Metropolitan Community Church of Columbia, S.C.
Readings: Genesis 1:26-28 Luke 1:26-38
Anyone who is charged with the task of writing and delivering sermons learns very early not to discount any source of inspiration. The title and inspiration for this sermon came from a recent choir practice. Mike related how his mom’s church was referring to the Holy Spirit as masculine in a song they were singing. Mike informed his mom that the Holy Spirit has historically been referred to in the feminine. The conversation continued as we talked about Mary and how the Holy Spirit created Jesus within her. To which I concluded, “Jesus has two mommies!” We laughed of course, but as we talked further I said, “I feel a sermon coming on!” And here it is.
Now, when you first read the title of this sermon one of two thoughts ran through your mind. The first one was probably, “That wacky Rev. Candace is at it again with her silly sermon titles.” The other thought was probably, “Rev. Candace has finally lost her mind.” Perhaps both thoughts ran through your mind.
The title of this sermon, while funny, is incredibly controversial. When I joked in choir about doing a sermon with such a title, Patricia volunteered to help me clear a path so I could get out of the church without being assaulted by some who might find the title offensive. I’m sure that won’t be necessary here, but imagine trying to give a sermon entitled “Jesus Has Two Mommies” at any Baptist church meeting this morning. I would probably need someone bigger than Patricia to help me make it out the door.
Why is the very idea of Jesus having two mommies so offensive? What makes it so offensive is the exact same thing that makes the idea of same-gender marriage so offensive to so many people. The question of why marriage equality for gays and lesbians – indeed, why the very existence of gays and lesbians – is so offensive to so many people has been one that perplexed me for a very long time. I think I’ve finally put my finger on it though I wanted to explore this question this morning in this safe and sacred place.
Why gays and lesbians are so universally reviled, not just in our country, but elsewhere, is very simple – it’s one word – but it’s also incredibly complex. The reason we are so hated and feared is – in a word – misogyny – the deep-seated hatred of women and all things feminine. The root of homophobia is misogyny.
Examples of blatant misogyny abound in our society. We need not look much further than our own state legislature. Recently, a bill stiffening the penalties for cockfighting moved ahead of a bill that would have toughened laws against domestic violence. You may remember that during that committee meeting, several male legislatures, including Charleston’s John Graham Altman, joked about how they could replace the “W” in the acronym for the bill that stood for “women” with a “P” that could stand for “people.” That would change the acronym of the bill from “POWER” to “POPER.” As the committee members laughed about the change – one voice, purported to be that of Altman, guffawed, “Pop her, again!” A female television reporter who dared question Altman after the meeting was berated as being “not very bright” for not understanding his position on the bill.
An editorial writer in Sumter’s newspaper, The Item, wrote in defense of Altman and even felt compelled to include this misogynistic joke:
Q: What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?
A: Nothing, you already told her twice.
How many men read that joke and laughed and shared it later over a beer with their buddies – perhaps after telling his wife or girlfriend something twice earlier in the day, egged on by implied acceptance of such behavior by this editorial writer? How many women instantly saw their situation in that joke and felt even more ashamed and abused?
Just a few weeks later, the State newspaper reported that first time domestic violence offenders in this state were being given a chance to clear their criminal record by participating in a pretrial intervention program. This program, the paper pointed out, is for non-violent offenders like bad check writers. But, those accused of beating up a woman could take part in the program because under state law, a first offense of the crime of domestic violence, despite its name, is NOT a violent crime. Indeed, right now, the first two times someone is charged with criminal domestic violence it’s a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine and up to 30 days in jail. It’s interesting to note that a charge of animal cruelty is also a misdemeanor but can carry a jail sentence of up to 60 days!
The message is clear – chickens and dogs are more valuable than women, and beating your wife or girlfriend for the first time is not a violent act against her. There is name for this sort of thing – misogyny!
That is not to say that all men are consciously misogynists. I dare say that most men do not overtly or consciously hate women. Indeed, misogyny is so engrained in our society it is present in each and every one of us, both male and female, on some level. Just like racism, tribalism and gender roles, we are so steeped in society’s views that we often don’t even realize just how major a role these things play in our unconsciousness.
It is this knowledge that led Martin Luther King Jr. to proclaim that those who opposed civil rights for African-Americans were not evil people, but misguided people. They had been so blinded by racism that to think outside of it simply seemed wrong to them. On some level they couldn’t help it because it’s simply how they had been raised – and to them, their viewpoints seemed right and good.
It’s the same with misogyny and homophobia. Our society is so saturated with messages that subtly and sometimes not so subtly devalues and patronizes women and gays and lesbians that it’s hard to think outside of those parameters. Those who oppose us are not evil, they are just misguided – they are not aware of the roots of their revulsion against us – we must begin to teach them! Even we had to overcome our own homophobia to accept ourselves as gays and lesbians. Think of how hard it is for others who haven’t been faced with the realization that their innate sexual orientation falls outside the accepted norms of society! They simply don’t realize how deeply engrained their misogyny, their racism or their homophobia is – it simply seems right to them and society reinforces it.
It’s not hard to spot examples. Recently, a new animated series started on Fox called “American Dad.” The show depicts the life of Stan Smith, an all-American macho CIA agent. In a recent episode, Stan’s wife began a side job as a real estate agent and became wildly successful. She soon began making more money than Stan, which caused a crisis for Stan. He was discussing it with two male co-workers. One gave Stan a dire warning about what could happen if he continued to allow his wife to make more money than him. The character dropped his pants to reveal that he was as blank as a Ken doll. The message is simple – a woman making more money than her husband means he is not a full man.
This is the connection misogyny has to homophobia – gay men especially are seen as less than real men by larger society. In relationships there has to be a man and woman, so society tells us – and the man better be the head of that household or they are not real men. The question we most often hear as gays and lesbians is “who is the man and who is the woman in your relationship?” In a society of compulsory heterosexuality, relationships that don’t meet this basic criteria are seen as not real or “less than” heterosexual unions. For gay men, especially this societal bias for a man having power over a woman means that two men together makes both of them no better than women.
In order to avoid this social stigma, many men resort to super macho behavior like the cartoon CIA agent. It’s also evident in the African-American community where black men feel as though they must be super macho to be seen as men by the larger society. They often keep their sexuality in the “down low” – engaging in sex with other men in secret, but living as heterosexual men out in the open. In the Hispanic community, this misogyny rooted homophobia reveals itself again in super macho behavior. In that culture, men who engage in sex with other men are okay – as long as they are not the man on the bottom. That man is no better than a woman and is open to scorn and abuse.
The messages that women are inferior are all around us. Even when popular culture seems like it’s exalting women by turning gender roles on its head. I’m thinking, in particular of one of my favorite television shows – Xena: Warrior Princess. Xena was a no-nonsense, six foot tall, solid, Amazon warrior woman. She was the antithesis of the meek, quiet, pliable woman. I would like to see John Graham Altman tell Xena she’s not very bright!
But, even though Xena is portrayed as a tough, take no prisoners kind of woman – what is she dressed in? A leather teddy. Sure she had a wrought iron chest protector over that push up bra – but it’s not the kind of flesh revealing outfit anyone would actually wear into battle. The most ironic thing about Xena, for me, however, is the hue and cry that went up when some fans began to suggest that there was a sexual relationship between Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle. To suggest that these two strong women had each other and that’s all they needed was immoral in the minds of many. Never mind that each week Xena and Gabrielle either instigated or took part in some horrible acts of violence and death. The message was clear – violence is fine, love between women is immoral.
We learn these anti-women message from birth and it’s hard to root out of our own psyches. Even I have had to deal with unconscious misogyny in my own life. Being raised Southern Baptist, the only preachers I have ever known have all been men. It was expected – it was how things were supposed to be. The first time I saw a woman in the pulpit I had a visceral reaction. It was absolutely shocking to me. It wasn’t right. It didn’t look right. It didn’t feel right. It was wrong! It went against everything I had been taught. It went against all the values I had been given growing up. A woman was not supposed to preach. It was forbidden. It was not just against church teaching – it was against God! How dare she!
I honestly had to work to get over my feelings about women in the pulpit. Obviously, I have, but it was a struggle. Even though I have always felt that I was called to be a preacher, I knew it would never happen because God didn’t call women to preach. It’s in the Bible! We can’t go against what’s in the Bible!
Ah, the Bible. Let’s talk about the Bible for a minute. Today is Trinity Sunday – a celebration of the church doctrine that posits God is three in one – Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. The Bible and the Trinity serve as perfect examples of how misogyny has crept into our society over the millennia. In the early church, women served in leadership roles. One ancient writing, that didn’t make the cut when the Bible was compiled, was called “The Acts of Paul and Thecla” which chronicled the life of Thecla – a female apostle who worked with Paul. In Paul’s letters that did make it into the Bible, he frequently mentions prominent women leaders in the house churches. This was a reflection of how Jesus treated women, bringing them into the inner circle. It was the women who stayed with Christ as he went to the cross while the disciples fled. Jesus first appeared after the resurrection to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. The men didn’t believe their story, of course – but Jesus valued them enough to reveal himself to them first.
But, as the church grew older, men began to consolidate their power. According to writer Kathleen Coyle:
In the early church the Eucharistic meal was apparently strongly communal with women along with men as presiding over it. However, by the middle of the third century the emphasis had shifted from a communal celebration to a sacrificial one. The early middle ages formally identified priesthood as exclusive to male clerics. When the doctrine of transubstantiation was accepted at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, it reinforced the idea that the power to mediate between God and the community was invested in a select group (namely men). Women became silent spectators.
This growing misogyny can also be seen in the Bible simply by tracing the translations of the word Spirit. In Hebrew, the word for Spirit is “ruach” – a feminine word form. In Greek, the word became “pneuma” – a gender neutral word form. In Latin, Spirit became “spiritus” – a masculine word form. Over the centuries, even the Spirit, once totally understood as feminine, morphed into a masculine idea. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is really transgender!
The idea of a feminine Holy Spirit, however, is so odious to some Christians that they cannot even stand to think of such a thing, because they know what it means. On one Web site I found a preacher answered a perplexed reader’s question about the feminine Holy Spirit by assuring the letter writer (a woman, by the way) that the Spirit most certainly was NOT female because it was the spirit that impregnated Mary, so certainly that Spirit must be male. For it to be otherwise is a scandal. It is to admit that Jesus has two mommies – that God’s creative ability can defy how we think about sexuality and creation.
In our readings this morning, we hear two familiar stories – the beginning of time and the beginning of Jesus’ life. These creation stories tell us a lot about how God creates in our world – and it’s not by our rules.
The Genesis story of creation is the first of two creation stories that are presented back to back in the Bible. In today’s reading we see God creating humanity in one fell swoop. The Bible says “God created man in his own image.” The word “man” in Hebrew is “adam,” which doesn’t mean just one man, but mankind. God created mankind and in this creation story both male and female are created at the same time. The following story, found in Genesis 2, is the one we’re more familiar with because it is the favorite of more conservative Christians. In this story God creates a man first and then makes a woman from his rib. This passage seems to indicate that while men are made in the image of God, women are made in the image of men and are therefore inferior to men – who bear the mark of God.
We don’t hear conservatives talk much about the first creation story because it’s far more egalitarian – it promotes equality between the sexes and even displays God as both male and female. Verse 26 reveals that God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
God says man is made in “our” image – male and female, God created us – women too are reflected equally in God. This creation story shows that God intended equality among the sexes and please note that even though God made male and female, this creation story does not end in marriage like the second one does. God created sexual diversity on that first day – God created them male and female – and I believe God created them that day as gay, straight, bisexual and transgender. No wonder we don’t hear about this first creation story all that much.
God’s penchant for creative creation continues in the story of Jesus’ conception. Here, God sends a female spirit to do the impossible – to impregnate another woman. Why would that be so hard to fathom? Even Luke says himself that “with God nothing will be impossible.” With God, Jesus can certainly have two mommies. There is no need to mistranslate the word for spirit or neuter it. Our amazing God can do the impossible and bring about God’s son from the union of two feminine beings. It is only in our limited understanding that we would find such a thing offensive.
I tell you this morning, brothers and sisters, that God is in the business of doing the impossible. As we celebrate this pride weekend, we face a daunting challenge ahead of us – that of working to defeat a constitutional amendment to deny us marriage equality. I keep hearing those in our community say, “what’s the point? Most people are against gay marriage. We’re going to lose anyway. Why even try?”
We try because our God is a God of impossibilities. Our God is in the business of making the impossible possible. Our radical, loving God is in the business of turning hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. Our God is in the business of creating streams in the desert, of moving mountains at will, of creating an entire world out of the vast chaos of space and time.
What if those who opposed slavery had never tried? What if they had said, “Well, most people are in favor of slavery, so we’ll never win. Why should we even try?” What if those who opposed the oppression of women had never tried. What if they had said, “Well, most people believe women should be property and not given the right to vote or run their own lives, so we’ll never win. Why should we even try?” What if Martin Luther King Jr. had never tried to end discrimination against African-Americans? What if he had thought, “Well, most people believe blacks are inferior and shouldn’t have equal rights, so we’ll never win. Why should we even try?” What if those drag queens at Stonewall Inn back in 1969 had gone quietly into that June night? What if they had thought, “The cops will never stop raiding our bars, society will never accept us, why should we even try?” For all the struggles we still have – look how far we’ve come simply because a bunch of drag queens decided they weren’t going to be pushed around anymore. What if Mary, when approached by Gabriel, had refused? What if she said, “Gabe, my man, sorry, but have you seen this world? Have you seen how bad things are? I don’t care if this baby is the Son of God, one man isn’t going to make much of a difference here.” Imagine what our world would be like if people had not attempted the impossible? All of these impossible feats were accomplished simply because people stood up, said yes, got involved and made it happen.
What I’m trying to impress upon you this morning is that our task is huge – bigger than we could even imagine. It’s not just homophobia that we fight – but the larger, root problem of misogyny. This is not a new fight. It’s been going on for centuries, but naming the root problem and recognizing it, even within ourselves, is the first step toward defeating it.
Will we lose in November 2006? We might – but then again, if we put our minds to it we might not. Our God is a God of impossibilities – not of hopeless causes.
The Talmud tells us that if we can accomplish our dreams in one lifetime that our dreams are too small. We may never see full equality for gays and lesbians in our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t work for it right now with everything we have. What God calls us to do is work for justice in our world, to love God and neighbor and bring about God’s reign on earth. Jesus began the mission, and it was so huge, even he couldn’t accomplish it in one lifetime. Instead, we who are made in God’s image are charged with the task of completing Jesus’ work – to bring love, justice and equality to every corner of our world.
We see in today’s readings that God can create however God chooses. We are called to be co-creators with God. In Genesis, God charges humankind with a mission, to “be fruitful and multiply.” This phrase is often used against us as proof that homosexuality is not what God intended because we cannot “be fruitful and multiply.” But this phrase does not strictly mean that people should have children. The Hebrew word for “fruitful” is “parah” (paw-RAW) which means simply to bear fruit. The word for “multiply” is “rabah” (raw-BAW) which means “to become great” or “to become much.”
Gays and lesbians can fulfill both of these requirements. Being fruitful is easy for many of us! Seriously, we do bear much fruit in our world – gays and lesbians have contributed greatly to every aspect of our world – in the arts, in science, in religion – we are everywhere. Our community, too, bears marks of the fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I recently was interviewed by two Columbia International University students as part of a research project, and these two women told me that they found Columbia’s gay and lesbian community to be very open and welcoming, and not just in church – but in the bars. They have seen the good Spirit that emanates from our community. We must continue to display this gracious Spirit, even as our opponents try to paint us in a bad light in the coming battle over marriage.
This amendment battle will also give our community a chance to truly learn what it means to multiply – to become great. Now is our chance to show this state and this world that gays and lesbians in South Carolina are prepared to do the impossible. No longer will we be held down by the tyranny of misogyny and homophobia. Instead, we will claim that when our creator made us, God looked upon us and proclaimed us “good.” This is our time, brothers and sisters. This is our time to multiply – to take the blessings that God has given us and grow them – not just in our community but within ourselves.
I invite you to begin to look within – to look for the unconscious misogyny and homophobia that still lives inside of you. It’s in each of us – even I still struggle. Begin to root out that part of your heart and mind that tells you that you’re bad because of your sexuality. Root out that part of you that tells you that you are less than because of your gender. Root out that part of you that tells you that society is right to deny you marriage equality. Realize today that you are part of that creation that God has brought about in impossible ways. We all have two mommies – we are all made in God’s image – born of both Spirit and our biological mothers. When God looks upon us God sees nothing worthy of condemnation. God only sees beloved children. You are God’s creation, and no matter what society calls you, God has called you “good.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.