We are a people called to work for Justice

Preached at South Congregational Church, Feb 21 2018

We know that as Christians, we are called to work for Justice. As the Prophet Amos says, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” And we know that requires action on our part – Justice has never been an accident of fate. The moral arc of the Universe only bends towards justice if we work really hard to make that happen.

 

Jesus worked for Justice on multiple levels. He did a lot of direct service- handing out fish and bread, the miracle stories, the in-person spiritual care with the people around him. A lot of the beautiful stories we tell about Jesus involve him addressing the pain and suffering around him.

 

And he also recognized that injustice went beyond the individual. He was livid with the religious leaders who held themselves above the rest of society, who claimed to be “holy”, and yet worked with the Romans who were oppressing and killing their people. In the book of Matthew he says “They taught the law but did not practice some of the most important parts of the law — justice, mercy, faithfulness to God”. “They were full of wickedness. They were like whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones”

 

The head of our Church – Jesus Christ – is an incredibly political person.

 

We are a people called to work for justice, and we are gathered together because we are attempting to follow in his footsteps in community. And I think we, as the church, have some wrestling to do with political Jesus.

 

Which brings me to me – I’m a transgender person- which means that the gender I was assigned at birth is not the gender I identify as. I am holy, and created by God, and my body is sacred, as is yours. This week, the Trump administration said that they are going to stand behind medical personnel who choose not to give me medical care because to some people, providing medical care to me – saving my life – goes against their religion.

 

This denial of care happens already. I have trans friends who almost died because Emergency Room doctors refused to care for them. 20% of trans people already report being denied health care from doctors. This discrimination already kills people like me. With this announcement, those numbers are going to rise, and more of my trans family are going to die.

 

Remember this line? “They were like whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones” Jesus’s most scathing rebuke was reserved for the people who claimed to be religious, but who joined together in opposition of Him.

 

The people who are loud about their faith while working together in opposition of Jesus- the pharisees and scribes of our day – are in positions of great political power, claiming that killing me would be an act of deep Christian faith.

 

In the press release about this, the Director of the Office of Civil Rights at the Health and Human Services Department said: “NO ONE SHOULD BE FORCED TO CHOOSE BETWEEN HELPING SICK PEOPLE AND LIVING BY ONE’S DEEPEST MORAL OR RELIGIOUS CONVICTIONS”. That’s not Christianity. That’s murder, dressed up as God, and they have the NO RIGHT to claim the label of our faith.

 

So. As a people called to work for justice, what does this mean for us? What does it mean to be faithfully Christian when people who claim to have my faith are trying to kill me? What would Jesus do?

 

Our collective survival depends on one another. This week, viscerally, I am aware that my survival depends on you. Fight with me. I am fighting for my life. My survival is very political. Call your senators. Talk to other people about how dangerous this is for me. Understand that the politics of trans rights intersect with everything else, including racism. Make sure your children understand what it means to be trans, and that it is okay. Make sure the schools your children go to are safe and accepting for trans children. Talk about bathrooms with people uncomfortable talking about bathrooms. Call your senators again. Donate to the National Center for Trans Equality. Tell the trans people in your life that you know this is hell for them, and that you love them. Ask the trans people you know if they can afford health insurance, or rent, or food, and if you can help them with that. If you don’t know any trans people struggling to survive, donate to translifeline.org, because we have one suicide hotline that knows what we’re going through, and it can’t pay enough operators to meet the call demand.
Because that is what Jesus would do. We know that we are Christians called to bring Justice to this world. Let’s go follow in the way of Jesus.

Hurricane Prayer for the Harbor

Spirit of life

Power of creation

You are the god of all things, living and the dead

You are the god of new life, gentle rain, and fall harvests. You are also the god of hurricanes, wildfires, and floods that destroy homes and lives and leave already-oppressed communities reeling.

You are, as always, a force beyond our understanding. At times like these, we are reminded of that- reminded of our limitations, reminded of our narrow view of what “god” might be.

In times like these, spirit, when our stories of you don’t align with the reality of you, it is easy for us to turn to anger and despair. May our hearts instead fill the gaps with compassion. When we are shocked and afraid, may we ground ourselves in the truth that we belong to a community of others. When we cannot comprehend of a spirit of life that also brings about destruction, may we turn ourselves to the powers of creation and love within each of us- to heal, to rebuild, to love into each new dawn. The world is confusing. You, spirit of life and death, are confusing to us as well.

May we live into that confusion remembering to follow the footsteps of the man Jesus, living and loving and caring in a world that must have felt much like this one.

What in God’s Name is Happening

Preached to the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence on July 30, 2017.

 

I don’t think i can start with a litany of all the changes we’re seeing. Or how disconcerting it all is.

cause it’s bananas. all of it’s bananas. In the past week I was exhausted by like, 18 different things. Capitalism and imperialism, always there. Then, this week, trans people not being allowed to serve in the armed forces- then still being allowed, but still clearly despised by many. Health insurance maybe disappearing- and then, still here. Cops cheering for more violence against those being arrested. Missiles being fired. Communications directors making phone calls. All of it! All of it is completely bananas, and exhausting, and it makes me want to look more and more into theories that somewhere in the 80s, maybe we all ended up in an alternate reality where the rules don’t apply anymore.

So anyway. The question about ‘what in god’s name is happening’ is a real one. And I have absolutely no idea how to explain any of it, which hopefully you don’t mind.

When I have no idea what’s happening in the world around me, the question that rises up and surrounds me is ‘how can I help’. How am I called to respond and stay safe? How can I be helpful when everything hurts, and I’m exhausted a lot of the time, and I don’t understand what’s happening around me?

I think maybe we all have those questions. If we were to compile lists of “questions that keep us up at night” and “worries that wake us up in the morning”, we’d have a comprehensive list of all of the fears and terrors and concerns and worries that we could possibly hold these days. So. we’ve got that going for us.

And, of course, we’ve still got no guarantee that anything or everything is going to work out alright, whatever that means. But we’ve never had that guarantee, and I’ll probably always be grumpy about that.

If you’re following along, you’ll note that I’m now confused AND grumpy, which is a horrible place to be in when I’m trying to figure out how I’m called to help. But maybe you can all relate, because it’s grump-inducing to be this confused by the world- to feel, after this long, that it still doesn’t make sense.

And, amidst all of this nonsense, the attacks keep coming. Poor people, black and brown people, women, gay people, muslims, immigrants, trans people, prisoners…

And it’s exhausting- but it’s not exhausting because it’s new. It’s exhausting because it’s old. We’ve heard this before, in histories we’ve read and lived. You’ve heard this before. our grandparents and their grandparents have all heard variants of this type of attacks, which divide us into camps of ‘affected and non-affected’ every single week. And if we’re not careful, these old, well-worn tactics, will make us forget to be a ‘we’.

So we’re faced with how we respond. Do we respond on the individual issues? Do we use our language to ally(EYE) ourselves with those who are most affected? Or do we tell a story of attacks on a whole?

The way we talk about this matters. It doesn’t have to be “this week trans people, last week muslims, the week before that immigrants”. It can always, all the time, be an attack on all of us. On the fabric we create together, on the interwoven web of existence, on our collective survival.

The narratives we tell are imbued with power. Our words are an act of creation. Our words shape the frameworks that we rest on, the frameworks our children grow into. Powerful stories are contagious- We create a story about the world that other people try on, to see if it fits with their story about the world. And if it does, it’s a story they pick up and carry forward- that they share with other people.

When we tell stories of these attacks, it’s vital to our survival that we tell the story of interwoven communities. Tell the story of attacks on all of us, on our unity, of them trying to drive wedges between us, to fragment a powerful coalition of people. That story reminds us of the power we have together. Of our need for one another, of the shared commitment we have to defending one another.

In answer to that question, “how do I help?” – sharing this story is a powerful response.  

This story takes us from being a scared group of individuals, to a community strong enough to resist what’s thrown at us. The values in that story are upfront, central- we are stronger together. We care for one another. We are united, and our differences are valuable.

Last week, I was asked what I thought an appropriate response was to the attacks on trans people. And it was instantly clear to me that I don’t want to hear “they’re going after trans people today, and we stand with trans people”. I wanted to hear “They’re going after all of us”. I wanted to be included in that language, not a separate group of people.

And I know we have to name the attacks, and be clear with who’s most affected, and how it hurts people differently. That, too, is a foundational requirement for being able to support one another through all of this. But I want us to be mindful that we keep telling the story of the “we”, as we do that. “An attack on any of us is an attack on all of us” requires both parts of the sentence to make sense.

Our survival lies with one another. Our salvation lies with one another. If we still see ourselves as separate from one another, we won’t be able to fight together- to resist and struggle and love and breathe together. You belong to me. I belong to you.

I have no idea what in god’s name is happening- but I know that I’m responsible for the story I tell in response. We are all called to bear prophetic witness to a world trying to tear us apart. I want our interdependence to be the sacred story we tell in response.  

From Fear to Transformation

This was preached on April 23, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Granby

 

God, may the words of my mouth be pleasing to you.

It is a very scary time in the world right now. I think that’s important to say out loud, although I hate admitting it. I go to work every day to make the world safer for people- and it’s infuriating to go to bed every night with the knowledge that it’s getting more and more dangerous.

I’ve lived my entire life with an anxiety disorder, which I’m now on life-saving medication for- but my medication doesn’t save me from this fear. It doesn’t save me from crying at night, from being exhausted during the day, from anxiously reading headlines to see if our president has started the war that will end it all. Aside from the threat of nuclear war, climate science gives us four years to radically transform our global civilization- and I can feel the days slipping away from us with each sunset.

Climate change and nuclear war form the core structure of my fears. There are more than 7 billion people whose lives hang in the balance of what we do next, not to mention all the generations to come. We live at a time of immense danger, and our commercial media lulls us into a daze of inaction, through constantly telling us that either “everything is fine” or “this is the only way it can be”.

In this space, nights are hard, sleeping is impossible, inner peace is hard to come by, and joy is hard to find.

We are missing stories of radical transformation, of miraculous hope, of light bursting forth in the darkness. Without those, I don’t know how to imagine a future worth fighting for.

 

When Jesus was alive, Jerusalem was in a similar place of darkness. Numerous Jewish sects were declaring the end of the world was here- an apocalyptic fervor gripped the land, and the oppression of Rome was crushing the life out of those who lived under its rule.

In that apocalyptic environment, Jesus showed up, and started sharing stories of a better life- a paradise where everyone was fed, where the mighty were cast down, where the rich got rid of their wealth, and those who lived in fear and despair were the primary recipients of god’s grace.

I think, in so many ways, our society is there again. We are frightened, and suffering, while our government attempts to rip our health insurance away from us. We have automated work without distributing the wealth it produces, we have destroyed our rivers and our air, and people who are already living on the margins are bearing the weight of this injustice. The climate is spiraling out of control, drought and floods are destroying growing seasons, and food riots are being violently suppressed by militarized governments. We are standing on the edge of a knife, and there is darkness and despair all around us.

 

What does it mean, in this moment of intense fear, to speak of justice and hope? When Jesus was crucified, the disciples were left reeling. The apocalypse was still upon them. The darkness was still great. They must have howled into the night as I have, attempted to drown their sorrows in wine, facing a blackness so complete it threatened to consume them.

But despair be damned because 3 days later Mary Magdalene met the risen Jesus. For a few incredible hours, the entire church on earth existed in the heart of one woman who understood that darkness, no matter how all-encompassing it was, would never swallow the light.

After that, the disciples got to meet Jesus, or were told of the risen Christ, and were given their mission – “feed my sheep”, Jesus told them. In a time of great darkness, against overwhelming odds and mass crucifixions, the instructions for the disciples were clear- feed people. Love them. Care for their souls and their bodies. Visit them where they are imprisoned, make sure no widows or orphans or children go hungry. Tell them they are loved by god, no matter what the world tells them. Fight for justice, no matter the odds.

 

The miracle of the resurrection didn’t stop with the ascension of Jesus. The resurrection wasn’t a one-time thing that we think about fondly and then leave in the bible. The resurrection is a thing we experience in our hearts, and an impossible world that we make a reality through our love and through our efforts. Our hearts and souls are resurrected when depression lifts, when grief withdraws, when we begin to believe we are deserving of love after years of being told that we are not. Communities come back to life when we commit to feeding one another. The darkness is beaten back by the light that we shine forth, and the light we shine forth calls other people to let their light shine, as well.

You are a light in the darkness. You can help bring this world back to life. Jesus gave his disciples the power to go work miracles in the world, and that’s real power we still carry in our bodies. It is a miracle to bring life back to barren fields, to call forth an economy not fueled by capitalism or fossil fuels, to make sure that all the children of god have medical care and food and housing.

So much needs to come back to life- and our God is the God who makes that possible. We are the body of christ on this earth, and we have *work* to do.

So what are you called to resurrect in this world? What is dead that needs life?

Our climate?

Our healthcare system?

Our nuclear non-proliferation treaties?

Peace?

 

Resurrection isn’t easy. Jesus never talked about how it felt to force air back into lungs that were 3-days dead, but it must have hurt like hell. This work isn’t easy, and it is exhausting to keep doing it, but it is our holy duty, and we never do it alone.

In the face of so much death and fear, remember who our God is. Remember that we carry the legacy of resurrection in our bodies and in our souls and in our work.

You have the power to create miracles, and we need this power- now more than ever! So go create miracles! Share your wealth, call your representatives, continue the anti-nuclear movement, work for local solar initiatives, speak out against racism, protect women, make sure nobody ever goes hungry-  there are so many miracles we need, and you were given the power to make them real.

This darkness doesn’t end anytime soon- we know that it will take generations of work and miracles for this earth to be more secure. But we bear witness to the light, and to to resurrection, and to a world worth fighting for. In this time of great anxiety and uncertainty, we, like an astonished Mary leaving the garden, and as disciples sent forth by Jesus, carry the church forward into the future.

Sanctuary as Mary’s Song

This sermon was given on January 8, 2017, to the congregation of First Church Granby, one of my many home churches (and the one where I currently spend most Sundays).

The readings this week were Matthew 2:13-23 and Dueteronomy 24:17-22. I also heavily reference the Magnificat, which is the real kicker, I think.

For more readings on Sanctuary Churches, I suggest starting here: sanctuarynotdeportation.org

 

The readings this week are hard readings. “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted, he was furious, and he ordered all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and under to be killed”.

It was only a few short weeks ago we were singing Mary’s song. Remember that? “He puts forth his arm in strength, and scatters the proud-hearted. He casts the mighty from their thrones, and raises the lowly.” I felt hope.

But backlash always comes, and it comes hard. After a song that sings of justice, and food for the hungry, and the hope that God will finally deliver us, Herod orders the slaughter of the innocents. A man with near-unlimited power strips hope from an impoverished community, and thoughts of justice and mercy are buried under grief and shock and horror.

In current events, many of us feel backlash in a president and cabinet that are anti-gay, anti-black, anti-trans, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-climate, and more. Today, just as in Jesus’ time, those who feel the brunt of this backlash have the fewest resources with which to protect themselves.

Knowing what we do next is hard. How do we still feel hope? How do we feel like we can make a difference, in a world that is so out of our control? How do we, as the God of Deuteronomy instructs us, make sure that there is enough for everybody?

In times of backlash, it is even more important that we “Be The Church”. We have to figure out how to stand up against hate, to provide shelter, and to mitigate harm. We know, even before we start, that this work is always messy, and that there is no such thing as “doing it right”. But we aren’t asked to do things right- instead, we are asked to do them imperfectly- over, and over, and over again, while continuing to declare the coming of justice and mercy.

We recently hung a sign up on the building that says “immigrants and refugees are welcome here”. And as a community, we’re working on some of that already.  The refugee resettlement project that First Church Simsbury is coordinating is moving forward. Our church has pledged $1000 to the initial settlement funds, and Ginny is a core member of the steering committee. We collected a pile of coats for refugees, and North Church members have been at the meetings figuring out what’s needed, and how we can help a refugee family call Connecticut home.  

These public displays of commitment and love are vital in times of backlash, or else our communities can fall prey to the rhetorics of fear and ‘us vs them’ mindsets, that lead to great suffering.

But, as the church, we can’t stop there. Following in the footsteps of Jesus means that we extend love and resources and sanctuary to all people, regardless of state approval for our actions.

Our communities contain hundreds of undocumented immigrants, who move through our towns and our lives, who have undertaken journeys that we can barely imagine. 80% of women and girls who come to America without state recognition are assaulted during the journey, and they know those dangers before they begin. But the journey, and the life of constant fear, is safer than staying home. In the words of Warsan Shire, the British-Somali poet who immigrated to the UK,

“You have to understand,

No one puts their children in a boat

Unless the water is safer than the land”

President Obama has deported more people than any president in history- and many of those were children and single mothers fleeing violence in Central America. Deportations of undocumented people are expected to rise under President Trump.

The state has never been the decider of what justice and mercy look like, though it has always claimed that position. The state has always crucified innocent people, whether on a cross, or by sending children and parents back to countries where they know they face violence and death.

To follow in the footsteps of Jesus means that we don’t let the government tell us what is right. Rather, it is our job, as the church, to extend sanctuary to everyone, and to remind people what justice and mercy really mean. Our instructions are to love so hard that we threaten the status quo, bringing the kingdom of God a little closer to home.

During this time of backlash, we can bravely love by declaring ourselves a “Sanctuary Church” – a church whose members and buildings will be available to step in and provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants who are in danger of being deported.

By naming ourselves a Sanctuary Church, we can continue to sing Mary’s Song, even during these dark and bewildering times. We can continue to say that there is enough for all, that all will be fed, and that justice will come.

There is no easy-to-follow blueprint for what Sanctuary Churches do – the needs are constantly changing, and will depend on what our local undocumented families need. But it would mean being public in our commitments, standing up against hateful rhetoric, and making it easier for other people to do the same. It means singing lyrics that other people have forgotten, and inviting them to join with us in song.

There are over 400 churches who have joined this movement already, and we need about 4,000 more. In times of backlash, what protects communities from violence is a fierce, loudly-stated love for those who are different than us, and a refusal to back down in the face of fear-fueled aggression.

So let us sing Mary’s song still, and let us do the work that it calls us to do, no matter the backlash we’re in the midst of. We can share what we have, trusting that there is always enough, and we can extend sanctuary to those who seek it here. We can do what Jesus is calling us to do.

 

The Worthy

The section of the Bible told here is Luke 7: 1-10, where Jesus heals the slave of a Roman centurion, without ever seeing the slave, because he was so impressed by the faith of the centurion.

Sometimes bible stories really speak to us. Other times they don’t. As a christian, that’s trickier for me when the stories I don’t like are about Jesus. I’m not sure how to tell people that “I don’t like Jesus in Mark”, or “The jesus in this story really seems like an asshole”.

But I believe we’re supposed to wrestle with texts, and on days that I believe in God, I believe we’re supposed to wrestle with God, and I think we should be open and honest about that. So I’m going to wrestle, and tell you all about it, because Church, more than any place else, should be a place where we can honestly say what we think about religion.

First, a few reasons I don’t like this story:

The language used to say ‘slave’ is actually ‘beloved slave’ – which indicates this man may have been the gay lover of the centurion. I don’t like that one of the few gay characters mentioned in the bible isn’t even physically present. And I don’t like that one of the only gay characters mentioned in the bible is a slave, who would have been bought and paid for, and that slavery isn’t even addressed by Jesus as being wrong.

I don’t like how this story emphasizes faith over actions. The actions of the centurion were almost certainly horrible- the romans were sometimes crucifying thousands of people in a single day, and people were dying and starving in obscene numbers. But because of his faith in Jesus, Jesus decided to heal the centurion’s slave, without a word about how to take care of other people, or stand up to oppressive powers.

And in this story, as in so many others, there are crowds of people just out of sight- the outsiders who are ignored as Jesus walks by. Those are the people I relate to. In the crowds of people who have come to see the miracle worker, I can see the people with chronic pain, or hands that don’t work. I can see the people with mental illness, and can see how they stand on the outskirts. That’s not even mentioning the people who couldn’t come to see Jesus because they had to work, or watch children, or couldn’t walk.

Jesus is surrounded by a crowd of people who are each hoping for a miracle, many praying for healing, most of whom are left behind when Jesus move on. Do they not believe enough? Does their wavering faith, so much weaker than the Centurion’s, make them unworthy of healing and love? The story has been used to support that belief, to say that “if you believe, you will be healed”, saying that your life doesn’t matter as much to God if you don’t believe enough to be healed.

So of course I don’t like this story. In settings like this one, I would always be one of the people Jesus ignores. I am always one of the doubters, one of the christians who doesn’t believe the stories really happened.

And I don’t agree that our worthiness of staying alive depends on how solid our faith is in a man we’ve never seen. Our bodies work in amazing ways, and sooner or later, that ends. Our worlds change in ways that leave us confused and uncertain, unable to find our way through spaces that used to make sense or be accessible to us.  Sometimes we heal, and other times we don’t, but we are not more or less worthy because of that.

Today, just as 2,000 years ago, we are left behind by Jesus. We are still wrestling with our depression, chronic illness, and cancer. Our illnesses and bodies remain a source of shame, exclusion, and despair for so many of us.

But if our faith is based around following Jesus, then the question to ask ourselves, to examine whether or not our religion is ‘working’, is whether or not our communities are better for his visit.

When he was here, he spent time reminding us to love one another, to feed one another, to care for people who are sick- all things we can still be doing today.

We are told to be the church- to be the body of Christ moving through this world. That makes us his hands, his mouth, his beating heart, and we are responsible for proclaiming to one another that we are worthy. That we are here for one another. We are not greater than death and disease- but we can be greater than shame, and abandonment, and being hard on ourselves for not praying harder. And when we are the body of Jesus for one another, we aren’t left behind at all.

We can’t pray our way out of illness and death, and we don’t all get miracles. But sometimes we get a casserole, or a voicemail, or someone being willing to sit with us on our hardest days. And sometimes the miracle is the strength within ourselves to say ‘i need help’- the strength required to be vulnerable in front of each other. For me, that’s the hardest part.

But christianity is a religion of community, and here, at First Church, I see you all living into that. Jesus is present when we come together- as he said- “wherever 2 or more are gathered in my name, there I am also”. When we say to each other “you are worthy, you are loved, you matter to me”, we bring Jesus back again, and we don’t leave anyone behind.

We will keep calling him back for as long as the work remains, and as long as we gather in love to take care of one another. I don’t believe the work will ever be done- but I am grateful to do that work with all of you.

And all god’s worthy people say, Amen

 

Reflections about anxiety

This was a writing response for a seminary class on Illness, Health, and Healing. I want to share it here since I’ve wanted to share this with other people for a while now. If you want to talk about this, I would absolutely love to.

My illness story is about my chronic anxiety, something that I took a very long time to admit to myself. I was raised in a household with a father who was severely mentally ill and routinely hospitalized for long periods of time. My mother was absent a lot, either because she was visiting him, or taking care of him at home, or working a full-time job to take care of us all. I don’t remember a lot about my childhood, except that I was lonely and bullied and scared a lot, and that I came to understand mental illness to be a very specific, very dramatic thing- a thing that made people disappear.

So when I was afraid all the time, but still present in the world, I didn’t have a framework to admit that I wasn’t healthy. I was raised during the years of “everyone is on anti-depressants when they don’t need to be”, a message that sunk deeply into me. At the same time, the “mental illness = untreatable schizophrenia” framework was growing inside of me in response to my home life.

I remember seeing planes high in the sky and watching them for long minutes to make sure they weren’t missiles. I was terrified of the Yellowstone volcano erupting, or the sun exploding- all cataclysms far out of my control. I’m sure I was also afraid of more immediate things- my father’s health, how he’d react, my mother’s ability to take care of us- but I don’t remember a lot.

I continued to deal with fear and anxiety through college and into adulthood, gradually developing more and more coping strategies. I started working for a nonprofit that addresses climate change- a job I explicitly took because of how afraid I was, seeing it as a way to mitigate my fears.

Through all of this, I knew, on some level, that this fear was a lot to carry. But in a world that is so unsteady, the unrelenting fear felt like the rational and ethical response. I believed that seeing and internalizing that much uncertainty was a part of bearing prophetic witness, and required to be engaged with the world in an ethical way.

I needed another friend in seminary to tell me that “nobody was asking me to hold this much fear” before I could accept that it was unhealthy. His faith, and his belief that God wasn’t asking me to hold this to be a good minister or support in this world, allowed me to break through the messages I’d been telling myself.

I’ve been on an anti-anxiety and anti-depressant for four months now. I live in a different universe than I did last year. I can find peace and quiet, I laugh again, I see a world I want to remain in. I have a greatly increased ability to help make it better. I stopped saying that “it’s impossible to be human”, which had been a daily statement of mine. Sitting quietly became an enjoyable practice, not something that was a desperate attempt to retreat from fear. I stopped sighing deeply every hour. I can have a conversation with someone and actually have a conversation with them, instead of using 60% of my brain energy to manage fear. Which was, it turns out, what my ‘coping strategy’ had been- increasing the amount of my brain that was required to keep fear and anxiety in check, constantly and unsuccessfully attempting to quell fear, so that I could remain in the world.

I experienced a lot of guilt at first, about the anti-anxieties. After so long of seeing the deep fear and sadness as the ethical response to this world, it felt as if I had discovered a cheat code- as if I’d removed the difficulty from a video game. I had to change my metaphor- it’s not that I’m cheating at the game, it’s that I was playing the game on ‘difficult’, when there was a normal level that allowed me to do a lot better work.

I’m talking openly about this to lots of people. I wish someone had talked openly about it to me- had talked about how important anti-anxieties meds had been for them. I don’t know how I survived as long as I did, as I certainly wasn’t thriving. But I am, now- I am alive and engaged and I can see what’s terrible and commit myself to working on it. And I can also see joy in the world, and love, and community, and a lot that’s worth fighting for. I am tremendously grateful.

I Will Not Be Afraid

Oh Friends, it has been a heartbreaking week. Thank you for being here this morning.

I named this sermon a month or two ago, calling it “I will not be afraid”. I intended to talk about how to foster a resilient faith community in the face of societal fear. I guess I still intend to do that. But I also acknowledge that the title of this sermon isn’t true. It’s never been true, but it’s even less true this week.

The premise of this sermon was never that we somehow shouldn’t or won’t be afraid. Rather, it’s that we shouldn’t be afraid alone.

The shooting at Pulse Nightclub last Sunday has torn through my queer community. Has torn through queer communities around the country. For Muslim queers, for Latinx queers, the impact is magnified. For all of us, it has change our relationship with our fear.

And so I want to open this sermon by acknowledging that in this room, many of us are afraid. Some of us have been afraid for much of our lives. Some of us are feeling deep fear for ourselves, or our loved ones, for the first time. Some of us don’t know how to survive with this much fear, and find that it’s been turned into resignation. No matter who you are, or how you hold your fear, thank you for bringing your broken hearts this morning.

We have a culture of fear in our society- being afraid isn’t new. But normally it’s a culture of fear that we don’t acknowledge. In much of White American culture, we talk around our fear- offering up solutions that never address the root of it. Our response to gun violence is to teach our children how to be small and quiet in their classrooms- how to be afraid.

Weapons manufacturers and xenophobes and hate mongers tell us our fear can be solved if only we fight the right people. The stores tells us our fear can be solved if we buy the right face cream, or exercise equipment. But these are all false solutions, selling us a myth of individualism. Telling us that if we try hard enough, and spend enough money, and fight people before they fight us, evil won’t reach us. Death won’t find us. We won’t be left disabled, dead, old, or unlovable. It’s a myth that leads to isolation and distrust, and a myth that completely collapses under us whenever tragedy shows up.

It is holy work to break down the culture of unacknowledged fear. We have to be forging communities that can hold each other in the face of despair and tragedy without turning to hate, revenge, or resignation. Because our future is fundamentally shaped by the communities we’re a part of today.

The holy texts I pulled from today come from a variety of traditions. Each of them presents a different response to fear. What I ask of myself, what I ask of all all of us, is that we choose a response to fear that is live-giving.

What I find so life-giving about all of these readings is that they can be turned to when fear appears, and that act, of reaching for something in response to our fear, acknowledges that our fear is real. Unitarian universalism pulls from a variety of sacred texts and traditions. When it comes to fear, what traditions and texts do you pull from? What words do you turn to, when all is dark? .

And let us go beyond an individual response. We should not be facing our fears alone. Resilient communities share more than joys and celebrations- they also share despair, and heartbreak.

If you are LGBTQ+, I hope you have a community to be a part of, and that you havae been physically held by other queers this week. The most sacred space I was in this past week was simply holding another member of my community in silence, as we let ourselves feel beaten down and afraid together. Never underestimate how much community resilience is forged from shared grief and fear.

The queer community is one that has been beaten time and time again, and still survives without turning to hatred. We have found resilience in one another, resilience in our softness. Our commitments to being colorful, and open, to dancing, to pride, have never been about a victory- they have always been about survival in the face of very present dangers, about community in the face of hatred.They have always been message to our family still in hiding, still in closets- “you are loved. love is possible for you.”

If you are queer, whether you or out or not, I am so grateful you are here, and alive. My life is better for you being in it. This community is better for you being in it. I see you, and I love you.

If you are not queer, I recommend looking at the queer community here in the valley. I wish you could ask the young, poor queers in this town to tell you about how their community takes care of each other. I wish you could hear stories about how often people pay rent for one another- and dental bills, groceries. I wish you could see the love poured into community meals, where nobody leaves feeling hungry or unloved.

And I wish you could witness a community that talks openly about and wrestles with mental illness, and holds one another through the worst times. It is all holding that is done imperfectly. It is never enough. But it is still done, and it is still meaningful, and it still means survival for so many of us.

The communities around us that experience oppression- like the Latinx queer community in Orlando, like the Black communities around the country, the disabled community- have always known about fear, and have had to be resilient to survive. They hold fear, and acknowledge it openly, and lean on their community, and often their faith, to survive in this world. And that’s what I’m asking us to do, as well.

Whether you have one marginalized identity, or five, or none, I need you to acknowledge your fear. Because if you find a solution to your fears through some sort of individualism, or you stay quiet bout your personal response to fear, your strength doesn’t become a resource for your community. In this time of increasing heartbreak, increasing fear, we need all the resources we can get for our communities to be resilient. Otherwise we will only ever be reactionary, reeling individually in our grief and outrage, unsure of how to hold each other as a community when each tragedy comes home.

So talk to me. Talk to each other. Talk about what you’re afraid of. Who you’re afraid for. And talk about where you draw strength from, when fear rises up to claim you. Let the story of this community have fear in it, so that it may also resilience and courage.

I love you. I need us to be afraid together.

Amen.

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Readings used in this service:

By Tekeal Riley

If you are here
stay in your bones!
As rickety as they are,
bones are racks of staircases
long tunnels of marrow
connecting heart to home.

Never mind wild philosophies of where
you could roam–
Where are you now? How do you live
in the shadows of the corners of your skin
that does not melt?

When we have opened our temple doors
to too many,
bearing touch we don’t like,
Strangers slowly creep in
and convince our already fading,
doubtful minds
that it really isn’t here
that we want to live.
John 14: 27, the Bible
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

 

The Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, from Dune

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

 

The Tao, Lao Tzu / Ursula Le Guin

Chapter 76 – Hardness

Living people
are soft and tender.
Corpses are hard and stiff.
The ten thousand things,
the living grass, the trees,
are soft, pliant.
Dead, they’re dry and brittle.

So hardness and stiffness
go with death;
tenderness, softness,
go with life.

And the hard sword fails,
the stiff tree’s felled.
The hard and great go under.
The soft and weak stay up.

 

Bodies of Humiliation

This was preached on Feb 21st at Grace North Church in Berkeley, California. Grace North is United Church of Christ Congregation. The text this sermon refers to is Philippians 3:21.

I’m going to talk about bodies tonight, and I’m going to talk about the ways that our bodies are used to humiliate us. I’ll start with mine.

I’m trans, and my body does not conform to the stories that our culture tells about bodies. I’m told that my parts are wrong. Or, if the parts aren’t wrong, my brain is. According to this story, if I’m fortunate and careful, I can change those parts so that my body will match what society expects of a body. There’s a required time frame of therapy I have to go through, where I have to prove that I’m just the right amount of mentally ill before I can be given control over my body.

And then, once I gain control over my body and follow a certain set of steps, then I can be celebrated for how well I match society’s expectations.

That’s one of the many trans stories about this process- but you could also tell stories of struggle about size(1), or mental health or illness, or ability or disability, or race- we’re in a society that loves to talk about all the ways our bodies need to be fixed.

And that’s a society that produces a lot of humiliation- because we hear those messages, and we breathe them, and they become a part of us- I am made of flesh, and spirit, and thousands of stories. As are you.

So it has taken a ton of work for me to see my body as something to be loved unconditionally. But I’ve gotten there, in no small part to my faith, and I believe that I stand surrounded by God’s love, no matter the messages I hear or the way other people respond to my body.

But then Paul comes along, and says this:

He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

And the first time I heard that, I bristled.

Because this is my body, that I fought hard to love and claim and care for, and I’ll be damned if you tell me it has to be changed for it to be glorious. I may struggle with it sometimes, I may even choose to change it myself, but I’m completely done with other people- even St. Paul- telling me how or when that should happen.

And I know, in my bones, that God does not want my body to be used as a tool for my humiliation, even if it works that way, from time to time, because of the society I live in.

Because Jesus had a body, which means he knows what it is to struggle with one. And he spent his ministry hanging out with people who were humiliated by society, and he refused to play along. He shared his life with sex workers and the mentally ill, people who were disabled, poor – – people who were gender variant.

He stood with those who knew what it was to be shamed by society, and he modeled a society built on love, without any space for humiliation or shame. And then he was killed by the Roman Empire in the most humiliating form of execution that they had.

Crucifixion was so humiliating that family members didn’t go watch their loved ones die. They would stop speaking the names of the person who was crucified, and communities would be ripped apart from the shame of such a death. By using this tool, Rome could crush movements of resistance, and humiliate people even after their death.

But here’s the astonishing part, no matter how you tell the story- in the case of Jesus, it didn’t work. This tool of humiliation was supposed to remove his name from the mouths of his followers – but here we are. The church – this church- was founded on refusing to play along with tools of humiliation.

So again, Paul’s words-

He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

The body of Jesus’ glory was revealed when his friends refused to let the empire’s tactics of dehumanization win.

By telling the story of his life and death, by saying his name, by honoring the power that was in his body, his soul, and his connection to community- he still lives with us today.

And that’s a power that still lives with us today- we can still refuse to deny people their dignity, their souls, their connections to community. We can refuse to play along with a society that tells us we are not worthy.

Because the body of our humiliation isn’t something that is inherent in our bodies or our spirits- it’s something we create in our societies, and then absorb into ourselves, and push onto others.

But our God is a god of love, and our god doesn’t call us to be humiliated-  Not by our gender, or our love, not by our sex work, or our race, not by our addictions, or our disabilities, or the ways we communicate and move through this life. Our humiliation has never been something God asks of us.

What Paul promises us is that this humiliation will be transformed into glory by the power of God- and the power of God is love.

Through the realization of God’s love, I’m able to rest in grace, a peace which passes all understanding. I rest in a love that tells me that I am whole- and by whole, I mean that there is no part of me that needs to be changed for me to be worthy of that all-encompassing love. It is simply and profoundly already there, and I am blessed to rest within it.

 

And that’s a very personal and powerful truth for me- but we are one body, which means that if I refuse to be complicit in my own humiliation, I also have to refuse to be complicit in yours.

 

We are extensions of Christ, moving through this world. And as extensions of Christ, we are asked to love one another with the same fierce love that Jesus has for us- to be the power of God at work in the world.

When we put this power into practice, it looks like opening our communities to immigrants who are fleeing their home countries. It looks like marching in the streets to remember the trans women of color who were murdered, and working to make churches accessible to those with disabilities. It looks like allowing ourselves to be fully seen by our communities, and loved by them, even though there are parts of ourselves we struggle with. It looks like this- and so much more.

In all of this work, we are recognizing that we are all deserving of all-encompassing love- and we are recognizing that we are responsible for looking out for and taking care of each other- even the people whose lives break “too many rules”.

It will take a lot of work to build the Kingdom of God, but we do that every time we gather in community and love one another without condition or humiliation. Our church was founded by doing that work, and our faith supports us in this process.  

Let us pray

God, we are all searching for communities that tell us we are wholly loved. Help us to build those communities with each other, so that together, we may glimpse the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

 

(1) : I learned after preaching this that the phrase “struggle with size” is one that a lot of fat activists dislike, because it places emphasis on losing weight, rather than weight discrimination. Next time, I will find a way to be more clear that these are struggles with/because of how the dominant US culture perceives our bodies.

 

Gay bashed at the barber shop

(As written for my forgiveness class at seminary)

I was gay bashed at a barber shop on Friday. Since moving to the bay, I’ve let down the pretense of being a masculine cis man, and have settled more into the effeminate behaviors that come naturally to me. As a result, if people don’t read me as trans, they read me as gay- and I had forgotten to view barber shops (and the culture of masculinity that often gets enforced there) as a threat.

The barbershop was well reviewed on yelp, by lots of people, so I just walked in and asked for what I normally ask for- the 4 on top and the 2 on the sides. I remember, when I sat down, that I watched myself cross my legs and fold my hands – “what a homo”, I thought to myself- but kindly, with a comfortable sense of identity and pride.

The abuse wasn’t physical or verbal beyond the nastiness that can be given in a quiet haircut- the pain that can be physically inflicted, the cuts that can be ignored, the irregular haircut that is dramatically different than what was asked for. I didn’t say anything, the whole time- I was socialized not to say any thing, and I kept choosing to assume that it would turn out okay- after all, maybe he was giving me a good haircut that I’d enjoy.

But I he wasn’t, and when I got back to my office, I realized how wrong the back was- how visibly irregular it was, how crooked his lines were, the patches of long hair left in places where it didn’t belong. It didn’t make sense, for a 1-chair barber shop that was so well reviewed.

Two hours later, I was sitting in a queer-run barber shop in a different part of Oakland, while the barber figured out how to turn my head into something that looked neat and intentional. He asked a few questions about what I had asked for, and made some comments to me and the barber next to him about what had happened. But it wasn’t until he asked me, “do you think you were being hated on?” that I let that possibility exist. And once it did, I realized I had been.

When I first realized how bad it was, I just felt ashamed, as if I had somehow contributed to the result. Once I identified that feeling, I recognized it as something that would pass. And as I moved throughout the day, that shame faded and was replaced by sadness, and the hard work of accepting this queer-hate as a reality that exists for me. Also the sadness and gratefulness that this type of attack on my identity is so uncommon, when for so many of my queer family members, every day is an attack. This is the exception, not the rule, in my life, and recognizing that made my heart break for all the work we have left to do.

But anger didn’t enter into it. That barber and I have very different life histories- I don’t know his, but our cultures and identities have been shaped and formed by the worlds we live in. I’m a young queer/trans dude who’s in the bay and able to afford the new price bracket, he’s an older chinese man who speaks some english, and has a well-reviewed barber shop in a neighborhood he’s likely to be rapidly priced out of. We have taken incredibly different paths to get to that room where I put my hair in his hands.

I’m sad that it happened to me- I’m sad that he’s the one to have done that to me. I’m sad that his neighborhood is disappearing as gentrification pushes outward from san fran and downtown oakland. I’m sad that the level of financial security I have, as a 20-something paying my way through grad school, could easily be on par or higher than his, through no rational difference of our work ethic or worth as human beings. I’m sad that when I put my head in his hands, the path that made the most sense to him was to hurt me in ways that I wasn’t expecting.

The barber that fixed my hair, I read as gay. And he took 40 minutes to gently undo as much of the damage that had been done as he could. His hands, as they moved over my strangely naked head, were healing hands, and I felt the love of my community hold me as he let me sit quietly and work through the deep sense of shame that I was washed in. By the end of the haircut, I could meet his eyes.

I don’t know if this is a story of forgiveness. I’m still processing the whole thing- I have not been bashed like this before. This is a very new experience, and I am still sad about it. Should I be angrier? Would that somehow make more sense? But this wasn’t a thing that makes sense any more than what happened in Paris, and Beirut, and Syria, this week. Aren’t we all led to various parts of our lives by the meanings we are led to, or that we create, that we hold to, that make sense for us as we go along our journeys? What are we, if not creations of our environments? And what response is there to that except to work towards changing those environments, and pouring love into the world?