Drawing the circle wide and wider still - Iridesce.jpg

Celebrating Queerness:
Queering the Church

Second Sunday after Pentecost • June 23, 2019
Scripture Lesson: Acts 8:26-40
(adapted from The Voice)
Rev. Jeff Wells, The Church of the Village (NYC)

If you have been around the church or spent much time digging into the bible, I am sure you have heard before this story of Philip and the Eunuch. You probably received the message that this story is about evangelism. The traditional interpretation says that Philip, a follower of Jesus, was led by God to a man who was ripe for conversion, a prime target for making a new disciple.

But if you have read the Book of Acts as a whole or just the preceding passage, you know that, right before this, Philip was having a very successful recruitment campaign for the Jesus movement in Samaria. The apostles were on a mission there because they were being persecuted by the Jewish authorities and Pharisees in Judea. And a large number of people were hearing and responding to the apostles’ preaching and being baptized into the church. Yet, here is God not only asking Philip to leave behind such this rich harvest, but to risk his life going back to Jerusalem speak with one man. Why would God do that…unless there was some critical mission or some crucial lesson to be learned?

Here’s what I think – this is a case of many of our contemporaries and most of our spiritual forebears having missed or deliberately obscured an important way of seeing and understanding this story. In their mission so the Samaritans, the apostles were following Jesus’ teaching and his own practice of reaching out beyond the Jewish community to the despised and marginalized. We know that Jesus and the early Christian movement welcomed all kinds of persons formerly considered within Judaism to be enemies, outcasts, or untouchable.

The apostles were drawing the circle of inclusion wider. Knowing something about how God works, I’ve got a feeling God was using Philip to teach them that they needed to think even more broadly and to break old conventions and prejudices. God’s Spirit led Philip straight to this queer African man who was certainly gender non-conforming and possibly also transgressive in his sexual orientation. Because of this he would have been excluded from the temple and not welcomed as a worshipper of Yahweh. So, as far as we know, this man was the first openly queer person to be baptized into the church. God was using Philip to queer the church. Well, what a queer story that is!

So this story is not just about the eunuch’s conversion to the church, but about Philip’s and the church’s conversion to radical solidarity and the queering of the church. God’s message in this story is, “You guys think you’re pretty radical, with your sabbath-breaking and rule-breaking, by you are still too rigid and your circle of inclusion is still too small. You need some queer folk among you and you need the gifts that Queerness can bring!”

Of course, there have always been queer people in the church, but they/we were for too long told to hide, stay in the closet. We have been taught to pretend that Queer people did not exist. It was okay, sometimes, to allow Queer people to offer their gifts to the church, but only if they hid their full selves. And, in any case, those with power denied that Queer person’s gifts had anything to do with their Queerness.

I thank God that in the Church of the Village and many progressive congregations, we can finally celebrate the ways Queer people have contributed to the survival and revitalization of Christianity in the U.S. What a richness has been brought to our faith by the presence of queer folks in our midst! Amen? I remember a particularly pithy and sarcastic comment I heard at the Special General Conference in February, right after the vote in favor of the Traditional Plan. The person said, “Let’s see how they like it with no Queer people in their churches – many of the really creative people will be gone... The denomination they have left will die.”

Over the past 20 years, I have been privileged to witness and participate in making the Queering of the church possible and much safer for Queer people in local churches, in seminary, and through Methodists in New Directions in the NY Annual Conference. Being part of this struggle is an honor and also a joy as I have had the opportunity to collaborate and build relationships with so many gifted and committed persons, both Queer and allies.

In fact, my comradeship with Queer people was a big part of what kept me in the United Methodist Church. One of the many gifts of queer people to the church is that they helped inspire courage and build resilience in all of us. Many times I have dreamed about leaving the UMC. It would have been so much easier if I had just left to join a denomination like the United Church of Christ. The UCC began ordaining LGBTQ person in 1972, the same year the UMC GC voted that “the practice of homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching.” But I stayed, in large part, because of the courage of LGBTQ siblings who remained in the church and fought for recognition and justice in spite of the fact that they continued to receive the message from the church that they were not welcome.

Gifted, creative, and brave friends and colleagues in Methodists in New Directions inspired, taught, and gave me the resources to lead a divided and conflict-avoidant suburban congregation on Long Island to sign the Covenant of Conscience and become a genuinely welcoming congregation.

And I thank God for the Church of the Village and other congregations like it that acted as a beacon of light and hope. The gifts and graces of Queer people and allies in The Church of the Village and Methodist in New Directions provided critical support and inspiration when Queer persons and clergy allies had charges brought against them, or threats if they did same sex-weddings. I have learned from and been inspired by Paul Abels and Ed Egan, gay pastors who served churches that merged to become the Church of the Village and who were giants in this history-making we are part of. I have been inspired by and learned from you, too – from so many members of this congregation who have shared their stories and their lives with me. And the legacy of the Washington Square UMC, which is part of our history, includes a very personal connection for me. Our “Gathering Call” at the start of worship this morning mentions that in 1979, eighty men gathered in that church for the first rehearsal of New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. That was the same year my younger brother, Gary, moved to New York City from our little city in the Midwest. I don’t know if he was at that first rehearsal. I do know that in 1982, Gary was a member of the founding Board of Directors. That is a very personal embodiment of our circle of inclusion.

Over my time in the struggle, I have witnessed a huge shift in emphasis from describing our goal as “tolerance” or “acceptance” to “inclusion” and “affirmation,” to “celebrating the gifts of Queerness.” That shift has played out in profound way in our own congregation, in the New York Annual Conference, and beyond. This shift in perspective has also occurred in me and, I suspect, in many of us here today as we have grown and matured in our understanding and our vision of what the church can and should be. We have drawn our circle wider and made our vision of the kin-dom of God grander!

You may have noticed the quote we used on the flyer for this worship series. It comes from Rev. Liz Edman, an Episcopalian priest here in New York City. She wrote, “I am not saying that queer people are or must be Christian. I am saying that authentic Christianity is and must be queer.” What I think she means by that is not just that we need more Queer people in the church or more genuine celebration of Queer people and their gifts, but we need to dismantle all of the barriers that keep us from really knowing and loving one another and all of the binaries that are imposed upon us that force us into boxes, limit our vision, and keep us from really appreciating the uniqueness of every individual just as they are. We are now faced with a new and dramatic opportunity to emerge from the oppressiveness of the United Methodist Church and move toward a new expression of radical inclusivity, solidarity,  and extravagant all-inclusive love and celebration of gifts.

This takes us back to the question the eunuch asked in the story: “Is there anything that prevents me from being baptized?” We need to ask that question for ourselves, but expand its focus and meaning. “What prevents us from uncovering, recognizing, affirming the gifts that each of us bring? What prevents us from celebrating all of those gifts and every person who enters this space?” Philip knew there was no good reason to keep the eunuch from becoming a full and beloved participant in the church and lover of God. He showed no concern about the eunuch’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or race. Philip simply replied, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” He was being true to Jesus’ own practice of drawing the circle wide.

Today, we celebrate not just “Queerness” in general, but each unique individual, beloved, gifted Queer person. Every one of us is a child of God and a beloved sibling. And God draws the circle wide and calls us to do the same. Whenever we leave someone out of the circle, God says, “Nope. He’s included. She’s inside my circle. They are all mine.” God draws the circle very wide and wider still. Thank God for continuing to inspire us to keep deepening and expanding our vision of the beauty and queerness of the kin-dom of God.

Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.