The following sermon was delivered inside the historic Kirtland Temple, the first Mormon temple constructed under the direction of Joseph Smith, Jr. The occasion for the gathering was a hosanna shout and devotional for LGBTQIA human rights.
Stranger in a strange land
Lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Merrily We Roll Along” come to mind for me as I stand at this historic pulpit: “Something is stirring, shifting ground—it’s just begun. Edges are blurring all around, and yesterday is done. Feel the flow—hear what’s happening: WE’RE what’s happening.”
Some formalities to get out of the way so that we can understand one another and speak the same language: when I refer to God, I will refer to them in the plural. The Hebrew word Elohim that is translated into the English word “God” in the book of Genesis is a plural word. The pluralization as I use it is to denote the grandness of that which we call “Gods” and as a signifier that they cannot be contained by the overly simplified personification of God as a single anthropomorphized individual.
By referring to God in the singular, we usually in our culture make the error of defaulting to a male gendered reference to Them. As far as gender is concerned, Gods must either be all gendered or no gendered.
I’m going to start off tonight by talking about sin, and sins that probably all of us have either committed or are committing right now in our own personal lives.
From there I’m going to move on to overcoming the sins of this world through the application of principles called the Yogyakarta Principles. There are 29 of them in total, but tonight I’m just going to focus on two of them.
How long we have wandered as strangers in sin
The allegory of the fall introduces to the Biblical reader the idea of sin as separation from the Gods. It was sin that severed Adam, everyman, and Eve, the mother of all living, from the presence of the Gods in the garden place, where they walked together and talked face to face.
The original sin that separated Adam and Eve from the Gods is different than many of us often think. The original separation from the Gods came—yes—from yielding to the hissing of that old serpent called the devil. This is true. But the nature of the sin, if I may suggest it, was yielding to the impulses of shame and hiding our true selves. It was not anything that the Gods did, but the proactive efforts of Adam and Eve to hide themselves that created the first actual interruption between the communion of Gods with their children. This sin—succumbing to shame and hiding ourselves—is the sin that directly causes us to wander as strangers to one another—to brush shoulders and sit next to each other every Sunday, yet operate without truly knowing our neighbor.
So many of us grew up under the crushing psychic weight of shame for who we are; shame for who we are drawn to emotionally and sexually; shame for our bodies and how we feel toward them. In true ripple effect, the impulse of shame that caused us to hide ourselves led an even more serious sin of omission to aggregate around us. You see, the master teacher from Nazareth instructed us in the way of our discipleship when he taught that the greatest two commandments are to love our Gods, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. But, how can we love one another if we do not know one another?
By succumbing to the whisperings of Satan and allowing our spiritual bodies to soak in the venomous poison of shame, we inadvertently became complicit in the work of personal destruction. Many of us created a closet—a bubble of hiding—that we carried around ourselves everywhere that we went. In some cases, the shame was reinforced with emotional and physical violence, and the shame became enmeshed with self-preservation and fear. In so many painful ways, we hid our light under a bushel. And in so doing, we got lost, and have wandered alone for far too long, as strangers in the wilderness.
Eve, in the Book of Mormon, is portrayed in a different light than she is in many more misogynistic interpretations of the garden allegory. In the book of second Nephi, a prophet named Lehi teaches us that Eve—as a type of Christ—foresaw that it was better for her to know the bitter so that she could more fully appreciate the sweet. In other words, the Eve of the Book of Mormon knowingly plunged herself into this sin soaked, shame soaked world of existence with a purpose in mind: Eve took the fruit from the tree of knowledge so that she, her helpmeet, and her posterity could become wise.
Wisdom. It is portrayed often in holy literature in feminine pronouns. The Greek word for wisdom, “Sophia,” is a fully personified woman. So compelling is wisdom in sacred literature, that we may say rightly that is it one of the hidden faces of the Gods. In the 19th-century, a young Joseph Smith Junior heard the sermon of a traveling preacher who read from the book of James in the New Testament, chapter 1 verse 5, which says frankly that if any of you lack wisdom, to ask of the Gods. For the Gods give wisdom liberally, and will not upbraid or punish you for seeking it. Joseph was so moved by the clarity of this promise, that he took it with him into the woods behind his farm house, and had a spiritual outpouring through prayer that has come to be known in Mormonland as his First Vision.
It was wisdom among all other riches of the world in the Old Testament that filled King Solomon and won him immortality in the pages of Hebrew writings. To draw his people ever and ever closer to the mysterious embodiment of this cherished gift from the spirit, Solomon drew up plans for a temple that would mark the spiritual center point for the devotional life of Israel. The holiness of the temple, and the return to the temple as the center point of supplication is a pattern that we follow tonight in gathering together in this devotional space. For we, too, like Eve, like Solomon, and like Joseph Smith, desire to overcome the shame, the wilderness, and the void that has separated us individually from the fullest measure of our creation.
We, the queer, live in the in-between places. It’s our noble birthright to be the intermediaries—the spiritual priesthood that takes humankind by the hand and escorts them from the mundane, across the in-between spaces that separate earth from heaven, Egypt and the promised land, and lead all souls to the paradisiacal realms of eternal spirit. This is the power we seek in our gathering here tonight—the ability to move between spheres, to move between garden to wilderness, heaven and earth, spirit realm and mortal body, and back into a new and enriched garden space, and to escort others into that enriched garden space and lead them there with us.
In 2006 in the city of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a series of principles were written in a gathering of scholars, legal experts, and international leaders to articulate the applications of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. The principles affirm that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity.
Principle 24: The right to found a family
Everyone has the right to found a family, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Families exist in diverse forms. No family may be subjected to discrimination on the basis of the sexual orientation or gender identity of any of its members. It us up to us to make sure that states shall take all necessary legislative, administrative and other measures to ensure the right to found a family.
I can’t think of the phrase “founding a family” without thinking of that great Old Testament patriarch Abraham. He is revered across thousands of years and by billions of human beings as a father of nations. The literalness of the fulfillment given in the spiritual promise to Abraham in the Old Testament is mind-boggling. Abraham is, like it or not, a father of nations. It is safe to say that Abraham represents a quintessential archetype, which is another word for pattern, of founding a family. And it is likewise safe to say that in following our own desires given to us by Gods to found a family of our own, we are following in the spiritual likeness of Abraham. Founding family is so deep in our spiritual marrow, that it shows up repeatedly across our revered scriptural stories and holy books. The depth of its importance to the human soul underscores the cruelty of denying and impeding queer people from founding a family for themselves.
Principle 23: The right to seek asylum
My favorite title for Christ in the gospels may be Messiah. It a term that has come to be associated with the role of a deliverer. In the Christian spiritual cosmology, asylum is what each of us are offered under the gracious wing of Jesus as we read of him in the gospels’ text. I think of the image of the Hunchback of Notre Dame holding Esmerelda the gypsy into the air on the rooftop of the cathedral and proclaiming, “Sanctuary!” The cathedral throughout the middle ages was traditionally the sacred place of asylum. No matter the crime or sin, if the individual soul took sanctuary in the cathedral, they were granted safe asylum. We pride ourselves in the United States quite brashly sometimes as being a “Christian nation,” and a city on a hill. What kind of holy land can we be if we do not extend asylum liberally and generously to those who seek it?
Faith to move mountains
So why are the churches in bed with this type of evil? As a historical point of comparison, let us consider the war fought out in the churches in the United States over the issues surrounding slavery. Arguments both for and against slavery were fueled by faith and religious conviction. What if the progressives had not utilized the pulpit to diagnose and treat the body of Christ when it was ill and fevered by the ongoing subjugation of human beings as property and capital? Who knows how much longer slavery would have persisted in this country, or—chillingly—if it would have ever been abolished at all. Likewise today, we cannot let those who work fulltime and overtime for the continued spiritual dehumanization of queerfolk be the only ones using the weapons of their faith in this culture war. And make no mistake—it is spiritual warfare with lives hanging in the balance. That is not prose. It is not poetics. It is cold, bloody fact. Whether it’s the fifteen year old gay young man in Orem, Utah who goes home early from church and ends their life by their own hands, the trans women of color in this country who are murdered with blood curdling frequency, the lesbian in Jamaica who is “correctively raped” in the streets and left to fend for herself, or the uncounted souls in Russia who live every day of their lives in fear of being found out lest state-sanctioned police brutality breaks open their head to make an example out of them. We as queer global citizens are in a war that we did not begin, but that we must finish.
When Jesus of the Gospels was crucified for the sins of the world, one of the spiritual manifestations of his victory was witnessed in its effects on the veil of the temple in Jerusalem. The veil split. It was rent. What does this mean for us? In what ways can we participate in the spiritual power of resurrection and tear open the veils around us and in the world? Tonight we call on archangels and the better angels of our nature to help us find insight, conviction, and guidance, that we ourselves may participate in the work to rend the veil over the earth. Gabriel, the messenger of strength. Michael the archangel who binds the cruelty and injustice of Satan. Raphael the healer. Uriel the light giver. We call on the better angels in our nature to rend the veils around the earth and make haste to escort others into the heavenly paradise shown to prophets and dreamers of the ages.
A spiritual tradition from which Joseph Smith drew as he crafted his expression of Christianity is Hermetics. It is based on the name “Hermes,” the Greek messenger god. Perhaps the most common Hermetic phrase is the couplet, “As above, so below.” Its spirit is captured in the Lord’s prayer: thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. I would like to share a Hermetic poem in closing that I hope reflects the straight arrow we must draw in the pursuit of universal human rights as both a physical and a spiritual imperative. It is entitled “I am a comet.”
I am a comet, shooting toward the sun,
Eager to rejoin a burning cauldron
Like the one from which I came
And unto which I am destined to
I am a comet shooting toward the sun.
The combination of my own inertia
And its gravitational pull on me
Hasten and accelerate the moment of our collision.
I am a comet shooting toward the sun,
And maybe one day the elemental gifts I bring,
Acquired from my own unique, queer journey
Through the universe
Will combine in just the right way
To eventually unlock a new secret
To a new way of life when the sun itself
Goes supernova and scatters,
Burning, glittering stardust outward,
In the grand procession that we did not create,
But in which we have the great honor to participate.
Yes, I am a comet shooting toward the sun.
In the names of the Mother, the Word, and the holy communities. Amen.