This was the first sermon I preached beyond the purview of my little campus ministry. It was given at St. James Episcopal Church in Knoxville, Tennessee on June 20th, 2017 at the second annual Pridemass – a service held especially for the LGBTQ community in Knoxville. I was so nervous – and so excited! But, above all, I fell in love with preaching when I gave this sermon.
Before I say anything, I need to let you know something important, something you need to know: God loves you, exactly as you are. There is nothing you can do to remove God’s perfect love, and nothing you can do to earn it. God loves you simply because you are. If you leave here remembering nothing else, remember that the triune God loves you endlessly.
Alright, sermon over. (laughter)
I have to confess that when I hear Jesus’s words in the Gospels, I often feel as if those words are combative, harsh, or against me. I am trying to change this perspective, because I think it’s an incorrect way to under God’s Word.
It’s not that I don’t think Jesus was ever angry; after all, the man flipped tables in the temple. Instead, I’m trying to know when Jesus is speaking words of comfort to me, because even when the Prince of Peace is speaking to soothe my soul, I tend to think he is speaking to castigate me.
This tendency, I think, comes from worldly messages about Jesus, rather than Jesus’s message about Jesus. I skip straight to thinking that Jesus is speaking against me because I’m not educated enough, or not faithful enough, or not Christian enough, or not male enough, or not straight enough, or not gender conforming enough. Simply put, I think Jesus is speaking against me when I find myself being those things that I’m told Christian leaders can’t be – queer, a woman, what have you.
Today’s Gospel lesson is a perfect example. “I did not come to bring peace but a sword. I came to separate mother from daughter and father from son.” On first bluff, it sounds, to me as if Jesus is giving free range to those followers of his who would rather use this passage to excuse their abandonment of their own LGBTQ children, or to try to justify deeply unjust wars.
But, in truth, this passage is a message of hope for those of us who have been rejected by our families. These are words of comfort and peace, and just a little context can make this clear. So, let’s talk about this Gospel.
This passage comes from a longer section of Jesus’s advice to his apostles before he sent them out into the world. It turns out that Jesus’s apostles are not what we’ve been told. Paintings of the apostles tend to show older men, and men exclusively – forget that image. In reality, Jesus was something of a youth pastor; from the Gospels, we know that his apostles were still living at home when Jesus called them, that only Peter was married, and that none of them were old enough to pay taxes except Peter. In short, they were teenagers, not old men. We also know that women were counted among the apostles, because when the Gospels record Jesus’s words to them, he also addresses women – like in today’s Gospel when he talks about daughters and mothers. We also know that women were considered apostles because Paul, in his letters, addresses specific women with the title of apostle. So, instead of imagining burly old men when you think of the apostles, think of a group of teenagers, both male and female. Think more Breakfast Club, and less Old Man and the Sea. (laughter)
Not only were they a coed group of teenagers, but they were a counter-cultural coed group of teenagers. They ran away from their homes, left their families behind, and joined a radical group that preached vastly different values from what their society taught. And, to be frank, this sounds kinda gay to me.
Now, hear me out. I don’t think that leaving your family to join a counter-cultural group is a necessary part of an LGBTQ experience, but it is undeniable that this is a common experience for LGBTQ people – so common that we have a name for it. We call these groups our chosen families.
Chosen families have a long history in LGBTQ communities. Because we are so often rejected by the families we were born into, we have often created our own group of people to rely on. We discover our families in bars, in social groups, in theater troupes, on athletic teams, online, and – yes – even in churches and youth groups. Their origins and practices vary, but they have some things in common: chosen families are those that you can rely on to celebrate when things go well, to mourn your losses, and to suffer when you suffer. A chosen family will see the you that you try to hide and love even those parts buried the deepest down; they will also see who God has called you to be, and push you to that sacred call. These special groups have been a mode of survival for LGBTQ people for many decades, and also the form of family that Jesus and the apostles recognized and formed together.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is not advocating for war and the abandonment of family members, but is instead offering us a new way to think about family, because our way of thinking about family is flawed.
In our flawed, deeply human way, family is merely those who we were born or married into. They are those who are related to us by blood, and therefore those who look like us or talk like us or think or worship like us. And, if those who look, speak, act, think, and worship like us are those we call family, we are doomed to commit the sins of xenophobia and racism. We are doomed to tribalism.
Jesus, though, tells his apostles – both male and female – to think of family in a radical, new way. Family is no longer defined as those who are like us, but by those who follow the Way – that is, those who live life striving for love, compassion, justice, and mercy in the name of Christ, who is the embodiment of these things. It’s not about the family you’re born into, Christ urges us, but about our chosen families.
Rather than Jesus towering above the apostles, and using threatening language about swords and abandonment, imagine this: Jesus’s teenage apostles surround him. One of them mentions that she misses her family and all of its comforts- her sisters, her home, her mother’s cooking – and that she is upset because her family will no longer speak to her, even though she is certain she is living the life she is supposed to be living. Maybe this young teenage apostle is uncomfortable living in such a strange new way, often with people she was previously told to stay away from. Jesus sits next to her and offers to her advice that would one day be written down in Matthew’s Gospel. He says, “You know, I didn’t come to bring together nuclear families, but a sword to break the bonds that bind you. I came to free you from those who do not understand you as a child of God; I came so that you can recognize family in all sorts of people, even those you used to consider foes. Anyone who cannot accept you as you are, called by me, can get in line. Anyone who sees the things you’re striving for will be rewarded.” In this Gospel, Christ speaks nothing but peace and encouragement to people who were not at all unlike you and me.
So much of the hardships people face for being LGBTQ are based in anxiety about how we fit into our society’s family structures. Think about our cultural ideal of family: a dominate man and a submissive woman with two and a half children surrounded by a white picket fence. Quiet, and patriotic, and white.
LGBTQ families cannot and do not fit into this ideal. Some of us are not white. Some of us are not middle or upperclass. Many of us will not marry someone of the opposite gender. Many of us will never birthe our own children. Some of us are neither of the genders mentioned. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have families, or even children, but only that our culture does not always understand our families and their lack of understanding leads to our pain.
Abandonment of LGBTQ youth, denial of the ability to adopt or marry, barring us from full participation in churches, denial of resources for gender transition, and terror in the form of violence against us are all examples of ways that LGBTQ people are denied the ability to participate fully, freely, and robustly in family life.
There is good news and hope, though. Though people at large may not understand our families, God does. God knows us, better than we know ourselves, and loves us more than we can fathom – exactly as we are. As queer as we come. And when we love one another as near to Christ’s perfect love for us, we are fulfilling God’s biggest commandment; our families fulfill God’s commandments for us. Our love, our families, our marriages, our friends, our life partners, our authentic gender expression, our sex – it is all sacred in the eyes of the Lord.
In Christ, we are all freed from the trappings of this world, including our culture’s limited understanding of how a family might look. We are free to love and be loved, to know others and to be known. We are known and we are loved. We are free as the children of God.
This freedom and love given to us as children of God and to our families and relationships empowers and enlivens us to become instruments of peace and justice. We are empowered to change the society that disregards and misunderstands us and others. This is a blessing from God that stirs us into action not only for our own freedom, but of the liberation of people everywhere.
Rabbi Joshua Heschel, a Jewish leader in the American Civil Rights Movement and a theologian, said that “Any god who is mine but not yours, who is concerned with me but not you, is an idol.” God is concerned with each of God’s children, straight or gay, cis or trans, black or white, Christian or not. And we, as people of God, ought to be concerned with justice for each of God’s children.
I knew from the moment I was asked to preach that I needed to preach on the sacred bonds of LGBT families. This was before the verdict on the killing of Philando Castile or the killing of Charleena Lyles. Both of these people were killed in front of their families; both were killed in front of children. Their deaths were not only assaults against them, but against their families and against black families everywhere, and I would be remiss to disregard this injustice here, tonight. We must realize that it is not only LGBTQ families who are under siege – it is anyone whose family does not fit our culture’s ideal of family.
I debated whether or not to talk about racial justice in this sermon; I thought some people here might resent that they came for a celebration of LGBTQ people only to hear me preach about something that may, on its face, seem unrelated. But, in truth, LGBTQ people cannot be free from homophobia and transphobia so long as white supremacy clouds our notion of who is good and who is bad, whose family is worthy and whose family is deviant. LGBTQ people are not the only ones whose families are hurt or even destroyed by our society’s limited disregard for families who do not look like one white man and white woman and their two and a half children. People of color, including the straight ones, find their families broken and devalued by the exact same forces in our society that devalue LGBTQ families. As long as the image of family is a white suburban straight couple and their children, none of us can be free.
We are not here to celebrate the world as it is, but instead to celebrate God’s perfect love for us, and the perfect freedom, justice, and peace in the life of the world to come.
And we, God’s children, can be harbingers of that life to come. Amen.