Easter Sunday, 1982

February 23, 2009

Service at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier
October 7, 2007
Daniel Wetmore

Chalice Lighting

A full stomach says a ripe guava has worms.
An empty stomach says, let me see. (Creole proverb)

We light this chalice for those with empty stomachs
For those who wish to see, for those who wish to be

First Hymn
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

Meditation

Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow,
not some more convenient season.

It is today that our best work can be done
and not some future day or future year.

It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater
usefulness of tomorrow.

Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work,
and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.
(WEB DuBois)

Sermon

It felt like a play, like I was in a play, if I could only remember the words being spoken I could write them down, but I knew I wouldn’t and then Stephen would stop and it was my turn and the words came, few and perfect and then Stephen was off again, pacing the floor, stopping by the bed, taking another can of beer off the pillar of six-packs. It was so like a stage, the big grey bed, the bare light bulb hanging from a cord in the middle of the room. The tired armchair in which I sat, the rusty sink in the corner into which Stephen would pee every 30 minutes or so, even as he kept talking, guiding me ever deeper into his life. Even the window was theatrical, the one window opening not to the street or the sky or color but rather the still gray air of a light shaft that penetrated the heart of the hotel.

An hour earlier I had been on a different stage, the shelter on 30th and Lexington. It too was spare and gray and held two actors, Charles and me. 8 am on an Easter morning, coming off the night shift and we had sent our sleepers into the street so we could sweep and mop and rearrange the tables and chairs for the day’s big dinner. I was a young Wasp seminarian, a recovering evangelical trying to find God, serve God, play God, among those living and dying in the margins of New York City. Charles was a merchant mariner, taking a break from the sea, older than me, a man of few words, as dark-skinned as anyone I had ever seen, large and powerful and new to the shelter.

Just the two of us, in silence, moving across the linoleum, weaving thru the chairs when the the social workers’ phone began to ring. It was 1981, before everyone had answering machines, before voice mail and ring tones. Back when phones had actual bells inside them, and they would ring until answered or till the caller hung up. It was the social workers’ phone, the city employees that shared our space and worked with the residents of SRO hotels. That phone never rang on weekends, or in the night and yet it was ringing. I looked at Charles. It’s not our phone Dan.
I know,… and it kept ringing. Whatever it is, it’s not our business. But Charles…there is a problem. The single room occupancy hotels were where the displaced went, the evicted who still had some funds, the prostitutes, the elderly, those who were on the edge of the edge..

Ring ring ring. Charles, I’ve got to answer it. Someone’s in trouble. They wouldn’t be calling. But there is nothing you can do.
If I hadn’t been there Charles would have probably answered it. He was no less kind or thoughtful than I, just a little less excitable. He shook his head as I picked up the phone. Hello?
A long silence. Hello? Silence. and then voices in a thick Puerto Rican accent pouring thru the line. Hello hello? We need help. Can you help us? There is a man in a room. It is very bad. I am not a social worker. I’m just a staff person here. But can you help us?
I don’t know. Please. Well, I can try. Charles stares at me, annoyed, thinking he is about to lose me to the city, to some other problem, leaving him to prepare a holiday meal for sixty people. Where is the hotel? I am on my way. I’ll be back Charles, I need to go. Helene will be here, she will help. He just shook his head.

Ten minutes later I am at the door of Stephen’s room and the clerks are knocking and telling me he’s locked himself in and they’re afraid he will kill himself and he’s going crazy. He looks at me thru the chain lock, fear in his eyes. I must say the right words, or look right, because he lets me in and I find my way to the stuffed chair and the stage. I have no script, just a kind heart, a willing spirit, and a chair. Stephen paces and talks and pees and peers. Somehow, when it is time for me to speak, my mouth forms the perfect words and he glances at me and is still a moment and then another torrent begins as he opens a new can or paces to the sink. Slowly a story emerges. He is maybe 30, older than me, average build, he might work in an office, nice clothes, articulate, not homeless, not frail. Over time his pace slackens, he stops drinking. He sits on the bed at times. And I just listen, a still point in a grungy room, thinking about the gray light shaft, realizing it is the only source of outside air, the rusty sink with one cold facet, the chaotic pile of enpty beer cans next to the neat pillar. And then it is time to speak and again the perfect words come and from I-don’t-know-where and always knowing I will remember none of them, and every time they work, like a key, and he takes me into some deeper room.

It was a simple story. Painfully simple. He was engaged to be married. He had just broken the engagement. The wedding had been imminent. It had happened before, with another woman. But this time was different. This was a catastrophe, because the real reason had come out. He was gay. And now his father knew. And it was Easter and the worst day of his life.

It took hours for the story to unfold and it ended with him sobbing, curled up, on the bed. I found myself next to him, cradling him in my arms. At the touch he stopped and looked up at me. For the first time he looked deep into my eyes and his were full of fear and questions, who are you, why are you here, why are you holding me? His body tensed.
I am holding you in the love of Christ, I said. It was all I could think to say and the only words I remember. He was Catholic and he knew what those words meant, or what they didn’t mean. They worked. His eyes closed, every ounce of tension left him, he became still. We entered a deep eye in the storm and it held him, and me and seemd to fill the room. And then, after the perfect amount of time, he uncurled, stood up, and in a calm voice told me he was okay, he would be okay, I could leave. And he thanked me.

I told the story to my field education class, we all had to share “events in ministry” People were quiet after mine. I was disappointed. I thot it was pretty good. On the way out a classmate stopped me. I want to talk to you Dan, about Stephen, can you come to my apartment, for dinner.

A few days later we met, in the rectory of a small Episcopal Church near Columbus Avenue. He was a candidate for the priesthood, more sophisticated than me and worldly. It is a nice apartment, with artwork and comfortable furniture and interesting statues, and he is telling me that usually no one answers the phone, in fact usually no one bothers to dial, and no one shows up with the arms of Christ or anyone else when those terrible moments happen in a gay or lesbian person’s life, and that those moments happen to all and they happen again and again. We generally go thru it alone. Just so you know….
On the one hand he was telling me this to curb my enthusiasm but with the other he was putting his arm around me, wanting some of that very tenderness I had shared with Stephen.

By the way. It wasn’t really the love of Christ, but I didn’t know that then. It was just me, the kindness of Dan, and perhaps a certain amount of my mother and thru her a little portion of Albert Schweitzer. I have no idea what Jesus would have done in that hotel room. My somewhat impish hunch is that he would have been intrigued by the light bulb the whole time, trying to figure out what it was.
I’m terrified to think what the apostle Paul or the Church Fathers would have done with Stephen. Paul believed that the existence of homosexuality was a sign that all of God’s creation, all of nature and humanity was corrupt and under the control of something called sin. The homosexual next door was living proof of the alienation of creature from Creator. To be fair he wasn’t a big fan of heterosexuality either, or hetero-marriage. To him marriage was an unfortunate expedient, a containment vessel for those who can not otherwise control their passions.

The Fathers elaborated on this theme and built a complex metaphorical ladder, with Mother Mary sitting on the top rung taking seminal words into her innocent ears, whispered by the angel of the Lord. Below her the celibates and virgins and “eunuchs for Christ” living in sexless isolation where even “particular” friendships were not allowed. Below them the chaste married couples who out of love of the spirit or some bizarre anticipatory Ozzie and Harrietism relinquish all conjugal rights. Below them those who actually do have sex but only when they feel God’s urge for a baby. And only of course the kind of sex that could actually make a baby. And so on and so on, down the rungs. I’m sure you can fill them in yourself– if you have nothing better to do, or if you don’t know the joy of a loving embrace, or if you hate your body.
Or you can call it what it is, or call it what I call it, the fevered speculation of touch-starved men cloaking their obsession with garments of denial. If there is a perversion afoot surely this is it.
It was all sex to these cranks, never intimacy, or companionship, tenderness, the long haul. If only they knew how overrated sex actually is. But then they were the ones who were overrating it. Undervalued, overrated, perverted.

This ladder is still with us though and other versions of it, some not quite so weird, fused into the spine of Western culture and whereever monotheism rears its head, petrified in our language, sowing trouble for the sexuality minorities trying to live their lives with sanity and grace.

I remember the first time I was called a faggot. I was 13. I had never heard the word before. So what do I do? Get out the dictionary. A bundle of sticks. Why would someone call me that? second definition: slang- a male homosexual.
So I look up homosexual…. of or pertaining to the same sex…. of or pertaining to… dicitonary speak…. the same sex. I think I know what sex is, but the same sex,…. the same as what? Somehow I find heterosexual.. of or pertaining to the opposite sex… the same confusion applies. Did you know that if look up faggot in an English English dictionary you won’t find male homosexual? Male homosexual is US slang. The British slang meaning is heretic. Heretic. Which leads us inexorably to buggery. From “bugger” which is from Bulgar, from Bulgarian of course, old English slang for heretic. You see a bunch of Bulgarians back in the tenth century perverted their Christian faith by rejecting the idea that Mary gave birth to God. They also believed that Jesus’s miracles didn’t really happen the way the New Testament said they did, that they were best interpreted “spiritually.” And they believed other horrors as well. Bulgarian became a byword, meaning “heretic” So look up heretic. the root-meaning of heretic is “self-decide,” choose for oneself. A heretic is a “self-decider”. The root meaning of orthodox? “correct opinion” see “group-think”. Emerson called words “fossil poetry” I call them fossil anthropology, fossil history,
fossil phobia, fossil hate. They are little mirrors in which we see ourselves, they show us how we work and how language evolves and devolves, how we treat each other and how we define the other.
Self-decider. As a heterosexual I have a lot of decisions to make, but not a lot of self-decisions. Which of these women am I most attracted to and how do I get them to like me. And what do I do on a date and what exactly is first base, second base, third base and O my god, pregnancy. But I don’t have to decide whether or not to tell my parents that I am straight. I don’t have to stand in front of the mirror and worry that the cut of my clothes might reveal that I am attracted to the opposite sex. I did figure out what that meant. I don’t face the decisions that Stephen faced. Or the dangers. I don’t need to be afraid of Paul or the Fathers with their phantasies about who or what I am, or why I am the way I am. I don’t have to worry about someone grabbing me and tying me to a fence and beating me to death or tying me to a stake and throwing flaming faggots at my feet. I can be me without being a threat, or threatened. Stephen has to decide whether to be himself or not and when and where he can be himself.

There is a line on the Vermont marriage certificate for the husband to sign, and one for the wife. another for the officiant. I knew where to sign. so did Jo, Josephine. And so did Tom, another friend from seminary and former minister to the Methodist churches up in Danville. A good preacher, thoughtful, warm, spiritual, and after years of self-decision, or as he might put it, self-indecision, gay. Tom can sign the officiant line, can preside over a wedding, provide counseling for couples, but he can’t sign the spouse line. WEB DuBois spoke of the dual consciousness that Blacks had to have in order to survive in a White controlled society. Talk to a gay or lesbian person about dual consciousness and you’ll get an earful. As long as Tom struggled with his identity, he could preach and minister, but when he settled down? Made his heretical “self-decision” found a loving partner, sorry Tom, there are certain things that the mono-conscious just don’t want to think about. God bless you, Tom, but take a hike.

This sermon was supposed to be about same sex marriage. I just can’t seem to get there. There is a joke I heard in seminary, about an Episcopal priest and a Baptist minister discussing the efficacy of different baptism techniques. Some of you may know that the Episcopalians sprinkle a little water on the forehead while the Baptists require full immersion. I feel like I should apologize for all the Christianity in this sermon. I’m sorry.
So anyway the Baptist was saying “full immersion” full immersion, all the way under. And the priest….. well, what about up to his knees… is that enough… that is pretty wet, and the minister says no! “full immersion” how about up to his hips? no, “full immersion” okay how about his chest, up to his chest? “full immersion” okay, says the priest, how about this, all the way in, all except for the ippity tippity top of his head.? No he cried… The ippity tippity top of the head is the most important part!!!
to which the priest responded, well that is what I am been trying to tell you all along.

If I was more clever I could rewrite that joke and make it about marriage. the feet of marriage, the hips, the chest, the breast, the head, the heart, And what would the ippity tippity top of the head of marriage be? Children? Sex? Companionship? Commitment? Love? Mutual acceptance forgiveness? Stick-to-it-tive-ness? What is it that makes marriage marriage? What should marriage be? Does it differ for different couples? And is it really such a great thing? Is it overrated? Just like sex, overripe like that guava, full of worms? Maybe yes, maybe no, but there are some mouths out there that are a little curioius, they want to know what it tastes like and I believe that what is good for the goose and gander should be good for the goose and the goose, and for that nice pair of ganders that just moved into the neighborhood. Even if it isn’t always so good. We are the masters of language. Language is our inheritance and to transform it is our birthright. Words are fossils and they are alive, ready to shift, ready to take on new meaning, new depth. We are the shapers and makers and breakers of tradition, not the other way around.

There is an ancient tribe, still in existence, in Nablus, in Palestine, about 600 strong. They call themselves The Shamerim, the “Keepers of the Law” the world knows them as the Samaritans. They are descended from people who followed Moses out of Egypt, from those who settled in the north, the so called ten tribes of Israel, the lost tribes who were not completely lost. They’re still there. Worshipping Yahweh, or Jehovah, the great I Am, as they always have, on Mount Gerizim, near Nablus. They were there, in Canaan, when the Judeans, the people of the south returned from their exile in Babylon. The Samaritans, these surviving Israelites, helped the Judeans start rebuilding their temple, in Jerusalem, but were soon repudiated. For a most marvelous reason. They worshipped God, the great I Am Who I Am, on the wrong mountain. They worshipped on Gerizim. Proper followers of Yahweh were to worship only in Jerusalem. Everyone knew that. Except the Samaritans. and so the Samaritan became the pariah, the archetype of the heretic, so similar yet so different.
And they are still here. Still worshipping the great I Will Be Who I Will Be on Gerizim. Their Torah is intact, Their ancient script, their sacrificial rites.

And there is another tribe, much older, far more numerous, widerspread and they have been helping to build temples and societies, to fight wars, and create culture for a very long time. But they too worship on the wrong mountain. Or that’s what some people say. They love wrong. They love the wrong sex. As if there can be a wrong sex. As if the Great I Will Be Who I Am disapproves. Well, excuse me. A temple is a temple is a temple!

A phone is ringing, some of us are being asked to expand our consciousness a bit, to open our hearts and minds, and to deepen the meaning of a word. Marriage. The request comes like a shaft of light, like a blessing, like a gift. Shall we answer it? Shall we say “Yes”?

Take us there, Paula,

(Paula sings “Somewhere” from West Side Story..
There’s a place for us…. etc

Parting Words
With gratitude for this mountain and you and your bodies, let us go forth
singing. hymn number…(De Colores)

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One Response to “Easter Sunday, 1982”

  1. Catherine Says:

    This is really lovely Daniel: poignant, thoughtful, beautifully written.

    It has been so long since I talked to you that I had forgotten that you were in the seminary. Perhaps you remember that I wanted to be a priest when I was younger also – and also had too many problems with the institutional church to move forward (also they had too many problems with me ;-)


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