Building a New Way:
A Lesbian Icon and the Kin-dom of God
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost • July 1, 2018
Scripture Lesson: The Gospel of Thomas #97
(Lambdin translation) and
Hebrews 12:1-2 NRSV
Katie Reimer, guest preacher
So, she was walking along the road, still some distance from home. The handle of the jar broke and the grain emptied out along the road behind her. And you’re trying to tell me that...SHE DIDN’T NOTICE?!
I’m trying to imagine myself getting on the subway some distance from home. Let’s say I’m in Brooklyn, getting on the R train at 53rd St. I transfer to the L train at Union Square, then I transfer to the 2 train and make my way home to the Upper West Side. I’m wearing my very cool red backpack. Somewhere along the way, the zippers on my backpack break. And my stuff starts falling out. My keys fall out. My wallet falls out. My pencil case falls out. My umbrella falls out (because New Yorkers always have an umbrella in their bag...Amen?). My laptop falls out. My RX Bar falls out. My paper calendar falls out (because I still use a paper calendar). My water bottle falls out, and my inhaler falls out. And somehow, I don’t notice?! And then I get home, and I set my backpack down, and realize that it’s empty.
And Jesus said...that’s the kin-dom of God.
The Gospel of Thomas was not selected to become a part of our New Testament when it was canonized in the 4th century. In the first few hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, many books were recognized by different communities of Jesus followers. After canonization, the other documents were suppressed and then lost for many years. In 1945, a jar was discovered in Egypt that contained many of these ancient documents, including the Gospel of Thomas.
There are many parts of the Gospel of Thomas that overlap with parts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Like the parable of the mustard seed. But there are also parts that are unique to the Gospel of Thomas. Just like there are parts in the Gospel of Mark that are unique to Mark. And parts of Matthew unique to Matthew. The Parable of the Empty Jar is unique to the Gospel of Thomas.
This startled the world when it was discovered in 1945 after laying dormant for so many years.
The Gospel of Thomas also differs from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in that it is a collection of Jesus’ saying. It doesn’t tell the overall story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. It resembles the book of Proverbs, not providing context for the teachings.
So, we can’t really gain much insight from what comes before and after this Parable of the Empty Jar.
On the first day of this series that we’re in right now, Jorge taught us that there is often something in Jesus’ parables that doesn’t quite make sense. Something that would have people laughing or shaking their heads quizzically.
I think that people would have been laughing and shaking their heads at the part of this parable when the woman doesn’t NOTICE the accident. And she doesn’t NOTICE that everything was spilling out? How could she not notice that the handle of the jar broke, and everything was spilling out behind her?!
I picked this parable a couple of months ago because I thought it would be cool to preach from a non-canonical text. But then I kind of regretted it because I struggled so much with this parable. I really struggled with the vulnerability in this parable. The kin-dom of God is like the vulnerable who become even more vulnerable.
First of all, it’s a woman. A woman who would have been vulnerable because of her gender. Second, she’s far from home. Another level of vulnerability. And third, she loses the most visible source of security that she has - the jar of grain. At least with that, she was not going to starve.
I became exasperated with the idea that the kin-dom of God is like the vulnerable who become even more vulnerable along the journey. And to make it even worse, she doesn’t even NOTICE that she is becoming more vulnerable. And when she DOES notice, she doesn’t seem troubled by it.
So here’s the thing about noticing. To notice means to give your attention.
If this woman had been obsessing over her vulnerability, she would have been keeping a close eye on this jar of grain. Surely she would have noticed the broken handle and the spilled grain if all of her attention was on the one source of her security in the world.
But her attention was elsewhere. Something else was consuming her.
Maybe she was focused on the beautiful day. Maybe she was engaged in conversation with another woman next to her. Maybe her eyes were on the road. Maybe she was thinking about her family. Whatever it was that had this woman’s attention, we should not lose track of the fact that she makes it home.
It strikes me that if she HAD noticed the accident and panicked, she might never have made it. She might have tried to stop and fix the handle, or desperately grasp and hold onto as much of the grain as possible. Certainly, if she had noticed the accident, it would have slowed her down, one way or another. And possibly, it could have prevented her from reaching home.
How often do we become fixated on things or people that make us feel less vulnerable?
And how often does that obsession cause us to lose track of the journey home?
How often do we panic and become paralyzed if things break and start to spill away from us?
Another thing that bothered me about this parable is the wastefulness. Some commentators have even suggested that the point of this parable is to be a warning against letting your life slip away.
I thought about this parable next to the Parable of the Talents, which seems to value using one’s resources wisely. It made me want to shout at the woman - How could you be so careless with what you had??
But I also have to admit that there are many other parables that are about losing. The woman who loses a coin. The lost sheep. A lot of the seed in the Parable of the Sower is lost.
And there was also the wasteful extravagance of the woman who poured an entire bottle of expensive perfume on Jesus before he died.
Wastefulness and excessive generosity is part of the kin-dom of God. It defies the logic of this world.
Let’s put this parable aside for a moment. I want to take a little survey. (put up slide of Harry Styles)
How many of you know who this is?
How many of you knew that Harry Styles had a show at Madison Square Garden last week, right before the NYC Pride March?
How many of you WENT?!
How many of you knew that Harry Styles’ fans have called him a Lesbian Icon?
For the sake of transparency, until a week ago when my friend, Lina Landstrom was visiting me from Sweden, I did not know who Harry Styles was. All along, I
thought Lina had flown all the way here to attend the NYC Pride March with us at Church of the Village. And she did do that. But, the main reason Lina came all this way was to attend the Harry Styles concert at Madison Square Garden.
So she stayed with me for 5 days, and our conversation shifted between her reflections on Harry Styles, and my reflections on the Parable of the Empty Jar. You can judge for yourselves which of us is cooler. Lina shared with me her Senior Thesis that she wrote this spring for the New School, which focused on the fanbases of Harry Styles and Harry Potter in relationship to LGBTQ activism and social change.
Harry Styles, a band member of the boyband, One Direction, expressed in an interview in 2014 that “female” as a trait in a partner is “not that important.” Female as a trait in a partner is “not that important.” I didn’t hear about those three words, but apparently, those three words spread like wildfire around the world. An article came out called “Why Harry Styles’ ‘Not That Important’ Is Massively Important.” The article states that Harry Styles “is an international phenomenon. . . . if [he] can shrug and say that female is not a trait he finds important in a partner, then what else can happen? In other words, if Harry Styles can be queer, anyone can be queer.”
One Direction was a typical boyband in appealing to straight teenage girls with crushes on one, or several, of the band members. Harry Styles’ “original media image was that of a fetishized, objectified, sexualized womanizer.” This original image has trickled away slowly over time. He has not labelled his gender identity and sexual orientation overtly, but he has also not stopped the perception of him as queer or bisexual, gender-fluid or androgynous by his fanbase.
Fans in large numbers now bring rainbow Pride, Trans and Bi flags to his concerts, and he features these flags prominently from the stage. Fans have expressed that his concerts are the “ultimate queer safe space.” This blew my mind - even more safe than the Pride March or even more safe than gay bars. A fan brought a sign to last week’s concert stating: “Harry Styles is a Lesbian Icon.”
As Lina and I shifted back and forth between Harry Styles and the Parable of the Empty Jar, I started to see parallels between the two. I joked at one point with Lina that maybe I’d title my sermon “Harry Styles and the Kin-dom of God.” Her eyes got really big and she exclaimed that she would love me forever if I did that. I’m not beyond winning over a lifelong fan in my budding career as a preacher. So, here we are.
Also, as I was reading through other parts of the Gospel of Thomas, it assured me that “the kin-dom of God” cannot be said to be here or there – because it is spread out everywhere. The kin-dom of God is not just in places that we might expect it. The kin-dom of God is not just in the church. Not just in our scriptures. Not just in seminaries. The kin-dom of God is everywhere, if only we could learn to see it.
So the kin-dom of God can EVEN be found in the Harry Styles phenomenon.
The kin-dom of God is found anytime a person or community chooses not to obsess over things that make them feel less vulnerable. The kin-dom of God is to be found anytime a person or community sheds themselves of power and privilege.
As Harry Styles has allowed his earlier identity to slip away, he HAS become more vulnerable. Homophobia is real and rampant around the world, and certainly his power and safety in many places has, and continues to slip away from him.
Like the woman in the Parable of the Empty Jar, it seems that Harry Styles is not fixated on clinging to the security of an assumed straight white male identity. And by becoming more free himself, he has created tremendous hospitality for countless others to dare the journey of vulnerability as well. Many of his fans have come out for the first time in online forums to other fans of Harry Styles.
The thing is - we follow a God who renounced divine power to become fully human.
We follow a God who accepted limitation.
We follow a God who chose to become vulnerable in the form of Jesus Christ.
Only through the vulnerability of God is love and relationship possible. The word for this in Christian theology is kenosis. God emptied God’s self of divine power to become human, to enter into relationship with finite creatures.
Jesus also followed the journey of vulnerability. Jesus emptied himself of his male privilege when he associated with women. Jesus emptied himself of adult privilege when he said that we cannot enter the kin-dom of God without becoming like little children. Jesus emptied himself of religious privilege when he elevated a Samaritan over a priest and a Levite.
Our reading from Hebrews today calls us to lay aside everything that hinders us on the journey. It calls us to vulnerability. It calls us to self-emptying. It tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the leader and perfect example of our trust. Jesus - who was willing to lose everything on the journey in order to gain something far more precious - home - the joy that lay before him. Hebrews calls us to fix our attention on running the race, knowing that anything we lose along the way will not matter when we reach the end of the journey - when we reach home - when we reach joy.
The woman whose jar broke was willing to lose everything in order to complete her journey.
It’s a beautiful moment when you arrive at home - the place where you can be fully yourself - and you realize that the things you may have lost along the journey don’t really matter any more.
Friends, the grain of jar is something a little different for each one of us. For some of us, it’s our bank account. But for others, it’s our reputation. For others, our greatest source of security is a person in our lives.
As we follow the example of our God, let us be so focused on the journey home that we are willing to let go of anything that hinders us on the road.
Let us be willing to become more vulnerable and more exposed on the journey.
Let us set aside our fears of scarcity.
And let us trust this glorious and broken journey together.
Copyright © 2018 by Katie Reimer
All rights reserved.