A sermon for MK Pride Service, 26th September 2021, St Mary’s Shenley Church End.
Psalm 139.1-18; Romans 12.1-5
I’d like to begin with a parable. The kingdom of God is like this: in the streets of the city there was a party, and people danced and laughed and sang and chatted, and there was space for everyone. And to the party came a certain young person, unsure about who they were and whether they would ever find a place to belong. And there was space at the party for them. And to the party came people of all sorts of people, and all sorts of love, and there was space for them all. And they found a voice together,and together they said “we’re here, we’re queer – and God loves us”. And God saw that it was good.
Do you recognise it? Pride might seem like an unlikely parable for the kingdom of God, but I think it has a lot of the ingredients of the sort of kingdom Jesus teaches about in his parables, and throughout the gospels.
There’s a good precedent for likening the kingdom to a party. Among Jesus’ several parables about parties we find the parable of the great banquet, in which when the invited guests refuse the master’s invitation he sends his servants out into the streets to call everyone to the feast. Everyone. The kingdom of God is not for the chosen few. The kingdom of God does not belong to those who conform. The kingdom of God is a party whose gates are thrown open to all comers, to come as we are, as God made us to be. The kingdom of God is the kind of party where everyone, in all our glorious, God-given diversity, is seen and known as “fearfully and wonderfully made” in God’s image. The master of the great banquet would find himself quite at home at Pride, I suspect.
But Pride is not just a party. Pride is, and has always been since its inception in the Stonewall Riots and their aftermath, a protest. A protest against a world which refuses to accept the beautiful diversity of all God’s children. A protest against a world in which discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity is still rife – even in this country – and far more so for our siblings around the world. When we take to the streets to march and dance and raise our voices to say ‘this is who we are’, it is still a radical act. It is an act of protest which says ‘it doesn’t have to be this way’.
And so too with the kingdom of God. The kingdom Jesus proclaims in parables, the kingdom Mary sings in the Magnificat, the kingdom in which the lost are found, the mighty overturned and the humble exalted – this is a kingdom which says: ‘it doesn’t have to be this way – there is another way, a way of justice and of peace, a way which has space for all’. And that Way is Jesus.
‘It doesn’t have to be that way’ is the message too of Paul’s words to the Romans in our second reading this evening: “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. God’s gentle, wild, disruptive Holy Spirit calls us out of conformity and into a life of transformation and renewal. The Spirit who blows where she will blows though our lives and beckons us into the fullness of who God has created and called us to be. However much the world – and the church – may try to mould us into boxes into which we do not fit, the work of the Spirit is always to tear down those walls which are not designed for the flourishing of God’s children. And through our lives, especially when those lives do not look as people expect them to, the Spirit whispers to the world – and to the church – ‘there is another way’, a way of truth and freedom, of the wild and transforming power of God.
“I appeal to you therefore – siblings – by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice; holy and acceptable to God”. Pride is an undeniably and unapologetically embodied thing. When we place our bodies in the streets, dancing and marching, our unapologetically queer and diverse bodies in all their God-imaging fullness, when we move our bodies in party and in protest, there is something subversive going on.
And so too the kingdom of God is a subversively embodied thing. The Word becomes flesh – and in doing so breaks though every preconception of the limits of who God could be. Jesus puts his body in proximity to those most oppressed and despised – women, and leppers, and tax collectors, and Samaritans, and children – and in doing so dismantles every preconception of where is the proper place for God to dwell. And in his resurrected body, still scarred, Jesus calls all of us to be members of the body of Christ, members of one another, members of a scandalously diverse and unconventional body, for the sake of the world.
This body and all its members are “holy and acceptable to God”. Our bodies in all their diversity are “holy and acceptable to God”. And when the church has told us otherwise, it has distorted the gospel of Jesus. Our psalm this evening tells us that God knows us as we are, and has done since before the foundation of the world: “my frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth”. God knows every hair on our heads, and every thought of our hearts, and God delights in us. God delights in you. Even the hidden parts of us, even the parts of us we don’t feel able to share with family or friends, in our workplaces or our churches, perhaps those parts of us which only really come to the surface at something like Pride, or even those parts of us we keep hidden from ourselves – all these parts of us God knows, and in the full knowledge of who we are God says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, the “marvelous works” of the almighty. There is never any need for us to come out to God, who already knows us better than we know ourselves. We don’t need to present ourselves in a certain way to be “holy and acceptable to God”.
Holiness is a much misunderstood term. It is often interpreted as a synonym for perfection, or purity, or good behaviour, or any of a whole host of other unattainable goals to fail to live up to. But in constructing holiness like that, we make a rod for our own backs. Holiness in scripture is something deeper, more profound, more intimately connected to God’s own being. To be holy is to live towards God, to live honestly as God created us. Holiness is closely linked to wholeness, to living as our whole selves, as we are created and called by God.
To allow ourselves to live fully as ourselves, whole and holy before God, is an act both of party and of protest, of celebration of the God who made us, and of protest against the world which would have us be other than we are. And it is an act of witness, a sign of God’s kingdom on earth. To refuse to conform to the narrow limits the world – and the church – would place on God’s love and ours, but instead to allow ourselves to be transformed more and more into the image of God, is kingdom stuff indeed. As St Theresa of Avila said: “be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”
There is a poem I have had above my desk for over a decade now, by poet and theologian Nicola Slee:
So, dare to declare who you are, to present your bodies as holy and acceptable to God, to know yourselves fearfully and wonderfully made. And in doing so, as we party and protest, as we leap and dance into the Spirit-filled life God has prepare for us, as we celebrate the signs of God in our midst and as we cry out for justice, may we set the world on fire with the wild and unquenchable love of God.