Sermon for an annual ‘Mass in Midsumma’
St Mark’s Fitzroy, Friday 1 February 2013 (Habbakuk 2:1-5, Hebrews 10:32-39, Mark 4:26-34)
But recall those earlier days when, after you have been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated.
I offer my thanks to Fr Stuart for his generous invitation to preach at this eucharist celebrating God’s love of Gay and Lesbian Christians.
We gather here in Melbourne at the end of the Midsumma festival, which, this year as for the past 25 years, has been a fabulous celebration of queer culture, in everything from sport to fashion to drama to pets to bodies to parties and beyond.
It is good to celebrate. We humans were made for celebration. Celebration is about coming together as a community to mark publicly an event, an idea, an identity, a person – to acknowledge who we are and what we believe with a mixture of joy and solemnity.
Carnivals such as Midsumma and Mardi Gras self-evidently draw on Christian festivals such as Lent and Easter, Advent and Christmas, festivals that mark the passage of time and recall significant events in our past. For Christians, celebration and festival are at the heart of belief and practice. The God who made us taught us to remember through celebration in diverse ways.
When Noah and his ark survived the great flood, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a mark of good faith, a joyful witness that never again would such devastation be inflicted on creation.
When Moses, Miriam and the people of Israel passed out of the land of oppression, God instructed them to observe the Passover feast for all time as a memory, a calling to mind, of the ancient drama of liberation.
When the woman washed Jesus feet to honour him for who he was, what he had done, and what he was about to do, he committed her deeds to eternal memory.
When Jesus and the disciples shared the Last Supper, Jesus commanded them – us – to ‘do this in remembrance of me’.
It’s no surprise that non-religious people seek celebrations, whether they be funerals, graduations, civil partnerships, baby showers.
For Christians, however, celebrations are not safe. They confront us, and are borne out of the experience of confrontation. After all, when was the last time you survived a great flood, surrounded by death? When did you last wash a stranger’s feet with your hair? When did you last survive plagues and disasters to leave a land of oppression? When did you last share a meal with loved ones who were about to betray you?
Celebrations are not safe, because we are human, all too prone to failure, to betrayal, to shame, to saving ourselves by persecuting and humiliating others.
When we come together to celebrate, it is all too easy to exclude others, to make our celebrations a ritual of unity that builds a barrier between us and them, us as we want to be seen, and them who do not come up to the mark.
Yet it is also good that celebrations are not entirely safe. How saccharine we would be if our rituals and festivals were solely about comforting ourselves as we are.
Christian celebrations are unsafe, are real, because they challenge us.
The challenge comes in many ways. It might be from the scriptures or from the interpretation of the scriptures in the context of a Christian gathering. Am I really meant to leave my family and all that I have and follow Christ?
It might be from a sound, sight, or smell, that opens one’s awareness to God and neighbour in a new and unexpected way.
It might be from the Spirit nurturing change in your heart, calling you to new ways, or calling you to raise your voice at protest against ancient wrongs.
It might be from truly meeting myself, naming my fears, worries, insecurities: confronting my manifold sins.
For many people inside and outside the Church, celebrations can be seen as triumphalist. Why are those Christians so confident, so cheerful, able to endure mockery and ridicule? How can they persist with such absurd visions and beliefs?
Well, there is a place for triumphalism, even for a little self-indulgent confidence of the kind mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews, always provided that a celebration is not a Christian celebration if it diminishes others. For the only thing to be diminished in celebrating God’s love in creating us and saving us, is sin, that which makes us turn away from God or from our neighbour.
It is good and right that celebrations name and shame the sin in our midst, for God only knows the world is full of griefs and pains and wrongdoing and evil that need repentance and conversion to a new way of life.
We may come together and celebrate with confidence, where this goes against the accepted ways of the world, because we ourselves possess something better and more lasting than possessions, pride, or success.
* * * * *
I can see you thinking, what does any of this have to do with celebrating gay and lesbian Christians or homosexuality in the Church?
First, let me indulge in some nostalgia. I came out twenty years ago this year. It is hard to remember those first cautious days of making public acknowledgment of who I was. It was deeply confronting to reveal something both intensely private yet also bleedingly obvious to a friend, a family member, a stranger, a colleague.
It took a while to learn to celebrate who I was, and who I was called to be. Well, actually, I’m still figuring that out. But the most powerful realisation was that others wanted to celebrate with me because of who I was, because of who they were. A critical moment was one night after work, sitting in a wine bar with a friend who knew I was gay, but asked curiously, was I a Christian? She was pretty sure I was, and wanted to know how I held the two identities together. I gulped down my wine, and came out – as a Christian, and as the partner of a candidate for ordination. I am flattered to say that for her, this was good news, and cause for celebration (yes, she bought another round). It was a striking moment: the world wanted to hear the good news that gay and lesbian Christians have to proclaim just by celebrating who we are.
So very often, Christians who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and everything in between, so very often we Christians are trapped into being victims, railing against a church that will not change or does not know how to change, or standing passively by while others of our number are persecuted, or fearful of a future church dominated by young bearded male pastors with three kids in kinder and another on the way (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
I have been privileged to live a life in public in the church and academy largely without fear, and have been honoured by the responsibilities entrusted to me. There have been moments of grief, and doubt, and shame, but these sins have fallen away time after time in the moments of celebration.
Therefore, my message to you tonight is to embrace the spirit of the gospel, the spirit of Jesus, and, yes, the spirit of Midsumma. Have the courage to celebrate, unashamedly, that you are first and foremost a human being, wonderfully made in the image of God, and wonderfully loved by Jesus Christ, the man who kept the rules so perfectly the rule book had to be rewritten.
I do not exhort you to celebrate as a way of ignoring discrimination, or pain, or battles that need to be fought.
Most of you already know that true celebration is not cheap, for it requires honesty about ourselves, and an openness to risk and change.
True celebration requires faith – not much, just a tiny seed will do – faith that with God, anything is possible.
True celebration requires courage – not much, just a tiny seed will do – courage that you are not alone, and that others want to celebrate with you even in the midst of persecution.
True celebration requires humility – not much, just a tiny seed will do – humility to recognise that you do not have to do anything to be saved from sin except turn, however haltingly, however hesitantly, towards the risen Lord, Jesus Christ, who has already done all that needed to be done.
All we need to do, all the Church needs to do, is to scatter these seeds of faith, courage, and humility on the ground and wait, ready to act when the time comes. Be patient; as the boy scouts say, be prepared. If the fruit of the harvest seems to tarry, wait for it! It will surely come, it will not delay.
And so I say again, the most powerful thing you can do to contribute to the liberation of gay and lesbian Christians – the liberation of all people – is to come and celebrate around the table.