Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Coming Out In A Cathedral

Yes, I came out in the National Cathedral on the 4th of July in 1996. It's a story I've told many times ... but since it's the only one I have and it's National Coming Out Day 2023, here it is again.

On July 4, 1996 at noon eastern time I was in the choir at the National Cathedral. While crowds of tourists milled about the nave of the cathedral and others gathered outside or headed toward the Mall for the fireworks festivities scheduled later it the day or lined up to see the opening-that-day film “Independence Day” (remember that one?) a remnant of us gathered in the cathedral choir for a festival celebration of the Feast of American Independence, BCP style.

The music was glorious, the lessons inspiring and the privilege of receiving Holy Communion at the altar in this amazing “house of prayer for all people” as we celebrated the birth of a nation dedicated to “liberty and justice for all” was an amazing gift I will always remember.

Oh … and I came out.

In the cathedral. On the Fourth of July. In the middle of festival Eucharist I had the great “aha” moment – the epiphany – the “I-shoulda-had-a-V8” realization that the God who had “fearfully and wonderfully” made me had made me gay. And called me to priesthood. And told me “now, go back and be the priest I called you to be.”

That’s my coming out story. I’ve told it many times before but on this “Coming Out Day” it seemed worth telling again. It seemed worth reminding myself – and anybody else who wants to listen in – that I did not come out from the fringes of anything but from what former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold famously called "the diverse center."

I came out in the context of a spiritual journey that began with my baptism at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Los Angeles in 1954 (go ahead and do the math!) and continued through Junior Choir, confirmation class, Altar Guilds and Vacation Bible Schools, ECW Boards, teas and luncheons, Diocesan Conventions, vestries and parish day school boards and finally seminary, ordination and parish ministry.

My coming out had nothing to do with a political act. It had nothing to do with a genital act. It had to do with recognizing that I could not be fully present at altar if I was not fully present in myself – and it had to do with being raised in a church where +John Hines taught me that “justice is the corporate face of God’s love,” +Ed Browning told me that in the Episcopal Church there would be no outcasts and the consecration of +Barbara Harris incarnated for me the hope that this church was actually willing to live into its high calling to live out a radically inclusive gospel.

So Happy “Coming Out Day” to me – and to the scores of LGBTQ Episcopalians like me. Are we a challenge to the wider church? I hope so. And I hope we continue to be. I hope that our voices of faith and witness will continue to preach, to protest and to prophesy – that we will stand in the temple and tell the Good News of God in Christ Jesus made present in our lives, our vocations and our relationships. That we will preach that Good News in and out of season.

And here's to our core American values of liberty and justice for all and to everyone committed to our core Episcopal values of respecting the dignity of every human being. Not because we’re politically correct but because we’re gospel obedient -- and because we're going to do whatever we can to offer a rebuttal to the rabid rhetoric of the religious right who have taken the Good News of God’s inclusive love and distorted it into a weapon of mass discrimination. Of humiliation. Of homophobia.

Because the stakes are too high. Because the damage to precious souls is too costly. And because the truth that there are people of faith who proclaim justice and compassion — not judgment and condemnation — is too important not to step up and speak out. As Harvey Milk said “You must come out ... and once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.” And for me as a Christian, those lies and distortions include hijacking my faith and turning it into weapon to wound God’s beloved LGBTQ children.

So Come Out, Come Out wherever you are. Come Out as proud LGBTQ members of the rainbow tribe. And if you happen to be the Christian variety, then Come Out as a Christian, too. Break down some myths. Destroy some lies and distortions. And if we do it long enough and loud enough and together enough eventually we will be done. And October 11th will roll around and nobody will need to Come Out because there won’t be any closets left.

And wouldn’t that be fabulous?

[photo: Church of the Advocate, Philadelphia. 1997]

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Walking on Water: A Sermon for the Celebration of the Ministry of Bishop Gene Robinson


Walking on Water A Sermon for the Celebration of
the Consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson | St. Thomas, Dupont Circle | October 7, 2023
It was 1998 and I was the Associate Rector at St. Peter's in San Pedro, California. The Inclusion Wars in the Episcopal Church were heating up with a resolution from the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops declaring "homosexuality incompatible with Scripture" -- a resolution my own Diocese of Los Angeles immediately "declined to receive."
A "concerned parishioner" made an appointment to come and talk to me ... and we met in my office. He started out by assuring me he wasn't anti-gay ... "but the thought of two homosexuals standing in the same spot in my church where my wife and I stood and took our marriage vows makes me sick to my stomach -- nothing personal."
Yeah. "Nothing personal." Except, of course, it was.
That moment came flooding back to me this week as I went down the rabbit hole labelled “memory lane” in preparation for the ridiculously awesome privilege of being invited to preach at this celebration of and with my beloved friend, mentor, colleague and sibling-in-the-struggle Gene Robinson.
It came back to me because it was a reminder of just how toxic the fear, ignorance and entrenched homophobia we were up against was back in what now seems like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away -- as we were organizing and mobilizing to be the change we wanted to see – to become a church where the full and equal claim promised to its LGBTQ members was not just a resolution we adopted but a reality we lived. Nevertheless, we persisted.
Here’s another story:
It was early in 2003 and a feisty group of Episcopal activists had gathered for a meeting of what would come to be called “Claiming the Blessing” to strategize moving legislation forward at the upcoming General Convention to advance our goal of approving liturgies for the blessing of same-sex unions -- an audacious goal at the time.
Canon Gene Robinson was one of those gathered and he shared with us that he had decided to let his name go forward in the election process for the 9th Bishop of New Hampshire. And in a mic-drop moment, he told us while he could not imagine having the hubris to assume he would be elected, he also could not imagine not having a plan in case he was.
And the rest – as they say – is history.
We added “securing consents for Gene’s election” to our to-do list for the 74th General Convention meeting in Minneapolis that July … and we fastened our seatbelts for what would turn out to be an ecclesial version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride -- a ride which led us on a chilly November day to a New Hampshire Hockey Rink surrounded by news vans and security guards … where we passed through metal detectors and bomb sniffing dogs to be part of the great cloud of witnesses to the historic shattering of the rainbow stained glass ceiling with the consecration of the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion.
Emphasis on the “openly.”
Here’s how the local New Hampshire newspaper reported it:
In his first words following consecration, Robinson asked the crowd to be seated so he could say a few words, words cracking with emotion: "It's not about me ... it's about so many other people who find themselves at the margins, and for whatever reason have not known the Lord's favor; your presence here is a welcome sign for those who have been brought into the center. This is not about me; it's not about us, even. It is about God, a God who loves us beyond our wildest imagination. … The eyes of the world are on us, and use every inch of it.
"We couldn't buy this kind of publicity -- Let's use it for God. There are so many people out there that are so hungry for the good news, who have no idea that they are loved the way this God loves us. And they will never hear it if you and I don't tell our stories about how God saved us. Please use this time, this wonderful event, to reach out to all those in the world who so desperately hunger for it.
Let’s use it for God.
That my brothers and sisters and gender fluid siblings is a sound bite summary of why we are gathered here to celebrate Gene Robinson and his 50 years of priestly vocation and 20 years of ministry as a bishop. It is a window into the mission and ministry of a man whose life’s work has been dedicated to reminding absolutely everyone that they are loved beyond their wildest imaginings. And it is absolutely consistent with the Gene I know and love who called me last week and said “I would never presumed to tell you what to preach” … and then said “but don’t preach about me.”
Sorry Bishop. It has to be a at least a little about you. You can absolve me later.
It has to be a little about you because your story – your example – your inspiration – is exactly what we need to equip, inform and prepare us for the work ahead – and to remind us to always, always, always “use it for God.” And my, my, my – there is plenty of work ahead.
For while it is absolutely true that we have made tremendous gains since those early days of taking on the seemingly impossible odds of challenging systemic homophobia, transphobia and heterocentrism in our church, our communion and our nation -- it is also absolutely true that there is an organized and rising tide of all of the above being motivated, mobilized and monetized to turn back the clock on LGBTQ inclusion.
For those of us who have been at this work of bending the arc of history toward inclusion for God’s beloved LGBTQ people over these last decades, it feels a little like we’re in a bad remake of the film “Groundhog Day.” Wait – didn’t we already do that? Didn’t we already fix that? Is that seriously a thing again?
But we in the LGBTQ+ community are not alone in this Groundhog Day scenario.
The overturn of Roe v Wade and the stripping of bodily autonomy from those who can become pregnant has turned the clock back on reproductive freedom while hard won voting rights are being rolled back, disenfranchising Black and Brown voters. Science is suspect, data is debatable and hate is being monetized to finance an upcoming election cycle in our divided and polarized nation.
White Christian Nationalism is on the rise and Homeland Security has declared a heightened threat environment for domestic terrorism from “individuals inclined to commit violence due to their perceptions of the 2024 general election cycle and legislative or judicial decisions pertaining to sociopolitical issues” and a CNN feature this weekend drew a lot of attention declaring “11:00 on Sunday mornings one of the most dangerous hours in America.”
Nevertheless, we persist.
We persist because the Episcopal Church has walked on water before and it can do it again.
Forged out of the crucible of the English Reformation, we have the DNA of Anglican comprehensiveness coursing in our veins – inheriting the legacy of a particular people of faith who in the 16th century when Christians were burning each other at the stake over whether they were Catholics or Protestants found a way … against all odds … to be both. Uniquely wired to hold differences in tension, in the 21st century we continue that legacy – continue that tradition – as we strive to become Beloved Community embracing gay and straight, transgender and non-binary – drawing the circle ever wider.
We persist in proclaiming the Good News of the God who loves us beyond our wildest imaginings and calls us to keep risking stepping out of that boat in faith as we follow Jesus – the radical rabbi from Nazareth who got into his own Good Trouble by centering the marginalized, by siding with the oppressed, by eating with sinners and outcasts, by insisting that the kingdom of God could not come until there was not a single stranger left at the gate – and by insisting that centering those who have been historically excluded is not erasing those who have been historically centered – it is erasing the silos, barriers and boundaries that keep us from being the human family God created us to be.
Yes, it sometimes feels like a bad remake of Groundhog Day as we take two steps forward only to find ourselves one step back on the journey toward turning the human race into that human family.
But it is the journey we are called to make if we are going to move beyond inclusion to transformation of this broken world into the Beloved Community of blessing it was created to be.
For if we stop at inclusion – my inclusion, your inclusion, anyone’s inclusion – we miss the point. Inclusion is Step One. Step Two is to be fueled by the bread and wine made holy we will receive at this table in order to go out into the world as beacons of God’s love and justice … of compassion and transformation.
And there are as many ways to do that as there are beautiful, diverse, gifted images of God gathered here this or any Sunday.
If there was only one way, Jesus would only have had one parable. And he had a million of them … because he knew whoever you were and wherever you found yourself on the journey you needed to hear the Good News he had to proclaim in the way it would speak to your heart and transform you into a partner with him in the work of making that kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
• This kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed …
• The kingdom of heaven is like yeast a woman added to the flour …
• The kingdom of heaven is a like a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to search for the one lost one …
• The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who lost a coin,
• like a son who squandered his father’s inheritance …
• like whatever story it is that is going to get through to you that God’s love is absolutely limitless and that Beloved Community includes absolutely everybody.
That is the message every single solitary precious human being brought into this world should know as deep down as it is possible to know anything –
that their existence is a blessing;
that simply being gives them value;
and that the God who loves them beyond their wildest imaginings
wants one thing and one thing only from them –
that they love each other the way God loves them.
That is the message Jesus loved us enough
to become one of us in order to show us how to live it;
and that is the message the institutional church has failed to live up to
over and over and over again
every time it has chosen protecting patriarchal privilege
over birthing Beloved Community.
Nevertheless, we persist.
Which makes me think of another story.
It was 2009 and the Episcopal Church was gathering for its first General Convention after the 2008 meeting of Anglican bishops at Lambeth. The Archbishop of Canterbury had traveled all the way to Anaheim to bring us greetings … and a not so thinly veiled warning, saying he hoped there would not “be decisions in the coming days that could push us further apart” … which was code for opening the way to ordaining any more LGBTQ bishops.
And in that context, we gathered for a Eucharist organized by Integrity – our then LGBTQ Episcopal Church Caucus – where Bishop Barbara Harris of blessed memory was our preacher and uttered these immortal words:
"If you don’t want LGBT folks as bishops, don’t ordain them as deacons. Better yet, be honest and say, “We don’t want you, you don’t belong here,” and don’t bestow upon them the sacrament of Baptism to begin with. How can you initiate someone and then treat them like they’re half-assed baptized?"
My brothers and sisters and gender fluid siblings, the word we have to the world today from St. Thomas Church is that there’s no such thing as half-assed baptized and there’s no such thing as half-assed Beloved Community.
And the word we have for world today is that the Episcopal Church will continue its legacy of being a first responder church … running toward – not away from -- whatever threatens anyone from being a loved, valued and centered member of the Beloved Community we aspire to be ... walking on water if necessary.
Because either we’re all in or none of us are.
Either all of us are safe or none of us are.
Either all of our stories and images are represented or none of us are.
Either the radical welcome that calls us beyond inclusion to transformation includes all of us or none of us.
La lucha continua -- the struggle continues. But we're in it to win it … so as much as we yearn to hear those longed-for words “arriving at destination” from our spiritual GPS, we know there are miles to go before we rest – before liberty and justice for all really means all -- before that kingdom come on earth is not just a prayer we pray but a reality we live.
And so we continue to take two steps forward and the occasional step back …
trusting in the depths of God's mystery that truth will be vindicated someday …
trusting God will continue to bless the courage of our witness ...
trusting you can do the right thing and not just survive -- but thrive –
as we journey together into the future where the God who loves us beyond our wildest imaginings – a future that is not only possible: she is on her way.
I want to close this prayer which is a gift from the inimitable Ana Hernandez giving voice to the words of poet Arundhati Roy, as we ask the God who gave the Gene Robinson and the Episcopal Church the courage to be the change they wanted to see as they stepped out in faith 20 years ago to give us the courage to go and do likewise as we step forward in faith into God’s future. Won’t you pray with me:
Another world is not only possible
She is on her way.
On a quiet day, you can hear her breathing.
She is on her way. Amen.