Exodus 15.19-20; 16.1-3
Luke 15.1–3, 11b–32
Last Sunday we welcomed Pastor Alex Pittaway, who brought the message to us. Alex is Pastor of MCC, the Metropolitan Community Church in Brisbane—a church that has for 40 years been a safe haven for the LGBTIQ community. He is also recognised by the Uniting Church in Queensland as a Chaplain at Emmanuel College at the University of Queensland. Alex describes himself as a progressive evangelical and is passionate about Jesus, social justice, the environment and combating LGBTIQ bullying in schools.
It was a delight to have him with us. Here is his sermon:
Good morning. Would you pray with me?
I’d like to start by thanking Ariel and Rev. Paul Walton for this invitation to speak here this morning. You have a wonderful congregation that has shined the light of the inclusive Gospel of Jesus for so many years not just for the LBGTIQ community but anyone who has experienced marginalisation for so many years.
This morning I’d like to share with you my own experiences about what it means to be part of the LGBTIQ community from a Christian perspective. I want to start by acknowledging my own limitations: I speak as an educated, privileged, anglo-saxon male who does not have to experience the realities of living as a person of colour or as a person with a diverse gender expression. Never the less I’d like to share some heartfelt experiences backed up with some solid research as we ponder what comes next for LGBTIQ inclusion now that marriage equality is a reality and that most legal discrimination against the LGBTIQ community is gone. We have never lived, in Australia at least, in a better time to be LGBTIQ. Yet why do I feel, despite all these advances, that something is not right. I don’t pretend to speak for the entire community, but I do want to speak for myself.
The Israelites said to Moses on that dry, barren desert, after celebrating their liberation from Egypt “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
Scholars say it is likely the Israelites had supplies with them. It is likely that they had taken livestock with them for food. Even if they didn’t they had just witnessed God part the Red Sea for them and deliver them, a poor disenfranchised nation of slaves, from the most powerful Empire of its time. Yet they were so anxious they thought they would die. They were so anxious they thought God would abandon them. They were so anxious they thought, they acted, as if they didn’t know where their next meal would come from. When you have spent most of your life as a second class citizen in the eyes of the nation, a sinful abomination in the eyes of the conservative church (which is most of the church in Australia), when anti-bullying programs that would have made the difference to a happy schooling are seen as a danger to children, is it little wonder that a marginalised people are anxious about where their next meal comes from. As a gay Christian of faith, I have seen my community come out of the shackles of state sponsored discrimination in Australia, we have left Egypt, yet I fear we will wander the desert for a generation until that anxiety of knowing where the next meal will come from is gone.
What do I mean by anxiety over where the next meal will come from? In an article in the Huffington Post by author Michael Hobbes, he coined a phrase: ‘minority stress’. Even with legal discrimination gone, even when we have been freed from slavery, as a minority it takes extra work just to get out of bed each morning and exist like everyone else.
I was fortunate enough to spend three years in the United States in Indianapolis where I trained to be a Pastor at Seminary. I was blessed enough to learn at a Seminary that marched in the gay pride parade, that had its own LGBTIQ group, that had staff, students and faculty who are openly LGBTIQ, a seminary that mourned together when the Pulse massacre happened at Orlando. In my first year I met a wonderful friend, whose real name I wont use but lets call him Sean. A kind hearted, decent young man near my age, married with a daughter at the time. Sean would commute from his small rural town in Indiana where he was a provisional minister in a progressive mainline church, to complete his studies. Sean and I would talk for hours and hours. As a teenager I didn’t have many friends in high school. I was the shy, skinny kid who always sat up the back, into computer games, watched too much sci-fi on tv and was painfully shy. Anyone here a fan of 1960s music? How about folk music? Anyone ever heard of singer Janis Ian? Well, Janis Ian put out a song called ‘At 17’, and the first time I listened to that song was when I was 17. My life as a teenager was that song. For those of us who knew the pain of Valentines that never came, and those whose names were never called when choosing sides for basketball.
I grew up in a fundamentalist household, in a fundamentalist school and my entire life was a socially awkward, painfully shy, extremely isolated teenager in a fundamentalist church, Hillsong. I never had the close friends other people in the church seemed to have.
So here I was at last, I’m at Seminary, I’ve got a new group of friends, the friends I always wanted, at last I’m not consigned to this gay ghetto of friends anymore. Sean and I had a very close friendship. We would hang out several times a week and share our deepest struggles in all aspects of life.
Then one day Sean came back from a trip overseas and all of a sudden the calls stopped. I figured he’s graduated so it might be hard to stay in touch. But he was still calling my other seminary friends. One day I texted Sean because he wouldn’t return my calls and I asked him Sean, if there’s something I’ve done, I’m sorry, can we work through things, I thought we were friends and you said we’d always be friends. I didn’t hear back from Sean.
Two years later I get an email. Because Sean is moving to Indianapolis and ministering at a church nearby he felt he had to reach out to me and explain why he cut me off because he suspected we’d be in the same circles again. He said to me that for months he was holding onto the belief that I was attracted to him and attempting to have an affair with him. My world was rocked. Never in my life did I ever think of Sean as even remotely attractive physically. To me Sean was the friend I wish I had in high school, the brother I wish I had as a child. When you experience constant rejection as a teenager and as a child, is it little wonder that you grow up into an adulthood with a complex around rejection? For me I had a complex of rejection, a fear despite all the resources being around me, an irrational fear of where the next meal would come from. An anxiety that waiting around the corner with every friendship and relationship is rejection. Because of that anxiety, after I got over the shock of Sean telling me he cut me off as a friend with no warning I reflected that perhaps as a friend I did hold onto that friendship a little to tight. After a few hours hanging out with Sean I’d say no, don’t go home, lets watch some more tv, no don’t go lets play more board games. The real killer with anxiety is that when you become anxious about losing something you hold on to tight and your anxiety of rejection becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The experience of many LGBTIQ people in their formative years, even if they live in a fully accepting family in a fully accepting city (not a guarantee even in Australia) we still carry the same fear that the Israelites felt of anxiety. Of not knowing where the next meal will come from. Of thinking that slavery is just around the corner again, that rejection is the ‘Normal’ of your life.
In the Huffington Post Article ‘Why didn’t gay rights cure the shocking epidemic of gay loneliness?’ Hobbes lays out some horrific statistics. In context of amazing advances in LGBTIQ equality these statistics don’t seem to make any sense.
In a survey of gay men who recently arrived in New York City, three-quarters suffered from anxiety or depression, abused drugs or alcohol or were having risky sex—or some combination of the three. Despite all the talk of our “chosen families,” gay men have fewer close friends than straight people or gay women.
One particular quote really underpins where these statistics are coming from.
“Marriage equality and the changes in legal status were an improvement for some gay men,” says Christopher Stults, a researcher at New York University who studies the differences in mental health between gay and straight men. “But for a lot of other people, it was a letdown. Like, we have this legal status, and yet there’s still something unfulfilled.”
In the Netherlands, where gay marriage has been legal since 2001, gay men remain three times more likely to suffer from a mood disorder than straight men, and 10 times more likely to engage in “suicidal self-harm.” In Sweden, which has had civil unions since 1995 and full marriage since 2009, men married to men have triple the suicide rate of men married to women.
In Canada, Salway eventually discovered, more gay men were dying from suicide than from AIDS, and had been for years.
“We see gay men who have never been sexually or physically assaulted with similar post-traumatic stress symptoms to people who have been in combat situations or who have been raped,” says Alex Keuroghlian, a psychiatrist at the Fenway Institute’s Center for Population Research in LGBT Health.
Gay men everywhere, at every age, have higher rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, incontinence, erectile dysfunction, allergies and asthma—you name it, we got it.
Gay men are, as Keuroghlian puts it, “primed to expect rejection.” We’re constantly scanning social situations for ways we may not fit into them. We struggle to assert ourselves. We replay our social failures on a loop.
A 2009 study suggested that gay men who were more linked to the gay community were less satisfied with their own romantic relationships.
A 2015 study found that gay people produce less cortisol, the hormone that regulates stress.
All of these unbearable statistics lead to the same conclusion: It is still dangerously alienating to go through life as a man attracted to other men.
Why is this so?, you may be asking. I had those same questions.
After waking up one morning and getting that email from Sean, I started to self regulate. Self regulating the way I spoke to heterosexual people, when passing of the peace would happen at Seminary I would be less inclined to hug people and give a handshake and avoid altogether some heterosexual men who I didn’t trust. When people were talking about their relationships I would have to heavily regulate what I said about my romantic life for fear of someone getting the wrong idea and thinking I was coming onto them. When you grow up as an LGBTI person, you see others coming onto those who they are attracted to, and if it goes wrong it’s a point of comedy. If someone misinterprets your intentions and thinks your coming onto them, it can get you bashed up. So LGBTIQ people have had to police themselves for their entire life, even if they live in an LGBTIQ friendly environment.
Policing yourself like that has an effect. Not only does it make you primed to expect rejection at every corner it makes you anxious of where your next meal will come from and that has disastrous effects on your mental health.
Other minority communities experience lower rates of depression and anxiety when they seek out their own community, hence the proliferation of ethnic communities in Australia. I wish I could say the same effect was true when LGBTIQ people seek out their own. According to Hobbes, Several studies have found that living in gay neighbourhoods predicts higher rates of risky sex and meth use and less time spent on other community activities like volunteering or playing sports. A 2009 study suggested that gay men who were more linked to the gay community were less satisfied with their own romantic relationships.
Why for so many in the LGBTIQ community is the community itself a cause of stress. 3 words: ‘In group discrimination’.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they grumbled that at least under Pharaoh they had a meal on their plate. The Israelites had accepted the reality of slavery on their lives and gotten used to it. The discrimination and the self monitoring and the self policing that LGBTIQ people, particularly gay men, experience as teenagers is then revisited on their own community:
You’re not masculine enough, you’re not muscular enough, your value is seen in how straight acting and attractive you are, you’re not young enough, you’re the wrong race.
These stresses of conformity are amplified even more if you are a person of colour. SO many LGBTI people adopt the same thinking that saw them in the closet and project that thinking onto others and themselves even after years of being out.
But here’s the good news. I don’t believe those shocking statistics are the end of the story. In the Exodus reading today the Israelites are in the wilderness. Wilderness stories are prominent in the Bible, Jesus was in the wilderness and tested for 40 days, John the Baptist was in the wilderness and proclaimed ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’, wilderness stories are powerful compelling journeys of testing but also triumph. The wilderness story in Exodus tells a story of a people and how a people overcome adversity, much of it self inflicted, to find the promised land.
The story of the Israelites is the story of growing up. From childhood, to adolescence to adulthood. As children the Israelites under Egypt their lives were completely controlled by Pharaoh. They left childhood and entered adolescence, those awkward rebellious years where they were finding their identity. And in adulthood they finally trusted God and found the promised land.
My experience of the LGBTIQ community and the good news of God that I believe in, is that we to are on a journey to find the promised land. In Australia at least we have cast of the shackles of slavery, the shackles of legal discrimination. Now we find ourselves wandering in the desert, trying to find the promised land. A promised land where we don’t face such shocking mental health challenges, where we have a place at the table. We are not at the promised land yet. There are still too many stories even in Australia, even in Brisbane, of people I minister to, who are made homeless by their families who reject their children after coming out, who are cut off from their children after being their true gender, there are still too many stories of oppression to say we have reached the promised land. Still too many, most in fact, churches who are either openly hostile to LGBTIQ community or who practise fake Christian love. The fake Christian love of being welcoming but not affirming. Of saying we love you and welcome you but don’t you dare think we approve or will celebrate your marriage, don’t you dare think you are allowed to volunteer in this church. We still have too many churches that say they love gay people but are hugging them and slapping them in the face at the same time, thank you Hillsong. And then we have the perversion of the oppressor feeling oppressed.
We are far away from the promised land, but my invitation to you today is to take that journey with us. My invitation is to help us find ourselves in this time of desert wandering. This liminal space in between oppression and the promised land.
How can you journey with us on this journey to the promised land?
For Christians, how can you help arrest and turn around the shocking levels of isolation in the LGBTIQ community, which I believe reflect something as well of the shocking levels of isolation in the wider community?
- Pastoral Care: We need a pastoral care that is deeply sensitive to the needs of the LGBTIQ community. We need clinical and spiritual practices that make sense for our community.
- Friends that can tolerate discomfort.
- A place at the table. A role in families. Rights of passage that are encouraged.
The good news is that change is possible.
The good news is that we worship a God who is faithful who hears the cries of the Israelites who groaned under oppression. We worship a God who hears the cries of our LGBTIQ sisters and brothers. Who is raising up a generation of LGBTIQ Christians to bring about a second reformation in the church. We worship a God who will walk us through our deepest fears and anxieties, that we can trust a God who provided for the Israelites, who can provide for us now. Be encouraged my friends. Yes, gay rights did not end gay loneliness. But Dr. Martin Luther King said:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.
Will you walk with me?