THE GIFT OF OTHERNESS
A LECTIONARY SERMON FOR PENTECOST TWO
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
And proud they should be, for, with their feet, they are witnessing to today’s Gospel and to what it means to be a Christian. With their outstretched arms and the warmth of their smiles, they are saying to the thousands lining the route: “We welcome you!” And, as someone who has made that march and exchanged high fives and a shouted “God loves you!” with those along the way, I can assure you that the spectators will respond – some with surprise, some with joy, most with love – “We welcome you!” And the response of many will be tinged with relief. In their faces, I have read that relief…a relief that says with gratitude “We have been waiting for you. We have been waiting for a church with open doors and open hearts, a church that offers a cup of cold water to thirsting newcomers.”
This morning – for the first time in years and with some sorrow – I am missing the joy of that experience. And I do miss it. But, this morning, this Pride morning, I feel a need to be with you…to say “Thank you,” to say thank you for welcoming me and other thirsty newcomers. I feel a need also to say “Well done!” Well done, because, in our own quiet way, we are living into Christ’s Gospel of radical welcome.
That is no small feat. Once, at another church, I was not so welcomed. All they’d hear from me, it was whispered, would be sermons on sex. Now, I know I’ve troubled you about any number of troubling issues. Like Bonnie Anderson, I feel Christians are called to be troublemakers. Justice is never achieved in silence. But, I trust you’ll agree, I haven’t spoken much about sex. And I won’t this morning. For I’ve never felt the need to beat a drum about who I am and whom I love. I’ve never felt a need to wear an armband, or carry a placard, at least not in church.
By the same token, however, I have not tried to hide – as if I could – who I am. Nor have I tried to hide that Mimi and I were very much in love for thirty-five years…and still are. Paul was right, love does not die.
Love, moreover, demands honesty. It holds nothing back and risks everything. It risks rejection.
I came here, at first, tentatively, testing the waters, like many of you dropping in for the occasional service. And, in the process, I found a community I could love…that I wanted to be a part of. But I could not love you fully, if I could not be fully honest with you…if I did not risk your rejection. In saying “I want to be your deacon,” I risked a lot…and I challenged you to risk a lot.
In a book she co-authored with CDSP’s Bill Countryman – Gifted by Otherness…a book about coming out in church – the late M.R. Ridley once wrote “How can you be a gift to others, if they don’t know you’re there.” The “otherness” she wrote about was about being gay. It might just as well have been about being black or brown or yellow; about being elderly, disabled, or homeless; or…about being transgendered. And the “gift?” It is the opportunity such “otherness” offers in terms of stretching our spiritual envelopes, the challenge it poses to our willingness to live into Christ’s call to be welcoming.
Continuing with M.R.’s theme of openness and honesty – the honesty that love requires – let me be open about the price such a “gift” sometimes requires of the giver. A good gift is never cheap. Even the widow’s mite was not cheap.
I came out – Mimi and I came out together – in a quiet, suburban church that had once known us as Vic and Mimi. It was not easy, but we loved the community we found in that church, St. Paul’s in Benicia, and we wanted to stay. So we risked the myriad questions and a few harsh words. It took special fortitude – and love – on Mimi’s part. As I wrote after the experience,
You want guts?! Mimi had them, as she walked before me to communion on Vicki’s first Sunday in church. It was a breeze for me, thereafter. Mimi was always there before me; I sensed Christ there behind me; and we all smiled on the way back. Mimi was there, too, that morning, when in our prayer group, someone insisted on speaking his mind about my “sin.” She held my hand, as I held his, as he read from his Bible that I was an “abomination.” I will never forget the trembling and perspiration of his hand and the coolness and firmness of Mimi’s.
We took a risk. We paid a price. And, in the end, before she died, we were rewarded. For, in the end, our love was reciprocated. The people of St. Paul’s came to love us as much as we loved them. They, too, took a risk. And neither they nor we were ever the same again.
And, therein lies another facet of this welcoming thing – the price the community must pay, the reward it will reap – both in terms of change. Nothing, we discover, will ever be the same if we truly welcome the stranger, the newcomer, the “other.” We cannot say “Welcome, but, sorry, we don’t intend to change. You can join us, but we want you to look like us, to be like us, to fit in with us as we are.” Oh, the newcomer will change…some But, if we really mean our welcome, so will the community. Like adding yeast to the dough, together, we will become something entirely new…and wonderful. That is the “prophet’s reward….the reward of the righteous.”
That is what I reaped at St. Paul’s; at Christ Church Alameda, which raised me to ordination; at St. James San Francisco; and here at Christ the Lord. And, that is why, when it came time to be deployed as a deacon, I resisted being assigned to a so-called “gay friendly” church. For I feared that, in such an environment, I would have no gift to give, I would not be challenged. There would be no yeast to bring, no change to reap.
In retrospect, however, I there may indeed be a gift I can offer the LGBT community… a gift that has nothing to do with being a member of that community and everything to do with it. It is a message not voiced often enough in our LGBT community - that those of us who are gay, lesbian, or transgendered need not huddle together in self-imposed ghettos…that we can be – must be - part of a larger beloved community in which “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female;” where all are one in Jesus Christ…and no one is “Other.”
For that to happen, however, requires that those of us in the LGBT community take the risk of breaking down the walls of our physical and spiritual ghettos. I use the word “risk” advisedly, deliberately, for walls can both protect and confine, and ghettos can be both prisons and places of comfort. It can be comfortable – and dangerous – to “stick with one’s own,” be it in the Castro, Richmond, Pinole, or Pacific Heights. And it can be comfortable – and dangerous – to focus on one issue, on one’s own issue, on one’s own plight, on one’s own rights, while paying scant attention to the rights of others – immigrants, hotel workers, the homeless, Palestinians, Syrians, so many others. If those of us who are gay or lesbian or transgendered would gain and enjoy our rights, guilt free, we must be there for others who seek theirs. There are no rights in isolation. For a Christian, it is not tenable to be a one-issue, one dimensional person in a three-dimensional world, in which so many are suffering.
Those same imperatives also apply here in Pinole…for all of us. If we are to be a truly welcoming community that is part of that larger beloved community in which there is no longer rich or poor, no longer black or white…or brown or red, no longer old or young, no longer firm or infirm, and, yes, no longer straight or gay, then we, too, will have to break down our walls and break out of our ghettos, real and imagined.
We are, I think, learning to do that. We are, if only by osmosis, learning that there are no “others” among us…that we are all God’s children made in the same image of that one true God. To paraphrase Shakespeare:
Have we not all eyes? Have we not all hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions;
fed with the same food, hurt with the same
weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed
by the same means, warmed and cooled by the
same winter and summer? If you prick us, do we
not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If
you poison us, do we not die?
And we are coming to the realization that there is nothing special about LGBT rights, women’s rights, immigrant’s rights…anyone’s rights. They are all simply human rights. And we must all stand up for the God-given rights of our shared humanity.
Maybe next year I’ll march again in that parade on Pride Sunday. Maybe some of you will join me. Maybe, together, we’ll demonstrate throughout the year and in the years ahead that welcome is not a one-Sunday-a-year event, but an every-Sunday happening at Christ the Lord…a community opening to the world, welcoming every stranger, offering a cup of cold water to all who thirst.
Vicki Gray, a retired Foreign Service officer and political scientist, is deacon at Christ the Lord Episcopal Church, Pinole CA and serves as deacon at the Open Cathedral outdoor Eucharists in San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Mission districts. Transgendered, she serves on the TransEpiscopal steering committee and Integrity’s stakeholders committee. She is also a member of the General Convention delegation and Commission on Ministry of the Diocese of California.