Lent 5 – Closets and Caves

You may not know this, but our church has some pretty great hiding places.  I only know this because I’ve had the great privilege of spending the night here for a youth lock-in.  These overnight festivities inevitably involve the mysteriously fun game of sardines.  One or two youth get a few minutes to hide somewhere, anywhere in the dark church building, and then the rest of us go and find them.  When you find them, you hide with them, until one by one the searchers disappear into the dark.  (As a side note, you younger kids, be thinking about best hiding places for when you get to youth group, and yes, bathrooms are off limits.)

Now sometimes the best hiding places don’t seem like the best, for instance when Nate hid under the very chairs you are sitting on and none of us could find him except by accident.  When it came my turn to hide, Sara and I decided to try out the worship closet.  For those not oriented to our church, the worship closet is through that door right there, and if you haven’t peeked in, I highly recommend it.  It is a wealth of treasures that transform our sanctuary for any season of the church year.  Anyway, Sara and I hid there and before long David found us but no one else.  It wasn’t until others started calling us: where are you?  come out! that we emerged.  Who knew the closet could be such a good hiding place?

I suppose most of us have also found ourselves in the closet at one time or another: playing hide and go seek; seeking a place of safe darkness where we can show our most vulnerable emotions.  We keep our clothes in the closet and the old luggage that we only use once a year is shoved way in the back.  Those of us from the Midwest know it’s a relatively safe place to go during a tornado too, interior walls, no windows.  Most of us know the closet.

I myself know it well.  I was in the closet until I was twenty-one, which really isn’t all that long for a gay person.  But it was long enough to know that closets aren’t always cozy or safe.

Our Lenten journey began four and a half weeks ago with those first steps out into the wilderness, tracing the footsteps of our example and friend, Jesus of Nazareth.  We ask much of ourselves this season as we meditate on temptation, doubt, and struggle.  We have been richly blessed by stories of thirst and recovery, of blindness and sight.  But we have been stretched as we look into our own weaknesses, as we attend to the burdens we each carry.

Today we go even further into fear, mourning, isolation, separation, alienation.  Today’s Lenten stories take us to death itself.

Our Old Testament reading from Ezekiel brings us to the middle of a valley full of bones.  There were masses of bones, heaps of bones lying scattered about the valley.  And as if dead, bare bones weren’t enough, the prophet tells us these bones were dry.  The image sends shivers up and down our spines.  It was a place of isolation and barrenness.  The air was stale with the smell of death.

And then the Gospel drama from John we travel with Jesus to Bethany to a tomb – a cave actually the text says, a cave with a stone laid upon it.  It was the grave of Lazarus, dead before his time, dead already for four days.

Burial didn’t involve embalming in first century Israel.  Instead the body was covered with perfume and wrapped from head to toe.  This was pleasant enough for the first little bit, but by day four, the smell of decomposition was stronger than the smell of perfume.  What’s more, the mention of four days underscores the finality of death.  It was popular Jewish belief that the soul hovered around the body in the grave for three days after death, hoping to reenter the body.  But after the third day the soul leaves for good.  The unpleasant smell in the air was not only decay; it was the sickly finality of absence.  Lazarus’ cave on the fourth day was a place of ultimate despair and grief.

Our scripture readings for today don’t mention any closets.  But then again, our lives today don’t mention many valleys full of bones or caves covered with stones.  Closets or caves, they are just the same – places of isolation and pain and death.

When I was in divinity school, every fall during GLBT history month, one of our student groups hosted what we called “Coming Out Stories.”  One evening in October we would gather with food and drink to celebrate our stories of those first steps we took from secrecy and hiddenness to life.

I remember one year Ryan shared his story.  That night he was on parent duty because his wife was busy, so he brought his son along and was holding this precious two-year-old in his arms as he began talking.

The year before he had been back home in California over the summer and his family conversation turned to politics and religion.  I don’t remember what it was exactly, but they shared ideas about the sinfulness and perversion of homosexuality.  The talk became increasingly uncomfortable for Ryan.  But he sat in silence.  It would be risky to say anything there, to stir up conflict in the family.  Easier to just disagree privately, he thought, and let the moment pass.

Our closets and our caves are powerful places.  Sometimes it’s about us.  We are afraid of what other people will think of us if we reveal our truest self.  We are wounded and every impulse tells us to protect those places of vulnerability.  Close ourselves off.

Sometimes it’s about the abuses of other people.  We have been told so often that we are not good enough or normal enough or beautiful enough that those words become life commandments which bind us.  And sometimes it’s about systems of domination and distortion, empires that ties us in the closet – religion that says you have to be this way or that way if you want to be loved.  We may not even be conscious that these powerful grave clothes tie us up.  We mistakenly think they are keeping us safe and so we protect them.  Until one day we hear a muffled voice from outside our closets and our caves.  From our death-dealing darkness we hear again the life-giving words of Jesus as he stands facing the cave:  “Lazarus, come out!”  Lazarus, come out.

Ryan was ready to let the conversation with his family go, but then he remembered his young son and the spirit moving inside prompted him to finally say something: “I do not want my son to grow up thinking it is okay to talk this way.  We have many gay and lesbian friends, and I want my son to know that God celebrates their stories and their relationships, and if my son is gay, I do not want him ever to feel condemned to death.”

Seattle Mennonite Church, you have a coming out story of your own, a story that stretched years through long congregational meetings, disagreements, persistent community, engaged and prophetic voices of youth, discipline and discomfort from the wider Mennonite church.  Not long ago you declared this statement of welcome as a body of people: We desire that all who enter here may be received as Christ. We celebrate and affirm the image of God in persons of every age, gender, race, ability, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, and strive to find common ground on which to build relationship with our neighbors near and far. We publicly affirm that LGBT** persons are welcome to participate in the full life and ministry of our church, including membership, baptism, marriage, leadership, and pastoral ministry.

Today we can confidently celebrate together this hospitality and welcome of Christ, which offers freedom to those who enter.  But our work together is not done.  The work of coming out has to be done over and over and over again.

There is risk in responding to Jesus’ call, risk especially for GLBT people who may be victims of violence or ostracism.  The timing for coming out is not always now.  But when the timing is right, when Jesus calls, when it is time to take the risk and step forward we know that we, like Lazarus meet Jesus on the other side.

This is Good News, my friends, not only for gay and lesbian people but for anyone bound by secrecy or fear or other death-dealing powers.  This is news we must live and share, that Jesus gives life not just to Lazarus but to us, not just once but again and again and again.

Every year at the Coming Out Stories celebration, after a couple of people share, the stories start flowing.  The stories are about overcoming for some of us what was nearly unimaginable fear and doubt.  We celebrate the speaking of truth and giving of life, even in the face of opposition.  We celebrate who we are and whose we are.

And with each celebration, each coming out, with each affirmation of life, is a small resurrection.  Friends, Jesus calls us out of our closets and our caves.  May we but have the courage to respond.