(a repost from 2009, this is a sermon preached in 2008, but it still resonates with me)
this is a sermon preached on “transgender day of remembrance”. as a part of the service there was the yearly ritual where the names of all of those killed in the last year are read. in our setting we had the branches of a tree set up in the center of the room. empty branches. as each person entered the space they were given a ribbon with the name of a person on it. after the sermon, as the names were read, whoever was holding the ribbon would come forward and tie it to the branches.
thanks to rachelle mee-chapman at http://www.magpie-girl.com/ for the ritual idea.
Today marks the first time that this seminary has had a chapel for the international Transgender Day of Remembrance. There is a history of this memorial on the bulletin you received at the door. This is the 10th year that time has been set aside for this event and events like this one will be held all over the world.
Today is a day that is set aside to remember the people that have been murdered in the past year because of their gender identity or gender expression. Most of the time the ceremonies that mark this day are not religious in nature and I’ve got to admit I struggled with writing this sermon. I struggled with how to balance rage, grief, and the need for celebration. Because today isn’t just about remembering those who have been killed, but it’s also to celebrate their lives and the lives of other transgender and gender non-conforming people. But how do we get to the celebration?
I don’t want to preach from a place of rage, but I find that I have to start there. I am angry at the fact that sometimes I feel like a one man transsexual menace on Union’s campus, a voice crying in the wilderness asking people to pay attention to our struggle, asking people to treat us with respect, asking people to use the right pronoun for me only to be met with silence, or excuses, or disrespect.
I feel rage at the fact that we even have to hold this event. I am filled with rage over the way that the news media reports on the deaths of transgender and gender non-conforming people; how they sensationalize our deaths and yet can’t even get our names and pronouns right. I am filled with rage at the silence of the world over the deaths of transgender and gender non-conforming people, angry at parents and friends that can’t accept our lives, angry at religious institutions and churches that kick us out, silence us, and deny our humanity. I am angry that as we read these names we find they are mainly women of color. Angry that we still live in a racist and misogynistic society. How do we celebrate when there is so much injustice?
And I realize that I can’t stay with the anger, but the anger and the rage quickly fades to a grief that overwhelms me. As I prepared the list of names for today’s service I found myself getting overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of names. Overwhelmed because it seemed like every day that I woke up there was another new name on the list. And I felt sick as I looked over this list and saw the brutal ways in which these people were murdered. And I struggle with that. Because how do we celebrate the lives of these people when all we know of them in a lot of cases is how they died? I don’t want to do the same thing the media does and sensationalize only the deaths of transgender people, but at the same time, I look at this list and I am overwhelmed by the brutality. People shot execution style, people stabbed and left to bleed to death, people shot over and over, people strangled, people drowned. I am overwhelmed with the grief I feel. I am overwhelmed with disregard that we have for these bodies, for the humanity of these people. I feel powerless to stop all of the killing. I feel grief over all of these powerful people who were killed so young. The youngest on this list was only 15. 15 years old and someone was so afraid of gender difference that they killed him.
I feel grief over our churches that will still deny us ordination and membership. I heard a song yesterday by Arcade Fire, and there was a line that said “Working for the church while your life falls apart, You are singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart.” How many transgender people sit in our pews singing hallelujah with that fear in their heart? Fear of damnation, fear of rejection.
How do we celebrate in the midst of such grief?
How do we get to the celebration? Where is the hope?
Some days I don’t feel it. Some days I can’t get out of the rage. Some days I can’t get past the grief. Some days I can’t get to the celebration.
And I gotta be honest, most of the time the bible or the church aren’t the first places I turn for comfort. Because there are a lot of people hiding their hate behind religious words, and the Bible has been used over and over again to demonize me and my community. It’s heartbreaking for me to be told in not so many words (and even here) that I can’t possibly be a Christian because I don’t fit someone’s interpretation of the Bible. It’s hard to be robbed of my own tradition, my own faith by the very people I should be in community with. The church doesn’t have a great track record on welcoming my trans brothers and sisters. Some days it seems like it would be better to just leave the religion out of it, but on those days when I can manage to get past the rage and the grief and when I find the strength to claim the Bible as my own in spite of the people who use it as a weapon against me. On those days, I find comfort and cause for celebration.
In the book of Isaiah, in the 56th chapter there is this interesting passage: it says:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
Some scholars have said that the eunuch is the closest biblical example we have to modern transpeople. Whatever the case, eunuchs were outcasts from society. They were denied a place in the holy assembly. They were looked down upon and despised. And yet here God is saying that they will be given a name that is better than sons and daughters. Friends, this is good news to transgender and gender non-conforming people. We know what it means to have names chosen for us that don’t fit, or to be called names that are hurtful. We also know what it means to choose names for ourselves that represent all of who we are. And we honor one another by using those chosen names even when others refuse to.
But to have an everlasting name; one that will not be cut off; this is hope for those of us who feel like outcasts. This monument is hope to those who have been killed and to those who worry they will be forgotten. This passage brings me great comfort: to know that I am a beloved son of God and that God gives me an everlasting name, even if my family rejects me, even if the church doesn’t want me, there is a place for me in God’s eyes. This isn’t just some cheap hope. I don’t offer it as a placebo, to say that we should stop fighting for our place at the table, our place in society and the church. Instead I offer it as a raft in the ocean for when the fight gets too hard. I offer it in response to the fearful hallelujah. I offer it because it’s the best I have to offer. We are beloved children of the Universe and no one can take that away from us. We are beloved children. We are beloved.
And we celebrate the work that transgender and gender non-conforming people are doing within our own community; how we’re taking care of one another and working for change. How we’re empowering ourselves and fighting for justice. How we serve as our own families, raising funds for families who can’t afford to pay for funerals, helping one another to navigate medical systems that can be antagonistic and judicial systems that can be oppressive. We are doing the work and that is something to be celebrated.
And I pray that one day our churches will become true places of community. I pray that our society will welcome the outcast. That we will take to heart the words of the song sung earlier, that we need one another to survive. I pray that one day we will really believe that and live it out. Until that day, we celebrate knowing that the change will come. That we will cling to the oft-quoted Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” That we will believe in that justice for ALL of us. That we realize the community involves ALL of us.
In the center of our circle is a dried up tree. Today we will place names upon this tree, making our own monument, remembering those who have been killed, celebrating their lives, calling them by name. We will bring this tree to life with color and with memory. Today we feel rage. Today we feel grief. Today we celebrate. We allow all of these things to permeate us, allowing these things to motivate us. And we cannot separate the one thing from the other. We celebrate not in spite of rage or grief but because of it. We celebrate the lives of these men and women. We hold them in our community and offer them love.
Today we know that none of us are cut off. Today we remember.
copyright 2008 by s