Epiphany: The queerness of God

A sermon for Epiphany Sunday

by Ken Sehested
Text: Matthew 2:1-12

            It wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve never heard of the Naga people, whose ancestral homeland straddles the border area of northeast India, southern China and northwest Burma. In the early 19th century, when British colonizers exerted control over the region, the Nagas were the one people they were never able to fully subdue. The Nagas were known as fierce warriors, and in fact they were headhunters until the first Christian missionaries reached them in the mid-19th century. Naga history before this period is unwritten and barely known; more than likely they migrated from the area now known as Mongolia.

            Ever since the British were expelled from India in 1947, there has been a low-intensity war going on in Northeast India. The Naga people actually declared their independence from Britain one day before the new Indian government did so. Both Gandhi and Nehru, the first Indian premier, promised independence for the Nagas. That promised was never kept, and the region has seen sporadic civil war ever since. What makes it even more complicated is the fact that the Naga political party suffered several splits, so that now there are four rival parties, two of which have substantial guerilla armies—often shooting at each other as much as fighting Indian security forces.

            In a chance meeting at a Baptist World Alliance Human Rights meeting in Zimbabwe in 1993, I ran into a remarkable man who for several years had been attempting to mediate the internal conflict between the Naga parties. I had done a presentation giving anecdotes of Baptists, from every continent, who have been actively engaged in various movements for justice, peace and human rights over the past generation. One of those was a Naga leader from the mid-60s who repeatedly risked his life shuttling back and forth between the various Naga factions. Dr. Wati Aier, president of the Oriental Theological Seminary, took me aside after the meeting and asked if my organization, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, would be willing to get involved as a third-party mediator. We had never done anything like this, and I certainly felt unprepared for the task. But Wati insisted that we were the ones for the job, in part because the Naga people hold Baptists from the U.S. in great respect. (That’s the other very unusual thing about the Nagas: Because of a unique missionary history in that region, an overwhelming percentage of the Naga population is Christian, and the vast majority of them are Baptists.)

            A year later I made my first trip to India. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get a special permit to travel to the Northeast region of Nagaland—at the time it was a closed military zone. But I spent two days in a Calcutta hotel listening to the history of the Naga struggle from the Commander in Chief of the principal Naga army, V.S. Atem, the former headmaster of a Baptist school—a highly wanted man in India who snuck into Calcutta for this meeting, a very pious man who insisted that we begin and end all our meetings with prayer.

            By the way, the manifesto of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland is one of the strangest political documents I’ve ever read. Basically it’s filled with Maoist political analysis and rhetoric. But the motto of the NSCN is: Nagaland for Christ!

            Long story about all the twists and turns that followed. But in 1997 we reached an agreement with each of the four Naga parties to sit down to attempt a negotiated settlement of their conflict. Not only that, they all wanted to come to the U.S. for these talks. In fact, originally we were scheduled to meet at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Jimmy Carter is a revered figure for the Nagas.

            Because of complications, we had to move the talks to Emory University; and, at the last minute, leaders of the principal Naga faction refused to come, which very nearly collapsed everything. But the talks did take place with the other three parties, and some important progress was made.

            However, in the weeks leading up to these talks, the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C., called almost daily asking where the talks were to take place. We had invited the governor of Nagaland—a Naga considered a collaborator by many—to also attend these talks; but for security reasons we kept the precise location a secret. We did not want to take a chance that our conversations could be secretly recorded.

            This story of intrigue is about as close as I can come to a story that comes close to paralleling the intrigue unfolding in Matthew’s account of the arrival of the Magi which was read earlier. It’s a familiar story. The “We Three Kings” carol is a standard song for every Christmas caroling and a standard scene in every Christmas play. The sight of three Middle-Eastern-looking men riding on camels in the direction of a bright star is among the most common scene on Christmas cards.

            I don’t know why, but every time I see a card like that I think of the drag queen characters played by Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo in the 1995 film, “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything!” Lots of pomp, circumstance and outrageous fashion statements.

            The story of the Magi following the star to Bethlehem’s stable is one that is so familiar to us that we lose sight of the political intrigue in the drama—more than that, also of the scandal which it probably provoked for the original hearers.

            (By the way, can you tell me how many “kings” are present in the story? The text never mentions a number, and they certainly weren’t kings. Their professional identity is impossible to translate into English. They were a combination of “medicine men” and astrologers, among the most learned class and probably also had a priestly role in the ancient Persian lands we now refer to as Iran.)

            You probably picked up the sarcastic humor in the story I read, particularly the part where King Herod asked the magi to find out where this new baby king was born, “So I, too, can come and worship him.” Yeah, right.

            Poor ol’ Herod has a bad reputation in the Christian Gospels. He was actually among the most benevolent and efficient rulers of the region. He led in the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple, among other major public construction campaigns. He was effective in bring stability and order in a region notorious for its many terrorist groups. But he was also very jealous of his power. The though of a rival is what prompted him to order the execution of all male babies in the region—a brutal story about what wars on terrorism inevitably become.

            But there’s another, frequently-overlooked and quite controversial angle to this story. Notice the division between the cast of characters in this Christmas story. None of the ruling authorities—political, economic and religious—were invited guests to the manger scene with Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus—not Herod, not the chief priests and scribes (all of whom were contentious rivals for power). It was a peasant teenage girl to whom the first Epiphany came. It was to sheep herders—people whose social standing was much like that of migrant farmworkers—who were visited by the angels.

            Luke’s Gospel gives an even more dramatic contrasting account: “In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness (3:1-2). In other words, the ruling hierarchy of the known world was bypassed by the Word of God and issued instead to a somewhat-crazy nobody out in the boondocks of a god-forsaken backwater country. It’s like saying the Word of God bypassed Washington, Raleigh, even Asheville, and went to a storefront Pentecostal preacher in Edneyville.

            But there yet another reason why this story has a controversial edge to it—one that escapes our ears because of the cultural distance. The “Wise Men,” Magi, were not only Gentiles—foreigners, and maybe members of a terrorist cell—but the GSP—the Global Positioning Device—they were using was the stars. All the more reason to qualify them as pagans and enemies of Yahweh God. You see, of all these Middle Eastern cultures, only the Israelites had sacred teachings warning against astrological calculations. It was the author of Deuteronomy who first warned about being “led astray” by the study of the moon and stars (4:19). And the prophet Isaiah chimes in: “You are wearied with your many consultations; let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars, and at each new moon predict what shall befall you (47:13).

            Basically, I have two points to make. The first is that the Christmas drama, which formally closes on Epiphany, is at bottom a story about conflict: Conflict between the way things are and the way things are meant to be.

            In high school I often worked a 12-hour shift on Saturdays at Cagle’s gas station, pumping gas, changing oil and washing cars. This was in 1968-69, shortly before Dr. King’s assassination. I remember early one morning, after hearing a radio news bulletin—something that had to do with Dr. King—Mr. Cagle growled: “That King ain’t no Christian. Everywhere he goes he causes trouble.” It would be years before it occurred to me that you could say the same thing about Jesus.

            My second point is related to the first: The God whom Jesus referred to Abba is the kind of God whose movement, whose appearance, whose epipany, often overflows the banks of recognized boundaries of legitimate religious authority, proper social standing, and predictable economic and political forecasts. There is an otherness, a wildness, one could even say a queerness to God which does not lend itself to our management techniques. Another way to say this: In our ongoing attempts to discern what the Word of God is for us, in our time and in our place, we must always attend to a parallel question: When, and for whom, does the Gospel proclamation come across as bad news? Whose interests are threatened, undermined and challenged? In the story I told at the beginning, the Indian government was certainly anxious at the prospect of unification among the Naga parties, allowing them to press for some new political future with a single voice.

            I’ll finish with one more story. Early last week I was in Minneapolis at a meeting of the Institute for Welcoming Resources, a coalition of networks in the various denominational bodies advocating for a full inclusion of gayfolk in the life of the church.

            On the plane coming home I began composing a new course description: Queer Theology 101, dealing with the unpredictability, the queerness of God in choosing covenant partners and the destabilizing effect on all existing political arrangements and established orthodoxies.

            Queer theology points to the insistence of the Apostles Peter and Paul that Gentiles were to be welcomed into the household of faith. I can assure you that the question was as controversial then as the question of gays in the church is now. Queer theology references Jesus’ selection of the unclean Samaritan as a model of faith in the coming Reign of God; of pagan astrologers as the first to recognize the significance of Mary’s pregnancy; of Ruth’s inclusion in Jesus genealogy, even though she was a Moabite, a stranger to the household of faith; of a black Baptist preacher from Georgia of all things—Martin Luther King Jr.—who would come to be recognized among the leading figures in our republic’s pantheon of heroes. The Bible is chocked full of such queerness. And this is the heart of the Epiphany message. Though the news is good, especially for those who have had no place at the table of bounty, those in control of the table sense the terror of this message. And they will resist it, sometimes with bloody violence. Jesus’ birth, as Eliot wrote in his Magi poem, will be “hard and bitter agony” for some. And we could find ourselves in the middle of such a struggle.

            But already, a week ahead of another birth anniversary of Gospel proportion, we can hear the echo of that refrain, begun in the ancient Prophets and carried on by enslaved people ever since: How long? Not long. For we shall overcome. Thanks be to God.

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Circle of Mercy Congregation
8 January 2006
Asheville NC

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org