Pride–Jonathan and David

I preached this sermon on Pride Sunday June 24, 2012 at theSt. James Presbyterian Church, Harlem NYC

Scriptures used:   Job 38:1-11, 1 Samuel 17:57-18:6, 18:14-16, Mark 4:35-41

A love hidden in plain view

The covenant between Jonathan and David

“It’s A Question Of Soul Love”

On this day, dearest Lord, open our hearts when they

might be closed.  Be with us as we explore your word

together, discern what it means for us today—in our lives,

in our interactions, in our ministries.  Let your word

to us be heard on this day our trusted strength, and the one

who redeems.  Amen

 

“You sho’ is ugly!”  Who can forget that iconic line blurted out by the character of Shug to describe Celie in “The Color Purple”?  Celie, who up until this point in both the book and the movie, has no idea that there is a life that she can call her own.  Celie, teenage mother abused by her father.  Her children have been taken away from her as well as her beloved sister, Nettie.  Celie, whose life is no more than tending house, working in the garden, taking care of someone else’s children, and being used by a man when the urge suits him.  And then Shug comes along.  The women form a bond that becomes a saving grace for each of them.  For the first time in their lives they have found a love that doesn’t expect anything back from them, it just is.  Celie learns how to smile.  Shug learns how important it is to have someone who will, ‘scratch out your head when it’s ailing’.

“The Color Purple” is one of those movies and books that we as a Black community, claim as our own.  There have been plenty of backyard barbecues, that when that last rib is stripped clean and folks are just sitting around full as a tick, from out of nowhere someone will shout out a quote from the movie, “till you do right by me”, “I looked up and saw you Miss Celie and I knowd there is a God”, “see Daddy, sinners got soul too”.  The next thing you know everybody at the barbecue is practically acting out the entire film, songs and all.  I love times like those.

But for as much as we claim the culture of that movie, there is one thing we rarely talk about.  We rarely talk about the relationship between Celie and Shug Avery as Alice Walker wrote about it in her book.  It’s hinted at in the movie with a kiss, a song dedication “Celie’s Blues”, and the quiet way everybody ends up on Celie’s porch at the end of the movie.  But Walker is quite plain; these two women are partners in the romantic sense.  If they were here today, they might be marching down 5th Avenue in the Pride Parade or perhaps Shug would have headlined at Harlem Pride yesterday.

I’m not up here in this pulpit to preach to you about sexuality.  No, Saint James is a Presbyterian Welcome church.*

Ostensibly we need not constantly revisit the topic, right?  No, I don’t want to talk about the privacy of folks’ intimate relationships.  Steven Spielberg sidestepped around Celie and Shug’s relationship because he knew that the American public of 198 wasn’t ready for that aspect of Walker’s characterization.  But you see it’s not a matter of sex.  It’s a question of soul love.

Celie and Shug’s love is kind of love that heals a wounded soul and allows it to flourish.  That’s the basis of their love.  Spielberg does bring that aspect of their love to the screen and quite beautifully.

Some may think I’m up here talking about this simply because it’s Pride Sunday.  Others may think it’s because we are a Presbyterian Welcome church, dedicated to full inclusion of LGBT or SGL persons in the life of the church.  Some of you may be sitting in your seats assuming that I must be gay if I’m bringing this up.  I’m up here talking about this soul love because our lectionary text brought this to my heart.  If you remember in our text from 1st Samuel verse 18:3 says, “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul”.  Since the Middle Ages there has been a debate over the nature of the relationship between David and Jonathan.  Some will say it’s just an old time version of what today we call a bromance.  This definition from Urban Dictionary.com seems to fit David and Jonathan to a tee, “Bromance: The intense love shared between heterosexual males. A form of male bonding and usually invisible to the naked eye. This bond is normally only shared between two males that have a deeper understanding of each other, in a way no woman could ever realize.”

Without going into the philosophical history of these platonic relationships, it seems there needs to be some phenomenon to describe how and why two people of the same gender can have genuine affection for one another without it being “weird”.

But David and Jonathan’s love is something genuine from which we can all learn.  Just before our passage today, David has killed Goliath and is being heralded for his victory.  Let it be known that his victory over Goliath is not just a military victory it is a spiritual victory as well.  David the shepherd has reminded the armies of Israel that they are agents of the Lord, that their fear of this giant is no more than a lack of faith.  It is this honesty, this loyalty to God and to Israel, this valor in forthrightness to which Jonathan is attracted.  He and David immediately become great friends, establishing a covenant with one another.  As time goes on in 1st Samuel their relationship deepens and grows, and upon Jonathan’s death David laments, “I am greatly distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”  But I step out of the fray of the debate as to what these passages means in describing the relationship for our political purposes.  I want to know just what is it God would have hear today.

And then I read a Jewish commentary on these passages, a Midrash; it hit me like a thunderbolt.  This example of love between Jonathan and David, whether on the down low or just an extreme case of bromance, teaches us how to love purely and of God.  The Midrash is from Avot 5:15 and reads “Whenever love depends on some selfish end, when the end passes away, the love passes away; but if it does not depend on some selfish end, it will never pass away.  Which love depended on a selfish end?  This was the love of Amnon and Tamar.  And which did not depend on a selfish end?  This was the love of David and Jonathan.”

And so this is the question of soul love I ask today, does your love depend on a selfish end?  Can you love without wondering, “what’s in it for me?” That is a question that David and Jonathan teach us to ask ourselves everyday of our lives.  I am here to confess that in the writing of this sermon, many times have come to mind where I have love for selfish ends, sometimes not really knowing it consciously.  And I must say, yes that love has passed away, painfully so.

Our Presbyterian Church is still divided over issues of full inclusion in the church.  Does our church’s love depend on selfish ends?  Is the fight because we want the church to be made in our image instead of God’s?  Is that why the men of the church fought so hard over thirty years ago to keep women out of the pulpit, keep women from being ordained?  Well, as we are reminded in Job today no one knows the mind of God.  I would like to pose God’s question to Job to the church during any hurtful time of argument when everybody thinks they are right, maybe even at General Assembly later this summer.  I’d like to ask on God’s behalf, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me if you have understanding.”

Or maybe we are more like the disciples on that storm tossed ship in Mark.  We get to hang with Jesus on the regular.  He may even choose us over the crowd.  Is this tightness we have with Christ our selfish end for loving him?  Do you sing Jesus loves me because you have come to know him?  Or do you sing Jesus loves me knowing that he does so in spite of you?  Learning how to be tight with Christ is a lifelong learning project.  Because every time we think we got this Jesus thing down we might find ourselves in doubt, sadness, or fear.  And Jesus will say to us as he did on that ship, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  And you will be filled with great awe and say to each other.  “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

It’s a question of soul love, my brothers and sisters.  Can you love without depending on selfish ends?  This question is not meant to denigrate us.  It is a question that is meant to help us be closer to Christ, purer in our love for Christ, more faithful servants for the building of God’s kingdom.

Before you start to answer that question, “Can you love without depending on selfish ends?” let me help you out.  The answer is…not completely.  We cannot, are not able to, will not be able to.  But here’s the best part.  We aren’t expected to.  We can only strive towards the prize of the high calling.  And when we falter, when we examine ourselves and see our own selfish ends, when we are honest and realize that we have pointedly asked the question what’s in it for me, that’s when we are covered by God’s Amazing Grace.

For you see Jonathan and David’s love may have pointed us to a better way of loving, one where we love without depending on selfish ends, there is another…There is another lover, today…There is a lover named Jesus.   That lover named Jesus, Jesus loves us as his own soul.  Jesus loves us so much that he died on the cross for our sins.  Just as Jonathan stripped of his robe for David, so Jesus was stripped of his robe for us.  Jonathan gave his armor to David making his flesh vulnerable.  Jesus took 39 lashes, a crown of thorns, nails in his feet, in his hands and a piercing in his side…Jesus took that just for us.  Jonathan gave David his sword, his bow and his belt.  Jesus took off his crown of glory and has made sure that there are enough crowns minted for us, for when we get to glory.  Jesus did all this with no thought of gain.  Jesus had it all and gave it up for us.  Jesus paid it all, church.  Jesus loves us as his own soul, without selfish ends.  And that is why the love of Jesus will never, I say it will never pass away.

Let us strive to love that kind of soul love we’ve been talking about today.  Let us love without expecting anything in return, without selfish ends.  If you have ever held a newborn child you know that kind of love I’m talking about.  You look down at that sweet babe in your arms and your soul loves and all you want to do is whatever it takes to make that child safe and happy.  If you have ever sang a song of praise then you know the kind of love I’m talking about.  As your voice comes up and out your soul loves.  All you want to do is sing till the power of the Lord comes down.  If you cook then you know the kind of love I’m talking about.  As you watch the people around the table enjoying your food your soul loves.  That’s why they call it soul food, folks.  Your soul sends your love through your offerings of food and people are nourished in all kinds of ways.

And if you can just close your eyes and remember the first time, the very first time your realized that Jesus loves you just because of who you are…If you can remember that feeling in your stomach, remember how your heart raced, remember how you could help but smile, remember how those tears fell onto your cheeks, remember how safe you felt, remember how you didn’t care who saw you crying or smiling, if you can remember those things…that’s soul love.  That’s when you know your not just loved for your body, or for who you are as mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, son, daughter, teacher, lawyer, doctor, lover, partner, husband, wife.  But you know that your soul, your very soul is loved and that love will never pass away.

Hold onto that.  Hold on tight.  For holding on to that feeling, knowing that Jesus loves you so completely that you can feel it in your soul there is nothing in this world that can ever really harm you…even death has no sting and grave will have no victory.  That’s the mystery of God that was spoken to Job, that’s the mysterious power of Jesus that even the wind and sea obey him.

This is your legacy as a child of God.  Love without selfish ends and the love you find will never pass away.  You see it’s not just a question of which kind of love you need to have—brotherly or sisterly love, agape love, platonic love or whatever kind of love you can imagine.  To love a holy and righteous kind of love…it’s a question of Soul Love.

 

*Presbyterian Welcome is NYC Presbytery based organization that works for the full inclusion of LGBTQ/SGL persons in the life of the Presbyterian Church USA.

A Love that Would Not Let Me Go

When we tell our stories, we are transformed. When others hear our stories, they are transformed. The story telling for Project Union Responds stirred up the Union community. We were stirred up because sharing our stories was an action of liberation, affirmation, by re-claiming our selves, our bodies, and our faiths. We were stirred up because sharing our stories required us to reflect on how we had been (and still are) harmed. As a community we received, held, and honored all that has been stirred up in us throughout the process; specifically during an evening, candle-light service on Wednesday, October 13, 2010, in James Chapel.

The following is a copy of the reflection offered by Barbara L. Rice. Ms. Rice has a master of counseling and is a first-year, master of divinity seminarian here at Union. Her employment portfolio includes working with LGBTQ youth. As a community, we are graced by her presence and voice.

—arb

A Love that Would Not Let Me Go

When Zach was a child I loved him. When Elizabeth was a child I loved her. When Luke was a child I loved him. When Erica was a child I loved her.

[Hosea 11:1–12] is one of those passages of scripture that I have always been drawn to, never fully knowing why. I’m sure my 16-year-old interpretations of this text were age appropriately simplistic and egocentric. But there was something in my initial and naïve draw to the passage that was innate—that was calling me back to some womb-like recognition of my connectedness with a love that would not let me go. I would not have used those words, but there was a desire to ingest these images into my being. I wanted to know that type of security, that type of love. I wanted to watch an old home movie of God bending down to feed me when I was a toddler. I wanted to see, feel, and touch these cords of human kindness and bands of love. I wanted to know that they would catch me, would hold that space, would keep me safe. And I wanted the people in my life to know and feel that security and love in their own lives.

And I think in many ways those bands of love were very real in my heart and in my life. At the risk of being stereotypical, I was very much a tomboy, and it was considered cute to run around in my baseball uniform all year long. And I was always picked fairly quickly in the process of choosing kick ball teams in elementary school. I would occasionally be called dyke, but had no idea what it meant, and I didn’t care. I had friends because I learned early in life that if you listen to people they tend to like you. So, I could fit in pretty well and for the most part was spared the personal pain of bullying.

As I grew into adolescence I had that familiar gnawing sensation that many of you can relate to – that sense that something about me just wasn’t right. And it would creep into my thoughts now and then, this utter terror, that there might just be some tiny chance I was gay. This nightmare sat in the back of my mind and would rear its head, and I would think that if this is in any way true then I probably didn’t deserve to live. This belief that, if I were indeed gay, I would be unworthy of taking up space on the earth, mostly came from my family narrative which was passionately homophobic in the name of following Jesus. So, if this secret, this nightmare, was possibly true then it would mean that I was beyond the point of any repair.

And so I would sit with these images that I sought out in the Bible—pictures from Isaiah of loving protection amidst storms and scary things, the intimacy of Mary washing Jesus’ feet and his defense and love for her, and then this one in Hosea of having been known and loved intimately since babyhood regardless of my attempts to escape. And I would try to connect with that love and tell myself that this was enough, and tell myself that I could get through this life devoting all of it to God, and that I would be given the strength to keep myself together (i.e. not fall to the temptation of living in that ‘lifestyle’) until I died and could experience ultimate union with the Divine. My life was full of sports, friends, mission trips, school work, and service clubs. By all appearances I was a pretty happy teenager and as long as I could keep the terror silenced or distant then I was OK.

I wasn’t externally tortured for being gay, but I was internally tortured. I’ve thought about this a lot these last few weeks. I can’t imagine what I would have done if there had been this added layer of ostracism, of being targeted, or being ridiculed. I truly do not know that I could have survived that, and I look around at my friends in this room, not knowing each story, but knowing that for many of you it was a struggle that words can’t capture. And I sit with gratitude and awe realizing you have survived.

In my therapy practice in Greensboro, NC, I had the privilege of working with many teens and adults struggling to come to terms with their sexual orientation. Their struggles were often based on their understanding of what religion or the Bible said about same gender love, but they inevitably faced peer and family ostracism. In doing trauma work with my clients incidents of extreme bullying would often come up, and these memories would be so vivid that, as they were described to me, I felt like I was there. It was as if in their description I could see, hear, touch, smell and taste the terror, the fear, the punches, the tears, the shame. As if their spirits had been branded like cattle, we would work together to deconstruct the internalized messages left by these incidents. We would work to untangle and heal those messages, until they could become scars as opposed to gaping wounds, and we would work to take away the powerlessness of the memories.

However, the consequences of some of these marks can’t be avoided. I think about a 26-year-old gay man I worked with who suffered such horrendous bullying and abuse in high school that he stopped going to school to avoid being tormented, which led to him eventually dropping out altogether. He completed his GED and now works a minimum wage job while trying to go to community college at night. He struggles with just making it day to day—not only financially but also emotionally. He stays in relationships with fairly abusive partners because, as he would honestly share, if he didn’t have a partner with whom to live he would be homeless. The bullying and peer abuse that led to him dropping out of school has left its mark and he is trying to dig his way out, and it’s a long, dark path.

I recall checking my voice mails early one morning before work, and listening in heart breaking horror, as I learned that a queer mutual friend of several of my teenage clients had hung herself the previous night. I was familiar with this girl, who had committed suicide, because they both frequently spoke of her. When I saw these two clients that same day, they were both obviously wracked in pain with all the things that go along with the ones left behind by suicide—what could we have done, why didn’t we see this coming, why wouldn’t her parents get her help? But, as if that wasn’t enough, one of the girls, who also identified as queer, sat sobbing on my sofa as she told me how unsympathetic her parents were to this devastating loss. By her reports her parents were not at all accepting of her orientation, and did some ridiculing of their own. So, the night my client learned of her friend’s death she was hysterical, and went to her mother for comfort, only to have her mother respond by saying, “well, that’s what happens to gay kids, they end up hanging from rafters.”

Well, I’m here, we’re all here, to say ‘no.’ That’s not the inevitable fate of gay kids. Swinging from rafters, jumping off bridges, shooting themselves in the head… this is not the unchangeable fate of our queer kids!

How I wanted to transmit to these clients, to my friends, and so many others, a sense of the tenderness of God’s love, of these totally devoted images such as this passage from Hosea. I wanted them to know that they too had access to a love bigger than all this pain; that they too could tap into a love that would not let them go. This is our job – to take this love to the people, to be living examples of this determined devotion.

As some of us have been telling our stories for the video, I’ve wondered about who didn’t make it among us. Who would have been here, sitting with us now if they could have made it a little longer? How has God grieved for the lives cut short due to hate? Who are we missing? What ghosts are among us who dreamed of seminary and theological education, but who didn’t survive the crucible of a queer childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood? Where would they be sitting right now? How would they enrich our community and our lives here at Union? Who would be their boyfriend, girlfriend, their partner? Who would be their best friend on the hall? And so I look out at your faces and am filled with gratitude that you made it, that we have the chance to become the beloved community; that we have the chance to share our stories with each other. I also am grateful to have made it, and grateful that I have been able to cling to my daughtership during dark times.

And out of Egypt I called my daughter. Out of Egypt I called my son. Out of Egypt I called my child. Daughtership, sonship, beloved child…. What does it mean to be called out of Egypt, out of bondage, out of slavery? What does it mean to be called to freedom, to life? Sometimes we prefer the bondage we know over the freedom we don’t know. But we are called, if we can hear – and I believe we can hear when something inside of us is ready to hear – to take the first steps of a journey towards freedom. Sometimes that first step is a commitment to find support, to find somewhere you can be honest.

For me I heard the call towards freedom one day in 1997. I was a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship,a conservative parachurch ministry, and I reached a point after years of being in reparative therapy, where I could no longer live with my internal incongruence. I reached the point where I didn’t care if I was indeed going to go to hell, because I was already in hell – my life was hell, my internal struggle had driven me to the brink of again wanting to be on the other side of this existence into the next one, just wanting Jesus’ arms around me. So I picked up the phone and called my supervisor. And, as I suspected, I was asked to resign, I was then asked to leave my non denominational church, which led to loosing most of my friends, and my family relationships experienced a type of death from which they have never fully recovered. And, it was in this wilderness space that I spent a lot of time reading and praying and wrestling with what to do. Regardless of what others said, what did God say? Could I still have a relationship with God and live this earthly life in a way that honored all parts of me, including my sexuality? I had wanted to be in vocational ministry since early childhood, and I thought that dream was over, and I was not sure who I was without this dream. I knew I did not want to live without a palpable connection to God, because to me that has been the only thing that gives life meaning. So, I decided I would take the first step. I would just move forward with what I could, and live, and see what happened. It was kind of an experiment because I was out of options, other than suicide. Of course what I found was more connection with God, and that God did not forsake me, but met me in ways I could have never known without taking that first step.

In this way, I was experiencing something similar to what Hosea describes at the end of the 11th chapter: “They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes.” The freedom of flying, even though you’re trembling. The sense of soaring even though you’re shaking – but heading to your true home. I happen to believe that home is always and only coming home to that love, that Divine love, that claims us and declares us perfectly made. In essence I believe coming home is a kind of coming home inside of ourselves, to rest in the love that waits for us there. As these tragedies in our queer community have moved us to share our own stories, as we have been moved to do anything we can to give a struggling kid hope for one more day, I have come to feel that we can become, that we are becoming the beloved community. And I believe it is from that grounded place that we move out into the world to serve, to stir, to rage, to liberate, to mourn, and to ultimately heal. As Hafiz said, “God revealed a sublime truth to the world, when He sang, ‘I am made whole by your life. Each soul, each soul completes me.’”

When Tyler Clementi was a child I loved him.

When Billy Lucas was a child I loved him.

When Seth Walsh was a child I loved him.

When Asher Brown was a child I loved him.

When we were children God loved us.

—Barbara L. Rice, MS LPC

©2010 Project Union Responds. Reprinting available with permission.

Union Responds to LGBTQ Youth Suicides

When we heard about the death of Tyler Clementi, the most recent in a string of queer youth suicides (a list which gets much longer if we take into account all of the queer suicides that we don’t hear about) we asked ourselves whether there might have been something–some act, some word–that could stop other queer youth headed down the same road to complete self-destruction.  In this video, a whole community has mustered just that.  Seminary students, post-docs, faculty members, and the President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York speak to LGBTQ youth at risk and to those who find themselves being bullied and ostracized just for being who the Divine created them to be.
– Atticus Schoch Zavaletta

Click on the image below to view the video:

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–Video coordinated and produced by Project Union Responds team. ©2010 Project Union Responds