The Queer and Bold Rev. Jesus H. Christ
This is the first of a series of three sermons preached by Pastor Vicki in late summer 2015 on the book of Hebrews.
Reading: Hebrews 4:14-5:10
So I have a love-hate relationship with my face. I’m glad I have a face. But I don’t really like seeing photos of it. And I hate doing head shots–you know those professional photos of mostly just your face that you put in places like your Linked In profile to make it look like you and your face have it all together? So someone I know was looking at my head shot recently, and she said, “Wow, Vicki! This is like a glamour shot!” and then someone else chimed in, “Yeah! It looks nothing like you!” That was because the day I took that head shot was the only day in the last 2 years that I have blow dried my hair and put makeup on my face. Every other day since I got really pregnant and had my baby, I’ve basically felt like—and often looked like–kind of a mess.
So I touched on this in my feminist rant of a Mother’s Day sermon this year, but there is this pressure working mothers get from the world and from ourselves these days to give 100% at work, 100% at home, and to look great doing it. And trying to live up to that is impossible. Trying to live up to that really just works to make me feel like a deficient mess no matter where I am.
And it’s not just because I identify as a lady. Lots of us feel that way. We are always in situations in which we are supposed to act like we’ve got it all together. Usually with groups of people we know but don’t really know. Coming up this fall, Pastor Jeff and I are supposed to go to lots of these retreats and gatherings with other United Methodist pastors–our colleagues–the great priests, the Rev.’s of our denomination. And I always feel out of place at these things. All the other priests and Rev.’s seem to have their stuff together. Especially when our bishop is around (She’s like our CEO), everyone’s smiling and telling stories of how good God is, demonstrated by the incredible programs their churches are starting, the great successes, the wonderful things happening in their professional and personal lives–all proof that God is awesome and that they are in tune with what God wants. It sometimes feels like having everything together is a sign that you are a good Christian. So I much prefer the after party of all those clergy gatherings, when I can sit with my close clergy friends at a cafe or at dinner in a safe enough space to say what’s really going on. How we tried out a new worship service and no one came. How we struggle with being compassionate to but not enabling the person suffering with addiction who sits on the steps outside the church.
And we can talk about the real in our personal lives. About the divorce. Or mom’s death. Or the ‘ism’s that continue to erect glass ceilings and walls all around us. It is only because I get to have those after-party conversations that I feel like maybe even a messy, imperfect, non-normative face like mine can fit on top of a clergy collar.
I think a lot of churches are like our clergy gatherings. There’s this feeling that good Christians have it together, that God is doing good in our lives, and–if something is bringing us down, we leave it at home. Church is where we praise like we aren’t about to cry and dress like we aren’t struggling to pay rent.
And it’s good to praise God, and it’s good to find reason to rejoice even in hardship, but when we never actually talk about what’s real in our lives, it means that when you’re going through something, when the threat of cancer or the shadow of grief or the depths of addiction or the constant aggressions of racism and sexism and heterosexism and every other ism are all consuming, it can feel like your messiness is not welcome here, like your messiness is an inappropriate intrusion into the house of God.
But today is a good day for our mess. Because today we get to talk about Jesus as a messy priest, as a non-conforming, queer Reverend of God.
For the next three weeks we are going to be studying the book of Hebrews. Is there anyone in here who would say Hebrews is your favorite book of the Bible? We don’t talk about Hebrews too much. It has kind of an awkward name and sits near the back of the Bible, a little too close to scary Revelation, and it talks a lot about old school Jewish traditions that don’t really resonate with us anymore. It’s kind of a weird book that doesn’t get a lot of play.
But it’s the end of the summer and–why not? When all the other folks come back in September from their exciting vacations in exotic places with their suntans and stories of grand adventure and relaxation, we will be like, Wow–that almost sounds as good as the life transforming wisdom we found reading Hebrews! That’s how September is going to go here at Church of the Village.
So the Queer and Bold Rev. Jesus H. Christ. One of the major images in the book of Hebrews is of Jesus as a high priest. So I said there is a lot of old school Jewish stuff in Hebrews–this high priest thing is a piece of that. So we’re going to talk a little history today. Fun Fact–Who is the high priest of Judaism today? No one! The high priests were like the head pastors of the Jerusalem temple. And there is no great Jewish temple in Jerusalem today. Anyone in here ever been to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem? That is the one wall of the Jerusalem temple that has survived after the Romans destroyed it in the year 70 AD. After that temple was destroyed, Judaism changed a lot. Some Jews who were worshipping this guy named Jesus started a new thing called Christianity. And others evolved into what we would now call modern Judaism.
So when I talk about old school Judaism, I’m talking about what came before Christianity and modern Judaism. And that old school Judaism centered around that big grand temple in Jerusalem where Jesus hung out and made trouble before it was destroyed by the Romans. (Got it?)
So the priests, the pastors, of that temple had a very different job description than our priests, our pastors. My job description says things like,
-Preach and teach stuff
-Serve as administrator of a non-profit organization
-Visit and pray with people when they’re having a rough time
-Help folks serve the oppressed and advocate until #blacklivesmatter
In contrast, old school Jewish priests’ job descriptions included things like,
-Slaughter small and large animals and splatter their blood on an altar
-Risk life walking once a year into a dark room that everyone else is afraid of
-And diagnose skin diseases
A little different from my priestly duties!
But the old school Jewish priests were pretty special people. And the most special among them was the high priest, who, once a year, actually went into the holiest room of the temple–where no one else was allowed–the room where God was thought to actually hang out in all her glory. So the high priest was pretty special and powerful.
And the book of Hebrews says Jesus is our special and powerful high priest.
Now, our new administrative associate, Edgar, picks out our bulletin cover art, and he did a great job again this week, but when he was first looking for a cover, he was trying to find artwork of Jesus as high priest, and one image he sent me was far out. It was a painting of that inner room of the temple with the huge statues of the winged creatures that guard the throne of God filling the room, and in the middle of the mighty creatures was this healthy looking young white Jesus man with long flowing hair, dressed as an ancient Jewish priest, holding out these strong, buff-looking forearms that peaked out through his robe. It kind of looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger with a beard and long hair attending to the temple of God. And, I don’t know, maybe that is what ancient Jewish priests looked like–dreamy perfect hyper masculine Greek-God body builder movie stars with a breastplate. I don’t know. (I wasn’t there.)
But when Hebrews talks about Jesus as high priest, that’s not really the picture it gives. Instead of being strong and clean cut, Hebrews says Jesus is a priest who deals gently with us in our weakness because he knows what it is to be weak.
It says Rev. Jesus is a priest who has been tested like us–he has struggled and experienced hardship. It says Jesus is a priest who offers up prayers and supplications, not with a loud, strong, booming Austrian voice like a big awesome terminator priest. No, Jesus is a priest who offers prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears. Jesus is a great priest, not because he is strong, but because he allowed himself to be weak. When Hebrews talks about this high priests’ loud cries and tears it is referring to his desperate prayers in the garden of Gethsemane and his tortured lynching on the cross as a criminalized felon. This priest didn’t live a charmed and privileged, perfect life. He lived our life and the life of the people in our world who struggle the most.
And, are you ready for the queer part? Why was Jesus a queer Rev.? A queer priest? Hebrews was written after Jesus died, but the living Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, would never have been allowed to be a priest under Jewish law. Ancient Jewish priests had to be of a certain biology, they had to be from a certain genetic line, and Jesus wasn’t of that line. So, like many women and queer people in our day, Jesus wasn’t allowed to be clergy because of religious laws. But, Hebrews says later that God has changed the law, and Jesus became a priest under the order that our scripture reader had to look up on the internet to pronounce this morning. Jesus became a priest under the order of a priest called Melchizedek.
Now, Melchizedek was a pretty queer fella. The Queer Bible Commentary calls Melchizedek…Wait…let me pause for a moment. How many of you have heard of the Queer Bible Commentary? Anyone on Twitter this morning should go ahead and add, #notyourgrandmasbiblecommentary. The Queer Bible Commentary is my favorite book about the Bible. And it’s not some out of very left field book. Did you know that there is a whole field of Christian study that has existed since the early 90’s called Queer Theology! There are respected Christian scholars who call themselves queer theologians at reputable institutions like Yale University. (I feel like there is someone in this room who needed to hear that this morning.)
Ok–so now that we’ve established that awesome fact, I was saying, The Queer Bible Commentary calls Melchizedek the “patron saint for queers”. Melchizedek was a priest who kind of pops into a random story way way back in the book of Genesis. He was a priest in Jerusalem before Jerusalem was Jerusalem, and he has this brief meeting with Abraham a long long long time ago. And then he disappears from the story. So this Melchizedek wasn’t even Jewish. He was Canaanite, a group that would later be slaughtered by the Israelites. But he’s queer not just because he and his people live under the threat of violence. He’s also queer and a good patron saint for sexual minorities because he has non-normative family relations. Hebrews claims that Melchizedek had no mother or father and no children. Now…I know some of you are furrowing your brows here…but it’s no stranger than Adam and Eve…Did they have belly buttons? Think about it! It’s a story–to get to a spiritual truth, not a scientific truth. So just go with it for a minute…So Melchizedek has no parents and no children…And Hebrews says that’s kind of like Jesus because Jesus also didn’t have an earthly father and also had no children. Basically Hebrews is saying that both had unconventional family stuff going on.
And the Queer Bible Commentary is saying, “Hey! We know some people who have some unconventional family stuff going on! LGBTQ+ people–Queer people have unconventional family stuff going on!” And that, along with the fact that God changes the laws to call them priests is what allows us to claim Melchizedek and high priest Jesus as queer priests.
All that to say, Hebrews shows us a great Rev. Christ, high holy priest Jesus, as so much more than the Greek god beach body strong man’s man in a priest outfit. Hebrews shows the Rev. Jesus H. Christ as like us. Messy and complicated and imperfect and unconventional. That was kind of the whole point of Jesus–God became like us. And God didn’t become just the cleaned up, nice summer dress and lipstick, pretending to have it all together parts of us. But God became the mess on the floor crying alone into our pillows, feeling the fear and pangs of mortality and grief and betrayal, hurt and tortured and ism’ed unto death parts of us too. And what Jesus does for us as high priest is Jesus brings all of that messiness of the real of this life–of your life–up the steps, through the double doors, into the house of God, not only into the house of God, but up the aisle and up to the altar, and not only up to the altar, but behind the altar right to the feet of the living God.
And God looks at that whole of a human life, and God doesn’t just love the strong and together parts of Jesus. God loves the whole of him. God loves the whole of her as God’s own child. And this leads Hebrews to conclude: “Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Now this is bold. Maybe not to us. Many of us come up to this altar all the time. We don’t really have a sense of what it meant to approach the throne of God in that ancient Jewish temple. Only the priest did that, and not only the priest, but only the high priest did that, and not only the high priest, but only the high priest on only one particular day and only once a year. So for even queer, not legally recognized priest Jesus to approach the throne of God was bold. But for us–regular old, non-Messiah people—to approach the throne of God is more than bold.
But this is the lesson of Jesus as high priest. We’re not supposed to just think about how cool it is that this guy who’s kind of like us in all his fleshy messiness approaches the holiest space to be in the presence of the living God. We’re supposed to follow him in. Boldly–Hebrews says. We are now a holy priesthood, the priesthood of all believers, in Christ, we are all special, we are all welcome, we are all queer and bold priests of the order of the messy and complicated Rev. Jesus H. Christ. But being a priest doesn’t just mean that we get to feel good about ourselves. Being a priest means we serve God and we welcome other people who need to be welcomed into this priesthood. And we do all of that, not with the pretty and conforming parts of us, but with the whole of us.
You know, when I first went into ministry, I felt like my being a young, biracial, slightly irreverent female was a barrier I was going to have to overcome in serving the church. And it felt like that for a while when I was starting out. But, in the last few years, I have found that, when I bring all those complicated, nonconforming pieces of me and all the struggles that come with them when I bring them to the altar, to my service to God, God uses them. I have found that being a young, biracial, slightly irreverent female priest can sometimes signal to people who have been hurt by and turned off by the traditional church that this community that counts someone like me as a leader might be doing something different, that it might even be a safe place to seek God.
We are supposed to bring our whole messy selves to the altar because God needs our whole messy selves. Nadia Bolz-Weber, known for her many tattoos and her journey of recovery, and one of my favorite pastors ever, confessed in a recent sermon, “My little problem with alcohol and my history of depressive episodes and my struggle with trying in vain to balance my faith and my cynicism – that stuff has come in so much more handy in ministry than the fact that I passed my seminary Greek class…We may wish to curate a version of ourselves that we feel is worthy to be shared but God says, yes, I’ll take those shiny good things but I’d also like to use whatever it is you’re hiding behind your back right now…This means that the same God who was present when you took your first breath – the same God who watched over your skinned knees, the God who felt absent in your young adult angst and on whose name you have called in prayer countless times, the God who has named and claimed you as God’s own, and who will also be present when you take your final breath – and redeems your life from the grave …this God will use the entire uncut footage of your lives for God’s purpose. Which is to say, nothing is lost. Nothing is wasted. The good is so good and the bad is so useful.”
So let us approach God today, not with our masks on, not with our make up and plastered smiles, not with our hands hiding our shame and pain and anger behind our backs, but let us boldly bring our whole queer and fabulous and messy selves into the house of the Lord, into real relationship with and service to God into real relationship with and service to every other queer and fabulous mess that God loves.
Photo credit: Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Hunky Jesus Competition–