July 30th, 2017
Joshua 1:1-2, 5b-9 Romans 13:5b-8
A few days ago I walked into the supermarket up the road which is undergoing a major renovation; there are entire sections of the store cordoned off with plastic while other sections, entirely new departments had suddenly appeared. I was lost… nothing was where it should be. In the greatly expanded prepared foods department all the labels were facing away from the customer – intentionally I was told, when I thought I was doing them a favor as I pointed it out to an employee; the bakery had been relocated to the extreme opposite end of the store from where it had been; the produce section seemed to have less food but vast open spaces with nothing. But possibly the most disconcerting thing to me personally, was the fantastic island of cheese from the ‘old’ store, one of my favorite places where I’d and impulse-purchase, was gone; in its place were a few shelves, where it was difficult to see what was available, and definitely not browsing-friendly. I understand they are still in transition, but by the time I exited the store I was hyperventilating… and I’ve always thought I handle change pretty well.
I think I mentioned last week that while I was away at Conference, I had a few free hours one afternoon to get into the city of Philadelphia and do a little sight-seeing; and maybe I mentioned I spent some time chatting with a gentleman named Earl. Earl is a security person in one of Philadelphia’s museums; born, raised and lived his entire seventy-plus years in Philadelphia. Earl initiated a conversation which quickly turned from baseball to talking about the way things “used to be”. When we responded to Earl’s question about what brought us to Philadelphia, that we were attending a church conference, the focus of his conversation narrowed to how things “used to be” when he was growing up in church. He lamented that things just aren’t like they were “back then”.
Thinking (incorrectly) that the museum was about to close, I was looking for a polite way to extricate us from the conversation, and I told Earl that “nothing stays the same,” adding that, “that is not necessarily a bad thing.” I suppose my answer was inevitable because the theme of the conference we were attending was based on verse 8 from our Romans’ reading today: “Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.” Everything else changes but Jesus is constant.
Whether you are one of those folks who enjoy the thrill of an adventure, or dread the the unknown, when it comes to the kinds of change that will, (or we believe will), impact our lives in ways we are unsure of, and have no control over, the vast majority of us are not very comfortable with. We’d much prefer knowing and being in control of our next step. Venturing into the unknowns – crossing boundaries carries inherent risk and it always appears safer to avoid the risk and stick with the familiar – what is that old idiom: “better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” Our fear of the monster that lurks under our bed is so palpable that it becomes real – in our head, and are compelled to defend against it… only to ultimately learn that there never was a monster.
Other than limiting our own personal enriching experiences, our unfounded fears are fairly harmless, that is until the monster emerges from under the bed and we start seeing it in the faces of people all around us… that’s when it becomes literally frightening. This week has been a frightening week. This week, in three 140 character “tweets” it has been implied that that monster is present in the faces of thousands (an estimated 149,000[i]) of courageous retired and active duty, reserve and national guard service members who are currently or have served our nation in the armed forces, some who have served for ten or twenty years, some who have moved up through the ranks to hold important leadership roles, many who have repeatedly put their lives on the line in combat situations. We have been informed that they will no longer be permitted to serve, that they will no longer be allowed to dedicate their skills and talents to serving in the military, that their willingness to place themselves in harm’s way is unwelcomed, that their resumes will be stained with the permanent record of being summarily dismissed from their jobs in the military – a stain which will remain with them the rest of their lives as they apply for civilian employment, as they fill out an applications for a mortgage or for credit. This week they have been told that their patriotism – their courage is not as courageous or proud as “ours.” This week they have been informed that they are in essence a ‘second class’ citizen, simply and only because we fear the fact that they are uncomfortable in the biological gender they were born into, and are more comfortable living as the man or woman they psychologically identify with. This week they have been told that their mental health, their lives, are subject to and are less important than our fear of things we are unfamiliar with.
Also this week, not quite as widely recognized but even far more reaching, we have been asked to embrace discrimination; we have been told the right to be treated equally when seeking employment, which our laws guarantee to all religions, all races, all ethnicities, any age, regardless of physical ability and gender… will not extended to the roughly 9 million Americans[ii] who identify as LGBTQ. We are being asked as a nation, to agree that we can withhold these rights based solely upon who someone loves. We’ve been asked to look into their faces and see the monster we fear… and tell them they don’t have a right to earn a living and support their families, as everyone else does.
Fear of the unknown can be deadly. As Jesus traveled to Jerusalem, he sent James and John ahead to make preparations for the evening; but the villagers feared Jesus and would not receive him. James and John’s response, just as reactionary as what we are being asked to condone this week, was to summon fire from heaven to destroy the village, but Jesus, instead of rebuking the villagers, rebuked James and John for their anger.[iii] When he sent the disciples into the countryside, empowering them to do miracles and to preach the Good News, it was to the strangers… if it had been only to those who already believed we would not be sitting here this morning; this Jesus ‘thing’ would have died out with that first generation. He sent them into the places where they had not heard, to those who were different, to the stranger. Instead of withdrawing from those who were different, Jesus embraced them; he ate with the sinners and the tax collectors, he touched the unclean, the sick and impure; he shared hospitality with the demonized Gentile. The constant in his ministry is that he continually crosses the barriers that divide one from the other, then and still today, to extend acceptance, especially to those who society rejected, not merely tolerating them but loving them – abundantly.
The history books are full of stories of transgendered and cross-dressers who fought bravely and honorably for their countries, there is nothing very new or scary about it: Frieda Belinfante fought as a man against the Gestapo in the Dutch Resistance movement during WWII; Zoya Smirnow and eleven of her Russian school girl friends disguised themselves as men and fought in World War I – as did the British reporter Dorothy Laurence; Mollie Bean, cousins Mary and Molly Bell, and Cathay Williams all served with the Confederate Army under male alias, while Sarah Emma Edmonds served with the Union Army as a man named Frank Thompson; Loreta Janeta Velazquez, disguised as a man, was the first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Army during the Civil War; James Barry (born Margaret Ann Bulkley) was a military surgeon in the British Army… the list goes on and on[iv] and yet we are encouraged to fear today’s transgendered soldiers.
We all have things that, when forced to confront, terrify us, and it takes courage to take on those unknowns. It’s not easy, and it may require as much courage for someone who takes their sexuality for granted, to confront their fear and embrace those who live as transgendered, as it takes the individual who is transgendered to speak openly and claim their human dignity, in a society anxious to condemn them. But regardless of which side of this equation you or someone in your family happens to be on, God does not send you into the unknowns unprepared – God doesn’t send us – period. God accompanies us into the unknowns. God is constant, constantly with us, to help us confront the prejudices born from our fears, to help us break down the barriers that separate us. And when we realize that God’s love is constant, constantly with the other as well as ourselves, we understand that this particular unknown is not the monster from under the bed we feared it was. Change cannot happen without taking a chance. Relationships cannot form without one person crossing the barrier that separates them from another and extending them self. That is how we come together as God’s children.
The interesting thing about Earl, that security guard in the museum, here he was in his mid-70’s, professing that he didn’t like change, that he wanted things to ‘remain the same,’ and working a job in an art museum, that I’m certain he never in his life anticipated, extending himself two total strangers, talking about his church and about Jesus, in a city called the “city of brotherly love.” I stopped in another museum while I was in Philadelphia two weeks ago, the Academy of Natural Sciences, where I visited the “Butterfly Room,” an environmentally controlled room where close to 100 butterflies fly freely; and there on the wall in the little mirrored room provided so you don’t walk out with a rare butterfly clinging to you, was a sign which read: “Without change there would be no butterflies.”
— Amen ―
[i] UCLA School of Law; http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Transgender-Military-Service-May-2014.pdf
[ii] Gallop; http://www.gallup.com/poll/183383/americans-greatly-overestimate-percent-gay-lesbian.aspx
[iii] Luke 9:53-55
[iv] List of wartime cross-dressers https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wartime_cross-dressers