Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Coming Out and Carrying Our Cross
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Today, Jesus invites us to carry our cross and follow. But what does that mean? In Isaiah’s example, it seems to be speaking the prophetic message that God gives despite condemnation and hardship. For James, carrying one’s cross is about working for the good of our sisters and brothers. Perhaps, though, these need not be two separate actions. Can we speak our truth – that is to say, come out with our truth – not only as an affirmation of who we are, but also as an act of generosity toward others? Jesus not only proclaims a Messiah who will suffer for others, but also acts in accord with those words. Can we too allow our search for authenticity to lead us to a commitment to generosity? Only then do we “lose our lives for Jesus’ sake and that of the gospel” and save (that is, find) ourselves in the process.
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September 12, 2021: the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
A reflection by Jeff Vomund
There is that moment – always – when talking to someone on the street or a new associate or an unfamiliar colleague at work. They ask something like, “So, are you married?”; or the less committal, “Are you with anyone?”; perhaps even the innocuous sounding, “What are you doing this weekend?”. And I am confronted with the opportunity – ready or not – to come out.
There begins my all-too-familiar calculus: How much do I tell? Is coming out now worth the trouble? Do I have the emotional energy in the case of a negative reaction? Am I able to speak of myself the way that every heterosexual, cisgender person just assumes is their right? … For instance, “My wife and I will probably just do some chores around the house.” These can be the most mundane words in the world if spoken by a man. Those same words can take considerably more courage – and cause considerably consternation – if spoken by a woman.
I thought of those myriad moments which offer people who are LGBTQ+ an opportunity for integrity – and awkwardness – that people in a majority culture may not even notice, when I read Isaiah’s bold proclamation in today’s first reading. Isaiah writes, I “have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me … my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” God “is my help therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” For most people, “Whatcha’ doing this weekend?” is idle small talk, but for persons who have been minoritized due to our sexuality, these opportunities for integrity can be anything but throw-away lines. In fact, depending upon how habitually someone comes out (For me, coming out remains a never-ending, not always welcome, not always successful process.) and the social context of the question, our honest answers to seemingly innocent questions can too often get stuck in our throats.
We see that same kind of courage in the gospel today. Surely, Jesus’ teaching that the Messiah must suffer stuck in his throat at least for a moment – he had to know that this announcement would not be well-received. But Jesus holds fast to this self-understanding despite the cool reception. (It seems fitting that Peter, often seen as the first leader of the Church, is the one to inform Jesus that he misunderstands God’s call. The Church has been offering LGBTQ+ folks that same rebuke for decades!) Jesus articulates this self-understanding – this God-given orientation, if you will – and then has the patience and stamina to engage in conversation when others think they know better. As such, this vignette offers all people of faith a model for authenticity. All of us live in the process of “coming out” as who we are. We come out with our political and theological beliefs. We come out with our understandings about the best way to raise our children, care for our parents, live safely in the age of COVID. We often think of coming out as referring to sexuality, but every one of us is called to come out as our true and best selves, even when that is difficult, or misunderstood, or even derided. Jesus gives an example of the coming out courage all of us need if we are going to live in integrity – although let me suggest that Jesus’ strategy of calling those with whom we disagree “Satan,” probably does not to deeper discourse. If you don’t believe me, tune into any Cable News “discussion”!
While Jesus and Isaiah invite each of us to trust in, and deliver, the truths that God places within us, the author of James offers an important perspective lest we get too focused on our own individual authenticity. The author suggests that proclaiming our truth is a necessary but insufficient step in one’s journey toward discipleship. The author declares that faith proclaimed but not practiced is not faith at all. Instead, authenticity must lead to generosity. “What good is it … if someone has faith but does not have works?” asks the Epistle. What good indeed are our protestations against the human costs of our war in Afghanistan, our outrage at human-caused global warming, our strong feelings against the sicknesses that cause human trafficking if our lives do not work to mitigate their bad effects? What good are our protests that that people of all sexual and gender identities are fully human if we deliver that message in a way that dehumanizes others? Jesus referred to those whose verbal calls for authenticity far surpassed their actual efforts for justice as white-washed tombs (Matthew 23:27-28).
I would like to say that Jesus’ foray into name-calling does not apply to me, but that would, of course, be untrue. My personal authenticity often falls short of my willingness to sacrifice for a larger community. I choose not to “take up my cross and follow,” as Jesus exhorts us in today’s gospel. My intentions to act against climate change fall prey to my addiction to convenience. My desire to act on behalf of some of my sisters and brothers who are in great need (persons who are refugees, homeless, victims of wildfires or hurricanes, these days we can take our pick), give way to the demands of daily life. Even, at times, my commitment to coming out falters because I simply feel too tired to risk investing in that moment.
Today’s gospel passage ends with Jesus noting that we must lose our lives in order to save them, but I take consolation that this too is a process. In fact, I would like to suggest that coming out is in fact part and parcel of the “losing ourselves for the sake of the gospel,” that discipleship requires. At first, one comes out primarily to strengthen their own identity, but over the years, that same coming out can transition into an act of generosity for others. I share who I am, who I love, what I believe, not to reaffirm myself so much as in the hope that in others getting to know me as a colleague, teacher, or neighbor, they might be invited to hold their own beliefs with gentler hands. Also, I trust that when others come out to me with their own story, I too might be challenged to hold my prejudices less tightly. Over and again, we encounter opportunities to both share truths about ourselves as well as act from those truths for the good of our one human family. Ultimately, perhaps, we are never so much ourselves as when we come out and act on behalf of our common humanity: an expression of that God-given identity that has been forming within us from the moment we came into being.
Jeff Vomund is a member of Dignity/Washington and currently lives in Arlington, VA. After 15+ years of full-time parish ministry and 7 years of teaching students with particular learning needs, Jeff now works at George Mason University as a Graduate Research Assistant and a Graduate Lecturer, while pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology.