Quick on the heels of Christmas, Epiphany takes its seat between the Slaughter of the Innocents and Ash Wednesday. It’s a skinny season of immensely hopeful proportion. During these brief winter days of Epiphany we celebrate the surprise - no, the shock, like the first lightening bolt from an unexpected storm - of the manifestation of God’s good news to the gentiles.
It is doubtful that Annie Proulx, author of the 1997 short story, Brokeback Mountain, ever imagined her story could be an apt sermon illustration for an Epiphany homily, let alone provide the narrative for the triumphant movie, but I’d like to make a case for it. For those who have yet to read the story or see the film, here is a brief summary.
In 1963, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, teenage cowboys in Wyoming, get jobs herding sheep for the summer. Ennis is desperate for a job and Jack is scratching his itch to “be somewhere, anywhere else than Lightening Flat,” his remote hometown. Sheep herders have always been despised by cattle ranchers, a history not lost on the author who casts these discarded “pair of deuces going nowhere” as shepherds. We worry from the opening scene that nothing good will come of them.
The two boys on horseback and their sheep dogs drive the thousand ewes high into the Rockies where the dense beauty, isolation, and raw power of Nature propel the action. As Ennis and Jack guard the sheep, they are hailed on, snowed on, rained on, and struck by the kind of lightening that charges companionship with love and sex. There they discovered Brokeback Mountain, a harsh place of belonging, “a place both empowering and inimical,” claims the author, a landscape of surprise.
Over the next twenty years, Ennis and Jack married strong women, raised children, worked rodeos and ranches, sold farm machinery, and after two decades of occasional “fishing trips” near Brokeback to rekindle their fire, the story comes to a tragic halt. The scene shifts from the verdant mountains to the desolate flatlands. The years of emotional and physical isolation, the internalized homophobia, the denial of self, and the denial of love, converge like rivers flooding the grief-stricken plains. All that we see and feel is desolation.
In her no-nonsense style, Annie Proulx said of Brokeback Mountain, “It is a story of destructive rural homophobia.” Throughout the film we are witnesses to the panoramic views of homophobia ruining lives - physically, emotionally, economically, and socially. This drives the drama and pathos of Brokeback Mountain. Ennis and Jack store it in their bodies like ammunition ready for battle or self-destruction. Their internalized self-hatred stifles hope, feeds their fears, blurs the lines between intimacy and violence, isolates them from each other, from the world, and from themselves. In a poignant conversation on Brokeback, Ennis says to Jack, “Bottom line, we’re around each other and this thing grabs on to us again in the wrong place, wrong time, and we’ll be dead.” In the midst of an unsafe time and culture, Brokeback Mountain was their only place of refuge, a mountainous theme looming over every scene.
A reasonable hope of belonging to a safe place and to safe people is often an anxious prayer for many people. Who doesn’t desire to be safe in our own home, at work, at school, in our church, in our own skin? Yet this is not the real or perceived reality for most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in our communities and congregations, even when “Will and Grace” airs on prime-time. Two-thirds of out LGBT youth in the U.S. were threatened or injured with a weapon at school last year. Matthew Shepherd’s crucifixion on a Wyoming stock fence, less than a year after the publication of Brokeback Mountain, still serves as a compelling symbol of the coercive, violent force of homophobia, and not only in the rural West. Wyoming is merely a metaphor.