Nothing happens by accident. And anything we might be able to survive becomes a lesson.
What follows is my sermon, delivered at Grace-St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at the 8 AM, 10 AM, and 5:30 PM services, in response to John 5:1-5:9.
Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.
A significant part of living our shared lives in Christ is that, as we take additional trips around the sun together, the beauty and truth of the Gospel reveals itself to us in different ways. When I first encountered today’s Gospel reading several years ago, I interpreted it as a simple story about faith inspiring us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and take a meaningful place in this world; at that point, that made a lot of sense to me.
But life continues, and things change.
I’ve talked about my personal faith story a lot in the last year; international news site The Guardian asked me to talk about my status as a lifelong progressive and gay man, “coming out,” without reservations, as a Christian in my thirties. It struck a chord, somehow; over a million people read that story, and thousands commented on it, fervently, for both good and ill. My editor at The Guardian attributed the interest in my story to the “delicious paradox” of wanting a relationship with Jesus Christ without compromising the truth of my ideals and sexual orientation. When you trace the steps and know my story, this spot from which I currently stand–pun intended–makes perfect sense, plain as day.
I was raised completely unchurched; my dad’s an Episcopalian from Boston, my mom is a Jewish girl from Tulsa, and I was raised…confused. My parents instilled a strong sense of right and wrong in my brother and me via a love of learning, popular culture, and their own personal examples. I didn’t know the gospel, the story of Jesus Christ, and as an eight-year old boy I instead threaded together a bizarre, commercially-influenced version: Jesus and Santa were somehow the same person, born on December 25, and Holy Week represented the death of this mashed-up character following a prolonged weight loss; on Easter Sunday, we rejoiced as he returned to us in the form of an adorable bunny rabbit.
I was a kid with an intense and fertile imagination; it’s not much of a surprise that I ended up in theater as my primary calling in my teens and twenties. Like-minded people coming together to tell vital and vibrant stories about why we’re here and how our lives profoundly affect one another, and building a community for the common good in the process…that’s theater, sure, but it’s also a gigantic part of what I love about church.
With that said, at this point in my life, I plaintively argued, publicly and privately, that I didn’t want or need a relationship with God. I considered myself a rarity: a mostly-happy, fairly well-adjusted gay kid who grew up in suburban America, totally unscathed by the monsters of bigotry and hatred. Never once in my formative years did I feel unwanted, or afraid, or less-than because of my sexual orientation; my parents were, and are, some of the most loving and intellectually engaging people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. I knew early on that the content of my character would have a far greater impact on my place and progress in this world than my attraction to men. With all this in mind, I considered religion an unneeded and potentially damaging interaction with my worldview. I had theater for community and social good, I knew who I was and loved myself, and, from regular doses of Fox News, of hypocrisies and cover-ups of scandals and horrid transgressions, of casual conversations with my peers about the “love the sinner, hate the sin” nature of my “lifestyle”–well, I didn’t need church, in specific, or God, in general.
I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong. And I remember the day I started to realize that: June 10, 2010.
TIngling in my fingers and persistent fatigue led to me finally seeing a doctor and confirming a year’s worth of suspicions: a diagnosis of diabetes, complete with an insulin regimen and a half-dozen medications, at 28. My physician made it clear: this was permanent. It could get better. It could be managed. But this was an intractable part of my life and would, at some point, most likely contribute to my death. The funny thing about this period of my life is that I felt mostly fine. As soon as I started medications, diabetes, for several years, became a set of data points on a page instead of something I could feel. That would change; I spent days googling diabetes horror stories.
If you ever get the chance to do this: don’t.
I was angry, in two pointed and distinct directions: first, at myself, for a combination of cruddy genetics and poor decisions on both the dietary and stress management fronts. I could handle self-directed anger, and I took steps to manage and treat that. What started to nag at me was that I was mad at…something else. The anger bubbled beyond the borders of me into something vast and mysterious and frustratingly implacable. When I was physically by myself, I started to talk to the air, acknowledging, for the first time, a presence bigger than me. I now recognize this as prayer, in the only rudimentary form I could muster it. It scared me in ways I struggle to put into words; I felt God, for the first time in my life, and I desired connection and conversation. I was so mad at God for this diagnosis, the end of my youth-powered denial of my own mortality.
I was angry. I wanted more. These two facts, taken together, led me to a profound truth: I believed in God, and I wanted to know and understand him better. Even talking about it now rumbles out crazy feelings of fear and awe and helplessness at the size and weight of what I was feeling–I now recognize it for the call it was, but at the time, it felt like slow-burn shattering of my entire perspective as a happy-go-lucky-sorta-unflappable-maybe-agnostic-possibly-atheist. And sure, it was that, too; it began a five-year journey of church shopping, of arguing with clergy from different denominations, of earnestly, sometimes desperately, looking for answers where there were none. And it led me, in the end, to the Episcopal Church, and by extension, my vocation and ministry as communications director of this diocese. And to my baptism at Grace-St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on October 11, 2014.
This is all prologue to the greatest test of my faith thus far, in November of this year, when diabetes became more than just a vague future threat and actively threatened to end my life. An infection in my foot went septic; three toes and much of my right foot were amputated. Had I sought treatment a few hours later, I’d’ve lost the leg. A day later, I’d’ve lost my life. Nearly six months later I’m still recovering,
It’s been a rough road, of near misses and close calls and losing giant chunks of my independence. I’ve re-learned to walk, bit by bit. I’ve been blessed and humbled by the rallied army of friends who’ve kept me in the game, kept me positive, helped me take care of myself, kept me alive. And yet–every day, I look at what’s left of my right foot and I fight the impulse to consider myself broken, beyond repair. I struggle to imagine a time where I’ll once again be defined by what’s in my heart and mind instead of perceptions of my physical invalidity. Some days I win that fight. Some days I lose profoundly.
And here is the core of today’s Gospel: Jesus approaches the invalid, disabled for thirty-eight years, and asks him, simply: “Do you want to get well?”
My gut response to that question was a gigantic eye roll and a prolonged “Duuuuuuuuuh.” OF COURSE the invalid wants to be well! Don’t we all? And then I thought–wait a minute. What’s really being asked, here?
Jesus is offering the invalid a choice: the man can wallow in his brokenness, and let it be the thing that defines him in his heart of hearts; his response to Jesus confirms this, with his explanation of his current location being a result of a lack of help from his friends and that the more able-bodied folks always beat him to the pool’s edge. In Jesus, however, he’s offered healing, real and true, if only he has the faith in both Christ and himself to accept it and make his way to the pool, hale and hearty. And that’s exactly what he does.
Today’s Gospel moves me in ways I never quite expected it to; we’re all broken, in ways that are both visible and invisible. These traits of ours, these things that happen to us, the parts of ourselves we define as shameful or let divide us from the rest of the flock–these things are not us. They are part of us, parts of our stories, but in Christ, in faith that God has purpose for us, and a promise of healing and wholeness as we put our trust in him and one another–in that trust and love, we are so much more than our broken parts. We are the body of Christ on this planet.
And together, we are whole.
We accomplish amazing things together. I’m still in awe of the Pride and Joy Festival, which many of us here came together to put forth over the last two days, as the biggest affirmation I’ve seen in this diocese of the LGBTQ community as a welcome and celebrated part of our church. We raised up sexual orientation and gender identity–traits that, in generations past, carried with them definitions of brokenness both in the individual and in the often shameful ways these individuals have been treated by communities of faith–and right here, at Grace-St. Paul’s, we cast aside that definition of brokenness as a brand on a community. This is a place of God’s love, and over the past few days, that love trumped brokenness with wholeness and togetherness in a very real way. Despite the sorrowful history between LGTBQ communities and faith-based communities, we all opted to get up and walk to the pool, together. And look what happened. We proved, conclusively, that this is a place of God’s love, and healing. No exceptions. And I’m stunned, humbled and grateful for that.
I know I’m going to wake up every morning, and look at where most of my right foot used to be. But my plan is to acknowledge that broken part of me, take a deep breath, and also acknowledge the painful progress and lessons that have come in the wake of this thing that happened to me. Every day, Jesus offers each of us that choice: we can lie in the shadow of the terrible things that have happened to us, or we can, through our faith, make our way to the edge of the water, together and whole.
I know what I’m going to strive for, each day. And may that be true for each and every one of you, as well.
I love you people.
Everybody–into the pool.