Thursday, December 19, 2013

My thoughts on peace

Power Ranger, Halloween 2013
[This blog post is the text of a sermon I delivered on December 11, 2013]
Luke 7:36-39, 44-50
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ … turning towards the woman, Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’  Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
In our reading tonight, Jesus and a Pharisee, a religious insider, are eating dinner and this “sinner” interrupts. She has not kept God’s law in some unknown way and she is not “our kind of people” – according to Simon, the Pharisee.  He says to himself, “‘If Jesus were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’” Oh – the disdain!

He saw her, deemed her unworthy, and was blind to the hospitality she showed Jesus (that the he himself had failed to offer).  Instead, the Pharisee drew two neat little boxes and put himself in one – the good guy – and put her over here as “the “other”.  We too reveal our oh-so-human self-absorption, and get in the way of building peace, by creating divisions like the Pharisee: “There’s me, who is worthy – and there are the others”.

Sometimes, when we have commonalities – we come from the same family, the same town or same religion, we draw a little bigger box around our own – the “like us” box but then we still set up a little hierarchy, with “me”, “us” and “the others”

You see this in the media, our cities and our families. Red states vs. blue states. Liberal vs. conservative. We’re Lutherans, they’re not. We recycle, they drive a gas guzzler. Even ducks and beavers are opposed.

We know this, but we still fall into our habits of seeing the world in terms of “us” and “them”.

Keeping all of this in mind, I would like to connect this passage in Luke to my own story.

This year I realized that I am transgender. I am willing to answer any questions you may have, but the short explanations is that even though I was born female, I now identify as more male. I’m one of the guys.

Part of this journey has really taught me first hand how we try to put people in boxes to label, understand, and sometimes judge them.

Very briefly, let me explain three concepts used to understand gender identity.  For each one, they were previously thought of in terms of two opposites, instead of a spectrum as we now see them.

There is the continuum of biological sex (our chromosones, hormones, etc), which goes from male on the one side to female on the other.

Next, there is gender identity – the interior understanding of one’s gender – which goes in varying degrees from man to woman.

Thirdly, there is gender expression – the outward appearance and roles by which you show your gender, and we each fall somewhere on the line between masculine and feminine.

This last one, gender expression, is where we can sometimes most easily see ourselves in a continuum rather than polar opposites. Maybe you are a woman, but you don’t like to wear dresses, which our culture may define as feminine.  Maybe you are a man, but don’t like sports, which culture may define as masculine. Maybe you are a woman who likes to work on cars, or a man who likes to cook. Gender expression is very heavily culturally defined by what is expected, typical or considered appropriate.

One place we see a strong enforcement of gender expression is in children’s toys – with the pink toy aisle and the blue toy aisle. There are other places we can see strong cultural messages for appropriate gender activities. Examining these can show us where we build barriers and turned people into “the other”.

First there is the question, “are you one of us,” in settings where people are excluded based on gender. Another question is “are you fitting into my expectation of how men or women should act?”  Like the Pharisee, we may say “sinner” if someone does not follow our own rules, if they are not “like us”. We may judge, insult, or even hurt the other, enforcing cultural expectations of gender. We see bullying and intimidation against those who are different, and this is one of the ways the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities are alienated or harassed.

At one level, you may hear statements such as “boys don’t cry” or “oh – a woman driver.”  For me, I get funny looks and hear comments about my clothes or hair that make me uncomfortable while in the women’s restroom. My friends have been the victims of gay bashing, most recently this Halloween. As the gender expression enforcement becomes extreme, people are beaten up or murdered for defying expected gender norms.

So connecting this with our bible passage tonight and the theme of peace – am I trying to say that I, as transgender, put myself in the position of the outsider, of the sinner, who in our story receives forgiveness and accolades from Jesus?  Oh, that would be so easy.

No, I have to admit it. I am the Pharisee. And I can give you a vivid example.  A friend has stopped speaking to me since I came out as trans. They have shared with others that they are embarrassed and offended by my public displays of male identity.

And I judge them.  I mean, they are closed minded and I am the righteous one being discriminated against, right?  Right?

The tricky thing about this is that every one of us is the Pharisee at some time or another and has drawn lines in our lives where we are “right” and “righteous” and the other is a “sinner”. Where does each of us do this in our own lives?

So I am the Pharisee, and you may be too. But all is not lost! Look what Jesus does. He dines with the Pharisee and the sinners. He accepts the hospitality of each. He points out to us the gift of connection that we miss when we create these divisions.

Jesus models servanthood, reconciliation and restoration within our communities and across borders. Jesus loves us each one of us and calls us to do the same.

I still have work to do to break down the boxes and barriers that I build up between myself and various categories of “those other people,” so that I can truly be a peace maker. Thankfully, like he did for the sinner at his feet, Jesus also forgives our sins and helps us begin each day anew.

This advent, let’s reflect on where we set up walls of separation for us vs them and see with new eyes those to whom we can offer more hospitality, more grace, and more love.

May God give us strength and patience in this discipline, and may peace abound in our families, in our communities, and in our world.