Christina Kukuk | Writer, Preacher, Spiritual R&D

finding Life in the thick places

In Which I Vow Never Again to Roll My Eyes if Someone Says, “The Gay Games… is Like Church.”

Every church could use more color.

Every church could use more color.

(A version of this post appeared in a sermon preached August 17, 2014 at Faith United Church of Christ, Richmond Heights, Ohio ~theRevCK)

I rolled my eyes in church last month. I’m not exactly proud of it. I was packed into a cathedral with no air conditioning. As a preacher slowly began her homily in the midst of the lengthy Interfaith Service for Gay Games 9 at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Cleveland, I confess I did a little eye roll. It was the fourth homily/sermon of the night, book-ended by a steady parade of words. It was hot and muggy. And I am not the Queen of Patience. But that wasn’t all of it.
I rolled my eyes because Bishop Yvette Flunder, senior pastor of City of Refuge United Church of Christ in San Francisco, said:
“The Gay Games… is like church.”

The Gay Games is… like church? The Gay Games is like church? In the pregnant pause that followed, I thought, “Um, no.” Disbelieving what I’d just heard, I wanted to raise my hand to ask: Did you see the photos from the White Party with Boy George? Did you see the shining smiles, the drinks, the clothes, the dancing? And you want to compare that with the somber looking clergy in this cathedral who just proved they could not clap on 2 and 4? Out in Festival Village, I saw hot pants and fishnet stockings. Dancing. And COLOR. The Gay Games and Church? One of these things is not like the other. Not in my aesthetically repressed Protestant experience, anyway.

But as Bishop Flunder’s homily rolled on and – more importantly – as I allowed the Spirit in and among the people in the space to speak to me, I realized she wasn’t trying to say that church is cool. (If it was, many of us would not have a place in it. Me, included.) On the drive home, I realized Flunder was saying something more. And I experienced — as we say in our Embody faith huddles — a Kairos moment. I realized why it was so important to me that I, personally, and our Embody group, together, show up in some way at the Gay Games. And as the news stories pelted us with grief and violence in the week that followed, I began to believe that the Gay Games, a Jesus story about a Canaanite women, and the heart-rending news out of Ferguson, Missouri — all in the same week —  have everything to do with what the Spirit is trying to say today.

In a story told by Matthew in the Christian scriptures, Jesus gets schooled. At least, if you peel away all the propriety we tend to bring to Bible reading, we’d be hard pressed to prove anything other than Christ gets corrected. Something toxic comes out of his mouth. He spews poison from the deep well of his full humanity, which seems, even in the guts of the Son of God not exempt from longstanding prejudice against an ethnicity, region, religion, or gender. She was “a Canaanite woman.” Everything about her is unacceptable, including her behavior, as she comes shouting down the street in violation of every social norm. Jesus first ignores this woman pleading for her daughter’s health. (That’s the most civil response.) Then, he tells his disciples she’s just not included in his mission. When she finally insists, kneeling before him and calling him master, he insults her. He calls her a dog. And I believe the scholars who tell me that calling a woman a dog then carried pretty much the same tone “as if it were shouted today in a high school hallway.”[1] Jesus says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She replies, “Yes, Lord, but… even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

That should evoke in us more than a little eye roll. It certainly did in Jesus. What happens next appears to be the only place in scripture where Jesus… changes his mind.

Inches above this episode, our story-teller Matthew shows Jesus teaching the Pharisees what really pollutes our world. Here, a woman others treat like a dog teaches Jesus. Is it this conversation that broadens Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles? It’s hard to tell for sure. But by the end of Matthew, Jesus very clearly calls the disciples into mission on behalf of the whole world not just one part of it.

Not so very far from here, in this United States of America, human beings were treated like dogs this summer. An unarmed 18-year-old was shot and killed on a Saturday afternoon in Ferguson, Missouri. In the days since Michael Brown was killed in the street, we heard so much out of people’s mouths that defiled us, as a people, as a country. We heard police officers call black citizens “animals.” We saw a police force tear gas unarmed protesters, pelt even a pastor trying to calm the crowd with rubber bullets. We heard officials push into media mouths and hands the story of an alleged cigar robbery, implying, I suppose, that multiple gunshot wounds to the head and neck… was an appropriate or justified response to shoplifting.

Do you know how many times I’ve jaywalked in my life and not been stopped for it?

Do you know what they would call it if I walked out of BP with a pack of Virginia Slims, cussing at the clerk? I doubt they would call it aggravated robbery.

Do you think that if my son and his friends one day chased each other splashing through the local pool, that a random adult at that pool would argue with the lifeguard to have him thrown out? Unlikely. I doubt my son, with his pale skin and sandy brown hair, would get the volunteer pool police up in arms the way I saw them get riled this summer when a group of boys and girls, who happened to look more like Mike Brown than my son, chased each other through the pool in a water fight. They were doing what kids do in a pool. They broke no rules. But one of my neighbors felt threatened, and approached the lifeguard. Friends, I wish racism wasn’t still a thing at the local pool, but it is.

Who will heal us from this disease?

Who will cast out this demon?

Who will eradicate our persistent sin of treating other children of God as less than human?

With the Canaanite woman’s words echoing in our ears, I dare say that those of us in a place of greater privilege need to follow Jesus’ lead and allow ourselves to be schooled this week by those who have been treated as less than dogs.

I hope that you will not roll your eyes at me if I claim that the Gay Games taught many of us this summer just such a lesson. As a straight, white woman in need of a haircut, who struggles herself to clap on 2 and 4, I learned a lot from the community of LGBT friends and allies at the Gay Games. I encountered a community that does not just tolerate one another’s differences. I moved in a community that offers one another even more than respect. What I saw people give and receive from one another time after time was a reverence for the essential humanity of another, a reverence that celebrates the fullness of all our humanity. Imagine how that kind of reverence would have changed the story elsewhere in our world that very same week. How would that reverence have changed the story in Ferguson, Missouri? How would that reverence change the story in Syria or Iraq or Gaza or any number of places in our world? This reverence is a gift the Gay Games community shared with the rest of the world. And it is so very Christ-like. Participating in the Gay Games wasn’t about proving church can be cool or “gay is the new black,” or even to stoke our own pride over how much religious people can “help the marginalized.” Participating in the Gay Games mattered because with this community I learn a little better how to be a Child of God and a life-long learner of Jesus. Go ahead and say, “The Gay Games is like church.” I will never roll my eyes at such a claim again. A community of people who have been treated as less than dogs teaches me all the time how to be a better Christian.

Today, the Canaanite woman, the athletes and artists of the Gay Games, and the family and neighbors of Michael Brown are pleading with us: Push beyond tolerance. Go further than respect. Ask the Creator of All to transform your heart as powerfully as the Spirit changed Jesus’ mind when a Canaanite woman called him on the carpet for his inhumanity. These voices are shouting down the street to us: give reverence to your fellow human being this week. And if any of us needs a teacher, these voices are offering to show us how.

[1] Dock Hollingsworth, “Matthew 15:10-28,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. III, p. 361.

1 Comment

  1. Amen, Christina. Amen. This is very powerful.

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