This new generation of seekers wants to come real. They want beauty, mystery, transcendence—but not at the cost of authenticity and real vulnerability.
The vulnerability, however, is not without its perils. I was reminded of that this week.
It was a grand occasion: our church’s 5th Annual Drag Gospel Festival. Drag Gospel is the brainchild of our church’s drag queen in residence. It is gospel music, meets dance party, meets powerful testimony and preaching, meets fundraising for LGBT asylum seekers facing prison or torture in their home countries. It is a Mardi Gras atmosphere, a chance to bend gender, which society is beginning to understand is so far beyond binary, and a chance for children and adults to be who they really are from the inside out.
This year’s poster for the Festival ruffled some feathers. It was a 12th century icon of Jesus, digitally enhanced with makeup and earrings. I thought it was provocative and beautiful. We LOVE Jesus in our church and hold him in the highest regard as the child of God and God. And we know God has no gender. The image stirred feelings in folks—both positive and negative.
And on Sunday morning, a young white man, unknown to us, came to Drag church early. Lots of folks were coming early—Drag Gospel is our third high holy day and biggest-attended Sunday after Christmas and Easter.
But this young man sat in the front pew, which you’d think would have made us take notice. Nobody EVER sits in the front pew at our church. I’d like to think it’s because we’re too humble—we’ve been well schooled in Jesus’ parable not to put ourselves in the VIP seats. But I think my people are probably more motivated by the ancient fear that they will be called on if they sit in the front pew. Or they won’t be able to text without escaping detection by the pastor.
But not this young man. He sat right up front, very alert. And in the middle of the scripture reading, he stood up, turned to the congregation, and began to condemn us with ancient words from the Hebrew scriptures. We all froze. Remembering Charleston. Remembering the three school shootings last week. We felt the happy liberal Massachusetts bubble we thought we were in suddenly burst, showering us with fear that this would end tragically.
It brought home to me what a mighty and also terrifyingly vulnerable thing it is to sit on a chancel, to speak words about God, week after week, that you believe are true—words that break barriers, defy stereotypes, welcome the marginalized and the dispossessed, even at risk of drawing fire.
And then, the transcendent happened.
Holy Spirit came down. About seven of our men moved in, surrounding him, holding him gently, feeling for weapons. Our associate pastor, Jeff, a straight white male who just happens to look a lot like Jesus and also happened to be wearing the same shade of lipstick as the poster Jesus, came down from the chancel, and called on the men to back away, and spoke to him, face to face, called him by name, for the man was wearing a name tag—some part of him wanting to be known—and together, they talked loudly but calmly about holiness, about deeply held religious convictions, about their mutual love of Jesus and desire for fullness of life for every child of God. I moved closer, to support Jeff. And I looked around.
Hundreds of hands were raised, not in fear, not in surrender, but in blessing.
And finally Jeff said, “You’ve said what you came to say, you’ve been heard, and it’s time for you to go.”
“But one more thing: I want you to know that I love you,” said his genderqueer Jesus-face.
And the man turned to all of us and said, “I love you all too.”
And he left without hurting anyone physically.
I’m still shaken, but I know that church happened in a HUGE way on Sunday. Our people got to see what we’ve been practicing for years played out: what it means to love our enemy, to radically welcome everyone, and to answer hatred and fear with love.
I was reminded that vulnerability literally means “able to be wounded.”
We were unarmored and unwilling to fight violence with violence.
We can play church safe, with a lukewarmness that will offend no one but nourish no one either.
Or we can play church vulnerably, with an all-in lunatic longing for justice and love that will sometimes put us at risk. Jesus never said following him would make us safe.
God is not safe—but God is good.
Molly Baskette is lead pastor of the quirky, loveable and truth-telling First Church Somerville UCC in Somerville, MA. Read their personal testimonies in her latest book, Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession.