Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)
Thought for Preparation:
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
Because it is transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday of Epiphany before Lent, the Sunday where we remember the story of Jesus being transformed by God and the prophets who went before him, I feel called to speak about a group of people in out culture who too transform and teach us about God, the transgender men and women and the gender non-conforming folks who boldly walk in middle ground, the boarder lands of gender.
Today I want to share with you 3 things my gender-non conforming friends have taught me about God, or re-emphasized for me about God. The ability God has, and we have, to break out of boxes, second that God helps us change and transforms with us, and third, that the journey, no matter how painful, will be a source of healing for someone else. God will bring hope out of suffering, and redemptive love out of pain.
The first is our God given ability to self define and to transform into a truer version of ourselves. God is still speaking, and we can’t put God in a box, and as much as we seek to find easy ways to understand and categorize each other, we must let one another self-define as well. When Moses, who reveals himself with Jesus in the mountaintop experience of transfiguration we read today, Moses who also has a transfiguration experience himself, when Moses first encounters God, Moses basically asks God, “what should I call you?
God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ ‘You shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” God is the great “I am,” not the father, or the mother, or the vengeful God, or loving God, but an identity encompassing all beingness- the great I am the true, ultimate being.
When trans people ask us to shift pronouns, to reflect something more deeply true about their identity, we are being asked to break the mold and the box that we thought they easily fit into. God continually breaks out of that box- and we do too.
Language is so important in the trans community- and we must remember, like no two of our experiences of God are exactly the same, trans people have different experiences. Not everyone is Caitlin Jenner. Let’s let our trans gender siblings in Christ and beyond, tell us for themselves who they are.
Because language is important let me take a minute to explain to you some language I have learned: I just said “siblings” in Christ, rather than “brothers and sisters.” Saying “brothers and sisters,” reinforces that there are just two genders, and alienates people who are transitioning or those who are gender-queer or gender fluid, who don’t feel like they fit in either of those boxes- male or female. Gender is a social construct, not a born reality, and so transgender people often report that although they are born male, they feel more female, or vice versa, and after much deliberation, choose to transition their body to female. This person born female and transitioning to male is called a transman, or f to m, female to male. And a person born male transitioning to female is called a transwoman, m to f. We always use the identity the trans person asks us to use. The trans community has helped people like me, who do identify with the gender given at birth- I was born female and I very much identify as a woman- the trans community has helped me understand that is called being cis-gender, meaning we do resonate with our male or femaleness.
I have learned what a privilege it is to be at home in my body- to have been born a female, and to identify deeply with being a woman, while understanding that gender is socially constructed and an embodied reality. This brings me to the second point I have learned about God from my trans siblings in Christ- that God helps us change, and transitions with us.
Brett Ray, a trans man who wrote “My Name Is Brett: Truths from a Trans Christian,” writes, “The process of learning how to love my body has been a long one. For many years, my body was something that at best, I ignored, and at worst, I despised. Looking in the mirror used to be a task I only dared on my bravest of days, because I was too afraid of the body that would greet me. When I was 19 years old I finally figured out that I am a transgender man. That moment of clarity was a scary one, but it came wit a great amount of relief.”
“I finally understood, in a way I never had before, who I was. Today the mirror is my friend, and I wear clothes that fit my body rather than clothes that hide my body. Today I am unashamed of the scars that line my finally flat chest. But how does this transition from denial and shame about my body to love and care for my body take place? It started when I realized that god created my body trans and, more importantly, that God loves my tran body. My physical transition is not my attempt to correct a mistake God made. Instead, God made me trans.”
Brett continues, “God made me a person who was born to go on this transgender journey, and God loves me and leads me and walks with me every single step of the way. I fell in love with myself when I embraced the fact that God rejoiced with me the day I had my top surgery and mourned with me on the days I mourned my body. For me, being trans is not standing in opposition to God’s good creation. It’s a matter of recognizing that transgender bodies are just as much a part of God’s good creation as cisgender bodies.”
The Greek word for transfiguration is “metamorphoo” the same root for transformation, “what we today call metamorphosis, when something has been transformed into its intended, mature destiny.”
Usually Jesus goes off to pray alone on the mountain- this is something we are used to Jesus doing, disappearing and reappearing, running off to be alone with God after being with crowds of people. But this time, Jesus brings three trusted friends with him up to the mountain to pray, and as Jesus prays, his dear friends fall asleep.
And when they wake up- Jesus is glowing, on the mountaintop- and Moses and the prophet Isaiah were there with him! Barbara Satin, a transwoman writes, “The gospel story makes it appear that Jesus was transformed – but Jesus was always divine. So was he changed? – or were the apostles who acommompanied him, Peter, James, and John, the ones who were changed so that they were able to comprehend Jesus’ divinity?
She goes on, “I am reminded of a story I read about a pastor talking to a transman who had transitioned while a member at that church- asking what that experience was like for him?” “The thing is, I don’t feel like I’ve changed at all. This just let my true self be known and seen by others. This is really who I have always been all along.” Then he said, “Transitioning affected the people around me so much more than it affected me. They were the ones who changed their ideas, assumptions and prejudices.”
The third, and maybe most important thing I have learned from the trans community about God, is the power God has to make redemption out of suffering, to turn our suffering into life and hope for others. The power of God’s love embodied in community, to save lives, and to transform suffering.
This is a community who cares deeply about the issues around mental health- and let me share with you a staggering statistic:
50% of trans youth have attempted suicide by their 20th birthday. 41% of the trans population have attempted suicide, where 1.6% of the general population has. American foundation for suicide prevention and the Williams Institute found that suicide rates for all trans and gender non-conforming people are “exceptionally high” regardless of income, education or relationship status.
But when they make it, when family and friends and community at large come together to support this person’s identity, they give us the great gift of staying- and God turns their suffering into hope and healing and redemption for others.
I met a woman this week, Gina, who is doing amazing work in Middletown with an organization called Women and Family Center, called project REACH, and she is a youth advocate, who goes out to places where vulnerable youth hang out- and with her outreach, offers them snacks, an adult to talk to, transportation, and if they want to come to the space- she offers a homework hour and resume building, educational activities, and even case management if they are involved with DCF.
More than anything Gina offers these mostly queer youth a safe space- a space they can be themselves. When I was speaking to Gina I asked what inspired her to do this, and she said that as a youngster she didn’t have a safe space- as a gender-fluid person, where she could be herself. She said at some point she realized that “A lot of people have to hide their true selves, to fit in, and I chose not to,” so now Gina is working in Middletown doing this outreach and getting a social work degree on the weekends. I lift Gina’s story up, with her permission, to show how God stayed with her, through her 19 years of suffering in her body, until she decided with the support and love of community, that she could choose to be fully herself, and how she used her life and suffering, to help other people. This is God’s power, working though our lives, turning our deepest suffering into liberation for others.
Gina sometimes feels more male and sometimes feels more female, and the world tries to put her in a box. We can’t put God in a box, and we can’t put each other in boxes, this is why we ought to always balance our pronouns with God, when we say “he” for God, we should next say “she,” or avoid pronouns all together, saying letting God’s presence speak for all of God’s selves. People’s lives depend on it.
The end of the passage in Luke, after Jesus is transfigured and glows with the presence of God, and after he heals a boy from a demon possession, the passage ends by saying, “And all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
God is great, and God’s love can be profoundly felt through lived community. We can express God’s love though community paying attention to the language we use and the spaces we create. I propose we make this a safe-space for trans folks by permanently making our upstairs, handicapped accessible single stall bathrooms, gender neutral. To have gender-neutral bathrooms is no small thing, and goes a long way to creating welcome. To ask people their preferred pronoun, and when someone says to call them, they, them, their, instead of she, her, her, or he, his, him, to respect that and honor that, and be aware of our own embodiment. God works with us in the changes in our lives, calling us to be more fully ourselves. We don’t fit into a box, and neither does God. God’s love transforms and redeems.
I leave you with the witness of Brett who wrote,” My Name Is Brett: Truths from a Trans Christian,” He says, “I truly couldn’t have come to this place of self-love without the love and support of others. I couldn’t have believed that God created and loved my trans body without pastors constantly reminding me that I am a loved child of God. I couldn’t have believed that my body was worthy of love and care without friends, family and my partner telling me that they love my trans body as it is- trans and beautiful. The words and actions of support from loved ones turned my life around. My prayer is that we might all begin to move through this world assuring trans and cis folks alike that they are not separate from their bodies and that God- and we- love them exactly as they are.” Let this be our prayer today too- that God loves us in our bodies just as we are, that God continues to speak and break molds, and that God has incredible power to redeem us with love through our greatest suffering. Let this be so, amen.