February 12, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Many Genders, One Spirit
(fourth in the series Many and One)
Today we’re continuing our worship series on diversity and unity. Look at Facebook for a few minutes, or look at the news, and you’ll see signs of how we are divided as a nation. Looking at each other, though, we see something more.
Now it’s one thing to say our differences do not threaten our safety or our unity. It’s another thing to get to know each other, to discover how we have been shaped by different experiences, how we hold different opinions. And all of us can change our minds. You see something of God the person sitting next to you might not see; they might see something of God you don’t see. When we turn and get to know each other, this enlarges our experience of God. May we keep helping each other.
As you may have noticed in the past few years, there is increased national attention around the question of what it means to be transgender. This discussion has been elevated by celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, along with television shows like Transparent. North Carolina passed a “Bathroom Bill” requiring people to stay out of public restrooms that have a gender designation which differs from the gender listed on their birth certificate; this bill has inspired debate, boycotts, and protests. Last month, National Geographic featured an article on shifting beliefs about gender which was accompanied by the cover photo of Avery Jackson, a nine-year-old transgender girl.
For some of us, the rising of awareness invites a sigh of relief. Finally, there’s more room to come out as trans; there’s more room to come out as allies to our trans friends. For some of us, being transgender is not an experience we’ve thought much about. It might seem perplexing, unstable, and difficult to comprehend.
Simply put, being transgender means that a person’s gender identity is different from their biological or anatomical make up. Sometimes that is an even switch, so a person born into a “male” body actually identifies as being female or vice versa. Sometimes a person’s gender is not so clearly one or the other. There are a spectrum of possibilities beyond that circle-headed silhouette wearing a dress verses the circle-headed silhouette wearing pants. What would it mean to believe that gender is something more than these two bathroom door-guarding circle-headed logos?
Of course, the challenge is that we’ve grown up conditioned by the notion of two genders, exactly and only two. Teachers address their class by saying “boys and girls;” pastors speak to their congregations saying “sisters and brothers.” All our lives, we rehearse our belief in this binary paradigm. Know which side you’re on; know which locker room to use.
You can see why this binary thinking is appealing. When there are two sides to a coin, or two halves to a whole, or any choice between two opposites, it’s easy to believe we can see the whole picture because we see both sides. But this is like believing black and white is the same as a rainbow. Really, seeing both is not the same as seeing all. And something our Christian faith teaches us is don’t be so sure all is really all. God is still speaking,
Today our scripture comes to us from the Gospel of Luke. It is a story that often gets chosen for women’s retreats and women’s bible studies, and it is exhilarating to read this out loud with other women. In every group I’ve been in, there’s usually one woman who tries to stick up for Jesus, bless her heart. She’ll say something like, “Maybe Jesus means we don’t have to work so hard. We can choose to sit and listen instead of worrying about the dishes.” Now certainly, that’s true. There is value in this position. But I’ll tell you, a whole lot of us find ourselves in Martha’s camp.
Remember what happens: Jesus has come to the home of his good friends Mary and Martha (they are the sisters to Lazarus). Mary is sitting at his feet listening to him teach. Martha is working to get the food ready with no help from Mary! She goes and complains to Jesus, “Tell my sister to help me!” But the Lord tells her, “Martha, Martha you are distracted by many things… Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken from her.”
Okay, so I don’t love that Martha went and told the teacher on her sister. But that’s not the biggest problem with the story. The problem is that the writer of Luke is telling this story in order to present a binary choice. It reminds me of reading the feature in Highlights Magazine for children called Goofus and Gallant. Do you remember Goofus and Gallant? Each scenario had the same message: Goofus makes a bad decision; Gallant makes a good decision; be like Gallant.
Now there are interpretations of this story that emphasize the value of both types of discipleship: listening to instruction and serving the coffee. This is a more favorable approach than deciding Martha was wrong and Mary was right, but it still implies that there are exactly two options, as though Mary and Martha represent two parts of a whole: being and doing.
This scenario gives a sense of false completeness; this becomes especially problematic since the writer of Luke decided that Jesus gets the last word. Mary listens, Martha serves; Martha complains, and Jesus tells her, “Stop worrying, see Mary has made the better choice.”
And that’s it?! Like we’re supposed to believe Martha sits down quietly put in her place… Do you know Martha? Come on, you know she said something back to Jesus; you know this is not all! Sure she was given an explanation, but nevertheless, she persisted.
It is easy to believe that seeing two opposites is the same thing as seeing the whole story, but there are more than two options for discipleship. There are more than two choices for gender identity. This matters because God is more than two.
Every time I have taught Confirmation, there comes a point during the year, when a thoughtful student asks, “Wait a second, is this something that Jesus did, or something that God did? Are we talking about God or Jesus?” Exactly. I love this moment of realization! A lot of us are willing to go along with the idea of the Trinity, how God is one and God is three. It is one thing to go along with the theory. It is quite another thing to sit down and really figure out who did what when and just exactly to whom are we praying.
God is more than any one metaphor we have for her. God is more than human and divine, more than two halves that make a whole. At minimum God is three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but if you try to convince me that God is more than three, I will believe you. Alongside being always more, God is the relationship, the activity of love of zinging between the persons, how the son prays to the father, how the spirit fills the people… And this is what gives me hope.
Actual relationships are not Goofus and Gallant fables. Actual relationships are sisters arguing with their closest friend about who’s going to do what. Actual relationships are the difference between agreeing to a theory and changing the world we live in. I know this is true because it’s relationships that have changed me.
Nineteen years ago, I saw the nineties musical Rent when it came through Philadelphia. It features a transgender character, Angel. In watching this, it occurred to me that I didn’t really know any transgender people. So I thought at the time, maybe being trans is an experience a few people have. But why do they have to go around challenging accepted gender norms? And more importantly, why do I need to care?
Well in the past two decades, I’ve come to know better. I’ve learned what being transgender means and it’s not all about being sensational, except sometimes it is sensational. // I have learned that in the United States over forty percent of transgender persons have attempted suicide. And not unrelated, I’ve learned that churches are usually not safe places for trans folks. This means that if a church is genuinely safe, that church has to come out and reverse the assumption about it. (It doesn’t help to be a safe, welcoming community that nobody knows about.)
Of course, more than learning information, what has changed me is getting to know actual trans people —celebrating their claiming of new names, hearing the questions they dare to bring before the LORD our God, questions like: How could you make me this way? Will the church accept me for who I really am?
Now I have grown in my faith because of Kooper, and Katie, and Logan, and Cindi and you. And you have a story like mine. We all can tell the stories of where we were years ago, and where we are now, and imagine where we might be one day. Imagine the new friendships we could form, and the ways that our friends will save our lives.
Of course it is messy and unstable, and who will help with the dishes, and who will get the last word, and who will persist nevertheless…But this messy love-zinging relationship is how we come to know more of God, in all his holy splendor, in all her dazzling incomprehensibility, in all their truth. There is something of God you can see that I can’t; there is something of God I can see. May we keep on helping each other. Amen.