I am happy and honored to be here. Thank you Toben and Scott for extending the invitation and to all of you joining us online. [Introduce self.]
I belong to HopeGateWay down on Forest Avenue, where I serve part-time as the worship coordinator. That means that I get to help Pastor Sara dream up Sunday morning worship services, messages, and sermon series. We are a community of faith that has recently discerned that, in order to remain faithful to our identity as a queer- and trans-affirming congregation, we have to leave The United Methodist Church, from which we were born.
I also serve full-time on the staff of Reconciling Ministries Network as their Director of Communications. RMN works for full justice and inclusion for LGBTQ people in The United Methodist Church and the diaspora of Methodists that are bound to emerge from this denomination when it splits soon.
Reflecting on queerness and spirituality, their intersections, their overlap, I find myself wanting to say something new today, but at times it feels like: what else is there to say? It just is! Like being both human and a person who breathes.
But I think what I mean is that I’m grateful to belong now to a church where queerness is just another ordinary, mundane, holy facet of humanity to be beheld and celebrated.
But my own life wasn’t always this queer. Nor was it always this Christian.
I came out when I was 14. I grew up in a household that was spiritual at times, privately and in a deliberately unorganized fashion. So when I did become a Christian in college, I signed up for the boxed starter kit: a Bible, of course, a soundtrack of Christian pop-rock music, and a DIY kit of rules.
- Thou shalt not consort with thy former friends.
- Thou shalt put away thy politics.
- Thou shalt get thy queer self back in the closet.
- Thou shalt not listen to heathen music.
That last one was harder than I expected it would be! I sat in the dorm room of a friend, using her laptop, and I happened across a stash of songs from the popular rapper Jay-Z. I thought she’d purged her collection of all things un-Christian. She came over nervously, then explained that they must be in the trash bin, not yet deleted, somehow still there in the results of my search.
I don’t know. If they weren’t deleted before, they were then, after I handed her laptop back to her. Later, she quit wearing her “ay bay bay” t-shirt – an ode to the mediocre late 2000s one-hit wonder Hurricane Chris.
We policed each other well. We knew the rules, and we both believed that loving God required us to relinquish all other loves.
In the years I spent as a conservative evangelical, I was hemmed in by fences of my own construction. Ghost fences, where truly there were none. I felt like I had to learn quickly how to look the part of a Christian. From my listening habits to my existence, I ruled myself with two questions:
- Am I doing any of this wrong, and
- Is anyone about to catch on?
This second closet in which I found myself was of my own construction. This particular religious expression required it of me. But God never did.
So maybe it’s not unusual that when I was called out of the closet again… when I finally worked up the courage to step outside of my ghost fences… I also questioned the other restrictions I’d put on myself and the ways in which I policed others.
I found purpose for my anger and my mischief-making. I found that the Divine in which I believe has some of those qualities, too. And it’s much less lonely on this earth, less absurd, when you realize how much you have in common with the Divine that birthed you, that did not spurn you after all.
The Mundane is Holy
Queerness looks at the expanse of holy human experience and says, “Damn the ghost fences.” For the cell of your own construction constricts the movement of what some call the Holy Spirit.
It cuts you off from everyday holiness, transforms a valley of diamonds into a sparse field of coal.
Queerness says to all people of faith, to people of all faiths: joy is also holy, as is rage! Confusion and doubt, ice cream well savored and nights spent up too late on the phone with a friend. Tears of confusion, and laughter that makes you cross your legs.
What we call ordinary, and what we call profane, the Source of Life calls necessary — to push and evolve us, to challenge and remake us.
And holy also are the people pushed to the margins. Holy bodies, holy theologies, holy dreams and lives. Black and brown people, poor people, fat people, disabled people, immigrant people. And yes, queer and trans people.
Queerness says, “What if?” What if the mundane is holy? What if we are sitting on stardust? What if the sinners in our midst and mirrors are also saints? What if the image of the Divine were truly buried only skin-deep and no further in each of us, even and especially those of us told there was no holiness in us?
Three Jewish and Christian Queer Stories
I’m going to go through three short stories of queerness from the Jewish and Christian traditions, and I’ll go through them quickly. More quickly than I’d like, because each of them is so rich.
First, there’s the story of Joseph, made famous by his coat of many colors and by a song by Dolly Parton. The Hebrew for “coat” here really translates to “dress.” Most likely, Joseph was gender non-conforming, living joyously but dangerously in his truth. He was mistreated by his many siblings and eventually sold off.
According to the Scripture, the Divine did amazing things through the life of Joseph, even during his enslavement in Egypt. He became a Prime Minister of sorts, although he was a foreigner, and gained safety and refuge for his siblings — the very ones who hated him for his gender identity or gender expression.
And then there is the story of Jonathan and David, whose forbidden love drove a royal heir to protect his beloved — his father’s greatest enemy. They wrote moving poetry and vows and songs for one another in the midst of war and strife.
And then there was a Roman centurion who begged Jesus to heal an enslaved younger man, whom even the Scripture calls the centurion’s beloved – his boyfriend, although that meaning has been lost on the Bible’s way to Modern English. And Jesus honors their queer and cross-cultural, cross-class love, and he heals the young man.
Even in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, queer love is steeped in high drama. We can never just get a queer fairy tale or rom com, can we?
But such are most of our holy books, a collection of tellings and writings about peoples in unexpected, queer, transgressive, courageous relationship with the Divine.
And the Divine tilts back her head and laughs with us and says, “Damn your ghost fences. Can’t you see that all I’ve made is boundless?”
So it isn’t that there’s nothing new to say about queerness and faith, but rather that there’s everything to say. Queerness and faith are both mundane and holy, flecked with sin and beset with sanctification. Unbound and unfathomable.
So let us lean into the divinely queer experience of living. Tear down your fences, post by post, and start building a Stairway to Paradise. [Transition into “Stairway to Paradise.”]