Grace Church in New York / The Easter Vigil / April 8, 2023
Genesis 1:1-2:4a / Matthew 28:1-10
This is the night! This is the night when we tell the stories of salvation, the stories of our journeying from one place to another, the stories of transitions: from the void to creation, from slavery to freedom, from death to life, from the dark, to our handheld flames, to the bright light and flowers and joyful music of Easter. This is the night!
It is also the night for the four newest members of the household of God: Thomas, Marigold, Brandon, and Gene, who were baptized into the death of Jesus Christ and made new in his resurrection.
We’ve got two babies and two adults. Tonight is about telling stories, and so I want to tell you about these people. Let’s start with the babies: Here’s what I know about Thomas and Marigold–almost 6 months old and almost 18 months old, these two babies were so desired by their families, that love brought them into being, from the void to creation; like God made the world, these babies came into it. These two babies each made their grown ups into parents. Thomas made John a parent. Marigold made Cathy and Matthew parents–new roles for these adults created by the tiny bundles who came into their lives.
Now the grown ups: Here’s what I know about Brandon and Gene–these two, who only met each other briefly through baptism preparation here at Grace–share a common grounding in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, coincidentally in and around Boston–where they were taught to think deeply, to have curiosity for life, and respect for creation. Each of them came to Grace seeking–Gene came with his wife Margaret; Brandon came through Canterbury chaplaincy, as an undergrad at NYU. Ultimately they have both landed at the baptismal font, the waters that co-mingle with a trinitarian understanding of God, entrance into what Christians believe: that Jesus isn’t just a cool guy (he IS a cool guy, but not just a cool guy!)–but that Jesus is one with God and the Holy Spirit, and that in this trinity,
God wants us to find out something about who we are and why we are.
Who are you? I’ve only scratched the surface about who these people are. Who are you?
Telling stories helps us figure this out I think, so I’ll tell you some about me:
When I was a child, I was very studious and very solitary. I was afraid of a lot of things. I was really afraid of dogs and cats. And I was afraid to speak up — shocking, I know, but I was! One time, I got invited to a friend’s house for a sleepover on a Friday after school but I knew she had a dog. And so when we got off the bus, I made her go into the house first to make sure the dog was in the crate. But I had to pee so bad. My fear paralyzed me, and I wet my pants, waiting on the sidewalk outside her house. That’s how afraid I was.
At a parent teacher conference later that year, my first grade teacher told my parents that she was worried about me, because I was the most serious child she had ever encountered in her many years of teaching.
When I got to high school, I wanted to audition for the school play because I love musical theater. But the musical was Crazy For You–a Gershwin musical with a lot of singing and dancing and the girls’ chorus had to wear these little tops and little shorts. And you had to know how to tap dance. So even though I love musicals, there was no way nervous-me was going to audition because there was no way I would show anyone my midriff or my tap dancing. So instead I waited for the Fall, and signed up for a one-act comedy about an old woman who sat on a park bench, because I thought I could handle being totally covered up and sitting down.
Something happened on stage–something was revealed–when I spoke the words of this play, and the audience roared with laughter, and I had succeeded. It changed my whole demeanor at school. At the open school night that semester, the headmaster of the school told my parents that I was the funniest and most bold student he had ever had in his 30 years of teaching.
Deathly serious or wildly funny? Scared or bold? Who am I?
Another transition story: The first job I ever had in New York City was at a small talent agency for actors. My boss was a middle-aged gay guy named Gary who really liked me and took me under his wing. We were going through headshots after a showcase and I was giving him my feedback. This one kid in particular had been so good, I told Gary we should sign him! And Gary said to me, ‘Oh my God, you’re so straight. You’d never let a cute boy get away.’
I remember feeling like it was a compliment. That he was saying my taste was good at this weird profession he was mentoring me in.
But later it would ring in my ears. Am I so straight? I wasn’t sure WHAT I was. I was constantly asking the world to help me figure it out. And Gary’s gay, I thought to myself, so he must know.
It wasn’t just Gary, of course, but a lot of looking to the world to try to find who would reflect me back to me; I felt at sea with my own identity.
Now, nearly 20 years later, I’m married to my wife Caitlin. We have two kids, Harry and Gus. I’m gay–I love that label now–but I didn’t always know if it fit.
Straight or gay or bi or what? What’s authentic, who’s the real me? Who’s the real you?
There is an idea in our popular culture that we all have these true identities living inside us, and all we have to do is dig deep and figure out who we are to be our “real” “authentic” selves. And often those selves match up with who we truly were as a kid, deep down inside. As Lady Gaga sings, “Baby, I was born this way.”
Before the world hardened us, who were we? Who are we deep down?
But this has never sat exactly right with me. Because let me tell you, that seriousness, that worry, I had as a first grader, that was deep within me. As deep as you could ever go. And it was real and authentic. I was baptized when I was a baby, so nothing magical about my new life in Christ had protected me from the anxieties of childhood and adolescence. But I was, slowly, sanded down in some ways. The world didn’t harden me, or hide who I was; instead, it softened me. It changed me, and revealed new parts of me. I have changed. And change is good.
But change is also scary. It can be scary to figure out who we are, who we are becoming, who we want to be. Speaking to the newly baptized tonight: It’s scary when you’re in your 30s or your 20s. And to the parents out there, it can be really scary when you have a baby. Who are you, little baby? Who will you become? How can we help you and shield you from every evil?
It’s why I love the prayer at the end of our baptismal liturgy: “Sustain them, O Lord. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”
God knows that our lives are long journeys, and that baptism is not a quick fix. We need to remain inquisitive and discerning, we still need courage and perseverance. Baptism doesn’t fix us; Rather, baptism is a new birth IN TO the journey of life–made easier, made possible with God.
There are people whose journeys are particularly threatened by our society. In particular tonight, I am thinking about our transgender siblings, not only because we celebrate our beloved transgender brother Brandon’s baptism, but because bans on gender-affirming care for minors became law in Idaho and Indiana this week, meaning children already receiving this care with their doctors’ and parents’ guidance and support, will have to stop, and soon.
Gender-affirming care is nothing short of a miracle for transgender children. To restrict its access restricts the lives of these children of God.
Why it is so important for us to discuss this in church together on Easter night is because so much of the support for this legislation is being touted as faith-based, as a protection of religious liberty, as if trans lives posed a threat to Christianity, instead of the other way around.
Perhaps some of this comes from a mis-reading of the creation story text we read tonight:
“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Genesis says and Jesus reiterates that God created humanity male AND female. The tendency we have–with our obsession with simple, clear answers–is to hear this as, “God created them male OR female”–as in all-of-humanity is male and female, but a particular person is male or female.
But that is not what the text says. The text says that when God created humanity, God made them “male and female.”
In fact, the text says that we are created in God’s image, and so we all look like God. Whatever kind of person you can think of looks like God. God doesn’t just look one way, then. Like a Walt Whitman poem: “I am large;” we could hear God say. “I contain multitudes.” And so can each person.
What I most appreciate about the transgender witness is the way that it literally embodies both/and thinking–Anglican theologians know, this is a very Episcopal way to think–instead of the singular “either/or” approach of the secular world. Transgender people cry out against facile categorizations and easy answers. To many, it’s a minority voice that is not large enough to take seriously. Do we really want to change our language structures, our pronouns, our boy-girl school system, our system of restrooms, for such a small group of people? You can hear it now, can’t you, the person who says, “I’ll NEVER use they/them pronouns for someone” or, “changing the bathroom sign is going too far!”
But how about this statistic? Transgender people make up about 1-2% of the population. Pretty small? Well, worldwide it’s 60-120 million people. That’s bigger than the Anglican Communion. And in this country, transgender people definitely outnumber Episcopalians.
The church must do better. And, if you’re here tonight, guess what? You’re the church! Everyone who is here tonight, you have to help; you have to let everyone know that change is GOOD. That God wants us to change, God wants you to change. That is what baptism is about, and it is what Easter is about.
I’m not saying it’s easy. Another through-line in our readings, you might notice:
Moses said to the people, Do not be afraid.
The angel said to the women, Do not be afraid.
Jesus said to the women, Do not be afraid.
In fact, Do not be afraid is one of the most common phrases in all of scripture. We all have fear around our becoming, fear in our transitions, in the ways all of us have come out as something new. Tonight, Jesus comes out as something new, too–not dead, but alive. Not in the dark of the tomb, but in the open, in a new body, unrecognizable to some, but loved nonetheless.
This is the night! This is the night when we tell the stories of salvation. This is the night when we bring our own stories to the feet of God’s story, the story of Jesus’ change. Jesus comes out of the tomb, and Jesus brings us out with him. Everything old and dirty and death-dealing is left behind. The tomb is empty. Do not be afraid, Jesus says. Tell the story of who you are and who you are becoming. Tell the story of the empty tomb. It will change the world. Amen.