Queer Birds in Kingdom Branches
A transcript of the sermon from Sunday, June 14, 2015: our annual Pride Weekend service. This sermon was written and delivered by Luther Place member Jay Forth. The recorded sermon can be found here.
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” In the Church calendar, this is the third Sunday after Pentecost. Pentecost is the season where we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, the life-giving, re-creating power of God. The Spirit is God’s renewing, animating, and dynamic power that moves throughout the world in unexpected ways: overturning oppressive orders, healing those who are wounded, freeing those enslaved to debt and fear, creating new communities of a motley crew, and infusing us with revolutionary joy. Let’s remember, Pentecost began with an eruption of praise and celebration; so much so that the onlookers thought the disciples were drunk. The Spirit draws us into the new reality that began with Christ: a new mode of being and acting that defies the old orders and breaks the social bonds and habits that we’ve known for too long. This Pentecost joy is a mark of the Spirit’s work among us. Still today, the Spirit is giving birth to the new creation: she is growing its roots, boughs, and leaves, and we are among the many birds finding life its branches. How fortunate we are that Pride coincides with this ecclesial season.
In the Gospel passage, we witness a beautiful metaphor for this new, Spirit-filled reality in an unlikely form: a bush. This new reality, Jesus states: “is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” We tend not to think of a shrub as all that impressive, but Jesus has quite an imagination. Unlike the passages of Ezekiel and the Psalms that speak of the magnificence of strong cedars and tall palm trees, Jesus speaks of shrubs. But it’s a large shrub and it’s able to give rest to birds. However, we should also wonder, who exactly are these birds who are able to make their home in a shrub? It tends not to be the eagles or other large birds of prey, who rest in tall, strong trees and on rocky ledges. Rather, it’s the smaller birds who can make a home from a shrub; it’s the tiny birds, like sparrows, who are able to find comfort in a shrub, the new reality of the Spirit. This reminds me of the famous hymn which sings of those bird who take rest in the floral, shrub-like Spirit of God:
Let not your heart be troubled; these tender words I hear;
And resting on his goodness I lose my doubts and fears;
For by the path He leadeth but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.
I sing because I’m happy;
I sing because I’m free;
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me.
You might be asking yourself, “What has all this to do with Pride: the time we celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people?” Why should we remember now that God’s eye is on the sparrow? Because the tiny sparrows are those who are called worthless by the world, but are beyond value in the eyes of God. The sparrows are those whose hearts have been troubled with doubt and fear but are invited to find rest in God’s new reality. For many of us queer people, those who don’t conform to heterosexual identities or to narrow beliefs about gender identity and sex, we’ve been sparrows. Living under a patriarchal shadow, we can recount many times when our hearts were troubled, we had doubts about our own worth, and we lived in fear of others and of ourselves. We remember innumerable messages that told us to be ashamed of our sexual inclinations and of our bodies. These might have been as subtle as the slightly twisted face and glare of disgust from a friend or a parent. Or, for some it was the abusive, abhorrent experiences of conversion therapy that resulted in distorted minds, pain, self-hatred, and self-inflicted harm. Or, for some it is marked on our bodies before we could even speak, when a hospital forces a newborn to undergo sex assignment surgery because their genitals do not confirm to typical “male” or “female” sex organs. Or, maybe it was a form of physical or emotional abuse we endured. Or, for some it was the threat of death or the temptation of suicide. We’ve prayed for our desires to go away and we’ve dressed the part; we’ve feared sensuality and we’ve hated our own bodies for too long. Even the book of Genesis admits that it is only after the Fall that we became ashamed of our naked selves. The shadows of heteronormativity brand queer lives with doubt, fear, and shame. The stories despisers tell about us are often times taken in, and they become the stores we tell about ourselves. Queer people are victims in a social machine of shame and self-hatred.
But Paul states that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” The social machine of heteronormativity that chains our bodies and our desires is part of the old. The new creation, the flourishing divine garden, the eschatological shrub that Jesus speaks of is already breaking through and it is growing. It moves with subversive, radical power. Against and overturning the narratives that told us we were shameful, distorted, insufficient and in need of having our bodies and our sexualities policed, the Spirit is growing a kingdom of queer places of abundance and goodness beyond measure. It’s a reality that liberates us from the old, social machine of oppressive binaries and shame; it’s a reality that empowers us to reclaim our bodies and our desires; it’s a reality where we celebrate the God who takes pride in us. This growing, garden kingdom is where we learn to join God in saying “yes” to who we are; to welcome with joy and tenderness our creaturely existence, body and soul. I don’t think it is too much to say that the justice of the kingdom is an erotic justice, that is, it is a life-affirming justice that fully embraces our fleshly, sensual existence. If we doubt this, then maybe we don’t truly understand what happens during communion at the Lord’s Table. The Kingdom of God, extends in surprising and revolutionary ways, gathering the little birds into its branches. Moreover, we might be surprised by some of the sparrows we find dwelling there.
The birds we find in the Kingdom is a cloud of queer witnesses that attest to God’s loving “yes” to those who fall outside of the normative framework but reclaim their body and sexuality. For instance, we can look to the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8, a queer African who is baptized by Phillip into the early Jesus movement. We can look to women of the early church like Perpetua or Thecla who transgressed the gender norms of their day in the face of a violent empire, and defied the men and families who believed they had the final word over a woman’s body. We can look to the movement called the Beguines, a group of lay women who lived in autonomous, non-hierarchical communities. Each established their own rules and devoted themselves to the poor. Or, we can look to more contemporary examples like James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin who fought against both the racism and sexual oppression of our American society. Or, the Argentinian theologian, Marcella Althaus-Reid who seeks to decolonize our sexuality and our bodies by calling us to embrace a queer, indecent God; a God of erotic, creative energy. These are some of the strange birds in the branches of the God’s Kingdom, the queer cloud of witnesses who refuse to bend under a social machine of repression and shame and who prophetically testify that God takes pride in us.
Another one we find nestled in this shrub is a Latin American, transwoman who is remembered for her activism for transgender/genderqueer people at the intersection of poverty and state repression. Sylvia Rivera was born in 1951 into a chaotic household in New York City, but in her teens she found a new family in the New York City dragqueen/transgender subculture. She frequented the gay bar called the Stonewall Inn during a time when the state actively suppressed LGBTQ people and there were few places that welcomed us. During an all too common police raid of gay venues (when people’s sexuality and gender were literally policed by the state), in 1969 they raided the Stonewall Inn. They began to arrest its patrons if they were found to be “crossdressed” or engaged in homosexual activity. But as the police waited to take them to the station the crowd grew, and the crowd grew restless, and the crowd grew tired of state violence and oppression. Sylvia Rivera and many transgender people fought back against the police that night in what became a watershed moment in LGBTQ history: The Stonewall Riots. Her flame for LGBTQ justice grew to a roaring fire that struggled for and with those found at the intersection of transgender identities, poverty, and institutional discrimination. She was a leading figure in the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance. She petitioned and fought to overturn New York City’s repressive sex and gender laws. An obituary states that “she literally scaled the walls of City Hall in a dress and spiked heels in an attempt to gain access to the closed door votes on” a bill she fought to support. She also founded S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) an organization advocated for transgender folks and she frequently provided homes to homeless, queer youth. But Sylvia also had her sufferings, vulnerabilities, and losses. She struggled with homelessness herself, along with substance abuse. Moreover, she grieved at the sudden death of her close friend. In her final years, she became a member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York City and the director of its food distribution program. That church became a place where this bird found rest and support in her continued activism.
Among the many others, Sylvia Rivera is one of those little birds who threw off shame and fought back against oppressive normativity by living among the radical growth of God’s garden. She shook off the old and embraced the new, revolutionary power of the Spirit. Moreover, she hands to us a legacy, especially during this Pride season. She reminds us—“us” the Church, “us” LGBTQ movements, “us” residents of DC—not to forget the little birds all around us. While the parade marches through Northwest, let’s not forget the many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks east of the river. She reminds us to hold up the many queer people of color who fight day and night for justice and to be heard. She reminds us to remain in solidarity with queer people who are in poverty, or who are in prison, and the many who are homeless, especially youth. She draws our imagination and our faith beyond the affluence a sponsored parade to the neglected places and people of the queer world. She understood that the kingdom’s branches reach farther and wider than many of us know and, if we can turn our attention from the glamor of the mighty trees, we can see the little birds of God’s new creation. And she reminds us that there is radical power in affirming our bodies, sex, and desires; and she reminds us to find confidence and joy in the God who takes pride in us.
This Pride, I pray that we at Luther Place can participate in that divine joy that overturns discrimination, hatred, and despair. I pray that we can find ourselves among the little birds of God’s Kingdom, those are who gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender who fight and struggle at the margins. I pray that we can affirm the goodness of our bodies and our sexual desires. And, lastly, I pray that we take refuge in a Spirit that grows and nurtures prophetic action and subversive, new realities. AMEN.