In the first episode of the new season of Queer Eye, a kind of whole person makeover show on Netflix, The Fab 5, the hosts of the show, visit Pr. Noah, a Lutheran pastor in Pennsylvania.
We meet Pr. Noah who serves The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighbourhood. He is openly gay, but only came out later in life. Having grown up in a more conservative church, the negative and harmful remarks he heard growing up made a lasting impression, eroding his self-worth and self-confidence as a child of God. He was taught that his identity is sinful and that he needs to repent for being gay. Even though Pr. Noah was ordained in the ELCA, which now recognizes openly queer pastors, the years of being told he’s not good enough have taken their toll.
The hosts help walk Pr. Noah through the reasons he is carrying around so much hurt with him through the years. Why he lacks the confidence in how he dresses and presents himself, his shyness around inviting people to the parsonage for a meal, dating others, and generally looking after himself. The members of his congregation see it in his face, that he gives everything to the church, but doesn’t hold anything over for himself to be whole person. These issues can be a struggle for any pastor, but especially so for pastors, chaplains, or deacons who identify as 2SLGBTQIA+.
In the gospel reading, Jesus doesn’t exactly send out the Fab 5 of Queer Eye. The apostles are almost certainly not as good dresses or as well put together. They didn’t make it through limitless rounds in casting. They are more like the Pr. Noah’s answering a call, bringing their whole selves with them, messiness and all.
Yet there is some overlap in the Queer Eye and mission of the apostles. Jesus basically wants the apostles to carry on his own work, visiting strangers out in the world. Jesus calls the apostles with carrying out a whole person makeover. Helping people live more fully into a life of baptism, of shedding old clothes and old selves, in order to put on the garments of peace, love, justice, and grace. The Christian life is one of continual rebirth and so we too lend a hand to those who feel overburdened, who despair, who mourn, who are filled with anxiety, those who are sick and dying. We are sent into a world filled with the world’s troubles.
I want to focus on three themes in the gospel reading:
Jesus has come near
First, Jesus comes near. When Jesus says, “The kingdom or dominion of God has come near,” is another way of saying that God has come near through the apostles. God continues to be incarnate first through Jesus and then through apostles and all disciples. Disciples continue Jesus’ work.
When we hear the gospel reading, it is shocking that all the things Jesus outlines as part of the apostles job description are all the things Jesus has been doing in his ministry: healing, raising the dead, casting out demons, cleansing lepers. Taking a step back, these are all actions that correct wrongs in the world, whether around health or justice. Cleansing lepers involved drawing close to those who are sick. While that is precisely the thing we are told by public health officials not to do in a pandemic, what remains the same is removing stigmas, continuing to care for people, to check in on people in ways that are encouraged.
Casting out demons brings to mind the Black Lives Matter rallies and marches around casting out the demons of white supremacy. And we know those demons continue to have power in our communities, including here where we live. Looking on social media, I’ve read as many racist social media posts from people on the island as I did when I lived in Virginia. Just read the comments section of any news story that involves race or spare yourself and don’t read the comments. In any case we have a lot of demons to cast out, including within the church as well.
A friend shared a a news story about how every time Black Lives Matter surges in the news, white folks gather together and ask what we can do. Sometimes we organize book readings groups, and talk about racism abstractly, but rarely do we commit ourselves to tackling problems with direct action.
I think about the direct ways in which the wider church has responded to the threat of COVID-19, swiftly with taking drastic measures to prevent the spread of the virus. By comparison our response to systemic racism as church is anemic at best. When we look at how few people of colour there are in churches and represented in church leadership, it should make us feel shame.
What we need is a whole church makeover. We as Jesus people need to create our own Fab 5 team in each congregation tasked with helping guide real change. The reality is that when as church leaders we speak up, it’s more likely we receive pushback, urging us to stop talking overtly about racism. This is why we do the work with Truth and Reconciliation and Social Justice committees. Jesus is urging us forward to keep marching, to keep doing the work in meaningful ways.
Proclaiming the gospel is dangerous
This brings us to the second focus, proclaiming the gospel is dangerous. Jesus tells the first disciples:
“I am sending you as sheep into the midst of wolves. Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Jesus knows proclaiming the gospel is dangerous work. And we know the authorities prepared a cross for Jesus as a result of his public ministry. Not that we we need to become martyrs, Jesus already accomplished that, but we shouldn’t be surprised when we encounter resistance.
Commentator Colin Yuckman affirms that where Jesus’ kingdom and the world overlap resistance will be the strongest. People say they like the gospel and Jesus when it’s presented in a polite way. Their response quickly changes when the gospel challenges the privileges of the dominant group with the most power. Often there are expressions of empathy followed by swift backlash. We saw examples of this with the Black Lives Matter protests in the US. As white people we had watery eyes and responded with empathy, up until things got chaotic. And then we said, we liked revolution until we didn’t like it anymore, and we drew a line wherever we felt like drawing a line, and blamed Black people for wrecking something that started out beautiful.
And yet the reporting showed that most of the violence came both from white police officers and white protesters or looters who took advantage of a volatile situation. Black people knew they would be punished for stepping out of line and often their calls for people to listen to their leadership were rebuffed. And yet our allyship as white folks cannot end with wherever we draw the line. We are needed to stand alongside Black neighbours through thick and thin.
I think about Pr. Noah in the Queer Eye episode. I follow him on social media and saw that he has become bolder over the last year since the episode was made. He was at a Black Lives Matter rally in Philadelphia, speaking out, lending his voice. The care and confidence he received from Queer Eye, gave him confidence to find his voice.
Sometimes we too just need a boost, some encouragement to find our voices. The world is looking for leadership. And if we wonder what role the church can play in 2020 and beyond, here is an opportunity. Most people don’t know we are here. They drive, cycle, and walk by our building, and are oblivious. We have a big opportunity as Jesus people to take up our calling from Jesus, to put on our walking shoes, to march, or roll, or shuffle, or join the livestream, and support our neighbours.
Jesus says, “Be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” In other words use our heads. Make things better and get out there and do gospel work, but don’ be dumb about it. We need to pick our battles and choose our goals carefully in line with Jesus’ mission.
Unlike Queer Eye, we don’t have a whole production team and big budget to make everything picture perfect. Life is messy. We are going to get our hand messy doing this work and that’s okay.
Proclaiming the gospel is an act of Grace
This brings us to our third point, which is Gospel is grace. Jesus even says, don’t worry about words, the Spirit will speak through us. That advice even worked for Moses who had Aaron to help him with public speaking. We don’t have to have it all worked out. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Grace guides us and sustains us in all we do.
There is a point in the episode of Queer Eye in which Pr. Rohrer, another queer pastor, is brought in to bring a message of grace for Pr. Noah. To paraphrase they ask, “Would you ask a teenage kid why they didn’t come out sooner?” Pr Noah replies, “No.” “Then why can’t you give yourself the same grace?” This exchange is a turning point in which Pr. Noah receives the same grace he has proclaimed to so many others. Finally he is able to receive God’s Iove.
Friends, we need God’s love too. I know we have friends and family who are dying who who have died. We are sad, heartbroken. We can’t always be by their bedside because of COVID-19 restrictions. We feel helpless watching people struggle whether it’s another province or right next door. I get that. Jesus gets that. We all need to lean on one another in these times.
When we talk about marching, we know not everyone is up for the walk. Some will be cheerleaders on the sidelines and that’s okay. It’s not about comparing individual contributions than it is the collective response. Anyone who has worked on a farm or work crew knows the work isn’t done until it’s done. But there are still break times, time for meals, time for rest and sleep. We are good to anyone if we can’t function properly. So we lift one another up in times like this.
That too is part of our own Queer Eye makeover as people of God, granting one another grace, and space to breathe. It also means sometimes when someone asks what they can do for us, we take their question seriously. We accept help and a hand from siblings in Christ. Together we can do this!
As we wrap up our conversation this morning, I want you to go out and see that first episode of the new season of Queer Eye if you have Netflix. Maybe we can even organize a watch party sometime and chat about it afterwards on-line. That would be fun. As we wrap up our conversation this morning, I want you to go out and see that first episode of the new season of Queer Eye if you have Netflix. Maybe we can even organize a watch party sometime and chat about it afterwards on-line. That would be fun.
I want you to remember the three foci from this morning:
Jesus has come near;
proclaiming the gospel is dangerous;
And gospel is grace.
Trust that as Jesus sends us out into the world as church, as people of God, the Spirit is filling us with courage and words to share with others. This is what evangelism looks like in our time and place, marching and cheerleading, and building one another up in Jesus’ love. Amen.