Posts Tagged Transgender

Caravan of All Souls

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/28/18 for our annual All Souls service. It reflects on our theological response to the refugee caravan traveling north from Honduras, and the threats against Transgender folk in the US.

Maybe the first tenet of preaching, or at least the most important, is to make sure folks come out hearing a message of hope. But today, this service commemorating All Souls, is different. Another year has gone by. A life full of hopes, and dreams – of losses and disappointments. Some the small everyday kind that we carry with us way beyond reason, and some tragic losses that impact us keenly and deeply, whose wounds will not go away for a very long time – if they ever truly leave us. Sometimes hope isn’t a virtue, but a merely wish for what can simply not be. All Souls is a day to honor and remember those we have lost; to remember the truth that death comes inevitably to all of us. We pray that we learn to enjoy the sweetness of life, of friendship, of community – for as long as we are given.

Telling our stories is a powerful form of ministry with one another. And the stories we tell matter. It’s one of the reasons at our memorial services, we put such a focus on the community sharing their memories of the deceased. Their legacy and their love continue on in the impacts they made while they were alive. Storytelling is honoring that life. Even the painful stories are important to share; there is a healing in the telling, and there is an ethical component as well. Sharing our struggle is a way to foster compassion, and compassion builds community. In traditional Universalist theology, all souls are saved. And on this day, we remember who came before, but we also remember that we are part of that beloved community of all souls; that allsouls are part of our community.

Remembering this fundamental sanctity of life; that our theology affirms the inherent worth of people, I’m going to tell three short stories about our world today. I’ll ask you to keep in mind this essential theology of Universalism affirming all souls. Before I begin though, I offer these words from Joanna Macy as a frame (she’s is an environmental activist, author, and a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology.) “Thus do we realize ever again that the simple eloquenceof telling the truth liberates us to find insight,solidarity, and courage to act, despite rapidly-worseningconditions. When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us. Many of us fear that confrontation with despair will bring loneliness and isolation, but—on the contrary—in the letting go of old defenses, truer community is found. In the synergy of sharing comes power. In community, we learn to trust our inner responses to our world—and find our power.”

My first story. All Souls, and this time of year is associated with Hurricane Sandy for me. This part of the world was hit rather hard. Some of us in our Fellowship lost their home. Neighborhoods in the wider area were destroyed. The recovery took well over 2 years in some parts. I remember at the time, I was living in Manhattan, in Stuyvesant Town. They were 12 story towers for middle income folk, stretching for at least 6 city blocks, and 4 avenues. The week of Sandy, had  been both emotionally exhausting and incredibly fortunate for my home. Being in what NYC called zone B, we were not asked to evacuate ahead of time, so we hunkered down, stored up supplies, froze extra water in zip lock bags just in case, and prepared for a night of computer games and a good book.

We lived two blocks from the Con Edison station that had a transformer blow. I personally missed the great flash of white light that lit the sky – I was busy staring at my computer shutting down.

The East River, typically 2.5 avenues away (or the one half mile from our front door) in Stuyvesant Town where we lived, became our neighbor for a night and part of a morning. It landed on a Monday. Although the East River receded by the next day, the streets were wet through that Thursday. The power was out, hot water was gone, and running water came and went for up to twelve hours at a time. Some of our neighbors were out of gas, but we were fortunate. Our building did not suffer that level of damage. The next one over did.

Over the next few days, we would climb down the ten flights of stairs with our flashlights to grab some bread from bodegas that were getting rid of the last of their supplies before they went bad – and we were very grateful that no one was price gouging their goods. More food wasn’t coming in yet.

Many eight story stall trees were dead on the grown. Twelve foot lengths of pier, giant rivets and all, were as far in as Ave C – leaving wreckage to the cars they rested upon, amidst other cars literally tossed about by the East River.

Traffic in Manhattan, usually a bitter affair, was pedestrian friendly, almost devoid of any honking horns, and civil in a way I could never imagine.

In our community, neighbors and resident staff were taking turns visiting each of the 30,000+ homes without power to make sure folks were alright. Letters were circulated asking us to check on our neighbors who were elders – who had no hope of climbing down, let along up, ten flights of stairs. We were a community of all souls that week.

One café brought out a generator to the street, and set up a power strip so that strangers could recharge their cell phones and laptops. This may seem small, but when you have no ability to tell anyone that you’re fine – this was a great act of charity and relief. For those that follow me on social media, you know how prolific I am. When we finally had access to power and a signal, my Facebook wall was inundated with friends, congregants and colleagues asking if we were alright; folks knew how close we were to the worst, and not everyone lived through that Hurricane. In the US alone, 106 people died. When we finally had cell coverage again on Wednesday, I was heartened to hear of the stories of outreach and support organized by the congregation in Brooklyn I was serving at the time. I know our own Fellowship here made sure to take care of one another as well. I felt cared for knowing others were taking care of one another, even though I couldn’t be reached yet.

We finally did evacuate on Thursday to the magical land of “Park Slope” which was high, dry and heavily caffeinated. We felt very blessed. We are were lucky to be able to return home by Sunday afternoon.

That hurricane was serious, destroying so much; though in comparison, we were fine. And I still remember it this time of year, every year. And for those among us who lost our homes, it’s left an indelible imprint upon our psyche. The act of the community coming together to support those in extreme crisis, is the spiritual and human response to tragedy. It’s healthy; it’s normal; and it defines civilization. That is what we should do; that is who we should be; and that should be our marker for decency. As Joanna Macy said, “When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us.”

If that one storm was so significant, that congregations around this area would remember in our pastoral prayers or our sermons, annually going on five and six years now, let’s extend that truth to even more serious moments of crisis and tragedy. What level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to that which is worse?

Here is my second story. It’s about the refugee caravan heading north from Honduras; a caravan also of all souls. Again I ask, what level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to that which is worse? Just this week, our UU Service Committee “in partnership with SHARE El Salvador and in collaboration with the Sisters of Mercy, participated in a delegation to Honduras to bear witness to social and political dynamics that have contributed to civil unrest within Honduras as well as a mass exodus of civilians from the country. This delegation heard numerous testimonies of government abuse and greed, torture, human rights violations, rape, forced displacement, and the dehumanization of large groups of people.”[1]If you want to learn more about the causes, and what can be done, you can head to our Facebook page, or directly to UUSC.org for the full report and actions that can be done.

There’s far too much political rhetoric being irresponsibly thrown around – particularly the lie that there are terrorists and gang members amidst the refugees. It’s another racist dog whistle, plain and simple. All reporting, on the ground, indicates this is a blatant lie. The Washington Post had an article the other day detailing what Mexicans are doing as the refugees travel north. It reminded me of how New Yorkers came together after the Hurricane. “The 30-year-old Honduran corn farmer and dogged sojourner in the migrant caravan was dressed head-to-toe in donated clothes. His 3-year-old son, Alexander, played with donated toys. And the rest of the family — his wife, his two brothers and a cousin — sat on the sidewalk eating beef stew and tortillas ladled out for them by residents of this bustling market town in Mexico’s southern Chiapas state. “These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.”[2]

 

“These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.” To me, that’s the basic level of compassion one should at least extend people fleeing from “government abuse and greed, torture, human rights violations, rape, forced displacement, and the dehumanization of large groups of people.” That’s the basic level; not play pretend they are actually terrorists. And both US law and International law are clear – refugees can seek asylum at our borders. These are refugees; they are doing nothing illegal.

It is a malicious theology that seeks to carve up the beloved community of all souls – between us and them, with the “us” forever shrinking and shrinking till it looks more like “me” than any “us” that ever were. “When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us.” (Joanna Macy.)

“These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.”[3]I want to turn toward some words my colleague, Rev Jake Morrill recently blogged. Here they are: “Years ago, the literary theorist Elaine Scarry wrote a book called “On Beauty and Being Just.” She says beauty is that which awakens in us a longing for creation and fulfillment. She says that, when we fall in love with beauty, we want to share it. And—whether it’s a painting or a person or a culture or a region of land—when we fall in love with it, we want to defend it. She says we’ll fight to preserve it. And what we seek, in the name of beauty, is justice.

A friend of mine says that the central task of these times of de-humanization is for us to engage in “re-humanization.” Which may be another way to say that we need to see and hear one another—our stories, our wounds, our quirks, our confessions—and even fall in love a little with one another. And, while we’re at it, to come back to ourselves.

I don’t know the exact strategies that will fix the big problems we face, or heal the wounds. But I think faith communities and other artistic communities can be about falling in love again with each other and with the earth, bearing witness to beauty even in the wreckage, and taking up the discipline of re-humanization.

If our hearts got stirred up like that, if we let beauty tug us out of our stupor, we could be moved to fight for what we love. Tenaciously and tenderly. Like something precious might, even at the last hour, have a chance of being saved.”[4]

Thank you Rev. Morrill for that gorgeous re-centering during these difficult times. Falling in love with one another, loving the beauty in one another, and bearing witness to the other. Being seen for who we are, as we are, is the next step in learning to love one another enough to defend and protect and nurture our neighbor, whether it’s a storm of the natural world, or a storm of the political world – we can respond with beauty to lift us all up.

I’ll come to a close with my third story. This week we learned that the President is seeking to change the definitions of gender, to remove it as a protected legal status as a linguistic gambit to erase Transgender and Non-Binary people from sight. You can well and easily imagine the repercussions to rights, and to safety that will come of this deeply cynical move. Calls to the National Transgender Hotline doubled this week in light of this news. It’s another way to carve out who gets seen in the caravan of all souls, and our faith teaches us otherwise. The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines gender identity as “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female.” That’s not complicated to express or really to understand. And there are many people that need us to understand; to see them as they are, and to learn to love their beauty enough that we care to defend them and nurture them. In the end, this cynical move sounds to me like another way that our current administration has something in common with Honduras, namely, “the dehumanization of large groups of people.” What level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to the dehumanization of large groups of people? What stories will we learn to hear? What lives will we hold close to our hearts to live on in us; carrying their humanity unto our humanity? Dehumanization leads to pipe bombs being sent to your political opponents and journalists; dehumanization leads to gunman storming our synagogues on shabbat.

The author Neil Gaiman says that, “A book is a dream in your hands.” Well, a book, or the stories of our lives, held in beauty in our hands, are each the dreams of another life and that is a holy thing to hold. May we hold one another, our dreams, and our suffering, religiously in care.

 

 

 

 

 

[1]https://www.uusc.org/resources/research-publications/the-struggle-for-human-rights-and-transformation-in-honduras/?fbclid=IwAR3rinRa8V6nzrPi6pCqWe3Eat8H_CqZigpI-_dRCDL3DEO8Dl75az2yk98

[2]https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/mexicans-shower-the-caravan-with-kindness-and-tarps-tortillas-and-medicine/ar-BBOWFCi?ocid=ob-fb-enus-280&fbclid=IwAR0LORC_P_ynR1a3j9B5Xnsk0TGuu8KhhI1g6mpakxDuNlt6oTvxNYR8vkc

[3]https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/mexicans-shower-the-caravan-with-kindness-and-tarps-tortillas-and-medicine/ar-BBOWFCi?ocid=ob-fb-enus-280&fbclid=IwAR0LORC_P_ynR1a3j9B5Xnsk0TGuu8KhhI1g6mpakxDuNlt6oTvxNYR8vkc

[4]Rev. Jake Morrill

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Sermon: Wrestling with the Angel of Forgiveness

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/12/16 as part of our annual LGBT Pride Sermon and in conjunction with the installation of our Black Lives Matter banner. Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence.

 

This week has been one of many firsts in our nation and in our world. The glass ceiling of the White House is seeing some cracks in it; for the first time in our history, a woman has been selected as the presidential candidate for a major political party. Whatever the outcome, and whatever your political leanings, imagine what that looks like to young girls today. Imagine what that looks like to young boys today?! Let’s take politics out of it for the length of this sermon and this worship. When it’s possible to imagine role models for the highest position of power and authority and leadership – irrespective of gender – it may be empowering for young girls growing up, and it may be critically instructive to young boys growing up, to better understand the genders as intrinsically equal. I don’t know what may come, and regardless of the outcome of the elections, I am hopeful that girls will have a little more space to grow freely, and boys will have a little more room to be themselves because the ideal of power and leadership might possibly look different. And when we slowly inch toward a world where we put less bias into gender discrimination, I pray for a time where young trans youth can grow into themselves with safety and confidence.

But sexism is still alive and well. The news this week told us that women who are rape victims, with all the evidence in the world, may not see their attacker live out a real sentence if the attacker is a privileged white male with a promising future and an expensive lawyer. We know that in too many states, Transfolk are challenged when they attempt to use a public bathroom that conforms to their gender. A young white college student criminally assaults a woman – with witnesses who testified – and the judge will express concern over the impact a punishment will have on the assailant – yet instead of looking to the real problem, there are states that are policing bathrooms for mythical Transgender attackers. When the story gets so out of whack, like the stories we’ve heard this week, it’s a sign that it’s not about what it says it’s about. Something else is at foot. Hans Hoffman, a 20th century Abstract Painter once said, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” This month we are imagining what it means to be a people of simplicity. When the world contorts itself to see threat in places and people who are safe, and seeks to protect or go lenient on people who are a known threat, we as consumers of the media need to learn to simplify by eliminating the unnecessary in the story, so that what is necessary may speak. Gender terrifies some; or our sense of power connected to gender terrifies. Some men become violent, some seek to possess, some seek to control and mitigate those that blur the lines. When we become a people of simplicity, when we have cultivated a discerning lens through which we take in what the world is giving us, we learn to see through all the smoke screens that seek to confuse and separate those with common cause.

Pride month is a time of celebration. It’s also a time of memory; a time to remember the movement for LGBT equality began with Transgender People of Color, who were leaders in starting a riot in the West Village because enough was enough when it came to the police abrogating their civil rights through harassment and arrest. With that broken glass, I doubt this gay minister would be preaching from your pulpit today. It’s a time to remember the lives that have been lost over the years to hatred and fear; a time to remember that our LGBT youth still kill themselves at a radically higher rate than straight youth. What is it about our society that teaches victims to blame themselves? When you cut out all the chatter of politics and popular culture – we get to the question of why – why do we do this to ourselves; why do we teach our youth that brutality is something to be tolerated and managed? That’s the simple question for the day.

We have dreams for our kids. We imagine schools where they learn about the world; where they learn to live with folks who are different than they; where they learn to find and be themselves. We send them off so that they can figure out a little bit more how to make it on their own – whether they’re 5, 13, or 19. And sometimes, try as we might to be the most supportive, nurturing parents with the best intentions we can be, not all of us have internalized the lessons of compassion and morality we might hope for. We all have flaws and blind spots. Coming to accept who our children are when it doesn’t fit the neat description we have woven over the years, isn’t always an easy task. This isn’t just an LGBT issue, as many parents in this hall today will attest. Raising a child to be their own self means we have to accept what comes, even if it isn’t our design. But for the sake of today’s topic, I want to focus on the family dynamics of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. Some parents, who learn their child is not heterosexual or identifies with a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth, simply don’t know how to cope. Sometimes it all works out. But sometimes, the results are catastrophic. Sometimes, our hearts break.

I can relate to that heartbreak. I am, after all, a gay man, and I, too, have felt the seemingly insufferable burden of simply being who I am. I can relate to the LGBT youth who succumb to despair in a world of violence. And I see it intrinsically connected to a culture that protects sexual assailants over their female victims. I was the target of violence, largely due to my sexuality, from the age of 8 to about 13. Fists, pipes, wood, metal – groups of young teens working in concert at a time, weekly or monthly, for years. …

Parents who truly care for and love their children unconditionally want to imagine that when these sorts of things happen to their kids, they’ll know right away and know how to help. Many of us imagine that our children will come to us; that they’ll tell us. But that isn’t how it works much of the time…How many times did you hide something painful from your parents, because you were ashamed or afraid or confused or couldn’t imagine that they could possibly understand or help?

Many injuries fall below the neck so they can be hid – I remember protecting my face so that others wouldn’t see the bruises and know that I had been subject to violence. Kids don’t speak up all the time.

All too often, the people a child in this situation most looks to for help, the teachers and principles with all their schoolyard authority, simply want the problem to go away. Parents protect their little-bullies. Politicians claim it’s not that frequent, or not their problem, or that boys will be boys (forget about girls just being girls, because we almost never talk about that.) I was angry with the people who attacked me, yet I blamed myself. Shame trumped safety. I couldn’t forgive myself for letting it happen, or face my differences long enough to seek help. For all the LGBT youth whom we’ve lost to suicide, I can not just see, but I also feel how shame won out over safety for these young people.

At some point in my early college years, I realized that the violence against me wasn’t my fault. I think I made the connection listening to a talk on domestic violence – which was not my situation exactly but one to which I could relate, and the connection clicked. I learned how to shift the blame rightfully off myself and onto the perpetrators. It wasn’t an easy process. A lot more anger bubbled up. I remember the anger often being crippling. My new burden was learning to forgive, although definitely not to forget. Lance Morrow, a long time writer for Time Magazine, once wrote, “Not to forgive is to yield oneself to another’s control…to be locked into a sequence of act and response, of outrage and revenge, tit for tat, escalating always. Forgiveness, on the other hand, frees the forgiver. It extracts the forgiver from someone else’s nightmare.” This was true for me, although it would take me years to learn it. Forgiveness is not easy when the stakes are high, yet forgiveness extracted me from a nightmare of shame and violence that belonged to someone else, not to me. It freed me.

The sad thing is, some of those boys who tormented and beat me later would be men whom I would occasionally run into at various gay settings. They were people who allowed their blameless self loathing to bring them to harm the very thing they were seeking, which is validation of their identities as men who love men. As a child and as a teen, I was subject to their personal nightmares, and as an adult I had to do the long work of releasing myself from their hold.

I’ve never said what those other kids did to me was OK. I’ve never said they weren’t responsible for their actions, no matter the causes. And I am very aware that they’ve never done the hard work of coming to me and facing honestly the effects of their actions. But I’ve learned to let it go, to forgive.

I wish we had a word in the English language that meant, “What you did was horrible. What you did to me was not and will never be OK. But I have to let it go. I have to move on. I release your hold over me.” Until we come up with that word, I’ll continue to use the word “forgive.”

We often mistakenly think that in forgiving someone for their actions – particularly when their guilt is so extreme, that we’re condoning what they did. We fear that we’ve let them off the hook. That somehow the world is still not right, and our being easy keeps it so. I feel the truth is this – the world is still not right, but our forgiving or not-forgiving will not make the world right. We need to allow the other to seek whatever repentance they need, and not hold their actions over ourselves.

The justice system is an important element here. It’s one that has many failings, true, but one that also has so much potential to help. The inner spiritual work that we do individually to release ourselves from the pain of injustice through forgiveness, is different from the lengths society as a whole must take to address this problem. I began this sermon lamenting a very public injustice that impacted the life of a woman who was sexually assaulted. The work we victims must do to come to a place of wholeness – of our own striving – is separate from the work the judicial system must do in order to have earned its title and complete its duty.

There’s a lesson in the Hebrew Scriptures that’s helped me for years. It’s the story of Exodus. The Jewish people are enslaved by the power of Egypt. They’re caught up in a cycle that tells the world that folks that look a certain way, or share a particular culture, or lift up one set of values over another, or whose faith is different from another’s, deserve being enslaved. Oppressor and oppressed are captured, like bugs in amber, within the system of violence, within the system of hate and power; their shared humanity is drowned and paralyzed. The story teaches us that we are not born to remain in that nightmare. The sacred scriptures teach us that we are born to live free of the trap; free of the cycle. They teach that we are to move on; we are to build new communities, to live different lives. But in the scriptures, God commands that we not forget the story. Each Passover Seder we relive the pain long enough to teach the lesson that demands we live in relationship with one another; so that the next generation knows what exactly is at stake. In my case, the college educator teaching about domestic violence shared in her own way her Egypt’s lesson of retelling for me. She told me the path was trod by someone else before that was different than my own story but in some ways the same; there were lessons learned; and there is a way forward.

From the perspective of a Unitarian Universalist, here is how I see the core of the religious message: We should be alive to see this life, this world, this crazy, frustrating, awesome and humbling world. We should strive to forge real connections with the people and creatures we share this small planet with. We should have the opportunity to be ourselves; to find the abundant newness of creation; to love and to be loved. We should be alive to see it. When we get trapped in amber like bugs in the cycle of oppressor and oppressed, we lose what is necessary about life. Trapped in unnecessary hate, and greed, and fear, and brutality, we cease to live.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin once wrote, “I would feel far more sanguine to learn that the various world religions could agree on the desirability of teaching their followers, from childhood on, the significance of moral distinctions; to teach them that forgiveness is almost always a virtue, but to teach them that cruelty is evil and the murder of innocent people an unforgivable evil. In other words, to teach people the harder, more morally worthy path – to repent of irrevocable evil before, not after, they commit it.” His writings were in reference to the Holocaust of the Jewish people, not gay or gay-seeming teens. But we know as well that the the broader Queer community was most assuredly targets in the Holocaust. Rabbi Telushkin’s request is one that resonates today with the challenges our liberal faith is facing.

How do we repent before, not after – as the Rabbi demands? Do we acknowledge the wrongness of the systems of violence, and fear, and ego that lead to feelings of shame among our queer youth (and frankly all the youth of the world)? Do we acknowledge the stories of Egypt that tell us silencing our pathfinders by denying them the rights the heterosexual world enjoys, hides the truth to our gay children that they can in fact grow up to be in loving relationships? Do we acknowledge that learning healthier morals and values grounded on our faith tradition’s call for compassion, equity and justice in human relations is lifesaving?

Friends – repentance – yes repentance – starts with us by acknowledging these truths. Denying one people a right to their role models denies the  right for them to convey the morals and values that they believe are the most critical to their children.

We may not be able to change the lives of all those touched by loss and violence. We are not culpable for the actions of the teens or adults who set these spirals in motion. We very likely do not even hold world-views that contribute to the pain that sparks such tragedies and all those other stories we will never hear about. But we have it within our power to transform our corner of the world. We have it within our power to repent, as the Rabbi put it, of those inactions and views that keep this world forever punctured with these horrors. We have it within our power to live to our fullest potential now, here in this Sanctuary, in Huntington, New York in 2016 on this beautiful June Sunday morning.

The first steps are acknowledging all these wrongs, and failings, and short-comings that we are all guilty of on infinitely lesser scales and in often unrelated ways. The media often focuses LGBT equality on the issue of marriage, maybe job protections, maybe hospital visitation rights, and lately on bathrooms. But in a week in our nation’s life when gender and sexuality have so clearly intersected in so many ways with the horror of violence, I want us to remember our youth who continue to be at risk of violence done to them by others, or done by themselves from a shame they somehow learned to feel. Today, I’m thinking of the teens our world has lost to suicide. In honor of all those youth known and all those others who will never be named by our national media, I want to call you to remember their stories when you see the faces of the congregants around you. Our adults, our children, our youth. Think of your connection to your neighbor. That is what these teens so desperately were craving while they were alive and clearly could not get enough – safe connection, approval, respect. That is the way to stand in solidarity with these teens. That is the way to make a difference. That is the next, most immediate, way forward.

You see, Rabbi Telushkin isn’t saying we’re guilty. The Rabbi is saying if we know the things that contribute to the great evils of the world, and we can name what they are, then we are duty-bound to seek, in every way possible, a different path that leads elsewhere. We as the Unitarian Universalists of the Fellowship of Huntington seek to do this every week in our Religious Education classes. We seek to teach our children, youth, and adults that there is another path. We teach about consent. We teach about bullying, and boundaries and support. We seek to teach that there are stories worth retelling to release ourselves from bondage. When I speak with you and say that it is so very important that our children, youth and parents commit to attending these classes regularly – it’s because I believe it can help us avoid these stories of tragedy. It’s a way to create bridges of understanding that set a path forward, rather than one that harms. And it’s not just for the years we teach Our Whole Lives – our comprehensive sexuality education we affectionately refer to as OWL. It’s not just for the years of Coming of Age – where our youth learn to wrestle with forming their own sense of meaning in the world in the light of our shared values. It’s not just for our Adult Journey Groups – where we covenant with each other to support and nurture one another on our shared and individual paths. We need parents to be involved in every year and in every class. Soccer can wait. The violin class can happen another time. There is a dream of a world we hope to build, and we need to take the time to remind ourselves that there is, in fact, another way. Time for reflection in community is lifesaving, in so many ways.

Education is lifesaving – in the literal sense. Compassion in our daily human relations in this very building and this broader world is lifesaving – in the literal sense. A commitment to justice crafting in our nation and our towns is lifesaving – in the literal sense. To do any of these things is to be living hero. To do all of these things is a living miracle. This is the path this liberal faith calls us onto. This is the path of religious conviction. This is the path of standing in solidarity, on the side of love, with all those who will never be named by our society.

Last night in Orlando, Florida, a gay nightclub was shot up. I don’t know all the facts yet because it was too painful to read through all the news feeds, and information is still coming in. But as of this morning, over 20 were killed and over 40 were hospitalized and the gunman is dead. It was so bad, that some messages overnight were saying there was a suspected terrorist attack in Orlando. I don’t know what the whole story will tell us in time. But as a gay man, at a time of year when much of our nation is celebrating LGBT Pride – this service included – I can’t help but look at the timing and the focus and wonder – was the gunman merely overcome with violence, or were they overcome with violence toward the LGBT community. When I thought this was a terrorist attack, I felt one set of emotions. When I learned it was a terrorist attack targeting my community, I felt another set of emotions.

When you’re community is targeted and you feel like the responses are too weak, you feel the need to say that our gay lives matter. When women are sexually assaulted and the judicial system fails in treating all assailants equally, women feel even more unsafe. We call for increased awareness around sexual assault. We don’t say that other forms of assault don’t matter, but we say that addressing this form of violence needs to be handled with more care. And when we hear story after story of black lives not mattering in our courts and our streets, we reaffirm that Black Lives do Matter. Black Gay Lives Matter. Black Lesbian Lives Matter. Black Trans Lives Matter.

As our service comes to a close, I’d like to return to where I began. The LGBT civil rights movement – the moment that finally propelled us forward, was notably begun by Transgender People of Color starting a riot because their lives didn’t seem to matter in the eyes of their neighbor or the authorities. The free exercise of the civil rights that I enjoy today are based on the protests started by a Black Transwoman and all the others that screamed out in rage when she said enough is enough. Following the benediction, we’ll process outside to join our youth who have been working all morning to install our Fellowship’s Black Lives Matter banner on our front lawn. Black Lives do matter; and considering who helped to kickstart the LGBT civil rights movement, I am so personally glad that our statement of solidarity will be publicly blessed in this national month of LGBT pride.

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Go And Tell Them

This Easter Sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/27//16. It looks at the discipleship of Mary Magdalene and the Empty Tomb, especially in light of North Carolina this week.

Happy Easter everyone! In the Christian holy calendar, we celebrate today the story of hope in the face of oppression. Jesus, a spiritual teacher and reformer, birthed a religious movement that would change the world. But today, we celebrate his life, and his victory over greed, victory over indifference, victory over abuse of power; and that saving message that defines spiritual life: Care for the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit those in prison.

Earlier, we heard the story from the Gospel of John, told and retold from a few perspectives. Personally, I’m most moved by the telling from the perspective of Mary Magdalene. She’s often overlooked; she’s seen as a secondary figure by many, and not always in a positive light, and sometimes, folks even say things about her that weren’t true. I think most of us go through our lives, at least at some point, where we can relate to that – being overlooked, or passed over, or criticized for things we haven’t done. In fact, it’s the very opposite for Mary Magdalene. Where we often hear about the apostles who witnessed the risen Jesus, Mary is the first person to witness Jesus on Easter. And He tells her to go and tell the others; Mary – Go and Tell Them! Mary Magdalene, a woman who is far too often mistakingly looked down upon, is the Apostle to the Apostles. In a way, she’s the first Christian. But we don’t always talk about it that way; I wonder why?

We heard a historical version of the story, and we heard a personal version of the story. But Scripture is alive and meaningful for today as well as the past. It’s not just a retelling from a community’s perspective, but a way to look at the events of the world today.  As I did last year, I may be starting a tradition of con-temporizing Scripture each year for Easter. This year, I’m holding in my heart the news in North Carolina.

Bill Moyers reported that, “In a shocking, unprecedented move, the North Carolina state legislature convened a special session late Wednesday in order to introduce and pass a sweeping anti-LGBT bill, HB-2, which overturns local ordinances protecting gay and transgender rights. Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill into law later that night, writes CommonDreams.org.”

The ACLU of North Carolina would say, ”Rather than expand nondiscrimination laws to protect all North Carolinians, the General Assembly instead spent $42,000 to rush through an extreme bill that undoes all local nondiscrimination laws and specifically excludes gay and transgender people from legal protections.”

With this difficult news in mind, I offer this modern take on the Gospel of John:

Late in the night, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene heard the news coming from North Carolina. Late in the night, a sweeping anti-LGBT bill overturned local ordinances protecting gay and transgender people.

So she ran and went to the disciples, the ones whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken Justice out of the court, and we do not know where they have laid it.”

Peter and the other disciples set out to see for themselves. And they saw the remnants lying there. But the cloth, the compassion that covered Justice, was not with the remnants, but rolled up in a place by itself.

At first they did not understand, that Justice must be risen anew in each generation. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping on the state legislature steps. As she wept, she bent over to look into the legislature; and she saw two angels in white – spirits without gender, sitting where Justice had once rested; one at the head and one at the foot.

They said to her, “why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away Justice, and I do not know where they have laid Justice down.”

When she turned she saw Justice standing there, whole and waiting, but she did not recognize it at first.

Justice spoke to her heart, “Whom are you looking for?” Supposing the speaker to be a lawyer, she said to Justice, “Sir, if you have carried Justice away, tell me where, and I will take Justice back.”

But Justice spoke to Mary’s heart, and called her by her name, and she knew once more.

Justice said, “Do not hold onto me here alone, for I have not yet risen in all our hearts. But go to my siblings and say to them, “I am rising. To my God and to your God. From heart to heart.”

Mary Magdalene went and announced, “I have seen the Lord.”

For I have not risen in all our hearts yet…For me, that’s the core of the Easter message.  We come out of a time of loss and turmoil; and it’s not magically washed away. Things may still be very difficult, but sometimes difficulty can point toward transformation – without glorifying the difficultly. In North Carolina, where fear and hate have had a chance to wedge themselves into the laws – laws that I can’t imagine will survive Federal Court appeals – we can find hope in the empathy we see in so many people. Decent people are outraged by ignorance, and fear, and bias in our neighbors. That wasn’t always the case, but empathy is rising in more hearts, year after year.

Empathy – a big word that means to understand and care for you in your times of pain, because we understand from having lived through a time of pain ourselves. The Easter story is the ultimate story of empathy – and empathy is a spiritual compass to live by.

Earlier in the service we handed out paper and crayons for drawing. If you have that with you, and would like to reflect – on the side you havent drawn yet, think of a time where you learned to care for others – to be empathetic. Maybe you can draw that. Or think of something inside of you that has been difficult, that you would like to love into something more; maybe a hope for something that means a lot to you. Sometimes the things inside us that used to keep us down, become the things that later in life lift us up.

Walt Whitman says this in his epic poem, “Leaves of Grass.” The excerpt goes,  “I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were threatening to consume me, I will lift what has too long kept down those smoldering fires… for who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?” Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman p. 278. Walt Whitman was a great American Poet, a Unitarian, and like many of us here, from Long Island. This excerpt from his poem talks about what we’ve been reflecting today. What’s the thing inside you that once kept you down, that has become a source of strength and identity in your life? We’re coming to a close in our month where we’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a people of liberation. Part of being liberated, is finding the rough parts in our lives, or finding the things that others chide or make fun of us for, and love them into fullness.

I know as a gay man, that’s been true in my life. What once was threatening to consume me, I now lift up. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Maybe, as the Mary Magdalene story goes, being a woman you’ve been told you’re second to the men around you. That’s not true – and it can be challenge in a world where we’re taught foolish things, to love ourselves into fullness. Or maybe you’re made fun of in school for being smart. I remember being called a geek when I was a kid. But that turns around in time, and the parts we might be embarrassed by because the empathy hasn’t yet risen in the hearts of all our neighbors, becomes sources for understanding life and love, sorrow and joy, all the more fully.

If you haven’t find a thing to draw yet, and you want another idea – try this – What’s that part of you that you want to love more of, or love again, love into fullness? Or what would a people of liberation look like? 

Happy Easter everyone. Justice, empathy and liberation have not yet risen in all the hearts of the world, but Go and Tell Them. Hope has risen today. To my God and to your God. Heart to heart.

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Hope; Not Hell

This sermon celebrates the message of Universal Salvation on the 245th anniversary of the birth of Universalism in the US. Learn to live with joy and love in ordinary time.

Several years back, I went on a retreat with 20 other Unitarian Universalists to Murray Grove, NJ. It’s a simple retreat center, about 2 miles from the ocean, that serves as a Universalist pilgrimage site. It’s the location where John Murray, founder of Universalism in the U.S. got stranded off a sandbar on his way to NYC from England in the year 1770. To recap the story in a few sentences: a local farmer, Thomas Potter, had built a church 10 years prior to house a Universalist preacher in the pulpit. …The problem was… there were no Universalist preachers yet in the U.S. It was either a case of extreme forward thinking, or merely fantastical wishing come true. The farmer Potter managed to convince the reluctant John Murray to preach the following Sunday should the wind not change by then, thereby freeing his boat. The wind didn’t change, and Murray did preach, and Universalism was born in America…. This is said to be the only recounted miracle in Universalist history.

So a couple hundred years later a few friends invite me to leave the barracks-like retreat center to go for a hike to the spot where Murray’s boat got stranded. I’m thinking, “sure… an easy walk through some forest and farmland to the ocean sounds lovely.” It’s sunny out, and a balmy 40 degrees. I run back to my room to put on better shoes – well sneakers without holes in them really, and my nice hand-crocheted scarf. I decide not to change out of my good jeans… and we’re off. The start of the walk is lovely, an easy trail through light woods. You couldn’t tell there’s a strip mall just off the road from where we started. The (first) time my running shoes break through the patch of snow hiding a thin veneer of frozen ice covering ankle deep water I vaguely recall the retreat director saying something about “everything should still be frozen over.” And I think, “oh, that’s what she meant.” Good thing those sneakers, the ones I had just bought that day, were black – or they’d really clash with the new shade of mud coating my good jeans.

This is the first teaching or challenge of the Universalist retreat center. Can a long-time city-boy keep his heart and mind on the beauty and indwelling-presence of the natural world, while caked in mud and soaked in frozen water? Can I push aside the thoughts of my colleague next to me giving me a lesson in how to treat tough-to-get-out stains, while focusing on the “now” I traveled 3 hours to get to encounter? Can I stop berating myself for packing so insensibly? Twenty minutes in, I realize after my crocheted scarf starts getting caught on thorns and 5 foot tall grass, that the “everything should still be frozen over” comment of the retreat director was a reference not to patches of ice, but to the frozen swamp that was the doorway to the ocean. I could hear Thomas Potter laughing as I realized that a century of untended farmlands, means that they’re probably not farmlands any longer. In New Jersey, most of the area surrounding the ocean eventually turns back to marshland when humans stop fighting it. And that was the trigger that woke me up – the absolute absurdity of unexpectedly trekking through an icy swamp in sneakers dressed as what another colleague labeled – “fashionista.” The mind turned off, and I could see the world around me again.

All month we’ve been reflecting on how better to be a people of invitation. We’ve mostly talked about welcoming the stranger, or welcoming people as they are, or being there for those in crisis or hardship. What would it mean to be such a people of invitation, when the person we’re welcoming is ourselves – as we are? What would it mean when we’re inviting the world around us – just as it is?

We often teach about mindfulness here. Sometimes, in the world of self-help books – the lessons around mindfulness can sound a bit too much like only something for the calm, peaceful and clean places in our lives. Teachings about mindfulness in the broader world are often all neat and tidy. But sometimes it’s more like my fashionista trek through a semi-frozen swamp. It’s tough to accept the world as it is, when you’ve come overdressed for a messy time in your life. How many of us are living through a messy time in our lives? …Troubles at work or with the checkbook, or a difficult time in one’s marriage, or maybe your schoolwork (or your kids’ schoolwork) is missing the mark… So often in life, we come ready for one kind of terrain, and realize it’s just simply not something we were prepared for. Striving to be a people of invitation can mean welcoming the world as it is, as best we can, and learn to face it – as it is – rather than what we want it to be.

The American movie consciousness often teaches us to struggle and strive and preserve until we win the world over to our wants and desires. Sometimes, that’s the right path, and sometimes it’s not. We can drain the swamps so I can have my precious nature hike –clean and tidy; or we can find a place of peace in the midst of the mess. We may have no control over the rough times in our lives, but we do have a choice over how we bring ourselves to and through those times.

I think of John Murray who birthed one thread of Universalism in the US. Before coming to the States, he lived in Ireland and England, and was a Calvinist minister. He spent some time in debtors prison, overwhelmed by medical bills after he lost his wife and child to illness. His brother finally bailed him out of debtor’s prison, and he forswore the ministry and preaching. He came to the US to (as he put it) “get lost in America” after such extreme crisis and loss in his life.

So when he got to that swamp in South Jersey, he was certainly not prepared to have a farmer tell him he was the answer to his prayers and it was time to get behind the pulpit again with a message of forgiveness and salvation for all – the Universal love of God. (And I’m sure learning that someone had built a church for him before he got there … was a tad off-putting to say the least…) Imagine the strength of character it takes to lose your family and home – to travel across the globe at a time when that was far from easy – and still believe that you are loved – by God, by Life – that you love enough to welcome hope back into your heart. I would be hard-pressed to imagine someone going through a worse crisis; yet he shows us that even despite all the things in our lives we have no control over, we still have a choice with our hearts… we still have a choice with our hearts.

Our reading earlier from the writings of Rev. Meg Barnhouse, “Joy in Ordinary Time,”(from her book Waking Up the Karma Fairy) reminds me of this choice that we have with our hearts. Do we lock away the Joy-titled perfume for that extra special day that may not come soon enough before the perfume evaporates on its own? Or do we lavish ourselves with the scent of Joy any chance we get? How long exactly is long enough to wait to start living our lives? How long is long enough?

What would it mean to be such a people of invitation – when the person we’re welcoming is ourselves – as we are? Can we extend grace and patience to the stranger when the stranger is our real selves? Can we allow ourselves to find hope again, after a period of great hardship? Can we be easier on ourselves than the world has been to us? And when our neighbor is learning to be themselves, can we learn to let them be, without critique or complaint?

The famous Universalist teaching is Hope not Hell. An all-loving God would never condemn anyone to lasting pain and misery in Hell. And the social implication – the religious lesson – is that we shouldn’t either. We shouldn’t contribute to keeping or putting someone into a Hell in their lives – whether that person is our neighbor, a stranger, or that person is oneself. It’s the 245 year old thread in our tradition that informs our social values today. As a gay man, I think of the many closets that each of us hides something away in year after year. When we pressure someone into silence, we never get to know them, and we create little pockets of Hell on earth.

Or, when a trans youth or adult shares their truth with the world, society too often builds wall after wall. Our faith teaches us to help that person make space for who they really are – not put questions or critiques before compassion – and that person may be ourselves. When we get barraged with xenophobic media trying to teach us that religions that look or sound different are inherently dangerous, Universalism reminds us of a God that loves all, and we are called to begin again and again in love.

As we come to the end of worship, our children and youth are working right now on an art project crafting rainbow flags. Sadly, we have several congregations in our nation who have been vandalized recently – with their publicly flown rainbow flags being torn down or burned. In some cases it’s the second or third time they’ve been vandalized. Our children and youth are learning today about the role of extending love universally and to support one another while doing such holy work. We’ll be sending some of these flags to those congregations who have been vandalized. We are all connected in this work.

We learned about the perfume Joy! Well, what if we kept the perfume Love on our dressers as well. Lavish it in ordinary time. Don’t wait till someone proves themselves enough to warrant cracking it open. Love does not need to be something we wait forever for the right time to wear it on our sleeves and in our hearts. We are not less for being profligate with either joy or love; but our days are diminished when we horde them. It is ok to invite them into our lives. It’s ok to welcome our true spirits – as we are – to be with our neighbors – as they are – in ordinary time.

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Lessons from the Movement

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/14/15. It honors LGBT Pride month and is a reflection on the lessons of the LGBT civil rights movement since Stonewall.

 

Happy Pride Weekend all! It feels like an odd thing to say, but we say it every year. Commemorating the 1969 weekend of riots started outside the Stonewall bar on June 27th-29th of that year, we return once more to a defiant consciousness through willful celebration in the face of oppression. We remember the drag kings and drag queens who faced brutal beatings, and much worse, by NY’s finest. We remember a time when Sodomy laws were still on the books everywhere. A weekend when the heels literally came off, the windows of bars and stores shattered, and a chorus line of queerness staved the cops out. Drag Kings and Queens – the very image of the then reviled counter-cultural queerness struggling against the poster-boy for masculine authority. …Happy Pride…

I remember a time in my early twenties, when I was serving on the board for a major suburban gay and lesbian advocacy group in NJ. The Gay Activist Alliance in Morris County or GAAMC, then at 1500 hundred members and the largest suburban group of its kind at the time, was housed in the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship. Dwarfing its host five times over in membership, it was less than a decade away from being a relic of an age of gay culture that was evaporating before the face of the tension between even more local efforts and a vastly more national organization. With electronic social media drawing us out of isolation all the while stripping us from a sense of close community.

In the mid-90s we said Gay and Lesbian; occasionally we said Lesbian and Gay. We usually forgot Bisexual. And we often didn’t know what we were saying when we said Transgender… when we said it at all. I personally recall, many a gay man lamenting all the Transfolk, or People of Drag, who easily gained the spotlights at annual parades. “Why can’t they just let people see us for how normal we are?” was sadly an all too often refrain among the shame-filled gay men desperately trying to fit in. They didn’t know, or they simply forgot, their history. The moment of Pride that set us free, was the sharp rebuttal, loudly given at Stonewall by the people who have still yet to fit in. The people that had nothing left to lose, taking action, and as it happened, managed to mostly benefit those of us Queer folk who managed to walk the line of “normal.” The gays who were straight in appearance, or slightly effeminate or moderately butch. It’ll be ok for us. Ok enough to forget.

That’s what Pride is really about. It’s a celebration of remembering. For some of us, it’s about coming to terms with our feelings of self-hate and shame. The mid-90s remind me of another challenge we faced as a nation and as a people. In 1993, we witnessed firsthand the political might of the “Religious Right” in all its forms and names. They galvanized over the issue of gays in the military. I would say, “allowing gays in the military” as most people say, but that would imply we never allowed gays in the military. In reality, the broader gay community has always been present in the military; and yet the military has thrived. What had not happened by that time was the vocal admission of this fact. The policy that would become “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” helped our country admit the fact that gay and lesbian citizens serve their nation in this respect, even though the epitome of the masculine institution couldn’t validate their identity. In other words, despite the fact that we serve, and we serve well, we continued to pretend open homosexuality was a threat. The logic breaks down. But this great moral failure to integrate openly and affirmingly was never about logic.

When the issue first came up as a major campaign promise, many of us in the LGBT community were happy for the attention, but wondered “why this first?” AIDS was raging unfettered, proper sexual education was invisible in most schools, marriage challenges were popping up in various states across the country, our youngest teens were facing violence and death – sometimes openly (which tragically continues to this day) and our Transgender community had no protections whatsoever in the work force – and still largely doesn’t.

Why aim to be openly admitted to the military when so many from our older generation were vocal advocates in the peace movement of the 60s? Many of us on the ground didn’t understand the political trades and agreements being vetted, behind the scenes; agreements that required the unknown democratic candidate from Arkansas to get his hands committed to anything regarding LGBT rights before the gay fundraising machine would start turning for him. But Clinton’s promise of “It’s done” got that machine moving, and unexpectedly woke the Religious Right up in a huge way.

On the ground we didn’t all understand how massive the cultural changes and wars would be; the Christian evangelical movement really only gaining dominance in our country with folks like Falwell – came about in the 1970s. That’s right – Christian Fundamentalism was comparatively non-existent at the turn of the 20th century. But by the 2000’s most Americans would mistakenly believe Fundamentalism of the Right was the bread and butter of what Christianity meant in the U.S. since its inception. If we looked closely, we’d remember than many of our founding fathers and several of our early presidents were in fact Unitarians. The women in the late 1800’s (like Clara Barton and Dorethea Dix) that transformed the hospital and mental health systems in our country for the better, were largely Unitarian. The Social Gospel movement of the early 1900’s, the hallmark of Christian liberalism applied to societal change, now gets derided by Conservatives as Communism (at best) and a work of the Devil by some talking heads. The cultural changes were so dramatic that 200 years of Christian Liberalism would seem to evaporate overnight.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would come to draw the line in our cultural sandbox. It was as if we were saying, “we know you’re out there, but not in my backyard.” In fact, that was exactly what was meant. This implicit message was what got all the anti-establishment, feminist, peace advocates all crazy to get acknowledged by the greatest, most visible sign of the establishment. When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” finally came to pass, rather than a program which demanded integration, we were shocked. The arguments that won out were lies that connected AIDS to Gays in such a way that suggested they were the same word; ignoring the fact that military screening for AIDS was widely toted as a complete success. The “selflessness” of military dedication was raised up and contrasted with a trumped up image of gays as the incarnation of narcissism. The line of reasoning that won out stated, that military cohesion would be threatened because gay men and women can’t think of anything beyond themselves. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” signified that the country believed that the Queer community was a disease that thought only for itself.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine being told that by your people and your government? Do you already hear that in some way? Many of us do who aren’t LGBT. Poor Americans are told that every day. They’re lied to when we say they’re that way because they don’t work hard enough and they’re too lazy to care about making society better. Black men are lied to that they’re not smart enough to do well in school, and they belong in the prison industrial complex because they’re a threat to society. Our country believes immigrants are such a threat that we need to build walls along our borders (well, those borders that connect us to a country where the folks are not white, the other border apparently isn’t as dangerous.) We even rename immigrants as illegal and as alien. Imagine having your identity be known as Illegal. I do not mean to truncate all these issues, or suggest they’re all the same. But I sure do hear the same rhetoric levied against us all, and am only left to wonder what more do we all have in common?

Our uniqueness, our rich diversity of experience and expression are killed by these words. Our souls are left for dead, and stowed away out of sight in our closets and our prisons. In the Christian scripture, I remember a story that may be of use here in understanding what we’re doing to ourselves as a people. The Book of John writes (John 11: 32-44). Mary (not Jesus’ mother) had lost her brother, Lazarus, a few days past and was morning his death. She hears that Jesus is near and runs out to meet him.

32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

…“Unbind him and let him go.” The story amazes me. I was raised always to hear it talked about as evidence of Jesus raising someone from the dead. But what’s the message? It talks about a man, Lazarus, who’s lying locked away in a cave with a rock blocking his escape. It talks about a man closeted away, with society having given up on him; all except his sister. Jesus had to come forth and tell Martha to take away the stone that made this cave this man’s prison. Jesus doesn’t say that he heals this man. Every other parable relates how he heals those who are ill. This one simply has Jesus say, “Lazarus, come out!” “Unbind him, and let him go.”

What queer words to use. His death isn’t of some ailment that needs to be cured. What’s killed Lazarus is the same thing that begs to keep him locked and closeted away in a cave of their own design. The disease is his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth… The disease is his face wrapped with cloth. The illness is with the people who can’t face to see Lazarus as he is. For me, Lazarus is the embodiment of every Queer person trapped alone in the darkness with few left to weep for them. Lazarus is anyone imprisoned by a society that prefers not to face who they are or what they embody. And weeping, Jesus stands on Lazarus’ side. “Come out! Unbind him and let him go.” …

In unwrapping the ties that bind, in dissolving those societal constraints that make us dead, we come out of the closet; we come out of the cave. Once dead to the world, we are alive with the faith that knows our purpose here is not to shudder in some corner lamenting what the worldly powers think or fear of us. Our purpose on this earth is to live the life we are given and to do so unbound; to do so with the strips and ties shredding to pieces in our wake. The cry of Jesus is a voice that demands we live in community with one another, not regardless of our differences – but because of them. The Christian Right’s desire to equate Queerness with disease is tragically misguided. This story tells me that the illness lies in our desire to foment separation; it’s in the proclivity to create caves, to create closets, to seek to imprison the body or the soul.

So I say LGBT Pride is your holiday too. Lift up people being themselves; being who they are. Celebrate in our connections, and our wholeness, and our honesty. Help dismantle the caves and the closets, and the prisons, and the walls that divide nations. Know that each of our struggles are connected, and we are stronger when we share in our trials and our successes. The struggle for LGBT equality involves lifting up people of color, and immigrants, and women – for LGBT communities are all these people.

So, to close… We’ve come a long way. We can openly serve in the military. Most Americans live in a state where marriage is open to all loving couples. The general level of acceptance in the broader nation has improved drastically. Sodomy laws have been struck down. Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, a famous actress and a famous athlete are positively (or at least favorably) depicted on major magazine covers. And we have a long way to go. Even in our own state, we can’t seem to pass basic protections for Transgender citizens so that they have the right to housing, and employment. And it’s local Long Island legislators that are contributing to blocking the passing of GENDA (the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act.)

In my own life, Brian and I celebrated our wedding a month ago with family and friends from all across the country. It’s good to be welcomed into another family and their welcome into your own. One of the natural components of marriage is to begin making choices that benefit your household – that are good for your family as a whole. As I wrote in our weekly e-blast – the Flash – I will begin commuting to the Fellowship from Northern Brooklyn sometime in late Summer. As my husband’s non-profit – where he’s been employed for close to 20 years – is growing into a 50 million dollar a year Cancer Research charity, some aspects of his job have changed and he’s often finding himself commuting 20-25 hours a week. A reverse commute for me would be less than half as long, and about as long as I’ve been accustomed to making for most of my life – including the years I served the Brooklyn church, and the year I served our congregation in Shelter Rock. It’s just a change in where I hang my hat, not a marker of anything more. But in light of Pride month, it’s amazing to be a minister for a religious community that is supportive of me, my husband, our family – and the very, normal choices all families have to make. Happy Pride everyone!

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Prayer for LGBT Pride Month 2015

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,

In this month, where our nation celebrates the lives and the struggles of

Transgender, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people,

help us to find a path forward,

where each of us may live our lives,

honest to who we are,

with grace and empathy for one another.

May the difficult lessons, and the times of strife,

nurture compassion in our hearts,

for others who struggle,

especially for those whose hardships are different than our own.

May the strength we learn in our tough hours,

help us to carry another forward when their time of need is at hand.

Mother of dignity,

when the world is telling us we have no worth,

help us to not believe the lie,

and so too, steer us away from words,

that may diminish our neighbor.

We each fall down,

moments of short tempers,

prejudices we hold,

or old injuries of the spirit that surface in hard ways;

may we be gracious with ourselves,

as we learn and grow,

with patience and care.

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Liminal Spaces

This updated sermon explores the intersection of gender, gender identity, discrimination and violence. Primarily focused on Transgender Rights, it also talks about the shootings in Santa Barbara this week and how society’s construction of gender leads to suffering. It also explains why New Yorkers should support GENDA the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act currently stalled in Albany.

It’s be less than 2 and a half years since I had the true joy of officiating a double wedding of two same-sex couples who had been together for 29 and 39 years. These two couples witnessed one another’s wedding, both couples had been friends for with one another for decades. They shared the same readings; they had their own vows; and they were pronounced in joyful succession. I’ve had the honor before of officiating over another gay male couple and a lesbian couple’s wedding, and several times since, but that was the first time that I could add the words, “By the power vested in me by the State of New York.”

Following the ceremony we brought out the marriage licenses. We pulled out the black pen required by NYC law and set to signing them. I love the new forms. Instead of reading “bride” on one line and “groom” on another – they now read, “Bride/Groom/Spouse” and “Bride/Groom/Spouse.” Every option is covered, and they don’t bother with flipping the order of Bride and Groom. Our couples can now imagine themselves Bride and Bride, or Groom and Groom, or Spouse and Spouse. It seems like a small privilege,  but considering our history around marriage, dowries, gender and bodies – I think it’s a really huge step forward.

Apparently, my subconscious had been playing with this last point about gender for some time. I had been reading Kate Bornstein’s “Gender Outlaws” and rereading Emilie Townes “Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil” when one night I dreamt that I was leading a school trip to the 1950s. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you’re having that dream as well, or maybe you were around in the 1950’s and can just remember it.

At first our biggest problem was not too unlike our usual challenges around field trips. The kids wanted to take photos of everything with their cell phones. In hindsight we should have confiscated them ahead of time, not merely so that they would hold better attention, but so that the locals didn’t realize we were outsiders from the future. I think all my science fiction television watching was intuitively warning me not to mess too much with the timeline by revealing anachronisms. But electronics aside, we were doomed to stand out, because we didn’t think to require a strict dress code.

It was kind of a huge oversight on our part. Try to get into the mindset of the 1950s. Less than half of us in this room were alive in 1950, well maybe half now that our children and youth are in their classes, and certainly only a handful of us were adults then at that time. You’d be in your 80s now if you were an adult then. For those of you who were, I would love to hear your take on my imagination about it later. Our boys were in loose jeans and baggy t-shirts, and our girls were in tight jeans and even tighter t-shirts. Some girls had baseball caps, and some boys – like myself – had satchels.

We simply stuck out. Our attire was gendered for our modern sensibilities. The guys wanted to keep their clothes as loose as possible because tight clothes on a guy is often code for being gay. And our girls were eager to make sure they were well noticed. The boys and girls, the men and women of 1950, were dressed in TV’s black and white of the time. The men were in slacks – or jeans if they were doing manual labor. The women were in long skirts. At 50 feet away you could easily tell which sex you were looking at by the cut of the fabric. We were alien. We were confusing. We were radical.

I imagine that for most of us it seems like a cute or funny or small detail. The clothes we choose to wear in my dream reflect our style, not our identity, not our gender or sex. It’s become acceptable for women to dress like men; although it’s not yet acceptable for men to dress like women. Not counting the dress-like robe that I’m in now; could you imagine what your face would look like should I show up to work in a dress skirt and blouse? What would your guttural reaction be? As progressive as you might be about equal rights, civil rights, gay rights – would you have a negative impulse toward me should I do that? For those who were here for our last ministry, if our Interim Minister Rev. Nancy, should show up in jeans on a weekday would you have the same negative reaction? Likely not. What’s the difference? Why does it matter?

A women in jeans, her sleeves, rolled up is the marker of self-confidence and success. A man in a skirt is a marker of humor, vulnerability and sometimes disgust. I believe that somewhere along the way, the emancipation of women became acceptable, in at least part, because we could all understand why a woman would want to have all the rights of a man, or freedom of a man, or the composure of a man, or the style of a man. But we’ve yet to comprehend why a man might ever want the rights, freedom, composure or style of a woman. And for some, this is so threatening, that it warrants violence against the offending cross-dresser. Why does it get so far?

Some of it starts with simple awkwardness. Julia Serano, an Oakland based Trans-activist writes that, “…if there’s one thing that all of us should be able to agree on, it’s that gender is a confusing and complicated mess. It’s like a junior high school mixer, where our bodies and our internal desires awkwardly dance with one another, and with all the external expectations that other people place on us.”

But some of it is a lifetime of education. As the academic, CT Whitley writes, “It is widely understood that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are constructed well before birth, which means that by the time a person enters the workforce he or she has had twenty to thirty years of standard gender construction and reinforcement woven into every fiber of the individual’s life. This becomes a huge disadvantage for women. Women who are strong, determined, and free-willed are labeled ‘lesbians’ or other words I won’t say from the pulpit, (‘bitches,’) rejected for promotion because (of) their deviation…”

And as the tragic events of this past week in Santa Barbara show, sometimes when women are strong and well-differentiated, some men are provoked to violence for not getting the sexual attentions they want from those women. The Californian male 20-year old shooter’s parents even saw the signs of a young man on the edge. They reported him to the police, who then visited him, and later heard from the police that he was just a normal, frustrated guy. According to the Daily News, the “cops said he was fine.” What’s warning signs to some, is just seen as normal male behavior to others.

I have preached about gun violence, gun control, and women’s rights much – and will certainly continue to do so, but this service is about Gender Identity and Transgender equality.  But I mention this tragedy – both because I can’t imagine not speaking to the pain many of us feel this week – but also because it’s so clear that the way in which society prepares boys to act as men, directly impacts all our lives. We construct gender expression as a society.  What we think “normal male behavior is” or “acceptable” male behavior, determines identity, expression and safety. When we blithely talk about “the guy getting the girl” in romantic dramas, we set up a story that says women are things to be obtained, men are in control and have the power, and the story is really just about the guy – just the guy. And many of us will usually hear that phrase, “the guy gets the girl” as sweet and endearing. We’re not trained to see the other side of it – what it implies.

In my dream of 1950, the local people were the proverbial fish swimming in a bowl of water completely unaware of the water they were living in. We often talk about this phenomenon regarding racism or white privilege, but it also applies to gender privilege. Gender identity, roles, and expectations were so pervasive and so fixed that folks couldn’t readily imagine something different until an outsider comes along and points out the water to them. In our case, the kids dressing all sorts of ways. Something’s different now and it’s making everyone feel uncomfortable. Friends – we’re still swimming in that same water. It’s a lot more free for most of us, but still as dangerous for some of us. …We’ve yet to comprehend why a man might ever want the rights, freedom, composure, style, and life of a woman.

Struggles around gender roles and gender identity are more than issues around clothing, but clothing is often the easiest marker for people’s reactions against those who push the boundaries. For many people it’s a life matter that’s rooted as deep in their bodies and DNA. One out of a thousand babies are born with ambiguous genitalia. One out of a thousand! Surgical decisions may be made for those babies with or without their parents’ consent. They are certainly made without the infants’ consent.

And then there are those of us who are born with a hormonal mix that doesn’t neatly match our sex presentation. In these cases, the choice of pink or blue might be wrong. For others the question of only pink or blue is entirely missing the point – they might need purple or some other color entirely. When we spell out the Queer alphabet LGBT and get to the letter I (for intersex) and snicker or smirk – we’re snickering at the people who are born with this challenge. We are snickering at the people, who when at their infant weakest, had major changes done to their bodies.

When all our kids grow up and go to school, they’re further taught that life is either/or. The both/and option isn’t discussed. We line up in twos and so often boys hold the hands of boys and girls hold the hands of girls. One friend of mine shared his frustration around this on my Facebook wall by saying that all teachers everywhere should stop using ‘boys and girls’ as a way to address the whole of their students.” I’m becoming more and more aware that with Feminism’s successes in reminding people to always mention “Men and Women” when we’re speaking about more than just men, that we’re also coding our world to leave enough space for only those two options – men and women. What are we saying to those of us who can’t carve out room for themselves in that sentence?

Some of us right now might be feeling like this is taking the situation too far. That most of us have clear sexes, so we can have clear genders. That clothing is one thing, and bodies are another. That people undergoing these sorts of physical changes are dealing more with psychological problems than hormonal. I will say to that that I have heard all of it before referring to gay and lesbian men and women. I have been told that my hormones are not the real issue – that my love for another man is a psychological problem. So I’m inclined to respond – go a little deeper.

Every generation has seen the gender divide and gender line blur and break a little more. It is my hope and prayer that we’ve pushed against it hard enough that not only have glass ceilings started to crack, but that our children are starting to grow up knowing that their gender or sex need not determine the scope of their dreams; that their sex and gender need not determine the scope of their lives and loves and hopes. That maybe, we’ve finally reached a point where our own actions and responses and inclinations have ceased to place limits on one another. But that’s simply not true. Not yet. You’re not going to see me show up in a skirt and blouse. Not only because it’s not my style – but because, according to society,  it would signal that somehow I’m less, somehow I’m a freak, that someone I’ve lost power. My ego couldn’t handle it; our identity would feel shaken, and most of us still believe women’s clothing diminishes men in a way that men’s clothing doesn’t harm women but lifts them up. It’s a shallow marker but a clear one for the malady that continues to plague us.

My odd time-traveling dream had another dimension to it. At a certain point we were witness to one of the night club raids that started to happen en masse following President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Executive order in 1953. His order mandated that all lesbians and gays could not hold federal jobs. It apparently had a side effect that encouraged local police forces to be more bold in their harassment of LGBT establishments. For some it meant jail time. For the drag kings and queens and the butch women it meant physical abuse or rape. The legacy that would be planted in this time was one of power over the body. Stark physical repercussions for the worst transgressions of the gender norm. Imagine living in a reality where your hormones and body don’t match the status quo knowing that the outcome will mean violence.

Here’s where our Fellowship can be life-saving. Every time we see someone that’s pushing this boundary or that – we can stop ourselves when we have that thought. You know the thought – “why do they have to be so severe or flamboyant or different?” The one where we secretly imagine that they’re trying too hard, or hiding something or just a broken person. We can change our attitude to see it as a marker that we might be the only, or one of the rare few people, willing to reach out and to love. We can see it as a moment to carve out a little more space in a world that’s not as caring as often as it could be for difference. We can enter this liminal space between what we know and where they are. We can seek to learn how to dance and move and breathe in it; knowing that others before us entered other terrifying vistas that allowed all of us the freedom to move and to breathe and be ourselves as we now know it. Having a woman as a board president, or a minister, would have seemed as far out, as crazy, as radical then as someone now who’s looking to live outside the gender binary. And people would have been as negative to that then, as we often are to gender benders today. I believe it’s a direct correlation emotionally.

It’s for us now to push the space a bit farther. With so many young LGBT teens killing themselves over it, it’s for us to be more open, so that people may remain alive. With so many of our homeless youth in NYC – over 40% identifying as LGBT – it’s for us to let down our tight sense of how people must look so that our kids may have a home again. Then we can enter a dialogue. Then we can rebuild lives. Then we can create a real, more full, sense of community. Even if we may not be the source of the societal pressure, when we remain silent in the face of it, we are complicit to the injury.

I mentioned before that to do this we need to learn to enter those liminal spaces between what we’re comfortable with and what is new. Anthropologically, liminality is, “…the term is used to ‘refer to in-between situations and conditions that are characterized by the dislocation of established structures, the reversal of hierarchies, and uncertainty regarding the continuity of tradition and future outcomes’”

What can we do? We can continue to support groups that seek to nurture and heal and support and empower the lives of Transgender and Gender Queer people. We can also work to get GENDA passed. GENDA is the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) that has languished far too long in Albany. I wrote my senator this week to encourage him to support it. The bill would outlaw transgender discrimination in housing, employment, credit and public accommodations, which would also expand the state’s hate crimes law to explicitly include crimes against transgender New Yorkers. The Empire State Pride agenda reports that 74% of transgender New Yorkers experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job and roughly 1/3 of transgender New Yorkers have been homeless at one time.

We must educate ourselves, self-reflect, and to seek to make a difference. Our goal being that dislocation of established structures of oppression. Our goal being the reversal of hierarchies and most certainly patriarchies. It’s that world of dislocation of oppression, of reversal of hierarchies, that our closing hymn speaks to. In the great African American folk tradition, our song “I’m On My Way” sings of a freedom land. It sings of a land where bodily abuse, or rape, of limitation based on form, is done away with. It’s a world that we have yet to fully know or yet birth into. It’s a world we must all be mid-wives for. When we sing this song I’m going to ask you to keep this in mind. Whether you’re singing it because it speaks directly to your personal experience or not – sing it knowing that you hold the key to helping another find it. Sing it knowing that you are another set of hands along the way that can make a reality a world that is safe for all our children, for all our people – not just our boys and girls. So sing it with joy and with hope because that is exactly what we need so much more of.

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