The following is a homily presented by Joshua Barrett, an OCC student attending St. Luke’s.
Just this past September I made a very permanent decision. I got my first tattoo. It is a Jerusalem cross, with equally long sides and four smaller crosses in its corners. I was extremely excited for this symbol to be on my wrist. My mother, however, did not share my excitement. This cross on my right wrist is not just an arbitrary symbol to me, it is a reminder. It reminds me that I am marked as Christ’s own forever.
In our church’s baptismal liturgy, after we baptize the individual, the priest marks their forehead with a cross of oil, claiming that the individual is Christ’s own for ever, and sealed by the Holy Spirit. “To be baptized is to recover that humanity God first intended” (Williams, Rowan). I needed to be reminded of that cross that I too carry, but in ink. It reminds me that I am unconditionally loved and accepted by God, while being called His beloved son. It also serves as a reminder that when I shake someone’s hand, I should seek the Light in them.
I did not always possess this awareness. To arrive at the point where I am know, it took a lot of personal struggle and confusion.
I am an openly gay man. I grew up in a religious and social atmosphere that was as stuffy and strict as the air lock at Carrier Dome, where being openly gay was not really a social norm. From very young I was taught that being gay was wrong. I was taught that to be gay, was to be somehow intrinsically disordered. Not acceptable. You can imagine that when I came to the realization of my sexuality, I was absolutely terrified.
For two solid years I lived in a place of self-loathing. I believed that If only I could change my sexuality, I would be able to be loved by God again. In the efforts to change myself, I hopped from church to church. At one point, I tried being a Pentecostal, ya know the ones that speak in those mystery languages when they were “slain in the spirit”? I was one of those for a while. I attended that church in the hopes that it could find a way of “curing me”. They obviously did not succeed. There was also a time where I simply did not go to church at all, sick of not finding answers.
I roamed around the spiritual life for quite some time. I was lost in a turbulent ocean of teachings and doctrines that would rock me back and forward until I ended up completely lost within myself and with God.
Every single night, I would pray only one prayer. Only one. I would ask God to take away this fault, deformity, and defect I felt I had. I felt completely isolated and alone. It was like God turned his eyes away from me. When I reflect back on that time in my life, I can only muster up an image of extreme chaos inside. There was no light in my eyes. None to have and none to share.
One night, I changed my prayer. I simply asked God if he loved me at all. In that very moment, something incredible occurred. It was as if God spoke to my heart, and said “I love you just as you are. You are mine. You are my son”. That moment changed my life. I discovered for myself just what God actually thought of me; that he rejoiced in me, exactly as he made me.
With this knowledge of my newly found acceptance, I came out to friends, who accepted me graciously and showed me love. But the challenge came, when I came out to my parents. My parents loved me unconditionally, and that was clear, but in their search for understanding they went to the family priest. This man made it extremely difficult for me, in my family and religious life. My family, was thrown into an immediate sense of extreme tension and struggle. My parents tried very hard to understand. They wrestled with my sexuality for quite some time. This was not at all something they expected. I specifically remember the screaming matches that were the result of me even bringing up my sexuality.
The family priest decided that I was simply just in a fleeting phase of my life, and made it clear of his disapproval of me. To this day, I am not made welcome in the very church that raised me from infancy. With the sting of rejection I searched in the wilderness, with only the Spirit as my guide, for a church community that did not just simply accept me, but celebrated me as a gay child of God.
One Sunday, I stumbled up the steps and through the bright red doors of the local Episcopal Church. Which also is named, St. Luke’s. In that building of sandstone and mahogany I found not just a parish family, but a whole denomination that accepted me and loved me just as I am. The liturgy was breathtaking, the hymns were majestic, the people, incredibly loving, but what really hit me was that all were welcome to God’s table. All meant all. The “all” included those who were lost and those who were found. All meant young and old, weak and strong, gay and straight, those who come to the altar often, and those who arrived there for the very first time. To see God’s radical welcome put into practice was amazing. It made me feel as though I belonged there with those people, and at the altar. Which of course, we all do in fact, belong.
Through the finding and acceptance I found in the Episcopal Church, I experienced God’s grace. As a spiritual refugee, I found a home. Now a confirmed and active member of the Church, I can say that we really don’t realize how lucky we are to be in a community of faith that proclaims God’s love for all, and is fearless in their welcome to God’s love. We have something special here, in our denomination. I wish I knew about a church like this when I was younger. People are looking for what we have to offer. I have experienced God’s love through this church, and I couldn’t be more thankful. Here, I have become more myself.
As one of my favorite Celtic theologians J. Phillips Newell said: “Grace…is given not to make us something other than ourselves but to make us radically ourselves”.
I think the most wonderful part of getting to share my story, is that God does not just call me his son, but that those words extend to each and every one of us. My tattoo reminds me of my baptism.
I don’t remember the details of that August afternoon, but I do know that the same love splashed on my forehead that day, is my sharing with Jesus in his family, that I am so lucky to have found. The cross on my wrist that will quite literally mark my skin forever, reminds me of how far I’ve come, and how grace will meet us where we are, but will never leave us where it found us. Sometimes it drops us off in the best of company.