Prophet -- A Queer Calling
Preached at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, GA
Lectionary Texts: Ezekiel 6:1-5; Psalm 123; Mark 6:1-13
As I sat to write this sermon, I did so with a sense of dread. Not a dread about
preaching (I actually enjoy preaching), nor did I dread the work involved in writing the
sermon (I love any excuse to read a whole bunch of books and commentaries and then tell
other people what I think about them), but the dread I felt was about the direction I was
being led to take in the message. I suppose my first mistake after reading the lectionary
texts was to ask, “Where does my story meet the text? How does speaking the text from my
place in the world matter in my sermonic interpretation of the scriptures?”
Why couldn’t I have just been satisfied with giving a good, intelligent rendering of
traditional interpretations of the scripture texts, to explain the historical-critical
scholarship that has been built up around the texts, and to make a few clever remarks
about the scriptures application to our lives? It could have all been very sterile, not messy
and personal. Instead, I asked how my story meets the text, how the scripture was
personal to me. Before I knew it, the thought occurred to me, “Prophet…huh, what a queer
That’s when the objections arose in my mind: What would it be like to preach a sermon
with “queer” in the title? (Though I’m sure more outlandish things have been done from the
pulpit at Oakhurst.) How would my family, present in the service, respond to such a message? I
thought of many other ways to preach a sermon dealing with these texts, but I could never get
away from the idea of the prophetic call as a queer calling. Nothing else seemed to have the
energy behind it that this message carried within me. I had to preach it. But I still didn’t want
I shared my hesitations with Ben (my partner), telling him my idea for the sermon and
explaining why I wasn’t comfortable preaching it. After I made what I believed to be a well-
reasoned objection, Ben responded, “Well, that’s perfect!” Come again? He went on, “It’s just
like the call of the prophets in the text; you are uncomfortable with speaking the message and are
afraid of how people might respond. Seems to me like a good sermon to preach.” Well thanks,
Ben, a lot of help you are. I wanted someone to get me off the hook, not more securely on it!
But I couldn’t deny that what he said made sense. Or maybe more accurately, what he said felt
right to me.
In defense of the sermon’s direction, I am tempted to explain the theological
underpinnings of the message, the hermeneutical choices made in reading the text, the homiletic
style chosen in constructing the sermon, the philosophically rich history behind my use of the
word “queer” in the title of the sermon. But it occurs to me that, much like a magician
explaining each magic trick as he performs it, this could detract from the effect the sermon is
intended to have. And, more importantly, it could put you to sleep. So perhaps, I’d just better
First, it should be said that I use the term “queer” not in the demeaning way this
word has been used in the past, as a way of putting down or as an act of violent speech.
Rather, the word “queer” is beginning to be reclaimed as a word to break down the barriers
between male, female, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersexed, questioning and
straight people. It has become a term of unification and empowerment, much like the pink
triangle, once used by the Nazis to identify gay persons in concentration camps, has now
been reclaimed by many lesbian and gay organizations as a symbol of pride. It’s a
subversion of power speech.
As I looked deeply at the personal meaning of these texts, I began to recognize that being
called as prophet is very similar to the risk of coming out (a queer calling): in addition to the
excitement of following a voice within, there is the accompanying risk of being rejected by an
offended world (especially those of your own kin). The prophet is called to speak the truth of
God, the person coming out is called to speak the God-given truth about him or herself. It is a
calling, a coming out that often puts one at odds with others (in society and church). This
association between a prophet and one coming out inspired the title of the sermon, “Prophet: A
Queer Calling.” I admit that the title is a bit provocative and, perhaps, on the surface even
offensive. But, let me illustrate with a story:
Heath was seventeen and a senior in high school when he came out to his mother.
He lived most of his adolescent life in a small, rural town in the southeastern United States.
His mother and father divorced when Heath was very young and his mother raised Heath
and his two younger sisters with a strong adherence to a conservative Christian tradition.
For the past several years, the family attended a small moderate-to-conservative Baptist
church where Heath was heavily involved in the church’s youth ministry.
Throughout his middle school and early high school years, Heath frequently
attended youth ministry Bible studies and mission experiences and exhibited a strong
sense of identification with the Christian faith. This faith identity came through in his
passion for dealing with the difficult questions of life and faith and in Heath’s commitment
to helping others through personal support and mission work.
As most adolescents do, Heath began to resolve his own understanding of his sexual
orientation and identity, and felt it necessary to seek some degree of congruence between
his self-understanding and his personal relationships by coming out to his mother and
sisters. The announcement of his gay identity came as a shock to Heath’s family and went
against the grain of his mother’s strongly conservative religious ideology. Heath’s mother
vehemently challenged what she perceived as a choice on her son’s part to lead a “gay
lifestyle” and peppered her argument with religious language. Similarly, Heath’s two
younger sisters held to the guiding voice of their mother in shunning Heath’s sexuality.
Not only did Heath’s disclosure of his sexual orientation put him at odds with his
mother and sisters, but it also soon resulted in his expulsion from his home altogether.
After being kicked out by his mother solely on the basis of his coming out, Heath sought
shelter in the home of a friend whose parents agreed to allow him to stay for a time.
Unfortunately, his time at their residence ran short, as Heath’s hosts had children of their
own and could not support another dependant. Heath was, once again, a homeless gay
youth, and now, an unwilling high school dropout.
Throughout the multiple displacements forced upon him, Heath seemed to receive
little support from any adult presence in his church. Though he had been an active
presence in the church’s youth ministry and had developed a reputation as a young man
willing to serve the church and those in the community, no one seemed to take notice when
Heath became a homeless youth in a small town without homeless youth.
The remarkable thing about Ezekiel’s call was that he was not immediately called to
any specific task or message. Rather he was simply called to be—to be a prophet. It was
not a call that depended on a welcoming audience or support from the wider culture. He
was simply called to be a prophet with the hope that one day, his following of the call would
be vindicated. Jesus himself followed a similar call and even found, much to his surprise, I
might add, rejection from his own people. Now, this wasn’t a general rejection from the
“Jews” that so many like to talk about. Rather, this was a rejection coming from his own
folks—those kids he grew up with, the neighbors that watched him play as a child, his
friends and relatives. This same account is recorded in Matthew, Luke, John and the Gospel
of Thomas but Mark—always the realist—is the only gospel writer to add that Jesus was
rejected by none other than “his own kin.” They “took offense at him.” Better translated,
“they were scandalized by him.”
Many to whom Heath came out were astounded. His family asked, “Where did he
get this?” Heath’s neighbors, his own church, even his own kin took offense at him and
were scandalized by his presence among them. In this way, being called as a prophet is
very much like coming out as gay, lesbian or bisexual.The call and the coming out are
always risky ventures filled with tension; tension between knowing one’s internal, deeply
held identity as called of God, or created by God and knowing the risk of identifying this
inner voice to others. Both the calling and the coming out put one at odds with others
within society and within the church. Heath, like Jesus, accepted his own family’s verdict,
recognized their rejection and left. After all, what choice did he (or Jesus) have? I still have
occasional contact with Heath who has moved from state to state, taking up residence with
any friend or family member who would briefly take him in. Jesus, too, moves on—the Son
of Man having nowhere to lay his head. But neither Heath nor Jesus gives up, but instead
they press on embracing the queer prophetic identity and living into whatever future might
exist for them.
But the call of a prophet is queer in another regard—in a more inclusive way. This
queering of the prophetic call has nothing to do with sexual identity per se. Rather, this
queer calling has more to do with the rich philosophical background that I said earlier that
I would resist explaining. But now I have to explain… While not immediately obvious to
me, when I began to consider the broader philosophical meanings of “queer,” I began to
read the text differently.
Elizabeth Stuart sums up this meaning well when she says, “Historically based forms of
biblical criticism have attempted to read the text by focusing on the horizon behind it, the world
that gave rise to it. But a growing awareness of the influence of the response of readers…helped
to shift the focus onto the horizon in front of the text, the reader and her world. To read as a
queer is therefore to join the swelling ranks of resisting readers who read against the grain of the
reading traditions we have inherited, not only resisting the de-queering but also all other racist,
sexist, and classist strategies” (Taking Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, 29).
With a queering of the text, our traditional readings and interpretations become untamed
and unruly. Rather than a calm and reasoned decision to leave his family to follow a pristine call
from on high, the prophet—even Jesus himself—shows up on the scene of familiar territory
striving to understand and live into this strange call, fully expecting a hearing and an embrace
only to have his expectations wrestled away from him by the offense and scandal brought on by
his very presence. It is a story, as Marcella Althaus-Reid says, not of the “presence of God
among the marginalized,” but a story of “a truly marginalized God” (Queer Bible Commentary, 523).
She goes on to say, “Reading Christ in the scriptures cannot be an exemplary but a revelatory
reading. A reading that unmasks that of God in Christ’s own intimate chaos of love, messianic
public expectations and contra/dictions, that is, the voices of subversion in an otherwise well-
tamed text” (Queer Bible Commentary, 519).
A tamed reading of the text sees Jesus being rejected by his hometown, withholding his
works of power and healing as a punishment for their unbelief and then going out with an, “I’ll
show them,” attitude to heal the folks in neighboring towns. A domesticated interpretation sees a
Jesus pretending to be a poor pauper, all the while walking about with divine tricks up his sleeve
and with mighty power on his side. Dominant Christian discourse uses this text to say, “You see,
the ‘world’ rejected Jesus and it’ll reject us too, but just you wait, they’ll get theirs in the end.”
But an untamed and unruly—a queer—reading might not be so quick to place blame and draw
lines of distinction between the characters in the text. A queering of the text might take note that
the town folk did believe—“what is this wisdom,” “what deeds of power are being done by his
hands!”—yet they were nevertheless offended and scandalized by him. In the unruly reading, we
see Jesus being unable to perform deeds of power (oh yeah, “except that he laid his hands on a
few sick people and cured them”). And far from words of comfort to a church so often “rejected
by the world,” this queer text instead indicts those who are most familiar with Jesus and his
message, those who are closest to the interpretative tradition, those kinfolk who, when words of
subversion are spoken in Jesus’ name to question the power structures held so dear, speak up to
say, “Where are you getting all of this, isn’t this the Jesus we’ve been interpreting for years?”
When we turn this text upside down, we may come away with the church—Christ’s own
kinfolk—on the underside of the text, unable to recognize the marginalized God in its midst and
unwilling to hear any weak, prophetic call that doesn’t come with the attached promise of power.
The call of the prophet is a queer, subversive calling. One that requires a living-against-
the-grain of dominant discourse and power structures to unmask the marginalized God that is
within and all around. A queer calling that always carries with it the tension of rejection and
vindication, death and resurrection, a proclamation and a shaking of the dust off of one’s feet.
And then, perhaps the most remarkable part of Mark’s story comes when Jesus, with
mind still reeling from the reality of his rejection by kinfolk, calls the disciples around him
and sends them out on their own queer, prophetic journey. Reading the text, I have to ask,
“Do they know what he was getting them into?”
I imagine many of you do. I began the sermon by asking how these texts intersected
with my own story. Now, at the end of the sermon, I pose a different question: How does
this story intersect with our collective story? Oakhurst knows something about the call to
be a prophet. And, as a consequence of the church following that call time and time again—
a call to include and embrace all of God’s children—Oakhurst’s own Baptist kin did not
understand. Maybe some of you who were here back then were, as Mark says, “amazed at
their unbelief.” Unbelief that people could be so racist, unbelief that people thought women
couldn’t be pastors, unbelief that many thought gay and lesbian people shouldn’t be
welcomed and embraced. And so it goes, that the prophet was rejected among her own
kin—kicked out, expelled and removed from the roster of good, cooperative church folk.
While we have much to celebrate in looking back over the history of our following of
the prophetic call, there is still much to strive for, as the call is one of being and being, of
course, is never a task one can complete. So where are we, Oakhurst Baptist Church, still
being called forward in the prophetic journey? Suppose we went looking for the places
where we are supporting dominant discourse rather than subverting it? Where are we
drawing lines of division rather than blurring the lines of human distinction? How are we
taming the text, rather that unleashing its unruly nature among even our own kin? Where
will our prophetic imagination take us next?
And, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear…they shall know that there has been a
prophet among them.”
Rev. Cody J. Sanders, M.S., M.Div., NCC, a native of South Carolina, is a member of Oakhurst Baptist
Church in Decatur, GA, and is a member of the Alliance of Baptists. Cody is a graduate of the McAfee
School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta, GA and began a doctoral program in pastoral
theology and pastoral counseling at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, TX in August 2009.