Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Homily: "Is God Transgender?" (Delivered 11-16-08)

The worship service on 11/16/08 was one of the most enjoyable services I have ever led. After singing “Come, Come, Whoever You Are,” our Intern Minister, Anne Griffiths, delivered opening words of radical welcome.

For the “Time for All Ages” I asked children to close their eyes and imagine what God looked like. Then I shared a slide show of different ways that God has been imagined. I began by showing a slide of the Venus of Willendorf which may be 25,000 years old. Next I showed a famous image of God from the Sistine Chapel. Three images of Jesus followed: Stephen Sawyer’s painting “Undefeated,” Kazuya Akimoto’s painting of a very feminine Jesus, and an image of Jesus with dark skin. From there I showed images of both female and male representations of Kwan Yin, male and female representations of the Buddha, depictions of Shiva and Kali from Hinduism, and an image depicting God as mystery.

As we were observing the upcoming Transgender Day of Remembrance, Anne delivered a poignant prayer and a roll call of the names of Transgender individuals who had been murdered in the previous year.

We were joined in worship by a board member and a staff member of the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, an organization that works to combat domestic violence among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender persons. A KCAVP board member delivered a powerful testimonial about the violence faced by Transgender individuals.

Then, I delivered the following homily:

I guess I can say that Fred Phelps must not read our web-site, because with a title like the one that I’ve chosen for my homily this morning, I was half expecting him to be outside protesting. In which case, I would certainly invite him in so that he might learn something about theology. You might be surprised to find that I want to open my remarks by introducing you to two terms from academic theology: kataphatic theology and apophatic theology.

Kataphatic theology has to do with terms used to describe the divine that ascribe to God certain qualities. Kataphatic expressions include pronouncements such as, “God is great,” “God is all-powerful,” “God is all-knowing,” “God is merciful,” and, “God is three distinct and infinite minds made out of one substance.” [In Greek, by the way, the word for the same substance is homoousia, as opposed to the heresy of heteroousia, which claims that the three members of the Trinity are made out of different substances. Taking a heteroousian position would have got you kicked out of orthodox Christianity for the last 17 centuries. This is to say that religious conflicts about hetero- and homo- are very old.]

As opposed to kataphatic theology, apophatic theology (and yes, all this will have a point) refers to theological statements about our inability to know, understand, or describe God. “God is beyond our knowing.” “God is indescribable.” “God is unnamable.” “God works in mysterious ways.”

Of course, there are all kinds of dualistic ways of describing God. Kataphatically or apophatically. As male or female, masculine or feminine. As both genders (intersexual) or as genderless (androgynous.) God can be described as close, intensely personal, like in the old evangelical hymn where it is sung that “He walks with me and He talks with me.” Or God can be described as distant and removed: the deistic watchmaker God who sets the universe in motion and then steps back, absent from the natural world.

How human beings describe God may say a lot more about human beings than it says about God. Thinking back to the slideshow from earlier, thinking back to the tense and intense debates within orthodox Christianity about the nature of the Godhead, thinking of some forms of Christianity that have tried to balance a male Logos with a female Sophia, a Jesus with a Mary, thinking of the Buddhist deities who have had their gender reassigned over and over again for 2500 years, what is obvious becomes clear: we have no consensus about God.

What I am saying here (and follow me here, this is going to come around) is that we human beings have tried to squeeze God into a particular body shape, but God is not comfortable. We human beings have tried to give God skin color like ours, complexion, cheekbones, shaped eyes, facial hair or no facial hair, but God has not been comfortable. We have tried to dress God and we have even tried to dress God in flowing, loose fitting robes that surely will cover whatever physical shape God takes, but God always seems to bust out of the garments with which God is clothed. Maybe our human attempts to play dress-up with God are foolish.

Maybe God is just not comfortable in God’s own skin. And God certainly isn’t comfortable in the boxes we’ve tried to force God into. Can you see where I am going? Because, if I can think of anyone who fits this description, this description of discomfort in the body they were born into, discomfort in the boxes and categories that our culture tries to force people into, it would certainly be a transgender person.

It occurs to me that few of us really feel completely at home in our own skin. And, if we do, this comfort is temporary. We probably didn’t feel at home in our own skin in junior high. We may not feel at home in our own skin because of racial prejudice. We may not feel at home in our own skin because our body type is different from some airbrushed and photo-shopped ideal of beauty invented by Madison Avenue. We may face an illness where our own bodies betray us. We may feel at war with our physical selves. One of our hymns declares that “a fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things.”

Our theology matches our commitment to social justice. In this Unitarian Universalist church we do not tell you that you need to believe in one image of the divine. You can choose any one of the slides I showed to you, or you can choose from an infinite variety of images of the divine. Here in this church we have atheists, theists, deists, pantheists, and polytheists. We have Jews and Christians. We have Buddhists and Goddess worshippers. We have those who understand God in very abstract terms, those who understand God in very personal terms, and those who don’t understand God at all.

In 2006 we voted, overwhelmingly, to become a Welcoming Congregation, declaring openly our intention to fully welcome Gay and straight, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals into full participation in this congregation. The same aspiration is manifest when we open our hearts and minds to those of different theologies and when we open our community to those of varied gender identities and affectional orientations. Our souls grow and our faith matures when we are able to honor the theological diversity in our community. Our souls grow and our faith matures when we extend to all a spirit of radical welcome.

I want to leave you with just one more artistic image. This piece of art is not found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It cannot be seen at the Nelson-Atkins museum of art. The piece of art was a pencil sketch on a piece of 8.5x11 paper that hung in one of the dark corners of the Reed College student union when I was an undergraduate. The pencil sketch was of the face of Jesus with flowing locks and a scruffy beard. (This hirsute Jesus bore an uncanny resemblance to many of Reed’s students.) Underneath the drawing of Jesus’ face, the following words were typed, “You guys can wear your hair however you want. Just tell them I said so.”

Jesus’ ideal of radical inclusion found within the Gospels is an ideal of inclusion that we strive for here in this church. May we always be a place of radical welcome. Just tell them I said so.