When I was in my early twenties, I was so much more adventurous than the pastor who stands before you. Still foolish enough to believe in my own ability to meet any situation I stumbled into; I travelled the world seeking all the excitement which life might bring my way. More than once, I ventured into worlds beyond my meagre capacity for wisdom. With a reckless spirit, a rail-pass in my pocket, a backpack slung over my shoulders and several hundred dollars’ worth of travelers’ cheques, yeah, travelers’ cheques. That’s how long ago it was. I had several hundred dollars of travelers’ cheques tucked into my wallet, when I boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, bound for Athens, Greece. Despite my youthful vigor, I was tired. Several months of backpacking in Northern Europe had left me weary. In just five days my rail-pass would expire, so I decided to head to Greece, where previous visits had taught me, the living was easy. I longed for the warm sun, the blue skies and the equally blue waters and the promise of a cheap place to rest.
As the train made its way through the Alps, I remembered a similar trip which I had made the year before and I tried to calculate whether my remaining funds would allow me to return to the village of Hannia on the Island of Crete. I knew that in Crete I could find work. I planned to mix a lot of relaxation and fun with just a little work and try to live out the winter on the Mediterranean. As the train rattled through Austria towards, what was then, Yugoslavia, it began to get dark. I was disappointed that my journey through Yugoslavia would be completed in darkness. I remembered my previous journey by car through Yugoslavia and how, at the time, I had marveled at the diversity of this strange little country. I remembered men and women driving oxen as they ploughed their fields in much the same way as their ancestors had done. I also remembered my surprise at entering the ultra-modern section of the city of Belgrade, the showcase of the dictator Tito’s communist regime. I fell asleep pondering the sharp differences between the lives of the poor in the villages who appeared to live without any modern conveniences at all, and the lives of those who inhabited the city of Belgrade, with its towering buildings and streets filled with automobiles. Several centuries seemed to co-exist in this Yugoslavia.
I was awakened by the sound of people shuffling to find their papers as the train conductor instructed us to get our passports and visas ready for customs inspection. When the Yugoslavian custom officials, with their rifles over their shoulders boarded our train, they were preceded by men guided by vicious looking German shepherds. Even though I knew that I had all the correct papers and that my backpack contained nothing more offensive than some dirty laundry, the sight of the dogs, the guns and the uniformed officials struck fear into my heart. I nervously handed over my precious passport to an official who looked younger than my twenty-two years. He carefully read over the visa which I had obtained in Zurich the day before; a visa which I could not read because it was written in an unfamiliar language using unfamiliar alphabet. The young man handed my passport over to an older official and before I could comprehend what was happening, I was being escorted off the train. I was shaking so badly that the young men on either side of me had to hold me up. I’m not sure if my feet even touched the ground.
After a long, lonely wait in a drab, windowless room, a woman entered. In broken English she told me that my visa was not in order. “NOT in order! NOT in order!” She kept repeating it. I gathered from what she was trying to unsuccessfully to explain to me, that my passport contained the visa from my previous visit to Yugoslavia but was missing an official exit stamp. She demanded to know why there was no exit stamp in my passport. “NO EXIT STAMP! NOT in order! Needless to say, I could not explain. I told her that I had only spent a little over a week in Yugoslavia the year before and then gone on to Greece. I told her that I didn’t know that an exit stamp was necessary and that I couldn’t understand why the Yugoslavian consulate would have issued my current visa if my paperwork was not in order. She kept insisting that I needed an exit stamp. “NOT in order! NOT in order! EXIT STAMP!”Continue reading →
Earlier this week, I drove down Main Street. Main Street is all dressed up for Pride. On the lampposts, you can see beautiful rainbow banners announcing the York Pride Festival. I must tell you that I was so overcome by the sight of these Pride banners that I had to pull over and have a little cry. The sight of these banners flapping in the wind for all to see may seem totally unremarkable to some people. But to some of us, the sight of those banners moves us beyond words to tears that spring from a very deep place within our soul; tears that reflect so many emotions born of pain, defiance, struggle, isolation, relief, hope, and joy! As I wept, I couldn’t help but marvel at how very much has changed since I first began to become aware of who I am.
I was only ten years old in 1967, when Pierre Trudeau declared that, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” I was too young to understand the news in 1968, when Canada decriminalized homosexual acts. I don’t remember being aware of the Stonewall riots that erupted in 1969. As a teen-ager in the 1970’s, what went on between consenting adults was something seldom talked about. It wasn’t until the early 80’s when the reality of the AID’s epidemic drove conversations about homosexuality into the public square, that I began to pay attention to the cause of gay rights. Living in Vancouver and working in the travel industry, I lost friends, good friends, to a disease that devastated the gay community. Later as I began to allow myself to understand who I am, I remember trying and failing to find the courage to march in Vancouver’s Gay Pride parade. I don’t know what frightened me more, being seen at the parade or seeing myself for who I am. Fear is a long, long way, from pride. So, it took me longer than I care to admit to summon up the courage to participate in the pride parade in 1986. Later as I was preparing myself to become a pastor, I had the very good fortune to fall in love. Falling in LOVE is a very empowering experience. But falling in LOVE in 1997, when your church says things like “love the sinner, hate the sin”, well let’s just say, that when I was called here to Holy Cross in 1999, it wasn’t just fear that kept Carol and I quiet on the subject of our relationship, it was the reality that if I said anything at all, I wouldn’t survive as a pastor for very long. “Don’t ask don’t tell,” was the unofficial policy of the ELCIC. So, you didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell. Newmarket, I was told was a conservative town. Well a lot has changed over the years. Many of us worked for a very long time at considerable cost to change the policies of our government and our church. The benefits of equal marriage in Canada, and full inclusion in the Evangelic Lutheran Church in Canada are life-changing and I confess that there are days when I still feel like pinching myself. “Can it actually be true? Can I actually be married to the woman I love and still be a pastor?”
The relief and the joy of being who I am without fear of persecution, makes me proud not only of who I am, but of who you are, who we are as a community and as a country. My pride runs deep and so it is a joy to see how very far we have come. Sitting in my car weeping, I couldn’t help but marvel at the courage of so many people who paved the way for us. Those banners on Main Street and all the happy pride-goers yesterday, and all of us gathered here today to celebrate, we have so much to be thankful for. But I can’t help remembering a conversation with someone who will remain nameless. This person insisted that she, “loves the gays”, but she just wishes that they wouldn’t make such a big deal out of everything. She just couldn’t approve of gay pride. “I mean really, why do they need to flaunt their sexuality in public the way that they do. Can’t they just keep it to themselves.” This person went on to declare, “I don’t flaunt my heterosexuality in public.”
Well her inability to flaunt her heterosexuality in public was all too clear. Her sexuality was very clearly suffering from her inability to see beyond all the stuff she’d ever been taught about her body;
sadly, I suspect that most of the stuff that had her so tightly wound up she must have learned from the church. For centuries our public institutions, all too often encouraged or justified by the institutional church, confined generations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, and straight people in closets so dark that we could none of us see who we are.
One of the blessings that we religious types have is a plethora of metaphors and stories that were created to liberate people from prisons of our own making. One of the stories that I have always loved is this morning’s first reading from the book of Joshua. I can hear that old spiritual, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls come tumbling down,” each and every time some uptight, repressed individual begins to complain about those gay’s and their parades. The very idea of the children of Israel, those ancient Hebrew migrants, persecuted and excluded marching and hollering all around the mighty city of Jericho, with its walls erected to keep the riff raft out, well the metaphor is too perfect. I can see it all now day after day, people making an ungodly racket. The sound of the shofar’s loudly blasting a radical tune. I’ll bet there was dancing and singing and hootin and hollerin. No wonder those walls come a tumblin down.
The scriptures are full of stories created to provide hope to the downtrodden, the oppressed, the persecuted, the suffering, the outcast, even the sinners. Yes, the walls may be tall, the structures that keep you out may be entrenched, but make enough racket and you’ll see those walls crumble. So, today I give thanks to all those rowdy folks who marched in spite of the fact that the walls erected by our society to keep them in the closet seemed insurmountable. Today, I celebrate all the brave pride-goers who brought the walls of injustice down so that we can be all that we are created to be without fear. It has been a long and difficult struggle, and our pride celebrations inspire such joy. So, we sing, we dance, we make noise and yeah, we flaunt our sexuality in public! And I’m guessing that the gay rights movement has liberated more than just the LGBTQ communities. I’m guessing that our straight sisters and brothers have learned a great deal about who they are. I’m pretty sure that liberation and freedom from sexual repression are indeed a blessing that more than just a few of us are grateful for. The reality that we a wonderfully and beautifully made, creatures of mysterious and sublime wonder is a blessing of unfathomable joy.
So today, we celebrate who we are! But with each and every utterance of, the words “Happy Pride!” we cannot forget that our joy is tinged with sadness for all our sisters and brothers around the world who continue to live and die in fear. The Pride movement is still in its infancy.
We have come a long way. But we have miles to go and so many more wall to break down; walls that will require a whole lot of noise before they come tumblin down! We are blessed to live in a place where we can be who we are and love one another without fear of the state. Sadly, there are still places here where some of us are afraid to hold hands. There are places where some of us fear to go. We will need to do a whole lot more marching. We will also need to make a great deal of noise so that our government opens gaps in our walls so that we can provide sanctuary to LGBTQ refugees. We will need to make a great deal more noise so that hate-filled states like Chechnya will stop the killings and Malaysia will stop the public floggings. Those of us who remain in the Church must continue to make a whole lot of noise so that our institutions repent the abuses of our past and stop the abuses that continue to be perpetrated in the name of Jesus. We must do our best to join our voices to the voices of those outside our walls so as to hasten their crumbling. We must open up dialogues and we must tell our stories so that the LOVE that lives in us can inspire hope as it breaks down walls. We must remember that the one whom we profess to follow this Jesus fellow, is the one who said over and over again, “Do not be afraid. Have no fear!” The very one who reached out beyond the confines of the walls established by the structures and institutions of his day, to love his neighbours. The same one who insisted that God is LOVE.
So, as we celebrate today, we do so mindful that there is more noise for us to make and hopeful that as we make that noise together the walls will come tumblin down. Happy Pride everyone! May the LOVE that is God empower all of us to be all that we are created to be.