The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Choral Evensong      24th February 2019
Becoming who God calls us to be
Ayla Lepine

Text:

Genesis 1. 1 – 2. 3

Matthew 6. 25 – end


All good things flow from the heart of God. That’s as true for the diversity of life on our planet as it is for the daily decisions that we make: what we wear, eat, say, and do. A connection between our Old Testament and New Testament readings tonight is nature, in both senses. In the first sense, the natural world – its rhythms, its origins, and its distinctive elements. In the second sense, the nature of things – the human condition, and the qualities of life that govern and sustain us, for outcomes both positive and negative.

The first chapters of Genesis are what theologian Simon Oliver describes as a ‘cosmic drama’, both controversial and influential not just in the history of a particular culture or group, but the past two millennia of innumerable debates. The earth’s abundant life is not the outcome of a few days’ work for God at the beginning of earthly time, but the development of 4.543 billion (thanks Google) years of evolution. Though some Christians might say otherwise, the geological and environmental facts are clear. Genesis reveals God as the source of life. It does not, nor should it, offer literal information about how bananas, pandas, and dolphins came to be. Rather, these first chapters of Genesis and their sequence of God’s activities lead us into the mystery and meaning of life, and they are not a textbook on the mechanics of biology.

When God creates the first humans in this narrative, God creates both of them – not just the man, or just the woman - in God’s own image. This is a foundational point for developing our understanding of the unique bond between our Creator and every human being. Everyone is made in the image of God, and precious to God. The meaning of what it is to be human, before anything else, before culture or education or economics, is to belong to God.

It is LGBT History Month. This year’s theme is ‘Peace, Activism, and Reconciliation’. Sexuality and identity are constant topics in the Church both globally and in this city. The importance of offering genuine inclusion is a priority for this community, as it should be for every parish. Our scriptures ask us to see that when God creates the world, and when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, redeems the world, the message is Good News: no person lies outside the boundary of God’s joy and desire. No one.

Transgender people: made in God’s image and loved by God. Intersex people: made in God’s image and loved by God. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, non-binary people, every person who has ever been or ever will be: made in God’s image and loved by God. This equality is the ground on which the relationship between human beings and our Creator exists. When I was preparing for baptism 20 years ago, I was also coming out. As a bisexual teenager, I was afraid of rejection, I hoped for hospitality, and my Anglican church in Canada welcomed me. That welcome was more precious than I can describe. It is a privilege that I can stand here among you, and that we can welcome one another, and that each of us can truly say to each other ‘you are accepted and loved, just as you are; you are welcome here.’ God is closer to us than our own breath, and we live – and love – because of God’s love for us. Out of this, we cry out against injustice and poverty. Out of this, we know that we must repair our fragile environment. Out of this, we strive to be accountable, when we pray that we may forgive and be forgiven, especially when it’s hard to bring ourselves to do so.

In 2017 the Church of England’s General Synod voted by an overwhelming majority to welcome and affirm transgender people. From the tone and content of a number of recent letters and articles in the press however, some refuse to be welcoming, and transphobia continues to be rife. In December 2018 our Bishops said: ‘The Church of England welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people, equally with all people, within the body of Christ, and rejoices in the diversity of that body into which all Christians have been baptized by one Spirit’.

Their document includes guidance for a service of transgender affirmation. The service focuses on the importance of a trans person’s chosen name, linking this to affirming their dignity and authenticity. The congregation gathers around this person who God infinitely loves. The minister leading the service addresses the trans person by their chosen name and prays that God’s life will flourish in them, so that as they grow in knowledge and experience of who they really are, who God truly calls them to be, that they ‘may confess his name this day and forever.’

God calls us by our name. We call God by God’s many names. And this naming helps us to shape and affirm our identities so that we can become the people God wants us to be. We can live proudly and proclaim Jesus’ love openly, rather than hiding from ourselves and others, afraid of whether we are truly accepted or not. This Church of England service, part of a wider welcome, rooted in the Genesis narrative, is a step along the way to fully embracing the true diversity of every person. It invites sharing the gifts that every person is given by God. When we are called by our names, and when we respond to God’s invitation to love and be loved, we bring what is hidden into the light, and we find God’s everlasting arms waiting for us in that light.

When the 17th-century poet and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral John Donne preached on Genesis, he took up the image of the Spirit’s energy over the deep waters. In Hebrew the word for Spirit is ‘Ruach’, breath (in our NRSV translation, ‘wind’). This is a feminine word in Hebrew. God is female, male, every gender, beyond gender. Donne’s language about God – as spirit, animal, male, female, fertile, is striking. No one, Donne said, ‘is so little that [they] can be lost under these wings’ and no one is ‘so great as they cannot reach [them]’. The infinite wingspan of God’s eternal love enfolds every person. When God ‘hovered over the waters’, Donne says ‘he sat upon the waters, and he hatched all that was produced…Be thou a mother where the Holy Ghost would be a mother. Conceive by him, and be content that [God] produces joy in the heart.’

Before God takes a holy rest on the seventh day, God looks at what God has made and declares it ‘very good’. The world and its endless proliferation of living things are not morally neutral. Creation, all of it, is Good with a capital G, the product of the source of love and peace and therefore a loving and peaceful environment. There is enough space for everyone in all their difference, at least in this time of creation before the tragedy of sin creeps in with its destructive cycles of damage and agony. The first pages of the Bible grant us an insight into God’s desires for what is now a broken world redeemed through Christ and longing for healing. God desires neither chaos nor violence. Our Creator does not want the privileging of one gender or way of being human above another.

One way of being human is not better than another. God desires you to be who you really are. Exploring what that might be could bring insights you may never have imagined. As Christians, our first priority is to love God, in doing so to love each other as God loves us. This is revealed in the ‘cosmic drama’ of Genesis. Our Bible gives us dynamic insight into the nature of God. Our scripture is a gift, developed in a wide variety of times and places and voices, in which we discover the eternal love God longs to share with every person. Let us enjoy this unique gift. Its words can, if we choose (and that choice is ours), help us to truly welcome and celebrate one another. Amen.

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