As a kid, I was often mis-gendered. I had short hair, hated wearing dresses, had no interest in make-up, and really wanted to play football with the boys. I’d be sitting in a restaurant with my family and the waiter would say, “Sir, what would you like for lunch?” Or I’d walk into a women’s restroom and realize that someone was scrutinizing me to figure out if I really belonged there. Every time this happened to me, I felt intense shame. I felt like something was wrong with me.
These days I’m still trying to understand my gender identity. I wouldn’t say I’m trans. I don’t want to change my pronouns. At the same time, I don’t fit traditional constructions of femininity or masculinity. So I’ve begun think of myself as gender non-conforming. Whenever someone calls me “sir” these days the internalized shame still comes up. But a new feeling has been emerging, too: a kind of playfulness, like, “Hah, fooled you!” It feels like there’s space to experiment now with just being myself. And I no longer see my inability to conform to a gender binary as a problem.
These are the reflections that came to mind for me as I pondered Melissa’s sermon last week, her story of gender and faith. But enough about me? What have you been thinking about since then? Did her courageous and generous way of sharing offer you insight into your own experiences of gender? Just wondering! We know that gender is a spectrum, like sexual orientation. Some of us are very strongly on one side or the other and others of us are somewhere in the middle. So the fact that our socialization wants to force us into a rigid binary is a problem for all of us. In fact, it’s an oppressive system that makes everyone less whole, and less human.
Jesus stunned the crowd in his hometown synagogue when he announced that he was the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s vision of justice. Justice, in the eyes of the prophets, is not mere fairness. It is the liberation of body, mind and spirit, such as the mystic Hafiz describes: Justice comes from surrendering, ever more deeply, to freedom and joy. Learning to see with the sacred, tender vision of the heart; obeying something playful; acting with the divine courage that already lives in us. Justice is complete freedom and unbounded joy operating on a systemic level. Good news for the poor is not just about the poor. It destroys the whole enterprise of poverty and wealth, conqueror and exploited. Release of the captives and freedom for the oppressed is paired with recovery of sight for those blind to God’s heart beating in creation. Justice interrupts the endless cycles of harm that trap us all—the harm we do and the harm done to us.
Jesus, with Isaiah before him, declared the year of the Lord’s favor, the jubilee year that is, according to Jewish law, supposed to occur every fifty years. Debts forgiven, slaves held no more, lands distributed according to need and not greed. The jubilee is a glimpse of what our common life will be like when we finally know, in our collective bones that We have not come into this exquisite world to hold ourselves hostage from love. God’s love, as Paul says, in Corinthians, is endless, without boundary or condition. It is expansive, patient and forgiving. In this love, we are free to be utterly ourselves. And at the same time, we are utterly bound to each other, and to the well-being of the whole.
The hometown crowd felt the power of Jesus’ voice; they knew he was not just talking. These words would give flesh to what they promised. At first, they cheered Jesus on proudly. “He’s one of us!” “Joseph’s own son.” What a “gracious” presence. But Jesus did not bask in their favor. With the eyes of all fixed upon him, he said: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
Jesus knew what we humans are like. He knew that conflict is often necessary to bring us to the threshold of transformation. So he picked a fight with his listeners. He purposefully agitated his friends and family, his elders and mentors. He stopped talking in flowery generalities and gave them examples—specific, concrete, and hard-to-accept examples. He pointed out that Elijah and Elisha, quintessential Jewish prophets, were sent to help and heal foreigners rather than their own people. Was he saying that these outsiders were closer to God’s heart? Was he calling them entitled insiders who were clueless about what God was up to in the world?
As part of our work with the Sacred Solidarity program of “MARCH” (multi-faith, anti-racist change and healing), the Racial Justice ministry is analyzing how our congregation is rooted in white supremacy. Not the hooded and cross-burning kind of white supremacy, but the culture that make whiteness the norm. This culture is a complex system of interrelated characteristics. Just one of these characteristics is the tendency toward either/or thinking. For instance, either you’re a good person or you’re racist. You can’t be both, which really throws a wrench of defensiveness and fragility in the path of white folks. The characteristics of white supremacy culture are sneaky, though. They show up in things that seem to have no relationship to race. Either/or thinking is also evident in the rigidity of traditional gender binaries. Either you’re male or you’re female. There’s no space to be both/and or neither one at all. Such thinking is destructive and oppressive. It leaves no room for complexity, diversity and contradiction. It fails to allow for fluidity or to acknowledge spectrums.
First Church is also a member congregation of ISAIAH, which organizes people of faith to act collectively and powerfully towards racial and economic equity in the state of Minnesota. The agenda we’ve created with ISAIAH for this legislative session advocates for paid family leave, affordable child care, ending Islamophobia, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, restoring the vote for those who have been incarcerated, MN Care available to all, and 100 percent clean energy. Wow, right? At the ISAIAH assembly a couple of weeks ago, Doran Schrantz, the Executive Director, summed up our political situation this way: Scarcity is a key assumption. We’ve been taught to believe there is not enough to go around. Some people are deserving and others aren’t. So political compromise is always an either/or situation. Either I get what I need or you do, never both of us. Either we are part of the community, or they are, but we can’t all belong.
Our democracy, Doran argued, has become fundamentally unresponsive to the people. She offered paid family leave as an example. Eighty-five percent of Minnesotans support paid family leave. But when bills have been launched in the past the media has immediately called on the chamber of commerce to get “the other side.” The problem is not that corporations have a voice. The problem is that, as Doran put it, “There is a vast asymmetry of power between people and corporations. A ceiling immediately gets put on what is considered politically possible.” This dynamic further erodes people’s trust in democracy and creates a vacuum of leadership that allows a very few people to continue to make decisions for all of us. Changing this situation requires that we relentlessly organize and engage, and fiercely demand a fair debate, centered on what the people need. Let’s get to the capitol. You can see the list of dates in the bulletin. I’ll be there on Tuesday for the clean energy event. You’re invited to join me! Or, you can make some phone calls to the people who represent you.
In their rage, the hometown crowd tried to hurl Jesus off a cliff. But he slipped away from them and escaped, which says to me that maybe some people protected him. Maybe a few in the crowd responded to his agitation that day by changing their minds, opening their hearts, turning their lives around. God’s prophetic justice is so profoundly transformational that it manages to rub us all the wrong way. Our first task, as disciples, is not to be prophets to the world. It is to receive the liberating prophetic word of Jesus within ourselves. My friends, our work is to “surrender ever more deeply/To freedom and joy.” For “We have not come into this exquisite world to hold ourselves hostage from love.” Amen.