The They God (a Pride sermon)

** A sermon originally preached at Church of the Pilgrims on June 11th, 2017.**

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4

This week is holding a lot. It’s the week we traditionally celebrate the Trinity. It’s obviously DC Pride weekend. And tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the Pulse massacre. To top it all off, the was a weird lectionary week — the prescribed set of scriptures we follow throughout the year. And to be fair, Ashley gave me permission to throw out the lectionary, but when I read this text from Genesis, I knew I had to preach on it. Specifically, verse 26. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”

This passage makes me think of my best friend M, who last week became the first non binary trans person commission as a deacon in the UMC. My friend M who has been in this ordination process for 9 long years and living out their ministry the whole time. My friend M who has been denied and rejected over and over. And my friend who’ve I witnessed catching flack about their pronouns — the singular they — over and over. People say “you’re messing with our pronouns.”

But right here in Genesis, God is messing with our pronouns from the very beginning of our story.

I knew I needed to preach on this text because there’s something a little queer about this passage. About the plural pronoun God uses.

Biblical scholars will tell you that the reason for this “our” instead of “my” is that when Judaism began, the status quo was polytheistic. It was not assumed that there was only one god. But much later, this verse gave early Christians permission to dream of the Trinity. Of a singular God who contained a multiplicity of identity.

During one class in seminary, my theology professor, Cindy Rigby, told us a story about Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle, in case you don’t know, is most famous for her young adult fantasy novels like A Wrinkle In Time, which explore the meeting of science and spirituality, childhood and adulthood, love and loss, and known and unknown. L’Engle also wrote quite a bit about a faith, though this fact is less well known.

The story goes that she was speaking at an event once, and afterwards there was a time for questions and answers. A young teenage girl came to the microphone. She told L’Engle that she had first read A Wrinkle In Time when she was about 8 or 9 years old. L’Engle was impressed and a little skeptical at the idea of someone reading her book at such a young age. She asked the girl, “Did you understand it?”

And the girl thought for a minute, and then she said, “I didn’t understand it, but I knew what it was about.”

I love this story. And I don’t remember now if our professor Cindy used this story on the day she taught us about the Trinity or if it served some other purpose, but the Trinity is what it always makes me think of. I love the Trinity, and on this Sunday in which we traditionally celebrate the Triune God, I could easily be tempted to lose myself in a sermon turned academic lecture that tries to explain the way the Trinity works. I’ve made that mistake before, but it misses the point.

We don’t have to understand the Trinity to know what it’s about.

I love the Trinity. And this is why I love it. When I was first learning the theological concepts behind the Trinity in seminary, I felt like I was learning words to a language that I already knew – had always known deeply. There is a word that theologians use to describe the relational nature of the Trinity. Perichoresis.

It literally means: dance around, but it’s meant to describe the way that each aspect of the Trinity is in relationship with the others, constantly flowing into one another in an eternal dance. Love within God’s very being. Love that cannot be restrained by boundary or border, but instead spills over.

Learning about the Trinity, all those years ago, I realized I knew that kind of boundary-rejecting, spilling-over love. That’s the way I love. For the first time in my life, my bisexuality was not something I had to reconcile with my faith. Instead it was a gift that helped me understand my faith.

For so long, this passage in the creation story, the one that says we are created in God’s own image, has been used in problematic ways. It has been used to uphold maleness and gender essentialism. Whiteness. Able-bodiedness.

But that interpretation misses something crucially evident in this text. That we are not made in the image of a static, bearded man-God. We are made in the image of a God who contains multitudes. Who is diverse within God’s own being. We, all of us, were created in the image of limitless love, of a multiplicity of identities. All of us, living out our various stories and identities, and ways of loving and being and dancing in this world — all of us are reflecting an image of our creator. No one of us — no one way of being or doing or loving — fully captures who God is, but in each other we are invited to encounter God ever more fully.

In this way, this text is a promise. An assurance that we are created beautiful and beloved.

I wish I could stop there. It’s Pride weekend after all — let’s focus on the good stuff.

But we can’t overlook the other part of this verse. The part that says, “and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

I don’t like this part. Specifically, I’m troubled by the word dominion. On the basis of that word, we have consumed and destroyed so much of God’s good creation. In the same way that we have twisted the first part of this verse to privilege some types of people while oppressing others, we have used this second part to oppress and exploit the world around us. The world given over to our care.

I fall firmly in the camp of people who interpret this passage as a call to stewardship. And to be honest, because I wanted to avoid getting into the weeds of all this, I looked up the original Hebrew. I hoped that I would find some room for a different interpretation. Nope. The original Hebrew does translate to “rule over.” In fact, the root word could be translated as “subjugate.”

And that’s hard. Because it doesn’t add up to think that a God who contains relationship and mutuality within God’s own being would also command us to subjugate others — people or creation.

We may not fully understand God, but we know what they’re about: Love.

And that makes me wonder if maybe we don’t have a word for the kind of power that God embodies — the kind of power we are called to embody. I think that right here in this text, we see our own broken impulse toward power-over — our binary, black and white, either/or, us or them violence — running up against our both/and, everything, everyone, love love love, with-and-for God.

Even right here in the beginning, we distort our most basic calling — to relationship with one another and with God and with the world around us. We break it into dominion and hierarchy. We are so bad about this. We see it every day in the news.

And I have perhaps never been more personally affected by the reality of our brutal brokenness than I was a year ago, tomorrow. On June 12th, 2016, I woke up early to go to my job at the church where I was a pastor. I had been with a friend at a queer bar the night before, and I woke to the news that at another queer bar — a gay dance club in Orlando — a man had opened fire and killed 49 other people. He killed them because he couldn’t stand the way that they loved. He couldn’t stand the image they reflected.

I’ll be honest with you. One of the strange realities, I think, of coming out in the age of sweeping LGBTQ victories is that I didn’t fully understand, until the Pulse massacre, how deeply people in this world still hate us. And the violence they are willing to enact to make us disappear.

Pulse was an act of racist, transphobic, queerphobic, misogynist hatred.

Those things are a part of our humanity. They are real. They are at work even now in this world, right alongside the destruction of our planet. They are the impulse toward dominion and subjugation. They are real, human realities.

But this passage reminds us that they are not the image in which we were created.

We were created in the image of a plural God. I love that in the same way this wording once gave early Christians the ability to dream of the Trinity, this plural pronoun passage now invites us to think of non-binary gender and consider once again that the image of God is so much broader than our own singular experience.

In multiplicity, in diversity, in community, incredible new things can be created.

And that makes me think of what happened in my life, after Pulse. I heard that there was a movement to toll church bells at 3 o’clock on the Wednesday following the shooting, in honor of the lives lost. I asked my boss if we could participate, and quietly decided I would go out to the courtyard at that time and read the names of the victims aloud. That was all I expected.

But I showed up to staff meeting that Tuesday, to find that my boss was determined to make it a prayer service. And another colleague suggested we bring in our jazz band, and another pointed out that we should invite our friends at the Islamic Center and the temple down the street. And then, another colleague absolutely insisted that we buy the biggest rainbow flag we could and hang it above the front doors of our sanctuary, on the busiest street in downtown Chicago.

And so it came together. And it was more and more powerful than I could ever have imagined on my own.

Only because there was more than one of us could the full vision be realized. Only with communal vision can we even begin to fully see God.

We live in a broken world, a world of violence. Of either/or, of us vs. them, of dominion. But that is not what we were created for. We were created to reflect the both/and, perichoresis, dancing, Trinitarian God. And that God has the last word.

We may only see in a mirror dimly now. We may not fully understand, but we can know what God is about.

Love. Love love love. Beautiful, limitless, spilling over, queer and good love.

That’s what God is about. And even if this world sometimes makes us forget — that’s what we’re about too.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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