Preached January 31st by Catelyn Gibbs
I want to begin by saying that I very much want to celebrate my queerness today and this congregation’s acceptance of me and others like me; that acceptance is truly a gift that this congregation holds out to our community. But I think that in order to properly celebrate something, the object of celebration must first be intimately understood. So I have two notes to give you beforehand. First, much of what I am going to speak about today will not feel immediately uplifting and happy. Unfortunately, many queer experiences are not. Second, I also ask that you keep in mind as I speak that queer is simply defined as strange or odd. And in fact, I am going to push its definition a little further by accepting a meaning proposed by Episcopal theologian and priest Reverend Elizabeth Edman. When I speak of my “queer” experience today, I want you also to remember this – lexicology imputes disruption to queer. Or, in the words of Elizabeth Edman, ‘“queer’ [is meant] as something that has at its center an impulse to disrupt any and all efforts to reduce into simplistic dualisms our experience of life, [and] of God.” Most simply, each time you hear the word “queer” also think “disruption.”
So now with that preface in mind, I want to begin by telling you where I am at emotionally today. I spent so much time reflecting on my own queer experience in prepation for today. My training as an attorney creates an anxiety in me for unpreparedness. When I am unprepared, I feel most vulnerable. I had several drafts written before this one, and one draft in particular, that my wife read and loved. But after putting it down and returning to it, I realized how cold and calculated it felt. It would read brilliantly in a novel, or in an academic article that maybe, some day, I will be disciplined and brave enough to write to completion. But that earlier draft was missing the feel and essence of my experience. My queer experience was and is, for me, everything but logical and neat, and I have and continue to struggle to articulate it well. What my queer experience has been and continues to be at times is jarring, confusing, angering, uncomfortable, and often times quite painful for myself and others around me. And speaking about it always leaves me feeling so incredibly vulnerable. Because in so many ways, I am still not prepared to speak about it. I am still constantly wrestling internally with emotions and theory and the Word of God. So the best I can do today is to pluck a moment from my entire experience that I felt most deeply. And what this moment does for me that I hope it also does for you is illustrates the affectiveness of a queer experience so that we can then begin to unpack it together using the shared emotional experience as common ground from which to build.
So here we go… I am a child of God baptized and raised in a church that is not reconciling. What that means is that my queerness precludes me from being a member of that church, which subsequently precludes me from receiving communion – a liturgical practice that is called “close communion.” More broadly, this means that a large portion of my tribe or all the people that I was linked to in my life at home via their confirmation of this doctrine also relegated me to a secondary or “other” status. In fact, most conversations with these people became and continue to be proselytizing, which is a nice way of saying most of these conversations became and continue to be conversion conversations that ask me to cease being gay. (A) That is just a weird ask of somebody, right? Like I don’t know of a similar conversation that occurs with a straight person, ever. Maybe I missed that meeting because I was gay, but none of my straight friends have shared experiences of people imploring them to not be straight. (B) When these conversion conversations are had with people you love dearly, there is an additional layer of hurt that occurs where somehow people you love are internalizing your actions in a way that they are telling you or conveying to you is hurting them. So not only are you trying to work through your own emotions, which is hard no matter what, but now you are somehow made responsible for these other people that you care deeply about experiencing this adversity. And that is a lot for one person to carry. It is hard enough to just carry you, yourself, your own person. Imagine now carrying that weight for your family, your friends, your church group, etc. As a way to insulate myself so that I could survive whatever this thing was or is that everyone was or is experiencing, I turned myself off. I pivoted from being out actively – or living out – to just being out. I neither internally spent time with my queerness, nor did I really hold that out for other people to spend time with and reflect on with me. And this weird liminal space that I had relegated myself to, of course after others having already relegated me to it, allowed for an incredibly peculiar thing to happen. Some people, and two very important people in particular, found my grace before I was able to.
My dad is a person of incredible faith and of incredible theological knowledge whom I have looked to my whole life for everything – for comfort in my worst moments, for guidance in moments of great adversity, for celebratory camaraderie, for all these things and then – a matter of greater personal import than I even realized – for approval. It was not until I began reflecting for today that I realized that I do not know or think that my dad ever had a proselytizing conversation with me. However, having confirmed the church doctrine myself at fourteen after two years of studying its catechism, I knew that his confirmation as an adult at least outwardly communicated to the church that he aligned with its doctrine which excluded a space for me and people like me, gays. And I knew the same to be true of my mom, who is also a person of incredible faith, and who is also incredibly important and dear to me. The thought that maybe my mom and dad no longer held a space for me or that maybe they felt as if they could no longer commune with me at the Lord’s table, slowly ,though nearly unnoticeably for me, deteriorated the integrity of myself, the integrity of my person from the inside out. And eventually, as other outside events or people chipped away at or threatened the integrity of my exterior, my emptiness became apparent in times of great vulnerability and manifested in fits of sorrow and shame. At twenty-seven, I sobbed uncontrollably about the treatment of a client I was representing by the powers that be (the court and prosecutors and everyone else) and my dad held me with my head in his lap and consoled me. I was crying for this man, but I was also crying for myself because I was ashamed for wanting to help this man who did this very horrible thing. What did aligning myself with this man publicly mean about me to everyone else? I remember crying over the phone at 1am, sleep deprived from what I thought was inexplicable insomnia (turns out that if you bury parts of yourself… yourself will fight back), I was crying with my mom on the other end, imploring her to tell me whether or not I was going to hell. And on New Years Eve this year, I found myself in pieces again in front of them both in our kitchen, with my wife just outside celebrating with my sisters, crying and apologizing for being gay because I felt ashamed for what I said to a friend of my mom.
This last event though, my dad did something he had not done before, or maybe that he had done before but that I had not really heard before then. As I said, it was New Years Eve, and I had admittedly perhaps partaken in the celebrations a little too heavy handedly, which always helps with stripping away the inhibitions of our sober selves. And I had gotten into a conversation with my mom’s best friend from childhood. The topic of that conversation was this friend of my mom’s second cousin who happens to be my best friend who also happens to be gay. Her family also adheres to the all-too common christian doctrine that denounces homosexuality as a sin and relegates the homosexual sinner to outside the church. My friend moved to California a few years ago, and this friend of my mom’s and I were discussing various aspects of her well-being, and I stopped this person in the middle of our conversation and asked, “Have you ever told her that you love her?” She responded that my friend knew, and bravely or stupidly or drunkenly, I quickly retorted through sudden tears, “But maybe she still needs to hear it. You need to tell her.” Unfortunately, we began this conversation at 12:30am in the morning. So that was its end. Her family, rightly so, wanted to go home and to bed and so hugs and kisses and off they went. But immediately worried that I had just completely alienated my mom’s best friend who I had not seen in years by both crying and illuminating her shortcomings in her relationship with her cousin, I bombarded my mom with apologies in the kitchen, and my mom hugged me and graciously said, “It’s okay, don’t forget that she is my friend,” a very honest joke attesting to my mom and I’s emotionality under the influence. And I managed to blubber a snort that somewhat maybe resembled a chuckle, but the humor was not enough to assuage the intense shame and sorrow that was welling up inside me and spilling over and out of my eyes. And my emotions became about so much more than this fleeting moment of embarrassment. Dad found us like that, her hugging me and me crying uncontrollably. It did not take him long to realize what was happening, again. This time, though, he broke me away from my mom’s hug, and he took my face in both of his hands, and he looked me straight in the eyes. And with tears in his, he told me, “We love you. And I don’t believe you are going to hell. You are okay. We are okay. Now, you have to be okay too.” And then he wrapped me in his big dad arms and squeezed me and held me tight until my body finally relaxed, and I breathed.
My parents found and knew grace. Not only had they found their own grace, but they found and knew grace and its relation to me – they found and knew my grace – when I didn’t even know it to be missing. You see, grace is love. And I had forgotten this. I questioned their love for me, I questioned God’s love, and I no longer loved myself. Knowing this now, it seems so shocking to have forgotten something so simple and so integral to my person. It was so easy as a child, but the more time I spent in this world, the more I lost sight of this one truth that was also my truth. As a child, I knew God then to be love. I knew Jesus then to be love. “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” But as I grew, I began to listen to all these other people telling me what God is and is not. I accepted the religious indoctrination that complicates that either unintentionally or, more tragically, sometimes purposefully. Maybe, the simplicity of grace is what renders it so forgettable for creatures like us who are so easily bored and extremely arrogant. But no matter how elementary it seems, this is the one truth. God is love. This lightbulb was switched on while I was listening to a podcast in which James Allison, a Catholic theologian and priest, characterized the atonement as “Jesus coming from God, doing something to/for/towards us and in our midst so as to show something about God that we couldn’t understand—in other words, God’s love.”
This framing of the atonement removed for me the passivity of God’s act that I had for so long ascribed to the crucifixion. In other words, I was no longer watching him do this for me, but I understood the atonement to be the single most extreme demonstration of unconditional love in which God is imploring us, me, to actually do something… and that something is to love just the same. To love others the same, to love myself and all that he made me the same. And then I realized how strange the atonement is. How queer it must have been and how queer it still sounds – this man showing up and performing miracles and professing to be God and being crucified and coming alive again after death. That’s when these two theories of these two brilliant theologians I finally understood as married in my mind. God uses queer experiences to convey his message of love. Queer experiences, no matter their form – a sexual experience between consenting adults that other people think abhorrent, empathizing with a person who has committed a horrible crime because a person is more than the worst thing they have done, loving your child even though their future is not turning out anything close to how you imagined or maybe even hoped it would – like the greatest queer experience, the atonement – break apart, disrupt our conceptions of reality so as to create new space for love, for God, to fill. As Reverend Elizabeth Edman describes it “God is constantly intruding on our lives, begging us to love and be loved, insinuating Hirself in our hearts and minds, cracking us open, tearing us apart, rebuilding us, and keeping us alive throughout this terrifying, rigorous process…God ruptures our understanding of reality, constantly. God queers our world…[God] creates and calls us, ruptures and reconciles us, sustains and sanctifies us.”
This congregation demonstrates an understanding of this truth and celebrates these Christ revealing moments when we kneel to receive the Lord’s Supper together. This congregation indoctrinates love when before receiving the sacrament Pastor proclaims, “All are welcome at this table.” So today, as someone proud to be a member once again of not just any congregation, but this congregation, I want to celebrate you and thank you sincerely for living Christ’s love hopefully everyday, but certainly always every Sunday.