A sermon for the KA/NSA Collaborative Church in Chicago. It was preached 3/26/23. You get it a for a week before I publish it on my blog.
Today, in our scripture readings, we have heard the theme of death and resurrection – and at no better time. In two short weeks Christians around the world will commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus in the Great Three Days from Maundy Thursday through Easter Sunday. This theme of death and resurrection is part and parcel of the Christian life.
The news has been stark for transgender people over the last few weeks, and even over the last few years. I remember when transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn died by suicide, not long after I came out. After her death, there were calls to #FixSociety, and yet society remains unchanged in its hatred and fear of transgender people. In Kansas, Senate Bill 207 requires schools to restrict the use of gender pronouns if they are deemed different from those associated with one’s birth gender. In Michigan, house bill 4257 outlaws gender-affirming care for transgender minors, and makes them a class-one felony, punishable by life in prison. Oklahoma house bill 2177 makes insurance coverage of gender-affirming care illegal, any institution receiving state funds cannot provide gender-affirming care, and minors cannot receive gender-affirming care. Iowa enacted two laws this week restricting bathroom access and gender affirming care to minors. There are many others – these are just a few examples. Many of these bills are pushed through in the name of protecting children.
These bills are tragic, not just because they prevent transgender people from seeking out wanted care. These bills prevent youth from receiving care that has the power to reduce their suicidality by nearly three-quarters. These bills speak death into the world.
In the church, some people are silent and don’t speak up for their transgender siblings. Some churches push transgender people away from life-giving gender-affirming care. Some churches are responsible for the draconian bills mentioned earlier. The Church is involved in the hatred of transgender people. These bills and some churches are responsible for death entering into the world. It can be hard for us to realize that the church speaks death into the valley of dry bones and into Lazarus’ illness.
Yet, the church is full of transgender people who seek to live lives faithful to the Gospel. For example, Austen Hartke, who wrote Transforming: The Bible and the lives of Transgender Christians, found the stories of several transgender Christians and applied Biblical stories to their lives. For these Christians, the Bible provided guideposts and inspiration for their lives.
Other transgender Christians knew their stories would prove helpful to others researching, seeking to understand transgender people, or those wanting to transition. One such person who published her own story was Samanth Jo-Dato, a Black transgender woman, who wrote her story in the book Shattered Perfect.
These oppressive bills, for people just seeking to live their lives in congruence with their self-understanding, remind me of the valley of dry bones and Lazarus in the tomb. Lazarus is sick and on the cusp of death. Soon the valley will be full of bones that are dead and drying. These bills are killing transgender people. There will be a toll of body counts if and when they are passed.
In my own story, covered by Austen Hartke, there was death and dying around my name. My family of origin refused to use my new name. My dead name – that is the name that my parents gave me, and that I no longer use- stopped serving me. I took it to the shores of Lake Michigan and burnt it up with a close friend and released the ashes to the wind. In Samantha’s story, she was being persecuted for her androgynous appearance at work, and her family was pushing her out of their house because they knew she was living into her gender as a woman.
In this world of death and dying – of 30% homelessness and 40% rates of suicide attempts for transgender folks-we smell the scent of decay. When the percentage of transgender people who are Christian is half the percentage of the general population that is Christian, it becomes even more important for congregations to speak about their welcome of transgender people in bold ways.
For me, I found religious community in my seminary and in the congregation I attended during the early years of my transition. These places were safe places for me to experiment and try different presentations, pronouns and ways of being in the world. They were the sandbox where I could build and tear down things without the fear of damaging something structural. I grew sinews and flesh on the old bones of fear of not knowing for sure where I was going and fear of where my family of origin wanted me to go. I resisted the call of death and dying to myself and found abundant life instead.
Samantha Jo-Dato found community in what she calls the Trans Sorority. Transgender people, especially transgender women, often form deep social connections around the shared experiences of giving up one identity for another, often starting on hormonal therapies, and potentially surgical interventions to change our bodies to match the image God has given us. Samantha spent her time and money seeking out these treatments so she could be the woman that she knew God wanted her to be. She started growing sinews and flesh on the bones of family rejection and workplace tension.
Jesus calls to each of us with the possibility of life abundant and renewed. God sends his prophets to call to the winds of new life to grow sinews on the dry bones of social rejection and government interference. Not only to each of us but also to each community. Not only does God call us to the possibility of acceptance, but also to the gift of welcome and celebration of all that we are.
The common theme in each of these stories – the dry bones, the tomb of Lazarus , government regulation and trans people existing is the primacy of bodies. Jesus had a body just as you and I do. Jesus and Lazarus and Ezekiel and the dry bones and Samantha and I each have transformed bodies because just as we can never live the same moment twice, we can never think the same thought twice – our mind is influenced by the flow of time from the future of endless possibility to the unchanging concreteness of the past.
The church has the possibility of growing sinews and flesh on these dead dry bones. By choosing to say yes to God’s expansive love, transgender people and especially youths can have safer places to experience the love and care of community like the all-embracing and loving hold of gravity. By becoming a Welcoming and Affirming congregation, you can open yourselves up to being a place where Jesus calls into the tomb “Lazarus, come out!”
Each of us hears Jesus’ call to come out in different ways. As a queer person, of course I hear the call to come out of the closet of silence and heteronormativity, and I have. I also heard the call to come out from the fear of family rejection and estrangement and to embrace the fullness of who God made me to be – her beloved daughter, made in her image.
Acknowledging that we are all made in God’s image speaks life into the world. It took a long time for me to believe that I am God’s beloved, made in her image. My prayer is that as you think about how you are made in God’s image, you have room to also understand trans folks this way, too. God’s love for you will give you everything you need to be a congregation that speaks life into the world and puts dry bones back together. You and God together can help the journey be a joyful one for the trans folks around you. Remember that you are made in God’s image, just as I am. May that propel you to be a congregation that speaks life into the dry bones and shares God’s unlimited love with the world.