Sermon preached for Queer Week at Wadham College, Oxford

Rainbow flag flies over Wadham College, Oxford to mark Queer Week 2012

Christina Beardsley’s sermon given in November 2012 – you can read her blog on the event here.

In July I joined the TransEpiscopal delegation at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, held in Indianapolis, Indiana. Three transgender resolutions were tabled, and passed. So let’s have three cheers for that. One enabled transgender laity to serve at all levels of the Church’s life. Hip, hip: hooray! The second ensured that being transgender will not, of itself, prevent someone entering the Church’s discernment process for ordination. Hip, hips: hooray! The third added transgender to a Church-wide anti-bullying campaign. Hip, hip: hooray!

At a meal to celebrate the passing of the first two resolutions by the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops, Viv, a young trans woman, who had served as an army chaplain’s assistant in Iraq, began to say, in her lovely southern drawl (which I won’t attempt to imitate):

“What if, when the last trump sounds, it turns out that God is a narrow-minded, mean-spirited, conservative, white male? Guess hell’s gonna be the fun place!”

I nearly choked with laughter. But there’s a really serious point here. All the debate around particular Bible verses that are said to relate to sexuality or gender is actually about the kind of God Christians believe in. And as a healthcare chaplain I can assure you that’s an important issue. Many people, in my experience, still believe in an angry, judgemental God who is out to punish them, and see their illness as a sign of that.

Far from being narrow-minded and mean-spirited, I think that the Bible depicts a God who is loving and generous with a special care for the outcast.

And as I prepared this sermon I kept thinking of the song the ugly duckling (I did consider singing it but I think I can assume that you know the story).

There once was an ugly duckling,

with feathers all stubby and brown,

And the other birds in so many words said,  

‘Pht, get out of town; pht, get out

Pht, pht, get out

Pht, pht, get of town.’

So he went with a quack, and a waddle and a quack, in a flurry of eiderdown.

In the film Hans Christian Anderson, Danny Kaye sings this song to a poorly little boy whose head has been shaved by the doctors. To use a term once popular with New Testament scholars, that’s the sitz im leben (the life setting) of the song. The boy has been rejected by his friends because he looks different. The song about the ugly duckling is sung to cheer him up, because this funny looking baby bird grew up to be a most handsome swan.

The bird was rejected for being an ugly duckling. But he wasn’t a duckling and it wasn’t right to judge him in those terms: he was a cygnet, a baby swan.

Are queer people rejected sometimes because they’re regarded as defective straights? But they’re not. Queer people and straight people are both delightfully distinct – and loved by God for who they are.

To feel, behave or look different from the majority, is not unique to Queer folk. It can happen because of your skin colour, ethnicity, gender, social class, religion, disability. The list goes on. And we can belong to more than one of these categories. What is peculiar to queer folk is that gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation, may make us stand out from the majority. We’re not the only people on the receiving end of rejection; but as events in Uganda are reminding us, and with Transgender Memorial Day approaching, we know that we can experience violence, even murder, just because of who we are.

And we’re not the only people to discover, like the ugly duckling, that rejection can lead to ultimately empowerment.

The word Queer is a brilliant example of that. Once a term of rejection ‘Queer’ has come to encapsulate the rich diversity of human identities and self-expression. People still use it as an insult, but to be Queer now means being proudly oneself, whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender queer, and so on, yet without necessarily being tied down by any one of those particular labels. (I’m a trans woman by the way – for years I identified as gay: it seemed the easier option). Queer can also denote defiance of the pressure to conform, especially to heterosexual norms.

Religion, often seen as a bastion of patriarchy, has sometimes reinforced and at other times sometimes subverted those norms. Queer theology, with its roots in queer theory, feminist thought and liberation theology, has begun to show that religious traditions are not uniformly patriarchal. Indeed, in the case of the Bible, in defiance of all the normal rules of patriarchy, the Hebrew God constantly chooses the younger son – usually a handsome young man – to fulfil his purposes: Abel rather than Cain; Jacob rather than Esau; Joseph and David rather than their older brothers. Similarly, the Bible includes Tamar and Ruth in the genealogy of the Messiah: both are foreign, independent, assertive women who initiate sex. They don’t conform to gender norms, and God seems to like it that way.

The Book of Daniel, from which our first reading came, is delightfully queer! Daniel and his three companions, Hannaniah, Mishael and Azariah are young men, captured during a Babylonian raid on Judah in 605BC. They’re upper class and chosen for their good looks and ability. As Hebrews though, they would have appeared alien and peculiar to their captors. Their names reflect the Hebrew God, so the chief eunuch renames them Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to reflect the Babylonian gods. Their diet too is changed in an attempt to erase their Jewish identity, but Daniel manages to negotiate a vegetarian alternative for them, and so resists assimilation to the cultural norm.

But Daniel and his friends are not just peculiar: they’re ‘queer folk’ as well. They’ve been captured to receive special training as court officials to King Nebuchadnezzar II. Now, in the ancient world, the term for court official and the term for eunuch was the same, because court officials very often were eunuchs. So here we have four young men who were eunuchs – gender queer as we might say: neither male nor female, but somewhere in between. They would have looked peculiar, not as other men; and also, in spite of all attempts to erase it, they were members of a peculiar, or particular people, or nation, Israelites in a foreign land.

And their empowerment as ‘queer’ folk is most striking when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are required to worship a golden statue at the King’s command. Their resistance is reported to the King and they are victimised for it. Rather than compromise their inner core, by worshipping a god other than their own, they’re thrown into the burning fiery furnace, but there a fourth, Christ, figure is seen with them, and they emerge unscathed, and are then protected and promoted by the King. Empowerment indeed!

Daniel and his three friends were certainly at odds with their society – Jewish boys made good in Babylon – and queer folk – eunuchs by profession and perhaps more than that. But powerful queer folk who resist assimilation when it touches their core identity – in their case, the identity of a particular faith, their membership of a peculiar people, chosen by God as his own.

You may have noticed that I’ve been playing with that word ‘peculiar’. In common parlance queer and peculiar are synonymous. But peculiar doesn’t just mean odd or quirky, it has other meanings: including belonging distinctly or exclusively to someone, as in a royal peculiar such as Westminster Abbey, which belongs to the monarch rather than to the Diocese of London. And the word peculiar, in this sense, turns up a few times in the Bible, not least in the 1st Letter of Peter in the passage which we’ve heard tonight:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of God who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people ….”

These are words of empowerment, not just for straight folk, but for everyone, including queer folk. One of the sources of empowerment, for queer folk, as much as straight folk, is religious faith. But many queer people have been alienated from religion. Worse still, they’ve felt disempowered by it, which is sad, because queer folk are often very sensitive to the spiritual and make good priests, prophets, dreamers.

So, here are two important things to remember:

1. Queer folk can find meaning and liberation in the downright queerness of some religious texts

2. Queer folk can find strength and resistance from knowing that they’re loved by God in Jesus Christ – even when others deny it. In fact, that’s peculiarly Christ-like, for as Peter reminds us, Christ Jesus himself was rejected by human beings while at the same time being precious and chosen by God – from whom his empowerment came.

I mentioned the song about the ugly duckling. Remember how it ends? Grown into a handsome swan, the other birds now call him ‘the best in town’, so off he sails: ‘Not a quack, not a quack, not a waddle or a quack, but a glide and a whistle and a snowy white down, and a head held noble and high.


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