February 7, 2015 / Reflections of a Gay Christian / Sean M. / Mark 10:46-52
Up, in, out. This has been our focus the past few weeks as we have sought balance in our own lives. In search of that balance, we look up to walk with God, we look in to walk with people who will support us and help us grow personally, professionally, spiritually, many different dimensions. And we look out to walk with those who cannot speak for themselves. We stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, with the homeless as we work on opening the day shelter in the basement, with the hungry as we collect cans and volunteer at the food bank.
Up, in, out. It’s so easy, right? Just like that…
Close your eyes.
Imagine something important to you. It doesn’t have to be a thing. It can be a place. A person. Anything that helps you in your search for balance.
Now imagine it being taken from you. Imagine the emptiness you feel when you reach out for it, but it’s no longer there. Imagine how out-of-balance you suddenly are because a part of that triangle is gone. Not because of anything YOU did. But because someone else decided you aren’t worthy of it.
You can open your eyes.
Up, in, out. Never has something so simple seemed so out of reach. At least 10 African-American transgendered people were murdered last year on the basis of their being trans. How can a trans person, then, in fear for their life authentically live in, and surround themselves with people who will love them for who they are? In the LGBT community, Christianity is known as one of the driving forces behind so-called reparative therapy, essentially the notion that homosexuality can be prayed away if you just believe hard enough. Even though only some hard-core Christians are left that believe this is a thing, it’s what we as a whole Church are known for in the LGBT community. We’re known for the depression and suicides reparative therapy induced. How in the world are we as a church supposed to walk out with the LGBT community and help them, when the ‘C’ word brings so much mistrust. Believe me. It made dating tough to say that you are Christian and gay.
Of the homeless youth on the streets of our nation’s cities tonight, nearly 50% identify as LGBT. Of LGBT youth homeless, almost 90% were either kicked out of their house by religious parents, or made so uncomfortable in their house by religious parents that they felt it was better to just leave. Imagine how awful your family must be treating you for you to think homelessness is better. Often, these young people were kicked out within 24 hours of coming out to their family. Mom, Dad, I’m gay. Get out. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
How is one of these homeless youth, physically removed from their home because God says they are an abomination, because God doesn’t want them…how are they supposed to begin having a relationship up?
Up, in, out.
A lot of the problem, in my view, is that we as Christians. We really like being right. Don’t we? I mean how we got here. As Lutherans. Martin Luther looked around and said, “These Catholics, they’re doing Jesusing wrong. We’re gonna go over now and do Jesusing better.” And that wasn’t the first time, and that wasn’t the last.
I think we’re afraid, honestly. We’re told since our youth that we should believe something for the Bible tells me so and if our interpretation or understanding of Scripture is questioned that it might throw everything out of balance. Faith is something very personal to people and we are afraid that applying some thought to it, or admitting that our way of looking at something isn’t the only way somehow cheapens us. We have to be ready to defend. We have to memorize 1000 Bible verses to pull out when someone questions us so we can just sandbag ‘em and that will prove we’re right. Anyone met someone like this? I can only imagine how stressful it must be to have to be right. No wonder some Christians are so cranky.
Honestly, though, we’re all blind. Blind as Bartimaeus. Remember him? In Mark’s gospel we studied a few months ago. Bartimaeus is sitting blind outside the gates of Jericho when Jesus walks by. He reached out to Jesus to cure his blindness. And what does Jesus say? If remember, don’t spoil it. Cliffhanger. I feel a first step for us as a church, not just church but CHURCH, is to admit that. To name it. There is a mystery to faith. Things we cannot explain and things we can’t answer, and that’s OK. Live in with the mystery.
Honestly, within the LGBT community there isn’t agreement on what the Bible exactly says about homosexuality. There are diverse viewpoints, generally summed up as Side A or Side B. Side A folks believe that God has no problem with same-sex activity between adults in a covenant relationship. Side B people believe that God has no problem with homosexual attraction, but that LGBT people are called to a life of celibacy. Honestly, I hesitate to use the T, transgender, in this discussion because transgendered people by definition don’t fit the boxes we all so neatly build around gender identity. But one thing I admire genuinely, especially at the Gay Christian Network conference that I have attended for the past few years, is how despite disagreement on things like Side A and Side B, room has been made at the table for all Christians, and non-Christians if they want to go, to have their voice heard and to hear other perspectives and be treated with respect. And that’s a big thing. To have our voice heard. Some Christians do a lot of talking at us, not out with us.
I’ve seen the worst of it. I’ve stood face-to-face with members of the Westboro Baptist Church. I’ve seen them hold signs saying “God Hates Fags,” and known that those signs were there because I was there. In my journal that day, I wrote, “when we pulled up to the conference center and got out of the car, and I saw them, I felt sick. I saw their signs, their hate, all in the name of a loving God. My God. My Jesus, who fills me to my core, the foundations of my humanity, with love and strength and purpose. I fought back tears and wondered “what can we do against such reckless hate.” I wanted to hug my Mom and my Dad, let them tell me everything would be OK. I believe to my core the transformative power of Christ’s love, and I believe so completely that He loves me not despite, not because of, but including my gayness.” (yes, a Lord of the Rings reference. Even when I’m distraught, I’m a nerd)
At that same conference, I met Jay. Once he had come out, had been excluded from the table. His church would not let him take communion. That’s important for some people, because it is a sign of the up relationship. It is a physical action you take that renews that relationship. You don’t just sit there and think about communion. You share in the bread and the wine. These people have decided to take something promised to us by God himself and, rather than trusting in God to sort it out, have taken it upon themselves to say be God’s administrative assistant and say “God’s real busy right now. He just doesn’t have time for you.” Sit down. In Jesus’ name.
Imagine the humiliation. To be told, oh, you know, you can come every week. You can sit in the pews. You can sing the songs. And, why don’t you keep putting your money in the offering plate. But don’t do communion. Don’t pretend you’re someone God says you can’t be. Despite all that, Jay wanted still that up relationship. He didn’t give up on God.
That’s how it was for me, actually. Not giving up. I spent much of my adolescent years lying to myself. Telling myself that the glances I stole at the other boys were nothing to worry about. I just needed to find the right girl. It’s funny, though. I think my grandmother knew all along. I remember talking to her on the phone one time on my bus ride to school and she was asking if I had a girlfriend. “No,” I replied. “Oh,” she said. “Are you gay?” “Noooooooo, Meme. I’m just focusing on my studies right now.” She didn’t know I meant guy studies.
I was holding it in for fear of my parent’s reaction, but also because I had got it in my head that God didn’t want me. I remember, I’m ashamed of this, but I remember in late High School hearing a fellow student who was gay one day in class say his favorite movie was Jesus Christ, Superstar. Now I love that movie. The music is so good. But I remember thinking…you’re gay. That isn’t for you.
Now, pot calling the kettle black I think the fact that one of my favorite movies was a Broadway musical should have been a fabulous signal for me. But it’s amazing the things you’ll explain away when you are afraid.
My sexuality kept pushing to the forefront of my mind in my second senior year of college, I couldn’t explain it away anymore. So I decided to see for myself what the Bible had to say. How many verses in the Bible do you think directly address homosexuality? Six. Six verses. Out of dozens of books, hundreds of chapters, tens of thousands of verses. Six sentences. With all the way it is talked about, you’d think there’s a Book of the Gays in there. But there isn’t. There’s only six mentions. That’s what all this hubbub is about.
Honestly, books have been written about this. I don’t have the time nor the expertise to go in to all of them. So I’ll just pick one.
Leviticus 18:22. You shall not lie with male as with woman; it is an abomination. Well, shoot. Guess that’s it. The first time I read this my heart sank. There it is. Black and white. But this wasn’t making sense. I just couldn’t understand why this God who is supposed to love me would condemn me for something unchangeable. Something I didn’t choose. Where’s the sign of life in that?
But then I remembered in the Book of Acts in the New Testament, Peter is told by God that the old unclean foods, considered restricted under the Jewish Law in Leviticus in the Old Testament, are now OK to eat. “What God had made clean, do not call common.” Ok. So the old Law is invalid. Something’s going on here. I cross-referenced this and found where Jesus himself says the same thing. Mark 7:18 “Do you not see whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled.”
Yeah, something is definitely going on here. Jesus and God himself seem to say, “Chill out people. Let’s focus on the doing good.” I read on. Later in Mark, the disciples are arguing over which rule is most important. In Mark 12:30-31, Jesus tells them, “First, love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Second, love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” Here, Jesus overwrites everything that came before. He presents us with a part of the new promise, one that supersedes the old promise. The old promise that was made between God and Israel involved following purity laws in Leviticus governing everything from what food you could eat to what kind of clothes you could wear to what time of the month it was not OK to be in the same room as a woman. I’ll let you guess on that one.
But these verses in the New Testament paint a picture of a new promise. Not this exclusive little deal between God and the people of Israel based on Laws, but an open promise to all people that Christ has redeemed us all. Every one of us. Whether we want to believe it or not, Jesus has redeemed us in the eyes of God. It’s encoded in the very language we use to describe the Bible. It’s hidden right before our eyes. Old Testament. New Testament. Testament is another word for covenant. Covenant means promise. Leviticus is part of the old promise. That promise was fulfilled through Jesus. Now, there’s a new promise. A New Testament.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on this stuff. I don’t claim to have all the answers. But even that research was enough for me to call into question the interpretations of scripture I had been handed. If Christians were wrong about that verse, could we be wrong about others?
It’s not unprecedented. A verse in the New Testament about keeping women silent in Church that was for centuries used to subjugate women and keep them from the priesthood…turns out it was literally a translation error a few hundred years ago. But no one questioned it. We have to be RIGHT! It comes back to that, huh? We clutch our Bible with tight fists and brandish it like a weapon. But, as Christian writer David Khalaf says, “If our fists grasp too tightly to what we think we know about the Bible and the nature of God, our hands will be too full to hold any revelations God may have for us.” The Seventh-Day Adventists, with whom we share this church space, call that Progressive Revelation. They understand that God continues to reveal truths about the world around us. And the folks over at the United Church of Christ will remind you not to put a period where God put a coma. That comes from listening, from having that up relationship.
We need to rely on our faith. After all, that’s how it worked for Bartimaeus, the Blind man outside Jericho. He cried out for healing from Jesus. What did Jesus do? Did he exclude Barty because he was unclean by standards of the day? Did he play administrative assistant for God? Did he challenge Barty to a game of “who has the bigger Bible?” Did he tell Barty to go through all these rituals and sacrifice things and wear the chestplate the thing that the guy from Indiana Jones does at the end. No. He turned to Bartimaeus and said. “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” All that mattered, fundamentally, was his up relationship. A crazy thing to say in Ancient Israel, where the ritual was the thing. Do things this way and that way to make God happy. And Jesus just said, eh. No one could take Bartimaeus’ up relationship away.
No one could take it away from Jay, either. I felt called to help with communion that day partuclar Sunday. At the end of an emotional week, the conference always closes with a liturgical service on Sunday specifically because there are many in the crowd of over one thousand three hundred who were just like Jay…they had grew up in or belonged to a liturgical tradition but because of their sexuality they were invited to not participate. Or invited to just leave.
As person after person filed past and received the body and blood, I could see in their eyes that this was important to them. Everyone at the conference had a nametags, so as I offered them the wine I looked them in the eye and called them by name. “Jay, the blood of Christ shed for you.”
After the service, as I was leaving, Jay came to find me. He told me his story. He told me about his exclusion from the sacraments. I could hear pain in his voice. Here he was, humble, human, someone just wanting to follow Jesus, wanting to share in the gift of communion, and people were using it to gain power over him rather than walk out with him. He was so thankful to hear the words again. To hear someone, anyone, say “Jay, the blood of Christ shed for YOU.” YOU. To affirm that yes, YOU are beloved. He felt rejuvenated in his up relationship, was thankful for the in relationships he had made that week with people who walked out alongside him. In balance for the first time in years.
There are signs like that which are good. Many of the major leaders of the Christian-driven ‘reparative therapy’ movement have come out and apologized for how they hurt people in the LGBT community and admitted that there is no truth behind their practices. A very influential Evangelical leader, Tony Campolo, recently threw the right wing church for a loop when he announced his affirmation of same-sex marriage. The Gay Christian Network experienced fantastic growth over the past few years, doubling in size in 2015 alone.
But I wish this all had a happy ending. I wish I could say that Jay went home and was happy and was able to keep that balance. I wish I could say that the trans people terrified of their friends were able to simply live. I wish could say that the Church has turned it all around and is committing to walking in solidarity with the LGBT community. I wish I could say that there are no kids sleeping on the streets tonight because of their good Christian parents.
Even my story, which is relatively positive, I can’t say it’s all roses. Sure, I’m in a church where I can serve and receive communion. Sure, my friends and family accept me for who I am authentically. But it’s hard for me to live out authentically, because in order to do that I have to be a lot more public then I am. And I work for an organization with a lot of Christians. You know, I hate that I can say that and you know exactly what I mean. I don’t even have to use a modifier. I can just say I work for an organization with a lot of Christians and you know. The things that are being done in Jesus’ name…And that is in, not even the back of my mind but right there up front whenever I talk to them. Every time. I wonder how they will treat me differently once they know. That’s one reason, I think, that I go out of my way to talk about going to church and stuff around them. So when they do find out they don’t automatically go to heathen. Unclean!
I am thankful to have found Holy Spirit Lutheran Church and Salt House, where God’s love is preached to me, not at me. You help me find balance. At the top of that triangle, though, is God. Jesus. That man on fire, inviting us to walk down the street with him. It’s funny, to, because in that invitation, when he tells the disciples to first love God, then love your neighbor as themselves, he is giving him that lovely formula we’ve been talking about the whole time. Love God, your neighbor, and yourself. Up, out, in.