Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Transgressive Shepherd (Mathew 18:12-13 // Luke 15:4-7)

(Jesus said) “What do you think? Suppose a shepherd has a hundred sheep and one of them strays away- won’t the shepherd leave the ninety-nine on the hillside and go in search of the stray? If the shepherd finds it, the truth is, there is more joy over the one found than over the ninety-nine that didn’t stray. In the same way, it is never the will of your Abba God in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
Mathew 18:12-13 (Luke 15:4-7)

Still of transgender artist Heather Cassils from the video Transactivations
Heather's website:

This shepherd (or sheep-herder since I live in the US) is a bit queer - as in odd - in his actions. The economic  consequences of putting the welfare of the sheepfold at risk for a single animal are disastrous. It is hard for us to imagine since this parable has become a beloved image of God's care, but we should see contorted faces on the people being addressed. With the question - "Won't the shepherd leave the ninety-nine and go search for the stray?" - we should hear them emphatically replying "No!"

The parable catches us like the image of the transgender artist Heather Cassils. We look at her/his body - especially the exposed and highlighted chest and our sense of "reality" freezes or even convulses as Cassils' body resists being placed in the standard gender categories of either/or.

In order to maintain such standard categories with our parable some commentators have tried to relieve its convulsive absurdity by claiming other shepherds nearby looked after the ninety-nine. Yet, in removing the ludicrous element and returning the parable to conforming categories we remove its ability to shake our understanding of religious reality.

Starkly, this parable is not concerned with religious people. Rather this parable is for everyone who has been rejected by organized religion be it the church, the synagogue, the mosque, or other. Feminists, pagans, queers, and all heretics prove to be just as valuable to the Heart of the Universe as are those who remain in the fold. If you have ever been told you are a "lost sheep," a "sick pig," or a "pervert" then this parable is for you. If you have never been described by these or other epithets, then sorry this parable is not for you (and oh, how the religious categories shudder).

The parable is simple - the Holy One seeks and finds and in the finding there is great joy. Queer people of faith can and should appropriate this parable as an act of being valued. We, who have often been forced out of religious and family sheepfolds, are sought after in spite of the concern for the ninety-nine. The Sacred, unlike some who minister in the Sacred's name, values our safety and wellbeing.

In my own life, I was a bit late in making public discernment of internal realities. But once discernment was made I begin to write coming out letters to my friends - some who are ministers in the conformist denomination of my youth. Knowing the teachings of my former church I expected to lose friendships which nurtured me through college and seminary. I wondered just how lonely it would become after this endeavor. Then the first response (and really the most important of them all) arrived and ended with the phrase "you have a friend in me." Joy and rejoicing filled me.

Much good news for les-bi-queer-trans-intersex-asexual-allies is found in this parable. The shepherd searches not because the economics of sheep herding requires it. The shepherd searches because the joy of the relationship calls the shepherd forth. This parable is not about salvation economy - standard category. This parable is about God's pride in the rejected heretic - transgressive reality.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Abomination (Matthew 15:10-11, 16-20)

                Jesus called the crowd together and said to them, “Hear this and understand: it’s not what enters your mouth that defiles you – it’s what comes out of your mouth that defiles you.”
                Jesus replied, “Do you still not understand? Don’t you realize that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and eventually finds its way into the sewer and is gone? But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. This what makes a person ‘unclean.’ For from the heart come all sorts of evil intentions – murder, sexual infidelity, promiscuity, stealing, lying, even foul language. These things make a person unclean – not eating with unwashed hands!”
Mathew 15:10-11, 16-20

Cuban Dancers ll by Zunayme Romero
Oh the picture which pops into my little brain: “it’s not what enters your mouth…” Half the trouble queer people get into is for what enters our mouths. The slurs “cocksucker,” and “carpet muncher” attest to the fact that straight people are extremely concerned about what passes our lips.

Mind you the same body bits pass the lips of straight people as well. Cunnilingus, fellatio, nipple play, foot fetish and other sexual stimulus know no particular orientation and are enjoyed across the sexual continuum. So why is it then, that when heterosexuals engage in such sex play it is celebrated, but when queers engage in such sex play it is an abomination? Or, to use the vocabulary of the parable, why is sex between opposite genders “clean,” while sex between same genders, or sex that transgenderizes is “unclean”?

Through this parable the concept of purity is turned on its head. It is not what enters the mouth, that is, it is not what is external or outside of us that makes us unclean. What makes us an abomination is what comes out of us – our motivations, our compass toward compassion or hate, our being closed-off or opened-up. This internal moral orientation for or against life is what deems us clean or unclean, pure or impure. 

We who self-identify as lesbians, bisexual, transgender, intersexed, asexual, or gay are quite familiar with the label “unclean.” People both in and outside the church, have called us dirty. Yet, in light of this parable we understand the application of the label is itself an act of impurity.

While rejecting the label we must not lose sight that our own attitudes and actions must also be examined. It is one thing to resist hatred and prejudice, working to dismantle the heteroarchy complex. It is another thing to become the oppressor working out of our own matrix of prejudice and hate. Often the two are blurred and undefined. 

I am reminded of the quote from justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” I am also aware that Holmes worked hard as a US Supreme Court justice to buttress segregation and racism in America. Lines blurred by what comes out of our hearts.

The Cuban dancers above lead us to ponder: Are they impure and is there sex "dirty" because it is a gay act? Or, is their loving pure because the affection that comes out of them is pure? Jesus it seems would affirm the latter.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

QueerSpirit (Matthew 15:13)

… Jesus replied, “Every religious scholar who has become a student of the kindom of heaven is like the head of a household who can bring from the storeroom both the new and the old.”
Matthew 15:13
Logo created by Jenny Goring
for the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Church of Christ
QueerSpirit Retreat
To be a student of the empire is to be a student of God’s ways among us. After all, God’s realm is not something “out there” waiting to arrive. Rather God’s reign is the inbreaking of the Sacred into the very midst of our lives, hearts, and souls. This parable invites all who are “students of the kindom” to be responsible for bringing treasures out of the storeroom of faith to aid this inbreaking. I personally feel that les-gay-bi-trans-queer/questioning-intersex-asexual students of the kingdom are uniquely gifted to bring forth the peculiar queer treasure known as "camp."  

Susanne Sachsse and Marc Siegel help to define camp:
For some, camp is a lie that tells the truth. For others, it’s an unexpectedly intense commitment to the seemingly trivial. Some say that camp is so bad that it’s good. For others, it’s so good that it calls into question dominant value systems.”  (Kaltblut Magazine)

I would add that through the humor of lampooning, camp produces a social critique by way of absurdity which helps us discern the truth claims of issues and persons. As an example, when we camp religious expressions we help name the sublime nature of faith while at the same time bringing attention to the ridiculous aspects of dogma.

For a number of years I helped coordinate an event dubbed “QueerSpirit.” It was a gathering of the spectrum of human sexuality – straight allies, transgender folk, lesbians, bisexuals, and gays. We were a mix of clergy and lay, of professional and student, of understanding and confusion. As campy students of the kingdom we brought out of the storeroom our experience of being sexual minorities. We sought to connect with the Sacred in and through our sexual identities, as opposed to in-spite-of our “predilections.”

We told our stories, laughed, cried, debated, and held silence. Answers were few but questions abounded: What is the gift of queer faith to a hetero-centric church? How does sexuality impinge spirituality? Do queers and straights experience God the same way? What is the role of scripture and tradition in the matrix of oppression? The same in the matrix of liberation? What is my place in this event called life? Answers in the form of yet more questions allowed satire and parody to shape and reshape our connections to the Holy.

By being unabashedly campy with the kingdom we help name it as a life-enhancing entity from the hand of God, while at the same time critiquing it when it becomes a life-denying entity in the hands of humans. A kindom, or realm which cannot be enriched from such appraisal is not in touch with the full extent of human experience infused with the elegance of the Sacred.

As queer people we bring to religious traditions the treasure of an open, campy faith which seeks ways forward through the unorthodox methods of spoof, caricature, and exaggeration. Detractors will question if camp is an appropriate storeroom treasure. I believe it is, for camp helps us to critique the absurd in order to find the sublime. Pitiful is the religious expression which doesn’t want this treasure to be brought forth.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Radical God (Matthew 13:47-48)

Or again, the kindom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collected all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishers hauled it ashore. Then, setting down they collected the good ones in a basket and threw away those that were of no use.
Mathew 13: 47-48

Egyptians fishing with a dragnet, source unknown

The “point” of a parable is usually derived from the action portrayed within it – a seed growing into a big bush, a ruler forgiving an underling of embezzlement, a parent rejoicing over the return of a lost child. Even today actions still speak louder than words as we continue to assess persons by what they do, instead of what they say; an insight worth meditating on during this year of rather ugly presidential politics in the US.

This parable portrays two actions. The first is the use of a dragnet for the purpose of catching fish. As a result of it being a dragnet it harvests all aquatic life in its path and as the image above demonstrates, the net makes no distinction between fish of value and non-eatable fish. According to Jesus, the empire of God is like this net. It makes no distinction. God’s reign simply sweeps along all who are in its path.

The parable as used in the unfolding narrative of the Gospel According to Matthew is employed at the point where the Jesus movement is waning. Programmatically the author of Matthew is preparing us for the rejection and execution of Jesus. The position of the parable at this juncture in the gospel narrative should give us pause.

Jesus is accused of hanging out with those who polite religious society assumes are among the “fish to be thrown away.” Jesus seems to like the lowlife – sex workers, national traitors, abusers of authority, and such. This lifestyle of Jesus brings us into conflict with the second action of the parable – the sorting of the harvest into what is valuable and what is worthless.

We are conflicted here because we no longer can make assumptions about who is in and who is out. If the sex worker is in, what does that mean for the purity practicing teenager? If those who sold out to the Roman occupation are in, what does that mean for those faithful to their identity politics? If those who abuse and over use their authority are in, what does that mean for those who practice mutuality and collaboration?

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to throw in the towel on this whole religious thing. I know no more about the kingdom now than before I encountered this parable. What good is it to live life one way if those who live life another way are valued over me? Is this net for liberation or for enslavement?

This parable brings us straight before the quintessential religious question: What makes us valuable to the Divine? Words we speak? Beliefs we hold? Actions we take? Or is it something broader than the individual: ethnic identity, sexual expression, the size of my bible?

The parable teases us as it gives no hint whatsoever about how to prove oneself valuable to God. It reads as if God will value what God will value in spite of words, beliefs, and actions. God will love who God will love in spite of ethnicity, sexual expression, or the size of one’s bible.

It is as if Jesus is saying: God’s love depends on God. It does not depend on you saying, doing, or believing the right thing. God’s acceptance depends on God. It does not depend on you being born of the right clan, or expressing acceptable sexuality, or whether or not you read a bible, some other scripture, or no scripture at all. 

Radical indeed is this thing, this Empire of God!