Thursday, November 29, 2012

Keeping It Real (Matthew 25:1-13)

(Jesus said), “Then again, the kindom of heaven could be likened to ten attendants (bridesmaids) who took their lamps and went to meet the bridal party. Five of them were wise, five were foolish. When the foolish ones took their lamps, they didn’t take any oil with them, but the wise ones took enough oil to keep their lamps burning. The bridal party was delayed, so they all fell asleep.
                “At midnight there was a cry; ‘Here comes the bridal party! Let’s go out to meet them!’ Then all the attendants rose and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there won’t be enough for us; run to the dealers and get some more for yourselves.’
                “While the foolish ones went to buy more oil, the bridal party arrived; and those who were ready went to the marriage feast with them, and the door was shut. When the foolish attendants returned, they pleaded to be let in. The doorkeeper replied, ‘The truth is, I don’t know you.’           
                “So stay awake, for you don’t know the day or the hour.”                                                       
   Matthew 25:1-13

Gay Cake Topper

There are ten bridesmaids. Five of them are considered wise. Five of them are considered foolish. Being prepared/unprepared at the time the great moment arrives divides them. The wise attendants are able to live into their identity as bearers of light in the festive celebration. The foolish attendants miss the moment and the celebration it brings in its path.

At this level of reading we can understand this parable reminding queer people of faith to keep vigilant and to raise our voices in a church which – in some quarters – is indifferent and deaf to our cries of pain. “Don’t fall asleep while we’re working toward the time of full acceptance and blessing throughout the church – even those branches in Africa.”

The parable, though, is wrapped around the image of “bridesmaids” and this image draws us into another level of meaning. Weddings in the time and culture of Jesus started with a processional of the bride to the groom’s home: quite literally a public acknowledgement that the bride was now the possession of the groom. An historical understanding that I’m glad we have moved beyond, although it is interesting to note that Jesus reversed the procession and has it moving from the groom’s home to the bride’s. Is this signaling a reversal of possession?

The role of the attendants was to keep oil lanterns prepared and to light the way to the groom’s home. As bearers of light the bridesmaids helped to illuminate the nocturnal path traveled by the festive party if it was delayed until a late hour. Not to be prepared diminished one’s ability to “light the way.” A theme Matthew has played with before (5:14-16)

The light within the queer community is our sexual orientation and affections. This is what shines in and through us, our ability to love based upon expressions of human sexuality which calls to count heteroarchy and the injury and harm perpetrated in its defense: a light which beckons all humans to a more honest self-knowledge, and a fuller self-expression. This is the sacred light we queers offer those lost in the sexual confusion brought about by the shadows of heterosexism.

The presence of bridesmaids enmeshes us in the tricky and sticky issues of kinship which invites us to yet another level of meaning. Unlike today, the attendants in this parable were not necessarily “friends” of the bride. Rather, they were chosen from the extended family, publicly representing those girls of marriageable age to be found within the larger kinship circle. The ability/inability to prepare for the bridal party’s delay would bring honor or shame to one’s branch of the family.

The parable is now uncomfortable for queers, as we are often pointed to as “the family’s shame.” “What will the neighbors think?” has been a cry used to douse the light in us. We must tread carefully, for while the passage challenges us, it does not condemn us.

As a queer youth I was tightly bound by kinship and notions of honor/shame. So much so that conscious recognition of these issues lay beyond me. It would take as many years to unbind these chains as it took to forge them. During these years I was foolish, seeking to smother the very embers which were my light and life.

Ultimately, to borrow a phrase from Lady Gaga, I found myself “on the edge of glory waiting for the moment of truth.” At first I was not prepared to deal with my truth. But once I was prepared and the light poured forth – well my life was transformed and made whole. No longer foolish I became wise, or at least wise enough to be a feeble light bearer in the festive celebration.

At this level of reading we come to understand that what separates the wise from the foolish is self-identity. The wise bridesmaids understood and accepted the identity and it’s attending responsibilities of being bearers of light in the celebration. The foolish bridesmaids were clueless as to what this entailed for self-understanding and the responsibilities related to this comprehension. In the end the doorkeeper sends the foolish away, saying, “I don’t know you.” I suspect because the foolish attendants didn’t know themselves.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Psychotic God (Matthew 22:1-14 // Luke 14:15-24)

For those readers that live within the US - Happy Thanksgiving!

Then Jesus spoke to them again in parable. He said, “The kindom of heaven is like this: there was a ruler who prepared a feast for the wedding of the family’s heir; but when the ruler sent out workers to summon the invited guests, they wouldn’t come. The ruler sent other workers, telling them to say to the guests, ‘I have prepared this feast for you. My oxen and fatted cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding.’ But they took no notice; one went off to his farm, another to her business, and the rest seized the workers, attacked them brutally and killed them. The ruler was furious, and dispatched troops who destroyed those murderers and burned their town.
                “Then the ruler said to the workers, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but the guests I invited don’t deserve the honor. Go out to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone you can find.’ The workers went out into the streets and collected everyone they met, good and bad alike, until the hall was filled with guests.
                “The ruler, however, came in to see the company at table, and noticed one guest who was not dressed for a wedding. ‘My friend,’ said the ruler, ‘why are you here without a wedding garment?’ But the guest was silent. Then the ruler said to the attendants, ‘Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
                “Many are called, but few are chosen.”                                                                                         
                   Matthew 22:1-14 (Luke 14:15-24)
Angry Christ by BenjimanWhalen
I must start by echoing the reflection of Alyce M. McKenzie concerning this parable:
I vastly prefer Luke’s version of this parable… Luke (14:15-24) has a happy ending. It doesn’t include acts of violence… It doesn’t say… invited guests made light of the invitation, seized the master’s slaves, mistreated and killed them. It doesn’t tell us that the enraged king then sends troops to destroy those murderers and burn their city. And it omits the lovely little story that Matthew adds to the parable (22:11-14), one that on the surface, seems to be about a psychotic king obsessed with the wedding attire of his guests.

It is precisely here – at the surface reading – that we need to begin. This parable sticks out like a sore thumb due to its shocking violence and virulent exclusion.

Queers can easily map this passage onto a psychotic God and “his” psychotic church. Having been made war upon by christianity and other religions our tendency is to identify with the inhabitants of the city or the banned wedding guest. When the full weight of angry righteousness has been set against you, you cannot help but to experience the full furious madness which accompanies it.

Whalen's Angry Christ gives visual representation to the emotional subjucation religious instutions seek to put sexual minorities under. The face of Christ comes to us full of indignation and a need for revenge. Like a pumped up jock his goal is to bully us by physicall abuse and psychological intimdation. What the church calls “cleansing,” we queers experience as a crusade of genocide. When the goal of religious leaders is to “rid the world” of sexual minorites, they speak of nothing less than total liquidation. Yes, the “surface” psychotic king of this parable maps easily upon the trans-les-bi-gay-inter-asexual experience of God the bully.

Delving deeper the shock remains. Even the efforts of mainstream interpreters to read this parable as an allegory and, thereby, turning the violence and death into “spiritual struggle” is but a poor attempt at making this passage palatable to those who want Jesus to remain meek and mild. In queer terms this in an acting up parable. It flies in our faces when we would rather ignore it. Yet there is wisdom here. Albeit a hard wisdom that causes us discomfort and requires we assess our lives in ways that may find us wanting.

The empire of God is like this: an invitation to a wedding banquet which may incite violence and even foster carnage on whole populations for such is the force of the empire. The invitation seeks out those who will respond positively and join in the banquet which is life in the empire. However, those who do not come prepared may find the party leaving them behind. I admit this last part is difficult for me. I do not ascribe to the “left behind” theory of God. I cannot fathom God leaving souls behind (to put it passively), nor tossing souls out (to put it actively).

I do believe in a God who has expectations. To exist within the Sacred realm requires I am prepared to be sacred myself. In some way and measure my living and being in the world is a blessing to others and to creation. This parable reminds us that those responding to the invitation to live in God’s empire are responding to God’s gracious call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the Holy (Micah 6:8).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Future Can Be Fabulous (Matthew 21:28-32)

Jesus continued, “What do you think? There was a landowner who had two children. The landowner approached the elder and said, ‘My child, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ This first child replied, ‘No, I won’t,’ but afterwards regretted it and went. The landowner then came to the second child and said the same thing. The second child said in reply, ‘I’m on my way,’ but never went. Which of the two did what was wanted?”
                They said, “The first.”
                Jesus said to them, “The truth is, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kindom of God before you. When John came walking on the road of justice, you didn’t believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you didn’t repent and believe.”                                                                                               
                   Matthew 21:28-32

Sissy by Daren Young
On the surface this is a rather straight forward parable. There are two children, be like the one who hearkens to the invitation to partner in work with the parent. Or at least that seems to be what it is saying until we stumble across the reference to John the Baptist. With the mention of John’s name we are clued in that the decision is one between responding in faith to partner with God in the new things being done or wrapping ourselves in religious tradition, continuing to believe that God is found only in the tried-and-true.

Yet this dichotomy presents a problem. Anyone who has danced with the Sacred for any amount of time knows that the Holy is not so easily divided between old and new, between the past and the future, between the God of our fathers and mothers and the God of our children and grandchildren, or nephews and nieces and great nephews and nieces. This can be an especially difficult discernment for those who worship the eternal unchanging God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Still, it is clear that the older child’s actions, in spite of his initial reticence, are preferable to the younger child’s non-action in spite of his initial acceptance. What matters is not our initial reaction to God’s new thing, but rather our ultimate reaction.

The choice between wrapping ourselves in religious tradition and participating in the new thing God is doing is no other choice than between being the sum of our decisions (the past), or being the sum of our expectancy (the future).

The immediacy of this parable in the lives of les-bi-trans-gay-intersex-asexual-queer children and youth is apparent. In the midst of the “It Gets Better” and “Make it Better” campaigns we find the very heartbeat of God’s new thing, seeking to open the future where bigotry had closed it off. As portrayed in Young's childhood memory did doning an appron and baking a cake ultimatley close his life off, or open it up?

What may not be as apparent is the application to us older queers. Some of us cling tenaciously to the past, especially the “trauma” – real and perceived – we wrap around us as a well worn coat. I do not wish to suggest that none of our numbers have lived through a hell on earth. Certainly they have – kicked out of homes, physically beaten, emotionally bereft. I simply want to raise the question will we be defined by this hell, or will we rise, caught up in God’s harrowing, letting the “new thing” of expectancy define our future?

Two children are set before us. We are asked to choose which one responds to the invitation and then to further open ourselves to the new thing God is doing. So what will we answer - “Define me by my past,” or “Define me by my future”?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Against Homodoxy (Mathew 20:1-16)

Kudos to the states of Maine, Maryland, and Washington for passing equal marriage acts, and to Minnesota for defeating a marraige ammendment which would define marraige as between one man and one woman.

The kindom of heaven is like the owner of an estate who went out at dawn to hire workers for the vineyard. After reaching an agreement with them for the usual daily wage, the owner sent them out to the vineyard.
                (The estate owner did the same thing “about mid morning,” “around noon,” “mid-afternoon,” and “late in the afternoon.”)
                When evening came, the owner said to the overseer, “Call the workers and give them their pay, but begin with the last group and end with the first.” When those hired late in the afternoon came up, they received a full day’s pay, and when the first group appeared they assumed they would get more. Yet they all received the same daily wage.
                Thererupon they complained to the owner, “This last group did only an hour’s work, but you’ve put them on the same basis as those who worked in the scorching heat.”
                “My friends,” said the owner to those who voiced this complaint, “I do you no injustice. You agreed on the usual wage, didn’t you? Take your pay and go home. I intend to give this worker who was hired last the same pay as you. I’m free to do as I please with my money, aren’t I? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
                Thus the last will be first and the first will be last.
Mathew 20:1-16
Photograph by Kourosh Keshiri from the article Gays for God
In my book this parable is pure gold. I haven’t met a group yet, that when asked to take this parable literally instead of figuratively doesn’t get flustered and angry. We silly western capitalists with our sense of “just economics” all screwed over by the scriptures.

In all honesty though, in focusing on the economics of the parable (which we’ll get to later), we miss the comparison. The empire of God is not like workers (although they are important), rather the empire of God is like a vineyard owner who needs to get the harvest in. The repeated action of seeking and hiring laborers throughout the day speaks of urgency for a fast and speedy resolution of the harvest. This vineyard owner is not one to risk the crop when there are plenty of workers to be found. When approached through the estate owner, the empire of God is demonstrated to have immediacy about it and will act with insistence, regardless the cost.

Queer people of faith are often questioned as to why we remain with institutions of religion that from some parts spew hate and bigotry. We stay because we know this urgency - the necessity to resist the notion that God’s compassion is reserved only for heterosexuals, the necessity to help all connect with the Sacred who created fluid sexuality, the necessity to transform a culture which still seeks to subjugate queers as “abnormal” and, therefore, “sub-human.” Yes, we queer people of faith know the urgency to stake our claim in an empire which stands against discrimination, hate, and humiliation and stands for acceptance, love, and liberation.

Like Keshiri's photograph queer people know that the urgency of addressing our situation from within faith communities outweighs the cost of the backlash created, or in the language of the parable, the cost of the labor needed.

And what about those laborers – all paid the same even though all did not work the same? When approached through the laborers and their reactions against one another the parable seems to peer deep into the soul of the gay community. Far from what the stereotype suggests, the gay community is not a monolithic entity. It is porous, disjointed, and from time to time at enmity with itself. Queer folk arrive at different junctures onto the scene – some younger, some older, some bold, some timid, some excitedly and some slowly. From all this mix of chaos a queer orthodoxy or "homodoxy" (as I heard this dynamic recently referred to) and its accompanying hierarchy arises. Much as the workers of our parable feel there should be an economic hierarchy based on the number of hours worked.

This parable – from the workers point of view – flies in the face of our homodoxies. It says that no one les-bi-gay-trans-intersex-asexual-queer person is gayer or more dyke then the next queer person. It reminds gay and bisexual men that we are all queens regardless of how hard or soft our bodies are. It lets lesbians know that not all males are patriarchal. It reminds us that the grace to transition genders so as to be congruent is a gift of life, to be born with both sets of genitalia is just as human an experience as to be born with one of the other, and the dualism between in/out of the closet has more to do with our mental attitudes than reality.

"The last shall be first” we are told is the point of the parable. The image of the estate owner honoring the last in front of those who were first drives home another point: blessed are those who take no offense.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Defined By Fairy Dust (Mathew 18:21-35)

Prayers and Love to all those affected by the Super Storm Sandy.

Peter came up and asked Jesus, “When a sister or brother wrongs me, how many times must I forgive? Seven times?”
                “No,” Jesus replied, “not seven times; I tell you seventy times seven. And here’s why,
                “The kindom of heaven is like a ruler who decided to settle accounts with the royal officials. When the audit was begun, one was brought in who owed tens of millions of dollars. As the debtor had no way of paying, the ruller ordered this official to be sold, along with family and property, in payment of debt.
                “At this, the official bowed down in homage and said, ‘I beg you, your highness, be patient with me and I will pay you back in full!’ Moved with pity, the ruler let the official go and wrote off the debt.
                “Then the same official went out and met a colleague who owed the official twenty dollars. The official seized and throttled this debtor with the demand, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’
                “The debtor dropped to the ground and began to plead, ‘Just give me time and I will pay you back in full!’ But the official would hear none of it, and instead had the colleague put in debtor’s prison until the money was paid.
                “When the other officials saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and went to the ruler, reporting the entire incident. The ruler sent for the official and said, ‘You worthless wretch! I cancelled your entire debt when you pleaded with me. Should you not have dealt mercifully with your colleague, as I dealt with you?’ Then in anger, the ruler handed the official over to be tortured until the debt had been paid in full.
                “My Abba in heaven will treat you exactly the same way unless you truly forgive your sisters and brothers from your hearts.”
Mathew 18:21-35

Forgiveness Map by Paul Foreman
used by permission
This parable is about primary expectations. This parable is also about relationships, both primary and secondary. And this parable is about secondary relationships with primary expectations.

“The empire of God is like a ruler” who undertakes an audit of the books and discovers an official who embezzled such an enormous amount of money that it can never be repaid. Even if generation after generation of the family worked to service the debt it would still go unpaid. Instead of doing the expected thing, or even the just thing, the ruler forgives the debt.

The ruler and the official define themselves in relationship to each other. The bureaucrat at first is defined by his actions as a cheat and a swindler. Yet, when defined by the relationship with the ruler the bureaucrat is understood as worthy and valuable. This definition comes not from the debtor’s behavior, but from the ruler’s decision to forgive the debtor.

What we behold between the ruler and the bureaucrat then is not their individual identities. What we observe is who they are together. We understand their relationship invites some form of mutual solidarity. Separately one is an offended ruler and the other an embezzling bureaucrat. Together they are friends cemented by the gracious act of forgiveness. Forgiveness as Paul Foreman’s “map” indicates, draws upon multiple areas of our lives. Forgiveness is never an act in the life of a singular individual rather forgiveness is a relationship defining act.

The primary relationship is this intimate throne room act of forgiveness.

At this moment I want to make sure we who self-identify as queer side-step a straight conundrum. Queer folks are often defined in relationship to heteronormativity. The very label “queer” (meaning odd or non-normative) testifies to this relational identity. In correlation to heteronormativity queer people can only hope to be validated as the “other.” Any association that defines another as “other” is at best a vestige of colonialism which gives those defining the norm the right to harass and subjugate those who are defined as having less value (historically females, non-northern European males, and queers). This is not a mutual relationship and we should resist any attempts to be defined by our detractors.

On the obverse, the straight community needs queers so that they may define what “healthy” or at least “normative” heterosexuality is. This brings us to the second act of the parable. The ruler and the debtor have defined what a mutual relationship is. Their actions have placed forgiveness at the heart of their relationship which helps us to regard them as friends.

The plot thickens as the debtor in turn meets a colleague who owes the debtor a debt. It is a sum that while no readily at hand, can be raised in a reasonable amount of time. At this juncture, having received forgiveness from the ruler, the bureaucrat is in position to pay forward the tenderness and reconciliation received. The debtor can in essence also define this secondary relationship by primary expectations and allow these two to also be defined as friends. Yet, the bureaucrat acts in the very manner he pleaded to avoid with the ruler: a lesson taught, but not a lesson learned.

When the ruler hears about the actions of the official, the official is hauled before the throne to give an accounting. The primary expectation is now explicit “The ruler sent for the official and said, ‘You worthless wretch! I cancelled your entire debt when you pleaded with me. Should you not have dealt mercifully with your colleague, as I dealt with you?’”

Here’s the rub – the expectation of the ruler is that the ruler’s semi-private throne room definition of the bureaucrat would also be the public definition. Unfortunately for the bureaucrat the ruler now defines the bureaucrat by the relationship with the colleague who was treated not as a friend, but as an enemy.

What can queer people learn from this parable? The general invitation of the text calls to us – as God loves and accepts us so we too should love and accept others – even those we define as “other.” This alone can take a lifetime of spiritual practice to achieve, but the goal may be the most honorable of all.

I also see in the dynamic between the privacy of the throne room and public definition a parallel with queer life. Depending upon the culture in which we live there can be a tension between how we are defined by our lovers and most intimate of friends and family and how we are defined by the public. For example my spouse defines me in beautifully affirming ways, while certain areas of my public life insist on defining me in more degrading terms. If you are wrestling with this dynamic then the parable invites you to understand the private definition as primary over the public definition, and, to tie into the rub of the text, to make public this private definition, or to use other language to spread our fairy dust in public.