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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

"Everything is a game, and yet games . . ."

Martin Smith is the former superior of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist and, in my estimation, one of the most articulate theological minds of our church. He is becoming an increasingly important voice for the LGBT Community. Someone sent this sermon to me. I think it needs wide circulation. So, by the authority invested in me by absolutely no one at all, I post it here.

A sermon preached by the Rev. Martin L. Smith at the Church of St Luke in the Fields, New York, during a festal service of Evening Prayer in celebration of Gay Pride on Sunday, June 25, 2006

The emancipation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people has only just begun and I prefer not to take my text from something fragmentary and incomplete, instead of scripture which often conveys an impression of finality. I quote from a notebook left by the poet Rilke. He paused in the churchyard in Ragaz on a visit to Switzerland in 1924 and jotted down the first line of a poem that was never completed. "Everything is a game, and yet games…" "Alles ist speil, aber speile…" He never finished it, but in a way this one line is enough. If we recite it, we have to finish the poem off for ourselves.

Everything in human culture is a one kind of game or another. We are creatures of ritual and managers of ritual. To be human is to perform. Today on Pride Day, we hardly need convincing. What a game this is! This is performance in overdrive, ritual made as hot as can be, a kind of crazed exaggeration of liturgy, geared to make us drool, laugh, clap, scream and bask. The antics of the drag stars, the gyrations of muscle queens, the banners, the costumes and the lack of costumes, the stylized fabulousness of it all…. "Everything is a game. And yet games…" The poet’s fragment goads us into musing on the possibility that games might be ways of doing something really serious.

The Church’s worship is a game too. We have our costumes and rituals and prescribed actions. It is hardly a big step to come into to St Luke’s from the streets after this parade. And the liturgies of the Church are just as vulnerable as any Gay Pride parade to an analysis that could be quite cynical—Its all just a game, isn’t it? Both of them are regularly dismissed as merely gameplaying. The Pride parade—an overblown event on the calendar of city attractions, a carnival to be marketed as a harmless interlude of hectic fun? And Church services—a kind of optional spice or spiritual condiment, a mere added aesthetic ingredient for those with spiritual leanings.

What might the seriousness be behind both these games? By serious, I don’t mean solemn. By serious, I mean, carrying the intention of ushering into the present a better future.

To be serious is to place oneself under the authority of the future. Some of the games we play as human beings carry no such intention. Indeed a lot of ritual is dedicated to preventing change, to maintaining the status quo. Even wild celebrations have a traditional role of keeping things the same. Take the Saturnalia festival in ancient Rome. Every December 25th, in a wildly popular carnival of role reversal, masters would wait on their slaves in memory of the golden age of Saturn. Great fun was had by all, but it was a mere game. Saturnalia was tantamount to an admission that there was something desperately wrong with slavery and that nothing could or would be done about it. The day after, everything returned to normal. Even the traditional Mardi Gras celebrations permitted by the Church played the same game. The people were allowed to let off steam once a year in carnival. There was a temporary respite of lewd hilarity. But it was just a safety valve. Lent began the next day. No serious shift was 2 expected to occur in the prevailing anti-erotic ethos of the Church, and it all served as a foil for the regular preaching of control and continence.

For most of human history, most religious rituals were concerned with repeating and conserving. They were based on what the gods were supposed to have revealed to ancestors in ages past. The rituals were about precedent and tradition. They found their justification in the past. The purpose of the rituals was to perpetuate, not to innovate. Which is why Gay pride parades and rituals which celebrate the good news of Jesus may both be laden with seriousness. They are both concerned not with maintaining the status quo, but inaugurating a future the likes of which has never been seen before.

What makes a Gay Pride Celebration different from a mere carnival for queers and their friends? What makes authentic Christian liturgy different from a niche activity for the few who like nostalgic religiosity? Gay Pride and the Christian sacramental worship are meant to signify that something new and entirely unprecedented is coming into the world. Both are subversive in the strict sense of the word. They represent the intention to undermine rigid structures governing the status quo. They are the activities of cheerful sappers who can bring down vested interests and towering walls and open up the space for kinds of freedom and community that have never been seen before.

For thousands of years of human history, what we call now call heterosexuality has been compulsory. Though from the dawn of time some men have always loved men, and some women have always loved women, most societies held together through a compulsory ideology of sex and gender identity, woven by myth, promoted by religion, enacted by ritual, instilled by custom and enforced, often violently, by law. What we, this blessed generation, have the privilege of participating in is the collective task of ushering in the end of compulsory heterosexuality. We have been given the grace to take part in opening a space never seen before in history in which women who love women and men who love men and some who love both can not only stand out together in the full light of day but claim an equal joy and an equal dignity and an equal responsibility and an equal authenticity. We are announcing the long overdue but still premature news that heterosexism, the age-old ideology of unearned privilege for the majority attracted to the opposite sex, has had its day. There is a new day in the making, and we will die proud for having been present in its dawning.

Gay Pride, if it serious, is about acting out the future in advance, stamping out a dance floor in an open space in which a new kind of freedom to be and to flourish can be made visible. And if it is serious, it knows that the revolution has only just begun. It is easy to make the mistake that liberation is more or less accomplished. I can’t get out of my head the scenes that took place at the liberation of the Nazi concentration and death camps. Homosexuals who had survived years of agony and torture must have imagined when the allied troops arrived that freedom was just round the corner. Instead hundreds and hundreds of them were dragged off to jail to serve further years of incarceration to finish off their sentences because the statues against homosexuality used by the Nazis still remained in force. This terrible and little known fact haunts me as a symbol of the tenacity of the structures which degrade and oppress gay people. Beware of those you 3 think are your liberators. The ‘freedom’ they have in mind may be rather different from what you imagine.

And a revolution it is. Perhaps on Gay Pride day we should at least recognize that religious and social conservatives who are reacting with such violence and passion against the progress of gay folk have understood its enormity correctly. Unlike the liberals who affect to think that gay liberation is simply a banal consequence of tolerant attitudes, the religious and cultural right know perfectly well that it actually is subversive. They know that it presents a serious threat to religious and political ideology which is geared to the defense of monopoly and privilege.

And what of the church? Is our worship serious? It is if it stays faithful to Jesus who dared to proclaim that God’s future was reaching into the present and opening it up to transformation. The Reign of God, the era of justice and communion which everyone found convenient to postpone to the end of time was actually here already. There is another world but from now on it is this one. It was yeast already raising the dough, a brushfire already set going, a chain reaction emanating from Jesus’ own ministry of welcome and healing. Our worship is serious if it places us under the authority not of the past but of the future and holds us accountable not to maintaining the status quo but to creating communities that are models of God’s future. Jesus invited people to unplug from the compulsory structures of family and gender—"Call no one Father on earth"— and create new webs of kinship open to all, where differences and otherness are celebrated precisely because they make no difference to our common oneness, but make all the difference to the richness of our common life. If our worship is serious it can c celebrate the emancipation of gay and lesbian people as yet another effect of God’s future taking hold in the present.

Tonight’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:15-27)reminds us that those who have received the spirit of Jesus are more vulnerable than anyone to anguish at how slowly freedom is taking effect in God’s creation, groaning with sorrow because so many of our brothers and sisters all over the world are still suffering in the meantime. We groan because there is much more to hope for and work for. We groan, and the Spirit prays within us with sighs to deep for words.

But it is also true that those who receive the Spirit are more prone to joy. On this Gay Pride day, everyone is having fun, but some of us are experiencing joy, which is something we catch from God who rejoices in the exuberant variation of creation and allows joy to spill down from heaven whenever there is real freedom to celebrate. Gay Pride day is lots of things, and it is ridiculous to pretend that there isn’t a lot of bad taste, lust, and druggy excess mixed in. But there is a whole lot of bliss going on and a kind of blessed, unruly ecstasy, which is truly spiritual. A breaking in of the Spirit who is tired of our craven dreariness and the deadening effects of self-destructiveness and wants us to be spirited and fired by love and desire. Gay Pride is about bliss as our birthright, and for those of us here worshipping the Love which is the source of all life, it is about God promising us bliss, gay and straight, and giving foretastes of it in this life.

1 comment:

Ann said...

Thanks for sharing Martin's sermon.