"Queer" Jesus--a Sermon

So, I don't usually post my sermons on my blog--mostly because I don't really think they are "post-worthy" and because I think it is always a little strange to read a sermon:  they are meant to be preached & heard, after all.

But, I'm making an exception this week & posting the sermon I just preached today in chapel--not because I think it's so good [it isn't], but because I am passionate about the subject matter and I want to share it.  

The seminary just received our certification as a "Reconciling in Christ" seminary, which means that we are explicitly and publicly welcoming to all people, especially those in the LGBTQ community.  It's an exciting decision for us, and it makes clear and visible commitments we have had for some time now, reflecting what we consider to be an essential aspect of the proclamation of Christ's love and welcome to all people, especially the vulnerable and the marginalized.  That's not why I preached this sermon, but it comes from the same Christian conviction.

For me, part of being a Reconciling in Christ seminary means talking theologically in a variety of contexts about love, sexuality, gender, imago Dei, otherness, uniqueness, diversity, and the gospel message--and one of those contexts certainly is preaching.  So, in that spirit then, this sermon is about being "queer"--what "queerness" means, and how it reflects both Jesus' own ministry and his embodiment of God's love.  There are a dozen ways it could be better, I'm sure--but at least it is saying something; and if there's one thing I know, it's that the church cannot continue to just be silent about the LGBTQ community.  We have to say something about how God loves that community, dwells with that community, and speaks a word of grace to the world through that community.  This is my attempt--I hope you make one of your own.

John 15:9-17
          The Genesis of this sermon came in a conversation I had with a friend of mine a few weeks ago.  An application came across her desk in which the applicant self-identified as a “queer woman.”  “Queer;” my friend said.  “What does that mean?  Does it mean she’s gay?  How is ‘queer’ different from being a lesbian?”  Did I welcome that question?  Oh, yes I did!  She had barely finished speaking before I launched in!
          So, I talked about the word “queer,” and how while certainly it often refers to sexual identity, it is so much more than that, too.  As many of you know, first and foremost being “queer” is about actively challenging the binary gender stereotypes that continue to pervade our society, demanding gender conformity, and refusing to allow for fluidity and flexibility in self-expression and self-understanding.  And, when you think about it this way, I said to my friend, I would venture to say that many of us—if not most of us—in this room are “queer”—even those of us who are heterosexual.  I know I am.  Let me explain. 
I believe both boys and girls should be given dolls and trucks to play with; and I don’t believe that “big boys don’t cry,” or that the dress code for girls is “pretty in pink.” 
I believe men should not get brownie points for “babysitting” their own children; and should be celebrated, rather than challenged, when they want to be stay-at-home dads.  I don’t believe women are defined either by the functionality of their wombs or the bling—or lack of it—on their left ring fingers. I believe people should be able to name for themselves what they want to be called; and wear what they want—pants and skirts alike.  And, of course, I believe love crosses all gender boundaries.  In a society where men and women still labor under traditional gender stereotypes, these are “queer” thoughts.  But even that’s not all.
The concept of “queering” societal norms goes beyond gender roles, challenging other stereotypes equally detrimental.  For example, considering the relentless, pervasive nature of capitalism in our society, it can be “queer” to challenge the idea that wealth is directly proportional to aptitude and skill, and that poverty is directly proportional to laziness.  Or, that everyone is born equal, with an equal opportunity to succeed; or that society is colorblind, and that your prospects for education, jobs, housing are just as good if your name is Jamal or Jesus as if it’s Jim or Jack.  You get the idea.
          And, when you think about “queer” this way, you know who else was pretty queer?  Jesus!  Now, don’t get hung up on the word—I know for many people the word itself is intimidating and off-putting, but whether you choose to use the word or not, it is patently clear from Scripture that Jesus was all about challenging gender norms and other social stereotypes that categorized individuals as “good” or “bad,”  “clean” or “unclean,” “righteous” or “unrighteous.”  And frankly, one of the best articles I’ve ever read on this “queer Jesus” was written by Rick Carlson and published in the Winter 2010 issue of Dialog.  [And I did give him a heads up that I’d be mentioning him in today’s sermon!] Now, Dr. Carlson never used the word “queer” and it might not even have occurred to him to do so, but the Lukan Jesus he describes is quite “queer” nonetheless—especially when it comes to issues of money, issues of social status, and, indeed, issues of gender relationships.
          The way Carlson described it, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is constantly turning the world upside down, modeling God’s new reality:  Carlson describes it as “the alternative, topsy-turvy, divine reality that is being inaugurated by the advent of Jesus.”  Jesus reverses the typical understanding of the “blessed,” granting that status to the poor, rather than the rich.  
Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners, rather than the Pharisees.  And finally, Jesus creates new possibilities of being and relationality for women, even women on the furthest margins of society.
          Not only did Jesus challenge the idea that you should thank God you weren’t born a tax collector, he stayed with them.  Not only did Jesus challenge the idea that lepers were unclean, he touched them.  Not only did Jesus challenge the idea that Samaritans were off-limits, he made a Samaritan the hero of one of his most pointed parables.  Jesus rejected the rich in favor of the poor, the powerful in favor of the weak, and the pious in favor of the sinner.  Topsy-turvy, indeed!
          OK--now I’d like to move us to today’s Gospel text—did you think I would ever get there?  With all this in mind, I have to say that I think this particular passage this morning is one of the “queerest” texts in the entire Gospel.  Because in this passage, Jesus turned on its head more than just human society, human relationships.  In this passage, Jesus “queered” the one thing that everybody knew, everybody counted on—not only in Jesus’ own culture, but in cultures all around the world.  And that is, that God is Lord:  God is to be worshipped, God is to be feared; God is to be kept far away, at a distance. God knows things no one else can know, and God is the one who demands sacrifice—not the one who makes the sacrifice! 
But here, instead of reinforcing that type of relationship with his disciples, Jesus calls them friends.  He sets himself on an equal plane with them.  He shares with them all that he knows of God’s will; and he loves them with the intimate love of a brother.  And in doing this, he models for them in his person exactly the kind of people he is calling them to be.  It’s not a command from above—it’s a guidance from beside:  not “do what I say,” but “do what I do.”
Our text today reminds us that the footwashing John recounts a few chapters earlier wasn’t a “one-off”—Jesus meant what he said, and what he did.  He has chosen to serve them, rather than be served; he has chosen to call them brothers [and sisters]; and he has willingly accepted death for their sake—rather than demand their deaths for his.  Trust me when I say, we have not seen this before!  God does not act like this!  This violates every norm, every rule of behavior and ritual governing the relationship between God and humanity.
And, so, if you think about it that way, the very incarnation was “queer”—not only that it happened in a poor nobody like Mary, but that it happened at all! Remember the words of Philippians 2: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Sometimes I think that those of us in the church forget how very, very radical this whole notion is—God becoming human in this backwater carpenter’s son; and we take it for granted, because it’s a story we have heard so many times, and know so well.  Even the most astonishing things can become routine through repetition.  That’s one reason why I like this language of a “queer” Jesus—it’s a disruptive, shocking word for the church, and sometimes I think that’s exactly what we need to see Jesus anew, and to appreciate afresh who he is, and what his life continues to mean for us today—and for the whole world.  Simply put, there is nothing conventional about Jesus, nothing “status quo,” nothing “business as usual.”  Jesus turns the whole world upside down, challenging everything we thought we knew about God, ourselves and human relationships.  “Queer” indeed.
So for me, one of the gospel messages of this text is the proclamation to the church about how much it has to learn from “queer folk”—gay and straight alike.  One of the lessons Jesus continually reinforced in his ministry, in practically every encounter, was the need to listen to and pay attention to “the other,” especially the other it is so easy to disregard or even discard.  Jesus saw that little children have something to teach adults about how to receive the kingdom of God.  Jesus saw that poor old women have something to teach the rich about persistent and passionate seeking of what is precious.  Jesus saw that the sick and the diseased have something to teach the healthy about healing and new life.  Jesus saw that the prodigal has something to teach the “good son” about receiving grace and forgiveness.
          Now, by itself, of course this would be nothing more than an impossible lesson to learn; an impossible model to follow.  We’re not Jesus, after all.  And that means we are bound by the sin of our own prejudice and our own self-righteousness, and our own judgmental natures.  But thanks be to God, Jesus did not just give us a lesson to learn.  Born in us in baptism and dwelling in us daily through the power of the Holy Spirit, he works within us to shape us from the inside out, and gives us the power to see people with his own eyes—to see the world with his own eyes. 
          One of my favorite verses from scripture is from 1 Samuel 16, when Samuel is waiting to hear from God which son of Jesse he is to anoint as Israel’s next king.  The line is, “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’
          And as we read this story we are reminded that in Jesus Christ, Christians have been gifted with a new relationship to God—a relationship based on love, joy, and friendship.  And so, too, then, we have been gifted with new relationships to others, empowered to do as Jesus did, love as Jesus loved.  It is a gift, then, to be invited to put on Jesus’ own “queer” lenses, and look out on a topsy-turvy world, the in-breaking Kingdom of God.  And make no mistake, this new way of seeing, of being, is a gift the church is called to share with the whole world, so that everyone—everyone—gets to be a part of the new vision.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.