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.

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