Below is Fr. Jared Cramer's sermon from the 2023 Community PRIDE Worship service, held at 10am on Saturday, June 10, before Grand Haven's first-ever Pride Festival. The day also was the Feast of St. Ephrem of Edessa, which influenced Fr. Jared's homily.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
When I was talking with my colleagues, Pastors Troy and Kristine from First Presbyterian Church in Grand Haven who are with me on stage today, about plans for today’s services, we were discussing things like the liturgy, prayers, and readings. It occurred to me in the course of that conversation that today’s service also falls on the feast of St. Ephrem of Nisibus, also called St. Ephrem the Syrian. I told Troy and Kristine and shared how this is a great confluence of events, as the story of St. Ephrem actually works well into what a pride worship service is all about.
Now, we were having this conversation on email, so I cannot say for sure, but I’m pretty sure that when the Episcopal priest got excited about the obscure 4th century Syrian saint and how that might intersect with today’s homily, at least one of them had their eyes glaze over entirely. I am so absolutely delighted to be joined at this worship service, for the very first time, with other pastors from Grand Haven. I also think I owe it to them to chase down that rabbit trail of St. Ephrem and pride. So, you’re welcome for the rest of this sermon. Or I’m sorry, I guess we will just have to see.
St. Ephrem may not be known to many people today, but he is actually not an obscure saint. He was a theologian and writer and is particularly revered as the most notable writer of hymns in all of Eastern Christianity. All traditional churches venerate him as a saint and the Roman Catholic Church even has declared him an official Doctor of the Church. So, he’s kind of a big thing.
St. Ephrem lived in the fourth century, before the church began to become more uniform under the Roman empire, before even the creation of the Nicene Creed. In this era, Christianity was far from the relatively standardized religion it became and there were some pretty bizarre and strange theological ideas out there. One of them in Ephrem’s time was Gnosticism, it was a theological belief that the world was created by a malevolent deity who is the God of the Old Testament and that the way to salvation was through special knowledge that connects you with the hidden and real God, this salvation will free you from the flesh and matter, all of which in inherently evil.
Ephrem believed the best way to teach good theology was to do it through poetry and music. And so he began composing hymns that articulated the theological truths of Christianity against ideas like Gnosticism. He insisted that the God of the Old Testament was truly the God of the whole world and that Jesus Christ was fully united with that God. He insisted that the created world is not a dirty and evil thing, but that it is beautiful and that it bears witness to the beauty and truth of God. And he insisted salvation was not found through secret knowledge that helped you escape the world, but that salvation is a free gift offered by a God who loves God’s creation. To this day, nearly seventeen hundred years after his death, we have over four hundred hymns that he wrote in the course of his life.
Now, if I haven’t lost you yet with this talk of Ephrem the Syrian and the heresy of Gnosticism… let me try to connect the dots a little more clearly for you. Because the truth of the matter is that all ancient heresies come back as besetting sins and temptations of the church. I mean, despite Gnosticism being declared a heresy in some of the earliest councils of the church, its belief system is rather uncomfortably similar to the beliefs I held as a young evangelical. I was raised to see in the Old Testament an angry and violent God who seemed different than Jesus Christ. Though I was taught that God created the world, my religion spent a lot of time telling me how the world was dirty and evil. Even as a young straight cis-gender kid, I grew to hate my body, sure that sexual desires were an unholy fire (at least until you get married). My own church seemed to have the special key to knowledge that everyone else needed. Escape from the dirty world for a pure spiritual salvation…. Well, let’s just say that when I began to study Christianity in college and in graduate school, I was rather surprised to find out so many of the ideas I had were actually a lot closer to the Gnostic heresy of the early church than to actual classical Christian teaching.
One of the ways that Ephrem counteracted the spiritualized and narrow religion of Gnosticism in his hymns was that he created schools of women choirs to sing them. This was notable because for quite some time in both Eastern and Western Christianity, the voices of women—even in choirs—were excluded from the liturgy of the church. But Ephrem had insisted that by one baptism both men and women were cleansed, from one Eucharist they received, therefore all are free to sing God’s praise. And the more time he spent with the women choirs, his hymns began to incorporate more and more feminine imagery for God. One of the common images he would do would be to set the womb of Mary, the mother of Jesus, alongside the womb of the Father in the Trinity. He described God as a wetnurse from whom we suckled and are nourished.
Now, I’m very aware that even though most Christians know in their minds that God is not an old white bearded man in the sky, that God is neither male nor female, we also know that masculine imagery for God predominates and many Christians do instinctively relate to God as a man. One way to respond to that is to lean into the theological truth that God has no gender… but I have to say, I like St. Ephrem’s approach more—where both masculine and feminine imagery for God is used. Indeed, I like how Ephrem even bends binary understandings of gender by writing about the womb of the Father. It reminds me of another Doctor of the Church, St. Anselm of Canterbury, who wrote about how Christ feeds us with pure milk.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, you will find one of my favorite phrases in literature, “Beauty will save the world.” Contrary to the angry view of some Christians who seem to want to escape the created world, St. Ephrem over and over again points us to the beauty of the world in which we live. Matter, bodies, flesh, sexuality, gender, these are not dirty parts of the world that we must escape to find salvation—rather, in the incarnation Jesus made it clear that our salvation comes to us through the created world of bodies, flesh, sexuality and gender. In a world where people see God either as a man or some kind of genderless idea floating in the ether, Ephrem reminds us that when God created humanity, when he created gender, he drew from God’s own being and image. And so we have a father with a womb, a Jesus with breasts, all of these wonderful gender-bending images that defy our desire to keep gender roles separate and distinct. As one of my current favorite pride stickers says, God is the original they/them.
And so what I hope you can see, beloved of God, is that your own experience of gender and sexuality may be different than the experience of a heterosexist and cis-gender construct, but because you may be a minority does not mean you are an aberration. No, your identity and sexual experience flows directly from the life of a God who transcends and contains within Godself all the various genders and identities that exist. Indeed, you, my beloved LGBTQ siblings have the gift of teaching the rest of the church more accurately who God truly is, a Father who carries us in his womb, a Christ who nourishes us with unexpected milk, a Spirit who draws all people together into one loving community.
And I know that some religious people have said some pretty horrible things to you, things that are contrary to what I am saying right now. But if we skip back just a little in today’s service, you might remember our first reading from the book of Job, where God answered Job out of a whirlwind, saying, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me?”
What you need to know about Job’s story is that it was religious people who surrounded Job for so many chapters, telling him the pain in his life was his own fault, because that was what they had always been taught. And so when God shows up and speaks to Job, he speaks to all religious people who “darken counsel by words without knowledge,” God reminds all religious people that they are not God, they were not there when the world was created in its wonderful and beautiful diversity.
God reminds the religious that their job is not to tell others that their pain is their fault, to pretend that they understand the depths of God. No, their job is to let themselves be saved by our wonderful God of many understandings. All of our job, our task, is to see that who we are in our being flows from the divine reality of God’s own self. And it is only when we find ourselves caught up in the loving dance of this God of many genders and realities that we will finally find ourselves set free from the judgment we cast down, the judgment others place upon us. It is only when we find ourselves caught up in the loving dance of this God of many genders and realities that we find ourselves truly, fully, and wholly saved. Amen.