Archives for January 2009

extreme makeover: queer edition

this sermon is one of the  first full expressions of the work i want to do around trans theology. it was a co-written and co-preached sermon by myself and another seminary student. the text is from ezekiel 37:1-15.

Sermon given by: D and S
preached: March 9, 2008

I would like to begin this morning with a moment of silence for the recent murders of queer people.  I don’t know if there were more in February than usual or if the media covered them more therefore allowing me to find out about them.  Let us take a moment for Lawrence King, Sanesha Stewert, Simmie Williams and anyone else who has had their voice silenced and their body beaten…..

I have been filled with a bubbling rage these past couple of weeks.  I first heard about Lawrence King.  A friend mentioned him to me in passing.  Lawrence’s murder seems to have grabbed the most attention nationally.  He was a 15 year old boy murdered in his Californian high school by a fellow student because he was gay and he transgressed the gender binary.  Simmie Williams, from Florida, was also murdered this February.  The Feministe website refers to Simmie as “another gender non-conforming person murdered”.  At the age of 17, Simmie was found shot.    Closer to home, Senesha Stewert, a trans woman from the Bronx was stabbed to death.  The media, of course, references to Sanesha as a young man wearing women’s clothing and pontificates upon a connection to prostitution.    However, Sanesha changed her name more than a year ago, and those close to her swear she was not being paid to have sex.  The more I read, the more I searched.  The more I searched the more infuriated I became.  I was infuriated with what I was reading.  I was appaulled in the manner in which these incidents were being reported.  My eyes were being re-opened to the reality of life for many people.    I read a blog, surrounding the murder of Sanesha, discussing how NYC cops assume that black and Latino trans women are prostitutes.  There were discussions of the media’s reporting, or lack there of.  What was becoming the “tranny panic defense”.  Make it justifiable for a man to murder and trans woman because he was interested in having sex with her and found out that she had a penis.  This is not a defense.  This is transphobia.  I was appalled by the complete ignorance and ignore-ance of trans issues in the media.  I should not, however, have been surprised.  Our very own HRC has proven to us that in an effort to get rights for some, we are willing to throw others under the bus.  I will not use the back of my trans brothers and sisters as the steps onto that bus of privilege.  I will not talk about political compromises and first steps when the phobia and violence that my brothers and sisters are experiencing barely receives mention.  Similarly I will not keep silent as a white person as two more young black queers are murdered.  Why are they assumed to be prostitutes?  And if they were, just if, should that really matter.  Are their bodies any less holy?  Are they any less deserving of public outrage and support?

When S first picked the front cover of this mornings bulletin my normal white, Midwestern, Christian, peace lovin, hippie knee jerk reaction made me cringe.  “Our body is a battle ground”?  Isn’t that violent and a little too war-esque?  Sure is easy for me to ask that in my privileged tower of conformity.  Our bodies are a battleground.  These bodies are a battle ground.

In the tradition in which I grew up, I was taught that there was a divide between the body and the soul. That the soul was what was important and that care for the body was second to care for the soul. I think that all of us struggle with this body and soul divide in one way or another, especially when it comes to dealing with society and bodies. Society loves to tell people how they have to be in the world, and it can lead to pain and confusion when what you experience doesn’t match up to what society is telling you. In some situations we’re continually told to deny our bodies and just focus on our souls because that’s what really matters. But then we turn to this passage in Ezekiel and we see that bodies mean something.

Ezekiel is led to see all of these bones in a valley and he is told to prophesy to the bones, and to prophesy to the winds and by doing so he makes these bodies come back to life. This passage is written in the midst of Israel’s exile. They were taken away from their homes and their land and forced into captivity. They wondered if they would ever be able to find a way back. These bones become people had died away from their homes, alienated from all that they knew. They were cut off from their community, from life itself. But now they were experiencing resurrection, and not just a spiritual resurrection. When I read this passage I was really struck by the fact that this resurrection is bodily. It wasn’t just their souls being sent to heaven, or a spiritual return to the land, it was bodily. It was physical. And the reason this struck me is because that body and soul dualism has been so ingrained me. I have been continually taught that only the soul matters and so when I read that maybe bodies matter too I was taken aback.  It’s hard to overcome the ways we are taught to think about ourselves. This idea of exile; exile from our bodies is ingrained into us.

Exile is something we all experience. It’s not always physical, sometimes it’s spiritual as well.

I see spiritual exhile as having at least two dimensions.  First is the exile from our religious traditions.  There are as many different reasons why a person may feel like they are in exile from Christianity, or perhaps more aptly why Christianity is in exile from them.  Historically, Christianity is not perfect.  It becomes easy to lose sight of the goodness in ones tradition and instead only see the devastation.  Inquisition, Crusades, Manifest Destiny…  Or maybe it was a particular experience in a church.  Being queer and a Christian is an oxy moron to so many people.  There is still language, Christian language, which makes me recoil.  It is not because this language is harmful.  The language is simply a trigger to a different time, and different and damaging theology.  I am in denominational exile.  The Lutherans will not ordain me and some would run my father out of his pulpit if I were to fight.  And then there is the exile of ones tradition within our communities.  When I tell people what I am going to be when I grow up I often feel like I need a disclaimer.  I’m going to be a pastor but not one of those kinds of pastors.  I claim my Christian identity but then have to prove myself with some sort of progressive staple.  Friends think I am nuts, people get uncomfortable, and I perpetuate my own exile.  What does it mean to come back from exile?  How does one do that?

Susan Julia said something at the beginning of last semester that I thought was brilliant.  She said “It was harder to come out as a Christian than it was to come out as a lesbian.”  It would make a brilliant book title:  Coming out of the closet-I’m a Christian.

The second is the exile of the spirit from our bodies and our person; the ability to be viscerally spiritual.  Perhaps we are mad at God.  Perhaps we have been told or we feel that we cannot be Christian and queer; Or sudden and tragic death, or hardship has left us disconnected.  Or perhaps the God that has been constructed for us by our religious tradition is not one that we experience.  Or it is not one that we can worship.  A god that hates fags and loves war is not a god that I can worship.  I will refuse.  More importantly, it is not the presence of the divine that I have experienced in my life. When the god of our childhood dies, or simply become unbearable to worship, we often lose all embodied spirituality.   What is one to do?  How does one come back from a spiritual exile?

Two theologians and authors that have had the most influence on me in my return to Christianity and to spirituality are Paul Tillich and Jack Spong.  They have quotes that I have held onto and explain how I understand the Divine and my faith.  Spong has written “a god that can be killed should be.”  It may seem like a shocking statement initially.  However, isn’t this precisely what people have been doing for centuries?  If one were to look at the theologies of God across time and difference I think the one of the only consistencies would be the word God.  The cotton ball and elmers glue God of my childhood has long since passed away.  So too has the cotton candy God of my teen years.  The words, expressions, and traditions we use to understand the Divine can do nothing more than point a finger to that which is so much further beyond and so much deeper within us.  The concepts and language of God have changed, molded, evolved as humans and societies have done the same.  We must realize that the Divine is not located in a church, an institution, or in a word.  The Divine is all around us and beyond our human constructions.

This brings me to Tillich.  He says that a god may die but divinity remains.  A god may die but divinity remains.  You see divinity is so much more than that what we can construct with all of our words, intelligence, theologians, science, songs, and traditions.  Divinity is within and beyond.  It is what we are in search for but can never fully grasp.  Divinity, to me, simply is.

In the Ezekial text is it not enough for him to simply speak and raise the dry bones.  He calls on the four winds.  This word wind-ruach, can also mean breath or spirit.  Wind, breath, spirit.  It is all the same word.  It is the same word as what God breathes into Adam in Genesis.  There is no duality here.  The soul, the spirit, is not compartmentalized away or separate from the body.  It is the air we breath.  It is what gives us life.  It is the emboding of the spirit.  The bodies come back to life when the ruach, the breath, wind, spirit is breathed into them.  There is no body with the spirit.  I think this is deeply profound in our time.

The Divine is all around us.  The ruach brushes our cheeks, fills our lungs, and gives us life.  It is not separate from us, it is us, in us.  We are embodied spirits as well as spirited bodies.  We are being called back from spiritual exile.

I think we all experience exile from our bodies. We feel alienated from our physicality for any number of reasons. And we live in a world that so devalues bodies that the murders of the people mentioned earlier have gone largely unreported by the mainstream. The stories of these people drive home the point that even now people are being left as dry bones in a society that pushes them into exile. Even now this disregard for bodies allows the murders of people we deem unimportant. It allows us to demonize others in the press. It allows us to demonize ourselves when we don’t measure up to society’s standards.

And it’s not just queer people; it’s all people that don’t measure up to what society sets as the ideal. And somehow we all seem to fall short of that ideal, by being not beautiful enough, not thin enough, not athletic enough. We are marginalized by thinking we are just not good enough. Or for some, maybe your body doesn’t work like you think it should, or like it once did.  And so we reject our bodies. We turn to intellectual pursuits or to the development of our inner life, and while these things are important, it’s important not to neglect our bodies either. What does it mean to live in a body that you feel alienated from?

For me exile has taken the form of being a transgender person. I experience life in a body that does not match my soul. I was born with a female body, but I am male. I am perceived by society to be something that I am not. And so I feel that alienation in the core of who I am.  From constantly hearing people use the wrong pronouns for me, to looking in the mirror and seeing a form that does not reflect who I truly am.  It has been a long journey to be able to even have the words to explain this truth about myself. Growing up I was never taught that there were some people who didn’t feel that their gender was correct. I was taught that my only options were to deny myself and to try to fit into how society told me to be. People were constantly telling me how to live. So I ignored my body. I wore baggy clothes to hide my developing frame. During the times when I tried to dress in female clothing to make other people happy I just looked awkward and uncomfortable. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started to really take ownership of my own body, but even that had its limits. I was still perceived as a female and still felt that the labels that were placed upon me didn’t fit. It wasn’t until a year or so ago that I finally found the words to express the truth about myself. Coming to claim my transgender identity was hard. I was afraid of what people would think, I was afraid (and still am) of losing my family. I was afraid of not being able to get ordained or being able to get a job. But finally it was the fear of losing myself that outweighed all of those other fears. The need to reclaim my body as my own and to live into my own truth. The need to be able to be seen as the man that I am. Those desires are what led to me finally coming out and embracing my transgender identity.

My journey has led me into a bodily resurrection of sorts. I am transitioning medically as a way to reclaim my body. As a way to return from exile into the promised land of being at home in my own skin, and reuniting body and soul together. I am reshaping my body into the male form that matches my mind. I am asking people to address me in the way that fits who I am. I am being firm in standing up for myself and asking people to see me; all of me, as a person, as a man. By doing this I begin to reclaim my body as my own.  But it’s definitely not an easy process. It takes time for the reshaping to complete. It takes time for people to perceive me as I am. And it means dealing with people who will hate me simply for telling the truth about myself. It means dealing with well-meaning folks who still can’t get my pronouns right. It means facing the fact that I am sometimes in danger from people who can’t get past their own hate.

Taking charge of my body in this way has led me to be in touch with it in a way that I never have been before. It’s helped me to take better care of myself, and to make sure that I am getting the medical care that I need. I care about my physical body for the first time in my life. It has also been teaching me how it is that we come to terms with bodies that aren’t the way we would like them to be.

But it’s not an easy task and there are no easy answers. There isn’t a magic formula that allows you to feel at home in your body. It’s hard work. It means letting go of the expectations of society and not allowing anyone to define who you are. It means being willing to risk yourself with honesty.  It means accepting that you might never be completely the person you wish you were, but realizing that the person you are has merit and value.

It means accepting your scars and learning to love them. Embracing all of who you are. Working to reunite your body with your soul, not denying either of them, but finding fullness and wholeness.

Exekiel is called by God to bring the dry bones back to life.  The thing that I love about this text is that everything that Ezekiel needed was right there for him.  All he needed to do was open his mouth and prophecy.  How do we call on the spirit, wind, breath, ruach in our time?

There are dry bones everywhere.  There are times when we are the bones.  Striving toward wholeness is letting the ruach fill us.  Working to come back from exile and let the spirit pulse through our veins and our bodies became one with ruach.  There are times when we need to be Ezekial.  Spiritual and physical bviolence is a far too common experience of many people.  Lawrence, sanesha, and Simmie are threee examples of how hate, ignorance, and phobias manifest against the body and spirit.  The vilolence, both physical and spiritual is unholy.  The homophobia, racism, and transphobia cannot be tolerated.  We are being called to prophecy, to call on the four winds, the ruach of life.  Wholeness and holiness are two sides of the same coin.  Become whole in your body is to make oneself holy.  To embody the holy is to make oneself whole.

I think queer bodies have a lot to teach all of us about how it is that we experience our bodies and live into who we are. But it’s not just about being a queer person; this resurrection is open to us all. It takes the form of knowing who you are at your core; taking the time to find out what it means for you to be at one with your body. It means not allowing other people to define your body and how you use it or what it should look like. We live in a world that wants to break our bodies, our spirits and our hope. Our traditions and our societies often leave us as dry bones in the valley.  But we are not lost. We are not left in exile. We have the wind that comes into us and makes us live. When we take the time to reclaim our own bodies, as holy and whole, we come back from exile.

This is a process that never ends. We are continually reinventing and rediscovering ways to be at home in our bodies. But we must live into our bodies to know what it means to be whole people. And while we are on this journey we learn to challenge society and their standards in the hopes that we will lead others back from exile.

Our duty, once we have experienced this resurrection for ourselves is to be Ezekiel in our world. But we are still left with questions:
S: What about the people who aren’t raised?
D: The people who can’t reconcile their bodies and their souls?
S: The people who are murdered because of who they are?
D: Who will bring these bodies back from exile?
BOTH: Who will prophesy to these bones and make them live?

copyright D and S 2008.