Christ Church in Short Hills
17th Sunday after Pentecost (22B), 2000
What God has joined together, let no one separate. Mark 10:2-9
So, divorce. Another of those scriptural passages I feel so lucky to have drawn. What I want to do today though, is to address not divorce in the usual sense, but to the root meaning of the word, which is "turning away from one another." In that sense there are many painful divorces going on in the world, whether in families or communities, in the holy city of Jerusalem, or between religions and denominations. Rome, for instance, has recently declared that we Anglicans are no longer a sister church. I can't see that any of these divorces, these turnings away from one another, are part of God's plan for us.
This is the day to share with you, however, a particular "turning away" that is very heavy on my heart, and which I have been wanting for some time to tell you. I want to tell you about Johnny. As some of you know, Johnny was my oldest stepson. A truly wonderful young man--brilliant, funny, loving, humble, a delight. He grew up in a church very much like this one in the south, and he shone in everything he did-- acolyte, boy scout, the kid all the other parents wanted their kids to be like. He had tons of friends. At his large southern university he was not only president of his fraternity but editor of the yearbook, and was chosen among thousands of students to be one of the four top graduates of his class. John became the accomplished and beloved Alumni Director for another revered southern school. It was easy to be incredibly proud of him.
He was also gay. In his case, that was fairly apparent from the time he was two, and over the years his father and I tried to give him as much affirmation and possibility as we could. We took him and his brothers to the Gay Pride Parade every year, our gay friends were an important part of our life, both of us as priests and seminary faculty spoke out on the subject of homosexuality. We tried to get him to bring friends home. But we lived in New York, and John was a child of the south and wanted to stay there. This required making what I have come to think of as a devil's bargain--to lead a double life, to keep secret this core, this essential part of who he was, of who God had made him. The toll that living in that closet was to take was incalculable.
He never openly acknowledged being gay, not to his school friends, not to his church, not to his job, not to his family. As far as I know, his straight friends never met his gay friends. In exchange for his silence he got love and affirmation and acclaim. Like everyone else in their twenties, he fell in love. But no one in the rest of his life even knew of his partner Neil's existence.
This tragedy is entwined with another tragedy. These were the years when the virus we now know as AIDS was first spreading, in part fed by the enforced hiddenness of the gay community. Neil died one night in Johnny's arms, and he had to go to work in the morning and pretend that nothing had happened. Two months later he went though a family Christmas the same way. He was thin, and tired, but I remember thinking naively at the time I was glad he was in the south. At least he was safe.
But of course he wasn't. His silence hadn't saved him. That next year we got the call that is every parent's nightmare-- "Dad, I have two things to tell you..." He stayed at his job as long as he possibly could. And when the day came when he had to tell them, this man they had all loved and admired so, it provoked not compassion but hysterics; they wouldn't even let him clean out his desk before they ushered him out of the building. When he was dying, his mother refused to take him in, fearful, probably rightly, that her standing in the community, her friends, and her business were all at stake. So he came to us. Six months later he was dead, in a northern city, alone, bereft of all of his friends and most of his family.
His funeral in that lovely Episcopal church he had grown up in was packed with friends and family. A few people asked in hushed tones what he had died of, but we were forbidden to say. One young woman did seek me out, however (I suppose because I was the only person there with an accent), to say she was a nurse and had known John and Neil when Neil was dying. She said she had never seen such love as was between them, and such faithful devotion as John had shown. A few months later as I was sorting through John's stuff I found a snapshot he had somehow missed amidst the pristine collection of yearbook and fraternity and prom photos (never the same girl twice). It was of a laughing young man, almost naked, sexy and alluring. I'm not sure it was Neil, but I keep it in my prayer book at home, as a testimony to the truth.
John would be 40 now. He died eleven years ago. I am glad to think there was a time when he was happy, and fully himself. I am sure he is happy now, for "happy and truly oneself" must be the very definition of the kingdom of God.
Perhaps you are wondering why I am telling you this. It is about divorce, turning away. As you may have read in our Diocesan newspaper, today is Solidarity Sunday, a national ecumenical effort that began 5 years ago as a way to raise awareness and acceptance about increasing diversity in our communities and about hate crimes, especially against gay and lesbian people. Perhaps John's story sounds like ancient history, and a product of a rabidly conservative southern culture. Surely it can't happen here. And most certainly nothing like what happened to that other fine, accomplished, shining star of a young man, Matthew Shepherd, who was tortured, tied to a fence and left to die because he was gay. He could have been Johnny.
I tell you John's story because it can happen here, and does, even now. As we learned in Nazi Germany, for evil to triumph it is only necessary for good people to keep silent. I am not the only person here at Christ Church who has a gay child. Statistically, scores of gay boys and girls have grown up at Christ Church, gone to Sunday school, served at the altar over the years, been loved and admired, just like Johnny. And what kind of silence have we imposed on them? What kind of pretense do we demand of them when they come home? Would a gay couple (and there are many who live around here) be comfortable at Christ Church? Christ Church has been served by many fine and able clergy over the years, and some of them have been gay. Have we welcomed them for who they are, with their relationships and families and stories as visible as we allow of our straight clergy? Can they put pictures on their desks and talk about their vacation and show up at coffee hour with the person who is at the center of their lives? Or have we demanded silence of them too?
So I am asking of you, to return to the gospel, let's not divorce our children. Let us not turn away. Let us not demand of them and our clergy and our neighbors pretense and silence as a condition of being among us. Genesis 2 has it right, even though it is often used as a prooftext for the rampant homophobia loose in many Chjristian communities. The Hebrew text makes clear that ADAM, the human creature that God created, did not even become male and female (ish and isha) until after ADAM was divided. The original creation was male and female together, in the image of God. All of us genetically and psychologically carry a bit of each gender, and a consistent minority seem to have been assigned a different mix than most of the rest of us. That is how God made them. As that delightful, and gay, Englishman, Quentin Crisp, said, "Male and female created he me."
We are all made in the image of God, and in God there is no us and them, only us. We will all sit together at the heavenly banquet, so we might as well start now. "What God has joined together, let no one separate."
In conclusion, if you would like to give me a parting gift, I ask that you prayerfully consider Christ Church becoming a sponsoring parish of Oasis, the gay and lesbian ministry of the diocese of Newark; that is, an open and affirming parish where gay people would feel fully welcome for who they are and not have to check their lives at the door. I would be happy to explore this with anyone interested in pursuing it. For Johnny, and for all of our children. For all who are made in God's image, and are infinitely loved. Let us not turn away. Amen.
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