Originally preached in the chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago
Relevant lectionary readings here.
Grace and peace are yours from the One who made all genders in Their image. Amen
Wading through the assigned readings for this week can feel a little bit like a trap. These are pieces of scripture which have been weaponized and used to tell women and femme people to stay subservient, to wound LGTBQIA+ people, and to subjugate and dominate the Earth and destroy God’s good creation. If it wasn’t so completely horrific, it would almost be absurd, because that is in total opposition to the original loving and liberative spirit of these texts.
It just goes to show that although there are massive differences in context between 1st century Palestine and 2018 Chicago, there are some things that, for good or ill, do stay universal. Religious authorities, even in our own tradition, continue to use scripture as “gotcha” moments against marginalized people in order to exert power over them, just as they did in Mark’s Gospel today. The religious aristocracy came to test Jesus, asking him questions – not in the spirit of good faith – but as way to evaluate him and cast him as a criminal who can be punished and therefore subdued by their own Law and Order standards.
The setting of traps by authorities to create criminals is something not unfamiliar to Chicago. Only a few weeks ago activists were pushing back against bait trucks full of Nikes left on the Southside, meant to lure desperate people who the state has deprived of resources into theft in order to criminalize them. Creating a permanent criminal underclass is the foundation of mass incarceration and modern day slavery, and the United States Empire – cheered on by our own Religious Aristocracy – delights in setting traps of racism and poverty for the purposes of their own profit. It was this same system of mass incarceration, criminalization, over policing, and violence that led to the death of Laquan McDonald, and Rekia Boyd, and Walter Scott, and Sandra Bland, and Freddie Gray, and Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile, and Michael Brown and so many others.
And so it’s not that hard for me to imagine the authorities of Jesus’ day laying traps for him in an attempt to criminalize and later execute him. What’s surprising – or maybe frustrating is a better word – is the way that Jesus’ own words have been used in our time against The Ones Jesus Loves.
Jesus responds to the trap laid by the religious aristocracy by calling forth a story familiar to them and familiar to us as well. Or it MIGHT be familiar to us, if we weren’t used to hearing it in such a different way. God scooped up a bit of Black/Brown clay in God’s hands and breathed God’s spirit into them, creating an adam, a little dirt creature. This earthling, this Spirit-animated dirt creature was a reflection of the God who created them, full of potential, of all types of energies, of all kinds of genders. And yet God realized that this earth creature would do better to have a partner with them. And so God put the earthling into a deep sleep and from one side pulled out Woman and from the other side was Man [pull apart clay here]. The Woman was given a role that according to Dr. Wil Gafney is used to reference God in scripture – an ezer – a life sustaining force that goes before you to protect you and lead you. And the Man left his own family of origin and and created a new home with the Woman and they clung to each other because they were of one flesh and they were equal and they were free.
Many of us who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community know too well about leaving, or being pushed out of families of origin and searching for partners and lovers and friends to create our own family of choice, which we cling to with such ferocious passion.
How awful, how perverse it is that many people have taken such a beautifully queer story of equal partnership and used it to exclude people and enact violence against them. Jesus, a sexual minority himself at the time by virtue of being unmarried and in many ways queer, is telling this story of equality to the religious aristocracy to push back against a system of marriage and relationships that create a hierarchy when an underclasss of destitute women is left to pay the price. Jesus is saying to them, “No. Women are not property that can be discarded and thrown away as some of your marriage laws suggest. Women and children, human beings are not disposable.”
We have too often read this Creation story much in the way that the Religious Aristocracy took those marriage laws – as an excuse to separate us from the goodness bestowed on us and on our relationships and on our genders and our sexualities from the beginning of Creation and to impose instead a harmful hierarchy. And this separation from Creation has lasting impacts. We see it in the disintegration of nonhuman nature today as a result of Global Climate Change in this chaotic era of mass extinction.
But separation from nonhuman nature does not only harm our nonhuman siblings. It does deep and lasting harm to us too.
There are a lot of motifs throughout scripture and in our own society when we talk about Creation. You may have noticed some of the images being played here behind me. One major motif we see in scripture and in art that is etched on our consciousness is associating Creation and Creator with God’s hands. We can picture an anthropomorphic God scooping Brown dirt into Their hands and forming a little person. In the Psalm assigned we did not read today, the Psalmist mentions the moon and the stars as the work of God’s fingers, and creation as the works of God’s hand. This is further expounded upon in our reading from Hebrews which names Jesus as an exact imprint [imprint on clay] of God. A fingerprint that by discovering we can link back to God the Creator.
When I visited Standing Rock I was told that for the Lakota people, a person’s fingerprints show the direction that the winds were blowing the day they were born. Creation itself is etched onto our skin, reminding us of our connection to the Earth.
In our white supremacist colonial context though? Fingerprints hold a very different connotation. We fingerprint someone when they are arrested, and booked. We hold onto these fingerprints and catalog them so that we can connect a person to more and more crimes and lock them up, put them away.
It says something to me that the clearest imprint of God is Jesus, a criminal who later died a criminal’s death. Jesus, a Brown person in an occupied land that religious and civil authorities alike would rather be put away, silenced, taken care of. And in Mark today Jesus just refuses to fall into their trap and stay within their bounds. This is a very queer thing to do as well, to blur lines, subvert hierarchies. Marcella Althaus-Reid says that – in addition to calling Jesus “God in human drag” – Jesus is queer precisely BECAUSE of his transgressiveness. To be queer is to be transgressive. To break the rules and norms of society.
And society, Empire, Religious Aristocracy then and now punish transgressions against their rigid hierarchy with criminalization and with death.
When I read Jesus as a queer person of color who has been criminalized and punished by death by society, the church, and the state, I can’t help but think of my transgender sisters of color, many of whom take up sex work or other dangerous, criminalized professions. I can’t help, in remembering our Brown Queer Criminal Jesus who was later executed, to think about Dejanay Stanton and Ciara Minaj Carter Frazier, two Black transgender women who were killed here in Chicago in the span of the last 5 weeks.
They held the image and imprint of God, too. And the church, with its queer-antagonistic, white supremacist, and misogynistic interpretations of scripture, has their blood on our hands.
Our challenge then, as ministerial leaders, is to lean into the hard pieces of scripture and refuse to let them become weapons against us and against God’s beloved. God is with us as we do the difficult work of dismantling the crosses we have built with death-dealing theology so that there are no more crucifixions – not of women, not of Black and Brown folks, not of queer folks, not of disabled folks, not of the Earth – so that we can again be as one flesh, and equal and free.