Fr David's sermon on the first Sunday of LGBT History Month
By the grace of God I am what I am.
I wonder what first comes to mind when you hear the phrase “I am what I am”? I doubt that for most of us it’s this passage from St Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Our thoughts might turn to the great name of God that he gives himself in conversation with Moses: when Moses said to God “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ But that might not be what “I am what I am” makes you think of. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably got Gloria Gaynor’s pop hit playing in your head, even as I speak.
Who knew that Gloria Gaynor borrowed text from St Paul?
Our readings this morning are a collection of encounters with men who thought themselves unworthy but were used by God anyway. My opening quote was from St Paul who tells us he considers himself unfit to be called an apostle. In our gospel reading Simon fell down at Jesus’ knees, and said ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’. If we had heard today’s Old Testament reading, we would have encountered Isaiah saying “‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
They each were what they were, they couldn’t help their unworthiness, and yet God called them anyway, they couldn’t resist becoming the thing they were to become, the people that God called them to be.
In that phrase “I am what I am” we can sum up the Gospel. God rejoices in who we are, who God made us to be. Despite the flaws we see in who we are, God calls us each to follow and serve, and to be what we are in God, whatever that might be.
The phrase “I am what I am” and Gloria Gaynor’s wonderful rendition of it, often resonates loudly with one particular group of people who have too often been given by the church, far more than their fair share of a sense of their unworthiness: Those who identify as LGBTQ
February is LGBT History Month. Exploring and examining history is key to knowing who we are. As Christians our identity is rooted in the history of our faith: the history of God’s people and their journey with God, as told to us in scripture, and the history of the Church, the traditions, teachings and creeds that have been handed down to us. To understand any group, we must understand their history, and to protect and lift up any group that is persecuted or diminished, we must understand the history of that persecution.
Next Sunday we will mark Racial Justice Sunday. We can’t know what justice means in that context without understanding the history of how it has been denied. Holocaust Memorial Day was within the last few weeks. Remembering that atrocity helps us remember the danger of antisemitism and the racism that has led to other genocides. And remembering the accompanying persecution and murder of disabled people, gay men and Roma and Sinti, or Gypsy, people, reminds us of the many types of prejudice and persecution still alive in our world.
“I am what I am” should be a simple enough phrase for anyone to say, but the world over people are still persecuted for aspects of their identity.
The Gospel stands in stark contrast to that: it teaches us that God made us and knows us, and that God delights in all that God made. It teaches us that God loved us enough to enter our world, and that God in Jesus calls us to know freedom through knowing truth and honesty. Yet all too often, scripture is used to condemn, persecute and control: Not just gay and trans folk, but women, slaves, black people. In the United States and South Africa, the glorious gospel of liberty was twisted to support segregation and apartheid.
The God named “I am who I am”, says to each one of us, to each member of God’s creation: “I delight in who you are, in who I made you to be”
Like Isaiah and Simon and Paul, all of us are flawed, all of us fail, all of us are unworthy, Yet in Christ we are being saved, In Christ, God both makes and calls us worthy, God calls us children, heirs, beloved. God longs not just for us to be able to say “I am what I am” and know that God delights in who he made us, but to be able to say “I am who I am” and to know that who we are is God’s, for us to find our identity in God, and to own for ourselves God’s own name.
Yet so many around us see only their faults and flaws, they don’t know the worth they have in God, they experience the dismissal and discrimination the world throws at them, or they join in with it to make themselves feel better.
God took the man of unclean lips, Isaiah, and sent him to speak. God took sinful Simon, and made him Cephas, Peter, the Rock on which Christ would build his Church. God took Paul, a persecutor of Jesus’ followers, and made him an apostle. God longs to take each one of us, despite our flaws, and make us messengers, in word and dead, of his Good News.
I spent years believing that being gay meant God could have no use for me. When I was born in 1978, homosexuality was still illegal in many European countries, it had been decriminalised in England in just the previous decade I grew up under section 28, the legislation that made it illegal to teach children about gay people. I grew up believing that simply being gay was sinful, never mind doing anything about it, yet by God’s grace, here I am serving as your priest.
How many others are there who do not know that God loves them and calls them as they are? How often do we struggle to fully accept that for ourselves? How ready are we to be called messengers, prophets, fishers of people, apostles? Yet, by the grace of God that is what we are.
On her 21st birthday, Princess Elizabeth, as she was then, said “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service”. Today is the 70th anniversary of her accession to the throne. For 70 years Her Majesty The Queen has been among us as one faithful to that to which God called her. she has indeed devoted her life to service, and has spoken regularly and openly of the faith in God that sustains her. By the grace of God, she is what she is.
Are we ready to devote ourselves to the service of the Gospel, to so confidently and whole heartedly knowing ourselves as loved by God as we are, as called by God as our whole selves, that we are free to speak boldly by our words and actions, to tell others of God’s love for them, as they are, God’s delight in who God made them to be?
Are we ready to commit ourselves to working for justice in the church and in the world, for all who are oppressed, denied or overlooked because of who God made them to be?
Have we understood God’s love for us deeply enough to allow us to say and teach others to say:
I am what I am, I am my Lord’s special creation. I may be unclean, but I am cleansed by Christ’s perfect oblation. It's God’s world and God’s love that I take pride in, God’s world, and it's not a place I have to hide in. Life's not worth a damn, till you can shout out by the grace of God, I am what I am.