This sermon was preached by Miguel Escobar at St. Mary’s in West Harlem on June 25, 2023, and was originally posted on his website, The Unjust Steward: Wealth, Poverty, and the Church Today.
Good morning, St. Mary’s. Thank you for this invitation. It is truly an honor to be back here in this holy sanctuary and especially to be back on Pride Sunday. St. Mary’s holds a special place in my heart as it is the parish through which I joined The Episcopal Church back in 2005 and I carry a lot with me from this place. Or at least I thought I did. Coming here this morning, I realized that I’ve been misremembering St. Mary’s mission statement for some time now. Whereas St. Mary’s mission statement is the “be not afraid” church, at some point over the past twenty years I refashioned it in my mind into the “We are not afraid church.” A small but crucial difference.
Either way, what I’ve always liked about St. Mary’s mission is that it has never claimed to be the “I am not afraid” church. If you know me, you know that I could never actually live into such a mission statement. I listen to way too much news and my personal motto might as well be “I am a nervous wreck.” But even if “I am frequently anxious” about the direction this country is going in, about the renewed threats to LGBTQ+ people everywhere… Even if “I am oftentimes nervous”, to say that “We are not afraid” is to say something about what is possible in Christian community.
It is a reminder of what is possible when we come together in faith, courage, hope and love even in incredibly challenging, and increasingly dangerous, times. And that, my friends, is a great message to begin this PRIDE Sunday on.
This past Thursday, my husband Ben and I attended another Pride service – a Pride mass – at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church on 60th street near Columbus Circle. Ben is a Roman Catholic and has been involved in St. Paul’s robust LGBTQ+ ministry over the past year.
The mass was originally planned to take place at the Stonewall Inn National Monument. But, in a sign of the times, the National Park Service had to move it at the last minute due to some unnamed security concern. The organizers of the mass were worried that this last-minute change of venue would mean no one would come. But many people found their way, including four rather sour-looking protestors who stood outside with a large banner denouncing homosexuality as sin. And returning to this fact that oftentimes “I am afraid”, once inside I found myself wondering just how safe we actually were. Nevertheless, soon the service started, and I was reminded that a community gathered in joy is a force to be reckoned with.
The priest there, Fr. Paul Rospond, began his homily with an exercise that I’d like us to do here as well. He asked everyone to take a moment to pause and think of a single word of what PRIDE meant to each of us. So please, let’s take a moment to reflect on a word that PRIDE means for you. Do you have your word? Let’s say our word together after I say “Pride is…” PRIDE IS… // Some of the words called out that evening were strength, community, resistance, and visibility. PRIDE is also joy, love, and coming together.
Of all the words offered up, the word I want to focus on this morning is visibility because both Pride and today’s scriptures revolve around questions of who gets to be fully “seen” in our society.
In today’s readings, we hear the stories of two women who each experienced profound prejudice, and who, in fact, were not fully seen by people in religious authority. In the passage from 1 Samuel, Eli the priest “sees” Hannah walk into the temple to pray but he leaps to conclusions and misinterprets her silent prayers as drunkenness, and it almost sounds like he’s going to throw her out of the temple when he tells her to “put away the wine.”
Similarly, in the Gospel of Matthew, we hear a remarkable passage where Jesus’ vision of God is broadened by an encounter. At least at first, Jesus doesn’t fully “see” the Canaanite woman in her distress. All the woman wants is a healing blessing for her daughter, yet Jesus’ first response is to liken her to a dog.
Both passages describe responses from holy men – religious authorities – that are, sadly, all too familiar to members of the LGBTQ+ community – moments when what is needed is compassion and understanding, yet what one gets is condemnation and judgment.
Thankfully, we know that is not the end of the story for these women, and the real action of the story is how each of the women respond to the experience of being judged and condemned. For each of them respond with strength and issue a correction. Each of them respond with pride.
In Hannah’s case, she tells Eli that he has misinterpreted the situation altogether. For she is in the same boat as her ancestors Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel in that she cannot bear a child. All she is doing is offering a silent prayer. Hannah’s response makes Eli finally “see” her fully and understand more about the truth of her situation.
Similarly, in the Gospel of Matthew, again, all the woman wants is a healing blessing for her daughter. Yet because she is from a different people, a different tribe, she initially draws the ire of Jesus who tells her that he has not come to help her kind. Indeed, Jesus says that it’s not fair to take the food intended for children and throw it to dogs.
It’s a shocking exchange saved only by the Canaanite woman’s quick reply, for she returns, “Yet even dogs eat the crumbs that have fallen from the master’s table.” And maybe it was her quick wit, or the zing of humor, but something about her reply opens Jesus’ eyes to her full humanity.
In both cases, then, for Hannah and the Canaanite Woman, they had to fight for the blessing first withheld by these Holy Ones, and we know this has been – and will likely continue to be – the case for LGBTQ+ people for a very long time.
Sadly, this is not just a story happening within the Church. Right now, as so many of us know, this issue of who gets to be seen as fully human is a live question in many parts of our society. All around our nation – and indeed, around the globe – there has been a disturbing rise in violence and hatred against members of the LGBTQ+ community, but especially against our transgender siblings.
In the United States, we currently have multiple governors trying to outdo one another to make life harder for transgender youth. Their aim is to make these adolescents’ lives smaller and more fearful despite the fact that studies show just how dangerous a game this is. In the Anglican Communion, in our very own Church, we have a Archbishop in Uganda supporting a law that condemns LGBTQ+ people to death, and there are long-time conservative Anglicans whose cowardly silence is deafening. And closer to home, my friends, though I hoped this would not be the case, I fear we have a mayoral administration that is only exacerbating NYC’s homelessness crisis. This despite the fact that we know a large percentage of the youth on our streets are LGBTQ+ teenagers who have been kicked out of their homes by so-called Christian parents. And once again, we’re talking especially about transgender youth who are among the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community.
And finally, as a cis-gendered Gay man I believe I can say this with some authority: even within the LGBTQ+ community, my gay brothers, we have to do better at understanding just how bound up our lives, our safety, and our freedom are with the Ls and the Bs and the Ts and the Qs of our community — that we need to bring greater understanding, compassion, and our political power to the work of protecting the most vulnerable among us.
And so once again, at issue here is who gets to be fully seen, whose story gets to be told, and who has visibility even within the LGBTQ+ community.
Thus far, I’ve mentioned two instances in the readings from today where the matter of seeing – or not being seen – has been at play. But there’s actually a third reference to the act of seeing in the readings and I wish to end my homily there. In Psalm 113, we hear the psalmist praise the Lord our God, seated on high, who looks down / far below / on the heavens and the earth.
Now the psalmist doesn’t go into what God sees when she peers down on her creation, but the God that I’ve come to know over my life, the God that places like St. Mary’s have shown me, is a God who sees the full beauty and splendorous diversity of her creation. This is a God who sees a rainbow where we humans only see black and white, a God who sees a spectrum where we have imposed male and female. This is the God whose vast wisdom, compassion, and transcendent love goes far beyond our neat categories and capabilities of understanding.
The Psalmist says none of this but what the psalmist does say is that after seeing the beauty of her creation, God responds by “raising the poor from the dust, and lifting the needy from the ash heap; she gives the barren woman a home, and makes her the joyous mother of children.” This is a God who sees the full rainbow beauty of creation and responds with compassion and care for the most vulnerable.
And with such a God on our side, St. Mary’s, let us be not afraid.