“He Sent Me to Give the Good News to the Queers”

For today, the third Sunday of ordinary time, the Gospel reading is the story of the Jesus’ first time reading in the temple, in the passage from Isaiah, with the keynote words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor”.

I have written before on this passage, and how I see this message, which effectively begins his public ministry, as central to my understanding of what Christianity is all about. By appallingly bad timing, today was also the day that the Catholic bishops of England and Wales chose to distribute postcards to all Massgoers, for them to complete and send to their Members of Parliament, expressing their opposition to the marriage equality proposals now before the British parliament. How this divisive postcard campaign, designed to continue and perpetuate discrimination and division under the law between same – sex and opposite – sex couples, is completely beyond me, can be squared with the plain message of today’s Gospel of liberation from all forms of oppression, or from the second reading from Corinthians on how we are all parts of one body, is completely beyond my comprehension.

These words, and those of the hymn “God’s Spirit is in my heart”, one of my favourites, had a particular resonance for me this morning, against the background of my recent personal decision to do precisely this: to spend a much greater portion of my time and energy in “proclaiming the good news” to the the oppressed – those in the LGBT community, so relentlessly (if unintentionally) oppressed by the institutional church, and some orthotoxic Catholics. In doing so, I am conscious of the enormous practical risks I will be taking, with minimal expectations of any form of reliable income to keep me alive, and unsure of precisely what or how I will do this. I was greatly strengthened by the words of the third and fourth verses that we sang as a recessional hymn:

Don’t carry a load in your pack, 
You don’t need two shirts on your back
A workman can earn his own keep, 
Can earn his own keep

Don’t worry what you have to say, 
Don’t worry because on that day 
God’s Spirit will speak in your heart, 
Will speak in your heart.

As luck would have it, it fell to me today to “proclaim the word” at my local Mass this morning, and to read the lessons and bidding prayers. I did so with conviction and passion – but reading into the words of the text what to me was a clear reading, probably NOT in concord with the bishops’ unfortunate and poorly timed message of division.

Here’s a post I published some time ago on the same text – but in a context outside of the Sunday Mass:

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Last week, I joined the Soho Masses team of Eucharistic Ministers and Ministers of the Word for an afternoon of prayer and reflection on our roles. To help us through the process, we had the services of David, who is an experienced prayer guide, trained in the  methods of Ignatian spirituality. All those present agreed that the afternoon was profoundly helpful in bringing some perspective to their place in serving the Eucharist and the Word in Mass. For me, it also brought a new insight to my activities with the Queer Church, which I want to share with you today.

The text that we reflected on for the readers was the familiar scene in the Temple from Luke 4, in which Jesus reads from Isaiah.

torahreading

16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day. And he stood up to read;

17 and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

19 to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

20 And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.

 

This was an Ignatian reflection, and Ignatius always works with both the head and the heart. So it is, that this particular reflection affected me with two clear messages, one from each. The head stuff was deeply familiar. With my background in South Africa, and the church’s role in fighting injustice and working on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden, this is a passage that has resonated with me for decades, in particular the central verse, v. 18:

he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed

The hymn “God’s Spirit is in my heart”, which is based on these verses, has likewise been one of my favourites ever since I first heard it. The relevance to the struggle against apartheid and racial injustice then and now was obvious. Similarly, the relevance to the struggle against sexual injustice is equally obvious to me, and is a major driving force here.

What was new to me was the message that came through loud and clear from “the heart”, when I set aside active thinking and analysis, and instead allowed passive reflection to make space for the voice of the Holy Spirit to be heard. Ignatius recommends using our senses to assist us in this, by imagining the scene that is described, picturing ourselves inside it, and in our imaginations, calling up its impressions on each of our senses. As I did so, I found myself concentrating on the visual picture, and in particular one moment in the story, which suddenly presented me with a startling new aspect of the story that had never occurred to me by cerebral analysis. This is the insight I want to share today, because of its significance for QTC, and for gay/lesbian/queer theology more generally.

The image that struck me and refused to go away, was a simple one. After completing his reading, Jesus handed back the scroll to the Jewish elders. What is important here is that he handed back the scroll.  The text he had been reading was a Jewish one, and he too was a Jew, in a Jewish temple. Of course the text would have been Jewish – but he was handing it back to them. We often think of Jesus in terms of the “New” religion he founded, but in fact of course it was not really new at all, just a fresh presentation of the familiar, with some shifts of emphasis. So, in reading the passage from Isaiah, he was simply repeating what was already established in Jewish teaching – but in using it to commence his ministry, he was giving it a new prominence, making it a keynote address.

As queer Christians exploring the Christian message, we are often accused of breaking or ignoring church rules, or of reinventing the Christian message. The charge is unjustified. Rather, it is the received interpretation of Christianity, with its emphasis on excluding or demonizing sexual minorities and its proclamation of a puritanical sexual ethic, that has distorted Christ’s message. In reminding the Church that Jesus’s ministry emphasised the struggle against injustice, help  for the oppressed and marginalised, inclusion of all – and remarkably little about sexual ethics, we are not in any way re-inventing Christianity, but simply doing precisely what Christ himself did in the Temple: handing back to his hearers a familiar but neglected message.

That message is about fighting injustice and oppression – but it is also about God’s unbounding love for all – and that is without exception. As gay, lesbian or trans Christians, we so often find ourselves bombarded with hostile messages suggesting that we are somehow in contravention of the Gospels, that we easily lose sight of this love.  There is also not a single verse in the Gospels or Acts of the Apostles that are even remotely critical of homoerotic relationships. There are however, several passages that imply tolerance or even support, and many which explicitly emphasise th principles of inclusion, the refusal to judge others, and above all – love and help for the marginalized and oppressed. Familiarity with the Gospels will clearly show that they are not in fact hostile to us, but instead should be seen as a source of support and strength.

Do not allow the bigots to take possession of Scripture as a weapon: own it for yourselves.

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