“They Need Us”: Telling A New and Truer Story

A Homily delivered by Fr Stuart Soley, Parish Priest, Saint Mark’s Fitzroy in Saint Luke’s, Wallsend in the Diocese of Newcastle for Newcastle Pride – Friday, 23 August 2019

As I was putting the finishing touches to this homily this afternoon I heard a flock of kookaburras laughing outside the window. How wonderful a blessing is that? We don’t get them in Fitzroy. “Kookaburra sits in an old gum tree, merry merry king of the bush is he, laugh kookaburra, laugh kookaburra, gay your life must be!”

They came in the last week or so I am told ... for Newcastle Pride methinks.

First of all I want to thank Fr Andrew for this invitation to preach here tonight. This Mass is another manifestation of some strong advocacy for the LGBT communities within the life of the church emanating from the Diocese of Newcastle. I am honoured to be here.  

I bring you greetings from the people of God at St Mark’s in Fitzroy who are sisters and brothers in the journey to live out what a fuller and deeper picture of what God’s church might look like.  

One of the most striking experiences of my life was in 2011. I was visiting New York just before I took up my appointment at St Mark’s. I had been out to dine alone and returned to my friend’s rectory and my friend called out to me to come up to watch the television because the New York State Legislature had just passed marriage equality laws.  

Two formative things happened that coming weekend which warmed my heart and made me yearn for the same in Australia. First, the Bishop of New York wrote a pastoral letter to the people of the Diocese to be read out at the Sunday liturgies the following Sunday. It began ‘The Church rejoices with its gay and lesbian brothers and sisters’. The second thing was seeing one of the suffragan bishops of the Diocese, Catherine Roskam, with other Episcopalians on the back of a pick up truck with the banner ‘The Episcopal Church welcomes you’.  

Bishop Roskam had been vocal at the 2008 Lambeth Conference about the full recognition of LGBT members of the Anglican Communion. This riled some African prelates. I had the opportunity to thank her for her courage and chat with her. She told me that she spoke out because in many places where the freedom to your self for LGBT people is risky. She said: ‘You know Stuart, they need us’.  

They need us.  

It was transformative for me. Bishop Roskam had reframed the way I look at these things. It was the first time someone had stated that this issue was not about us (LGBT people and our allies) being a problem.  

Rather, it was a response to our God given calling to be ourselves so that others were strengthened by us being so. It calls us to reject the belief that we are to blame for others’ troubles by being who we are. It was also transformative in that it was all of us ...gay and straight ... to use two binaries ... that could do this together.  

We meet in a context today where acceptance of diverse sexual identities is much greater than it ever was. In December 2017 the Federal Parliament passed marriage equality following the decisive vote in that unnecessary plebiscite. But the push back has begun not even two years after this breakthrough with the push from a certain vocal religious groups and identities imploring the government to legislate for what they call ‘religious freedom’ but seems a bit like seeking permission to discriminate.  

Once again those of us who are of diverse sexual identities or our allies are being caught in a pincer movement we experienced in the unwanted postal survey debate. 

During that terrible time I, like many of you did I am sure, discovered that it is very hard to be both gay and a person of faith. The angry gays, I found, think that I have sold my soul or integrity by being part of what is seen, with good reason at times, to be a homophobic or at least a hypocritical institution.  

On the other side are the angry Christians who see us as morally corrupt and worthy of the most terrible fate. They do not see our faith or spiritual journeys worthy of note or interest or a vehicle for God’s grace.  

So we are wedged between two warring parties. 

This atmosphere in which we live is somewhat like the picture we have portrayed in the gospel this evening. The storms around us are whipped up and evoke fear and disorientation. What we feel like at times is that Jesus the Christ is not there ... or he is asleep ... seemingly disinterested in what’s going on around us. With the disciples we might be tempted to ask ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (Mark 4:38)  

But the scriptures always point to what can be ... and Jesus is roused from sleep to come to help. It is striking that Jesus first words are to still the storm.

‘Peace! Be still!’ (Mark 4:39) He turns his attention to the storm - the things disrupting and putting the disciples at dis-ease. There are good voices speaking into this phoney debate about religious freedom being under threat - your Bishop, Peter being one of them.  

It is only then that Jesus turns attention to the disciples - to us - in the stilled storm and dead calm of the sea he asks ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (Mark 4:40)  

Well you and I can speak volumes about why we are afraid. I am an expert when it comes to diagnosing what’s wrong. But the second question is the key one ... ‘Have you still no faith?’.  

To be honest I have always heard this ... with the help of many earnest Christians ... to hear Jesus rebuking the disciples and us. But what if it is the complete opposite? What if he is inviting us to faith? What if he is inviting us to trust? Just like he invited Blessed Thomas to belief through his doubt.  

And what is it that we are to trust and what is it we have to have faith in?  

Let me suggest what this might mean. My mum died a couple of weeks ago. When I was an intense young boy I was confirmed at age 11 and my parents gave me a copy of the prayer book as a confirmation gift. It contained the Book of Common Prayer, the readings for Sunday Mass as outlined by Archbishop Cranmer, the psalms and a copy of the Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised.  

Inscribed in the frontispiece of the book were these words: ‘Dear Stuart, may you always be strong in faith, love mum and dad’. When I read that sincere wish from mum at that age, I laughed. Well there is good biblical precedent for those who are given a profound message laughing.  

Hannah laughed at the news she was to bear a child. Then there are those who doubt or wonder how things could be true for them if they are on the edge or not quite measuring up by the standards of culture or the day. They are often incredulous or disbelieving.  

But our response does not perturb God. God chooses us and our lives in order to reveal God’s goodness to others - so we need to speak about this goodness and to have faith that we are blessed by God.  

That invitation to faith is to make our way to the core of our being. And that means challenging all which inhibits us having faith. These are - in part at least - the stories others tell us to believe about ourselves or the stories we tell ourselves about our selves.  

This weekend is known as Newcastle Pride. Those who object to our presence in the church quibble over the use of the word pride. It may trouble the more sensitive conscience if they recollect that pride is at the top of the list of seven deadly sins and is associated with an inordinate love of the self.  

The queer Episcopalian theologian Patrick Cheng makes the point, though, that: 

‘....sin is not just a matter of lifting oneself up too high....but it is also a matter of failing to lift oneself up high enough. Many LGBT people have been taught to hide in the shadows as a result of being taunted and tormented by our peers from an early age. We are constantly told that what we do is unnatural and that God hates us. Is it any wonder, then, that so many LGBT people suffer from a toxic degree of self-hate and shame?’ (Patrick Cheng, ‘The Spiritual Significance of Pride’ in HuffPost, 06/24/2010) 

In this understanding the greater sin is the elevated self-loathing and self-hatred. It is our calling as Christians to live in such a way that we move away from all that diminishes and makes us less than whole human beings.  

Let me tell you a brief story about my own growth in self awareness. Several people - a couple of friends and a therapist or two - over the past couple of years told me that I wasn’t really at home with being gay. I was offended and puzzled. I am known, after all, for being ‘out’ and I have made speeches in synods and been an advocate of sorts to a few bishops and even stood up to an archdeacon or two. I have felt a keen sense of responsibility to use the privilege of this role of being priest to live with integrity and openness about my self and those two most important dimensions of my self - my faith and my sexuality.  

But have I really been at ease with myself? Did I really have faith?  

I want to assert that this having faith is to go to our very first principles of our belief in God.  

It is to deepen our faith - to deepest truths - primal truths. Think of the creation narrative in Genesis 1 in which every bit of the created order is all good. Not just bits of it. And not the bits that the Adams or Eves of your world see as good - the first message givers be they parents or the church or some other authority who shape us and whom we allow to continue to shape us. 

No. Listen to God’s voice ... the voice is the same that speaks over Jesus as he is plunged in the Jordan and we in our baptism are plunged into the baptismal waters - you are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.  

‘They need us’; to be ourselves in this world and to have faith in this.  

And pride is important for those of us who learnt how to distrust our deepest selves and decry them and be filled with shame and pride is an important part of spiritual healing. (Patrick Cheng, op.cit..) Furthermore, in the scripture we know that God blesses ... to make good, if you like ... those on whom disgrace and shame has been cast. The cousin of Mary, the Mother of the Lord, Elizabeth, bears John the Baptist and she has faith that God has done this saying ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace i have endured among my people’. (Luke 1:25) 

So to have faith is to de-couple our true sense of self from the stories we have told ourselves that distort the truth about ourselves. All of us need to de-couple these - as in letting that train carriage with its rusty rattling distractions go. Its holding you and I back. In this movement we are being freed of the wrong stories we repeat about ourselves embedded in our psyche - sometimes against all our knowledge or comprehension or experiences otherwise.  

There is a wonderful story told by the Rabbis in the Jewish tradition of an old Rabbi who was dying.... 

‘On his death bed Rabbi Joseph was asked what he thought life beyond the grave might be like. The old man thought for a long time: then he replied, “I don’t really know. But one thing I do know. When I get there I am not going to be asked, “Why weren’t you Moses?” Or “Why weren’t you David?” I am going to be asked “Why weren’t you Joshua?” (Jeremy Greaves, Pride Evensong Sermon, June 2017)

Apart from the difficulties of the political construct mentioned earlier death, illness and love, are other things that can displace our sense of peace and self. That prayer book my mum gave me 46 years ago turned up again in the weeks leading up to her death two weeks ago.  

It invited me to trust more deeply; to have renewed faith. That faith speaks to that inner core that all I have believed to be true about myself is untrue to be replaced by something truer and lasting.  

We are to hear the voice of Jesus inviting us to faith - to live in the peace that he brings to the stormiest of situations. We will need it as the winds of intolerance get a fresh burst. These storms are common to all of us. Remember there were other boats and the peace that Jesus gives is common to all even though they may not perceive him to be in their boat. He is the cosmic Christ after all.  

We meet here tonight celebrating the Eucharist; that feast which ties heaven and earth in one cosmic embrace of God’s goodness which binds us all to one another across the boundaries of space and time and brings into the present what is to be.  

In that ‘what is to be’ is the peace of Christ in which we become embedded in that radical Christian equality in which ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal 3:28)   

Catherine Roskam said “they need us”; to be ourselves and maybe then we might laugh with the kookaburras and sing ‘gay your life must be’! 

Thanks be to God.

Fr Stuart Soley