Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sowing and Reaping With God at Stonewall

The two parables for this evening read like a lyric from an overly optimistic musical. Similar to Annie’s cloyingly confident hope that the “sun will come out tomorrow,” Jesus’ simplistic assessment of God’s kin-dom seems like a Polly Anna gloss to the harsh reality of the world in which we live.

All we have to do is sow the seed and watch it grow. No matter how small, no matter how insignificant, the seeds we plant will grow beyond our wildest imagination.

Yeah, right.

Taken at first glance, these two parables, of the sower and of the mustard seed, seem incredibly naive. An almost, divine “be happy ,don’t worry” attitude that seems to offer us in the modern day little to grasp on to. We know the kin-dom has not yet fully blossomed, for we live in a world still plagued by injustice, oppression and despair.

I think of those moments, just in the past year when it seemed the ground of justice would forever lay fallow…mourning the results of General Conference as the denomination reinforced discrimination against LGBTQ folks, grieving the loss of marriage equality in California, first in November and then again just a few weeks ago, lamenting the defeat of a gender non-discrimination law in New Hampshire. In the context of real, concrete struggle, these parables seem out of touch with reality. Bringing forth the kin-dom of God seems daunting, if at times impossible.

Yet, if we take a moment to read the parables in context, we begin to see that Jesus was no fool. These words were not spoken to a group of naïve, inexperienced people. These words were addressed to a community that had followed Jesus through many trials and tribulations. In fact, Mark records these parables for an audience not yet one generation removed from Jesus’ own death. Even as Mark wrote, this nascent group of Christians felt the persecution and repression of the wider culture. Neither Jew nor Greek would tolerate them. As religious deviants, they were set adrift in the world, targets of humiliation, repression and prejudice. This was not a group of people who could be easily cajoled into a gospel of health and wealth. This was not a group of people who could be made content with easy, empty words of hope.

It is in the context of this struggle, that the words take on new meaning and help us find a deeper sense of hope that is rooted in our relationship with the Divine. Jesus knew that the coming of the kin-dom would not be easy. It is for this specific reason that he offers these parables as hope for the people.

It is a hope that requires an intimate connection with the Divine. Far from blind faith in a benevolent god head, this hope is a call to co-create with God the coming kin-dom…part of which we can see and know and control and the other part which emerges in and through the Spirit…as a miraculous mystery and untameable gift.

You see, the original hearers of this parable were people still connected to the land. As farmers themselves, they understood the meaning of the parable in ways that perhaps we cannot. No farmer believes that all that is required is the planting of a seed. Farmers understand that the seed must be nurtured, nourished, and tended. A simple planting of seed would not a full harvest yield. Yet, the farmer disciples also recognized that no matter their best effort, there was something mystical and magical about the harvest they would reap. Despite their best efforts (or sometimes lack of effort) the seeds would grow in unimaginable ways. Harvests could not be predicted or controlled.

This relationship with the earth…this mutual relationship of care and trust, of nurture and independence creates the ground from which the early Christian understood these parables.
You see these parables were meant not to offer mere consolation to the disciples, but rather to incite and inspire them to action, no matter how seemingly insignificant, no matter how disappointing the results. Jesus was trying to help the disciples understand that the kin-dom of God is a joint venture between humanity and the Divine that cannot be controlled, planned for or predicted. It is the participation of the wild and restless Spirit that drives this process through history…one in which we participate, but never control.

We plant the seeds of God’s kin-dom, we nurture and tend to them, but in the process it is the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us that transforms our efforts into a miraculous harvest of peace and justice.

In the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969, s small seed of resistance, dignity and liberation burst into bloom at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. As police came to conduct their monthly raid, a sudden spirit of rebellion surged through the crowd and within minutes police and patrons alike realized this night was not to be business as usual.

For years, The Stonewall Inn, along with hundreds of others in New York and across the country had been plagued by regular, dehumanizing and humiliating raids. It was routine for gay men to be arrested for as small of an infraction as accepting a drink from an undercover police officer. Degrading, humiliating, and repressive, these raids were meant to keep the gay and lesbian community in check through ritualized and routine dehumanization. It was business as usual for those in the queer community.

So, when four plainclothes-ed police officers arrived at the Stonewall on the morning of June 28th, they expected the evening to go as usual….rounding and roughing up the suspects, arresting the flagrantly flamboyant, and going home quietly at the end of their shift. But this night was different.

When the officers sent to verify the sex of the drag queens and trans folk began their routine check, those dressed as women refused to cooperate.

When the officers sent to check the ID of the patrons began their routine interrogation, those who had been lined up refused to produce their identification.

When the officers sent to break up the crowd began shouting, those who had been released refused to disperse.

Quickly a crowd rose…50, 100, 200, people stood mocking and jeering the police. Posing and saluting the police in an exaggerated fashion, “wrists limp, hair primped” as one witness described, the crowd protested through their subversive performance of gender.

A bystander shouted, "Gay power!", while someone else began singing “We Shall Overcome.” An officer shoved a trans woman, who responded by hitting him on the head with her purse as the crowd began to boo. And then a scuffle broke out as a woman in handcuffs fought back after police battered her with a billy club. Bystanders recalled that the woman, whose identity remains unknown, sparked the crowd to fight when she looked at bystanders and shouted, "Why don't you do something?" One witness recalls, "It was at that moment that the scene became explosive."

Pennies, beer cans, bricks and garbage flew threw the air as the crowd which had now grown to 600 began to actively resist. “Witnesses attest that the most outcast people in the gay community were responsible for inciting the first round of resistance. Suddenly fights with a veritable chorus line of drag queens broke out. Singing to the tune of The Howdy Doody Show theme song, the drag queens mocked the police: "We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls/ We don't wear underwear/ We show our pubic hairs."

One witness recalls, "I just can't ever get that one sight out of my mind. The cops with the [nightsticks] and the kick line on the other side. It was the most amazing thing.... And all the sudden that kick line, which I guess was a spoof on the machismo ... I think that's when I felt rage. Because people were getting smashed with bats. And for what? A kick line."

An anonymous participant recalls, “When did you ever see a fag fight back?... Now, times were a-changin'. "

The riots ran on for days as people continued to congregate in and around the Stonewall Inn. But something was different now. With graffiti on the walls of the bar, declaring "Drag power", "They invaded our rights", "Support gay power", and "Legalize gay bars” a new spirit of liberation began to take root in the community. One witness remembers watching the open affection and love between members of the community,: "From going to places where you had to knock on a door and speak to someone through a peephole in order to get in. We were just out. We were in the streets."

The writer Allen Ginsberg wrote this, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful—they've lost that wounded look [they] all had 10 years ago.”

What burst into bloom that night was a seed of human dignity, freedom and liberation. Spontaneous and unexpected the collective action that night was a seed sown for generations but only brought to flower that night. Michael Fader explained,

“We all had a collective feeling like we'd had enough... It wasn't anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration.... Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us.... All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren't going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it's like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that's what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we're going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren't going to go away. And we didn't.”

This seed of resistance, of revolution, had been planted for some time within the queer community. Resistance to the repressive policies of post war America began long before Stonewall. In the early 1950s “homophile” organizations began to sprout up across the national landscape: the Mattachine Society in LA, the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco and in 1956 the first ever North American Conference of Homophile Organizations. These North American organizations, of course, stood on the shoulders of faithful LGBTQ members throughout history who planted seeds of justice and love their actions, witness and lives. You know their names, faithful LGBTQ people and their straight allies who advocated for the rights of all people…who do you remember?

What happened that night is just one of many moments throughout history in which we see the wild and surprising way in which the humanity and the Holy Spirit conspire for justice. Working together to plant and nurture the seeds, the harvest bursts forth in unimaginable ways.
Who expected a routine bar raid to result in the beginning of the queer liberation movement? Certainly not the police, and perhaps not even the patrons. It was a moment in which the Divine and the human came together in the Spirit of liberation to bring God’s kin-dom one step further to fruition. Since Stonewall, we in the LGBTQ movement have continued to farm for justice together with the Spirit. In just 40 short years think of the progress we have made…what are some of the harvest moments you remember?

We remember Stonewall this Pride week here in Boston, not just in celebration of the movement for full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, but for us as Christians, as a moment in history when we co-conspired with the Divine to bring forth the kin-dom of God from a tiny seed of resistance and rebellion to the fruits of justice and liberation.

And we are not finished yet.

God calls us on further, to have faith in the tiny and sometimes unnoticed seeds that we plant, not just in the movement, but in our own lives. Everyday rebellions of open affection, coming out, and refusal to obey the heteronormative customs of our culture. Whether it is standing up to homophobic remarks or proudly displaying your family picture, we participate with God in sowing seeds of justice. No act is too small. Everything we do matters, for with God all things are possible.

So let us join together with the Divine to bring forth a harvest of God’s love in the world!


* The quotes from this sermon are all taken from here.


Robert Wyckoff said...

i very much agree that christ's parables of seeds and sowing [mark 4:26-34] were never meant as a consolation, but rather as a spur to action and an encouragement. and encouragement is certainly needed when you understand that seeds do not sprout overnight, but grow in god's time.

i think that what christ expressed in the parable of the mustard seed is very like what the scientist might describe as the 'butterfly effect', or what others might see as an expression of karma; the idea that something very small can have very great and far reaching results.

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