Sermon preached by Peter Thompson, Seminarian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
PRIDE Service – June 22, 2014
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
As my time at college was ending, I reminisced with a friend about how much I had changed over my four years at school. As part of our discussion, my friend made a reference to my recent “coming out.” When he said this, I was taken aback and even a bit insulted. I had come out as a gay man six years earlier, at the age of 16, and had been proud of being able to know who I was and declare it to the world at such an early age. I told my friend this. “True,” he said in reply, “you did come out in high school. But you really needed to come out a second time in college in order to fully live into who you were.”
Initially irritated, I took some time to think about what my friend had to say, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was right. I did need to undergo some kind of additional coming out process at the end of college. In fact, that probably wasn’t even my second coming out, but my third, fourth or fifth. As I kept thinking about what he said, I realized just how often I had to rethink and claim my identity anew. It’s a process that continued long after that conversation with my friend, and a process that continues even to this day.
The notion of coming out may be particularly associated with the adopting of various gender or sexual identities, but I would argue that it is also an essentially human experience. However we identify when it comes to gender or sexuality, I suspect that we have all experienced shifts in our self-understanding that have caused us to rethink who we are and how we should live in the world. And every so often, I would further presume, we have all acknowledged these experiences and let them reshape us, even at great risk to our security, our future and our acceptance by others. Perhaps your transformation is related to your gender or sexuality, or perhaps not. Perhaps your transformation has a concrete label that can be found in an evergrowing acronym, or perhaps it is more subtle, eluding definition. Whatever it is, I would hazard to guess that we have all come out of something old and in to something new.
If coming out is indeed so important to our humanity, it should be no surprise that coming out is an essential aspect of our religious tradition. LGBT activist Chris Glaser has even written a book, called Coming Out as Sacrament, in which he traces just how intrinsic coming out is to our collective religious life. Already this evening we have heard two scriptural stories of coming out. In the first, God tells Moses to lead his people out of the prison of Egypt and into the Promised Land of Israel. In the second, Lazarus heeds Jesus’ call to come out of the tomb in which he was lying dead and experience new life. But coming out actually occurs often in the Bible—from Esther’s coming out as Jewish in order to save her people to the disciples’ coming out of their static lives in order to become followers of Jesus to the early Church’s coming out of its exclusivity and strict rule-keeping into a wider embrace of people and ways of living.
The two stories we heard tonight illustrate that coming out has its origins in God. Moses leads his people out of Israel not on his own whim, but because God told him to; Lazarus is beckoned out of the tomb by Jesus himself. Coming out is thus a sacred journey, imbued with divine purpose; it’s about following God. These stories also show that coming out occurs in spite of great obstacles and opposition, defying all expectations. Moses cannot believe that God asks him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and himself does not want that task. He is not a particularly confident speaker or leader, and his opponent—the Pharaoh—is a quite formidable enemy with tremendous power and resources. The odds are against him, and yet Moses is nonetheless successful in his efforts. Lazarus’ coming out requires violating the laws of reason: he’s been dead for four days—so dead that there is even a stench already emanating from his tomb. No one could possibly believe that Lazarus could come back to life, and yet he does.
Most importantly, these stories indicate that coming out is not an isolated, spontaneous event, but a gradual process that is rarely fully complete. Moses and the Israelites engage in a long struggle with Pharaoh before they can finally escape. Even after the Israelites cross the Red Sea, it takes them forty years to reach the Promised Land—a journey full of trials and tribulations all its own. As to Lazarus, his coming out isn’t over after he emerges from the tomb: his face and body are still covered in cloths. To fully be free, he must let others help him remove the residue of his former prison.
I don’t know what you are feeling on this Pride 2014. Perhaps all you feel is happiness—you have just embraced who you are and the freedom you have experienced is oh-so-sweet. Or you are at the end of a long journey of your own, finally able to be with the person you love, and to have your relationship recognized by the powers that be. Maybe you are full of joy for a friend or family member who has seemed to blossom and thrive in the light of new life. All of you have much to celebrate, and I celebrate with you.
Or perhaps your feelings are more complicated: you feel freer now than you’ve ever felt before but it isn’t nearly as easy as you thought it would be. You didn’t expect the obstacles to acceptance; you thought it would be easier to find someone to love; you worry about your friend or family member in a state or country where things are different from how they are here. However common, such concerns are disheartening, and I share your restlessness and hope for the future.
Or perhaps you’re not even sure that any of this is a good idea: you’ve lost your friends or family over an identity you have newly claimed or you as a friend or family member feel you have lost someone you love so that they can live a different understanding of who they are. None of this made you as happy as you would have liked to be. The light of the outside world has been too blinding for you and for others. Maybe, you wonder, it would have been better back in Egypt after all. I think we all have such fundamental doubts somewhere deep inside.
Whoever you are and wherever you are today, I can assure you of one thing: more change is coming. Whether we need it or not—whether we want it or not—change always comes. There are still dark tombs for all of us to emerge from, and residual cloths that need to be removed. There are still more Egypts for us to break free from and more steps to go on the way to the Promised Land. I believe that the mysteries of gender and sexuality are so beautifully complex that as individuals and as a society we still have much to learn and more transformation to accomplish in order to fully embrace the world God has given us. But in truth, every aspect of our lives is constantly affected by change. We cannot stay in one place for long; there is always a new place for us to go.
The end of the musical Hairspray is an anthem to change entitled “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” The musical as a whole is full of examples of people who make change happen through bold vision, blunt outspokenness and brave disregard for convention. But the ultimate message of the musical is that change is inevitable. We can accelerate change, or attempt to block it, but at the end of the day change seems to occur independent of our own efforts. It’s like an “avalanche as it races down the hill” and “the river as it rushes to the sea.” It’s like “the motion of the ocean” and the “sun in the sky.” It’s an ongoing, never-ceasing dance with its own rhythm. It’s not something we can start, and it’s certainly not something we can stop. Change simply comes, and the question is not whether it is necessary or not, or whether we want it or not, but what we are going to do about it.
So: what dark tombs are you still in and what cloths are you still bound by? When Jesus comes to call you out into the light, will you follow? When others approach you to remove your cloths and set you free, will you let them? Do you have the strength to fight Pharaoh and leave Egypt? Do you have the patience to make it all the way to the Promised Land?
Get ready. For the dance of change keeps moving along, and you—you just can’t stop the beat.