Thursday, September 27, 2012

God’s Rainbow Realm (Matthew 13:44-46)

The kindom of heaven is like a buried treasure found in a field. The ones who discovered it hid it again, and rejoicing at the discovery, went and sold all their possessions and bought that field.
                Or again the kindom of heaven is like a merchant’s search for fine pearls. When one pearl of great value was found, the merchant went back and sold everything else and bought it.
Mathew 13: 44-46
Untitled Self Portrait with C.B.M. by Kim Leutwyler
Let’s play “word substitute.” Instead of “kindom of heaven,” let’s read “sexual orientation” and “sexual identity.” The parables then would read sexual orientation is like an unknown treasure that once discovered brings great rejoicing. And sexual identity once discerned is as rich and glorious as a pearl of the greatest value.

If you are playing this game with straight friends they will not get how freeing and affirming these parables are. For them, sexual orientation and sexual identity have never been hidden or sought after. It’s hardly a treasure but more of a given constant. For queers, however, the discernment of deep identity markers which set us apart from the (hetero) norm can be either an experience of anxiety or liberation – often a mixture of both. Even more reasons for us to identify with the thrill of these parables. Leutwyler's self portrait captures the sense of  "neediness" which lends urgency to the searching and boundless joy in the finding. 

Yet, while our word game has been campy and a bit subversive, let us be careful. These are not parables of sexual expression they are parables of the empire of the Sacred. However, there is an insight to ponder for we can justly paraphrase the parables as: “The kingdom of God is like discernment among les-gay-bi-trans-queer/questioning-intersex-asexual people. Like sexual orientation, once the kingdom has been discovered there is great joy and peace of the soul.”

These paraphrases point to a broader understanding of God’s empire than traditional interpreters care to undertake. Entering the kingdom as a sexual minority is in part celebrating our sexuality before the face of the Sacred. A transgender person experiencing congruity is a kingdom moment; two women making a home of love and care is a kingdom moment; males’ pleasuring one another in intimate fun is a kingdom moment; a questioning person making discernment is a kingdom moment.

When the kingdom of God happens for and among queer people it must also happen for and among our sexual orientations, our sexual expressions, and our sexual identities or it will not be God’s gracious reign in our lives. In the end our word game may not be a game at all. Rather it is an insight as precious as buried treasure or a pearl of great price – God’s empire is a rainbow realm.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Queer Rights Movement as an Extension of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 13:31-33 // Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-21)

Jesus presented another parable to the crowds: “The kindom of heaven is like the mustard seed which a farmer sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it grows it is the biggest shrub of all – it becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come to perch in its branches.”
                Jesus offered them still another parable: “The kindom of heaven is like the yeast a baker took and mixed in with three measures of flour until it was leavened all through.”
Mathew 13: 31-33 (Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-21)

Humble Beginnings by Nickola McCoy-Snell
It is almost cliché to note that these two parables are about “humble beginnings.” It is cliché until we take a look at what “humble” refers to: insignificant and rag-tag. That is, out of dismissible events and people grow God’s great Empire.

For example, few observers would have suspected that a hole-in-the-wall transvestite bar would become the match to light the modern Gay Rights Movement in the United States. Yet the name Stonewall is now known the world over. In its wake queer sexuality is seen less and less as a predilection and more and more as a life-affirming path.

McCoy-Snell’s painting reminds us that the greatness of a person or even a movement is often masked by the circumstances of their conception and birth.

However, to leave these parables with the cliché is to miss some of what Jesus is needling us with. The mention of the mustard seed becoming a “tree,” when horticulturaly speaking it can only become a bush, gives us pause. In Ezekiel 3 the picture of a tree is used to represent what is evil, particularly, the evil nations. The image of the tree tied with the image of leaven reinforces this connection as leaven is used in the jewish Passover liturgy to symbolize the spread of evil.

It may be better to hear these parables saying, that not only out of insignificant beginnings, but also out of what may at first appear as evil, God’s Empire emerges. In fact this is the interesting crux of these parables. They seem to link small and perceived-as-evil initiatives which transform lives and culture to the work of the Holy in our midst.

If I understand these parables correctly – and many would disagree with me – than I do not think it is too great of a leap to suggest that the Gay Rights Movement may indeed be an extension of God’s Empire in the life of queer people: especially an Empire which opposes the inequality, discrimination, and immoral subjugation of the kingdom of sexual conformity.

Can working to extend gay rights to queer people and those enslaved by erotophobia be understood as working to extend God’s Empire in our lives? I believe the answer is yes. To borrow an insight from Luke (4:18-19), Jesus inaugurates God’s realm by sharing good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom to the captive, and restoring sight to the blind. Has this not been the experience of those who live in the wake of the Gay Rights Movement? We share the good news of a sex-positive God. We are leaving our closets to live wholly and honestly. We are working towards a world which celebrates the diversity of life.

Through these parables Jesus twist our understanding of what makes for God’s realm. It is not the pretty picture of homogenous heavenly bliss. Rather it is the more exciting dynamic of personal and cultural transformation as lived in the struggle for dignity.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Enemies (Matthew 13: 24-30)

Jesus presented another parable to those gathered: “The kindom of heaven is like a farmer who sowed good seed in a field. While everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then made off. When the crop began to mature and yield grain, the weeds became evident as well.
                “The farmer’s workers came and asked, ‘Did you not sow good seed in your field? Where are the weeds coming from?’
                “The farmer replied, ‘I see an enemy’s hand in this.’
                “They in turn asked, ‘Do you want us to go out and pull them up/”
                “‘No,’ replied the farmer, ‘if you pull up the weeds, you might take the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until the harvest, then at harvest time I will order the harvesters first to collect the weeds and bundle them up to burn, then to gather the wheat into my barn.’”
Mathew 13: 24-30

Seek Patience @

Growing up in and among Kentucky farmers – a long and glorious family lineage – I know how important a good harvest is to the stability of the family. What the enemy has done not only “bests” a rival, but demoralizes and subverts the family as well. Twice the “enemy” is mentioned and the parable develops around the action of this adversary. The concern is the outcome of the enemy’s action and how to neutralize the opponent’s influence.

This parable about the Empire of God appears in the midst of a section of Matthew’s gospel dealing with the nascent rejection of Jesus and his message. It is an early warning that not all will turn out satisfactory in the Jesus story.

I think there is a lesson here for the LGBTQIA community. We certainly know about enemies – those detractors who for one reason or another still point to us as “unnatural.” We are familiar with the weeds they seek to plant among us – hateful and hurtful attitudes which serve only to destabilize our innate orientation. We have set about pulling these weeds with great energy and hope. Yet the weeds spring back.

Do we have the patience that Jesus spoke of to wait; not so that the weeds may flourish – but that the crop may mature? This is not an easy discernment.

Queer rights have advanced far in the past 150 years. The construct of homosexuality itself has morphed so that we now understand the term to mean a romantic relationship. Before the modern period we can only speak about “homogenitality” where gay sex might be shared but the notion of forming a family unit with the love-that-cannot-be-named was foreign and unknown.

What do you think – is it a viable option to let the weeds grow along with the crop? Queer youth suicides far outnumber the suicide rates for straight youth. There is a movement afoot to recriminalize gay sex. Ex-gay movements still claim homosexuality is a choice that can be unlearned. Certainly we feel the pain of these weeds crowding us out.

It’s tempting to deny any credence to this parable, to say “Oh, but Jesus didn’t know our reality.” Yet, Jesus did know our reality or at least a reality of oppression and rejection which parallels ours. The people who preserved this parable were themselves a minority who were heavily opposed by the dominant empire of their day.

Discernment toward action is a weighty matter. Whether we wait or whether we act carries consequences either way. May we be at peace when we decide to wait. May we be filled with compassion when we decide to act.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Empire of the Sacred (Matthew 13:3b-9 // Mark 4:3-8; Luke 8:5-18)

One day, a farmer went out sowing seed. Some of the seed landed on a footpath, where birds came and ate it up. Some of the seed fell on rocky ground, where there was little soil. This seed sprouted at once since the soil had no depth, but the sun rose and scorched it, it withered away for lack of roots. Again, some of it landed on good soil, and yielded a crop thirty, sixty, even a hundred time what was sown.
Matthew 13:3b-9 (Mark 4:3-8; Luke 8:5-18)

Hitler in Color @
It can be hard for queer folk to here this simple parable of seeds and soil. Typically we are cast as the inhospitable ground with the kingdom (or better empire) of God rejecting us or being choked out by the weeds of our “queerness.” The conformist tradition makes it clear that the realm of the Sacred is hetro-centric and only straight people enjoy the bounty of this terrain.

However, such understanding of the kingdom has missed what it is all about. Today we have smoothed out and made palatable to people of democracies the radical notion of God’s realm. The translation above drops the idea of kingdom all together and substitute the notion of a “kin"-dom, a place where we gather because of kinship ties and common ground. Jesus was much more radical. In the face of the Roman occupation and of stubborn religious hegemony Jesus declared the Empire of God - a bulwark of justice and liberation amidst the injustice and oppression of his time.

The picture above of Nazi Germany reminds us what a bully empire is like. Jesus reminds us what an extravagant, sacred, transforming empire is like. In light of Jesus’ appropriation of “empire language” we could turn the parable around and argue that it is the heteropatriarchic kingdom which rejects, chokes, and pollutes as it seeks to repress erotic energies which it fears.

You may pause and ask – how did sexuality, sexual orientation, and sexual identities become connected to the realm of God? The parable speaks only of seeds and soil. Jesus does not seem to have made any explicit connection between one’s sexual status and the Empire, and you would be correct. The writer of Matthew’s gospel on the other hand seems thrilled to tell us that prostitute and eunuchs (i.e. sexual minorities), along with those of the sexual majority, comprise the kingdom (Mt 19:12; 21:31). We’ll return to Matthew’s thought in a moment.

For now let’s consider Jesus’ insight that the dawning of God’s Empire will not necessarily be the inauguration of a spiritual utopia which is one of the dynamics this parable highlights. The kingdom will be rejected, choked out, become a passing fad. Only among a few will the realm take hold and prove transformative. In spite of the odds Jesus encourages those who encounter the dawning of the Sacred to spread the word.

Here’s the rub – why should we, who self-identify as queer, spread the word of a kingdom which traditionally opposes us? Back to Matthew’s thought: the Empire of God opposes all injustice including heterosexism. The dawning of the realm brings its promise of wholeness, belonging, victory, presence, and pardon to queer people just as much as to straight people caught in their own matrix of fear and loathing.

Following the seed metaphor – the Empire takes root in our very being. The opportunity to encounter the God who opens up renewed life is given to queer persons as well. Healing, understanding, and compassion are for us too. As is challenge, expectations, and disappointments – less we ignore the experience of the One who spoke this parable.

As queer people of faith, let us claim our stake in the Empire of the Sacred with all of its promises, excitement, and trepidation.