SERMON—Pentecost 12—Such a Queer Thing
In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God now and forever. Amen.
Queer: strange, odd, curious, unusual, peculiar, transgressive, subversive. Christianity is such a queer thing. Consider the evidence. A god takes on human flesh. A virgin gives birth. A saviour triumphs by being humiliated and made to die like a common criminal. A dead man rises from the dead. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. And then, in today’s gospel from John, my flesh and my blood will nourish you. No wonder Jesus’ listeners asked how he could give them his flesh to eat. It’s all so odd, and strange, and very queer indeed. Anyone for a little Trinitarian tango in drag?
“Queer” is also what we call those who don’t quite fit the normative mold, those who may choose to inflect their desires or loves or relationships differently, those who opt for a different way of naming who or what they are. It used to be a term of derision; now it’s claimed as a source of pride and affirmation. Today is a day for celebrating that. I am queer. We are queer. The Christian church is queer. I think we need to remind ourselves of just how non-normative we are—or at least, how we should be—as Christians. We also need to celebrate that.
We could even say that all theology is queer—well, all good theology is anyways. All good theology seeks to tease out the beautiful kinkiness and oddness of God’s wondrous work in the world. All good theology reminds us of how unmistakably strange and counter-intuitive—in fact, of how profoundly counter-cultural, the Christian message is. As St. Augustine puts it: “If we have been made children of God, we have also been made gods.” Now I ask you: how queer is that?
Yet why is it that so many good Christians and so many of our religious institutions have such a hard time talking about God and sex in the same sentence? Or about how gloriously queer and sacred and holy human desire is? It’s really a rhetorical question; I suspect we know the answer. Jesus asks us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. I can’t really think of a more direct call to intimate union, body-to-body. There’s something magnificently queer and subversive about this idea of breaking down the barriers between the holy and the mundane, between our own God-made bodies and the glorified body of Jesus. In fact, the Eucharist makes all our bodies, together, into his body. If that’s not transgressive, I don’t know what is. By its very nature, Christianity is at once deeply promiscuous and radically inclusive. It asks not the why and the wherefore; it simply and graciously welcomes. We are all of one flesh, all of one blood.
Queer British theologian Elizabeth Stuart says it quite beautifully when she writes the following: “Heterosexuality and homosexuality and maleness and femaleness are not of ultimate importance, they are not determinative in God’s eyes, and in so far as any of us have behaved as if they are, we are guilty of the grave sin of idolatry, and if we have further behaved as if they are grounds upon which to exclude people from the glorious liberty of the children of God, we are guilty of profanity and a fundamental denial of our own baptismal identity which rests in being bound together with others not of our choosing by an act of sheer grace.” Bound together with others not of our choosing by an act of sheer grace: this is the deep meaning of Eucharist; this is the meaning of eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus. This is what it means to speak of a queer Christianity. All stable and fixed categories disappear. We no longer stand in splendid isolation.
I could tell the young woman was anxious as I invited her to take a chair in my office. We were in the fourth week of a course on religion and sexuality that I had been teaching for a number of years, and she had registered for it. After the usual questions about assignments and grading, she told me how much the class was an eye-opener for her; she never would have thought that there were so many close connections between those two aspects of life. Experience had taught me that such statements usually masked something else, and that students often took this course for some very personal reasons, so I enquired about her own situation. Raised in a staunchly Roman Catholic Italian household, she was in the process of discovering her attraction to other women, but she felt intensely worried and guilty about that. She was afraid how her parents would react, to say nothing about the pervading sense of sin and of God’s judgement that inhabited her. Her eyes spoke her pain. I tried to reassure her as best I could, and referred her to our counselling service to help see her through the inevitable coming out process. I have heard many such stories. Each is more disturbing than the next.
When it comes to the rights of sexual minorities in our world, we live in the best of times and the worst of times. Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage, and Canada has had it for ten years, but there are still seventy-nine countries where homosexuality is illegal and ten where it is punishable by death. Russia has become one of the most homophobic countries in the world. There and in other places, simply discussing homosexuality is forbidden by law. LGBTQ youth are still being bullied and committing suicide in alarming numbers, here and elsewhere. Trans persons are still being killed by vigilante groups.
Very often, what drives all this is religion. That is the most disheartening thing of all. Whether it’s Orthodox churches teaming up with neo-fascist groups to break up pride parades in Moscow, or American Christian fundamentalists encouraging Ugandan lawmakers to make homosexuality a capital offence, or Islamic leaders sentencing young gay men to be hanged, or the Roman Catholic Church’s talk of homosexuality as “evil” and “an intrinsic moral disorder,” the message of faith is still being thwarted into the message of hate. In some places, homophobia is now the last acceptable hatred. For some queer people, these are indeed dangerous times.
But it need not be so. Religion, and especially Christianity, need not always and everywhere be the bitterly sworn enemy of sexual minorities. There are many examples where that is not the case: our own church, of course, and others such as the United Church, but also other faith denominations: Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim. The real problem is that homophobia—like sexism or racism—is pernicious. It slumbers, it hibernates, and it comes out at the most unexpected of times. That is why we need to look to the nature of our faith, to its core beliefs and values, to its fundamental message in order to reclaim its essence. And it must be said that the essence of Christianity is queer. Christianity was not meant to be mainstream, but subversive. Why else would the figure at the very heart of our faith have been killed as a criminal? Christianity was not meant to be uniformly the same, but different. Why else would our common heritage be so diversified? Christianity was not meant to be elitist, but inclusive. Why else would we come together from different genders, classes, ethnicities, ages and abilities every Sunday around the one common table? Christianity was not meant to be body-denying, but body-affirming. Why else would we think that a god’s special broken body could transform us all into one holy body? Christianity was not meant to be bland and insipid, but queer—defiantly, brazenly and confidently peculiar. Christianity was and is meant to call into question old certainties, to challenge dead verities, to transform the world. Queer Christianity is meant to make all things new.
In this morning’s reading from the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom throws a dinner-party. She has a splendid seven-pillared house for this. The food and wine have been prepared. The table has been richly set. Her servants call out a public invitation. Does Wisdom invite the learned, the rich, the famous, or the so-called normal types, as one might expect? No, rather she singles out “the simple…those without sense,” we are told. In other words, the odd ones, the differently-abled, the marginal ones, sundry and queer folk. “Come and eat of my bread,” Wisdom says, “and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk, in the way of insight.” Wisdom defies expectations. She reaches out audaciously and unpredictably to those who stand apart, those deliberately excluded. Wisdom is not afraid to open her house to marginality. She is not afraid to reinvent the world.
On this Pride Sunday, I invite you to pause briefly as you leave church, take a look at the rainbow flag hanging on the back wall, and ask yourselves why we need to have it there. Yes, we want to show our solidarity and support. But let’s not kid ourselves. Not everybody is happy with seeing it there. Some weeks ago, someone tried to tear it down. Ask yourself what that flag says about you, and what it says about us as a Christian community. It says that this is a welcoming place, which is good and quite necessary in a homophobic world. But it should also say that all are invited to God’s dinner-party, that together we are here to reinvent the world: queerly, oddly, strangely, with a flash of flamboyance and a dash of holy splendour.