Lucent Technologies Conference
March 19, 1999
the Rev'd Canon Elizabeth Kaeton
I am both delighted and daunted to be here this morning. The task has been given to me to speakto you on the spiritual thread of your conference theme “Illuminating Diversity.” That you haveentrusted me, an ordained representative of one of the mainline religious traditions, theEpiscopal Church, to speak to you this morning touches deep into my own psychic and spiritualwells where I store feelings of both joy and inadequacy.
I am painfully aware, that, as John Cobb has aptly said, “whereas in most forms of oppressionthe church has given at least some support to the oppressed, in the case of homosexuals, thechurch has been a leader in the oppression.” A bishop in my own Anglican communion,Desmond Tutu has said, “The Lord of the Church would not be where the church is in thismatter.” However, while Christianity is certainly the most visible oppressor, it is not the onlyone. There are “homophobes in robes” not only in the justice system, but in every major religionin the world – some exhorting far more violent consequences for daring to live into our ownunique strand of the diversity which is but part of the rich tapestry of God’s creation.
I do not mean to excuse or apologize for the Religious Right’s shameful and consistent attack onour community. Personally, I can’t wait for Tinky Winky to grow up and give Jerry Fallwell hiscomeuppance. Everybody knows Tinky Winky’s not gay! He may be purple and have a triangleon his head, and he may occasionally dance around in a tutu, but honey, you know as well as I dothat no self-respecting gay man would go out in public when his SHOES don’t match hisPURSE! Although, with help, there might yet be hope for this little fella . . . He might grow upand never carry a purse. Then, he’d be a lesbian! Of course, he’d then have to learn how to likecats, wear pinky rings and change his own oil . . . but he’s very young. There’s always hope:We might actually extricate ourselves from the tyranny of stereotypes. Now, there’s a thought.
I want you to know that there are many of us in mainline religions - on the “inside of the battlelines,” who “wear the uniform” -- who are working for change. We are lesbian and gay, bisexualand transgender, straight but not narrow, who understand the teachings of my own Episcopalbishop, John Sheby Spong, that if you take the bible seriously, you can’t take it literally.
We understand that, in the words of former Israeli Prime Minister Abba Eban: “Human beingsreally do the right thing, but only after exhausting all alternatives.” We understand thatcompassion often demands confrontation – especially with those who are really good people butwho just don’t seem to have a clue about how dangerous and killing homophobia andheterosexism are to the soul -- of an individual or a community; the soul of municipalgovernment or religious denomination; the soul of our nation. We understand that those whobenefit from injustice are less able to understand its true character than those who suffer from it.
There are those of us ‘on the inside’ of religious organizations who understand that we live inspiritual darkness because fear has blown out the lamp of reason. We know that while theunknown is the mind’s greatest need, uncertainty is one of the heart’s greatest fears. And, formany people, what our “queer community” represents to the rest of the world is the chaos ofuncertainty.
We have come to know that God’s creation is far more pluralistic and diverse than many haveperceived. Clearly, God is more comfortable with diversity that we are. William Sloane Coffinonce said that “if diversity is the hardest thing for a society to live with, perhaps it is the mostdangerous thing for society to live without.”
So, allow me to spend a little time telling you how some of us in religious denominations aretrying to build bridges across the dangerous chasms of prejudice and fear. We are trying toilluminate diversity by shining the lamp of reason on the diversity – of God’s creation andcreatures – which is already found in the bible. We try to highlight the messages from Godwhich have been locked up for centuries behind the words whose marks on the Scriptural pagehave been turned into jailers, guarding the Spirit of God which longs to be set free.
Now, I’m a preacher and preachers need a text from which to speak. You’ll forgive me: It’s aflaw common to many in my profession. I promise, however, not to deliver a lengthy, boringdiatribe, or, what is known in my business as an “Old Man River Sermon.” That’s a sermon inwhich the preacher takes on the attributes of that ‘old man river’. Do you remember the refrainfrom the Broadway musical, Showboat? “Old man river. He must know something. He don’tsay nothing. He just keeps ROLLING ALONG . . . .” I’ll be brief.
One of my favorite stories from Scripture is from the Book of Jonah. There can’t be a child –Christian or Jew – who has not heard of the story of Jonah and the whale. Its story theme findsan interesting secularization in one of the scenes of the children’s story Pinocchio, when thelittle wooden puppet who only wants to be human runs away from his beloved Geppetto andends up swallowed by a whale. (If you haven’t read the book, I’ll bet you’ve seen the Disneymovie.)
Only three chapters long, it’s a wonderful tale about who decides who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’,which proves the old adage that there are none so blind as those who refuse to see. Jonah is arecalcitrant prophet, a biblical predecessor of many I’ve seen from the Religious Right, whothinks he knows more about the wideness of God’s mercy and love than God does.
Jonah is an obscure little Galilean prophet who had just experienced a success of sorts and isriding pretty high. He had correctly predicted that Jeroboam II would reconquer from Syrialarge tracts of territory previously held by Israel, and probably assumed that he would settle intothe reward of the comfort of his new found elevation in status.
Wrong! Jonah is, instead, sent by God right out of the comfort of his success, to the capital ofAssyria and directly into the belly of the beast: the city of Nineveh. Now, Nineveh not onlyrepresented the oppressive power of the war lords of the Near East, but, like Babylon and Romein later years, was also regarded by Jews of the stricter sort as a synonym for the worst infamies,vicious practices, blasphemy, and the irreligion of the Gentile world – a little like NYC!
Jonah’s mission, as he understands it, is to proclaim the judgement of God upon it, but instead,for reasons which we will only learn later, he boards a ship bound for Tarshish, which lay inprecisely the opposite direction at the other end of the Mediterranean, hoping to thus escape thisodious assignment.
Jonah becomes the living example of that old saying, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” Forthose of you who don’t know the story, a brief synopsis: A storm comes. The ship is in trouble.The men are scared. They need someone to blame. Yadayadayada. They find Jonah asleep in thehold not saying his prayers like the rest of the men. The men throw him overboard, thinking thatthis will appease the anger of their gods. Jonah gets swallowed up by a whale. Three long daysin the belly of a real beast. Yadayadayada (‘Ey, I’m woikin’ hea . . .) The whale spits him outand he ends up washed up on the shore, making his way to Nineveh where God wanted him inthe first place.
Now! At the end of first day of Jonah’s mission in Nineveh, a city so vast it takes three days tocross, he publically pronounces Nineveh’s impending doom. The effect is instantaneous. Thewhole city -- even the King! -- has a religious conversion experience and turns to Yahweh. Godis deeply touched and moved by this and holds back on all the punishment which had beenplanned for the citizens of Nineveh.
And Jonah is royally P-O’d! He’s so mad, he finally admits to the reason he tried to run away inthe first place. This is his worst fears realized: the Gentiles, those inferior heathen, are not goingto be destroyed after all. They can still be who they are, in this case Gentiles, and God will stilllove them. Imagine that! Well, no one could ever accuse Jonah of having an imagination. Hecan only take off in a petulant huff, leaving the city to go off and sulk under a castor oil tree(great image for a heart and soul which are quite constipated by anger and fear). He’d rather diethan live in equal status in God’s eyes with this tribe of people. The story ends abruptly, withJonah, the sour, self-centered prophet, clutching his precious religion to his bosom, whileordinary humanity, with its vast diversity, waits ready to respond to the message of God’sunconditional love for absolutely everybody.
And, you thought it was a fish story! Or, maybe you’ve never heard the story told like thisbefore, with all of its nuances and hidden meanings (much less, the yadayada’s). Perhaps youfirst learned of it as I did, when, as a good Catholic kid, Sr. Mary Alopecia read it to us as one ofthe stories in the Season of Lent. But, she only read up to the part where Jonah gets thrownoverboard and swallowed up by the whale; and, she meant to teach us a lesson about what wouldhappen if we were disobedient to the call of God.
Okay, I’ll give Sister her due. Judgement is a part of the story: Jonah’s judgement on the peopleof Nineveh and God’s judgement on Jonah. And, I’ll admit that I’m never comfortable with thatdeus ex machina stuff -- God as a rather arbitrary Cosmic Rescuer -- in Greek plays or in HolyScripture. It always sounds more to me like a projection of our own discomfort about power andcontrol. But, if you get stuck on those parts of the story, listening only to the roar of judgementor the thunder of power, you’ll not be able to hear the Spirit which is in the story, calling frombehind the strokes of the letters which form the words, which is longing to be set free into ourhearts and minds and souls.
The story of Jonah is an amazing tale about the wideness of God’s mercy, and about how muchGod loves the diversity which has come from God’s own creative hand. What God says to Jonahabout the people of Nineveh, God is also saying to Jerry Fallwell, Pat Robertson, and the leadersof the Religious Right about the People of Our Tribe. For those who have ears to hear, the Spiritof the story of Nineveh is shouting over the billowing dust of the ancient of ages that our lovefor God is not unrequited. That, just as God loved the Gentiles of the Tribe of Assyria, Godloves us just the way we are.
Because, you see, while human kind may be confused by diversity, God loves diversity. And,God loves possibility. Otherwise, God would not have made the color purple, a mixture of pinkand blue, or water with its potential to flow freely or freeze hard as a rock. God would not havemade the sky, which can hold the brightness of the sun and the darkness of the night. God wouldnot have made the earth as a place of potential for new life as well as the final resting place forthe dead.
God loves diversity so much, that God made human kind, male and female, God made us; blackand white and yellow and red and brown, God made us; tall and short, lean and round, God madeus; lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and straight, God made us; so that we might be made inthe image of God, who is vast enough to be beyond our comprehension of gender and color andheight and depth and shape and sexuality.
Black theologian and our brother, James Baldwin, said it best: “Each of us, helplessly andforever, contains the other – male in female, female in male, white in black, and black in white.We are part of each other.” That’s the creation story we need to hear boldly proclaimed. But,we can never hear it if we do not listen for it. We can never hear it if we designate it as theforeign language of certain segments of certain religious denominations. We can never hear it ifwe do not re-claim the language of religion as our own sacred language, and interpret the sacredstories for the people of our own culture and tribe, just as people of different cultures and tribeshave done throughout the ages.
The truth is that the story of Jonah is not the only story of God’s unconditional love for us.There are many, many more stories where that message is told in a rich variety of ways. Manyof them are from scripture, and many, like the story of Pinocchio, are themes right out ofscripture. Pope John Paul II knew this. He himself, as a young actor, played the part ofPinocchio. He even wrote a book about the theology inherent in this children’s story, when hewas a young man, way before he started to read and believe his press releases.
You can find the stories of the sacred in the profane if you listen for them. Children’s storieslike Pinocchio are filled with them. You can hear them in the words of Jiminy Cricket, the“Lord High Keeper of Right and Wrong and Guide upon Life’s Path,” who defines “conscious”as “the still small voice that no one will listen to.” You can hear them in the words of theGeppetto who says, “A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on yourface.” You can read them in the words of the Blue Fairy (don’t you just love it!), who says,“Prove yourself brave, truthful and unselfish, and someday, you’ll be real.”
Could you ask for a better ethic of life: bravery, honesty and unselfishness? That just abouttakes care of it for me.
There are many of us – on the inside, who work and live and move and have our being in thebelly of the beast of religion – who are trying to build bridges across the dangerous chasmbetween religion and reality. We are trying to shed some light into the darkness of fear andignorance and prejudice. We walk around like modern day Geppettos, carrying the lamp ofreason, calling out to seek and find those who have lost their way on their life’s journey tobecome fully human.
We are here to provide the assurance that the stings of propriety which tie us down to theexpectations of others can be severed, and the liberation of the human spirit is an achievabledream. We are here to proclaim that the only thing that binds us to each other and God is love;and the only binding promise we have to keep is to achieve the fullest potential of the imagewhich God had of us when we were first created.
Anybody who has read holy scripture by the lamp of reason can tell you the truth about thehuman enterprise. We can tell you that to be human is not to be some wooden puppet who livesonly when someone else animates us, when someone else is in control, and therefore, to achievea sense of perfection. Rather, to be human is to make a mess of things: to fall in love with theright people at the wrong time, or the wrong people at the right time, until we finally find theright person at the right time -- or, not. Ever. No matter. Our ultimate task in life is to figureout how to live right with ourselves, with God, and with each other.
Anybody who has read the stories of holy scripture by the lamp of reason can tell you that to behuman is to betray and be betrayed; to break hearts and to have our own hearts broken, to forgiveand be forgiven, to mend and fall in love all over again. To be human is to understand that justas God is in the midst of the natural disasters of creation, we enter into emotional tornados andvolcanos and floods of our own creation and make a mess of things and figure out clever ways toget ourselves out and clean up and rebuild. At some point in each one of our lives, we, likePinocchio and Geppetto and Figaro the Cat and Cleo the Goldfish, will find ourselves in thebelly of a wale name Monstro, whom we will have to make angry enough before he’ll spit us outand set us free.
Anybody who reads the stories of the people in scripture by the lamp of reason can tell you thatto be human is not to be perfect. That is a dangerous, poisonous, blasphemous lie. To be humanis to be far from our own perfection, but to be very close to the perfection of God. To be humanis to risk loving because God risks loving us. Just the way we are. Just the way God made us.In the end, it does not matter how you love; only that you love.
I’m going to say this one more time: God loves you just the way you are: lesbian, gay,bisexual, transgender and heterosexual. Don’t let anybody – especially someone who describesthemselves as ‘religious’ – ever tell you anything different. And, if you get challenged, tellthem Elizabeth Kaeton told you the truth about God’s love. If they persist in telling you that lie,you send them to me! I can be one feisty dyke when I get riled.
A final word about prayer: It is, perhaps, no accident that the best definition I’ve ever heard ofprayer also comes from the Disney version of Pinocchio. Jiminy Cricket opens and closes thisfeature cartoon with this award-winning song. When you wish upon a star, makes nodifference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you. If your heart is in yourdream, no request is too extreme, when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.
I can’t think of a better way to illuminate diversity than wishing upon a star. That star is the starof the bravery it takes to be all of who God made you to be. That star is made brighter by thetruth set free when you live into the complexity and the chaos and the uncertainty of the lifewhich God has given to you. That star will burn throughout eternity with the unconditional andunselfish love God has for each and every segment of the diversity of God’s own creation.
It takes wishing on a star – no matter who you are – if your heart is in your dream– no request istoo extreme. When you wish upon a star your dreams come true.
I know we’re not in church, but will somebody give me an Amen?
And, again I say, Amen.
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