Gospel reading: what it’s not
On the face of it today’s gospel reading seems like an odd choice on Reconciling in Christ Sunday. It’s also a passage often subject to misinterpretation. Let’s begin naming unhelpful ways to read this passage. For example, often this passage has been wrongly used to equate demon possession with mental illness. On this reading it is suggested that because in ancient times they lacked modern medicine, they misread mental illness as demonic possession. There are some problems with this reading, not least of which, it has led to Christian churches that espouse miracle healing as a cure for mental illness. It also stigmatizes people suffering from mental illness as being demonic, even if it’s not the intent. Let us take mental health seriously, while not drawing false comparisons with stories of demon possession and exorcism in the Bible.
Similarly we know churches that continue to promote conversion therapy for queer people that think being queer is an aberration that needs to be exorcised. This is patently false and has perpetuated a legacy of harm that continues today. As a Reconciling in Christ, queer affirming congregation, we rebuke such readings. And repudiate all readings of the Biblical text that continue to harm queer people.
Gospel like an onion: centre is a story of liberation
Leaving aside harmful misinterpretations of the gospel reading, let us look at a more fruitful interpretation. Commentator Osvaldo Vena, asks us to consider the structure of the reading as a way into the text. This short gospel reading is constructed in a series of parallels. It’s a bit like an onion. We peel back each layer to find the heart of the gospel message.
For example, the the first layer is the reading begins and ends with Jesus entering and then leaving the synagogue. The second layer is that those gathered were astounded by Jesus’ teaching both before and following the exorcism, another layer. The third layer is a man with an unclean spirit cries out, paralleled by the unclean spirit convulsing and coming out of the man. Fourth and finally we get to the heart of the gospel reading which is the exorcism itself. Jesus liberates this man from the unclean spirit which will not leave him alone.
As we peel away the layers of the story, we arrive at the central theme, Jesus’ love and liberation of this person who is trapped and possessed. Here we think about ways in which we are trapped and possessed in different ways and in need of liberation. There is the overarching trap of being separated from the love of God and one another. Ways in which we are infected by societal ills and injustices from which we cannot free ourselves.
We’ve all experienced a sense of feeling trapped during this pandemic. We’ve been seized by despair at times that we cannot be freed from the threat of Covid. That we cannot rise to the challenges before us, whether in terms of public health, climate change, or systemic racism for example. And yet, however great the challenges are, we know that typically a message of despair doesn’t give people hope to work towards a better future. Instead despair can cripple us into inaction and to wilt away with worry. We yearn for the same liberation Jesus delivers to the man with the unclean spirit in the gospel reading. We too want Jesus to set us free, which is also the hope and promise of the gospel.
We are invited to live as though Jesus is setting us free right now. We are invited to receive the grace and love of God that is for each of us. To breathe freely and for the burden upon our shoulders and chests to be relieved. You know the tightness I’m talking about when we read the latest news headline that makes us worry. That the Covid vaccine rollout is delayed by weeks at a crucial time we need to be vaccinating the entire population. At times like these we need to trust the promise of freedom. To feel that Jesus is lifting the weight and casting out the demons of despair, so that we can rise to the challenges before us.
Liberating us from queer phobia
What does Jesus’ promise of liberation look like on Reconciling in Christ Sunday? First let us give thanks for the good work of liberating that has already been done at Church of the Cross. Together you became a Reconciling in Christ congregation in 2010, which takes sustained conversation, prayer, and hard work to make happen.
I helped lead a Lutheran congregation in Virginia to become one of only three such congregations in the synod at the time, and has since called the first openly gay Lutheran pastor in the Virginia Synod. I recognize how much work goes into these processes and am thankful of the queer Christians who often accompany us on the way in becoming fully queer affirming.
Before I was called to serve as co-pastor here you were already queer affirming, so thank you for doing that hard work. We also know the work continues and I have faith in you that we can continue that work together.
I think about the work the Board of Care For Communities has undertaken. Just two weeks ago we hosted a watch party of an episode of Queer Eye, a series on Netflix, which featured Rev. Noah Hepler, a Lutheran pastor in Philadelphia. One of the key takeaways for me from this episode is that Rev. Noah, despite coming out some time ago, and walking with younger queer folks in the church, is that he was unable to receive the grace he so freely granted others. Rev. Noah was still besieged by the hurtful messages of churches both past and present that say he isn’t good enough. He berates himself for not coming out earlier, for not liberating himself earlier, for not being more bold and forthcoming. At one point Rev. Dr. Meghan Rohrer asks Rev. Hepler if he would be this hard on a young queer person coming out. No, he says, he would not. They implore him to accept that grace for himself that he grants others.
This story make me think about all the queer pastors in the ELCIC who have never freely been able to come out. Even after rules changed so that openly queer pastors and deacons may serve in the church, how many are still afraid, still needing to protect themselves? After enduring decades of trauma it can be hard to unlearn destructive patterns. And perhaps some of them are serving congregations in which it still isn’t safe fully to come out even in 2021.
I am reminded of the Rev. Dr. Martin Brokenleg who spoke with us a couple weeks ago. He talked about generational trauma. How the trauma of one generation is adopted by the next, almost by osmosis. In that sense being a queer affirming church isn’t just about opening the doors and hanging out rainbow and trans flags, as important as overt visible reminders are, but looking at ways in which we name this ongoing trauma for folks both outside and inside the church. We know that people who appear to be succeeding on the outside can harbour all kinds of trauma within themselves.
The power of naming is big. In the gospel reading Jesus rebukes the spirit who begins naming him as the holy one of God. Instead it is Jesus who assumes power over the unclean spirit, naming and commanding it to leave the person. And the spirit doesn’t leave without a violent struggle. And after the struggle there is liberation. And yet Jesus knows the work isn’t over. His public ministry is just beginning in the Gospel of Mark.
So too, we take heart that our work is underway, but it’s not over. We too continue to learn new ways of liberating one another and walking with queer folks. Last year we invited Kingsley Strudwick, who is trans, to lead us in a Trans 101 workshop, looking at the importance of naming and using pronouns. This is one of the reasons. Pr. Lyle, the assisting minister, and I introduce ourselves with pronouns each Sunday because trans people have asked us to normalize this practice.
We give thanks for the queer leaders in our midst including for Queer Boardgames, the Queer Eye discussion and work supporting other congregations wanting to become Reconciled in Christ, and queer youth who are active in the congregation.
Vision of Future Liberation
Let us dream dreams and imagine ways we conspire together in Jesus’ liberation in Greater Victoria. Yesterday Bishop Anna Greenwood-Lee was consecrated and installed in the Diocese of Islands and Inlets. She has proven to be a mover and a shaker in Calgary and looks forward to opportunities for us to collaborate together among Anglicans and Lutherans on the island.
Sometimes we receive visions of future liberation from unexpected places. One example for me has been She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. This is a show my kids were watching on Netflix and eventually the whole family started watching because the storyline is so compelling. One thing about She-Ra is that it is among the most queer-friendly storylines out there in popular media.
Some of you like me may remember She-ra from the 1980’s, paired next to He-man. The new She-Ra doesn’t need He-man and she’s paired together with some amazing princesses who also have special powers. Spoiler alert: there is a queer story-line that only becomes fully established in the final season. In an interview with Noelle Stevenson, the creator of the new She-ra, the queer storyline wasn’t more overtly developed earlier out of fear of the show getting cancelled. It was only after the show had an undeniably popular following after four seasons that the creator could fully share this artistic vision. She said mentioning this possibility at the outset when pitching the show, it would likely not have been made. Netflix and other producers are wary of putting big money behind shows perceived as being too niche and a risky investment. Even in 2021 these questions persist that if you have a show with queer characters it is perceived as being a queer show, whereas it is never the case with a show featuring straight characters, that it’s considered niche or risky.
I want to shared with you a few lines from She-Ra Princesses of Power theme song:
We're right beside you
Ready to fight!
We must be strong!
And we must be brave We gotta find every bit of strength
That we have and never let it go!
We're bound to the struggle
With mighty sword and flame
We'll never fail you
When you call our name
Together we'll be heroes
Joining forces as one
Strong as the steel we carry
We rise like the sun!
To be sure there are theological questions worth raising with any super hero show. There is a tendency to solve problems with militarism and physical violence. There is also the question of grace, since inevitably we do fail and fall short. These questions aside, I think we are wise to listen to members of the queer community finding strength from She-Ra and its characters which are nuanced and offer a glimpse into a dream of future liberation. Where the princesses are racially diverse, have different body types, and some are queer. For example Glimmer does not represent the archetypal skinny princess and is given real character development, not just the sidekick. There are masculine characters in the show, but uniquely it is women or femme characters who defeat the baddies. And there are characters who start out as evil, but over a long process become good.
I share this as followers of Jesus, who liberates others from what possesses them. Together we can rise up as a liberating church, tacking queer-phobia, which continues even in Victoria. It’s not just a rural thing or a small town thing, and is still present in our midst in different ways. Together we stand up with courage, with Lutheran princesses of power, working towards liberation.
Wrapping up, as we peel back the layers of the gospel reading, we remember at its heart Jesus liberates all of us. Let us rejoice that Jesus has given us what we need to live into a world of being set free, including queer neighbours. Amen.