Friday, April 10, 2020

Maundy Thursday: Some Reflections on Pain

Maundy Thursday is the only day in the year that my heart, soul, and mind know how to hold pain.

I am a person who feels pain deeply. Some of this is depression. Some of it is living as a queer, disabled person in a capitalist, ableist, queerphobic world. A lot of it is loving people who are disabled, queer, trans, black and brown, or in other ways marginalized and under threat.

Some of it is just being human.

Most days of the year, I don't know how to hold my pain, or even how to feel it. I try to avoid it. I throw myself into service for others, or I sequester myself with my books and my computer games. Sometimes I straight up dissociate. I hide in other worlds that hurt less until the pain goes away. I do this because when I don't, the pain feels so overwhelming that I fear I will never stop feeling it. I have sobbed in my room for what felt like hours, knowing deep in my soul that if I don't do something, I will simply never stop crying.

I don't think I'm alone in this.

Years of therapy have taught me what I ought to do with pain: talk to others, create art, and above all else feel it. Yes, there are times and places when it is genuinely not safe to feel all of your pain, but when we keep from feeling it at all, it only grows stronger, working its way subtly in our bodies, poisoning us. I know I need to acknowledge and feel my pain, and yet I still push it away, because 364 days a year, it has no container. If it has no container, it has no end, and if it has no end, it will consume me.

This problem is both better and worse in the time of coronavirus. On the one hand, the pain seems to come out more frequently. I cry more often now. I speak to the people I love about my grief and pain and fear. On the other hand, this is mostly because I, like most of us, have more pain right now. For every time I have let myself cry or reach out these past weeks, there are a dozen where I have pushed the pain away, put on a funny podcast, indulged in a mindless videogame. Some of this has been healthy and necessary; some of it has been bad for me. Some of it still comes from the fear that if I cry an hour, an hour will turn into two, will turn into a day, will turn into the rest of my life. There still is no container.

I didn't expect tonight to be any different. Maundy Thursday has always been the most meaningful night of the church year for me, but I don't think I understood why until this year. Last year, I would have told you it was because it holds the heart of pain that allows us to get to Easter. If we don't feel the betrayal, the denial, the love, and the death of Jesus, then what does Easter really mean?

This year, I didn't think I needed that. Aren't I feeling enough grief? Don't I know fear, loneliness, and death well enough? I was prepared to phone it in (literally and figuratively) to my church's online Maundy Thursday service, then go back to eating chocolate and listening to a book that has nothing to do with pandemics.

But what I learned tonight about Maundy Thursday is this: the scriptures and songs of this Holy Week don't just bring us to a place of pain and sorrow; they hold it for us. They create a container. I found that I could cry for Jesus—betrayed, forsaken, beaten, condemned, and killed—in a way I could not cry for myself or even my loved ones in the present. I could feel the pain, knowing it is shared not just by my friends or family or community, but by Christians around the world. I could feel all the pain I had for Jesus, and for the world, and for myself, and it wasn't exactly that I stopped thinking the pain would never end; it was that it became okay if it didn't. It wasn't that I knew Easter and resurrection would come in a matter of days; I didn't think of Easter at all. It was that pain was simply the proper thing to feel right now, and now was a timeless moment. Now could extend indefinitely, and it would still be now, and I would still be in pain—but most importantly, my church community, and God, and Jesus, would still be in pain with me. We would all be in pain together until the time for pain had passed.

I don't know if this is the right way to say what I am feeling tonight. I don't know if it is helpful to others, or simply sounds as if I am glorifying pain. What I do know is this: living a life where I fear to feel pain has harmed me; worshiping in a way that allows me to feel that pain safely helps me. Helps me in a way that all the therapy and supportive listening spaces in the world cannot. Those are invaluable tools, and I would not be who or where I am without them. But just as much, I would not be who or where I am without hymns, prayers, the story of the Passion, and candles being blown out, one by one. Ritual has the power to hold my pain, to transform it. Ritual is what I need in this time of near constant pain.

I participated online in one Maundy Thursday service with the church I work for right now. Then, without even thinking about it, I went and found the stream for my home church. Then I texted one of my pastors. Then I called a dear friend from my home church. Then I sat down to write this piece. Off and on, I cried. Throughout, I felt pain. It has now been nearly two and a half hours since the beginning of this journey. I am tired. I am still feeling pain, but less pain than I was two and a half hours ago. I cannot remember the last time I sat with pain for two and a half hours. I am not afraid. I think this is what healing feels like.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Speech: Lessons from a Deviation

Presented on July 21, 2018 at Eastern Regional Youth Event. The theme for the event was, "My theme song is God's love and justice."

Good evening! I'm so excited to be here with you all, and I'm even more excited that all of you are here. You made the decision to give up part of your summer and travel, some of you for a long time, to come talk about God's love and justice. I'm saying it that way because I'm only a few years older than most of you, but I would not have chosen to come to an event like this when I was in middle or high school, and it's not because I wasn't passionate about God's love and justice. I'll tell you a bit about why that was in a minute, but right now I want to teach you a song. See, I believe in mixing all kinds of mediums together: prayer, preaching, speaking, singing—for me it all flows together, and what with our focus being the theme song of God's love and justice, it feels more appropriate than ever to sing.

I am human.
I am human.
I am human,
And I am here.

We are human (x3)
And we are here.

We are holy (x3)
And we are here.

We need each other (x3)
And we are here.

We are human (x3)
And we are here.

So, the reason I began with this song is actually the same reason I never attended a Regional or National Youth Event. It's because there are some spaces in which I feel less than human, less than myself, and it's important to begin conversations like the one we're about to have by reminding us that we are all human, that while we differ in so many beautiful and amazing ways, nonetheless, we are human. We are imago dei, the image of God.

I suspect we all have some of these disconcerting moments, when we feel out of our depth, amidst a group of people we don't know, or aren't comfortable with. These are especially common in middle and high school I think, and in high school I began to realize that for me, they happened very consistently, and under very consistent circumstances. I felt awkward, invisible, left out, less than human, when I was part of an unfamiliar group of people my own age, and when the first fact they learned about me was my disability. See, I am legally blind, and in unfamiliar places—like a Regional Youth Event, for instance—I need a decent amount of help: getting from place to place, finding food, participating in certain games and activities. I've been open about my disability since I was very young, but eventually I realized that if this was the first thing people learned about me, it ended up being the only thing they learned about me. I stopped being a fellow high schooler in their eyes, and instead became an object: something to take care of. And much as it pains me to admit it, this was especially prone to happen with groups of church youth. I never had friends in youth group, or on church trips, and sometimes not even at my beloved summer camp, because when people have placed you in the category of "needs to be helped," it can be very hard to move from there into friendship.

I have a theory about why this happens so frequently with church people. We in the UCC and similar denominations are very good at instructing people to care for one another. Love your neighbor. Be a good Samaritan. Help those in need. And that's wonderful and important, but we so rarely talk about how to do this. As a youth, I don't remember hearing about respecting the autonomy and personhood of the people we serve, or forming a mutual relationship of care. I hope you've heard some of those concepts before, but I didn't until I started learning about social justice in secular circles.

I started seriously reflecting on this in college—from a disability perspective, since that's the lens through which I experience it, though other people experience it, too. This dehumanizing loneliness that I felt? It's what happens when people's primary relationship to you is one of care-taking combined with pity. People with disabilities are forced into this kind of relationship when people don't believe we have anything to offer. Similarly, it can happen to people who eat at soup kitchens, or receive welfare, or are in some other way "in need." I call this relationship "the Good Samaritan Paradigm." Because as much as I love the story of the Good Samaritan and the message of loving one another across all axes of difference, I think it has been used to divide people uncritically between the categories of the helpers, and those who need help. Too often, we care for one another's physical needs—sometimes extravagantly and with all the good will in the world—but without attention to one another's emotional needs, and without asking ourselves what this "person in need" might be able to offer us.

So, naturally, as a person with a disability, my response to this is to offer something. And what I want to offer you tonight are a few of the lessons I have learned from being a disabled person of faith living and working in disability community.

First, let's talk about that wonderful phrase Convergence Music Project offered us in song yesterday and this morning: imago dei, the image of God. This theological idea comes from one of my favorite Bible verses, Genesis 1:27: "So God created humankind in God's own image. Male and female, God created them."

Theologians have spent centuries discussing what this means, to be made in the image of God. What are the essential aspects of this image, and what elements of humanity are "deviations" from this image? It may not surprise you to learn that for many ancient theologians, being female was a deviation from that divine image. Being a person of color was a deviation. And absolutely, always, having a disability was a deviation.

Thing is, I'd heard this line of thinking before I ever cracked a theology book, and I'm betting most of you have, too. In our media, our politics, our advertising, and more, we learn that male, white, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied are "the norm," and anything else—anyone else—is a deviation. That's what those crusty old theologians are saying: the imago dei is "the norm," the thing we futilely expect everyone to be.

But that, my friends, is one of the most insidious, nonsensical lies you will ever hear. As I hope you all know by now, we are all created in the image of God—not in spite of our differences, but because of them. There is no one, Adam-like norm that constitutes "the Image of God." Rather, everything that we celebrate about ourselves, or that others celebrate in us; everything that makes us glad to be us; everything that defines us and makes God smile: those things constitute the image of God.

And so I am here today to tell you that I am blind, and I am made in the image of God, and my blindness is part of the image of God. My disability is as inseparable from me as my skin tone, my sexuality, and my love of words, and I would not be myself without it. I do not need to defend my identity, to tell you how much I have learned about human capabilities and resourcefulness from my experience of disability. Similarly, you don't need to justify to anyone how you are created in the image of God. You are as you are because God called it good, and if you find it good, no one can contradict you. I hope you see yourself as good.

Next, disability has taught me about one of my Conference Minister Kent Siladi's favorite words: interdependence.

Now I want you to do something for me. I want you to close your eyes, and imagine that you are connected to everyone in this room. Think of all the ways you've supported one another this weekend. Think about the people who have made you laugh, asked questions that made you think, or helped you do something you didn't think you could do. Imagine lines of energy connecting you to everyone here, and remember the ways that you have offered support to others, answered needs, made connections. And now stretch your imagination beyond these walls, and think of your friends and family back home, all the people who have supported you, or who you support. Think not just of the people you know, but the ones you don't know: the farmers who grow your food, the people who clean your schools and public buildings, the doctors and nurses and truck drivers and electricians and construction workers who meet your needs, and the needs of others, before you even know you have them. Imagine that you have touched the lives of people you have never met, in ways that you cannot comprehend. And finally, imagine you're connected not just to the people, but to the plants and animals and the planet itself: that the whole of creation is interdependent with you, and you with it.

Now open your eyes, and remember that that's not imaginary; that's real.

It's often said that people with disabilities are dependent. That we have "special" needs. And to an extent that's true. I need things, like a guide to the dining hall, that most of you don't. But none of us comes into this world alone, and none of us goes through it alone. My disability makes me more aware of this connection, of how lost I would be without the people I love. And most of the time, I remember that many of them would be equally lost without me. We are the body of Christ, each doing our unique part for the work of God, and none of us can say that anyone else is irrelevant. The environment itself shows us the same thing. Ecosystems are interdependent networks in which one change, one loss, unbalances everything, and what we do to the Earth today effects our children tomorrow. We were created to be in relationship with each other, and with all of creation, and to turn away from that is to turn away from the image of God.

The last lesson I want to share with you tonight is this: you have power. As a young person growing up with a disability, I learned very quickly how much power my peers and I had to welcome others, or to abandon them. I've told you how youth your age sometimes made me feel less than human, but there were also groups of youth who made me feel fully myself, seen and known and celebrated. I know that I have done both to other people. I have tried to welcome others as friends and siblings in Christ, but I don't know how many people I have ignored and objectified without realizing it.

My invitation to you is to know your power. Know that you have the power to live out interdependence now, to receive the image of God in others now, to dismantle the Good Samaritan Paradigm now. When you embrace everyone, regardless of what or how much they need, as a child of God, and as a friend, you will truly be singing the song of God's love and justice.

Before I finish, I want to lead you in one more song, a song of interdependence.

What I cannot do, do with me.
What I cannot do, do with me.
Be there to take my hand,
Lend me strength, we both will stand,
With me, beside you,
Doing what I can't do.

What I cannot say, say with me.
What I cannot say, say with me.
Be there to take my hand,
Lend me strength, we both will stand,
With me, beside you,
Doing what I can't do.

What I cannot be, be with me.
What I cannot be, be with me.
Be there to take my hand,
Lend me strength, we both will stand,
With me, beside you,
Doing what I can't do.

What you cannot do, do with me.
What you cannot do, do with me.
I'll be there to take your hand,
Lend you strength, we both will stand,
With me, beside you,
Doing what I can't do.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Editing the Bible: An Accessibility Story

On the bad days, it feels like nothing is accessible to me, but even on those days, there's one thing I know I can do: read.

Privileged with the skill of Braille and the posession of assistive tech, reading is as easy for me as breathing, and I have always loved it. A chance to escape somewhere, learn something new, examine an old problem from a new angle—the possibilities are endless. And all of it far more accessible to me than most other things in my life.

Except when it comes to the Bible.

Well, not really the Bible. My Bible, specifically.

The edition of the Bible I have chosen as my own, the one I read from cover to cover, ponder as a holy text, and study as a scholar, is the Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha, downloaded from my favorite accessible books site. For those who don't speak Bible-nerd, that means that my Bible is longer than most Protestant bibles, because it contains an additional section including several books accepted as scripture by some traditions but not others. It also means that every chapter of this colossal Bible is annotated with notes on translation, history, and possible interpretations, which add another couple hundred pages or so.

In other words, this thing is huge. That's not the inaccessible part, although I'll admit it's not great. My notetaker doesn't like to open huge files, but it's easy enough to split my Bible into smaller ones.

No, the problem is that the formatting of my Bible is shit.

Imagine, if you will, that you're reading a book like the Bible that has several books, each containing an introduction and many chapters divided into verses, and lots and lots of footnotes.

Now imagine that someone has messed with the line breaks. It's not always clear where a paragraph ends, where a chapter ends, where introduction becomes scripture or scripture becomes notes. Sometimes the lines flow together; sometimes the line breaks divide sentences

in half, or separate them from their punctuation

. Now imagine the spacing is wonky too. Lots of extra spaces everywhere, random words    offset    by several spaces for no    reason. Now imagine that this book has been scanned, and the scanner has made some funky mistakes, like periodically turning God into Cod, mixing up vv. 1-11 for w. I-n, and so forth. Now imagine that almost everythingin the bloodyannotationsis italicized and this might be a feature of the original book but you don't care because it looks stupid.

Any of these things, on their own, would be annoying. Altogether, they make the book almost unreadable.

At this point, it might be fair to ask, why not give up on this Bible and go find a new one? There are absolutely other digital editions—hell, better hardcopy Braille editions, if you have a bookcase to spare. And I'll admit, there's some wisdom to this question.

But the thing is, I love my stupid inaccessible Bible. I love it the way I love so many other inaccessible things in my life, like traveling, or buying clothes, or playing computer games. I live in a world that was not made for me, and I love it anyway. I love it, and strive to make it more accessible.

And the thing about this Bible—the thing about this ridiculous I-don't-even-know-how-someone-screwed-it-up-this-badly Bible—is: it's fixable. It's fixable by me. I, on my own, can make my own accessible Bible. The number of accessibility issues that are 100% fixable for me byme might be exactly one.

So off and on for the past three or so years, I have been engaged in reading and "editing" my Bible. Deleting the extra spaces, fixing the line spacing, clearly marking chapters and note sections, adding in markers I can use a search command to find again—basically turning this stinking pile of poo into the most accessible thing I've ever seen, and at the same time reading the whole damn Bible.

It's a challenge, of course. Reading the Bible on its own isn't easy, and the editing work gets mindnumbing to say the least. But the accomplishment I feel when I finish editing a book, knowing that the next time I need to look up a verse I'll be able to find it and its notes with ease—that's worth it.

I believe everything should be as accessible as possible, but I have some particular feelings about the Bible. The Bible is one of the foundations of Christianity, and everyone should be able to access it if they choose. My Bible will, eventually, be fully accessible to me. I may have chosen the harder path to get there, but I    will

      get there.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Sermon: To Love the Body of God, We Must ...

Sermon preached at First Church of Christ Simsbury on April 29, 2018.
Includes "Body of God Meditation," also available here.
Audio available here.

Scriptures: Psalm 139:11-16 and 1 John 4:7-8, 15b-19

God is love, God is love, God is love. Oh Divine Love, help us to be more like you. Amen.

That, my friends, is the essence of this sermon, and, in my opinion, every sermon you've ever heard or will ever hear. But this sermon doesn't end there, because in order to pray that prayer, to know it in our bones, we need to answer two, small questions: What is love, and who is God?

And that, dear ones, is why preachers everywhere are still preaching, theologians are still theologizing, and congregations are still congregating. Because no matter how much we preach, think, or pray, we will never have the complete answers to those questions. God is everything, is so much more than we can ever understand. And by extension, love, however much we feel it, however much we try to describe it, defies our comprehension as well.

But, because I like a good challenge, I'm going to try anyway.

To do this, I begin at the beginning, and I begin with bodies:

"So God created humankind in God's own image. Male and female, God created them" (Gen 1:27).

This is hands down my favorite verse in the Bible, and I could probably preach about a dozen different sermons on it alone. It tells us that we are made in the image of God, this marvelous being who we cannot understand. We, our bodies, ourselves, are the image of God.

You'll notice I'm dwelling a lot on the word bodies here, despite the fact that that word isn't in this verse, or any of our readings for today. But the word doesn't really need to be there, does it? We are our bodies. The text doesn't say, "God created the idea of humankind," or, "God created human minds." It says, "God created humankind in God's own image." That's an embodied image, my friends. Which means that we are not spirit, body, and mind, three separate pieces. We are our bodies, and they are the image of God.

And this includes people with disabilities.

We, our bodies, are made in the image of God, just as all bodies are. We are like God, and in many senses, God is like us. And so I say to you that I am blind, and God is blind.

Who is God?

God is disabled.

I'll return to what this means later, I promise, but for now, I want to speak more about love.

I think bodies get in the way of love, sometimes. We can all agree, I hope, that as Christians, we are called to love everyone. It's easy to say, but then the bodies, the messy particulars, force us to confront that question: What is love? How do we show our love?

A couple of examples.

One week at a Christian summer camp, I spent the first three days with many helpers and no friends. My fellow campers, you see, had learned that the right, the loving thing to do for a blind person in their midst was to help her get from place to place, make sure she didn't trip or fall. It never occurred to them that what I needed most of all was people to talk to and laugh with. They were perfectly kind and helpful, and I felt no love at all.

Another summer, I was auditioning for the musical theater program at an arts camp. I'd spent years singing and performing in plays—but had absolutely no dance experience. Being both blind and generally uncoordinated, I was pretty nervous about auditioning, but I was confident that if my acting and singing were strong enough, I would get in and could improve my dancing from there. So I sang my song, performed my monolog, worked my way through the audition dance, and left feeling pretty good. The next week, the directors of the program got back to me, and told me that while they loved my voice and my talent, they just didn't think they could teach a blind girl to dance. They offered me a spot in their vocal music program instead. I turned them down, because I just didn't believe they really loved my voice.

And these are nothing compared to the failures of love that other people with disabilities encounter. People have had their choices taken away in the name of love. We have been infantalized, denied opportunities, and had our concerns brushed aside, often by people who say that they love us. I'm not even talking today about the things that people who don't care about us do.

Are we or are we not the image of God? Are we or are we not fearfully and wonderfully made?

Fearfully and wonderfully. Sometimes, in the case of people with disabilities, we tend to focus on the fear part. There's a lot of fear that goes along with disability. The world can be a much scarier place for people with disabilities. For instance, I'm fairly certain that busy street crossings are more frightening for me than for most sighted people.

But that's not the only way that fear and disability intersect, is it? I think for most of us, the fear of becoming disabled, or more disabled, is pretty high up there on the list of things that send chills down our spines. We value our bodies and minds, or we take them for granted, but either way we expect them to generally keep functioning as they are now. Just the idea of disability sets that assumption into a panic.

So we fear disability for ourselves and our loved ones, and that clouds our relationships with people with disabilities. Imagining their experience frightens us, so we try not to. We elevate them to the level of saints for dealing with what we believe we cannot. Or we dive in, trying to conquer our fear, trying to be helpful, but not taking the time to learn how to be. Or, we hang back, knowing how much we don't know, and afraid of messing up. And I say we, because I'm not immune to any of this. I've feared other people with disabilities. I've had to learn how to love them, and myself.

Because that's a big part of all this, friends. We've all heard before that you can't truly love others until you love yourself. In this case, that's true. We can't love people with disabilities until we see the disability, or the possibility of disability, inside ourselves. Whether it's a creaky knee that could be arthritis, or the memory of an eating disorder, or an illness that just won't go away, we all carry in our bodies something that could be, or could have been, a disability, and most of us fear and shun that part of us. What would happen if instead, we remembered that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and focused on the wonder? Wonder at the ways in which our bodies and minds are intricately connected. Wonder at the myriad ways in which we can adapt and respond to any situation. Wonder at all the gifts different bodies and minds can bring.

I know that I will never stop being afraid of things related to my blindness. But I also know that I will never stop being in wonder. Every time I hear something a sighted person does not, I am in wonder. Every time I interpret the quality of a silence, I am in wonder. Every time I read Braille, I am in wonder, and I am grateful for my blindness. This is part of who I am. This is part of the image of God.

"Perfect love casts out fear," writes John, and so it is. When we love our bodies, in all their limitations and abilities, we fear them less, and we fear others less, and we love others, and God, more. Because as John also reminds us, to love each other is to love God. To love the body of God, we must love other bodies, and our own body.

I'm nearly at the end, and yet, we're still at the beginning. We're still at the beginning because the journey of casting out fear and learning to perfect our love is a long one, especially because I'm not just inviting you as individuals to do this work. I am asking this church to do it as a whole. Some of you may know that for the past few months a new committee, the Accessible to All committee, has been meeting. The work of this committee is to find ways to show love and welcome to people of all abilities and disabilities. My hope is that this committee will help all of us to continue casting out our fear as we strive to make First Church a more accessible place. My blessing for all of you is that you remember the ways in which your bodies, exactly as they are, make you who you are; that you may think of all those around you, whose bodies and minds work differently than yours, and recognize their gifts, and how their bodies are part of who they are; and that when you think these thoughts, they cast out fear just a little bit, and replace it with thoughts of justice, joy, compassion, and peace.

Finally, I will return where I began, to the question, who is God? I cannot give you the answer, but I offer up an answer, in the form of a meditation. So I invite you to close your eyes, and imagine the body of God.

Imagine it with all the genders and races and physical descriptions of the world. God is male and female and both and neither and all. God is black and red and olive and tan. God has hair in long braids, slanted eyes, flat nose, big lips, long beard, curvy body, long arms, short legs. God wears flowing dresses, and blue jeans, and saris, and turbans, and tuxedos, and lots and lots of jewelry. God has tatoos of every animal of the world, and a single heart-shaped stud in their right ear.

And God has every ability, and every disability in the world.

God walks, God limps, God rolls, God crawls. God gets where God needs to be, gets to us, however God can.

God's mind works with the speed—and sometimes the randomness—of ADHD. God feels pain with the depths of depression, and joy like an episode of mania. God hears the voices of all people and all living things. God has no one way of solving problems. Sometimes God moves from step to step with the most analytic of minds. Sometimes God makes great intuitive leaps that cannot be explained. Sometimes God gets stuck in a loop because the present, whether good or bad, is the time where God lives.

God paints with their feet and reads with their hands. God can dance by swaying and shuffling, and sing by making noises that are not words, but express emotions that words cannot.

God is too busy reaching out to us to be concerned that they cannot see. God is too busy feeling the rhythms of music in their bones to worry about what it sounds like. God is too busy loving, loving with all God's arrhythmic heart to be anything but grateful for the body they have.

Is it any wonder that we have trouble grasping God, when God's body does not move the way we expect a body to move? Is it any wonder we have trouble understanding God when God speaks with the slurred words of Cerebral Palsy? Is it any wonder that we cannot comprehend God, who bares the chronic pain of the suffering of the world?

How can we come closer to this being beyond our comprehension, this bodymind that meets none of our expectations?

By freeing ourselves of expectations.

By searching for God in the unique bodyminds of our fellow human beings.

By seeking to understand that which challenges us, and confuses us, and frightens us.

By accepting ourselves, and the bodyminds that make us who we are.

When we pray that all of this may be so; when we pray to love all bodies and minds; when we pray to be both broken and whole at once: we are praying, "God is love, God is love, God is love. Oh Divine Love, help us to be more like you. Amen."

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Sermon: Eunuchs, Goats, and Unfinished Stories

Preached at First Church of Christ Simsbury on November 26, 2017
Audio available here.

Sermon preached to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance
Texts: Acts 8:26-33 and Matthew 25:31-40

God, for all your beloved children, thanks be to you. For the Christ-being inside each of us, thanks. For all those who share in your suffering and your death and your power, honor forever. Amen.

For the past two weeks or so, I've been in mourning. Not constantly, you understand, but in preparation for Transgender Day of Remembrance, which was last Monday, and then for this service, I've been reading through the list of names of the people who died this year. This list is thirty-seven pages long, and it contains the name, location, and cause of death of transgender and gender-nonconforming people murdered this year around the world, for nothing more than the crime of being trans. I have read this list and cried, not just for the names on it, but for those left off. This list does not contain murders that were not reported. It does not contain victims who were trans, but were not identified as such by families or officials. And finally, it does not contain suicides, which claims huge numbers of trans people every year. This list is an unfinished story. It does not tell the full truth of the losses transgender communities around the world have faced, but perhaps more than that, it is a reminder that every life is a story, and all of these stories are forever cut short. Unfinished.

Some of you may perhaps have noticed that our scriptures this morning are also, in a sense, unfinished. They both end a little ... abruptly. You might have heard this passage from Matthew before and remembered that Jesus talks not just to the sheep, but to the goats. I know you heard the story about the Ethiopian eunuch as recently as September, and you might remember that something kind of important happens to him after he talks with Phillip. But this morning, both of these stories are cut short, unfinished. There are several reasons for this, one of which, frankly, was a desire to not have us spend all morning reading scripture. But more importantly, I think there's something important for us to ponder in these abrupt endings. Take, for instance, this passage from Isaiah that the Ethiopian eunuch is reading aloud: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."

Now, a verse or two after I stopped reading, Phillip is going to tell the Ethiopian eunuch how these verses are really talking about Jesus. And that's a reasonable interpretation. But reading these verses today, I can't help but think of others whose lives are taken away from the Earth. Who, in their humiliation, are denied justice. And I can't help but imagine how the Ethiopian eunuch might be reading these passages.

Eunuchs, if you don't remember from Pastor George's sermon on Rally Day, are biological males who have been castrated. In the ancient world, eunuchs occupied a gender category all their own, not exactly male or female, and many of them took on a feminine presentation. While we don't know how these individuals would identify using our current terminology, it would not be a stretch to call them gender-nonconforming, and not inconceivable to call them transgender. And Ethiopian is Bible-speak for African. So our friend the Ethiopian eunuch is, potentially, a trans-feminine person of color. Which reminds me that most of the names on this list are trans women of color.

Of course, biblical time is not our time. Our friend the Ethiopian eunuch—let's call them E—has a position of power and prestige: they are in charge of the queen's entire treasury. On the other hand, eunuchs were still socially marginalized in many places, including the Jerusalem Temple, where they were considered ritually impure. Plus, E's dark skin would have marked them out as different, at the very least. I sincerely hope that in biblical times, a black, trans-feminine foreigner was no more likely to meet trouble on the road than anyone else. But I think I know enough about how humans have historically perceived difference to guess that E's life was far from smooth. They probably faced inappropriate questions or remarks about their body; snide comments behind their back or to their face; lost friends or opportunities. Even with all the power and prestige they seem to have, they are still not safe from the world's view of their identity. And as they are riding along in their chariot, reading these words from Isaiah, perhaps they are remembering times when they were not physically safe. Perhaps they are wondering, "Am I really safe? Or could my life be taken away from the earth at any time?"

That is the kind of question this list makes me ask every time I think about it. How safe are my trans friends? I, and the various communities I have been a part of have worked hard to keep our trans siblings safe. We've given them a place to sleep when their family's house wasn't home; we've offered to walk them home, or to the bathroom, or anywhere else they feel unsafe; we've worked to educate ignorant family and friends; and above all, we've made sure that wherever we are is a safe place to be. But this list reminds me that even the best of allies cannot promise safety. Some of the people on this list never were safe; they were homeless, or in abusive relationships. But some of them were surrounded by loving communities, had jobs and other societal advantages that seem to promise safety. But in the end, they were fundamentally unsafe, because deep down, our society still considered trans and black lives disposable. One or several people embodying that mindset crossed their path, and they died.

And it could happen to my friends. That's the pain beneath my pain these past two weeks. I've been sitting with the knowledge that, like the dead we are honoring today, my friends are fundamentally unsafe. It's terrifying, and it's not a truth I can, or should, focus on for most of the year. But this is a truth that I need to wrestle with, first of all because it is true, and second of all because I know that many of my trans friends can never forget it. They live every day with the knowledge that they are unsafe, that society does not recognize their gifts, their struggles, or even their deaths. If I cannot make them safe, the least I can do is share their pain.

Let's return to E now, and I'll tell you the piece of the story I didn't include in the reading this morning.

E is reading this passage of Isaiah to themself, thinking their thoughts, when suddenly this random Jew runs up to them and says, "Do you understand what you're reading?"

And E says, "How can I, unless someone guides me?"

There are several things that could be happening in this answer. E could be asserting that, as a Jew, Phillip is far more likely to know how to interpret Isaiah than they are. They could be inviting Phillip to interpret with them, knowing that in Jewish tradition true scriptural understanding comes through conversation. But I wonder, too, if part of their response comes from a need to find a new lens through which to see these verses. Let me not see death, they are begging Phillip. Let me stop remembering the times I've been demeaned, or assaulted. Let me see something other than my own death in this text.

And Phillip, God bless him, does give E something new. First, he does talk about death—the death of Jesus. Jesus, who was killed for being himself, for living his mission and his call. Jesus, whose death was unjust and cruel.

And then Phillip goes on to speak of resurrection. He explains that, though Jesus was killed, though his body and his life were rendered disposable, he defied everyone's understanding of him and rose from the dead.

E listens to this in awe, not just because someone rising from the dead is unheard of, but because they see themself in Jesus. E, too, is being themself, living their mission and call to be themself, no matter what society thinks. And because of that, they fear dying a cruel death and receiving no justice. So the fact that Jesus can absorb all this pain, die, and return with a renewed message of peace and joy and love—that is deeply meaningful to E. E knows, of course, that if they die, it's highly unlikely they'll be resurrected. But for E, identifying with Jesus' suffering means identifying with Jesus' power. It means that whatever they may suffer, whatever Good Fridays and deaths of the spirit, they can return, stronger than ever, more themself than ever, and make the world a better place for it. Which is perhaps why they say to Phillip, "What is to prevent me from being baptized?"

Jesus is saying much the same thing in Matthew. "Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me." "I am them," Jesus is saying, "and they are me. We are one in our suffering and need." The obvious reading of this text, of course, is that those of us with resources have the responsibility to care for those without. We must search for Jesus within one another, and treat each other the way we would treat Jesus. This of course, is extremely relevant to this list I still have before me. The people who murdered these individuals were not treating them like Jesus. Any friends or family who abandoned their loved one when they came out as trans were not treating them like Jesus. And the justice systems that are making little or no progress in finding the murderers in many of these cases, are not treating the dead like Jesus.

But again, to identify with Jesus' suffering is to identify with Jesus' power. Hidden within all the forms of suffering Jesus mentions—hunger, thirst, sickness, prison—is the possibility of resurrection, of new life, new hope, new justice. For trans and other marginalized folks, this means that there is light, even at the darkest of times. You have the power of Jesus within you, and you can use it to do great things.

And for allies, this means that we need to recognize not just the vulnerability, but the power of trans and marginalized people among us. We are called not only to nourish and sustain them, but to lift up and empower them.

On a day like Transgender Day of Remembrance, it can be easy to feel powerless. We read this list of names, and know that nothing can bring them back, and we feel hopeless, alone, and afraid. I know I do. But it's natural to feel these things. Necessary, even. You have to go through Good Friday in order to get to Easter. But in that Easter spirit, I tell you that we are not powerless. We can find the power of Jesus in ourselves, and in others. We can sustain one another, lift each other up, and affirm that whether the world values the least of these or not, we do.

So I invite you to feel whatever it is you are feeling right now. If you need to grieve today, for these losses, and for the ones we will likely suffer next year, I grieve with you. If you need to be in fear today, for yourself or your loved ones, I am in fear with you. If you have found hope or courage in these words or others, I am in hope and courage with you. And if you have found awe in looking around at your siblings here today and seeing the power of Jesus, I am in awe with you, and of you. Let those who are in hope and awe comfort those in mourning and fear. And let us all honor our own power, and use it well, so that we may one day have a year where there is not a single name on this list.

God, for all your beloved children, thanks be to you. For the Christ-being inside each of us, thanks. For all those who share in your suffering and your death and your power, honor forever. Amen.