Preached at Auburndale United Parish
What could be worse than saying, “I don’t believe in you?”
Introduction: Thank you for inviting me back to Auburndale to share this important day with you, celebrating 18 years of your decision to becoming a welcoming and reconciling congregation. The last time I preached here and shared worship with you was soon after Deborah and I moved to Massachusetts from Oregon. I think it was 2014, and you were celebrating an important day for this congregation then as well. Then, like today, you were re-affirming your commitment as a Welcoming and Reconciling congregation. You were also celebrating the Confirmation of several young people that Sunday. The energy and joy in the sanctuary was palpable. I remember talking with you then about your hopes for those young Confirmands, and how these related to our hopes and prayers for the wholeness and well-being of all God’s children. On that day we especially included transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual and intersex people in those hopes and prayers. My theme that morning was the parable of the Good Samaritan and what it means to be authentic good neighbors. We ended the message by singing the well-known refrain from Mr. Roger’s song, “Won’t You be My Neighbor.”
Four years later, a lot has shifted in our social-political world. Many are not sure who or what a “neighbor” is, and are drawing increasingly tight, rigid walls to purge or prohibit those defined “not my neighbor.” This movement towards exclusion as significantly impacting the Church as well. We see this in The United Methodist Church through the creation of the “Commission on A Way Forward” and the upcoming special General Conference called to solve the denomination’s impasse over lgbtq “issues” (which I prefer to call “people”) once and for all. hopefully without splitting the denomination. This takes place next February, but there are already United Methodist churches voting to leave the denomination rather than find a way to co-exist with their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex neighbors or any people or congregations who disagree with their position.
This dramatic shift towards the rejection and increased marginalization of lgbt persons is disproportionately directed toward transgender persons. This is made painfully visible by the increasing number of physical attacks on transgender persons. The year 2018 has already set a record for the increase in murders and acts of violence against transgender people in the United States, particularly transgender women of color. Our current administration in the White House continues to press for an end to civil rights protections for transgender people. One recent example is the newest version of a bill designed to prevent most transgender persons from serving in the military. Although overturned once, those in favor of it continue to craft new legislation in the hopes of getting something to pass. In fact, new state or federal bills are regularly floated seeking to limit access to health care, equal employment, housing and other protections for transgender persons.
Conservative politicians, religious leaders, and members of society demonstrate no understanding of, or compassion for those who identify as lgbt. In a profile on Mike Pence in the New Yorker, Donald Trump joked of Pence when asked about lgbtq rights: “Don’t ask that guy- he wants to hang them all!” But it is no joke; it is the truth.
Attempts to rescind legal protections for transgender people will be on the Massachusetts ballot in an attempt to repeal protections passed only last July. Conservatives believe their bill has a good chance of passing.
There are bills like this being pushed all across the country. What’s on the line for transgender people?
Health care bills: Bills that restrict transgender people’s access to health care, and allow Dr.’s and hospitals to discriminate based on “religious freedom”
ID bills: Bills that limit transgender people’s ability to update their identity documents (like driver’s licenses and birth certificates)
Discrimination carve-outs: Bills that allow discrimination against transgender people by creating special exceptions to existing laws, i.e. “it’s against my religious freedom”
Restroom bills: Bills that restrict transgender people’s access to restrooms and other single-sex facilities
Preemption bills: Bills that override municipal and county-level anti-discrimination laws, allowing state and federal laws to justify and enforce discrimination
Youth bills: Bills that restrict transgender students’ rights at school or in child welfare settings
Voters across the state of Massachusetts will again decide the fate of our newly passed Transgender Anti-Discrimination Law on the 2018 statewide ballot.
Opponents characterize the ballot push as part of a "reckless, anti-transgender agenda." Supporters of the initiative cheered it as, "a huge answer to prayer." Both groups said the Secretary of State has confirmed that enough signatures were submitted to put the question on the ballot.
Our state law provides protections against discrimination for transgender individuals in public places; and protects the ability to choose a restroom or other public facility that matches one's sexual identity, regardless of assigned sex. It passed last July but it did not even take full effect until Oct. 1.
If you look at sites reporting on the origin and progress of the initiative you will discover that many individuals and groups crafting and backing it are faith-based, specifically, Christian.
This attack on transgender people by some in the church is not new. One of the most well-known anti-transgender cases is Joan of Arc and the Church trial that led to her death for refusing not to dress in male clothing. Not everyone understands that the reason for her sentence was transgender identification and behavior. Joan of Arc understood her authentic identity and calling as a gift from God, she could not reject it, and was willing to die rather than to deny it.
As we worship here this morning in this safe and welcoming sacred space, transgender and lgb people are experiencing rejection and forced out of their faith communities and churches in a variety of ways. Sometimes even places declared safe are not. A friend of mine seeking a church home visited a congregation that professed to be “Welcoming.” Later the following week the pastor phoned asking her to not return, because they did not have an appropriate restroom for her.
Joan of Arc was born January 6, 1412 and lived 606 years ago. How can we still be dealing with such ignorance, violence and inhumanity today? Aren’t we beyond such superstition? While medical studies and research increasingly discover and point to genetic, hormonal, and neurological differences in the transgender population, there are those who continue to vilify and deny our very real experience.
Sometimes, as in the Middle Ages, individuals or institutions obtain inordinate power. And sometimes people are easily swayed by those perceived as having more power, and when convincing lies and one-sided research is offered, some people believe it. Or when people say, “Because I am cis-gendered (not transgender) I know it is a choice.” And that is the point.
I believe we humans are all susceptible to the, “I’ll believe it when I experience/see it” point of view.
Do you remember Ripley’s “Believe it or Not”?
When I was a kid it was one of my favorite paperback books. I had a bright yellow copy.
As a reporter of the odd and unusual, Ripley traveled to the farthest corners of the world, visiting over 200 countries, meeting with kings and queens, cannibal chieftains, and many tribes along the way.
As a child I loved Ripley's. What kid wouldn't? Here was a chance for my world to be expanded and challenged. I was forced in every picture to make a faith decision: do I believe this or not? Can I believe in the Fiji mermaid? I wondered. And what about the "Chinese Shrunken Head," the size of a lemon? Or "Wadlow the Giant" a 8'11" tall human being?
I was challenged about what I really believed on every page of that book.
I thought about Ripley as I read the story about Thomas again in the gospel of John. And I thought about how every one of us is challenged to decide on a daily basis what we see, based upon what we believe.
Among Jesus' 12 disciples, Thomas was not singled out as an example of "doubt" because he possessed a watered-down commitment or a frail faith. In John 11:16, it is Thomas who loyally if bluntly declares his willingness to follow Jesus back to Bethany and Lazarus' tomb, even though people in that very place had nearly stoned Jesus only a short time before. When the other disciples are cautions about making such a journey, Thomas declares, "Let us also go, that we may die with him!" For his steadfastness, Thomas was rewarded with witnessing the stunning miracle of Lazarus' resurrection.
Thomas' commitment to Jesus' earthly mission was enthusiastic and wholehearted. Thanks to Thomas' persistent inquiry into where Jesus was going (John 14:5), Jesus was provoked into saying "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." But Thomas was fueled and fired by his experience as a witness to Jesus' actions -- the miracles performed, the people transformed. Thomas was attentive to Jesus' deeds -- not nearly as attentive, however, to his words.
In these verses Thomas is confronted with nothing but words, "hearsay" we might call it, about Jesus' miraculous resurrection. Thomas has to decide how to integrate the reported experience of others of the risen Christ into his old belief system based only upon his own experiences of Jesus. Thomas chooses to fall back on his old reliable source of strength -- a faith based on "seeing-is-believing."
What Thomas failed to understand is that Jesus' mission and ministry had moved light-years forward. Literally, while Thomas was "out of the room," the rules had changed.
The rules have also changed about what Jesus’ ministry is today. When the ground rules change, our old strengths, our reliable standbys, can become major liabilities.
This was Thomas’s biggest problem and it may the biggest problem of those who oppose and deny the reality of transgender people today.
“Doubting Thomas”- unless I am it, unless I experience it, it is not real. I do not believe it.
This type of thinking underlies the continuous efforts of lawmakers and some religious leaders to marginalize and vilify every transgender person.
The insitutions and individuals who deny transgender persons the basic human dignity, worth, and right to exist are not only saying “I will never believe unless I experience it myself” they are exterminators- they want to say to every transgender person, “You are not real. You do not really exist. Your experience, your life is not valid.”
This is the underlying rational for not including transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or intersex people in the 2020 census; it is the real reason behind ongoing attempts to ban transgender service people in the military; and it is the hidden message in attempts to remove protections in employment, housing, and healthcare.
What can be more damaging, devastating to another human being than to say, “I do not believe in who you are?”
The 2012 and 2015 surveys from the National Center for Transgender indicate increasing broad discrimination based on gender identity. One survey focused on New England indicated high levels of discrimination in very specific areas:
I am certain these percentages have only increased since 2015, based on what I read in the news today. Statistics like these will only decrease with increased safety and security for the transgender community.
The late psychiatrist Carl Jung once remarked, “The world will ask you who you are, and if you cannot answer, it will tell you.”
Transgender people everywhere are trying to tell you who we are. In churches, synagogues, mosques and temples; in elementary and secondary schools; in collegiate and professional sports, in academics and literature…in every area of life transgender people are saying to the world, “This is who I am.”
What can you do? The very first thing is to believe us so you can see us.
If you are skeptical, do some reading, attend an educational event, meet some transgender people and share stories.
If you believe and see us, be active in the political process-vote. Encourage and take others to vote. If you are not already connected, find groups and opportunities in the broader community that support transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and other marginalized people and work together.
As a congregation, ask if there might be practical ministries you may offer to transgender seekers? A support or dinner church group, a study group, a safe space for meetings?
These are a few suggestions, and together I know you can come up many creative ideas for the future.
It all begins with believing, because believing is seeing- seeing us as the authentic people we are- your friends, your family members; your neighbors. Thank you for inviting this neighbor to share the message with you this morning.