Brett Webb-Mitchell: On Border Crossers and Misfits

In between writing projects, church work, Zoom meetings, and daily errands, I will occasionally scan some of the titillating articles on LGBTQIA+ sites I look at daily as I survey what is going on between the LGBTQ community and churches. Two articles piqued my attention recently. The first was 29-year-old Colton Underwood, whose 15 minutes of Warholian fame came when he was on ABC's "The Bachelor" in 2020. Recently he was interviewed by ABC's "Good Morning, America" out-lesbian host Robin Roberts. Now, what got my attention was this admission by Colton: "Having grown up in the Catholic church, Colton remembered he 'learned in the Bible that gay is a sin.' He said, 'I think there's a lot of things, when I look back, I'm like, no wonder I held it in. I used to wake up in the morning and pray for [God] to take the gay away. I used to pray for [God] to change me.' Underwood said he had grown 'closer to God' in this revelation [that he is gay], and said he knows some people will question how that's even possible for a gay man to say such a word. [Colton says his] relationship with God now isn't 'conditional' [anymore]."

Like Colton's story, another story that kept on coming to the surface recently was about the latest rap artist, 22-year-old Lil Nas X, who was born Montero Lamar Hill. X recently came to everyone's attention for creating a Nike-inspired $1,000 pair of shoes that had a drop of blood in it. And he called these shoes "Satan Shoes," along with a computerized dance in which the rap artist danced around Satan to his song "Montero (Call Me by Your Name)" and then killed Satan. In an article posted on CNN by Clay Cane on X, what caught my attention was this tweet by X: "I spent my entire teenage years hating myself because of the stuff y’all preached would happen to me because I was gay. So, I hope you are mad, stay mad, feel the same anger you teach us to have towards ourselves.” This tweet, Cane continues, "speaks volumes for millions of queer folks, especially Black queer people, who have suffered spiritual and theological violence at the hand of church doctrines. [X echoes] the late writer James Baldwin [who wrote], 'Because I was born in a Christian culture, I never considered myself to be totally free human being.' Like Baldwin, X is insisting on being totally free. He is refusing to wallow in the 'love the sinner, hate the sin' trope, and he is shedding light on the hell the people in his community have been put through. For queers, especially young people, hell is here on Earth, in churches, in schoolyards, and homes."

What Colton, X, and I have in common is an all too familiar story from our respective pasts as once-closeted gay people. We share the experience of "hell" in our churches, our schools, our homes, and the public square. For, you see, as a young teenager I too prayed for the "gay" to be away, because I too was taught in my home, in my church, and my school to hate myself because I am gay. From my formative years as a young Christian in Methodist and Presbyterian churches, time at an evangelical college, evangelical club chapters in a secular school, and my time in seminary education, they all taught me that my being gay, my being part of the LGBTQIA community, was a sin, and that I should get married to a woman as I continually pray the gay away.

My sadness in reading these stories by Colton and X? Look at their ages: 29 and 22 years old respectively. That means that the same hateful message that I was taught over 40 years ago is still going on this very day. And what is that message? That being LGBTQIA is a sin to be changed and is something to be hated and prayed away. And for many of us, this message of hate and tropes like "love the sinner, hate the sin" is a virtual hell for all of us who are created in the image of God as part of the LGBTQIA community, just like those who claim to be straight.

Those of us in the LGBTQIA community are but one of the latest groups of people who have lived with and faced the hate- and hurt-filled rhetoric of home, church, school, and the public square. We are raising now our voices, joining our voices with those who have also been excluded or treated as second-class citizens in some communities of faith and nations because of our race, our ethnicity, our nationality, our gender, or our ability or disability. We, who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community are but the latest socially constructed "other" or "misfits" who have found stubborn resistance and a lack of welcome, let alone fellowship or full integration, in many communities of faith. By creating misfits, many who are in the exclusionary circle which I'll call "the same" continue to congregate, keeping misfits like us out because we don't "fit in" with those who are called "the same." We, the misfits, are crushed by the tyranny of "the same." As a result, we become the excluded, the despised, the pitied "them." Behold, the latest "us vs them."

And here's the weird yet fantastic part of this story among those of us misfits who have been either overtly or covertly kept out of some faith communities, or leadership roles in these same communities. We have been touched by God. By Jesus. By Spirit. By faith. And we know we want more of that. Of God. Of Jesus. Of Spirit. Of faith. Somehow, God in Christ crosses hardened borders of some faith communities peopled by "the same" and touches the lives of us misfits who have been hated upon and treated as "not of the same." Even with our wounds, our stories of abuse at the hands of loved ones, with thoughts of suicide among the youngest of us, we still yearn for the healing touch, for grace, for faith, for love, that crosses boundaries and touches us misfits and wakes us up to who and whose we really are. While the institution known as "the Church" has kept many of us misfits away, nevertheless the Spirit of the risen Christ, and the Body of Christ, has touched our lives, healed and comforted us, loved us for who and whose we are… and we want more of that. After all, Jesus, who was himself a misfit in his time, crossed the borders of ancient lives, reminding us that God's reach and God's love knows no end or border.

An example of Jesus as border crosser and misfit is in this Gospel reading. Mark describes the healing of two daughters of the Jewish faith. Before this story, Jesus exorcised one who was not a Jew (5:1-20), and returns to the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee, finding a crowd waiting for him. One of those who was waiting for hm was a misfit named Jairus, a Jewish leader who, unlike most of his colleagues, believed in Jesus. Jairus' daughter was ill and, with the courage of faith, Jairus sought out Jesus to heal his daughter. But Jesus' way to his daughter was stopped by the obstacle of the large crowd. And it was at this time that a woman with an invisible disability, who was hemorrhaging for 12 years and considered "impure" in Jewish circles, cut off from her faith community and truly a misfit, crossed all borders and touched the hem of Jesus' cloak, and her hemorrhaging stopped!

As the woman experienced the change in her body, Jesus was aware of the change in his body! The drying up of blood in her body was because the power of healing that had left Jesus' body. Neither the disciples nor Jesus were aware of all that had happened in these split seconds. Looking all around, Jesus wanted to find out who had touched him and experienced this healing miracle that enveloped not only Jesus' body but garments as well. For fear, more than courage of faith, caused this woman to come forward. Though she could have quickly slinked away, she awkwardly presents herself to Jesus to reveal "the whole truth" (5:33). Jesus then crossed the borders of Jewish society in addressing the woman who would've been considered "impure" because of her bleeding. And what flowed from Jesus, the power to heal, provided a situation in which what flowed from her, namely truth, confirms what is true, as Jesus says to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well."

Then Jesus turns around and goes towards Jairus' house. The delay in healing and talking to the unnamed woman meant that Jesus had missed his opportunity to heal the daughter who had already died. As biblical scholar Emerson Lowry wrote, Jesus' reaction to the news reminds us of the old African American spiritual, "God may not come when you call him, but he'll be there right on time!" Jesus called on Jairus to practice the courage of his faith, saying, "only believe," as Jesus reduced the number of witnesses to three: Peter, James, and John. Jesus touches Jairus' daughter and says in Aramaic, Talitha cumi or "Arise, young girl," or "Arise, little lamb," and she rose and was healed. Her life was restored.

Jesus the border crosser reached out to those who were outcasts, “Others,” other border crossers and misfits in the Jewish society, and restores their life - and our life - with his healing touch. Jesus never hesitates to bring restoration to all who hurt, either physically, relationally, or spiritually. It is always, with Jesus, love of God and love of neighbor.

It is this very healing touch of Jesus which is made possible through the healing authority of God, which is still desired today by those of us who have been considered by many modern faith communities to be worthy of being excluded and ostracized because we are the modern border crossers, we are the modern misfits, like the unnamed woman and Jairus in Mark's story of Jesus' healing. And the beauty is that Jesus' very life - along with his death - grants us all life-changing healing through Jesus' gift of grace. Jesus' healing crosses all human-constructed borders and touches those of us construed as "misfits," who have been pushed, labeled, and categorized by many to be the "Others," brutally or subtly marginalized because of our race, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability or disability.

While many in our faith communities may be blind to it, Jesus, as I said earlier, sees in us the Imago Dei, the image of God, with no exceptions. And as the Gospels show us, time and again, Jesus sees, hears, and knows the suffering of those of us who are marginalized, with outer and inward wounds caused by many in the church, as you could hear in the stories of Colton and X. Yet Jesus chooses not to leave us wounded, left on the side of the road, clobbered by some in the Church who weaponize certain cherry-picked Bible verses. We are battle weary. We are exhausted from our 24/7 advocacy work, closed off from churches that claim Jesus as Lord on Sunday and rejecting us as equals the next six days.

Thankfully, Jesus has the power to alter all of that, and does. Aware of Jesus' border crossing, branded a "misfit" by some in Jewish authority in his day, the question for us this day is as follows: Can the Christian community who call Jesus "God with us" alter the conditions of people's lives, especially those of us considered "outsiders," and be a healing presence today? Can the Christian community bring healing into troubled lives and anxious circumstances?

To do so, the body of Christ must also be a border crosser in order to reach those of us branded as "misfits" - whether it is related to our ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, politics, or any other constructed boundaries in our world - and advocate the life-giving meaning and change and love of God. Perhaps, just perhaps in this story, Jesus is providing the body of the risen Christ a prime example of what it means to be called and what it means to do the work of healing, with those who are thrown to the margins of the Church, just as he did with the unnamed woman and Jairus' daughter.

Jesus is saying to us today, Talitha cumi. “Arise, arise, little one.” Be courageous in your faith! As Christ's body, we too are called to reach out, touch, and heal those who are treated as "outsiders," cast aside, and ask them - ask us - to rise and join as well in the love of God. And with this touch of healing grace, may we all rise up more whole, more loved, more cherished for who we are, God's own creation, and for whose we are, members of the risen Body of Christ.

May God grant us the courage to be and to do so. Amen and amen.