Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany, the last Sunday before the forty days of Lent begin, the Sunday of the Transfiguration, when we hear stories of Jesus being transfigured before his closest friends high up on a mountain top with a shining face and bright dazzling white robes beneath the voice of God saying, “This is my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Today we’re baptizing Sebastian and Lucia into that light, making them members of this beloved body, a process which we believe will usher them into a lifetime of perpetual transformation with the Spirit’s help. What is it to be transformed? What is it to be transfigured, to reveal and show forth the dazzling glory of our creator? I can’t ask that question without fondly reminiscing about our Broadway Night performance from two weeks ago. This is always a time of heightened spectacle for our community, a time when the true colors of our choir shine, mirrored in the radiant faces of an audience which gets to behold these beautiful souls giving everything they’ve got to a follow-spot and a makeshift stage. Even the Nativity Hall is transfigured beneath Lynda and Amy’s decorative genius, an otherwise shabby meeting space exalted for a weekend’s time to the glittering glory of a high-end performance venue. For me to be transformed into your emcee for the evening only took a little grease paint and slicked back hair, and for Chris and I to be transformed into punk rock drag queens only took some 15 dollar wigs and borrowed clothes. And yet the transformation was so complete that some people didn’t even recognize me until they saw my name up in the bulletin. At the same time, some of you recognized me in a different way, more fully, you saw something familiar about me which you’d known but hadn’t seen on the surface until then. After the first night of the show Sandy walked over to me and basically said, “This ain’t your first rodeo, is it, kid?” A few others kept asking, “Do you have some kind of experience in… theater?” which I think was your polite way of saying, “wow you seem pretty comfortable in heels.”
The truth is I don’t have much theater experience, not unless you count a stuttering run as Balthazar in my High School’s Romeo & Juliet or the shows I used to put on for my family as an eight-year-old in my grandma’s wig and pearls. And while I wish I could tell you that I’m building up some incredible success moonlighting as a Portland nightlife entertainer the real story is actually more interesting. Over the past year I’ve been adopted by drag queens. Not only drag queens, some transgender folks, too. Also folk who are more generally simply don’t conform to binaries of gender or sexuality, most of them men, some of them more than that. As a group they’re known as “radical faeries.” That’s “radical” as in “from the root” or “relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of a thing” and “faerie” as in what a boy used to get called if he came across remotely feminine in the school yard. I’ve known about the radical faeries since I was a boy, myself, when I stumbled upon a coffee shop in Asheville, North Carolina which was exhibiting some photographs of them, strange creatures complete with plumage and exotic makeup and DIY costumes and the biggest smiles. “How can I grow up to be beautiful like that?” I wondered. I didn’t know at the time that they were members of a whole counter-cultural movement which was only a few years older than myself, an ongoing experiment in discerning what the experiences of gay people had to teach us about our spirituality. I also didn’t know that it’d be another two decades before I’d ever find myself among them in the woods outside Detroit, Oregon.
When the faeries gather, there are two focal points which stand out to me as two sides of the same coin, the Heart Circle and the Stage. Heart Circles last for hours every morning as individuals take turns sharing what weighs most heavily on their hearts while the rest of us listen with full attention and no cross-talk or fixing. For a people who were nearly entirely killed off by federal neglect during the AIDS epidemic, it is one of the only truly inter-generational environments I have been in. Elders share their fears and wisdom around age and loss and other faeries share their trials and victories about work, recovery, love. The depth of vulnerability probed by these heart circles is matched only by the frivolity of the stage at night. The stage hosts readings, fashion shows, performances, “talent” and the most amazing drag. It’s not that the drag itself is so good, it’s kind of hard to get good makeup on in a dimly lit cabin in the woods. It’s more that these people are so beautiful in being unabashedly themselves, freed temporarily in the sanctity of like minds from the rigid gender norms we were raised with, eased from the expectations of a violent masculinity. That stage is not unlike the heart circle, both are the focus of adoring, charitable, non-judgmental attention, and human beings become radiant in their light.
Of course, the stage has to be dismantled in the end. On the final morning of our last gathering I saw one of my favorite queens in an unassuming button-down shirt and slacks. It made my heart sink a little bit, because when she appears in full drag she is the most regal grande dame, larger than life, full of grace and poise and beauty. Seeing him in plainer clothes made me wonder if he was hiding some essential part of himself from the world, or perhaps, even worse, if I was. “Darling,” I asked him, “do they know how beautiful you are back home?” He smiled. “Oh honey,” he replied, “boy drag/girl drag. I’m fabulous in whatever I’m wearing.”
Jesus, in the Gospel story, appears to his three closest friends in the radiant glory of God high up on a mountain where they are safe with each other. Was it a relief for Jesus to appear so heavenly, even if only for a moment, when he spent the rest of his life smelling like fishermen and dirt? Did he sigh to be revealed as so divine, to show off his true nature? Was it a respite from the constant bickering of scribes over whether or not one could simply be forgiven and how? And the disciples, were they afraid? They certainly don’t offer to parade Jesus back down the street in his glittering robes, instead they suggest that they might build cabins and stay up there privately in perpetuity. “No,” Jesus says, “we’re going back, come on.” So they go back down the mountain and set off for Jerusalem through a sea of people who have no idea how beautiful he is, though he persists in showing them through other means: healing folk, teaching folk, talking back to religious know-it-alls and purists and prudes. How often is God showing off for us still? How often does God put on the ordinary materials of this world and try to dazzle us with them? How often does she shine a light to say, “you are my Beloved, in you I am well pleased.”
In a moment, we will baptize Lucia and Sebastian into this light. We will promise to resist the forces of evil which chip away at God’s creation. We will promise to respect the dignity of every human being, loving God and our neighbor as our own selves. I would like to suggest that one of the reasons why this community does something like Broadway Night so well is because we practice these baptismal promises, that it’s not only because we have such talented members of our choir, but primarily because we know how to hold one another in the light. My great hope for these two is that they grow to know themselves as held in that light, too, as known and seen and loved without judgment or fear for who God made them to be, the glory of God unveiled. My great prayer for them is that they grow to learn how to bestow that generous light of charity on others as well. Then the whole world can be transfigured. Then everyone can know themselves as held in the light which says, “This is my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”