Fall 2000 Newsletter
The Newsletter of the Williams College Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgendered Alumnae/i Network
In this issue...
What I Am
By Michael Joseph Gross '93
The following is a sermon delivered by Michael at the Ecumenical Forum on the Sunday of the BiGALA reunion. His text is Mark 15:1-39
Pilate wants to know who Jesus is.
Throughout Mark's gospel, people seek to learn who Jesus is, and throughout Mark's gospel, Jesus avoids addressing the topic of his own identity. Jesus heals a leper and orders him not to speak of the encounter. He drives demons out of the diseased and orders even the evil spirits to keep quiet about who he is. He raises a little girl from the dead and forbids her family to tell anyone.
Loaves and fishes. Walking on water. Healing the lame and the blind. Jesus is a busy guy. Just about the only task that fails to engage him is the project of explaining who he is. For most of Mark's gospel, he does not do it. Not for anyone. Not even for his closest friends.
When the disciples fail to grasp the parables Jesus uses to teach the crowds in Galilee, they get him alone later that day and ask him what he really meant. "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom," he replies, not very helpfully. Then he piles on some more parables to drive home his point that the disciples have been given a mystery, not a secret. Their job is to receive that mystery, not to decode it. Their job is to witness him, not to interpret him. But that job is too much for them.
The night of his arrest, when Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane to pray, he asks just one thing of his friends. All he asks is that they be there with him and not fall asleep. Keep awake, he keeps saying. They keep falling asleep. Then the guards arrive to arrest him, and they all run away.
The events described by today's reading begin the morning after his arrest. And as you may have noticed, Mark's story of the trial and execution is structured by speculation, denunciation, and affirmation of Jesus' identity as Messiah.
He comes to trial, and is questioned: "Are you the King of the Jews?"
He is led to the cross, and mocked: "Hail, King of the Jews!"
He is crucified, and denounced: "Let the Messiah... come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe."
He dies, and is praised: "Surely this man was God's son!"
Such speculation is met, always, by his silence.
When Williams does its job right, the College scrambles your identity up good.
Each year several hundred self-possessed, bright young things arrive to claim the places they have earned here. We are so proud when we arrive. And our families are so proud of us for being here.
And then, what we were when we came here start changing. Separated from the families and communities that we come from, and pitched into the anthropological argosy concocted for us by the Admissions Department, we realize, perhaps for the first time, what vast and varied choices we have regarding what to believe and how best to live.
We usually get the better of our confusion. Williams gives us every conceivable advantage - academic, social and material - to help us make good choices. So we conduct some experiments; we make some decisions.
We do this amazing thing: we make ourselves up.
It hurts sometimes. We would like people from our past to understand the new person we are becoming. Their understanding can seem so important that we become angry and resentful when it is not immediately forthcoming.
In the summer after my sophomore year, when I returned home for the little town in Illinois where I come from, I remember seething because my mother, a grade school librarian, showed so little interest in what I had been learning here. I remember getting quite worked up one night trying to tell her about the newest love of my life, the eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson. He wrote the first English dictionary, I told her. By himself. She thought that was nice, and would I like some more oatmeal cookies?
Samuel Johnson, however, was not the only man who caught my eye at Williams.
For gay students - whether out or closeted - the college identity scramble has an extra dimension. During our time here, many of us discern patterns in our sexual desires that demand our response, that tell us, you have to change your life.
Sooner or later, we do. And when we come out, the people from our past may, again, have trouble understanding the new person we are becoming.
Often, we are only too eager to explain ourselves. We are desperate to find a voice for what is happening to us, and so every posed or possible question, every real or imagined skepticism, becomes an occasion for us to read and write and think and talk about who we are becoming.
Some of this is conversation and cogitation is necessary. Gay people must come to some functional understanding of homosexual identity in order to be whole people. But we must press further - to hash our the fine points of queer ideology; to hammer out an ironclad theological defense of homosexuality; to prove that the gay son can also be the good son. Preoccupation with sexual identity too easily and too often, and almost always unintentionally, becomes a way of postponing or avoiding the actual experience of love that is, really, the one reason we came out to begin with.
I wonder, why didn't Jesus answer Pilate's question?
The way Mark tells the story, Jesus didn't talk about himself because he didn't have to. Certain events in Mark's gospel suggest that discursive self-definition would have been almost blasphemously redundant. I'm thinking particularly of that booming voice from the sky at his baptism in Chapter 1: "You are my son the beloved. With you I am well pleased." And the Transfiguration, where God repeats that pronouncement for the disciples' benefit while Jesus, bathed in otherworldly light, stands around talking with Elijah and Moses, foreshadowing this year's reunion concerts by Diana Ross and the Supremes. Sort of.
When intellectuals want to avoid thinking about these events, we imagine them in literal terms. It's easy to scoff at a divine P.A. system in the sky. But this morning, let's try not to dismiss these events as figments of a superstitious imagination. Let's try to imagine that no one ever told us we had to understand them in live broadcasting terms.
Try to imagine them, instead, as exaggerated versions of those powerful, wordless, unearned, sense-bending experiences of self-forgetful self-awareness that creep up on you occasionally and relieve you with the certainty that you are part of something larger. A time when you glance out your window on the Freshman Quad and see snow falling upward and know you are perfectly, deeply at home in the place where you stand. A time when your grandmother says something ordinary and innocent that blasts you with awareness or mortality, and the air between you seems to turn different colors. The first time you walked into a whole room full of people like you, and the burden of self-consciousness started its slow burn away.
A model of religious devotion formed by such moments would have to do with reflection on identity, and only slight interest in any kind of mental understanding. It would be too preoccupied with attending to the world: the physical facts of snow and air, men and women, bread and wine.
The God who would accept such devotion is a God who loves his world so much that he cannot be separated from it, a God who loves his people so much that the only thing for him to do it to become one of them.
I have not come out to my mother. She wouldn't understand.
My coming out happened simultaneously with her disappearance into Alzheimer's disease. Last year I went home to see her, and on the trip it came clear that she would never understand me, let alone Samuel Johnson.
When I walked in the door of our house last February, she beamed, and she said something that finally showed me what our relationship has always been about.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, "You're here. And I can touch you!"
Later I realized that her words also describe the ethical discovery that accompanied the erotic experiences that happened when I started coming out. You're here. And I can touch you.
I like to believe that her words also describe the kind of presence that Jesus brought to his encounters with lepers and the blind men and the lame, and every suffering person that he met. You're here. And I can touch you.
I like to believe that the force of that presence is the reason he cannot stay dead.
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