Sermon given by: Drea Nelson and Shay T.L. Kearns
preached: March 9, 2008
SECTION ONE DREA:
I would like to begin this morning with a moment of silence for the
recent murders of queer people. I don’t know if there were more in
February than usual or if the media covered them more therefore
allowing me to find out about them. Let us take a moment for Lawrence
King, Sanesha Stewert, Simmie Williams and anyone else who has had
their voice silenced and their body beaten…..
I have been filled with a bubbling rage these past couple of weeks. I
first heard about Lawrence King. A friend mentioned him to me in
passing. Lawrence’s murder seems to have grabbed the most attention
nationally. He was a 15 year old boy murdered in his Californian high
school by a fellow student because he was gay and he transgressed the
gender binary. Simmie Williams, from Florida, was also murdered this
February. The Feministe website refers to Simmie as “another gender
non-conforming person murdered”. At the age of 17, Simmie was found
shot. Closer to home, Senesha Stewert, a trans woman from the Bronx
was stabbed to death. The media, of course, references to Sanesha as
a young man wearing women’s clothing and pontificates upon a
connection to prostitution. However, Sanesha changed her name more
than a year ago, and those close to her swear she was not being paid
to have sex. The more I read, the more I searched. The more I
searched the more infuriated I became. I was infuriated with what I
was reading. I was appaulled in the manner in which these incidents
were being reported. My eyes were being re-opened to the reality of
life for many people. I read a blog, surrounding the murder of
Sanesha, discussing how NYC cops assume that black and Latino trans
women are prostitutes. There were discussions of the media’s
reporting, or lack there of. What was becoming the “tranny panic
defense”. Make it justifiable for a man to murder and trans woman
because he was interested in having sex with her and found out that
she had a penis. This is not a defense. This is transphobia. I was
appalled by the complete ignorance and ignore-ance of trans issues in
the media. I should not, however, have been surprised. Our very own
HRC has proven to us that in an effort to get rights for some, we are
willing to throw others under the bus. I will not use the back of my
trans brothers and sisters as the steps onto that bus of privilege. I
will not talk about political compromises and first steps when the
phobia and violence that my brothers and sisters are experiencing
barely receives mention. Similarly I will not keep silent as a white
person as two more young black queers are murdered. Why are they
assumed to be prostitutes? And if they were, just if, should that
really matter. Are their bodies any less holy? Are they any less
deserving of public outrage and support?
When Shay first picked the front cover of this mornings bulletin my
normal white, Midwestern, Christian, peace lovin, hippie knee jerk
reaction made me cringe. “Our body is a battle ground”? Isn’t that
violent and a little too war-esque? Sure is easy for me to ask that
in my privileged tower of conformity. Our bodies are a battleground.
These bodies are a battle ground.
SHAY SECTION ONE:
In the tradition in which I grew up, I was taught that there was a
divide between the body and the soul. That the soul was what was
important and that care for the body was second to care for the soul.
I think that all of us struggle with this body and soul divide in one
way or another, especially when it comes to dealing with society and
bodies. Society loves to tell people how they have to be in the world,
and it can lead to pain and confusion when what you experience doesn’t
match up to what society is telling you. In some situations we’re
continually told to deny our bodies and just focus on our souls
because that’s what really matters. But then we turn to this passage
in Ezekiel and we see that bodies mean something.
Ezekiel is led to see all of these bones in a valley and he is told to
prophesy to the bones, and to prophesy to the winds and by doing so he
makes these bodies come back to life. This passage is written in the
midst of Israel’s exile. They were taken away from their homes and
their land and forced into captivity. They wondered if they would ever
be able to find a way back. These bones become people had died away
from their homes, alienated from all that they knew. They were cut off
from their community, from life itself. But now they were experiencing
resurrection, and not just a spiritual resurrection. When I read this
passage I was really struck by the fact that this resurrection is
bodily. It wasn’t just their souls being sent to heaven, or a
spiritual return to the land, it was bodily. It was physical. And the
reason this struck me is because that body and soul dualism has been
so ingrained me. I have been continually taught that only the soul
matters and so when I read that maybe bodies matter too I was taken
aback. It’s hard to overcome the ways we are taught to think about
ourselves. This idea of exile; exile from our bodies is ingrained into
Exile is something we all experience. It’s not always physical,
sometimes it’s spiritual as well.
SECTION TWO DREA
I see spiritual exile as having at least two dimensions. First is
the exile from our religious traditions. There are as many different
reasons why a person may feel like they are in exile from
Christianity, or perhaps more aptly why Christianity is in exile from
them. Historically, Christianity is not perfect. It becomes easy to
lose sight of the goodness in ones tradition and instead only see the
devastation. Inquisition, Crusades, Manifest Destiny… Or maybe it
was a particular experience in a church. Being queer and a Christian
is an oxy moron to so many people. There is still language, Christian
language, which makes me recoil. It is not because this language is
harmful. The language is simply a trigger to a different time, and
different and damaging theology. I am in denominational exile. The
Lutherans will not ordain me and some would run my father out of his
pulpit if I were to fight. And then there is the exile of ones
tradition within our communities. When I tell people what I am going
to be when I grow up I often feel like I need a disclaimer. I’m going
to be a pastor but not one of those kinds of pastors. I claim my
Christian identity but then have to prove myself with some sort of
progressive staple. Friends think I am nuts, people get
uncomfortable, and I perpetuate my own exile. What does it mean to
come back from exile? How does one do that?
Susan Julia said something at the beginning of last semester that I
thought was brilliant. She said “It was harder to come out as a
Christian than it was to come out as a lesbian.” It would make a
brilliant book title: Coming out of the closet-I’m a Christian.
The second is the exile of the spirit from our bodies and our person;
the ability to be viscerally spiritual. Perhaps we are mad at God.
Perhaps we have been told or we feel that we cannot be Christian and
queer; Or sudden and tragic death, or hardship has left us
disconnected. Or perhaps the God that has been constructed for us by
our religious tradition is not one that we experience. Or it is not
one that we can worship. A god that hates fags and loves war is not a
god that I can worship. I will refuse. More importantly, it is not
the presence of the divine that I have experienced in my life. When
the god of our childhood dies, or simply become unbearable to worship,
we often lose all embodied spirituality. What is one to do? How
does one come back from a spiritual exile?
Two theologians and authors that have had the most influence on me in
my return to Christianity and to spirituality are Paul Tillich and
Jack Spong. They have quotes that I have held onto and explain how I
understand the Divine and my faith. Spong has written “a god that can
be killed should be.” It may seem like a shocking statement
initially. However, isn’t this precisely what people have been doing
for centuries? If one were to look at the theologies of God across
time and difference I think the one of the only consistencies would be
the word God. The cotton ball and elmers glue God of my childhood has
long since passed away. So too has the cotton candy God of my teen
years. The words, expressions, and traditions we use to understand
the Divine can do nothing more than point a finger to that which is so
much further beyond and so much deeper within us. The concepts and
language of God have changed, molded, evolved as humans and societies
have done the same. We must realize that the Divine is not located in
a church, an institution, or in a word. The Divine is all around us
and beyond our human constructions.
This brings me to Tillich. He says that a god may die but divinity
remains. A god may die but divinity remains. You see divinity is so
much more than that what we can construct with all of our words,
intelligence, theologians, science, songs, and traditions. Divinity
is within and beyond. It is what we are in search for but can never
fully grasp. Divinity, to me, simply is.
In the Ezekial text is it not enough for him to simply speak and raise
the dry bones. He calls on the four winds. This word wind-ruach, can
also mean breath or spirit. Wind, breath, spirit. It is all the same
word. It is the same word as what God breathes into Adam in Genesis.
There is no duality here. The soul, the spirit, is not
compartmentalized away or separate from the body. It is the air we
breath. It is what gives us life. It is the emboding of the spirit.
The bodies come back to life when the ruach, the breath, wind, spirit
is breathed into them. There is no body with the spirit. I think
this is deeply profound in our time.
The Divine is all around us. The ruach brushes our cheeks, fills our
lungs, and gives us life. It is not separate from us, it is us, in
us. We are embodied spirits as well as spirited bodies. We are being
called back from spiritual exile.
SHAY SECTION TWO
I think we all experience exile from our bodies. We feel alienated
from our physicality for any number of reasons. And we live in a world
that so devalues bodies that the murders of the people mentioned
earlier have gone largely unreported by the mainstream. The stories of
these people drive home the point that even now people are being left
as dry bones in a society that pushes them into exile. Even now this
disregard for bodies allows the murders of people we deem unimportant.
It allows us to demonize others in the press. It allows us to demonize
ourselves when we don’t measure up to society’s standards.
And it’s not just queer people; it’s all people that don’t measure up
to what society sets as the ideal. And somehow we all seem to fall
short of that ideal, by being not beautiful enough, not thin enough,
not athletic enough. We are marginalized by thinking we are just not
good enough. Or for some, maybe your body doesn’t work like you think
it should, or like it once did. And so we reject our bodies. We turn
to intellectual pursuits or to the development of our inner life, and
while these things are important, it’s important not to neglect our
bodies either. What does it mean to live in a body that you feel
For me exile has taken the form of being a transgender person. I
experience life in a body that does not match my soul. I was born with
a female body, but I am male. I am perceived by society to be
something that I am not. And so I feel that alienation in the core of
who I am. From constantly hearing people use the wrong pronouns for
me, to looking in the mirror and seeing a form that does not reflect
who I truly am. It has been a long journey to be able to even have
the words to explain this truth about myself. Growing up I was never
taught that there were some people who didn’t feel that their gender
was correct. I was taught that my only options were to deny myself and
to try to fit into how society told me to be. People were constantly
telling me how to live. So I ignored my body. I wore baggy clothes to
hide my developing frame. During the times when I tried to dress in
female clothing to make other people happy I just looked awkward and
uncomfortable. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started to
really take ownership of my own body, but even that had its limits. I
was still perceived as a female and still felt that the labels that
were placed upon me didn’t fit. It wasn’t until a year or so ago that
I finally found the words to express the truth about myself. Coming to
claim my transgender identity was hard. I was afraid of what people
would think, I was afraid (and still am) of losing my family. I was
afraid of not being able to get ordained or being able to get a job.
But finally it was the fear of losing myself that outweighed all of
those other fears. The need to reclaim my body as my own and to live
into my own truth. The need to be able to be seen as the man that I
am. Those desires are what led to me finally coming out and embracing
my transgender identity.
My journey has led me into a bodily resurrection of sorts. I am
transitioning medically as a way to reclaim my body. As a way to
return from exile into the promised land of being at home in my own
skin, and reuniting body and soul together. I am reshaping my body
into the male form that matches my mind. I am asking people to address
me in the way that fits who I am. I am being firm in standing up for
myself and asking people to see me; all of me, as a person, as a man.
By doing this I begin to reclaim my body as my own. But it’s
definitely not an easy process. It takes time for the reshaping to
complete. It takes time for people to perceive me as I am. And it
means dealing with people who will hate me simply for telling the
truth about myself. It means dealing with well-meaning folks who still
can’t get my pronouns right. It means facing the fact that I am
sometimes in danger from people who can’t get past their own hate.
Taking charge of my body in this way has led me to be in touch with it
in a way that I never have been before. It’s helped me to take better
care of myself, and to make sure that I am getting the medical care
that I need. I care about my physical body for the first time in my
life. It has also been teaching me how it is that we come to terms
with bodies that aren’t the way we would like them to be.
But it’s not an easy task and there are no easy answers. There isn’t a
magic formula that allows you to feel at home in your body. It’s hard
work. It means letting go of the expectations of society and not
allowing anyone to define who you are. It means being willing to risk
yourself with honesty. It means accepting that you might never be
completely the person you wish you were, but realizing that the person
you are has merit and value.
It means accepting your scars and learning to love them. Embracing all
of who you are. Working to reunite your body with your soul, not
denying either of them, but finding fullness and wholeness.
SECTION THREE DREA
Exekiel is called by God to bring the dry bones back to life. The
thing that I love about this text is that everything that Ezekiel
needed was right there for him. All he needed to do was open his
mouth and prophecy. How do we call on the spirit, wind, breath, ruach
in our time?
There are dry bones everywhere. There are times when we are the
bones. Striving toward wholeness is letting the ruach fill us.
Working to come back from exile and let the spirit pulse through our
veins and our bodies became one with ruach. There are times when we
need to be Ezekial. Spiritual and physical bviolence is a far too
common experience of many people. Lawrence, sanesha, and Simmie are
threee examples of how hate, ignorance, and phobias manifest against
the body and spirit. The vilolence, both physical and spiritual is
unholy. The homophobia, racism, and transphobia cannot be tolerated.
We are being called to prophecy, to call on the four winds, the ruach
of life. Wholeness and holiness are two sides of the same coin.
Become whole in your body is to make oneself holy. To embody the holy
is to make oneself whole.
SHAY SECTION THREE
I think queer bodies have a lot to teach all of us about how it is
that we experience our bodies and live into who we are. But it’s not
just about being a queer person; this resurrection is open to us all.
It takes the form of knowing who you are at your core; taking the time
to find out what it means for you to be at one with your body. It
means not allowing other people to define your body and how you use it
or what it should look like. We live in a world that wants to break
our bodies, our spirits and our hope. Our traditions and our societies
often leave us as dry bones in the valley. But we are not lost. We
are not left in exile. We have the wind that comes into us and makes
us live. When we take the time to reclaim our own bodies, as holy and
whole, we come back from exile.
This is a process that never ends. We are continually reinventing and
rediscovering ways to be at home in our bodies. But we must live into
our bodies to know what it means to be whole people. And while we are
on this journey we learn to challenge society and their standards in
the hopes that we will lead others back from exile.
Our duty, once we have experienced this resurrection for ourselves is
to be Ezekiel in our world. But we are still left with questions:
Shay: What about the people who aren’t raised?
Drea: The people who can’t reconcile their bodies and their souls?
Shay: The people who are murdered because of who they are?
Drea: Who will bring these bodies back from exile?
BOTH: Who will prophesy to these bones and make them live?
Drea Nelson is a recent M.Div. recipient from Drew University in New
Jersey. She now lives in Iowa where she is pursuing ordination in the
United Church of Christ. Drea loves talking to anyone who will listen
and recently decided to teach herself how to paint. She is attempting
to become a morning person after years of collegiate sleeping in. Drea
blogs at: jadedjabber.blogspot.com
Shannon T. L. Kearns recently graduated with his M.Div. from Union
Theological Seminary in New York. He now lives in Minneapolis, MN and
works at Plymouth Congregational Church and Borders bookstore (where
he spends his paycheck before it gets home!). He considers himself an
anarchist christian by way of the American Baptist church. Shannon
blogs at: anarchistreverend.wordpress.com and makes a mean margarita..