On change

 

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Artechouse, New York City, New York, 2019 (digital) © Gabriela De Golia

 

The following text is a sermon I preached at my church, the First Church of Middletown, Connecticut, on Sunday, July 12th, 2020, while our Senior Pastor, the Rev. Julia Burkey was away. In this piece, I share my perspective on the subversive rational Jesus employed when deciding to use parables as a method of teaching and the ways in which current movements for justice reflect this type of subversion. Among other things, I also talk about how God and moments of change are reflective of one another (rather than buying into the notion of God as an immovable constant).

(Additional context: Rev. Julia’s time with our church is ending, which is referenced at the end of the piece and inspired some of my musings. This piece was also written during a time of heightened social unrest in the United States, namely with regard to racism and police brutality, which also inspired much of the writing).

The scripture passage that inspired this sermon is the Parable of the Sower, including the parable from chapter 13 in the Gospel of Matthew and the science fiction story by Octavia Butler.

Sermon: “God is Change”

May the words of my mouth
And the meditations of all of our hearts
Be aligned with you,
Our Beloved God,
You who are our rock and our redeemer.
Amen.

Before I delve into musings about the Parable of the Sower, I’d like to contextualize it a bit within the larger Gospel of Matthew. This Gospel is the first in the New Testament, and its writer seeks to portray Jesus as a Jewish King and the Son of God who serves as a contemporary Moses figure offering a reinterpretation of Jewish Law in contrast to what spiritual authorities were espousing at that time. Jesus is working within a Jewish framework, and the use of parables which is so common in the Gospels is actually an element of Jewish tradition. In parables, Jesus uses classic imagery pulled from Jewish prophets such as Isaiah, to convey his message. Unfortunately, Jesus is portrayed in this Gospel as a largely misunderstood and rejected spiritual teacher. Rejection and misunderstanding are what largely lead him to begin using parables as a teaching and communication style.

Leading up to the Parable of the Sower in Chapter 13, the Gospel of Matthew is devoid of parables. Before Chapter 13, Jesus delivers his teachings in mostly prose-like language. While those initial teachings were received well by many, they were rejected by the spiritual authorities and many others. In the chapter right before that of the Parable of the Sower, Jesus has intense conflicts with spiritual authorities over Sabbath and other matters, leading said authorities to decide they must eventually kill Jesus. It is at this point that Jesus switches from using more prosaic language to engaging in the more poetic language of parables.

The word “parable” derives from the Greek words meaning “to throw” and “alongside” which, by extension, has been used to convey analogy, comparison, and illustration. Parables are didactic stories that illustrate instructive lessons. They use imagery that is meant to make us draw comparisons between things. In Jesus’s case, his parables are used as tools to help listeners draw comparisons between the world as it is and what the Kindom of God might look like.

People often portray parables as a more accessible manner of getting information across because they employ imagery that would be familiar to many folks, such as farming metaphors. But that’s not entirely accurate. When Jesus starts using parables in his speeches, even the disciples ask him, “why are you teaching in these unclear ways?” So clearly, even those closest to him were confused by his communication strategy, and we can only assume Jesus’s parables went over many people’s heads. I would argue that this lack of clarity was actually intentional on Jesus’s part, and the timing of when he starts using parables speaks to this, for it is only after a knockdown fight with authorities that he switches to this mode of communication.

Emily Dickenson, the famous poet, once said, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” In other words, reveal the truth, but not in a straightforward manner. Indeed, throughout the Bible, for example, we witness God revealing Godself in very slanted ways: through burning bushes, smoke towers, God’s backside, and all sorts of other ways that don’t allow witnesses to see God clearly. Jesus, in using parables, is following in God’s footsteps, using “slanted” imagery to get at the teachings of God. I think there’s a psychological tactic to this.

It’s very obvious that most people most of the time don’t respond much to straightforward facts and information. If that were the case, we would have solved the climate crisis long ago, but instead, many are still debating whether or not climate change is a thing despite the obvious facts that it is. Oftentimes, what leads us to process and integrate information is not facts, but stories. Jesus’s use of parables is a tactic in bypassing the rationalizations and overly logical gateways in our minds and spirits that often prevent us from accessing deeper truths that go beyond the mere intellect. That doesn’t mean that everyone will understand or be receptive to the stories and their teachings — in fact, many won’t open themselves up to them — but such a tactic helps to lower people’s defenses and reach those who have not only a desire to intellectually understand of the Word but a willingness to be moved to their core by the Word. And parables also left those who were hostile to Jesus with less to accuse him of, because, after all, he was just “telling stories.” Jesus’s parables were thus a way of subverting oppressive power while still reaching those who would be most willing to join him in the task of building the Kindom of God, turning mere admirers into faithful followers.

So, what exactly does Jesus talk about in the Parable of the Sower? In this parable, Jesus portrays himself as a sower who is scattering seeds across various types of soil. This imagery relates to a well-known Jewish prophesy, that of Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. These seeds are the budding Kindom of God, namely the message of Christ that is seeking to take root in the hearts of people so the Kindom can spread far and wide. The four types of soil upon which the seeds are scattered are often interpreted as representing different categories of people. The first soil is conventionally seen as representing those who have no interest in furthering the Kindom or are actively hostile towards it. The second and third soils are usually depicted as representing those who show interest but then fail to truly believe and help build the Kindom. The fourth soil is regularly described as “good” and often interpreted as representing people who truly see, hear, and believe the Word, and who will help bear the fruit of the Kindom of God.

While helpful in some contexts, I usually take issue with this interpretation that categorizes individuals as belonging to one type of soil or the other. I think that makes it too easy to fall into the thinking that “only this type of person [namely, our understanding of what it means to be a Christian] is truly faithful.” This can result in us projecting our own lack of receptivity and spiritual insecurities onto others. While it’s easy to think of ourselves as the “good soil” because many of us are believe we are dedicated to the message of Christ and God, I think it’s more helpful to understand each soil as a state of being we each find ourselves in at various times. Sometimes we’re receptive to the message, and other times (like, 75% of the time, according to scripture) we’re not as open to the Word and helping to build the Kindom of God. I, for one, can attest to the fact that I am often disconnected from Christ and God due to anxieties, distractions, intellectualization, and lack of vulnerability, among other things. So a question that I have been holding within myself is how can I cultivate my inner landscape in such a way that the soil in my spirit can become more and more receptive to Christ’s message and the budding Kindom of God?

I think an understanding of land and farming can help to answer that question. When preparing the soil for sowing and planting, one must till it, meaning the land must be broken up and turned over. One also usually puts some form of manure or fertilizer on the soil before tiling to make it more amenable to growth. This means that “good” soil is actually broken, messy, and even stinky. Preparing our hearts and spirits to receive the Word is much like that, in that we have to allow ourselves to be broken, turned over, and covered in unappealing circumstances a lot of the time if we are to allow God to flow through our lives. We are instructed to allow ourselves to be moved, even broken, by change and circumstance, which can include feeling grief and other unpleasant emotions that we often try to avoid. This isn’t to say we should lend ourselves to harmful situations, but rather that we must allow ourselves to experience the unknowns, discomforts, and growth pains associated with change if we are to let God move us towards where God wants us to be. If we focus instead on remaining pristine and perfect and untouched by life’s circumstances, we’re actually closed off from God’s transformative grace. Just like sowing seeds, letting ourselves be transformed by God requires a letting go, not just letting go of the seeds, but letting go of the process and trusting in powers far beyond us (such as the rain, the sun, and God) to do their thing. Great transformations rarely happen through our own efforts alone; they usually happen because forces beyond us are also playing a role in the changes we are undergoing.

Notions of change and transformation are ones that we don’t often associate with Godself. We often think change is either entirely bad or that it is a positive result of God’s actions, but rarely do we think of change as God’s very self. We often think of God as immutable, unchanging, constant. While those portrayals can be reassuring at times, they can also contribute to us avoiding change when it’s necessary. Lately, though, I have been inspired by teachers who offer a different view of God, one that actually depicts change and transformation as inherent to the very nature of God. This idea is actually a core teaching from a modern-day rendering of the Biblical Parable of the Sower, that is, The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, who was a Black female science fiction writer. Science fiction and other forms of speculative literature are often similar to Biblical parables in that they draw a comparison between our current reality and another reality that is meant to inform us as to how we can move from where we are to where we want and ought to be. I have been particularly interested in the ways Black and Indigenous thinkers are envisioning possible, beautiful futures as a way to help me envision and work towards building the Kindom of God. In listening to the dreams Black and Indigenous folks have of the future, I think we become better poised to further Christ’s work and message because Jesus always centered those who were unjustly targeted by worldly authorities. In Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the core spiritual tenant put forth by the main character is as follows:

“All that you touch,
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God
Is Change.”

I find this teaching particularly poignant during a moment in history such as this, when so many Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are demanding that we change the way things are so we can live in a more just society (one that I would argue is reflective of the Kindom of God). I think it’s an incredibly potent time to view God as change, as thinkers like Octavia Butler might argue.

Bringing these ideas even closer to home: a question I’m holding is how can I practice trusting that our congregation’s transition with the upcoming departure of Rev. Julia is itself a manifestation of God as change. Further reflecting on the aforementioned quote from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, how can I remind myself of and affirm the ways that Rev. Julia has shaped and changed me and our entire church. Furthermore, how can I reflect on the ways First Church has shaped and changed Rev. Julia, and how all of this interdependent shaping and change might be reflective of godly relationships of mutuality and connection? Even though we are undergoing a physical separation with Rev. Julia, thinking of God as change reminds me that even this change is a chance to further deepen a connection with God by relying on God’s guidance and grace throughout the transition.

With all of the change happening in our lives, our church, and the world, I pray that we allow our souls and the soul of the church to be tilled through these changes and become prepared for sowing so the seeds of the Word can take root within us and blossom into wholesome fruit. May we remember that God moves through change, that God is change, and that by trusting in that change, we are allowing God to flow through our lives.

Thank you for listening, and peace be with you. Amen.

On queerness

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Posters depicting Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay elected official in California. The quote on them reads: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” San Francisco, 2010 (film, Nikon) © Gabriela De Golia

I identify as queer. By that, I am not simply referring to my sexuality, though I am indeed attracted to people of the same gender as me (that is, cisgender females; I’m also attracted to more genders than that). When using the term “queer”, I am referring to a way of being in the world. Queer is a way of positioning myself with regards to the mainstream, of loving, of existing. Queer to me isn’t simply about sex; it’s about every part of me and my positionality in the world.

For those of you who are confused by my use of this term due to teachings that claim it’s an insult: yes, it was indeed a pejorative word for many years and some people still use it as such. But for a number of decades now, folks in the LGBTQIA+ community have been reappropriating the term as a method of self-empowerment and it has come to mean so much. Many still don’t feel comfortable using it, which I understand, but I personally like it because a) it doesn’t linguistically limit my attraction to a particular gender; b) when marginalized communities take an insult and turn it into a celebratory term, there is a beautiful reversal of power structures (“we’re queer, we’re here!”); and c) because “queer” denotes so much more than sex.

Dictionary.com defines queer as “strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint; unusually different; singular”. In a very real way, to be sexually and genderly queer is to be strange from the conventional viewpoint of society. In my view, this is a very good thing for many reasons.

If we are brave (or woke) enough to admit that the conventional viewpoint of society is to see things through the lenses of patriarchy, classism, racism, sexism, etc., then anything that is considered “strange or odd” by the standards of this viewpoint inherently points to an alternate, more liberatory structure by which our society could function. Put another way, what is “odd” from the conventional social viewpoint is actually that which can guide us to the path of liberation from our oppressive social systems. Thus, if being queer is to be “odd” by modern standards, then to be queer is to have a unique perspective on social norms that can inform our communities on how to live from a more liberated place.

Deep down I’ve known I was queer since middle school, but I didn’t bring myself to embrace this and make it known to the wider world until just recently. There are many reasons for this, some of which are common experiences for LGBTQIA+ individuals: mockery or rejection from people who sense our queerness; the social pressure to be straight (or at least present as such); erasure (“you dated a man for years, you’re not queer (enough)”); internalized insecurity about one’s very being (“I’m different and therefore unworthy.”); etc. Queer beings are intrinsically counter to what current power structures ask of us; this is why many queer folks describe themselves as “countercultural”. There is nothing inherently wrong or erroneous about our orientation/existence, yet systemic social structures and policies state that there is. Thus, to be queer in this day and age is to run counter to the norm; to run counter to the norm is to be at the margins; to be at the margins is to experience marginalization.

Queer folks, like any marginalized group, are placed on the margins without our consent simply by virtue of who we are. This puts us at risk of harm and even premature death. Yet some of us have come to value and embrace this marginalized position, and I include myself among this crew. We do not embrace our marginalization because we celebrate a victim mentality but because, really, why would we want to be “at the center” when the center is built on oppressive systems (see my above point about patriarchy, classism, racism, sexism, etc.)? To be consciously at the margins is to be closer to the possibility of a different society grounded in equity, love, and the celebration of differences. In the words of Audre Lorde, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Even with all of its hardships, the positionality of being on the margins is, to me, a far grander and more liberated existence than that of trying to force my way towards the center of current power systems (which ultimately amounts to a process of conforming to and furthering problematic norms).

One example that might clarify what I mean here has to do with marriage equality. While I am completely in favor of granting queer couples the right to marry and enjoy the benefits of such a union, the entire conversation about why queers should be allowed to marry has been centered on many bizarre assumptions, including the notion that “queers are really just like straight people, so let them get married!” I disagree: queer people are not “just like straight people”; our life experiences are different from that of someone whose orientation and relationships mimic a social ideal.

Marriage equality, in many circles, amounts to a method of bringing queer folks into the privileged position of straight people. While helpful in many respects, this has largely been an assimilation strategy that brings queers into the straight fold rather than celebrating the difference that is queerness. While the intentions of marriage equality might be noble, there’s also queer erasure going on through this process of assimilation. Such a strategy is very different from a practice of liberation that seeks to free everyone (queer, straight, everyone) from the grips of oppression such as sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

Why haven’t we instead questioned the fundamental assumptions undergirding the whole marriage equality debate by asking: “why do we have this straight/queer dichotomy in the first place, and why does society go to such lengths to act on it? Why is the ‘straight way’ the best way, and why should queers be expected to conform to straight norms, including marriage? Why do we even require people to get married in order to have hospital visitation rights or tax benefits? Why are we even limiting marriage to two people?” Etc. etc. etc.

To clarify: I believe that working to transform “the center” by altering social norms through policy changes and other means is absolutely essential to providing marginalized populations with basic needs. And I won’t claim to have all the answers to the question of how to create a truly liberated community. My only point is that we can’t stop at mere assimilation strategies, and they definitely shouldn’t be the end goal. We must reevaluate the system in its entirety if we are to create a beloved community that uplifts and celebrates all people. Assimilation tactics have their purpose, but if we stop there it’s going to be a long road to freedom indeed.

A point about queerness as a practice of liberation that I’ve recently come to understand within myself has to do with patriarchy and sexism specifically. For much of my life, I was mostly attracted to men — though I knew I was also attracted to women — and I dated a man for nearly six years. (A sidenote: I’d be remiss not to mention that my history of male partnership and attraction to men grants me much privilege when it comes to queerness. I easily pass as straight in many circles and can slip into “straight mode” if necessary. Not all queer folks benefit from this straight-passing privilege.) Much beauty was found in all my romantic/sexual encounters with men. And yet, in all of them to date, there was a nagging fear that I had to do something about myself because I simply wasn’t enough in relation to the partnership. This, I have come to realize, was partly a manifestation of internalized sexism/patriarchy.

When I started going on dates with women, it took a while to notice that this fear of “not being good enough” wasn’t there and that I wasn’t constantly comparing myself to the people I was dating in the way that I had while seeing men. A lot happened on a personal level between when I broke up with my last male partner and when I started dating women, so at first, I thought the shift had to do with those changes. Eventually, though, I realized I wasn’t feeling the aforementioned insecurity simply because there wasn’t an unbalanced gender power dynamic between me and my female dates. We were approaching each other from a level gender playing field, if you will. This was very different from my dating experiences with men, which were inherently lopsided from a social-power standpoint. When I realized this, I felt a deep sense of joy and relief; I could now engage in partnerships with a lesser amount of social bullshit to sift through.

This isn’t to say that men themselves are to blame for the insecurities I felt; I recognize that the larger systems of patriarchy and sexism are to blame there, even if and when said systems act through people. I also don’t mean to imply that female-male partnerships can’t ever be grounded in justice; they absolutely can, and I know a number of straight partnerships that are very “queer” because of the healthy way each party navigates gender and sexual dynamics. And this isn’t to say that classism, racism, and other sorts of oppression don’t crop up in queer relationships; they obviously do.

What I’m getting at, rather, is that the practice of being queer in my choice of partners — that is, to see women — has been a beautiful, personal practice of healing from sexism and patriarchy. To embrace my queerness has, in very real and concrete ways, helped me to more intentionally walk a path of personal liberation. While I’m still attracted to men and imagine I’ll date men again, exploring my attraction to women and finding ways to tend to the wounds of internalized patriarchy means queer-female relationships (both platonic and romantic) are the more wholesome option for me right now. While this wouldn’t be the case for all, it is for me.

I am so happy to be queer for many reasons. One of them is that my queerness has helped me see alternate and more liberatory options for myself (and the world) than I ever knew were possible when I couldn’t embrace my queer nature. Even with all its complexities, my queerness is, therefore, a deep, deep blessing.

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