29 June 2009

A Pride Sermon

Rev. Miller Jen Hoffman
Binghamton Congregation of MCCNY
Mark 4:26-34

In today’s parables of the planted seeds and the mustard seed, there seems to be nothing particularly Pride-full in evidence. The seeds don’t appear to be transgender seeds. Mustard is not a particularly homosexual spice. It’s enough to cause a person to wonder, I imagine, why use the regular lectionary-assigned weekly texts for today? Why go with the same stories that everyone-else-not-celebrating-Pride-today is reading? Why not choose something different, something gay-er, something more gender-bent?

And I have to begin by answering that this is our fifth Binghamton Pride service, and surely I have already preached on all the good queer and genderqueer texts. (Never mind how many years Rev. Pat has been doing it in New York City.) We must be so over those affirming characters. There is really only so much a person can say about Jonathan and David, and Ruth and Naomi, the gay Roman centurion, Prisca and Aquila the lesbian home-church leaders, Deborah the trans judge,‘adam the first intersex being, or the Ethiopian eunuch. Surely I’ve bored you senseless with these positive stories of our ancestors in the bible and how they illustrate that we are not only in the bible, we are often models of faith and integrity and courage. I imagine that you’re tired of hearing shameless tales of queer and trans biblical spirit and strength.

You know of course that I’m joking about that. We never get tired of hearing that stuff. And, besides, everything I’m going to say today you’ve already heard at least five times, too.

As for the bashing texts, I suppose that I could tell you again that the bible does not condemn us for being lesbian-gay-bi-trans-queer-allied – because it most certainly does not. I could talk about Hebrew and Greek translations. I could point out any number of biblical laws that hardly anyone knows are there, let alone pays any attention to, at the same time that they pull out and wave around a handful of verses they take to mean we are judged. I could talk about the context of those passages and how they are, every last one, talking about something else entirely different than our adult, consensual relationships and our informed and lived gender identities and expressions. But, frankly, there’s not much fun in talking about the texts of terror. There’s no woo-hoo in it, really.

And then there’s the whole I-heart-parables reason for keeping this reading today. Parables are these really amazing lessons. Parables are part Zen koan (like, What was your face before you were born? What is the sound of one hand clapping?), and they are part riddle (like, As I went to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives; Each wife had seven sacks, Each sack had seven cats, Each cat had seven kits. Kits, cats, sacks, and wives, how many were going to St. Ives?), and they are part fable (like, slow and steady wins the race, birds of a feather flock together). What’s not to love about these fabulous Gordian story problem-poem-moral-puzzles?

And parables are conspicuously queer. Seriously. Not so much in the sense that they so-called cross-dress or are attracted to other same-gender loving parables, but because they absolutely mess with expectations. They undermine the status quo. They sabotage the way things are and the way things are “supposed” to be. And they recruit. They’re famous for it. If anyone tries to give you some pat explanation for a parable, some proper, “spiritual” interpretation, just laugh. They must be joking. Because parables defy proper. They spit on “appropriate.” Let me tell you, parables in general are us forty years ago on a hot, damp, humid late June late night at the Stonewall Inn finally and completely fed up with proper. And appropriate. Parables do not stay in the paddy wagon. They say things like “God’s reign is like mold and weeds,” and “Throw a party for your rebellious child,” and “ninety-nine birds in the hand are significantly less important than one, possibly dim-witted, one wandering around in the woods.”

So, finally, this is why we are keeping the lectionary readings for today. Because they are parables. Because they are about God’s reign. And so they are de facto, in toto, by definition, about us – our movement, our people, our Pride. They are about the inevitable miracle of justice and equality and kindness and people having each other’s back. And, as it happens, at least one of the Greek parables is a burlesque, according to my boyfriend John Dominic Crossan, on par with Fannie Brice and Hedda Lettuce. (I said that last part, not Crossan.) But more on that later.

The reign of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, the sower does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once the sower goes in with a sickle, because the harvest has come.

Here is the parable of inevitability. The parable of certainty. It’s perfect, as a parable, because if we know anything, if anything is commonsense or logical, it’s that nothing is certain but death and taxes, and not even taxes if we are following the processes of half of President Obama’s cabinet nominations, and not even death if we paid any attention at all in April with the whole stone-rolled-away, “why-do-you-seek-the-living-among-the-dead” celebration. Nothing is certain. Nothing is sure. Pema Chodron has written a dozen books about it, chaos theory made it a science, Thomas made his name on it. Uncertainty and doubt lurk around every corner and under every bed, waiting to grab your foot and gnaw on your bare ankle when you get up in the night for a glass of water.

But the parable of the scattered seeds says different. The parable says, it’s coming. Period. No qualifications. No, “if you build it, they will come,” just “They will come.” It won’t happen based on whether you struck while the iron was hot, were early to bed, or used two heads. It’s coming, like it or not, ready or not, allee allee in come free.

It’s a good time for this promise. It’s helpful to know that, while we struggle with family illness or making ends meet or conflict with whoever, it’s heartening and comforting to know that God’s rule is coming and will bring with it good news for the poor, release for the captives. It is coming and it will set oppressed people free. Nothing can stop it.

It’s a good time to know it, while Republicans and Democrats fuss in the New York State Senate over who is in power and whether or not to vote on marriage equality. They can’t stop the reign of God. It’s helpful to know it when the people, supposedly of California, passed and the California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, they can’t stop the reign of God. When men who fear and hate Jews open fire in our monument to Jewish tragedy and recovery, and who profess a love of life but kill Dr. George Tiller in the foyer of his church, and who kill our trans sisters every week around the globe, they can’t stop the reign of God. They can flout it, they can fight it, but they can’t stop it, this parable says. God’s reign will out.

Magic beans are real. Love does conquer all. Good things do come to those who wait. It’s a sure thing. God’s reign is coming, and God’s reign does not remotely resemble appropriate and proper, is not comprised of principals or dignitaries but of interlopers, anarchists, and scum. That’s us, by the way, but in a good way. More on that in a minute.

I love that the parable is edgy and uncomfortable. It challenges us to consider our action without ever naming action. In fact, by specifically excluding our efforts it might intentionally grate against our very notions of enterprise. The earth produces of itself. Does this mean we don’t have to do anything? Is it saying go to bed? That our efforts don’t matter? Does the parable encourage apathy and indifference? Oh, sweet Gordian story problem-poem-moral-puzzle, what am I supposed to do to change the world? Aren’t I supposed to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with my God? Aren’t I supposed to be, at least, a small group of thoughtful and committed people? Aren’t I supposed to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty and visit the sick?

At the same time that hostile actions by our opposition will not stop God’s reign from being realized, neither will our own apathy, indifference, or excuses. The story tells us that somebody scattered the seed. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, for example, scattered the seed and passed marriage equality for all of us, straight, gay, bi, transgender-with-or-without-transitioning. Vermont especially, bless them, already had that bogus Civil Union half-measure in place, and they went out of their way to make things right. Miami, for example, scattered the seed and became the third municipality in Miami-Dade County to adopt a domestic partnership ordinance. The Argentinian bank Banco Provincia scattered the seed – have you seen this? it is incredible – and created an ad showing a non-trans man talking to and reaching out to and apologizing to a trans woman.

Will Ferrell scatters the seed. That’s not a euphemism, although it sounds like one in the same sentence as his name. Will Ferrell is my new boyfriend, no disrespect intended to John Dominic Crossan. Ferrell, married, talented, popular, goes out of his way in his movies, maybe especially the latest Land of the Lost to interrupt and challenge homophobia and gender stereotypes. It’s not even subtle. One example: his time machine is made from parts of a boom box that still have show tunes from A Chorus Line embedded in it, and when another character says “That’s kind of gay,” he replies, “Yeah. It is great.”

Somebody is scattering seeds. And if it isn’t us, it isn’t us. But it will be someone else, and the commonwealth of God’s wholeness and healing, of human worth and dignity for everyone across our differences, of God’s loving and peaceful reign will happen and, well, I guess we’ll have missed out of the grassroots movement. But that’s not really the parable’s concern. That seems more or less left to our conscience and our love to work out. But the parable insists that Change and Good and Right is a sure thing, it’s a promise. Life produces of itself. Watch for it. It will come.

And then ... Mark brings on the camp. Finally. The reign of God is like a mustard seed which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

This is The Onion of parable, the National Lampoon of Zen koan. The Gypsy Rose Lee of scripture. Because in our Hebrew reading for today we see that the dominant image of divine strength and power is the great cedar of Lebanon. “On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord.”

The parable, Br’er Rabbit that it is, prankster, queer agitator, gender-bender, coyote trickster, takes the symbol of the cedar tree – imagine the California sequoia or redwood or the lost American chestnut or the Texas sycamore, something regal and imposing and majestic – and replaces it with the first-century Palestinian equivalent of a dandelion. It’s absurd. It’s hilarious.

It’s like the scene in The Princess Bride when the prince and Buttercup are to be married, and there’s a huge cathedral and a priest in full vestments and a grand organ interlude, and “the impressive clergyman” finally begins to speak... “Mahwage. Mahwage is wat bwings us togevver today. That bwessed awangement...”

It’s not what we were expecting. It is deliberately unsettling, disturbing our “secure mythological world” (Boring). It’s heresy, second cousin to anarchy, un-American. It’s queer. It’s genderqueer. It is God.

God’s reign, immanent and inevitable, is a dandelion. It’s a mustard plant. Something that makes good soup, has healing herbal properties, gives comfort and shelter to any number of ecological systems – and often goes absolutely unnoticed as anything but a pest. What most people, the “proper” and “appropriate” people, see is an untamable, uncontrollable weed that takes over the cultivated, geometrical, manicured yard and garden, pungent and dangerous, attracting all kinds of unwanted, unsavory characters (Crossan). That’s us, friends. This is us to a jot and tittle.

God’s reign is in unexpected places. People looking up are told to look down. People looking to royalty and presidents are told to look at women, lepers, children, the poor. People looking at the straight, staid, missionary-position, Banana Republic, well-groomed, white middle-classes are told to look ... for us. The pierced and tattooed, cross-dressing, dyke, odd, off, queer, freaks. Maybe you don’t think of yourself that way, that’s okay. We don’t all claim the same language, and I’m just trying to make a point. That the mighty stream of God’s just and good rule is coming from off-center. From the margins. Where we are and live and love and work and play. That’s a promise. That’s our promise.

The world needs us. The Kingdom of God is itself, in fact, only realized when everyone is at the table. It’s not a matter of being merely wanted, merely invited, merely welcomed. We are needed along with every other being, whether coveted or castaway, whether central or invisible, we are needed because we are all needed to make it real. And I mean us just as we are, just like this. Not mainstreamed or “converted” or “cured,” but with all of our glorious dapple and couple-colored, fickle and freckled, pied beauty.

We are needed. And God’s reign that we are an indispensable part of is a sure thing. And that’s very, very good news, indeed. Happy Pride. Peace.

26 June 2009

Dear Friends,

The “Heritage of Pride” parade takes place this Sunday in New York City. Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual and Queer people and those who love and support them will march from 5th Avenue & 52nd Street to Christopher & Greenwich Street. to celebrate who God created them to be and to demonstrate their pride in themselves and their communities.

The Bible warns against excessive pride, but it is a healing and empowering emotion when you have been treated as if being who you are and loving who you love is shameful. Most people know what it is to have experienced shame in their lives. Shame is an effective means for social control and has worked to keep people silent and undermine their self-worth. It can lead people to living dishonest and inauthentic lives. Shame tells sensitive little boys that they are unmanly and little girls who’d rather wear pants than dresses that they are unnatural. And as for those who do not fall within the gender dichotomy at all – well, as my friend Dina says, “Fuggedaboutit.”

Pride breaks the crippling hold shame can have on people. When thousands of individuals carrying banners and balloons march in public, it is a healing light streaming into the shadowy closets where shame thrives and tries to suffocate the spirit. I believe that Heritage of Pride Sunday can speak to all of us who feel different in some way from what is too readily considered “normal.” It can remind those who follow Jesus that He, too, did not fit the norm. An outsider who proclaimed that another kindom was being born into an empire that seemed invincible, Jesus was quite at home with those others condemned and taught that each of us is a reflection of God, that we carry within us a piece of the divine. God bless all who march this Sunday – and let your light shine.

For more information on the Heritage of Pride Parade, go to http://www.flamingforchrist.org

Peace to you,

Elaine Connolly
Jan Hus Presbyterian Church

22 June 2009

Flaming for Christ: with wounds on its sides

By Takako Suzuki Terino

We often speak of the church as one body of Christ. Then we speak of the need for healing and reconciliation. Just as Jesus was sent to the broken world to bring healing and reconciliation, so we the church, which is his body, are sent out to the world to bring healing and reconciliation. Sounds good.

But let’s take a closer look at this body. How did the church come to have this body which we dare claim to be the body of Christ? It was Resurrected Jesus who appeared to the disciples and made them apostles by sending them out into the world. When the promised power of the Holy Spirit came to them, life was breathed into them and the church was born. We the church thus became the body of Resurrected Jesus, enlivened by the Holy Spirit. But the peculiar thing about this body of Resurrected Jesus was that it had wounds, the wounds that had killed Jesus on the cross. Jesus showed these wounds to the disciples so that they could know it was really him. They are surely the mark of Resurrected Jesus, whose body we are.

These wounds of Jesus have often been romanticized. For some, they speak of Jesus’ compassion for the world that Jesus loved us to death. Hallelujah? No, we cannot adore and worship these wounds, because we do not celebrate Jesus death. Indeed, we ought to be furious about these wounds, because they are nothing other than the mark of injustice that sucked life out of the earthly Jesus. These wounds are evil. Rather, what we do celebrate and worship is the mighty God who overcame this evil and brought Jesus back to life, with wounds and all.

Of late, when we speak of the need for healing and reconciliation, we are often talking not about the world in general but about our own church. Every defeat in our effort to bring justice to our church polity is a new wound on the side of our body; every loveless confrontation with an opponent, another self-inflicting stab. Yet, we dance gingerly around these wounds as we grope our way for healing and reconciliation. Yes, we are marked by these wounds of injustice, but we must resist the temptation to romanticize them as merely a sign of our sinfulness for which Jesus died. For it is not the life-sucking wounds but the power of God who overcomes them that makes us, the church, alive and flaming for Resurrected Christ.

Now let us go and spread the Good News down Fifth Avenue, flaming for Christ!

08 June 2009

The Church’s First Mistake

Acts 1:3-17, 21-26, 2:1-12
Rev. Chris Shelton

It didn’t just come from nowhere, you know – that Pentecost Spirit. The rush of the wind – the dancing flames – the seemingly drunken disciples…it didn’t just show up, as if returning early from some delightful South American vacation. The Spirit came, not because its Blackberry reminded it, or because the Presbyterian Planning Calendar told it that the day was appropriate. The Spirit came and took the disciples by storm because it had to…it couldn’t delay another minute.

To get there, though – to listen for why the Spirit so urgently arrived, we have to go back. We have to rewind the tape we so eagerly fast-forwarded. We do love the pyrotechnics, the mystery, the drama of it all…let’s face it, the flames… But that’s not where the story starts. First, we return to a hillside near Jerusalem.

Listen for the Spirit speaking in these verses from Acts, chapter 1.

3 After his suffering Jesus presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of God. "This," Jesus said, "is what you have heard from me;
5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"
7 He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the our great Parent has set by his own authority.
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two mysterious ones in white robes stood by them.
11 They said, "People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey away.

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said,
16 "Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus--
17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry."

21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,
22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us-- one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection."
23 So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.
24 Then they prayed and said, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen
25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place."
26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

I think Luke deserves a commendation. Luke, you may recall, is the traditional author of our story, the author of the New Testament’s two volume series – Luke and Acts. Tradition also tells us that Luke was a physician. What tradition has never revealed until now, is that Luke was clearly a Southern Gentleman. Trust me, it takes one to know one. This is clearly revealed here in chapter one. Did you see it? I know it’s tricky – you actually have to listen for what Luke didn’t say. He didn’t say, for example, that Peter could occasionally be a blathering idiot. Eh, perhaps I’ve been among the Yankees too long. Suffice it to say that Luke gently, mannerly, overlooks the fact that the disciples have made the first mistake of the post-ascension church. They did not do what Jesus asked them to – they did not stay put and wait for the Holy Spirit…they tried to go it on their own. And in so doing, a rather unfortunate pattern of the church was established…

But Luke doesn’t say a word about this – he just tells the story in a gentlemanly way. And I don’t fault him for it…and I don’t fault those early disciples either. I mean, really, they’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster these last several weeks. Jesus leads them into Jerusalem on a stolen donkey as the crowds celebrate. Next thing you know he’s in the temple, turning over the tables. By Thursday, he joins them in a meal of memory and promise – mystifying them with the broken bread and the outpoured cup. Before they know it, they’re out in the cold of the night, trying to keep awake with little success, when soldiers are on them and Jesus is lead away. In fear they scatter – just a few of them seeing the trials, and ultimately the crucifixion. After fleeing as they did, who knows how, but somehow they found each other – fear draws people together, I guess. After hiding out for a couple of days, they get the rumor from some of the women that the tomb is empty – and then Jesus seems to be popping up all over the place…on roads, through walls, at tables, in gardens…sometimes you can touch him, sometimes you can’t…

Some of them, bewildered by it all, try to go back to work at their fisher boats – but Jesus turns up at the seashore, as if to call them again.

Finally, they’ve come back together and are gathered on a hillside. It’s been 40 days, and it’s just settling in that Jesus is really alive and with them. Someone dares to ask what they’ve all been thinking – “Is it time, Lord, are you going to restore Israel now?” It’s awfully hard to shake an idea once you have it. Even after all this, they still think his mission was to set Israel back apart from the rest of the world. They have yet to embrace that his Kingdom, his Israel, is without borders.

“Just wait,” Jesus says, “God’s timing for all things – not yours…no matter how much it may drive you crazy.”

And then, he’s gone – lifted into the clouds. They stand there staring, mouths again agape. (I editorially suspect that Peter thought back to the last time Jesus had done such a physical miracle…remember, the walking on the water bit and how he had wanted in on it …and thought to himself, “I wanna fly.” But I digress.)

Angelic types have to swoop in as if to say, “People – stop staring and get back to doing what Jesus asked you to do.”

So – somewhere in all of this – a mistake was bound to happen. Did they go home and wait until the Spirit moved? Did they follow Christ’s lead and prepare themselves for the coming of the Spirit? Did they reflect on Christ’s call in their lives and how they would soon be sharing the Good News in all the world, and inviting others to join in the witness? No. They did what all good Christians seem to do when avoiding Christ’s call. They tried to figure out ordination standards.

I mean, I do give them some credit. Their system was much less bloody than our Presbyterian one. Thinking they needed to fill in the gap left by Judas, they hold a lottery to see who gets to be the new number 12. Peter says that this is to help them decide who shall “become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater… By now you’d think he’d understand that they all are called to be witnesses to the Resurrection – that we all are called to be witnesses.

Peter posed it as a choice, a vote, between Joseph Justus and Matthias. The lot fell on Matthais. My heart goes out to Joseph Justus – the first ordination denied by the church. I suspect, and tradition tells us that he went on to preach anyway, with or without the credential, and with out without the pension plan. But we keep living out this pattern – we forget the joyous news of the Resurrection will not be confined, any more than Jesus was confined by a tomb, and it is for everyone to share… we’ve kept out persons of color, folks who’ve been divorced, persons with disabilities, the struggle for women goes on, and the journey toward inclusiveness for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons in the church seems an especially long one, lately… But I digress again, or do I?

Gentlemanly Luke doesn’t point out this mistake… He simply records that they did what they did. But now, you see, here’s where we get to flip the page to see what happened next. Narratively speaking, at least, the wind begins to blow, fire from heaven comes down, and before you know it everyone is speaking, and everyone is hearing in their own languages. The Pentecost Spirit comes storming in, because it had to, it couldn’t wait another minute. Charging in as if to say – “this Church, this message, this New Life will be for everyone…and no walls, no votes, no nothing, will stand in my way.”

Not as gentlemanly as Luke, that Spirit, I guess – or as ladylike if you prefer…but still willing to put up with a lot…

I want to celebrate that just last week we glimpsed that Wind still at work. Our church of ancestry, the Church of Scotland, did what our own PCUSA has been struggling to do. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has affirmed the call of the Rev. Scott Rennie – who becomes the first openly gay and partnered minister in the history of that denomination. I am proud to call Scott and his partner David dear friends. I like to think that Joseph Justus is proud, too – knowing that there’s one less person who has to know the sting of a vote that tries to confine the Spirit.

It’s fear, that restless demon, that we face down in the long run. It was fear that got the better of Peter…and I know I’ve been hard on him, but God loves Peter, by the way. But Peter fell prey to his fears – he didn’t wait for the Spirit like Jesus said. He wasn’t sure what the Spirit was going to do anyway – or what it looked like. He thought maybe he could control the Spirit by getting out ahead of it…keep it in line…keep it comfortable, keep it safe. He was afraid of what might happen if it got out to everyone. And so, Peter figured, let’s keep it to ourselves…let’s define an “us” so that we can keep out the “them”… and we can decide this thing by a vote.

Scott, in the week leading up to the vote in Scotland, was asked by the Press about the anxiety of it all. "There is so much fear in this debate," Scott said. "And fear is the antithesis of the gospel. The gospel is about hope not fear, love not loathing.”

Someone else asked him, “what do you have left if you lose?” I’m sure he gave a bright smile as he responded, “What is left? Well, the good news and the hope of the gospel is left. The constant possibility that people and society can be transformed to be more just, more peaceful, more loving. The whole notion that the kingdom of God can come. It's not bad to be getting on with."

Now there’s a Scottish gentleman for you.

Indeed, friends, as we grapple with the grief of this vote…mixed with the joy of the strides we have made…we must surely keep in mind that we grapple with nothing new. The Church is still reckoning with its first mistake. And thank God, the Spirit still is, too.

And there will be more mistakes to come, goodness knows – but as Scott reminds us, and as Joseph Justus surely knows – the Good News is still there, and we all are included in it. Not one will ultimately be left out. The Resurrection is still unfolding! And, no matter what some may say – no matter what the ballots read – no matter what Peter or Parker or any Presbytery may try to tell you – we all are called to be witnesses.

And I feel the wind blowing.

01 June 2009

Getting to know the Ethiopian eunuch

Rev. Mieke Vandersall

Riverdale Presbyterian Church

May 10, 2009

Acts 8:26-40

When I was a seminary intern at Second Presbyterian Church I learned an important lesson when I was given the charge to preach on what was considered “Thanksgiving Sunday.” I didn’t even mention Thanksgiving and let me tell you did I hear about it. You see, I didn’t realize that Thanksgiving was a liturgical holiday, but after that Sunday I understood what people’s expectations are for such days.

The thing is holidays like Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving, Fathers Day too, in some places July 4th as well are a big old trap for preachers. There is pressure to preach touchy-feely, Hallmark sermons these days when yet they aren’t liturgical holidays. Mother’s Day can be especially tough because it is such a complicated day for so many. This is all to say that I am aware of expectations many of us bring to this day and while this sermon might not be a “typical” Mother’s Day sermon it is one that I believe is an authentic exploration of who God is, how God is revealed to us in the text and the intimacy with and acceptance of God which we all crave from people as close to us as our mothers.

This week I was talking to my best friend, who is a mother, about an Oprah show she saw—maybe some of you have seen it too. On this particular show were two mothers who had recently lost their children to suicide. Their young boys killed themselves because of the homophobic taunts that they had been hearing at school. They were sweet boys, sensitive, and had been called those names that I don’t dare repeat here in this pulpit but you know all of them. Some of you might have been called those names before or even used them in lives past.

The boys weren’t necessarily gay, I think they were so young that they didn’t even have the language to understand the difference between sexual orientation and expression of gender, which you know are two very different yet connected things. It didn’t matter if they were gay or not, because the words, the schoolyard taunts, the words that indeed hurt more than sticks and stones, they made it clear than any deviation from norms of masculinity are an offense worthy of punishment by self-loathing to the point of suicide.

To prevent a mother’s nightmare, one of the mothers of one of these young boys went to the school authorities and asked them to intervene when the taunts began. She could see where this road was leading and the mama bear she is, she went to ask them to please do anything to make it better. There is so much that can be done to prevent this, you know.

I thought of the Ethiopian eunuch as Stefanie and I were talking about these young boys and her fear, as a mother, for her own child, my godchild. He is a delightfully well-mannered, sensitive little boy who loves learning and has an active and engaged imagination. The world is his oyster, all to explore and to enjoy and to experience. What can we do to allow him to grow into his best self, into the gift of a human being that God has given us? This became the question we batted around.

First, I guess we should talk about what a eunuch actually is. Eunuchs are males whose testicles have been removed. In biblical times, in this particular community, eunuchs were considered sexual minorities because of a prohibition in Deuteronomy that keeps them from the worshipping community of Israel. And so that is that and the eunuch finds himself on the margins of mainstream Israel.

Eunuchs are a third gender—an expression not stereotypically masculine or feminine but something else, who, in the time of the writer of Acts was castrated and was distinguished by certain patterns of dress, speech, physiology and overall affect. While they were tremendously marginalized in some ways, not even being allowed to worship, not permitted into the community that they had been born into, they were also revered. One commentator believes that eunuchs make a “perfect servant,” perfect because they had no allegiance to family and could not jeopardize the dynastic lineage by their own offspring. Indeed they were able to move across gender and social boundaries and were often considered holy men because of their ability to access spiritual realms. (West, Mona, “Acts of the Apostles” in Queer Bible Commentary, SCM Press, London, 2006:pg 573)

The eunuch in our story today was a pretty important fellow. He was a court official of the queen of the Ethiopians, Ethiopia being the place that was thought at the time to have the most beautiful people in the world (Anna Carter Florence, http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/florence_4802.htm). He was the queen’s court official and not only that but this person’s job was to care for her entire treasury. He dealt with wealth and privilege day in and day out.

And yet, yet…he might be close to the top of society but not quite. An important character he is, perfect for service, service with clearly defined rules and boundaries that the individual has no control over setting. Important, rich maybe, a servant but out of the realm of receiving service, out of the realm of receiving grace or mercy or understanding or friendship or love, all because of his sexuality or the removal of it, and his expression of gender.

So here was this one, full of privilege on one hand and completely stripped of his humanity, of his heart and soul on the other, who was coming from worship in Jerusalem, from a long religious pilgrimage. It is curious, isn’t it. Because of the Deuteronomic clause, he wasn’t allowed to worship. Was he disobeying the rules? What was it that convinced him that he should try anyway, that he could access God even though the world had told him “no” over and over and over again?

This individual might have been what was known in the book of Acts as a “God-fearer,” someone who believes in the ethical principles of the Torah and who reveres the God of the Jews, but does not follow the law in its entirety, nor submit to circumcision” (West, pg. 572). But here he was, one who journeyed far, very far geographically, he was on a long pilgrimage to go and worship, which is a “mark of his profound religious devotion, since the farther one journeys the more devotion one exhibits” (Wall, Robert W. “The Acts of the Apostles” in The New Interpreter’s Bible”: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume X, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN: pg. 143).

Here was someone that because of his very nature, because of something about his body, he could not help or do anything about the fact that he was outcast, was only marginally welcome, and yet perhaps a God-fearer, perhaps one who still found himself in the Scriptures of his ancestors, the traditions of his people, the rituals of his understanding.

And so this individual follower we have, powerful, rich, connected, a “perfect” servant, maybe even especially connected to God, he had it all, and yet a eunuch he still was, no doubt the source of whispers and pointed fingers and nasty words on the playground. He was one that no one was allowed to touch or have a meal with or share a home with or…you get the picture.

This treatment would break a mother’s heart.

We have someone different, with a ton of privilege and yet at least officially void of companionship, friendship, and understanding. We know little about the beauty of the soul of this person for the rules that is stacked up from the generations that keep us and everyone else from knowing him, really knowing him.

So even though very few people actually know this man, because they would not talk to him or seek his companionship but only his service, the gospel-writer gives us a glimpse into his devotion and his curious heart and his active mind. We meet him this morning in his glorious chariot, coming home from worship, from where he is officially not permitted and he is reading Isaiah. Listen to Isaiah:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.

Does he find himself here? This is what I want to know in this passage. Does he feel like a sheep led to the slaughter? Does he feel like a lamb silenced before his death? How can he not see himself here, as Philip, the evangelist on assignment by an angel climbs up in the chariot and sits next to the this person who only serves and is never served. He sits next to him and maybe puts his hand on his knee and talks to the man about the scriptures, maybe he told him that yes, he could find himself in the Scriptures, yes, the promise was for him too.

You see Isaiah continues

In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.

He had to have known that this was written for him and for me and for you, for times when justice is denied, when the systems and structures and traditions built up for so many years fail us, for when we feel like our lives have been taken away.

I also read this in context of the recent decision of the Presbyterian Church, our denomination, to continue maintaining what is known as the homophobic and heterosexist “fidelity and chastity clause” of our constitution. Last June it was recommended by the highest body of the church to the presbyteries, or lower governing bodies to remove this clause which most effectively and directly negatively effects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and it was up to the presbyteries to ratify this decision by 50%. I have been through five previous attempts to change our constitution and this year we have come closer than we ever have in the past to reaching the 50% goal, but not close enough. And so the clause stays and we continue to lose tremendously gifted GLBT individuals called to ministry, because of it. This week alone I have counseled three gay and lesbian people who just can’t wait any longer to serve and are moving their membership to the United Church of Christ. Through these kinds of actions we continue to give the message to our children who feel like they are different in any way that God doesn’t approve of difference, that God approves of schoolyard taunts.

This breaks my heart. It breaks my heart for those of us who are GLBT and suffer in the church in so many ways—and yet stay because this is our home and this is where our God has called us. It breaks my heart, yet on this Mother’s Day when we think of the children who are raised knowing, even in welcoming congregations like this one, that to be queer, to be different, is not acceptable to so many others who claim the name of Christian. The actions of homophobia and heterosexism in the church are nothing more than an abomination, a scandal to the gospel. And that is why we work together to witness to people like the Ethiopian eunuch, and all of the parts of him that are in us.

I am not concerned about our church and all churches changing. I am not concerned because I have seen churches changing over the years, slow, steady change. Change is on the way and change is here. And we have come so much further this year than in years past. However, my concern is for those who are in the midst of the pain the church causes right now and right here. It must stop and we must stand up to stop it, we must like Philip get up in the chariot and open the Scriptures and realize that we are all there, that salvation is for every single one of us, that freedom is free and available and it is not up to us to monitor it.

Philip sat with this person, not a eunuch or a man or a high-falutant servant or an outcast but a person and began to speak, telling him the story of the scriptures, telling him the story about Jesus, telling him that in Christ there is no east or west, no slave nor free, in Christ we are all valued, we are all given a common playing field where we can shine in the particular gifts that God has given us.

It is a pretty amazing thing, that promise. All the walls we erect, all the names we are called that sometimes kill, they aren’t permitted in the kingdom of God. They are the ones outcast, not the people they are targeted against. And this person in his chariot, and Philip they are riding along and they came to some water and he was so excited about this gift, this promise, this belief in his very own goodness enough that he needed to stop, acknowledge it, ritualize it, participate in the cleansing act of water and get baptized.

“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And so he commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

And here we have it, one who had been on a long and hard pilgrimage, who was tired and worn out, who had been told “no” over and over again in his life and he frees the shackles from his heart and asks: what is to prevent me?

What is to prevent us? What is to prevent us from believing and acting upon that belief that there is enough room in the kingdom of God for the eunuch and for Philip and for you and for me, for religious conservatives and hippies, for politicians and tax-collectors, for artists and for musicians, for GLBT folk and for straight folk, for those we can’t stand and for our best friends. Indeed, here on this Mother’s Day of all days, can we not acknowledge and celebrate all children?

What is to prevent us?