When the Spirit Shows Up Queer
Homily delivered on the first Sunday of Pentecost, at King’s Chapel in Boston, Massachusetts, June 9, 2019.
Acts 2:1–21 “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…
When the Spirit shows up we become a new people.
That’s what we learn from today’s reading in Acts.
When the Spirit shows up we become a new people.
That’s what we celebrate at Pentecost, on our liturgical calendar, the seventh Sunday after Easter. But this year Pentecost also falls on Pride Weekend here in Boston.
And so, since it is Pride, and since this church is graciously adorned with the multicolored rainbow flags outside, calling out like a beacon of hope to all those who pass by, I hope you will allow me to spend this homily considering what Pentecost and Pride have to do with one another.
Pentecost and Pride are both examples of when the Spirit shows up.
Now sometimes the Spirit shows up gentle, other times loud. Sometimes the Spirit shows up the same way as before, the same way we’ve always known. Other times the Spirit shows up unexpected, new, different from what we were expecting.
Dare I say — the Spirit shows up queer.
I know the word queer used to be a hate word, and is a pejorative against LGBT people, and so I want to say I am using the word here with reverence and respect, with recognition of the real damage and death it has done to so many of our brothers and sisters, as well as with gratitude for the resisters and activists, those like Queer Nation in the early Nineties, who reclaimed the term “queer” and gave it a new language of acceptance and belonging.
And it is with reverence that I suggest the Spirit showed up queer that Pentecost morning.
When the Spirit showed up, the Spirit didn’t come with a gender identity as a man or woman, and so you could say in that sense she showed up queer. But I’m using the word in the broader sense as well: the Spirit showed up queer because she showed up different, and unexpected.
Some other words in the dictionary for queer include strange, unusual, outlandish, deviant, extraordinary, baffling, mysterious, perplexing.
This last word perplexing is used in Acts to describe the reaction of the crowd when they saw the after-effects of the Spirit, when the Jesus-followers were excited and speaking foreign languages. Acts says the crowd was bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed.
What was this perplexing, queer, sight before their eyes? The crowd was surprised, and the disciples — they were surprised too.
Jesus had told them to wait for the Spirit, but they didn’t know it would come like this! That they, both men and women, would be the ones prophesying, and in other languages! That the Spirit would move unfamiliar sounds and words from their very own mouths.
I know what it can feel like to be perplexed. I know what it can be like to hear unfamiliar words rising within your soul.
Yesterday was my first Pride celebration since deciding to accept my own orientation, as someone who could be attracted to men as well as women. My first Pride since deciding to begin a relationship with a man, and my first since telling many of my friends and family.
I remember that perplexing night last September before I told my mom, I was visiting home, I wasn’t planning on saying anything, but that night as I lay in bed looking out at the full moon, I felt the Spirit giving me courage. I thought, “what if I told her tomorrow?” As scary as it seemed, I felt that would be better than to continue pretending to be someone I’m not. I wanted to show up as myself, even if unexpected.
In the morning I almost didn’t tell her, but with minutes before I had to depart, she asked me a question about a friend of mine — my friend that I happened to be dating. I took that as a sign, took a deep breath, and blurted out “he’s good. We’re actually dating.”
She was surprised. I was surprised. But she told me she loved me and sent me off with a hug and a car load of food for the week.
I couldn’t have done that without the Spirit showing up for me. And both of us need the Spirit as we learn a new language of acceptance, of real truth-telling, of prophesy.
I’m sure many of you have seen the Spirit show up as you learn that new language of acceptance, for yourself or for others.
Maybe you were here before those rainbow flags went up outside. Maybe you were part of that decision to put them there.
Maybe you remember your first Pride parade, and how perplexing it was — this new vision of humanity before your eyes.
Maybe your coworker, or cousin, changed their name and asked to go by gender-neutral pronouns, and maybe you still struggle with getting them right.
LGBTQIAP — do you know what all those letters mean? It can feel like a new language.
But that’s what the Spirit does. She gives us new language.
When the Spirit shows up, we become a new people.
But how do we know when it is the Spirit that shows up?
The great thing about the scripture in Acts is that when the wind came, and the fire burned, and the people spoke, even though it was unexpected, they recognized it as the work of God. It wasn’t how God had showed up to them before, but they saw that it was God anyway.
Of course, there were some who denied the Spirit and scoffed at the disciples, saying they must be drunk. And there are still many today who scoff at the Pride parade, questioning how that can be of God.
How do we recognize the Spirit? How do we know the Spirit of God is at Pride, or here at King’s Chapel?
I humbly submit three characteristics of the Spirit, three attributes we can learn from that queer Pentecost morning in Acts.
First, the Spirit is creative.
The same Spirit that created us and gave us life continues to breathe new life.
At Pentecost the Spirit was being creative, coming in tongues of fire, using the creative power of speech — that same power which God used when he first created the world with those words, “Let there be.”
And in response, Peter gets creative as well.
He takes the opportunity to hold an impromptu rally and a press conference.
He draws from their common scripture, the prophet Joel, but he re-purposes the old prophecy into something new.
You see, Joel wasn’t originally speaking to Peter. He was speaking to Jerusalem, hundreds of years earlier, warning them about an invading army on the way, and declaring that God would deliver them from that army.
But Peter got creative, and said the same Spirit that spoke to Joel is speaking to me now. He interpreted those scriptures in light of his current experience.
He even changed the words, turning Joel’s original “afterwards” into Peter’s interpretation “in the last days.”
He said it’s not just after deliverance that your sons and daughters will prophecy, but it’s in the last days — meaning now and every day until the end. Now is the time for Spirit filled prophesy because the Spirit is here, the Spirit showed up, and the Spirit is creating something new.
The Spirit is creative.
And who can deny that the spirit of creativity lives in Pride weekend as well? It passes that test with flying colors.
The second attribute is that the Spirit speaks from the margins of society.
Joel says I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. It’s not just for the powerful, the religious leaders, those in the pulpit, the well-to-do, the well-connected, those whose voice is respected in the public square.
No, it’s for everyone, and that means we have to listen especially to those who it’s harder to hear from, who society doesn’t respect.
Even if it’s difficult for me to come out as bisexual, I’m still respected in public as white. I’m still male. I have a good education and lunch money in my pocket. I still have great privilege.
I need to listen for the Spirit at the margins among immigrant lesbian women, and homeless LGBT youth, and those trans women of color who threw the first Stonewall bricks fifty years ago.
Joel says your sons and daughters will prophesy, young men and women — voices that were not supposed to speak in public.
The Spirit speaks through them.
The young, the old, those who are enslaved, both men and women, will speak the word of God.
The Spirit resides with those who are being enslaved, and exploited in any way: working for meager wages, being exposed to dangerous chemicals, those incarcerated, the undocumented workers who have nowhere to report the abuse they face.
At the Harvard Divinity graduation ceremony last month, Dr. Cornel West said “the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.”
That’s right. And God’s truth is speaking from the suffering margins.
We celebrate this weekend that Pride is speaking from the margins, but we can’t stop with one day of open celebration for those who have the privilege to celebrate. We need to look for the Spirit at the edges of our society, wherever queer or trans or other folk are still suffering. That’s where the Spirit is speaking to us.
The third attribute is that the Spirit affirms our humanity. Both our individual stories and our collective diversity.
When the Spirit showed up, each person got a part of it. There was one Spirit, but divided tongues of fire rested on each of them, an affirmation of each person’s humanity.
And when the Spirit spoke, she spoke all the languages they could think of. It says people from every nation under heaven were there, and everyone heard the words in their own home language. This is an affirmation of our collective diversity.
The Spirit did not speak in the language of the Empire that ruled over them all, nor did it speak in any official religious language — it spoke their common tongues.
The language of their abuelas and babushkas, the language of the food that auntie makes, and the stories that baba tells.
The field holler of the slave spirituals, the code talk of the Navajo — that’s how the Spirit speaks.
The Spirit shows up in our cultures, in our differences, in all the contours of our humanity.
The Spirit affirms our diversity. And the Spirit is at the Pride parade, affirming all of its diversity as well.
So how do we recognize the Spirit when the Spirit shows up?
It’s creative. It speaks from the margins. It affirms our humanity.
And now don’t be surprised if the Spirit shows up queer. Because creativity, and speaking from the margins, and affirming our humanity are all part of what we celebrate this Pride weekend, and hopefully every day.
So happy Pentecost, happy Pride.
Look at the new work God is doing. When the Spirit shows up, we become a new people.
I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, says the Lord.
Your gay sons and your lesbian daughters shall prophesy.
Your baby queers shall see visions,
and your fine old queens shall dream dreams.
Even upon the immigrant lesbian women,
the homeless gay youth,
the trans women of color.
In those days, I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Amen.