Monday, August 3, 2009

A Biblical Love Triangle

Sermon preached on June 28, 2009 at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church and resposted by request.

This morning as we mark Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Freedom Day, we find ourselves in the midst of a cultural and political battle over marriage equality for same-sex couples. This conflict has been acutely felt by all of us in California. Like many of you, I was deeply disappointed by the passage of Proposition Eight and the California Supreme Court’s decision to uphold it. After so many years and so much struggle, I confess I was surprised to discover how hurt and vulnerable I can still feel in the face of blatant discrimination and relegation to second-class citizenship.

Heterosexual privilege – the notion that heterosexuals are morally superior to queer people and therefore entitled to a level of dignity and fundamental rights that queer folk are denied – a privilege enshrined in law and custom, is just as deeply rooted and intractable as sexism and racism. For too many heterosexual people, their sense of identity and security as persons is constructed over and against queer people. The reverse can be said of queer people too, I suppose, but the difference is that we queers don’t have the power to institutionalize privilege. We find it difficult enough to secure basic equality!

What is particularly ironic is that this heterosexual privilege is often justified in terms of biblical religion. The assumption on the part of many – both those who support and those who oppose marriage equality – is that the Bible is uniformly condemning of same-sex love. A few verses, often quoted out of context and with little understanding, are imposed as the lens through which we are compelled to read the whole of Scripture. I say that this is ironic because, in fact, the model of steadfast love at the heart of the biblical witness is in fact the love shared between two men. And it is this love which becomes the dominant image of divine love. It is God’s steadfast love for his beloved, David, a love that is homosocial and, indeed, homoerotic in its expression, that is the very model of God’s love for Israel and, later, the Church.[1]

Listen again to the words of David as he laments the death of King Saul and of Saul’s son, Jonathan, in battle against the Philistines:

"Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions . . . How the mighty have fallen in the in the midst of battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." (2 Samuel 1:23, 25-26)

David’s outpouring of grief is the tragic climax of the greatest love triangle in the literature of ancient Israel: the tortured relationships between Saul, Jonathan and David. The love of Jonathan and David has often been remarked upon. In last weeks Scripture lessons, we heard the reading from I Samuel, in which David is first introduced to Jonathan.

"When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took [David] that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and belt." (1 Samuel 18:1-4)

In this passage, we see the roots of the rivalry between Saul and Jonathan for David’s affection. Recall that King Saul had already chosen David as his armor-bearer: “David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer.” (1 Samuel 16:21) In the homosocial world of ancient warrior cultures, the relationship between a warrior and his companion was one of fierce loyalty, courageous service, and tender intimacy. But Jonathan, the heir to the throne, also falls for David and enters into a covenant of love with him, seeking David as his own armor-bearer.

As the narrative quickly unfolds, David’s beauty and military prowess bring him great popularity with the militia and with the people. Saul begins to be threatened by David, but this threat isn’t just political. Jonathan, too, garners the affection of the people but perhaps what is even more threatening to Saul, he garners the affection of David. The plot only makes sense if we realize that Jonathan and David’s love unfolds against the background of Saul and David’s erotically charged relationship.

In his jealousy, Saul drives his beloved armor-bearer into the arms of his son, Jonathan. Saul becomes increasingly erratic, on one hand attempting to buy off David by offering his daughters as trophy wives, on the other hand attempting to kill David in fits of pique. He seeks to bind David more closely to him and, finally, to kill him if he cannot control him. But David escapes these plots, often with Jonathan’s help. We are told that when Jonathan secretly goes to meet David, who is in hiding, David “bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more.” (1 Samuel 20:41)

What is amazing, however, is that even as David falls more deeply in love with Jonathan, he never fully forsakes his prior loyalty to his former lover, Saul. Even when David has the opportunity to kill Saul – on more than one occasion – he spares him out of steadfast loyalty and love. We might even say his love for Saul, however dysfunctional, prepares him for his later, more mutual and fulfilling, love for Jonathan. In fact, when things finally fall apart, and both Saul and Jonathan are killed on Mount Gilboa, David mourns for both these “beloved and lovely” men.

In the end this love triangle proves unstable and destructive. David becomes king in place of Saul, but the price he will pay is the death of Saul’s heirs; except for one: Jonathan’s crippled son, Mephibosheth, whom David promised to adopt and raise as his own son. Yet, in important ways, David’s steadfast love for Saul and Jonathan endures and prepares him for an even greater love.

The character of God, Yahweh as he is named in the narrative, is imagined, too, as a warrior-king. He chooses first Saul as his armor-bearer, but proves fickle in his love and later selects David as his beloved. Interestingly, what strikes Yahweh about both of these men is their great beauty. We are told that Saul was “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” (1 Samuel 9:2) Later, Yahweh rejects the aging king in favor of young David, who is “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome,” Yahweh declares, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” (1 Samuel 16:12)

And just as we see David progressing in his experience of love and loyalty as he moves through his relationships with Saul and Jonathan, so, too, Yahweh, who is a rather capricious and unpredictable god at the beginning of the narrative, seems to mature in his capacity for steadfast love and loyalty as he moves through his relationships with Saul and David.

It is as if David, by learning how to maneuver through his tragic human love triangle, is enabled to woo and domesticate fickle Yahweh. David’s covenant with Jonathan – a covenant of mutual love and loyalty – is paralleled by David’s covenant with Yahweh – a covenant that is consummated, if you will, with David dancing in a naked frenzy before the Ark of the Lord in chapter six of 2nd Samuel. As Yahweh navigates his own love triangle with Saul and David, he becomes a different kind of divinity, one whose steadfast love for David will become the paradigm of divine mercy and faithfulness in the biblical tradition.

So the next time you see a bumper sticker that says one man plus one woman equals marriage, consider these great love triangles of biblical faith, and the way in which mature, loyal love, both divine and human, is imagined in the relationships between men. Consider the possibility that an understanding of same-sex love as a sacrament, a sign of divine love, may well find its justification at the very heart of biblical faith – and, here, we might recall the love of Naomi and Ruth as well, but that is another sermon.

As I imagine David mourning the death of his lovers, Saul and Jonathan, I’m reminded of the deaths of so many lovers in the age of the great pandemic. In his memoir, Geography of the Heart, Fenton Johnson writes movingly of the life and death of his lover, Larry, a victim of AIDS. Upon learning of Larry’s death, Fenton’s friend, Wendell Berry, wrote to him saying “The disorientation following such loss can be terrible, I know, but grief gives the full measure of love, and it is somehow reassuring to learn, even by suffering, how large and powerful love is.”

How large and powerful love is. Those who have mourned their lovers like David howling on the mountaintop – they know something about how large and powerful love is. They know what it can cost us, and they know what it can create.

Shortly after Larry’s death, Fenton found himself driving to Muir Woods with his mother, reflecting on their memories of Larry, of love, and of loss. And then, his mother, rural Kentucky native and Roman Catholic convert, said something that completely stunned Fenton.
“I always thought of myself as tolerant and open-minded. I grew up with people who were gay, though of course back then we didn’t use that word. I knew some people in our town were gay, everyone knew they were gay, but I didn’t think much about that one way or another. Just live and let live, that’s my way of being in the world. And then you told me you were gay, and I guess I’d suspected it all along, and I just prayed that you’d stay healthy and find yourself a place where you could be happy. I prayed for all that and I was glad to see you get yourself to San Francisco, to a place where you could live in peace and be yourself. I was happy about that, but it wasn’t until I met you and Larry and spent time with the two of you together that I understood that two men could love each other in the same way as a man and a woman.”

“This speaking,” writes Fenton, “is the sacred thing, the gift from the dead to the living.”[2] From the death of his lover came the renewal of his relationship with his mother, bringing a new sense of intimacy, acceptance, and love. This was not the healing he was expecting, or even hoping for, and he never could have imagined what it would cost him. But even Larry’s death served to demonstrate how large and powerful love is.

If our burials are so moving, cannot our marriages be as well? If the death and grief of same-sex lovers can provide such a profound window into love, surely our lives and relationships can as well. It was true for David and Saul and Jonathan, and it is true for us today. Let our prayer be that of the psalmist: “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (Psalm 89:49) And let us discover the answer to this prayer in the steadfast love of queer comrades. Amen.

[1] My reading of the Davidic narrative is taken from Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel (New York: Continuum, 2005), pp. 3-66.

[2] Fenton Johnson, Geography of the Heart: A Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996), p. 233.

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