Preached at a joint service of Holy Trinity Metropolitan Community Church and Augustine United Reformed Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
Reading for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost:
“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, A shower is coming. And so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, There will be scorching heat, and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Before reflecting on our rather challenging Gospel reading this morning – Jesus really does seem to be in one of his moods in this one – I’d like to share some recent thoughts that have one common denominator. See if you can guess what it is.
Ten days or so ago was the tenth birthday of CC Blooms. CC Blooms, in case you don’t know, is the largest of Edinburgh’s gay bars.
If you are looking for elegance, for style, for a chance to hang out with beautiful people enjoying a sophisticated life style, CCs is not the place to try.
CCs has a bar area on the ground floor and downstairs there is another bar area with a dance floor.
Everyone complains about CCs – it is rare to hear anyone say anything good about the place – unless they are going through the rosy, honeymoon period of just recently having come out and realising that there are places to go. However, on a weekend, and throughout the Festival, CCs is ALWAYS busy.
Don’t worry, this is not going to turn into a bar review.
CCs opened round about the time I made my first group of gay friends and started socialising on the scene. I was in my first year of my legal traineeship at the then Scottish Office, living in a shared flat in Stockbridge. We were a year away from founding MCC Edinburgh.
CCs’ tenth birthday caused me to focus on the last ten years. While I don’t go to CCs that often, the place seemed emblematic of my journey over that time – having featured in so many different stages of that journey.
I had been there with friends and family and boyfriends. I have had wonderful evenings there where I danced with friends till closing time. I have written sermons in my head while dancing to the latest Kylie. I have watched friends take part in the Edinburgh heat of Mr. Gay UK – one ex ended up representing Edinburgh in the final.
I have reflected on all of the people that journeyed with me over that time. That is the saddest part. In remembering the good times, I can’t avoid remembering the less than good times.
Arguments that happened.
Boyfriends who once spent great times with me out on a Saturday night and who I no longer know or speak to.
Friends who have moved on from Edinburgh or moved on from my life.
That horrible night I walked in to find a then recent ex with his new boyfriend, kissing at the bar.
When we focus on our lives over a period, it is easy to become nostalgic and to claim the good old days were so much better than today. But the reality is, if we are honest, often so different. Yes, there is much to remember with fondness but often the memories are bitter sweet. Even the best of lives is messy.
We can easily beat our selves up about our failures or things that we wished had gone better but in looking at the last 10 years of my lives and the first ten years of CC Blooms, I have to take that time as I find it. I must accept the reality of my life and all my experiences for what it is.
And that brings me on to the second thing I’d like to share. Anyone who has heard me preach before will know that I often get inspiration from films. Now that I am 175 in gay years, the easiest option for a social life is to go to the cinema and often this ends up being the new cinema in the Omni Centre, just minutes from CCs.
I have seen a few films recently but one that got me thinking, especially in the context of my reflections on the last ten years of my life in Edinburgh, was The Stepford Wives. I really enjoyed this film. My flatmate Ross was initially reluctant to come as he is a devotee of the pretentious twitterings of Newsnight Review – if Germaine Greer doesn’t like a film Ross will not go to see it.
Newsnight Review didn’t like the film because the characters were clichéd and the plot simplistic. They are right. But the film was still fabulous.
If you are looking for a revealing expose of the American character or a complex psychological drama exploring the challenges of modern existence – this isn’t your film. It is a pantomime if anything and all the better for it.
The film stars Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Glen Close and Bette Midler – all fabulous in my book.
Firstly, does anyone get the connection between the gay bar and the film?
Bit of Edinburgh trivia here. In the film “Beaches ” Bette Midler’s character was called – yes, you guessed it – CC Bloom.
Anyway, I won’t spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen Stepford Wives but essentially what happens is this: The Nicole Kidman character is a high-powered TV executive whose career falls apart suddenly and who has a break down. Her husband, Matthew Broderick, takes the family away from New York to Stepford, a gated community where things are different. All of the women are subservient to the rather geeky men – Mathew Broderick is so out of place – and exist solely to make their men folk happy. The place is perfect. There is no crime, no litter and, as Glen Close explains, no pushing. Everyone’s house is gorgeous and tidy. The wives cook gourmet meals without complaint. No one argues. There is domestic harmony.
Not everyone likes this however. The Nicole Kidman character in particular can’t cope with all of this niceness. In exasperation she complains to her husband that “All the women smile all the time and all the men are happy!” To which he replies “What’s wrong with that?”
What is wrong indeed?
Now, many of us would be uncomfortable with the rather misogynist values that lie at the heart of Stepford – and anyone who wouldn’t be probably should keep quiet as I suspect that the majority of the folk in this room identify as female to some extent.
However, I am sure each of us has moments when we crave our own version of Stepford, our own happy place where life is perfect, where there is no unpleasantness, where there are none of the things that upset or annoy us, where life is easy.
In Stepford, the outward perfection masked an unhealthy reality and you will have to go yourself to see how all that worked out.
Looking at the last ten years of my life, I can see lots and lots of imperfection – both in me and my behaviour and in others. I have caused pain and have been caused pain. I have made friends and I have lost friends. I have had blissfully happy times and had times when I have hurt so much that I wondered if I could ever be happy again.
Which of us looking back over a period of our lives will not see the same pattern?
Friends, that is real life. If we live life to the full. If we life live abundantly, taking risks in ourselves and in others, loving extravagantly, living honestly – then that is the pattern that life will give us. We could have the unreal existence of our own personal Stepford, but we would find that no more real than did Nicole Kidman.
Today’s Gospel is a challenging reading. I remember when we worshipped here last Sunday one of the hymns had a line, describing Jesus, which went somewhere along the lines of “Gentle child of gentle mother.” This is not gentle Jesus, meek and mild, today. He is angry.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” He then goes on to talk about how families will be divided against themselves. This goes against much of conventional Gospel wisdom when we talk about Jesus coming to proclaim God’s realm of justice and peace.
Is Jesus really calling for war? Are we being told that all of the divisions in our world that cause so much suffering are divinely ordained, part of God’s plan for us? I can’t see how such a conclusion could be reached from this passage if read in the context of the Gospel as a whole.
This is a particularly meaty passage and there are lots of different directions that we could validly go off on in reflecting on Jesus’ message here. I, for one, was quite struck by the depiction of a family.
Churches often idolise families – and I use that word deliberately. Idolise means to making an idol out of something – something artificial that we worship rather than worshipping the truth of God. We were hear the “family values” brigade talk about the joys and perfections of family life I often wonder if they have ever lived as part of a family.
The truth of our family lives is as complicated and messy as my reflection on my ten years since entering the gay scene in Edinburgh. At their best our families are loving, nurturing, safe places where we can grow and flourish throughout our lives.
However, even the most loving, the most stable, the most “normal” (if such a concept exists) is a place of conflict and division and pain and endless challenge.
Maybe that was just my family – maybe the rest of you here perfect Stepford families – but I was heartened to hear Jesus reflect on families in a way that seemed real to me – in a way that recognised what life was all about.
Jesus came to give us life in all its fullness – in all its abundance – and he is telling us here that we shouldn’t expect that life to be plain sailing.
A fulfilling life will not be one of Stepford perfection but will be one immersed in the mess of imperfections – that is real life for most of us. And I use families in the broadest sense. We have our families of birth and our families of choice. Our networks of friends and neighbours are families. Our Church Communities are families.
Church families can be especially challenging, can’t they. We are all here to celebrate Christ’s Gospel of love and liberation for all – but at times we end up driving each other mad. There are disagreements over big things and small things. Often it is the smallest of issues that cause the biggest of disagreements in Churches but many denominations are facing major theological controversies at this time.
In MCC, ministering as we do within and amongst God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children, we look on with sadness to see the Anglican Communion tearing itself apart while trying to decide if God welcomes sexual and gender minorities. I know that the URC has been challenged on this issue too.
In MCC we have our own challenges – we have members around the world from many different cultures and theological perspectives. We have gay affirming MCC Pastors who would not look out of place in a conservative evangelical Church (with only the anti-gay theology removed) and at the other end of the spectrum we have one of our Churches, MCC San Francisco, who takes their claim to be a house of prayer for all people so seriously that they have a full time Buddhist minister on staff and offer Buddhist worship on a Monday night.
MCC may be united on many aspects of Queer Theology but we have a bucket load of other divisions and debates to make up for it. And in Churches we panic when there is division. We would almost prefer a Church were we all smiled all of the time, where all the answers we easy, where no one disagreed. Yes, often we’d rather be Stepford Christians.
Friends, let us listen to Jesus today. Let us listen to Nicole Kidman. We are not called to live Stepford lives or be Stepford Christians. The reality of living together in Christian Community is that we will clash with each other, we will disagree. As God’s truth lies more in the breadth of the perspectives reflected amongst us than in any one of our perspectives. The clashing and challenging of ideas and opinions is what Jesus came to facilitate.
In our lives let us not be afraid of challenge nor feel we have failed or our Churches have failed when we are in difficult times. The key issue is not whether there is division, but how we deal with it. Can we follow Jesus way of loving and respecting those he encountered. Can we see the grain of God’s truth, struggling to be revealed, in us all. I wonder if God’s realm is not a place where conflict, division and disagreement cease but instead one in which conflict and challenge are lived out healthily.
I often quote Bananarama, those prophets of song from the 1980s and every gay man of my generation’s favourite girl group, who told us in one of their first songs that:
“It’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it.”
I pray that each of us individually and all of the various overlapping families and communities of which we form part, will be pleased with the grace to live lovingly in the midst of our callings to a roller coaster life of division and disagreement.
Stephen Harte is an attorney living in Edinburgh, Scotland.