth which served as a counterpoint-in-life to the equally miraculous conception and birth of Jesus.
John was conceived of Elizabeth (in her old age) and Zechariah after a long and childless marriage. Jesus was conceived of Mary when she was a but a young maid, betrothed but not yet married to the much older Joseph. It is John who is the first to greet the unborn savior, still growing in Mary's womb, when he leaped for joy with legs still being fashioned in secret deep in his own mother's body. It is John whose ministry is well established by the time Jesus comes to him to be baptized. It is John whose work and ministry are well known, even demanding the government's attention- long before the miracles of Jesus caught the attention of the religious leadership or that of Herod.
Long before "Mary considered all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Lk 2:19), the residents of the "entire hill country of Judea" who had heard the stories of John's conception and birth, his naming in the temple, and the cure of his father's temporary muteness, were asking of John, "What then will this child become?"
What then will this child become? I don't know a parent anywhere who doesn't look into the miraculous bundle of new life in their arms, searching the tiny, wrinkled face and furrowed brow of their infant daughter or son for clues and asks, "What then will this child become?" Parents dream dreams of their children even before they are born. What will they look like? Who will they look like? What will they become? My parents asked it of me. I asked it of my children. Your parents, no doubt, asked it of you.
Some of us have broken our parents' hearts, because, by the grace of God, we are who we are. Not what our parents asked for or imagined at all. And, while some of us are dearly loved, others of us have not exactly become what our parents dreamed. Indeed, some of us are our parent's worst nightmare - an all too painful reality with which we must live, even when we can be polite and gentle to each other.
So, here's my question: When do you suppose it was, exactly, that Elizabeth and Zechariah had their first clue that their only son was going to be such a big queer? (Oh, Lord, I can just see the headlines in the conservative rags tomorrow!) When do you suppose it was that he first started that weird macrobiotic diet of locust and wild honey? Or, wearing a camel's hair jacket and leather chaps around the desert house?
Before you get apoplectic, let me say that my Webster's dictionary, faithful friend since my college days, gives the very first definition of queer as: "strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint; unusually different;" And then it adds: "singular: a queer notion of justice." So, let me repeat my question: When do you suppose it was that John's parents got their first inkling that their son was such a big queer?
Can there be any doubt that John was "strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint"? Or that he was "unusually different"? Does his entire life not offer a singular, queer notion of justice? Indeed! It was John who pointed out the incestuous marriage of Herod, which earned him the enmity of Herodias, Herod's wife, and ultimately cost him his head. Quite literally! On a silver platter.
How dare he! How dare he make public the sins of the ruling power, who have the privilege of setting the standard for that which is conventional? How dare this single man define the boundaries of marriage? How dare this outsider, this outcast, hold up a standard and try to define that which is "normal"? That which is sin? How dare this unclean man wash clean the souls of those who came to him to be baptized?
Is any of this sounding even vaguely familiar? Our struggle for a "singular, queer notion of justice" has found its way from the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court, into the highest powers of the Congressional movement to amend the Constitution, and onto the sacred altars of ecclesiastical power. Suddenly, we - our lives - are an election "issue" on the "must-discuss" list for every candidate running for office - from the President of the Free World to the Mayor of the tiniest hamlet.
How dare we?! How dare we outsiders, we outcasts, hold up a standard and try to define that which is normal? How dare we come before the church for a blessing on our commitments to a life-long covenant of love? How dare we attempt to define the boundaries of marriage? How dare we attempt to claim the cultural and governmental security afforded to those who abide by society's rules of monogamy, break no laws, do no crime, build our homes, care for our children and pay our taxes? How dare we elect an open, honest, self-affirming gay man a bishop in God's one, holy, catholic and apostolic church?
How dare we? Because we, too, are baptized, and our baptism makes us bold in Christ. We, like John and Jesus, have a singular queer notion of justice, which may make us odd, or queer, from the prevailing norm, but it does not diminish by one iota our essential humanity.
Just as John and Jesus were feared for their differences, so too are we. We, like them, are evidence that that which people fear and can't control, they hate. They elevate themselves to the status of God and make of themselves judge and jury, based on a narrow notion of justice which is queer in the eyes of God.
If we're honest, we often make of ourselves judge and jury of those who oppose us. The hardest thing in the world for me to accept is this: As much as I know God loves me beyond my wildest imaginings, God also loves those who are conservative and Evangelical. Now, that means that either God either has really, really bad taste or I have to admit that St. Paul is right and "nothing can separate us from the love of God" - not even ourselves much less others. God's love is unconditional. Period.
I learned very early in my first year of ordained ministry exactly why this is so. Thanks to an Armenian Orthodox priest named Fr. Koumaranian, I learned an important lesson about God's unconditional love - even that of those we ourselves don't like. Those of you who know me may have heard me recount this or one of the many Fr. Koumaranian stories I love to tell. If you have, bear with me.
Fr. Koumaranian was a real John the Baptist kind of guy - an imposing figure who towered over most people. When I first met him, he was dressed in a long, black orthodox-style cassock, complete with hood, which could not contain his full head of thick, black, curly hair. His wild eyes and full, chest-length beard and thick Armenian accent made his seem so other-worldly, I thought, perhaps, I had wondered into that character from Raiders of the Lost Ark. I thought sure he had a sword under that cassock.
I went to his church in 1986 to do a workshop on AIDS. He had never seen a woman priest and I had never seen a priest quite like this. I wasn't sure what to think about him, and every indication was that he did not like me. After an amazing series of events (part of the treasure trove of Fr. K stories), we found that we had developed a genuine fondness for each other. For his part, he determined that if I was a woman and a priest, then by God, I was going to learn the divine liturgy CORRECTLY.
He insisted on calling me mother, so his phone calls to me were always bizarre. I'd pick up the receiver and hear his thick Armenian accent on the end of the line say, "Mother? Dis is Father. We have wedding Saturday morning. It would be good for my people to see woman priest. It would be good for you to learn liturgy. You come." It was more a command than an invitation. I went. And, I LOVED it!
One day, he called and said, "Mother? Dis is Father. We have funeral on Wednesday. It would be good for my people to see woman priest. It would be good for you to learn liturgy. You come." Well, the funeral liturgy was just as wonderful as the wedding. The chanting. The incense. The music! It was all marvelously rich and other-worldly. Guessing from the congregation, I assumed Father was going to speak in Armenian, so at the time of the homily, I settled in to meditate for a while.
Imagine my surprise when Fr. K began his homily and started speaking in English! He moved his large form gracefully toward the people and said, "There are people in this life who are always making you happy. You seem them on the street and your heart leaps for joy, so happy do they make you." He stroked his beard pensively as he moved toward the casket, placed his hand lovingly on it and shaking his head sadly, he said, "Dis was not one of those people."
I was horrified! What is he doing, I asked tightening my eyes shut? When I dared to open them, however, I found an entire church of people nodding their heads in agreement. Even the man's widow! Then, I heard Fr. K say, "But isn't God - our God - so good? Isn't God - our God - so wonderful? That now, even now, even dis man rests in the arms of God. He is loved and forgiven. Why? Because people is people and God is God."
People is people and God is God. And, because of that, we can dare to be who we are. We can even dare to demand a singular, queer notion of God. How dare we? The answer to that question is the same as the ancient answer which John gave when the powers that be demanded it of him; and the answer is this: Jesus. Actually, John's exact words were: "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." (Lk 3:16)
It is Jesus who dares us to be bold in our beliefs. Brave in the midst of dangerous threats. Certain in the face of the lies they persist in telling about us. And focused on mission as the chaos created by those who fear us swirls in our midst. It is Jesus who calls us to jump for joy even before we ourselves are fully formed and ready. It is Jesus who teaches us to live a life of authenticity and integrity, even when people want to kill us for it. It is Jesus who teaches us that blessedness is not always recognized by the powerful elite, but we must, nonetheless, strive to be a blessing in people's lives if there is to be hope and healing and reconciliation and compassion in the world. It is Jesus and John who teach us that our lives can be a counterpoint to each other and still find the same mission to glorify God with our lives of faith.
Indeed, it is Jesus who has baptized us with the Holy Spirit and fire, having been baptized by John. As such, we know the answer to the question asked at our birth, "What then will this child become?" We are becoming all that God has made us, for behold! We are wonderfully made! We are becoming the manifestation of the dream God dreams for us - of us. We are becoming God's love made real, and, as Bishop Robinson is fond of saying, God loves us beyond our wildest imaginings!
Author Rachel Naomi Remen writes, "Perhaps our greatest service is simply to find ways to strengthen and live closer to our goodness. . . .every time anyone becomes more transparent to the light in them, they will restore the light to the world." That, I believe, is the spiritual challenge of our time and our day: to restore the light to this world by becoming more transparent to the light that is within us. In this me-first world, this is a radically counter-cultural position. People will call us crazies and fools. No matter. They already call us worse than that! We know better: people is people and God is God.
What then will this child become? Look at you! Look at us! More and more, we are being made transparent by telling our truth. More and more, we are becoming light bearers in a world darkened by terror and fear. More and more, we understand ourselves to be forgiven, that we may forgive others and, in turn, love ourselves and others more deeply. Alice Walker writes, "it is the triumphant heart, not the conquered heart that forgives. And that love is both timeless and beyond time."
What them will this child become? Like John the Baptist, before us, we are becoming the triumphant heart. Amen.
the Rev'd Elizabeth Kaeton
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
200 Main Street
Chatham, NJ 07928
973 635 8085
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