a sermon on transitions

Reign of Christ | Transgender Day of Remembrance
Twenty-seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6 | Luke 1:68-79 | Colossians 1:11-20 | Luke 23:33-43 

This sermon was prepared and preached in collaboration with Reed (Brooks) Fowler of St. Luke’s. Many thanks to Reed for the wisdom, patience, and vulnerability they brought to this project. 

Click here to read the Thanksgiving for Baptism and Naming ritual that opened our worship this Sunday.

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Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem and the Stonewall Riots happen in Station 8 from “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle for LBGT Equality” by Mary Button, courtesy of Believe Out Loud.

ECB – Just a few months ago, in Holy Week, we were hearing this same story: Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the last supper and betrayal, the torture and death. We know how the story continues – two days later on Easter Sunday God raised Christ from the dead! Worship in the summer and fall brought us texts about new life in Christ, about the Spirit’s movement in the Church, about the life of faith. And now, just a few months later, here we are, back at the foot of the cross, this time with no Easter in sight.

Today is the last Sunday of the church year, Reign of Christ. Today is the day when we proclaim God’s sovereignty in the cosmos, Christ’s ultimate power and triumph over the powers of sin and evil and all the forces that defy God. Next week, a new church year begins, the First Sunday of Advent.

This is our sort of New Year’s Eve. But time feels different in the church year. It doesn’t march along in a linear fashion, like 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017; it goes round in cycles. In Year A we follow Jesus’ life according to the gospel of Matthew; in Year B, the gospel of Mark; in Year C (this year), the gospel of Luke; then back to year A (coming up next week).

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And today feels different than New Year’s Eve. The excitement and anticipation, the old things forgotten behind you, the new things stretching out ahead, the sounds of parties and dancing, the sparkly dresses, the taste of champagne and midnight kisses… No, this is a different kind of New Year’s Eve

The place is called the Skull because it has seen so much death. A march towards execution, the old things weighing you down in the shape of a cross, nothing ahead of you but the end. The sounds of cruel laughter; even the ones suffering with you are beyond reach. The taste of sour wine, the feeling of utter abandonment.

This is the story the Church has chosen to live in on its New Year’s Eve. This is the text that shows us the Reign of Christ.

This year, Reign of Christ shares the calendar with Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day that also finds itself between end and beginning. This day we remember the end of too. many. lives. of our transgender siblings, lost to transphobia and violence. Their names weigh heavy like grief sometimes, and other times feel like anger – feel like, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (Jer 23:1) Woe to the forces that have done violence to the beloved family of God. Woe to those things which keep the Church, even now, from gathering them in, no longer afraid, no longer missing.

And on this day, anger turns to action and end turns to beginning as we celebrate the blessing of trans folks all the more deeply, and renew our commitment to love our dear siblings all the more fiercely. We open ourselves to new practices of inclusion and affirmation. And as we grow and change, we begin to notice new gifts…

RBF – One of the gifts of the Lutheran tradition is a recognition that we cannot fully understand or describe God – especially in binary terms. God is not male or female, the kingdom is both yet and not yet, Christ is simultaneously God and human. The crucifixion invites us to this space of both, and. We are asked to sit in that liminal position – to celebrate it as the culmination of our church calendar. On the cross, Christ is both criminal and king, risen and dead.

Transition and trans identities also inhabit middle points. Bodies read as both boy and girl, you sing at a soprano one second and a tenor the next. I want to celebrate this liminal space, but I rush towards end goals. I push aside the crucifixion to get to the resurrection. But what happens when we stand in those doorways, as the liturgical year is asking us to?

I see Christ, crucified, flanked by criminals, who are also jeering with the soldiers. There’s a sign naming his body, fuzzy at the edges of breathing and still, as ‘king’. People mill about – watchers, rumor-mongers, mothers.

I hear a fellow witness claim that Christ ‘has done nothing wrong’ – Christ doesn’t deserve to be up on the cross. That’s not entirely true, though, is it? They’ve done many things wrong in the eyes of the empire. Christ has eaten with society’s margins, healed the sick, loved, and said that power structures can’t overtake grace. Christ has done plenty wrong to be placed on a cross at the hand of the Romans. 

The soldiers know this is just a waiting game. Waiting in the middle space until the stiff bodies can be taken down. That’s their end point, and the sooner it gets here, the sooner they can go home for the night. Christ isn’t the first, and their body won’t be the last. Hauled up, hauled down. How do they not know love is volatile and dangerous to power? It seems like this is the fifth crucifixion this week. Maybe the sixth? They blur together at some point – it’s easier to keep your heart protected.

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This icon, which uses outdated language, depicts the death of Rita Hester in Allston, MA, and compares it to the crucifixion of Jesus. The vigils and memorials following her death gave birth to what we call today Transgender Day of Remembrance. (Art: Mary Button, courtesy of Believe Out Loud Caption: River Needham)

The crucifixion is still here. I am still here. This time, as Christ has placed physical body in for mine, I hear names being hurled at me that I do not claim. Christ didn’t claim that they were a king. Not a messiah. Not while they were on the cross. The only name Christ has claimed is ‘child’. The other names are hurled projectiles. Christ is being killed for identities that they don’t claim. Old ways of being, old names that have been let go of. Names that fit like jagged edges of glass.

I see the Christ-figure as blurred identities. I think about how dangerous it can be for trans folks to take space, name themselves. I think about how easy it is for someone to be outed and at risk when they are called a name no longer used. And I remember that this isn’t new. It isn’t new that Christ is crucified under names that don’t fit. In death, trans folks are misgendered and misnamed and erased all the time.

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The child sits in the in-between, playing, making dandelion chains. There’s no rush to the end point. The middle is the edges of wake and dream. Puzzle pieces are scattered, but there’s time to bring them together still. Try on clothes to see what fits. The immense joy of resurrection is in this space and the suffering of Judas’ kiss is here too.  The distance closes between myself now and myself as child, who I still carry with me. I still carry her with me, as we all carry our past selves. The crucifixion is a liminal state – it’s okay to feel deep aches, and pains, along with joy.

ECB – Vitor Westhelle, a favorite professor and theologian, describes the Christian life as playfulness. He imagines Creation as God’s great playground, in which we are free to play “resurrection” the way children play dress-up. As we prepare today at St. Luke’s to receive new members, I’m thinking about the question we’ll ask these five people: “Do you intend to continue in the covenant of your baptism among God’s people in this place?”

Looking up at the windows of this place, I see “Justice” and “We’re imperfect” and a quote from Martin Luther that says,

“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being but becoming; not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we will be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam gloriously, but all is being purified.”

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A commitment to practicing our baptism – here or anywhere – is a commitment to a perpetual “exercise,” an ongoing and never-finished transition from who we are to who we are becoming in Christ.

This New Year’s Eve, we live in the story of the cross, because what the cross means is that Christ is in that transition with us. Christ knows the pain of in-between, of wishing for the end but instead seeing a long road ahead; knows the feeling of aloneness, the deep need for healing. This is why the cross is important. Our church year ends with a dark cross instead of a shiny empty tomb, because the end of the story isn’t really the point. (It’s like when you’re reading a really good book – for me it was Harry Potter – and you get to the ending, and no matter how it turns out, you don’t like it because it means the story is over!) The story is the point, not the ending. And because of Christ, we know that we don’t live our stories alone.

RBF – Christ is inviting us to sit at their crucified feet – to hold space and bear witness. More importantly, it feels like Christ is imploring us to hold space for one another in all of the messy, uncomfortable, joyous middle spaces we find ourselves in. Which isn’t always easy. It’s complicated, and hard, and we say things that drive us apart. It’s often more comfortable to rush towards end points, towards resurrection. But our faith asks us to center the crucifixion – to pull in the margins. And the crucifixion asks us to encourage each other to be in-progress, and to uplift all the ways we contain multitudes.

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