There was once a monk who, whenever he passed a mirror, would look into it, wink, and say: ‘so, you old rogue, who are you today, and what are you up to?’ It is a lovely example of what, at its best, today’s queer theology asks. It is at the heart of what Mark Jordan was saying in our contemporary reading today (‘In Search of Queer Theology Lost’). In a striking manner, it also helps lead us into this week’s great Gospel story of the Transfiguration and its meaning(s) for us. For the monk, queer theology, and our Gospel, each challenge us to deeper, more refreshing, ways of living and understanding life and faith. Each disturbs settled identities. Each offers us fresh insight into God: into divine Love and Be-ing, which can never be confined to any one identity, time or place. As one of my favourite memes has it, ‘God is always transitioning’ – or at least, our understanding of God. As, and when, we grasp that, we also share in transfiguring Love…
My wife Penny and I met at theological college. It was certainly not love at first sight. I was quite introverted, not trying to give away much of who I was, and Penny – well, Penny was very nervous and came across as a terrible caricature of an English middle-class blue stocking type of woman: think, those of you who can remember back that far, of Joyce Grenfell in the old St Trinian’s films. Our college was overwhelmingly full of men, with this being only the second year a handful of women had been admitted. So, when I met Penny in the first hour or so after arriving, I thought: ‘well, if this is how the women are here, I am simply not going to survive!’ I guess that was one factor in our initial relationship: sheer survival in an age and culture still trying to come to terms with the equality of women as a whole, never mind wider gender diversity. It was an earlier reminder that, if Penny and I were to minister, it would be as salt. We would be adding fresh flavour to both the Church and the wider world, seeking to provide healing or simply preservation for some of us, and, from time to time, perhaps irritating others into whose wounds we might be placed to aid healing. Maybe some will have views on how well, or otherwise, we have done that so far. Our hope and prayer is, in the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading today, that we, with others, will never lose out saltiness…
What’s in a name? - often, a huge amount. First Nations peoples are very clear about that and the intimate relationship between naming, language more widely, culture, identity and flourishing. Other oppressed peoples know this too. Hence the suppression or promotion of different languages is so vital an issue: just look, for example, at Wales, Catalonia, Belgium or Canada. It is not simply good manners to use the language people ask of us. It is because, unless we do so, we are disconnected from layers of meaning and identity, place and community, history and, indeed, geology. Take my surname: Inkpin. This has nothing to do with writing or being a scribe, or seamstress. It comes from two ancient British words: inga and pen. Inga, in modern English, means people. Pen means hill. This tells me, and others, that I come from the people of the hill, with all the deep layers of connection this entails: to particular soil and environment; to history and culture; to others, past, present and future. Indeed, even today, there are English villages, not surprisingly on hills, with the name Inkpen. For whilst much was swept away by the two great imperial invasions of my native land, there are still fragments of British indigeneity left, and one is my surname. It is a living reminder that there are other ways of being English, and British, than what is usually asserted: there are always were, and there always will be. For when we look more deeply, the living fragments of traditional cultures in every land call us both to recognition of pain and loss, and also to fresh pathways of justice. This is part of today’s Day of Mourning. We will not find peace unless we recognise what has happened in this land - and particularly in this city; unless we repent – and much more radically than we whitefellas have so far done; and unless, in Midnight Oil’s words earlier, we ‘come on down’ to the makararrata place, ‘the campfire of humankind’, ‘the stomping ground.’…
honouring the name afresh
‘Cheer, cheer, the red and the white/ honour the name by day and by night’ – yes, that is the beginning of the song of the Sydney Swans. To my mind, and I admit my bias as a long-time Swans fan, it is the best of all the AFL club songs. For I won’t name names, but, with all respect, parts of some other clubs’ songs are, well, somewhat embarrassing. However, if Swans supporters are being completely honest, even we/they probably wouldn’t claim our anthem to be the greatest song ever written. I do wonder too, after all the rain we have had, and the consequent problems, whether the line ‘shake down the thunder from the sky’ is all that appropriate to sing right now?! I guess that is the point of what, in the best sense of the word, we might call ‘tribal’ songs. They may not always be perfect. They might even be awkward at times. We may not hold straightforwardly to all the details. We might even want to change some of them – and sometimes manage to make that change: just as the original Sydney Swans line ’while our loyal sons are marching’ was changed, in March last year, to ‘while our loyal swans are marching’, reflecting the emergence of the Swans girls youth program and the Swans women’s team (happily, albeit belatedly, to play in the AFLW later this year). They may also be quite annoying to others, even, after a victory, even a little insulting and enraging perhaps to some. However, despite all their limitations, such tribal songs are part of giving expression to shared experiences of deep connection and community, and to forms of faith and hope. As such, trite though they may be in comparison, I feel that they thus give us one way into approaching the historic ecumenical creeds of the Christian Church…
Today’s Gospel reading (John 12.1-8) brings the song Bread and Roses (and see below) to my mind. This, for me, highlights two key aspects of the anointing of Jesus, and, particularly, the challenges presented by two central figures, Mary and Judas. There are several other significant features. Yet the tension between Judas and Mary is pivotal. For, in the early Jesus movement, this story is revelatory of struggles of identity, of power and gender, of politics and economics, as well as faith and spirituality. All that can hardly be summed up simply in the phrase ‘Bread and Roses’. Nonetheless there are undoubtedly vital feminist aspects, and the themes of ‘bread and roses’ – or body and soul - are highly pertinent…
One of my favourite stories of transgender resistance to oppression comes from India. A group of hijra people were being harassed and humiliated. Of course, this was/is nothing new. Whilst hijra have their gender officially recognised on the Indian subcontinent, they are outcasts among outcasts, typically living on the margins, in the very poorest quarters, and they stir a range of reactions in others. Like all marginalised people, behind their own remarkable brave lives lies terrible and very real fear, and many sad stories: of the sex trade and exploitation, of cruel and/or dangerous castrations, of being cast out and shamed. In one community this shaming grew intolerable. Exclusion, humiliation and actual physical and sexual violence grew exponentially. What could the hijra do? The law, politicians, even religious leaders, did not care. They were actually deeply complicit. Then, after one particularly awful day, the hijra hatched a plan. In the early hours of the morning, after stripping off their undergarments, they would walk, en masse, to the houses of the worst abusers, rattling pots and pans, bells and whistles, and anything they could put their hands on, seeking to wake up the whole neighbourhood, and make the maximum impact. This they did, raising a mighty commotion. Then, they waited whilst the worst offenders, particularly the leading fathers of the community, opened their doors and windows, and came out to see what the terrible din was all about. Standing in line, shoulder to shoulder, the hijra together then took hold of the hems of their dresses, and, with an extraordinary shriek and song of pride, lifted them up, and displayed their genitalia, in all their glory. All those who watched on were taken aback, not only with shock, but with shame. For the hijra had turned the tables on them. The shame now rested on those who were rightly shameful. The powerless had, if only temporarily, transformed the powers that oppressed them, into tools of life and liberation...
who is hooked?
I thought today we might play with the ideas of hooks and fishing; of hooking and being hooked; of catching alive and who is to be caught.
Our beautiful weaving here in church today (see image left) and photographed on the front of this week’s worship booklet reminds us that fish and fishing are woven into the story of Jesus from the beginning. Indeed, it is believed some early Christians made eucharist with bread and fish rather than bread and wine – probably not a great choice in the Australian sun and I hate to think what the COVID regulations would make of that idea! But there is no getting away from the fact that some of the first disciples of Jesus made a living from fishing.
One of my grandchildren was particularly fascinated when I was in England in December. She was trying to grasp how it was night with me when it was daytime in Australia, and how it was so warm here and so cold where I was. One day, she had it sorted. Speaking to Penny on the phone, she loudly proclaimed ‘GranJo is upside down!’ I am not sure whether she thought that I was standing or walking on my head. However, in more than one sense, she was right - not least spiritually. After all, as Acts of the Apostles chapter 17 reminds us, like other early Christians, Paul and Silas were accused of ‘turning the world upside down’. It remains part of our Christian calling and sits well with the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, otherwise known as the feast of Candlemas, which we mark today. Wherever, or whoever, we are in the world, we are all called to ‘live upside down’ in spiritual terms…
relationship, galgala, yabun
Good morning! It is a delight to be back here in Pitt Street after several weeks away on personal ‘sorry business’ and study leave. In the context of the continuing pandemic, it has certainly been what some might call an ‘interesting’ time, marking an important watershed in my own life and that of my wider birth family. In offering some reflections today, I would therefore like to begin by expressing my deep gratitude for the many, many. wonderful expressions of support from members of our Pitt Street community, and for the prayers which have been offered. I continue to be so grateful for the gift of loving relationships I am given as part of our life together, and I look forward to their further and deeper unfolding in the days to come. For relationship is such a core element of our lives, and never more important than at times of loss, grief, challenge and growth. As such, it is so absolutely foundational to the Day of Mourning we mark today, as well as to the trials of the pandemic world with which we continue to journey, and the struggles of our own particular lives. In the light of these things, my own recent and continuing journey, and of our readings today, I offer up relationship as one of three words which might be central to our considerations at this time.
We should have been listening to Jo talking about baptism today – but life in Sydney has been temporarily interrupted, so that will have to wait. Instead, we have a chance to look at this wonderful story of interruption and crossing over from Mark’s gospel (Mark 5:21-43). It is without doubt my own personal favourite gospel reading, so I offered to chat with you about it for a few minutes – and I hope over our Zoom coffee we may be able to chat some more...
One of the reasons I love this story, is that it is so cleverly constructed – two stories that mirror each other, one within the other like a pair of Baboushka dolls. In different ways they are each about boundaries, edges, and transition zones – the kind of liminal spots where God has the most space to work. And this is signalled in the very first verse, “when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side”. Bit of homework for the next two weeks at home – count the number of times in Mark’s gospel Jesus crosses over the Sea of Galilee – I can promise you it is quite a few! It reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s well-known book and film “Eat, Pray Love” in which the central character develops a love of the Italian word “attraversiamo”, meaning ‘let us cross over’. ‘Attraversiamo' seems to be Jesus’s motto – and a good motto for others too. But I’m ahead of myself.
On this occasion Jesus crosses over from Gentile territory where he has healed the so-called Gerasene demoniac, back to a Jewish area – a risky choice, though at this stage the crowds are more of fan mob than a lynch mob. Here Jairus, the leader of the synagogue falls at Jesus’s feet, begging for the life of his daughter. Now this is a big deal. Jairus was important, honoured – and he crosses from that powerful place, demeaning himself at the dirty feet of a ragged itinerant and highly dodgy preacher. He crosses over from the centre to the edge. Why? because his daughter – according to Luke’s account his twelve-year-old daughter, on the border of childhood and womanhood – is in the border land between life and death. Are you noticing all the borders and edges? There are more to come.
Jesus goes with Jairus – of course! If the leader needs you, you drop everything and go, right ?– especially if it’s a life and death issue? But then there’s an interruption. The crowd is pressing close – no social distancing here, no boundary! And suddenly Jesus stops. He starts talking about someone having touched him and looking all around the crowd. Can you imagine that? No wonder the disciples are so confused. The leader’s daughter is dying, and he is worried about someone in a crowd bumping up against him!
But of course, there was no accidental bump here. The touch was deliberate. Across all the borders of exclusion, gender, isolation, the woman who has been bleeding for twelve years reached out to touch another edge – the hem of Jesus’ garment. And it was enough. Her touch was forbidden on so many levels. Because of her bleeding, the woman would have been excluded from society, from religious ceremony, from every aspect of daily life for twelve years – all the years Jairus’ daughter has been alive in fact. Stuck on the edge of menopause, just as the girl is stuck on the edge of puberty, she dares to cross over – to be out in public, to touch a man, or at least his clothing, to make a bid for her life. And Jesus asks for more. By stopping, by acknowledging what has happened, he invites her to come across the border, from the edge to the very centre – to come and speak her whole truth.
But while all this is going on, while Jesus has been ‘wasting time’, Jairus’ daughter dies, and word comes from the household not to trouble Jesus further. And watch the movement here – Jesus brought the woman from the edge, right into the thick of the crowd. But when it comes to the little girl, he allows no one to accompany him except his closest disciples and the child’s parents. Just as the excluded person needs to be brought from the edge to the centre to find wholeness, so the child whose parent is the ‘big shot’ needs to be taken to a quiet edge, away from others, there to be taken by the hand and receive the simplest of words in Aramaic, ‘ Talitha cum’, ‘little girl, get up’. (I love those two words, along with the one other word in Aramaic in the gospels, spoken to the deaf man, ‘"ephphatha," as being perhaps some of the only words in Scripture we can reasonably assume that Jesus pronounced – praying with them has a special resonance for me). Taking the child by the hand was of course forbidden – to touch the dead made Jesus ritually unclean. Yet he crosses over the border to bring her back, to invite her to cross the threshold into womanhood.
Two women – two stories of crossing over and restoration to life – mirror stories that take us from the edge to the centre and back again. Don’t worry too much about the miraculous. Just notice the edges, the borderlands, the crossings, the risks, that are part of every human story of identity and transformation. For this story is of course also our story. This is who we are and just as the woman and the girl in these nested stories are restored to their true and emerging identities, so this story invites us to live out our identity; to risk the crossings, to inhabit the borders where wholeness happens.
And not just at the individual level. For Pitt St is a borderland community – and I don’t just mean that we come from many different LGAs! We could easily take attraversiamo as our motto, as we cross borders of geography, religious belief, ableism, gender, sexuality, race and all the rest on a daily basis. So have a little think about the borders you have crossed in life; about the borderlands you have chosen or been forced to inhabit; and about the healing that unexpectedly you have found there. And let’s chat about some of that and Pitt Street’s calling over our tea and coffee later – but for now, ‘let’s cross over’ as we move to our affirmation of faith. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Pitt Street Uniting Church, Sunday 27 June 2021
sermons and reflections from Penny Jones & Josephine Inkpin, a married Anglican clergy couple serving with the Uniting Church in Sydney