April 2022: Re-Member the Body: a Mid-Pandemic Queer Invocation [Amherst College]

While I was at Amherst, spring – this time – was always my favorite time of year. 

It still is today in Maine, where I live now with my wife and our animals.

Yes, of course I loved spring here because it marks the evaporating smell of soy sauce on the sidewalks, but spring is also a time of becoming. An in-between, and to me, a reminder that we are always in process. We do not arrive – not really, not in the cosmic sense. But we are, in this lifetime, “an arriving.” We are “a becoming.”

I love a gerund. Both a verb and an adjective. I wish I’d been an English major.

Scuba diving. Our calling. Human being.

I want to talk tonight about this matter of human be-ing, and moreover, of be-ing more than one thing, and be-ing one thing together.

Western Christianity today contends with the massive inheritance of Greek and Roman influence. 

Not long after the life and death of Jesus, philosophers like Plato and Augustine promoted the ideas that the soul and body are separate entities. I know, apologies – massive simplification for the sake of a brief message. 

But the dangers of a dualistic way of thinking extend to our moral sense of being.

According to Augustine, in order to avoid evil, humans have to focus on our soul, which is closer to God, and not on our bodies, which cause us to sin. 

I’m not trying to make any philosophical case for or against spirit and matter being separate entities. But the juxtaposition of the two as oppositional forces has given us almost two thousand years of baggage to reckon with.

And the baggage comes with questions like this, when we unfold it all:

  • If we are a duality – a thing that can be so easily bisected or so easily separated like oil and water – then can our soul condemn our body for being a body? For doing what bodies do? For embodying the spirit of God in… the wrong ways?
  • Can we so easily separate our thoughts from our actions? 
  • Is the body the enemy of the soul?
  • Does punishment of the body reward the soul?
  • Can queer and trans people’s thoughts be separated from who they are? Are we our bodies or our souls?
  • Are we valid in our queerness if we aren’t partnered?
  • Are we valid in our faith if we’re proud of our queerness?

For years, including the years I spent here, I belonged to Christian communities of unaffirming welcome. But from here, I also found and retained Christian friendships and community – queer and trans Christians that came from this same place and whom I still cherish today.

Unaffirming communities said that I was welcome as I was – that queer people are welcome as we are – but that I could not “act” on who I was. 

Sometimes that was explicit and sometimes it was implicit: understood through our shared worldviews and our unspoken dualities… I could be queer. I could confess that. But I couldn’t date or love or someday marry anyone besides a man. 

Some people call this theology-practice Side B. It is a forced celibacy based on the foundational belief that we can deny the body in order to edify the soul. And that kind of denial of the whole personhood of queer and trans people – that kind of refusal – is a dis-membering of the body of Christ.

But, I argue that we cannot leave our bodies behind when we come before God. And we cannot leave our bodies behind as we move through the world. Queer people cannot leave their queerness at the door of faith community any more than we can leave behind our race, our size, or our disabilities. We’d be gravely misguided for saying, “You are welcome as you are, person of Asian descent, but you just can’t act on your Asian-ness.”

And we’d be just as gravely misguided for cleaving our bodies from our queerness, which is fashioned after God’s own transgressive, queering nature.

What we see in scripture and in creation and in human nature and in the divine personhood of Jesus is this, time and again: that God is unbound by dualities. I posit this – and this is not an answer or a thesis statement but genuinely a series of questions:

  • What do we make of an embodied God? What do we do about the puzzling, the meddling, of Jesus’ humanity?
  • What do we do about his bodily life and death and his bodily resurrection?
  • What do we do about the calling of Jesus, which was in part to transgress the distance we have wedged between ourselves and God?
  • How do we respond to Jesus, who said “yes, and!” to the non-corporeal, the breath, the YHWH-ness, of God?

This coming Friday, many of us will retell in our faith communities the story of Jesus’ execution. The gospels each tell some variation of a similar story: that around the time of Jesus’ death, the temple curtain was torn. That was the curtain that separated the outer bounds of the temple from the innermost part of the sanctuary, the most holy and restrictive of places. 

There are many interpretations of this tearing curtain. The one I believe is that this imagery serves as an echo of Jesus’ life… It is a reminder that God is not confined to the access of the religious inner circle.

I believe that it was not Jesus’ death that accomplished the tearing of the curtain, but it was his life and his living of it.

And so it is today, too: God is not confined to the access of those with majority-culture identities. God is not confined to the access of cisgender, heterosexual people. God is not confined. So who are we, who are made in God’s image, to constrain our be-ing where God has not constrained it? In fact, how dare we constrain our be-ing?

Many of our Chistian communities are fractured by denomination or perceived difference. We may believe that God cannot be experienced, or that God will not meet us, in another kind of worship or another form of community. 

But God will not be so easily confined.

And in what feels like the eye of a hurricane, we are in the midst of a pandemic that has taken more from us than we are ready to tally. And trust is thin, and community feels like a luxury that we cannot afford.

But we are more than one thing. And we are things that seem at times to be in opposition. And we are a part of the body of Christ. And that body needs us.

When we are ready, that divine invitation to re-member the body, to re-member your own queer body-soul, is extended to us. And the body of Christ is queer, and that body is transgressive, and that body is incomplete without you in all your complexity.

So, if tonight you are bubbling with discomfort, or maybe if this is all old news to you, my questions to you are still the same:

What if you were free of dualities? 

Or what if you were more than dualities?

All creation is stitched together, and in relationship, we transgress. We become more than ourselves. When the body is re-membered, remember that you, queer and trans beloveds of God, are a precious and irreplaceable part of it.

We come from a spiritual lineage of people who could not be contained in dualities. We come from a Creator who could not be contained in dualities. So what makes us think that we could be so easily compartmentalized?

And so now I’ll read our scripture for this evening at the end of this message. And our scripture is from the book of Genesis, which is an origin story and the start of a story about a becoming, an arriving.

And though it may read like a litany of dualities, I invite you to locate yourself and all beautiful things in its midst. And I invite you to consider that these categories are descriptive but not prescriptive.

And I invite you to listen with a heart open for its original intent: to be poetry.

Genesis 1:29-31 says this:

“God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

And look: we began our time together in the light of day, and now evening is falling and it is not yet night, and through the beauty of this non-dualistic, non-binary, always-becoming, always-arriving time – you have been so kind to let us travel together.

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