Eunuchs, Goats, and Unfinished Stories

bekah anderson

This is the sermon preached by Bekah Anderson at First Church of Christ Simsbury on November 26, 2017 to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance. Bekah is an intern in the church’s Young Adult Service Community (YASC) ministry. YASC interns live in community in a house on the church premises, work in a social service agency for 32 hours a week, and are active in the life of the church for about 6 hours a week. Bekah is an intern at Our Piece of the Pie in Hartford.

Acts 8:26-33

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.

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Responding to #metoo

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This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 22, 2017 to mark the 5th Anniversary of First Church becoming an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ.

Isaiah 45:1-7

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Last week, I noticed that many women were making the same short, cryptic post on their Facebook page, writing simply #metoo (see my sermon title for how that is written). At first I couldn’t figure out what these women had in common that would cause them to all say #metoo, they were young and old, gay and straight, black, white and brown, and liberal and conservative. I soon learned that these posts were meant to draw attention to the sexual harassment and sexual assault of women at the hands of men. Each woman was saying that she too had experienced such sexual violence.

Dozens of women, including A-list stars, recently came forward to charge Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein with sexual harassment and sexual assault. It is said that Weinstein asserted his power to touch them, expose himself to them, and rape them. In such cases there are always some who first blame, then try to correct the women, if only they would wear longer skirts and less makeup this wouldn’t happen. In response to these stories and attempts to defend this behavior, women, including some members of this church, began posting #metoo, some with accompanying stories, to draw attention to how prevalent this abuse is, and make it clear that such behavior is entirely the responsibility of men.

I sat with this all week, aware of the years of trauma represented by these #metoo posts, scrutinizing my own behavior for ways I am complicit. I wondered about an appropriate response, aware that denial and silence render this violence invisible.

This is the 5 year anniversary of this church’s commitment to become Open and Affirming. This means that we seek to be intentional in our welcome of all people without regard to gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, skin color, class, marital status, or ability. We are justifiably proud of our Open and Affirming identity.

When I think of what it means to be Open and Affirming, I imagine that every person who walks through the door is greeted with the same genuine smile, warm handshake, and words of welcome without regard to differences. No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And I think we do a pretty good job of this. Not perfect, but pretty good.

But #metoo has me wondering if there isn’t more to being an Open and Affirming church. Though we all deserve kindness, we aren’t all the same. As we have been so painfully reminded, women and men have dramatically different experiences with regard to sexual harassment and assault. So, I wonder if being an Open and Affirming church requires that we work to acknowledge, understand and respond to such differences, not just between men and women, but between all the aspects of our identity that I mentioned.

The passage I read from Isaiah informs this perspective. I’m really only going to focus on the very first line, “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus.” Cyrus is the Persian ruler who conquered Babylon 539 years before Jesus was born. When Cyrus came to power, the Jews had been in exile in Babylon for some 60 years, taken from their homeland of Judah, forcibly removed from the presence of their God in the temple in Jerusalem.

Note, our text calls Cyrus “anointed.” The Hebrew word translated here as anointed is Messiah. How about that? The prophet Isaiah is calling this Persian, to be clear, a non-Jewish, conqueror, Messiah. The only other one referred to as Messiah in the Hebrew Bible is King David. And the Greek translation of this word Messiah? Christ, a word we only associate with Jesus. Wow! What’s going on? Well, it was Cyrus who saw the plight of the Jews and allowed them to return from exile to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple there. He saw their suffering, took responsibility, and set them free.

This is my point. Cyrus, as the Jew’s oppressor, has an essential role, an anointed, meaning God given, role, in liberating the Jews from Babylon and restoring them to their proper relationship with God. To be clear, that role was not to fix the Jews; there was nothing wrong with the Jews. Cyrus’ role was to represent the cause of the Jews to the Babylonians. To use his understanding and influence to lead his people. We might imagine his position wasn’t popular. There would have been those who protested, insisting the Jews didn’t deserve or weren’t capable of a renewed relationship with God. But Cyrus saw the Jews’ humanity and persisted. And the Jews were liberated.

Using Cyrus as our example, let’s return to the #metoo posts. How should men respond to the sexual oppression of women, not to fix them, but to lead other men? I think Pastor and author John Pavlovitz gets it right when he says:

Guys, while we may not believe we have committed direct acts of violence against women (however given the statistics, this is quite likely), we have each participated in a culture of misogyny and sexism that continues to victimize and traumatize, to steal safety and generate fear, to deny humanity and to cultivate disrespect. We are fully complicit in these #metoo stories.

We should be the ones stepping from the shadows right now.
We should be the one laying our souls bare.
We should be risking the judgment of strangers.
We should be the ones demanding renovation.

We are the other side of the #metoo stories.
We are the writers of these awful stories.
It’s time we owned this sickness.
It’s time we stopped it. 

Maybe this is what it means to be Open and Affirming. Acknowledging, understanding and responding to differences between us, and taking responsibility for ourselves when we have caused harm.

This week, I attended a two and a half day racial justice training with a group of Hartford area clergy. Some forty of us have been meeting monthly for over a year, developing the relationships necessary to launch a faith-based community organizing effort. The group included about 30 white and 8 black ministers. One of the exercises invited the white ministers to name what we liked about being white. Going around the circle, we named things such as, I like being considered safe, being the majority, being presumed knowledgeable, having ease in life, I like being welcomed everywhere, and having educational opportunities. The African-American pastors were then asked what they liked about being black. Their list looked very different; they affirmed their resilience, creativity and innovation, their history and sense of community, and their faith. I don’t know if we could have been so honest with each other if we hadn’t spent the past year building the relationships among us. Nevertheless, I felt anxious when the facilitator asked my black colleagues how it felt looking at the two lists. I felt certain they would express disappointment, hurt, sadness and anger that us white people had named the benefits we experienced as a result of our white skin. So I was surprised when more than a couple said they felt affirmed. By this they meant that what we named affirmed their experience in the world. Our words didn’t surprise them, they lived with this reality; it was a relief for them to hear us speak it aloud. One friend, an African-American woman, said, “Finally, I know I’m not crazy.”

As with misogyny and sexual violence against women, denial and silence have rendered racism and its impact invisible, even to the point of causing my friend to doubt her sanity.

Here again, the value comes, not in ignoring differences and settling for a smile and a handshake, nor is the intent to try to fix black people. No, the value comes from naming the difference in experience, then seeking to understand, confront, and take responsibility for the hurt caused by the resulting inequality.

Cyrus saw the unique trials faced by the Jews in exile, spoke up, took responsibility for his role in these trials, and used his power to work with his people to set the Jews free. We are called to do the same.

Violence against women is a men’s issue.

Racism is an issue that must be addressed by white people, not by correcting people of color but by taking responsibility for our own beliefs and the institutions we create and manage.

Equality for gays and lesbians cannot be the exclusive responsibility of the LGBT community.

Tonight, our PF youth group will welcome gay and lesbian speakers from the Stonewall Speakers Bureau who will share the challenges they have faced and overcome. This coming Friday the 27th we will welcome the recently retired President of Hartford PFLAG, Lori Davison. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) was founded in 1972 by a mother wanting to support her gay son. Now with over 400 chapters in all fifty states, PFLAG offers support groups for both adults and youth. Lori will help us answer the question, “What do we do now?” meaning how do me move beyond the smile and a handshake welcome as an Open and Affirming church.

And in the coming months we will begin hosting monthly PFLAG support groups here at First Church. Our Open and Affirming Committee has been working tirelessly for the past six months for First Church to become part of the Hartford Chapter of PFLAG that we may offer this essential affirmation and support to LGBT people and their families.

This is what I’m saying. If you are a man, if you are white, if you are straight, if you are cis-gendered (do you know what that means? It means you identify as the sex you were born with, as opposed to being transgendered), if you are abled in mind and body, you have a unique responsibility to make First Church truly Open and Affirming, not just with a smile and a handshake, but by seeking to understand and by taking a stand, each of us claiming our own privilege and using our particular power and influence to confront the trauma caused by misogyny, racism, hetero-sexism, and ableism. This good church is then called to represent this perspective to other churches and to our community. This, is what it means to be Open and Affirming, this is what it means to be anointed.

 

 

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