On Sunday, June 30, 2024, I was invited to preach at CityChurch San Francisco for the final Sunday of Pride Month. Unfortunately their livestream failed, so rather than share the video, I’m going to post the sermon here on my blog. Maybe it will encourage you to find yourself somewhere in the story of Lazarus as Pride Month comes to a close. (UPDATE: I just posted a video of myself reading the sermon on my Common Sanctuary YouTube channel for those who prefer to watch/listen.)

It’s such a joy to be here with you today to share my own Lazarus story and encourage you to see if you can find yourself in this story as well.

One of the things that strengthens my faith is full-circle stories. Where some people might see coincidence, I can’t help but see the presence and the movement of the Spirit of God. And CityChurch San Francisco played a major role in my personal coming out story. 

I grew up near South Bend, Indiana, in a fundamentalist Christian family, and I was a devout, earnest kid. We were a James Dobson, Focus on the Family, Jerry Falwell, Moral Majority, Ronald Reagan, Christian radio, Christian school, church three times a week, Vacation Bible School every summer, witness to the neighbors kind of family. 

And I loved it so much. My family was warm and loving, and my school and church were all I really knew. I loved Jesus, and I wanted nothing more than to please God and to serve God with my whole life.

So it was… challenging, to say the least, when I realized, around the age of ten, that I was gay. I really had no framework for this, no healthy examples of gay people, and certainly not of gay Christian people. Throughout my junior high and high school years in the 80s, the only examples of queer people that I encountered were flaming queens on sitcoms, dying AIDS patients or gender-nonconforming entertainers like Liberace or Boy George. None of these things reflected me, a faithful kid from a Christian family.

So I made a vow to myself to keep this secret to my grave and to do everything I could to live a faithful Christian life. I was a leader in my youth group and school, and I enrolled in a Christian college to go into some kind of ministry. Of course, my gay orientation never went away, no matter how much I prayed, fasted, and memorized scripture… But still I tried to live in the way I thought I was expected to. By my family, my community and my God.

And so, at the ripe old age of 21, I got married to a wonderful Christian woman. We had 4 kids together and a 23-year marriage.

In 2000, we moved here to the Bay Area and in 2002, I began to hear the voice of Jesus calling to me in my tomb: “Come out, Matt. Come out into the new life that I have given you!” I was in my first full-time worship ministry role. I was seeing Jesus bring new life and healing and freedom to people as they opened up their lives to his light and love, and I was desperate for that kind of healing for myself. I could feel it in my bones, this call from Jesus to live openly and authentically, this invitation to wholeness and healing. 

Unfortunately for me and for thousands like me in the early 2000s, because of my evangelical worldview, I simply could not receive the Spirit’s invitation in all of its beauty and fullness. And I was surrounded by loving and well-intentioned but ignorant people who looked at my God-given sexual orientation and saw it as bondage, saw something intrinsic and beautiful about me as “graveclothes.” And so as I took tentative steps toward freedom, responding to Jesus’s words and coming out to my wife and to close church leaders, it was only to move into even greater bondage. Our leadership encouraged us to try to “make it work” and to seek healing from my “same-sex attraction.” I was taught to see my gay sexual orientation as something I could keep at bay through some magic combination of prayer, will power and surrender to God.

And so I joined a group called Living Waters near Palo Alto and worked on healing my “sexual and relational brokenness.” We did individual and couples’ counseling, went on intensive therapeutic retreats to “heal the soul of our marriage.” I was a very active member of Sex Addicts Anonymous here in the Bay Area for many years. (Spoiler Alert: I’m not a sex addict. I’m just gay. My sexual orientation is not an addiction.) I read every book I could find on healthy masculinity, healing homosexuality, and on and on.

My wife and I stayed together for fourteen more years. And they were beautiful, painful, complicated years, as you might imagine. And as our faith evolved, and as our understanding of human sexuality evolved, things began to change in my understanding of myself.

First of all, I realized I would never be straight. This “same-sex attraction” was not going anywhere.

Then came the day, probably somewhere in 2014 or 2015, when I started calling myself “gay.” It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. To finally stop fighting against this thing that is so central to my identity. To stop treating my sexuality like it is something outside myself, a temptation to be fought against, like excessive alcohol or anger, and just accept it as another part of who I am. A morally neutral thing that is just… true about me. Like being right-handed or having brown hair. And this was even before I was theologically affirming!

Then came that final domino. It had taken many years for it to fall, but now what? Now that I finally believed God can and does bless same-sex relationships, now that I felt the freedom to actually be the gay man God had created me to be, how now should I live? I was in a straight-passing marriage. I was the father of four and I was a worship pastor in a non-affirming church and denomination. I felt lost, hopeless, and trapped. Even though I had so many things in my life to be grateful for, I was becoming more depressed, anxious and isolated. I looked at the trajectory of my life, and I saw a bleak future ahead. 

Being the social media person that I am, I took to Twitter. I created an anonymous account and called myself “Jonathan David.” (If you know, you know.) I began to process my life “out loud.” I began to meet others who were or had been in similar circumstances. I began to feel a little less alone. It felt good to just say “Here I am, a gay man married to a woman in the Bay Area. I need connections and help.”

On March 14, 2016, I was tweeting from my church office up in Santa Rosa. I said “Can you imagine spending FIFTY YEARS in the closet?” I was 44 at the time. And I got a reply from a man named Fred Harrell. He said “Do you have someone to talk to? I’m in the Bay Area and a pastor. DM me if you are interested.”

I looked up our correspondence this week in preparation for this message today. 

Thanks for reaching out, Fred. I would love the opportunity to talk sometime. I was thrilled to see CityChurch become open to LGBTQ people last year, and l’ve been interested in visiting, but it’s difficult as a pastor myself to get away from my church responsibilities.

| *do* have people in my life who are aware of my and my wife’s situation and are supportive, and in fact I have come out to three friends here in Santa Rosa in the last month or so. That is so life-giving to me.

I find myself at a crossroads. Even though l’ve been out to my wife and others for 14 years, my theological understanding of sexuality has changed dramatically. And even though I’ve found much peace in embracing my gay identity, it has complicated my life in many ways. I would welcome a conversation.

Fred replied, “Thanks for writing back… so glad to see you did. I’m glad you have some support systems there. I could meet in Larkspur for lunch? That’s kind of a half way point? Maybe after Easter. April 6 or 7?

You can almost hear the voice of Jesus in John 11:44, can’t you? “Take off the graveclothes and let him go!”

We did meet up. And Fred showed such generosity and pastoral care to me that afternoon. He then offered up CityChurch’s counseling services to my then-wife and me, and we came down and met with him and Julie Van Til. CityChurch, you have no idea how pivotal you were to me in the spring of 2016. It was only four months later that I came fully out of the closet, announcing my resignation from my church job, resigning my credentials in my non-affirming denomination, and sharing the news that my wife and I would be ending our marriage. You were following Jesus’s instructions as you lovingly unwrapped the grave clothes that I had been wearing for over four decades. 

Like Lazarus, I had been raised to new life in Christ. Siblings in Christ, I had always been free to live as an openly gay child of God, to love who my body and soul felt most naturally drawn to love, but for all of those years, I had been forcing myself to wear the grave clothes that my family, my community and my Evangelical Christian community had expected me to wear. 

Even after I had heard Jesus’s call to come out of the grave, to start speaking my truth, to come out of hiding, I had only been able to come so far. It took God’s people coming around me to combat the lies, to speak hope and peace and truth and courage into me, to unwind those heavy bandages… And I could not have believed, as I sat with Pastor Fred in Larkspur… that eight years later I’d be standing here with you today, preaching this good news. Like I said, full-circle stories strengthen my faith. I see God in all of this, so clearly.

But let me tell you friends, that was only the beginning of quite an adventure, full of many joys and sorrows and twists and turns. It hasn’t always been easy! When you’ve been wrapped up in graveclothes for decades, it’s not always easy to live in freedom overnight. And sometimes you stink. Sometimes you make stupid mistakes. Sometimes you need the grace of the community to help you to keep walking in freedom! Because believe it or not, there are lots of people who think you should put those bandages back on! Just look at my Twitter feed on any given day! And sometimes we can get our newfound freedom confused with other things and end up hurting ourselves and others in the process. 

So as we transition from my story into this idea of being a community that follows Jesus’s instructions to remove the grave clothes from those who have been raised to new life, I want to invite you to think about this idea of walking in freedom. It can be radical and countercultural, especially as queer people of faith, although this idea is not limited to us. It’s funny, I first heard this idea of John 11 and the Lazarus story connected to the idea of the community of faith helping us to walk in freedom way back in the early 90s when I was a deeply closeted college student directing a student singing group. We were singing in churches and youth groups all over the Midwest, and it was my job to create programs and write introductions to songs. We were using this beautiful a cappella song by a vocal group called First Call. The song was entitled “Lazarus Unwound.” (Listen to Sound Investment – featuring 26-year-old me on the first verse! – sing the song here.) Check out these lyrics:

On a bright new clear blue morning
What a crazy sight to see

Wakes up trippin’ over his grave clothes
Boy, that sure sounds a lot like me

Lazarus unwound
What a day for a true believer
Lazarus unwound

I follow the voice of my salvation
I’m still tied up head to toe
God send me brothers and sisters
To loose me and let me go

Like Lazarus unwound
What a day for a true believer
Lazarus unwound

So I’m alive again
And gonna be set free
With a little help, my friend
I’m gonna walk
I’m gonna run
I’m gonna see

Like Lazarus unwound
What a day for a true believer
Lazarus unwound

At the time, I was not ready to even begin to face my sexual orientation. But I knew that I needed people to walk with me through the everyday struggles of being a college student. I was beginning to value Christian community and see that we were not made to face life on our own. 

Jesus has invited us to walk in freedom, and that freedom is powerful and real! In Galatians 5:1, Paul says “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” This freedom comes from the Spirit of God, and it is irrevocable. For those of us who have grown up in more high-control religious environments, that freedom can feel hard to believe. I remember during my “Jonathan David” days meeting a wonderful woman who goes by @SisterMaryDande on Twitter. She said something that was so simple and powerful… But it almost seemed too good to be true. I say it all the time now to queer people I work with who are struggling to find the courage and strength to come out of the closet.

In John 10:10, Jesus says that the thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy but in contrast, he has come to bring life and to bring it to the full. 

One day, in one of our endless conversations on Twitter, Mary just casually dropped this truth bomb on me: “Matt, there is no abundant life in the closet.”

What closet are you living in today? What freedom are you being invited to step into by the Spirit of God today? And how can we in the church come around you to help remove those heavy burdens that keep you bound in patterns of death?

Today — in my work as a spiritual director with nearly 30 clients, most of whom are from very conservative Christian backgrounds, and all of whom are queer—I see a number of patterns repeated again and again, but perhaps the number one theme is this one  (and this probably won’t be a shock to you):

“Is it really okay for me to be LGBTQ+?”

Especially for those of us who have grown up in non-affirming Christian communities, this is a huge question, and long after we have come to an intellectually affirming stance, we can still be plagued by intrusive thoughts of “Is this really okay?” I talk about the little fundamentalist boy who sometimes sits on my shoulder and whispers in my ear that I’m going to hell. 

Thank God I have found a therapist who specializes in Internal Family Systems, because as we understand more and more about the brain, we are starting to realize that it’s almost like there’s a younger, fearful version of me locked inside, a part of me who doesn’t realize that I have grown up and learned better – and we can make contact with him and find ways to integrate him into the whole of me. 

But you know what’s even more helpful than my IFS therapist? The people of my sweet little church coming around me with love and affection. The people who hug me and ask me about my husband and treat me just like any other person and who remind me that I am created in God’s image, and that they see the fruit of the Spirit in Alejandro and me, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now… Just because I still hear that little voice sometimes, does that mean I am not healed? Does it mean that I have NOT been raised to new life in Christ? Am I somehow deceived? No! It just means that the neural pathways of fundamentalist brainwashing run really, really deep. And this negative messaging did not only come from the church! It came from the culture all around me! Ask any queer person… We have been bombarded with negative messages from Day One. 

I remember watching The Boys in the Band on Netflix and being so moved. This is a seminal piece of queer cinema. It was first an off-Broadway play in 1968, then a film with the same cast in 1970. It was revived on Broadway in 2018, and then turned into another film by Netflix in 2020 with that same Broadway cast. It’s set in an Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, and it’s basically an evening of gay men being awful to each other. Toward the end of the night, one of the characters is reflecting on the goings-on and says, “If we could just not hate ourselves so much. That’s it, you know. If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.” And that line was first performed 56 years ago! The internalized queerphobia has been around for a very long time and is deeply entrenched in our historical psyche. 

Church, we queer people desperately need you to come around us, to heed the words of Jesus, to “Take off the graveclothes and let us go!” Help us to walk in freedom and new life! Remind us that we are created in God’s image, that our beautiful queer bodies are sacred, that our love is holy, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

This message is so basic, so “level 101,” but still so urgently needed in our world today. Every Sunday morning I wake up and tweet the same sentence. I’ve been doing it for over four years, and it still matters, still gets so much attention week after week: You don’t have to worship where you’re not wanted. There is such a hunger for genuine welcome, for genuine affirmation. Not a bait and switch. 

As a pastor of an inclusive church in Marin County, I was invited to speak at the Pride Flag Raising Ceremony on June 1 in Novato. And I talked about why PRIDE is necessary. I turned part of my speech into a post on Instagram, and I have been stunned at how many people have shared these words:

“When LGBTQIA+ people celebrate Pride, we’re not celebrating the pride that is harmful. Our pride is not the opposite of humility, but rather the opposite of shame.

We are embracing the reality that we are who we are. We are rejecting the lies that have told us we don’t belong, that we are somehow abnormal or sick or sinful. We are refusing to live in shame any longer.

When we celebrate Pride, we are celebrating that our beautiful queer bodies are made in the image of God, that our identities and our relationships are blessed and holy. We are declaring that we – like all of the things God has created – are ‘very good.’”(Genesis 1:31)

Friends, John 11 is not just a feel-good story. Rather, it is a beautiful, God-given invitation for all of us to, along with Jesus, set captives free! To “take off the graveclothes and let people go!” 

But I have a word of caution for us in the progressive church. We have for so long been fighting oppressive, fear-based fundamentalism that I fear at times we forget our role in removing the graveclothes in other ways too.

Because while the religious right, politicians and media love to rail against us, wagging their moralistic fingers at us and telling us that we’re not real Christians, sometimes we forget that there is actually a difference between true freedom in Christ and simply living with no boundaries whatsoever. And sometimes we in the progressive church, in our understandable desire to avoid being judgmental, forget that part of heeding Jesus’s call to “Take off the graveclothes and let them go!” might be to lovingly come alongside people who are harming themselves or others and offer support, encouragement and resources for healing and freedom.

Because there are two extremes at play here, aren’t there?

There are the people who – no matter how sincere or well-intentioned – tell us queer people that we cannot live out our sexual and gender identities and relationships according to our consciences, no matter what. They give us a blueprint for morality and expect us to fall in line, period. And that is one kind of graveclothes. God forbid we be guilty of expecting our siblings in Christ to live in that kind of bondage.

But there is another extreme that masquerades as freedom. It says that anything we do is fine. It says that God blesses any and all behaviors and baptizes everything we do with a kind of spiritual veneer with no self-reflection at all. And in my work I see people who are trapped in all kinds of bondage because of that lack of wisdom that calls itself “freedom.” 

Please notice that I have not spelled out any specifics here, because I don’t believe that there are any “one-size fits all” rules that work for every individual person or every relationships. 

“Take off the graveclothes and let them go!” Can we model the fruit of healthy living? Can we be open and honest with one another? Can we acknowledge when something’s not working for us, when something isn’t feeling right in our bodies and souls? When we might need to ask for help or step in to ask a beloved friend or chosen family member, “How is your walk? How is that working for you?”

Because the new life that Jesus is inviting us into is one of freedom, true freedom. The freedom to move and run and dance without impediments… The freedom to live and move as we were created to live and move. Joyfully and boldly.

Jesus says “You are the light of the world. Shine that light before all people, that they may see the good in you and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Where do you need freedom? What grave clothes are holding you back from the fullness of life in Christ? Where do you need to ask for help?

Where do you need to come alongside someone and offer help?

The invitation is ours. May we, like those around Lazarus, heed Jesusʻs command….and may we, like Lazarus himself, live in the freedom and power of the living and risen Christ. Amen.