40 Years In the Desert: Is the Promised Land in Sight? (Deuteronomy 8)

From the opening of the first reading for the feast of Corpus Christi, Year A (Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14B-16A)

Moses said to the people:
“Remember how for forty years now the LORD, your God,
has directed all your journeying in the desert,
so as to test you by affliction
and find out whether or not it was your intention
to keep his commandments. 

-V 2

desert-tracks

Queer readings of the Bible sometimes emphasise the story of Exodus, how the Israelites were led out of Egypt, the land of bondage, and into the promised land – just as the american civil rights movement did, years ago. However, it is perhaps more relevant, to recall that the Israelites’ deliverance was not an event, but a journey: the crossing of the Red Sea was followed by 40 years’ wandering in the desert, before the entry into the promised.

By a wonderful piece of timing, the US Presbyterians’ votes this week to permit same – sex weddings in at least some of their churches, and to support the global struggles against LGBT persecution, came on the same day that the Washington “March4Marriage” which was so strenuoulsy promoted by the religious right drew an response that was positively underwhelming. According to a facebook post at More Light Presbyterians on the day of the vote, General Assembly 221, which took these historic decisions, also marked a notable 40th anniversary of their own. It’s now 40 years since the first Presbyterian minister came out, very publicly, at a General Assembly

From the facebook post:

Today’s votes come 40 years after Rev. David Bailey Sindt showed up at G.A. with a sign, “Is anyone else out there Gay?” From that came PLGC / MLP. Today the hall was awash with rainbows, and the Spirit was at work. Thank you, David Sindt!

Actually, it’s 41 years. This was in fact in 1973, not 1974, but then biblical numbers are seldom meant to be taken precisely literally. GA 221 came also in the midst of Pride month, June – From a looser reading of “40 years”, we can also think back to Stonewall (1969, 45 years ago), or  to Rev James Stoll, the first ordained pastor to come out publicly as gay a few,moths after Stonewall, or to Rev Troy Perry, who founded the Metropolitan Community Church the year before that, or to Canon Derrick Sherwin Bailey, ,who in 1955 published “Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition”, the first notable book to challenge the traditional assumptions that the bible and homosexuality are in obvious conflict.

Whether we count it as 40 years, or half a century, it’s remarkable how far we’ve come, during these years of wandering in the desert of exclusion, in our journey of escape from the slavery of heteronormativity, and its attempts to force us to deny the truth of our sexual or gender natures, and our loves. Consider the fruits of these single pioneers:

  • Instead of a single pioneer at at General Assembly 1963, GA 2014 was “awash with rainbows”.
  • The year after James Stoll came out, the Unitarian Universalists passed the world’s first ever gay rights resolution, and later became the first church, anywhere, to conduct same – sex weddings – years before these could be recognized in law.
  • MCC, the church that Troy Perry founded with a small group in his living room, now has well – established congregations across the world.
  • Canon Bailey’s cautious book questioning the traditional Biblical interpretation on homosexuality, has been followed by what has become a flood of new titles, from every faith tradition, and moving from challenging the clobber texts, to celebrating LGBT figures in the Bible, to finding queer readings of a wide range of biblical texts (“The Queer Bible Commentary” devotes a chapter to every single book of the bible, except only the minor prophets, who share a chapter). 
  • From near invisibility in church, gay, lesbian and trans people are now serving openly as ministers in a wide range of denominations, in some cases even as bishops, moderators, and other leadership positions.

From widespread assumptions that the only unions that deserved celebration in church were marriages of different – sex couples, there are now many denominations that conduct either gay weddings, or confer blessings on same – sex couples. Many of those that do not, are visibly moving in that direction, with formal study groups of church commissions investigating.

For just about every major church grouping, there are signs of movement, either actively towards full LGBT inclusion, or at least away from previously harsh rhetoric and clear exclusion. Just as the start of our Exodus journey cannot be dated precisely to a single event, PCUSA’s three decisions this week do no mark the end of 40 years’ wandering in the desert of exclusion. There are many, many staging posts still to reach. But if we have not yet entered the promised land of full inclusion in church, we can at least begin to see it, or imagine it, in the distance.

Let us now read, and reflect on, today’s full reading from Deuteronomy:

Moses said to the people:
“Remember how for forty years now the LORD, your God,
has directed all your journeying in the desert,
so as to test you by affliction
and find out whether or not it was your intention
to keep his commandments. 
He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger,
and then fed you with manna,
a food unknown to you and your fathers,
in order to show you that not by bread alone does one live,
but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.

“Do not forget the LORD, your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
that place of slavery;
who guided you through the vast and terrible desert
with its saraph serpents and scorpions,
its parched and waterless ground;
who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock
and fed you in the desert with manna,
a food unknown to your fathers.”

Related posts:

Blessed Are the Queer in Faith – for They Shall Inherit the Earth

“Hold Your Heads High, Your Liberation Is Near at Hand” (Psalm 24).

2013 has been dubbed the “Year of gay marriage”. Pope Francis was named  “Person of the Yea” by gay magazine the Advocate, and as  number two “Gay Rights Hero of the Year” by New Yorker magazine.  The words of the Psalm for today’s Mass will theerefore have particular cogency for LGBT Christians, as we await the celebration of the incarnation of Christ, later this week.

In Minnesota, just a few months separated the need to resist a constitutional ban on gay marriage, and the passage of marriage equality legislation – with vocal support by many Catholic groups.

Continue reading

Water into Wine: Jesus’s Gay Wedding at Cana.

Yesterday I dipped into two books, and found ideas that amplified  each other with powerful effect, especially in the current context of advances for marriage equality and the bishops’ opposition. “Take Back the Word” (ed Robert Goss) is a compilation of writings on Scripture designed to take us as queer Christians beyond battles with the “texts of terror”, to an approach more in keeping with what it should be, a source of inspiration and value in our lives.  “Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body ” (ed Gerard Loughlin) is a broader and more ambitious compilation, of writing on a range of dimensions of faith from a queer perspective.

Who was getting married?

In the introduction to his book, Loughlin reflects on the story of the Wedding Feast at Cana, (John 2: 1 – 11) which we usually think of in terms of the transformation of water into wine. Immediately I thought of this as a wonderful alternative image for Goss’s “Take Back the Word”. It is one thing for us to move beyond a fear of Scripture to a point where it is the “water” of life: but how can we go beyond even that, to the “wine” of celebration?  This, I thought, is what Elizabeth Stuart does in a short piece “Camping Around the Canon”, which (as it happens) she ends with some thoughts on weddings. Stuart’s point is that we need to be able to approach Scripture with laughter, which is too often absent from religious practice. After a concise exposition of the historical and theological justification for the approach, she offers just one illustration of what she means,  discussing Ephesians, 5:21-33 (“Wives, submit to your husbands”), which is so often used at weddings, and which for women can so easily become a text of terror. Hearing it read at weddings, she says, left her “churning with anger”. But an analysis by Gerard Loughlin changed her reaction from tragic to comic, as the “heteropatriarchal” readings are

undermined and washed away in the deeper waters of the Christian symbolic, for insofar as as women are members of the body, they too are called to be Christ to others; so that they too must also act as “groom” and “husband”; to the “bride” and “wife” of the other, whether it is to a man or woman.  For it cannot be said that within the community only men are called to love as Christ does.”

-Gerard Loughlin, “Baptismal Fluid“, unpublished paper quoted by Stuar

Stuart comments:

Loughlin’s reading of the text had transformed it into a queer text. The very incongruity of this reading with the “original” reading is enough to stimulate laughter. I find it funny that this passage should be read so often and do solemnly at weddings, the great ceremony of heteropatriarchy.

-Stuart, Camping Around the Canon, in Goss “Take Back the Word

I remember a comparable insight and laughter from my own experience. Once on retreat, I found myself reflecting on the familiar image of the Church as the bride of Christ, and realized that as a gay man, I was spared the oddity (for straight men) of imagining myself as “bride”, and instead was able to picture myself in my meditation as “groom” of Christ – a meditation that became extremely powerful. Looking  back on it later, I found satisfaction and humour in the realisation that my orientation had given me a unique advantage in my prayer.

This left me with a predisposed receptivity to Loughlin’s main ideas concerning the wedding at Cana.  Instead of considering the miracle of transformation, he asks instead, “Who is it that was married?”. He answers the question in stages.

First, he points out that the story should be read as a parable, with distinct anticipation of the Last Supper,  Passion and Resurrection. The wedding takes place on “the third day” (anticipating the resurrection) after He has talked with Nathanel (John 1:43 -51), and the transformation of water into wine anticipates the transformation of wine into His blood. In a liturgical setting, the Mass recalls these three days. So, it is a standard idea that symbolically, in the church’s recollection of the story, we are all guests at the wedding, where Christ is marrying his Church.   At one level closer to the literal, it is Christ marrying his disciples. Loughlin then goes on to discuss a fascinating more literal idea from the early and medieval church – that it was indeed Christ who was married – to John, the beloved disciple. This idea was articulated in the apocryphal Acts of John, in which it is said that John broke off his betrothals to a woman to “bind himself” to Jesus. This was apparently a common strand in some German medieval thinking, right up until the Reformation, and is visually illustrated in some surviving art.  In a  “Libellus for John the Evangelist”, a painting of the wedding feast is said to feature a bearded Christ seated next to a beardless, androgynous John – whom, says Loughlin, he appears about to kiss.  In the “Admont Codex” illustrated manuscript of  St Anselm’s “Prayers and Meditations”, an illustration in two parts shows John’s story. In one, John is seen leaving his female betrothed. In the companion piece, he is lying on the ground with this head on Jesus’s breast, while Jesus himself is tenderly caressing his chin.

Is this tradition “true”? We cannot know. Like so much much else in Scripture, it is impossible to get through the mists produced by unfamiliar language, a different literary tradition, and remote historical /cultural context to get close to the literal “truth” behind the text.   No matter. Even without accepting  this idea literally, it is enough for me to know that it was once widely accepted in the mystical tradition, and to incorporate it into my reader response.

It is when Loughlin moves beyond the “meaning” of the text to its multiple ironies that the fun starts. This where, in sympathy with Elizabeth Stuart, I found myself quite literally laughing with Scripture.  For if it is true that the consecration of Eucharistic wine into Christ’s bloods is prefigured in the Cana transformation of water into wine, then we can see that in every Mass we are commemorating  Christ’s own wedding with His (male) disciples. Every Mass can be seen as a mystical gay wedding.  That Mass is celebrated by a priest who has committed himself to celibacy, and so forswears procreation himself, but is expected to preach against gay marriage or others – because homosexual intercourse, being unable to procreate, is “intrinsically disordered“. The priesthood in turn, is run by a a similarly celibate coterie in the Vatican which reproduces itself by recruitment not biological reproduction – and castigates the homosexual community for its own social, not biological reproduction.

The threat posed by gays and lesbians to family and society is often proclaimed by men – named “fathers”- who have vowed never to to beget children. The pope lives in a household of such men – a veritable palace of “eunuchs”for Christ  – that reproduces itself by persuading others not to procreate. Why us the refusal of fecundity – the celibate lifestyle – not also a threat to family and society?

-Loughlin, introduction to “Queer Theology”

Goss, Robert (ed): Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible

Loughlin, Gerard (ed): Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body (BBPG)

Enhanced by Zemanta

Sunday Readings, 17th January: the Civil Partnership Celebration at Cana.

p style=”text-align: center;”>

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.”  And they filled them up to the brim.  He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”  So they took it.  When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (although the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But you have kept the good wine until now.”  Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. John 2, 1-11; Gospel for Sunday, January 17.

For a specifically gay reflection on the Gospel, Gospel for Gays” is exactly what it says:  a site with a particular focus on Gospel  reflections by Canadian Catholic blogger Jeremiah. For this week’s Gospel on the wedding at Cana, Jeremiah asks us to imagine the scene as a “gay” wedding. 

[ad#In post banner]

This is not as far-fetched as it might at first appear. There is an intriguing little bit of history buried in the name of the village – “Cana”.  This is not the same as the “land of Canaan” we know from the Old Testament, but if it were, the idea of a miracle at the gay wedding feast would have been entirely feasible.. Canaan is one of several middle eastern lands where it is known that same sex marriages were recognized in law.  (Egypt and Mesopotamia were some other examples). We must also remember that for Jesus Himself, it is highly unlikely that a same sex marriage would have bothered him in the least.  We know for example, that he did not hesitate to heal the Roman centurion’s “pais“, or slave almost certainly used for sexual purposes, and probably with an emotional component added to the relationship;  among his closest friends were the household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, who at the very least represented a most unusual household by the strictly gendered standards of the time,  but for whom the reported relationship of “sisters” may have been a euphemism for a lesbian relationship; He explicitly stated that “eunuchs” (the closest equivalent to the modern idea of “gay men”) were welcome in the Kingdom of heaven.  At this evening’s LGBT Mass in Soho, our celebrant, Fr Sean Middleton, introduced his homily with a (jocular) reference to the “civil partnership” at Cana.

Fr Middleton also raised some important points which struck a chord with me, in connection with the reading from Paul, and the recent observations of Pope Benedict on creation and homosexuality.  Recall that the reading from Paul to the Corinthians was the well-known passage on the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Listening to the words, I remembered how many psychotherapists and spiritual directors state clearly that sexuality is a gift, and that to is a gift that comes to different people in different forms – one of which is a homoerotic orientation. Elsewhere, Paul teaches that celibacy too is a gift, not given to all. Referring briefly to Benedict’s claim that “homosexuality” is a threat to creation, because if the whole world were gay, humankind would become extinct, Fr Middleton pointed out that exactly the same argument applied if the whole world were to embrace celibacy (and I’ve never read that Benedict has condemned celibacy as a “threat to creation”. )

Out in Scripture” is an interdenominational enterprise with a full set of readings, and reflections by a team of theologians and pastors, covering all the readings of the day from the “common lectionary”. For more on their methods, history and approach, see their home page.  Follow this link for today’s reflections. (For last week, which they confusingly label this week, go to this page)

Share your own reflections, on the readings or on the week, in the comments thread.

“The Civil Partnership Celebration at Cana”.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.”  And they filled them up to the brim.  He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”  So they took it.  When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (although the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But you have kept the good wine until now.”  Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. John 2, 1-11; Gospel for Sunday, January 17.
For a specifically gay reflection on the Gospel, Gospel for Gays” is exactly what it says:  a site with a particular focus on Gospel  reflections by Canadian Catholic blogger Jeremiah. For this week’s Gospel on the wedding at Cana, Jeremiah asks us to imagine the scene as a “gay” wedding.

This is not as far-fetched as it might at first appear. There is an intriguing little bit of history buried in the name of the village – “Cana”.  This is not the same as the “land of Canaan” we know from the Old Testament, but if it were, the idea of a miracle at the gay wedding feast would have been entirely feasible.. Canaan is one of several middle eastern lands where it is known that same sex marriages were recognized in law.  (Egypt and Mesopotamia were some other examples). We must also remember that for Jesus Himself, it is highly unlikely that a same sex marriage would have bothered him in the least.  We know for example, that he did not hesitate to heal the Roman centurion’s “pais“, or slave almost certainly used for sexual purposes, and probably with an emotional component added to the relationship;  among his closest friends were the household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, who at the very least represented a most unusual household by the strictly gendered standards of the time,  but for whom the reported relationship of “sisters” may have been a euphemism for a lesbian relationship; He explicitly stated that “eunuchs” (the closest equivalent to the modern idea of “gay men”) were welcome in the Kingdom of heaven.  At this evening’s LGBT Mass in Soho, our celebrant, Fr Sean Middleton, introduced his homily with a (jocular) reference to the “civil partnership” at Cana.
Fr Middleton also raised some important points which struck a chord with me, in connection with the reading from Paul, and the recent observations of Pope Benedict on creation and homosexuality.  Recall that the reading from Paul to the Corinthians was the well-known passage on the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Listening to the words, I remembered how many psychotherapists and spiritual directors state clearly that sexuality is a gift, and that to is a gift that comes to different people in different forms – one of which is a homoerotic orientation. Elsewhere, Paul teaches that celibacy too is a gift, not given to all. Referring briefly to Benedict’s claim that “homosexuality” is a threat to creation, because if the whole world were gay, humankind would become extinct, Fr Middleton pointed out that exactly the same argument applied if the whole world were to embrace celibacy (and I’ve never read that Benedict has condemned celibacy as a “threat to creation”. )
Enhanced by Zemanta