Monday, July 1, 2024

Awe in One Another: Peter and John, Stonewall, and other Queer Stories

ID: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera embracing and facing the camera at a protest. Marsha is wearing a floral crown and Sylvia has a sash that says "Stonewall." The colors are muted. A gray box on the right says "Finding Awe in One Another / 9 June 2024 / Pride Month Worship Service / a sermon on Acts 4:5-13 / by Pace Warfield" with the logo in the bottom.

On 9 June 2024, regular contributor, Pace Warfield, preached at Valley of Peace Lutheran Church.  Valley of Peace is doing a summer sermon series on the concept of awe, following the early church through the Book of Acts. This sermon was preached on Golden Valley’s pride weekend and so was chosen by the congregation as the day to celebrate the congregation’s Reconciling in Christ status.

To watch the video, which begins a few words into the first sentence, check it out on Valley of Peace's Facebook Page.

Acts 4: 5-13

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are being asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is

‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.’

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.

Finding Awe in One Another

It was a hot, balmy New York evening. The weather had been in the 90s all day but the evening didn't bring much relief, the humidity hung in the air like a blanket keeping all the city smells–the good and the bad, light pollution, and noise underneath. This was the late 1960s, when air conditioning in old New York buildings was inconsistent at best.

The Stonewall Inn began its life as a speakeasy, offering alcohol in the era of prohibition to its Greenwich Village inhabitants, then a restaurant, and finally, after purchase from the Italian mob, was rebranded as a gay bar. It's no coincidence that it was owned by the mob, gay bars were illegal so only entrepreneurs used to and unafraid of illegal operations would dare to create such a venue. Also, the owners were used to bribing the police to create a don't ask, don't tell atmosphere. However, police raids were still frequent enough, averaging about once a month for a typical bar. The police would come in, confiscate any liquor, line up the patrons, and arrest anyone who did not have identification, was dressed in clothing that did not align with the sex listed on their identification, or were deemed illicitly dressed or showing lewd behavior. In the 1960s, just the act of being gay was enough to warrant being described as lewd, so the rules would change and who would get arrested would vary depending on the police doing the raid, but it is typical that if you were transgender, if you were dressed for the hot summer night wearing shorts and a tank, if you were a person of color, if you were underaged just trying to find a safe place to figure out who you are, or if you were undocumented, closets so as to not bring your ID for fear of being outed, or any other number of things, you would be arrested.

As I said, it was hot. It was a Friday night, after a long work week, people just wanted to blow off steam, dance, maybe find some love, some connection. It was summer. It was New York, the city of dreams. Around two hundred people were hanging at the bar, an unusually high number but given the heat and the weekend who wouldn't want to go out for a night of fun and dancing, and perhaps even some love? Midnight passed into Saturday morning, though the heat did not relent, staying in the mid 80s. At 1:20am, eight police officers arrived, joining two who had been undercover in the bar for a few hours, announcing, "Police! We're taking the place!" They blocked the exits and ordered everyone to line up. The music and lights were turned off. The alcohol was confiscated. Anyone dressed as a woman or in effeminate (whatever that means) clothing were sent to the women's restroom to be groped by police or strip searched to prove that they were 1960s society’s definition of women or else they'd be arrested. Police, as was typical in these kind of raids, soon took advantage of the situation, inappropriately grabbing patrons.

It was the trans women who first broke rank and started pushing back, refusing to line up. Police sent for a patrol wagon to start rounding up some of the patrons and physically and violently forced some of the patrons out and tried to empty the bar, but the commotion started to pull the attention of a crowd until an additional 150 or so people were gathered around the bar. Some of the trans women being arrested would perform while waiting in line for the crowd, garnering applause and whistles, while the police were garnering boos from the growing crowd.

A second police wagon was called as the police feared the situation would soon get out of hand. Perhaps inspired by the San Francisco Compton's Cafeteria Riots a few years before when a group of trans women rebelled against another police raid, perhaps just over it and tired of constantly being targeted by raids and assault and prejudice, or perhaps it was just the sweltering heat of the night, some combination of the three, the crowd began to get more and more agitated. Someone shouted “Gay power!” and a group began singing "We Shall Overcome." A butch woman patron was being loaded into the car but she tried to escape, handcuffed, shouting that the cuffs were too tight, only to be grabbed by police and hit with a baton on the head. Through tears and blood she screamed at the crowd "Won't you do something?"

Immediately the crowd erupted. Pennies and other loose change, beer bottles, and then bricks from a nearby construction site were thrown at the police and the patrol wagons. The crowd swelled to somewhere between 500 and 600 people. The police pulled their weapons, the bar was set on fire (accounts vary if it was the police or the mobsters set fire), more police gathered. Some people were arrested with the police and the riotous crowd continuing until the early morning, around 4am, when enough police arrived to disband the majority of people and clear the streets. Only thirteen people ended up being arrested. But the next night, even with Stonewall Inn all but destroyed through broken glass and charred wood, crowds returned and continued the uprising, chanting slogans like "Gay power," "Drag power," and "Queers bash back." Nearly 1000 people would gather over the next week. The uprising showed a clear sign that the LGBTQIA+ community was not going to put up with the ongoing prejudice, discrimination, harassment, and assault from the police. Among the leaders of the uprising were Black trans woman Marsha P. Johnson and Latina trans woman Sylvia Rivera–the two would go on to found one of the first major gay and trans rights organizations in the country and would dedicate much of their lives toward created home and family toward trans and gay youth who were kicked out of their homes by non-supportive families of origin.

June 28th will mark the 55th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Every June since, parades, protests, parties, and advocacy would happen first in New York than gradually throughout the world. June would become known as Pride Month, the month to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community, stand up for ourselves, and fight back against oppression.

Now, to today's Bible story. Our story picks up shortly after the one you heard last week. Peter and John healed a man on the Temple grounds. This inspired a crowd to form around them and Peter does what he always does in these situations: start preaching. This made the powers that be uneasy and fearful of a riot–a riot would likely bring the iron fist of Rome upon the Temple as it had during the Maccabean revolts just over a century earlier, the sting of that defeat still lingering, the wound still fresh. So the powers that be had Peter and John arrested.

The next day, Peter and John are brought before the Temple council, made up of the Chief Priest, scribes, priests, and others. They questioned Peter and John, asking by whose authority they were able to heal the man. Peter, as he does, took the opportunity to preach some more about Jesus. The council was amazed that Peter was able to speak so well and with such insight into the scriptures since he wasn't educated the way they had been. And they were further amazed that the man who was unable to walk truly was healed the next day as he was still up and about and people were still amazed that this disabled beggar who had laid by the gate of the Temple asking for alms, who they had passed by many a time, some choosing to give to him others ignoring him as if he wasn't there, but yes, now they cannot ignore him, for he is able to walk and kept proclaiming the great things that God has done for him.

The council dismisses Peter and John, argue among themselves for a bit unsure of what to do, still wary that Peter and John could cause a riot, which of course, could cause Rome to enter in and possibly destroy the Temple, raise the unbearably high taxes even higher, or increase their military presence. They ultimately decide to let Peter and John go, musing that the crowds seem to love them both and that to act against Peter and John might actually cause the riots they are fearful of.

We will hear more about Peter's antics in the next several weeks and John will pop up every now and again too. But this is the Summer of Awe here at Valley of Peace, and the theme for today is “Finding awe in one another.” Where does awe show up in this story? In many places to be sure. Awe that the man was healed. Awe of the council members in finding Peter and John, two uneducated fishers, being able to speak eloquently and with authority on scriptures and about God's engagement with the world. I personally am just in awe at every time that Peter gets a platform he uses it to just start extemporaneously preaching. And people say I'm a church nerd? Hah nowhere near Peter's level.

Beyond awe, I have some compassion for the council. Surely, they were doing the wrong thing opposing the early church. And yet I can see why they would: fear for themselves and their people, worry that if word gets out that they can't control the crowds at the Temple then Rome would come in and control it with violence and destruction. I also can't help but notice the queerness of this story. But more on that in a second.

I promised earlier in the service that I would say something about what I do, the style of theology that I claim as my own, the method I utilize when approaching the Bible or Luther or engaging with the church and the church's theological heritage. It's a branch of theology called Queer Theology.

Queer means three things. First, queer in and of itself just means strange, weird, or odd. It also can mean to spoil, but that's mostly an outdated usage, but used like, "I don't want to invite Joe to the party, he'd just be queering it."

This brings us to the second definition: the term queer because it meant strange and odd first started to be used as an insult against LGBTQIA+ people, at least since the late 1800s. This term was used derisively against gay people, trans people, anyone else whose gender or sexuality didn't match the cis and straight cultural assumptions. They were labeled odd, an outsider, strange. Queer.

Almost as long as it has been used derogatively against us, there have been LGBTQIA+ people who have been using it in a reclaimed way to describe themselves. But especially during the Stonewall Uprising and the decades of activism that have come since, it was used intentionally and politically: phrases like "Queers bash back" and "We're here, we're queer, get used to it" becoming the rallying cry of protests. And so queer, in that sense, has become an umbrella term to define the community of gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, intersex, asexual and aromantic, Two Spirit people, and so many more that are marginalized on account of their gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation. So queer for many people is simply a name we call ourselves, an easy way to talk about the community as a whole without naming a complex acronym.

But, part of reclaiming the term queer is also embracing the fact that it means strange, weird, and odd. Because it means that one of the things that we love about ourselves is that we are strange. We don’t fit in with the status quo, we aren't part of the cisgender heterosexual cultural paradigm and that's something that should be celebrated. Because by being pushed to the margins of society, it gives us space to deconstruct, dismantle, and challenge the systems of oppression. And most importantly, to be queer is to reject the cisheteronormativity. In other words, we reject the complimentary gender roles that are assigned at birth just based on an infants’ genitalia. We reject that the only way to have family is to marry a partner of the opposite sex and raise an average of two and a half children with them. We reject the idea that blood runs thicker than water. For so many of us queer folk who have been forced out of our homes with families that reject us, we know what it means to have chosen family and how those ties can be just as thick, if not thicker, than blood.

So that brings us to the third meaning of queer: queer is a verb, a way of talking about deconstructing the cisheteropatriarchy from our vantage. It's a way to celebrate and find pride in what makes us different, recognizing that our differences make us who we are. And that's something to be proud of, not scared of. We shouldn't try to erase parts of ourselves to fit in. But just by simple act of being ourselves, of being trans or gay or bi, we rebel against a world that tells us there's only one way to love, only one way to be human, and that being normal is to prioritized. Why? Why be normal? Let's be queer, let's be weird, let's be ourselves.

Queer theology takes its name from this third definition of queerness, the deconstructive potentiality of what it means to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community. It celebrates that God created us to be diverse, and that all of us who are queer are also made in God's image: that because we are made in God's image, that means we see the fullness of God in ourselves as nonbinary people, trans people, gay people, lesbians, intersex people. That it means God is queer, too, because God also lives and dwells in the margins, God also gives preferential option to the outcast, and that just by being ourselves, loving who we love, expressing and experiencing our gender, we are following God's call to live authentically, to co-create our gender and sexuality with God.

And when we apply this as a lens through which to read scripture, we can see just how queer today's story is. Peter was born with a different name, he was born Simon. Jesus changed his name to Peter, from the Greek word petros, meaning rock. Peter's encounter with Jesus changed him to the core of his being, and his name change is one small outward reflection of that. Many of us who are trans change our names in a similar way, as an outward change to represent how we are transformed.

Peter and John follow Jesus' practice of ministering to those on the margins of society, of those who don't fit in because they're not able- bodied, they're not in power, they're not what the culture of the time considered normal. It is those to whom Peter and John feel compelled to center their focus and engage with. That's a queer thing. And, when the powers that be question them and threaten them with violence, this is the queerest thing, just as with the Stonewall Uprising, Peter and John take a stand and push back. They argue and advocate for the needs of themselves and their community. They challenge the notions of who should be included and who should not be. They challenge what it means to be normal. To find awe in the differences God created, not fear or hatred.

The Stonewall Uprising was fifty-five years ago. Since then, the queer community continues to celebrate, advocate, fight, riot, have fun, love, and seek out the margins. To always look at who is not being welcomed to the table, who does not have a voice in the room, who through intention or ignorance is being left out. In 2016, in honor of the Stonewall Uprising, the original bar was named a national monument by President Obama. There is awe in this history. Five hundred years ago, a German monk named Martin Luther did a very queer thing when on behalf of the poor and marginalized when he said, "Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me, Amen," igniting a reformation that spread throughout the world. Two thousand years ago, Peter and John did a very queer thing when they chose not to walk pass the crippled beggar on their way into the Temple but instead met with him, healed him, and welcomed him, following the queer example of this man named Jesus who was murdered by the state for among other things daring to suggest that God is so much more than who Rome or the powers that be made God out to be, that God loves those on the margins and is on their side, even if that means disrupting the powerful.

That's what I mean when I say I am queer, when I claim being a queer theologian. I am in awe of Peter, John, and the unnamed man who was healed. I am in awe of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and the Stonewall Uprising. I find awe in the idea that the God who created the entire cosmos would choose to be born to a poor family as a helpless infant, laid in a cattle stall, and choose to continue to dwell among us and in the margins of society. I find awe in these things. Let all of us find awe in one another. Let us find awe especially in and among the queer.

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