Collective Comfort and Challenge

I preached this sermon at Germantown Mennonite Church on January 27, 2019 (Third Sunday after Epiphany). The texts referenced are Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Luke 4:14-21.

A few weeks ago, I was catching up with a friend over coffee. This friend of mine is a longtime pew buddy – we’re both queer, both grew up Catholic and later became Episcopalians, and actually attended the same church for a little while. My friend told me about their recent experience bringing their parents to church with them one Sunday. Their family is still very Catholic, so they were used to all the smells and bells and high church stuff that comes with going to an Episcopal church. What was weird for my friend’s parents were the congregants at this parish. The people there were apparently a little too inviting. They asked my friend, “People…know your name here? You have friends at church??”

I could understand where my friend’s parents were coming from, because I was raised in a Catholic parish where it wasn’t really normal to linger after Mass on Sunday. My church growing up had a hospitality hour maybe once every 3 months. It was normal to get your communion and go home. You didn’t really get to know the folks who sat in the pew in front of you. Chances are, the longest interaction you might have had with someone other than the priest was during the passing of the peace, and even that was a very small window. Just recently my mom asked me, “Do they shake hands during the peace at your church?” And I said, “Yeah… we do.” Because, apparently, at the newer church my parents attend now, they just wave across the aisle or flash the peace sign. A lot has changed since I left the Catholic Church over a decade ago.

Now I don’t mean to throw shade at an entire denomination, and I know that there are plenty of non-Catholic churches like that out there too. But after years of spiritual wandering and seeking, I’ve come to really appreciate and expect that warmth and intimacy in a church. I’m more than happy to go to a place where people know my name and ask after me on Sundays when I’m not there. I want to go to a place that feels like home. Having a worshiping community  is really important to me and in many ways is an extension of my family, so much so that when I’m dating someone I will invite them to go to church with me before I take them home to meet my parents. (I mean… maybe not on the same day…although that could also work.)

As a queer person, I know that my presence is not always welcomed or tolerated in church spaces, and being nonbinary and a person of color just adds to that alienation. So I do not take for granted the peace that comes with being in a place that sees me and welcomes me as I am. If you have ever been rejected by a faith community and found a place where you feel accepted, I trust you know what that feels like. That feeling of finally being able to breathe. It certainly doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, but it does mean you can let your guard down a little bit.

I don’t go to church just to feel at home, though. I go to get fed, both spiritually and physically. I go to sing. I go to be with friends. And I also go to be encouraged to grow more into the stature of Christ, and I can only do that in community with others. Because I don’t know about you, but sometimes I forget who my neighbor is, and I need my community to remind me. Sometimes I’m tempted to treat people unkindly because society is unkind to me, and I need to be reminded that as a Christian that I’m called to live differently. Sometimes I despair at the state of the world and I need to be reminded that not all is lost; that after death, there is resurrection.

Church community lives in a tension of comfort and challenge. It’s a balance. We want people to feel at home, but we also have to be willing to speak difficult truths to each other at times. You cannot authentically support people who suffer without confronting the systems and powers that oppress and hurt them. When we spend too much time making folks in our communities comfortable, then the church begins to lose its prophetic witness. At the same time, we cannot be in a state of constant critique and rebuke, because it is exhausting and not constructive. It depletes our spirits. We have to nourish each other, with songs, with prayers, with the kiss of peace, with the bread of life and the cup of salvation. We also have to be held in community in order to grow. We have to trust each other enough to be called into deeper love.

Our two scripture readings this morning illustrate these dual actions of comfort and challenge at work. Let’s look first at Nehemiah. The events in this morning’s reading take place after the Israelites have been liberated from Babylonian exile and are trying to regain some kind of normalcy. Nehemiah has rebuilt the walls of the city of Jerusalem, and Ezra has gathered the people together to listen to the words of the Law, so that the people could be re-instructed. Something beautiful happens. “Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites… said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”

There is immense comfort in hearing something familiar. I may feel lost when I’m visiting a new place, but if I happen to hear someone speaking Spanish or playing reggaeton, I instantly feel a little bit at ease. We have in this reading a portrait of a people who were exiled and divorced from their religious customs, and so to hear the words of the Law again makes them emotional. Even if some of them have heard those same words dozens of times before, that moment of being in community after shared trauma transforms their understanding. So it is for us as well. You may have heard Psalm 23 one too many times in your life, but if you’re having a rough week and read or hear that same psalm, it takes on a whole new meaning for you.

Nehemiah tells the people, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord”. You survived. You’re home now. Celebrate. Be glad. Share your blessings with others. This is the restorative work of community. But this also a moment of challenge. The law is read again with the expectation and hope that the Israelites will take this moment to rejoice but also to recommit themselves to God, to remind each other of their covenant with their Lord.

Now to our Gospel reading, which is a favorite of mine because I love the drama. Jesus is at the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath. He stands to read and the scroll that just so happens to be from Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because she has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. She has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he sits down and says that today the scripture has been fulfilled.

This is one of those sassy things that Jesus can do because of who he is but if we did them they would be weird or inappropriate. Can you imagine if I walked into my parish in the middle of service, read a passage from Isaiah and then told the church, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. And that’s THAT on THAT.” 

…It would probably not look good for my discernment process.

This is Jesus’ mic drop moment, right? Because he is saying to the religious authorities of his day that he is coming to shake things up. He is holding them accountable to their duties to serve the people. And for some of the folks in that synagogue, that may have been a comfort to know, but we read just a few verses later that Jesus is chased right out of Nazareth, so clearly, not everyone was a fan. Confronting people doesn’t always work out, but it’s not too long after this moment that Jesus begins to call his first disciples and build his own community that cares for him and carries him throughout his ministry up to the cross. Even Jesus needed community.

In his well known work We Drink from Our Own Wells, liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “Spirituality is a community enterprise. It is the passage of a people through the solitude and dangers of the desert, as it carves out its own way in the following of Jesus Christ. This spiritual experience is the well from which we must drink. From it we draw the promise of resurrection.” We cannot follow Jesus in a solitary way. That’s why as much as church may frustrate us, if we are serious about this whole Jesus thing, we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need others to face the turmoils of the journey. We have to brace ourselves and lean on each other, but we also have to be willing to hold each other accountable to the things we say we believe and to the work God calls us to do.

Community is hard, but it is the only water we have to drink. So gather together, “eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions…to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord.” Amen.

Sacred Solidarity

I preached this sermon at the Queer Christian Fellowship Conference on January 13, 2019, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. The texts referenced are Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

I want to tell you a story about the worst date I have ever been on. I went out for coffee with a guy who was studying to be a podiatrist (that isn’t the bad part), and we were making small talk. Now first date conversations are usually bad, but at one point we were literally talking about the weather. That’s when you know it’s not going to work out. So we’re making this awkward conversation and suddenly he asks, “Has your voice always been this high?” I skipped class to go on this date, y’all!

I answer, “Yes – it always has. I got bullied a lot in high school over it, but I’ve come to love and accept it as a part of who I am.”

He then says, “You know, I know exactly what that feels like, because my voice is so deep that when I order food at Chipotle, they can never understand what I’m saying.”

He was being really genuine, but I hate to say that years of suffering homophobic abuse in high school, enduring femmephobia from cis gay men, being misgendered every time I answer a phone, and feeling anxious just opening my mouth in public is really not the same as experiencing some awkwardness while trying to order a burrito.

I tell you that story to illustrate the way that many of us have been taught to express empathy for someone. When a loved one shares something hurtful that they’ve experienced with us, like a rough breakup or losing a job, we naturally want them to know we care, so we try to find a similar experience in our lives to show them that we’ve been there.  The desire is noble – you want to connect with someone you care about in their moment of need and let them know that they’re not alone. But in bringing up your own experience to “match” theirs, you’re now centering your own story, and making them feel bad for you. Now if a person asks you directly if you’ve gone through something similar, then yes, it’s totally fine to bring up your experience. But otherwise, sharing your own pain isn’t the best way to express support; more often than not what someone needs in that moment is to know that you’re listening to them, not to feel assured that you know “exactly” what they’re going through and can offer them some sage advice. This is important because in the grander scheme of things, without properly practiced empathy, we cannot build authentic solidarity with other people in our movements for justice.

So how do we cultivate empathy?

We have to be aware of our privilege and our limitations. Even as LGBTQ people we may hold privilege over others. My struggles as a nonbinary queer able-bodied Latinx person are different from that of a cisgender, bisexual disabled Black woman. Although there may be aspects of our experiences that are similar, I cannot fully relate to her experience. White LGBTQ people do not share the same racialized experiences of LGBTQ people of color. Cisgender LGB and Q folks do not experience transphobia and may not fully understand the experiences of trans and gender nonconforming people, and so on. This awareness of our differences isn’t meant to divide us as some people claim, but it is to honor the journeys of all members of our community. So because we don’t know what it’s like, we must listen deeply and attentively to other people’s experiences.

In an intentional community that I was once a part of, we were trained to “resonate” with people’s stories, to listen deeply to what they were sharing, to notice the physical feelings and emotions their words brought up for us and share them with the other person. When someone shares a story with you, listen deeply and be aware of your body. Does it make you tense? Does it make you feel cold? Hurt? You can then gain a sense of what someone was feeling in that moment. Share those feelings with the other person. Let them know you see them and hear them. The point of empathy is to enter into someone’s experience, however brief, to make a connection with them and make them feel less alone in their pain and grief. It’s through making these connections that we can build better relationships both in our personal lives and in our movement work.

We celebrate today the moment when Jesus was baptized by his cousin John. Now we understand baptism as the washing away of sins – so it’s unusual that Jesus chose to do this, because he did not sin. But Jesus chose to do it, because Jesus is God entering into our experience. One of the names for Jesus is Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’, but I like to translate it as God’s solidarity with us. He knew what it was like to be human in the most intimate of ways. Jesus listened to people who didn’t hold power in his society, advocating for their concerns and naming them as loved by God when society treated them as anything but. When we talk about becoming more Christ-like, we should be practicing this level of empathy and concern for others. When we become empathetic, we learn to listen deeply to other people’s pain, to follow their lead rather assuming we know the best way to fix something. Jesus’ ministry models for us what it truly means to be in community with others.

It’s important to name that empathy and solidarity do not magically take away other people’s pain, because we cannot uproot unjust systems overnight, and it takes more than simply being in relationship with others. Empathy is the foundation of a much larger, longer struggle of life and death. We may not even see the fruits of our labor. But solidarity is a promise we make to each other, to make concrete our dreams for a world that is more loving and more beautiful than the oppressive nightmare we currently live in. In the passage from Isaiah this morning the text says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned”. God does not say, “You will walk through the waters and you will not get wet. You will walk through fire and you will not feel the heat.”  But God does say I will be with you. When you’re rejected, when you aren’t treated with dignity, when you’re forgotten by other people, I will bring you through. This is God’s solidarity with us, in the person of Jesus Christ, and it is this love that embraces us with arms stretched out on the cross.

So today, let us recommit to building stronger connections with each other. Jesus shows us the way. Begin with listening to those around you, those who are different from you. Hear what their concerns are. Walk with them and amplify their voices. Enter into their experience. As you leave this conference today, I pray that your hearts continue to open, that you continue to develop stronger solidarity with others, so that together we can build a better world. Amen.  

Love on the Line

Like many Episcopalians, I was immensely excited to hear that our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, would be preaching at the Royal Wedding. The news was a really nice bright spot in what seems like an endless barrage of violence and cruelty that seems all too normal. I wasn’t sure if I’d watch the wedding, because I’m not particularly interested in the British Royal Family (though I am *highly* interested in the fashion that accompany these functions), but I decided to at least watch for Bishop Curry’s sermon. We cannot underestimate the potency of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church making an address to one of the remaining bastions of imperial power in the world. The fact that Presiding Bishop Curry would also be preaching after the Episcopal Church was more or less punished by the rest of the Anglican Communion for affirming LGBTQ people was also not lost on me.

And the Presiding Bishop did not disappoint. He could have made it a standard, droll wedding address about love between two people, but instead he spoke (for 13 glorious minutes, much to the disappointment of many dusty white people) about the radical, transformative power of love in Jesus.

I’m still digesting Bishop Curry’s words, especially this paragraph (emphasis mine):

“Oh, that’s the balm in Gilead! This way of love, it is the way of life. They got it. He died to save us all. He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He wasn’t getting anything out of it. He gave up his life, he sacrificed his life, for the good of others, for the good of the other, for the wellbeing of the world, for us.

That’s what love is. Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.”

Bishop Curry brought the fire to St. George’s Chapel!

I admittedly get a little cynical when I hear love talked about in this way, if only because the world has made me so skeptical, so unconvinced that we can truly do anything other than hurt each other, sometimes in the very name of ‘love’. This isn’t the unselfish love spoken of by the Presiding Bishop, but rather love of power, love of money, love of nation, love of war. Humans are deeply enamoured by the things that are slowly killing our neighbors and ourselves. But, Bishop Curry reminded me, Harry and Meghan, and the millions of other people watching via livestream that it doesn’t have to be this way. Jesus offers an entirely different avenue than what we assume are the only ways forward.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaching at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. OWEN HUMPHREYS/AFP/Getty Images

I’d like to think that the Presiding Bishop wasn’t just preaching to Harry and Meghan, or even to the millions of spectators enjoying the Royal Wedding, but also to the Church. The Church so often forgets what Jesus’ self-emptying, unselfish love looks like. The Church, across denominational lines, censors or sanitizes the dissenting voices of people of color, women, disabled folks, and queer and trans people within our ranks out of a desire for “unity” because we are not content to gather crumbs from under the table. The Church loves being in proximity to power. The Church hoards its wealth or spends it impractically while its own employees live in debt. The Church is not often willing to take big risks for love, because love comes with repercussions – changes in power, redistribution of resources, discomfort – that it doesn’t want.

But, as Bishop Curry said, love is precisely what Jesus died for. It’s what his whole damn ministry was about. A love that embraces everyone, even at the cost of its reputation. A love that gives without second thoughts. A love that is willing to speak the truth, even when it means suffering through uncomfortable consequences. A love that puts itself on the line.

Yesterday was Pentecost, one of my favorite days of the church year. We sang a lot of my favorite hymns, including “Come Down O Love Divine”, which left me a weepy mess. I was struck again by the words of the Prophet Joel in Acts:

“This is what I will do in the last days, God says:
I will pour out my Spirit on everyone.
Your sons and daughters will proclaim my message;
your young men will see visions,
and your old men will have dreams.” (Acts 2:17, GNT)

The Spirit of Love is still being poured down on us. Those words keep my hope alive, that we can, as Bishop Curry said, harness the power of sacrificial, redemptive love and truly transform this world, if we want to.

Seeing Myself for the First Time

“I have chosen to struggle against unnatural boundaries.”

– Gloria E. Anzaldua

I have a distinct memory of being maybe 6 or 7 years old and really wanting to paint my nails.

I don’t remember whether or not I had been explicitly told by that point that nail polish was “not for boys”; I implicitly knew that I would be punished if I was found giving myself a manicure. So rather than taking a risk by putting on pink polish, I reached for my grandmother’s bottle of topcoat. “It’s clear,” I told myself, “So no one will see it.” It would be my little secret, and I would have the satisfaction of having painted my nails despite there being no color. Granted, my mom did find it odd that my nails were a little extra shiny that day, but I don’t remember being scolded or punished for it.

That’s how my gender has been for most of my life – skirting by, flying low, taking the tiniest bit of risk as not to be seen. I have always been drawn to softer, “feminine” things, they have always been innately appealing to me. I loved watching people put on makeup. When I would accompany my mom to the nail salon I would be mesmerized as I watched the nail technician create miniature works of art on people’s nails. I’ve always wanted to wear bright pastels and floral prints and dresses and all kinds of things considered to be “only for women”. And I have tried dipping my toes in the waters here and there but have managed to have those impulses socialized and shamed out of me by my family, my peers, and more recently in my life, hypermasculine gay men in my community.

I have up until now accepted my cisgender-ness as a fact, never questioning, never asking “Well, maybe…?” out of fear and a desire to, again, fly low and out of sight. I have never felt safe to really think about the question. When your body is a site of violence, your trauma and anxiety demands you avoid everything that would jeopardize your safety, even in the smallest way.

So I kept shelving the conversation. Kept making excuses. My mind would ask me, “Are you really a cis dude, though?” and I would always answer yes. When people would refer to me as a “man” I would bristle and feel sick, but I would tell myself, “Well, that’s because masculinity and ‘manhood’ is associated with so much toxicity, you just don’t want to be associated with that.” But the more I probed that thought, the more it really didn’t hold up. As I tried pushing away the thoughts, they grew louder. I thought, ‘Well maybe I am more genderfluid or nonbinary, but I don’t necessarily feel safe exploring that,’ as I lived at home with my parents. I became more depressed and frustrated.

A few weeks ago I was in Boston. I lived there for a year and I made a lot of really amazing, beautiful queer friends up there who always see me for me. Even though Boston wasn’t the best place for me – it is a city that is still struggling with classism, racism, and homophobia- it is a city that allowed me, free from the watchful eyes of family and peers, to step completely into myself in ways that Philadelphia has not. While I was up there, I made a spur of the moment decision to buy a lot of makeup – lip gloss, highlighter, some liquid eyeshadow, $5 press on nails that turned my hands into talons. I went over my friend Alice’s house for a birthday party that weekend and wanted to really glam it up. Because of the aforementioned press-on nails- which left me looking fierce but incapable of doing much of anything – my friend Lily did my makeup. I remember looking in the mirror when she was done. Looking at the highlighter, the lips, clothes that made me feel like me, and I said, “Look at yourself, honey. You look like you.”

I wanted that feeling to last forever.

So when I came back home I thought about what that experience meant for me and named it, for the first time: I decided I want to use they/them pronouns because they feel most aligned to who I am.  Nonbinary femme is the best description. Nonbinary because the gender binary cannot hold me. Femme because…

Femme is everything that I am.

Femme encompasses all the words and phrases that describe me: soft, a little fiery, sensual, loud when I want to be, strong, atrevida, extra, glam.

So this is me. Your favorite femme.

I still feel afraid though.

I think about the harassment and violence that queer & trans folks, especially trans women of color, face on a daily basis for being ourselves and living our truths.

I think about the physical, emotional, and spiritual violence I have endured over the course of my life for stepping even just a little bit out of the norm.

I thought about all this when I was in Boston, on the T, going on a Target run. I had painted my nails a bright, neon pink in a shade called “Girls Tell All”. I was a little nervous about showing my nails off and so I kept them either in my pockets or covered up with gloves, since it was cold out. My stop was coming up, and I got up to make my way to the door. I made a conscious decision not to cover up my nails as I reached for the pole to hold on as the train came to a stop. Sometimes even the tiniest actions are great risks that require courage. I was nervous, but in the same moment I felt a calm wash over me. I felt as though maybe a queer ancestor was speaking to me, inhabiting my body for a brief moment, because I began to tell myself:

“Nothing in life is without risk. Just stepping outside the house every day is a risk.”

Some sort of violence or danger could occur at any moment, regardless of how you go out into the world. We are never truly 100% safe, except perhaps in the spaces we construct ourselves and with the people who love us for us, and even then it is never truly guaranteed. But the point is, I don’t want to live my life in constant fear. I don’t want to fly low anymore.

I want to live boldly, as the person God made me and calls me to be.


Seeing Over the Crowd

I delivered this sermon yesterday at the parish I am currently interning at. For the readings appointed, including the Gospel reading, click here.

Today’s Gospel reading is one of my favorite stories from the New Testament. The Gospel of Luke tells us that a man named Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, heard Jesus was coming by. He wanted to see Jesus but was unable to do so because he was “short in stature” and couldn’t see over the amount of people surrounding Jesus. I can relate to that a lot because I’m about 5’4” and most people are taller than me. I’m afraid of heights though, so I haven’t tried climbing into a tree to see someone- but  I can relate to the experience of being unable to see Jesus because of a crowd.
Continue reading Seeing Over the Crowd