Tearing Down and Building Up | 15 November 2015

Text: Ephesians 2:14-22

The night that I first came out, when I first said those words “I’m gay”, that night was a sacred night for many reasons.  I know that many of you have already heard some of that story, but there is a piece that I don’t think I have shared yet, partially because it is something that, even now, I continue to unpack and wrestle with.

After the tears and after the holy conversation where my pastor and mentor assured me that God loved me not in spite of but because of who I am, after all this, while I was getting ready to leave he said something to me that I will never forget.  He looked me in the eyes, and very quietly and very thoughtfully he said, “You know, in at least some small way, I envy you.”

I think it was at this point that I just simply stared at him in disbelief.  Envy me?  What could there be to envy about the years of struggle that I had gone through and the many more years of struggle that I could only imagine were ahead of me.  Sure, the single greatest thing about being gay is the possibility of sharing clothes with a partner, but could that be what he meant?

He went on, “I envy you because I believe that you are able to know God in a way that I never can.”  Here was my mentor, a straight, white, Mennonite pastor, telling me that because I am gay, that I know God in a way that he can’t, in a way that is worth envying.  He didn’t elaborate and I had a whole lot of other things going on in my head at the time, so the night ended on that note.  At the time, my ability to fuse my sexual and religious identities was still a pretty new endeavor for me (actually about half an hour or so new), so my first thought was that he meant that because I am attracted to men it would be easier for me to love Jesus, who was a also a man.  I remember thinking, “That’s kind of weird.”  But everything was all pretty new to me, so I just kind of took his statement for what it was.

I don’t remember if we ever explicitly talked later about what he had said, but I do know that I continued to think about what he might have meant, what it might mean for me to know God in a way that others do not.  In fact, I think I spent those next three years in seminary trying to figure out what he might have meant.

After all this time, I’ve come to the conclusion that he wasn’t talking about some enviable quasi-attraction to Jesus.  Actually, I disregarded that notion pretty early on.  The process of figuring out what he might actually have meant, however, has been and continues to be a long journey.  For many people with experiences like myself, I think we have lived so much of our lives with the notion that our sexuality is a curse, that something has gone wrong or is broken within us.  We have lived so long with that mentality that it takes a lot of unlearning to be able to see our experiences as anything else, let alone a means of grace.

My personal process of unlearning the mentality of brokenness has taken me down many roads.  It has evolved, and it continues to evolve in the light of the boundless love of God.

But now, reflecting back on the statement my mentor made, I think that the wisdom he was trying to impart to me is that God is known in a unique and, perhaps, a more authentic way by those who live and claim identities outside the bounds of what is viewed as acceptable.  Those who have been pushed to the margins of the Church and society, those who know what it means to constantly have their very identity framed as a problem or an issue to be solved, these people know God in a way that others do not.

A theology of liberation might sum this up by saying that God is on the side of the oppressed.

In the letter to the Ephesians, the author casts a beautiful vision of reconciliation, of the bringing together of two groups of people.  The letter is addressed to Gentile Christians and its main concern is outlining this vision of unity between Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ.  Central to this vision is the passage read earlier.

“For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

This is such a wonderful and inspiring passage, but I am left wondering whether the imagery of the dividing wall is adequate for a world where walls, both real and metaphorical, are often erected by those with power in order to keep out or control those deemed undesirable or other.  Tearing down walls of hostility is certainly a good thing, but it takes a lot more than getting rid of a wall to make reconciliation and peace a reality.  It takes more than simply getting people in the same room in order for justice to be done so that reconciliation is even possible.

I think this is why the follow up to this statement in Ephesians talks about how it is Christ who is reconciling both groups to God in one body and how both groups have access to God through the identification with this crucified body.  God is known in the experience of becoming like Christ who for the sake of the good news both spent much of his time with and ultimately became someone who was marginalized and oppressed.

It is our identification with and our orientation to this Christ that allows us to become strangers no more but, rather, members of the household of God.

And I think this is where my mentor got it slightly wrong.  He told me he envied me because I would be able to know God in a way that he couldn’t.  It may be true that my identity as a gay man puts me outside the bounds of certain aspects of power and privilege, but at the same time, I am young, able-bodied, white, and educated.  This leaves me with hundreds of opportunities every day to choose whether or not I will identify myself with the Christ who stands alongside the marginalized and oppressed, or whether I will allow myself to hide behind any of the other walls that have been built to separate us from one another.

And make no mistake, there are plenty of other walls to hide behind.  Not only this, but too often the Church foregoes its call to tear down walls and instead proceeds with a measured and cautious rearranging of those walls.  The good news is not that Christ is like the chairperson of some cosmic renovation committee adding a few more pews here and there to accommodate a couple more people.  The good news is that Christ comes in like a wrecking ball, tearing down anything that serves only to alienate us from one another.

Being gay may not be a choice for me, but this does not mean I automatically have special access to God.  In fact, we ought to reject any theology that tells us that any of our supposedly stable categories of identity automatically bring us closer to God.  Both my mentor and myself, and by extension all of us, have opportunities to make choices to stand in solidarity with the oppressed or to hide behind the walls that make us feel as though we are safe.

And if we make the choice to tear down the walls, only then can we begin to build relationships and systems and structures worthy to be called a dwelling place for God.

And so, my wish for you, my friends, is:
–  that we would come to know God in unexpected ways as we stand in solidarity with those who may seem like strangers and aliens
–  that we would live a life worthy of our calling toward reconciliation not by simply rearranging our walls but by tearing down anything that separates us from one another
–  and finally, that as we make Christ the cornerstone of our relationships, that we would know God dwelling among us.