Matthew 17:1–9, preached by Emily Goldthwaite on August 20, 2023

We have just heard the story of the time when Jesus showed his most trusted friends who he was for the first time, and how they reacted. If you’ve ever been a part of a coming-out moment, I wonder if elements of this story feel familiar to you. Maybe you’ve been the one holding part of yourself hidden until the right time, even hoping nobody notices before you feel ready to share it with the world. Maybe—like me—you’ve been the friend who was totally unprepared for what is being entrusted to you. 

Just to be clear, you—or your friend—probably weren’t coming out as the Messiah, so we’re going to set that part aside for a while.  

But I can tell you now that I will never forget the experience of seeing one of the best girl friends I grew up with at church camp transfigured before my eyes into the person he was meant to be. (I am going to tell you a couple of real stories today, but I want you to know that I am using made-up names for the privacy of my friends and to avoid using their names given at birth, which they no longer use.)

Camp Adams, the UCC camp in Oregon, was and continues to be a holy place, where self-discovery was not uncommon. For myself and for many of my friends, the trip to this mountainside covered with old-growth forest, with its chapel in a clearing, was year after year a pilgrimage to a place where we remembered who and whose we were, while our daily lives in our hometowns could be full of pressures to dress and act a certain way. It was the 80s and 90s and even though it was the days before social media, brand names and appearances were everything, especially for girls. We got to ditch all that at camp and try on the overalls and tie dye that made sense in this wild place where we stayed busy all day, with no technology, and had only each other for entertainment, and the woods for precious times of reflection. So, it was not a huge surprise when my friend Ellen came out as a lesbian—on the drive home from camp. As we huddled together in the school bus seats sharing our Ani DiFranco mixtapes, my friend passed me a note in the tiniest handwriting: “I’m gay!” 

I’m proud that I was well prepared by my Open and Affirming UCC church to be a steady friend as Ellen lived into her new identity and overcame some of the depression that resulted from that feeling of never fitting in. 

We remained friends into college and stayed in touch—though I could tell that there was something more going on, that my friend was still unsettled. I think I was afraid to ask, maybe afraid of being pushed away. Ellen finally came out to me a second time—this time as transgender, using he/him pronouns—and told me he’d been going by a new name, Andy, for several months. And this news hit me in a way I am not proud of. As it turns out, growing up in that Open and Affirming church did not prepare me to understand that someone who had lived side by side with me as girls—feminists!—could discover at age 19 that he was, in fact, a boy. And wasn’t going to be at peace until he was able to line up who he felt he was with the person others perceived as he moved through the world.

In the story from Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus suddenly starts to glow and appears in the company of the greatest prophets, the disciples Peter, James, and John don’t really know what to do with themselves. At first, they offer to build tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, but then the light of a bright cloud appears and the voice of God speaks to them: “This is my son, my beloved, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Never has a message of love been more terrifying. Jesus then has a sobering conversation with them about keeping what they have seen hidden until the right time. The world will deal very roughly with those who challenge the way things are. 

This feels so real to me. I remember when Andy came out as trans that I went right to the fear and control, tried to talk him out of it, and even said hurtful things out of my own fear of how he would be treated by people who didn’t understand. A gender transition often meant losing one’s family and friends, starting over in a career and being targeted by bullies. This was more than 20 years ago when there were only very negative and tragic media portrayals of trans people and very few resources out there for supporting a loved one in transition. I know because I searched high and low. I remember saying to my Dad after trying out the PFLAG group that met in our church, with tears in my eyes, “Where’s the support group for church camp friends of youth coming out as transgender?” 

You know what? A lot has changed in the past 20-plus years—and a lot hasn’t. But that support group I needed probably exists now, along with websites, and trainings for teachers, and mentoring programs. In our churches today, there are members of several different generations here together and if those who are my age and older feel like this realm is really evolving quickly you are right! Trans and nonbinary people have lived in every time and place, but as the spectrum of orientations and identities are becoming better understood and part of everyday culture for more people, many more youth are claiming the possibilities in a way that my friend Andy did not see back when we were kids. 

And it’s great news that we don’t have to be an expert to be a good friend. The spiritual part of this journey for me as an ally has been learning to embrace something I can’t possibly understand purely with logic or science or my own experience. And learning to trust what I witnessed with my own eyes and my own heart as Andy moved day by day through the process of becoming himself for the very first time, finding happiness, finding community, and eventually becoming a registered nurse and a parent himself. “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun.”

Discerning our identities, resisting the rules that limit our full self, finding the trust to share our truth with another—these are practices of faith as much as anything I know. This is what I have learned from the beloved trans people in my life. 

The reason I feel so emotional about this today is that as it becomes much more common for young people to express a trans, nonbinary or queer identity early in life, the bullies at the highest levels of power in this country are exploiting their vulnerability for their own political gain. 

Minnesota has come to be seen as an island where gender affirming care is a protected right. The ACLU is tracking 491 anti LGBTQ bills in the United States. Lest we feel too superior in Minnesota, 10 of them are in our state; and the ACLU says “while not all these bills will become law, they all harm LGBTQ people.” 

According to the Trans Legislation Tracker, “2023 marks the fourth consecutive record-breaking year for total number of anti-trans bills considered in the U.S. The sheer volume of bills is part of an escalation against transgender people at both the state and national levels.”

God have mercy. 

We might conclude that LGBTQ Americans and especially children, present as great a threat to the powers that be (or that aspire to be) in this country as the Jewish carpenter from the countryside who criticized the occupying rulers of first century Palestine. 

Followers of Jesus can recognize what a holy thing it is for a child of God to discover who they are, to risk shining bright in this world where some people won’t understand anything beyond the hierarchies and binaries they inherited. And we can recognize what a sin it is, what a violation, to force that light back into hiding. 

As usual, Jesus provides both a personal and a political message to us, and the two are inseparable when a group among us is being intentionally marginalized and oppressed. Political here doesn’t mean partisan, it means the way we live and govern collectively. The truths we hold to be self-evident and the systems that are meant to protect those with the least power. 

The ONA church is meant to be a safe haven where we can all be our whole selves. We honor the light when our friend begins to shine. That is so deeply personal. And we also have a calling to transform our wider communities so that no one need feel unsafe for being who they are. A lifetime of fighting for marriage equality has taught us a lot of lessons we can put to work in these times. And yet, it hasn’t necessarily prepared all of us to show up to defend the rights of trans people. I have known UCC churches who wrote Open and Affirming statements within the last couple of decades, intentionally leaving out mention of gender identity, based on what I believe are a set of misguided assumptions. In becoming ONA, some of us actually minimized trans and nonbinary people’s experiences in the process. In the UCC it can sting when we sometimes realize we aren’t the leader we imagine ourselves to be.

I was very moved to hear that the UCC General Synod, earlier this summer, approved a resolution “Actively affirming the human dignity of transgender and nonbinary persons.” It’s very meaningful that this resolution was proposed by the Florida and Southeast Conferences where anti-trans legislation is the most intense. I am hopeful for the work our conference could do in response. 

For those for whom this struggle has been part of daily life, the church needs to make space to humbly learn from you for a new era of advocacy and truth telling! This country still desperately needs the witness of faithful people who believe the way it is isn’t the only way it could be. 

I want you to know that just last month, right here in Hennepin County, I had a glimpse of that world-to-come where all children may be affirmed and beloved for exactly who they are. I was very honored to be asked by some dear friends to be a witness in a court hearing for their 15-year-old who is legally changing her name after coming out as trans three years ago and now approaching the age of driver’s licenses and such. I believe all of us who were to appear on this Zoom call with a clerk and judge were preparing ourselves for at best a sterile, stuffy, and unfriendly procedure, with a bunch of personal and intrusive questions. Against the backdrop of anti-trans efforts across the country, the best I hoped for was to just get this over with. I and the other witness were clearly determined to just keep smiling through the screens at our young friend who was facing this most intimidating moment. 

But instead, we were welcomed by a judge who made this moment as special as she could. She acknowledged the awkwardness of the questioning and ensured it didn’t feel personal. She complimented this family on providing a support system and acting in their child’s best interests. And she called my young friend by name, saying “Congratulations, Violet. I think you are very brave and you did a great job today. I also think it shows a lot of integrity that you want the person people know on the outside to be the same person you know you are on the inside.”

O, for a world where every child who bravely shows us the truth of who they are receives the care, the honor, the extravagant blessing and grace, that Violet received in that moment. Where every child gets to shine. May it be so.