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The Beauty and Power of In Between

This sermon was written for Epiphany Lutheran-Episcopal Church for National Coming Out Day 2020, October 11.

Relevant scripture readings can be found here and here.

Grace and peace are yours from the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one God, Mother of us all. Amen.

It is so good to be with you all to celebrate LGBTQIA+ History Month and National Coming Out Day this week. My name is Elle, I use pronouns like she/her/hers, I’m bisexual, and I am a candidate for ministry in the ELCA. I know that you as a community are in the midst of an RIC process, so you are doing a lot of exploring and listening to the Holy Spirit and learning more about the ways that the image of God is reflected in your neighbors.

The scripture we read from Genesis this morning, particularly the verses,

“So God created humankind in God’s  image,

    in the image of God, God created them    male and female God created them,”

is one of the foundational verses for all kinds of liberatory theology. We call this concept imageo dei, that all people are made in the image and likeness of God. This is a truly revolutionary statement. Because human beings love to stratify ourselves into a hierarchy. We often sort people based on things like race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, citizenship status, or other categories. But as Gloria Steinem said, “Human beings are linked, not ranked.” And the link between all of us, something that everyone has in common, from the richest to the most destitute, is that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. And nothing can take that away.

Some people have tried to use this verse and others to imply, falsely, that there are only two genders or sexes because the verse names “male and female” exclusively. But that deeply misunderstands the way that Hebrew poetry like this works. Hebrew poetry has many different rhetorical conventions, just like poetry in English or any other language. And one important tool that Hebrew poets used is something called, “merism.” Merism is where although two things are named, the whole is implied. So an example of this would be someone saying something like, “I searched high and low for it!” We would understand that that person meant, “I searched EVERYWHERE for it.” We wouldn’t think that they only searched high and then low and totally didn’t search any surfaces or areas in the middle. To interpret it that way would fundamentally misunderstand the poetic nature of the colloquialism.

Similarly, the author of Genesis uses merism here, all throughout this first creation narrative, as a poetic device. Earlier on in Genesis, you may be familiar, that God created land and seas. But we know that doesn’t mean there is a strict false binary between the dry land and the seas. We know that marshes and swamps and riverbanks and all kinds of other in between types of environments exist, and we know that when the author of Genesis says, “God created the land and the seas,” that we are supposed to know that of course that includes swamps and marshes too.

Likewise when God created day and night, we know that also means that God created sunrises and sunsets. And that actually some of these in between, uncategorized things are the most beautiful and holy of all. If you are interested in hearing more about this, Austen Hartke who is also a Lutheran has a great book and a YouTube channel I recommend to you.

So after a pattern of 6 days of merism…saying things assumed to be opposite as a poetic technique to represent the whole range…we come to these verses today. Male and Female God created them. Once again, we are to assume that people exist outside of binaries for gender and sexuality, and that God created the whole gamut of human identities in God’s own image too. People who exist outside of gender binaries are also made in the image and likeness of God. This might seem like newfangled theology. But we have early accounts of rabbis reading Genesis and concluding that there were at least 6 genders.

It is difficult for many of us to break out of the rigid binary understanding we were socialized into about things like gender and sexuality. Christian tradition and scripture frequently rejects binaries and false dichotomies and forced choices…for example we have a belief that Jesus was somehow fully human and fully divine. But the world around us often sorts people into small boxes, boxes that are limited, boxes that, if we are honest, aren’t working for any of us. And yet, we have internalized many of these binary ideas. As a bisexual person I have often been told that my identity is not valid, that I should really “choose a side.” I internalized that for a long time, and it really harmed me. Learning about the ways that God delights in the breaking of binaries has set me free, even as it was hard for me to understand or untangle myself from at first.

Many churches – even ones that claim to be affirming – struggle with bisexuality or other binary breaking identities. Oftentimes when churches say they are affirming, they are truly only educated on and ready to receive monosexual cisgender gay men and lesbians. But the LGBTQIA+ community is vast and diverse. Many of us are a part of this community but don’t fit into that particular mold.

Another pattern that even the most well-intentioned churches fall into is about the question of power and assimilation. Churches think subconsciously and imply, “Its ok if you are gay…as long as you are like us.” We see some of this in the parable we read today in Matthew. There is a king who had a party and nobody came, so the king invited the people who were unwanted and usually unwelcome…which is good!  But then the king saw a person not dressed for the occasion and cast them out for not meeting the king’s expectations of what was appropriate. Parables are tricky, they are meant to have multiple meanings and there aren’t always 1:1 direct connections with characters as particular metaphors for something. But one interpretation of this parable from Matthew might be something like this:

The institutional church has spent a lot of time telling LGBTQIA+ people we are not beloved and we are not welcome. Now, thanks be to God, more churches are inviting us to the banquet. Many of us have internalized this idea of unworthiness and honestly, we are just so excited to be invited that we accept the most meager of crumbs from the church. Others are so hurt by the church that they don’t accept the invitation to the banquet at all because the church has not been trustworthy or safe. But for those of us who do come to the banquet? We are often told things like this;

Its ok that you are bisexual, I guess, but why do you have to talk about it all the time?

Or

I can’t put my finger on it, but something about her rubs me the wrong way.

Hint: if you are part of the dominant culture and a marginalized person “just rubs you the wrong way?” It is very likely at least in part because of some internalized biases.

These statements are things that have been said to me in affirming churches, including a church that had had gay pastors. But they were only familiar with monosexual, white, cisgender, monogamous, respectable, middle class gay men (and the occasional lesbian). People that they could think to themselves, “Well they are pretty much just like me except gay.” 

When coming up against me or other people who intentional resist heteronormative standards, who break binaries, who present in a way that is uncomfortable for them…they were unprepared to be welcoming and unable to fully live into their values as an affirming church.

But being affirming doesn’t mean we welcome people as long as they conform. It means that we acknowledge that when we welcome people, who “us” is will change. That people who are LGBTQIA+ have the potential and right to change the dominant culture of our churches. There are many, many churches who are ok with being a “normal church” aka straight church that accepts a few gay people. That sort of mindset keeps the power in the hands of straight cisgender people. So yes, there are a growing number of churches who have decided in their minds to do us the favor of including us, as long as we don’t challenge the dominant culture.

There are straight churches ok with having a few gay people. But it is quite a different thing and much more rare to find a Queer Church. And the power dynamic is the difference.

The king in this parable was ok with inviting people different than him. They weren’t on the initial invite list but, whatever, he’d take them. But the king WASN’T ok with guests at the banquet who did things differently than he was accustomed to. The king wanted to pretend the banquet was the same as always, to forget actually that these people WERE different from the original guests, he wanted to keep up appearances and remain in control.

What the king – and many churches – miss out on? Is that the church is not doing LGBTQIA+ people a favor by inviting us. LGBTQIA+ people are a gift. In all of our diversity and range of expression and experiences. We are made in the image and the likeness of God. Not DESPITE our queerness, but because of it.

This Coming Out Day I hope that we can recognize the power and beauty of God in the in between spaces, the places harder to categorize; in the sunsets, in the seashore, in non-binary people, and bisexual/pansexual/or other non monosexual people. And I hope, as we are planning our banquets, building the church of the future, or reflecting on our church culture, that we prepare to affirm and welcome people who challenge and stretch us and can see the people and moments that break open our understanding of God as sacred gifts.

Amen.

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