Sunday, August 9, 2015

Laverne and Esther (a sermon about privilege)

This is the sermon I preached at Emmanuel UMC in Laurel, MD this morning. I was invited to preach as part of a sermon series called "Old Testament Yearbook," with each week dedicated to a different character from the Hebrew Bible. I was asked to preach on Esther. I decided to share some lessons about privilege that we can learn from Esther -- and from Laverne Cox.

            A few months ago, the notoriously short attention span of the U.S. media focused for a brief moment on the experience of transgender people – folks who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. The catalyst for this momentary fascination with a group that is often ignored or mocked in media representation was Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to come out as trans and subsequently to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. I didn’t quite understand the media buzz; my fiancĂ©e had to explain to me that prior to coming out as trans, Jenner was well-known and loved as a Cold War-era Olympic decathalon gold medalist and All-American Wheaties box celebrity.  
            I don’t usually spend a lot of time reflecting on the U.S. celebrity scene, and this is the first and likely the last time that I’ve ever mentioned Vanity Fair in a sermon. But in all of the buzz around Caitlyn Jenner’s cover shoot, one response in particular caught my attention. The actress Laverne Cox, star of the hit HBO series Orange is the New Black and herself a trans woman, posted a reflection on her blog, of which I will quote only a brief excerpt. She writes:
“I am so moved by all the love and support Caitlyn is receiving….Yes, Caitlyn looks amazing and is beautiful but what I think what is most beautiful about her is her heart and soul, the ways she has allowed the world into her vulnerabilities….For me it is necessary everyday to celebrate every aspect of myself especially those things about myself that don’t align with other people’s ideas about what is beautiful….Most trans folks don’t have the privileges Caitlyn and I have now have. It is those trans folks we must continue to lift up, get them access to healthcare, jobs, housing, safe streets, safe schools and homes for our young people. We must lift up the stories of those most at risk, statistically trans people of color who are poor and working class. I have hoped over the past few years that the incredible love I have received from the public can translate to the lives of all trans folks.”[i]
            I was struck by the power of this reflection. I should mention, for those unfamiliar with Ms. Cox, that she is a woman of color. She is someone who has faced multiple forms of societal stigma – as a woman, as a trans person, and as a person of color – using the media spotlight to lift up the needs and voices of those with less privilege than herself.
            I – a white, straight, cisgender male – find myself deeply humbled by Ms. Cox’s witness. How easy it is for me, on a daily basis, to forget my privilege, the unearned status and power granted to me by USAmerican society. For me to learn a lesson about the importance of using one’s status to amplify the voices of those less privileged – and to learn this lesson from a transwoman of color – is to enter into a space of self-reflection and repentance that I associate with encountering the gospel of Jesus Christ.
            Ms. Cox does not identify as a Christian. She has spoken in interviews about her upbringing in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and how she has come to understand and practice her spirituality outside of the institution of American Christianity.[ii] But to me, her words strike a deep, resonating chord within the prophetic and pastoral tradition of our religious heritage. In her refusal to hide behind the power of celebrity status or beauty standards, and her decision to identity instead with those who share aspects of identity often targeted for violence, Laverne Cox reminds me of another celebrity woman: the biblical character of Esther.
            The book of Esther, as many commentators have pointed out, is not a historical record, nor is it particularly theological – God does not appear in the story at all.[iii] Rather, it’s something like a fairy tale – though a pretty grim one, if you’ll excuse the pun. It is a story of palace intrigues and political rivalries, of gender and ethnic violence, of the folly of power and the surprising ability of individuals to challenge the status quo. The main character, Esther, is a young, status-less Jewish woman who becomes a princess because she happens to meet the objectifying beauty standards of the Persian court. This, indeed, would seem like a fairy-tale-princess dream come true, if not for the horrifying violence on the horizon. In the scene which we read this morning, Esther’s cousin Mordecai informs her of a plot in the royal court to massacre all of their people – for no reason other than a petty rivalry between Mordecai and Haman, the king’s chief courtier.  
            At first, Esther, who has hidden her Jewish identity from the court, reacts defensively. She sends him new clothes, so that he will stop embarrassing himself with his public acts of mourning and protest. She tries to explain to him that she is a marginalized individual, with no power to change things in the king’s court. Her reaction is, I think, quite understandable – she is young, and scared, and sticking one’s neck out in this situation is likely to end with that neck on a chopping block.
            And Mordecai tells her, essentially: “Look, don’t think that your status will protect you. You’re one of us. We will all share the same fate.” And then, that powerful line: “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
            And suddenly, it’s as if something shifts inside of Esther. She has been largely reactive up to this point in the story, but now she orders her older, male cousin to take action; she commands a fast; and, over the course of the following chapters, she sets into place a clever strategy to get the king on her side and to disrupt the plot against her people.
            The story, like many fairy tales, ends violently, with a happy ever after for the good guys and a horrifying end for the bad guys. But it’s not the climax of the story that interests me today; rather, it’s this moment when Esther comes to see with new eyes and speak with a new, powerful voice – or should I say, her own voice, a voice that must have been waiting inside of her, longing to be let out. Esther stops hiding behind the privileged aspects of her identity and instead chooses to act from her most vulnerable, endangered identity. It is that identity which creates connection with others, rather than isolating her in the illusion of security and the desperate loneliness of affluence. She turns down the false promises of upward mobility, exchanging them for the risky action of societally-downward solidarity. In doing so, Esther is able to use her status and privilege to affect change, to challenge violent systems of power, and to save her people.   
Esther’s insight speaks powerfully into our situation today, as a church and as a society. We are terrified of vulnerability, terrified of shame – and, paradoxically, this prevents us, particularly those of us with a high level of status and privilege, from naming and claiming our own ability to make change. And so in 2014 when women responded to the misogynistic manifesto of a mass shooter in California by posting stories on social media with the tag, #YesAllWomen, many men responded – not by joining together to end sexist violence – but rather by starting their own campaign, called #NotAllMen.” When the #BlackLivesMatter movement began, protesting police violence against unarmed African American men and women, many white folks responded – not by joining the effort to end police violence and racism – but instead by insisting on the slogan “All Lives Matter.” In fact, just recently, several Black Lives Matter signs hanging outside of churches in Maryland and DC were vandalized to erase the word “black.”[iv] That’s privilege at work, denying rather than challenging violence and discrimination. And meanwhile, the church in the U.S. spends its time fighting amongst itself and worrying about whether or not it will survive for another few years.
Do we see how different this is from the decision of Esther? Do we see how much we have to learn from the risk-taking young princess of this Jewish fairy tale?
Centuries after the fabled Persian court portrayed in the story of Esther, another young Jew grappled with questions of power and vulnerability, upward mobility versus downward solidarity. Writing to the church in Philippi, the apostle Paul admonished them: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.” Interestingly, modern translators have added the word “though,” which does not exist in the original Greek. We read, “Christ who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself.” But the actual text reads something like, “Christ who was in the form of God, emptying himself.” We decided that there was some sort of contradiction between who God is and the idea of emptying oneself, of identifying with the vulnerable and the marginalized. We decided that choosing to give up power and status is somehow out of character for God.[v]
But the Christ we Christians claim to follow, the God we claim to put our faith in, does not shy away from vulnerability. This God does not hide behind power or status or beauty in order to avoid risk. This God, this Christ, identifies with the threatened and the excluded. This God, this Christ, tells us that beauty and power and status are nothing except opportunities to speak out for and with those who have been denied such privilege.
And when I am tempted to say, “Look, I don’t really have that much power. I can’t really change things. It’s too risky. I’m too vulnerable.”
Or when churches wring anxious hands about shrinking budgets and empty pews, wondering whether we will ever ascend back to our former glory at the center of societal prestige.
This God, I believe, speaks – though just like in the book of Esther, not always directly. God speaks through the scandalous grief and protest of those whose people are threatened with violence, through young women who find their voice to challenge the status quo, through trans women of color, through countless marginalized people all over our land – this God speaks.
And says:
Perhaps, you have come to your current place of privilege for just such a time as this.

[i] From Laverne Cox’s tumblr blog:
[ii] “Laverne Talks Spirituality with Miss Ross Live”:
[iii] Sidnie White Crawford, “Esther Introduction,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 689-690.
[iv] Petula Dvorak, “The ugly message behind erasing ‘Black’ from ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs,” The Washington Post, 6 August 2015, available:
[v] I owe this insight to a talk given by Brian McLaren at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Marco Island, FL, in March 2015.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Sermon -- "Jesus' Name"

This is a sermon I preached on Aug 2, 2015, at Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington, DC. It was part of a sermon series called "Who Do You Say Jesus Is?" Each sermon in the series focused on a different name or title that Christians have given Jesus. My sermon focused on the subversive nature of Jesus' own name. The texts were Joshua 6:1,15-21 and Matthew 1:18-21.

           Over the past few weeks, Dumbarton has been doing sermon series called “Who Do You Say Jesus Is?” which has looked at different ways that Christians refer to Jesus. You’ve heard sermons about Jesus as the Word of God, as Lord, as Lamb of God, as Emmanuel, and as Messiah. When Mary Kay invited me to preach this morning, she told me I could continue this series by talking about a name or title for Jesus that has particular meaning for me.
            So I decided that this morning, I will talk about the name that I most often use to refer to Jesus.
            Which is: Jesus.
            You might already have a sense that in the Hebrew and Greek in which the Jewish and Christian scriptures were written, names have importance and meaning. You might remember that Isaac means “God laughs,” because Sarah thought the idea of having a child at her age was so funny that she had to chuckle at the thought. Or that the Exodus story relates Moses name to the Hebrew for “draw out,” since he was pulled out of the water. You might remember that Abram’s name changes to Abraham, that Simon gets dubbed “Peter,” meaning “Rock,” or that Saul’s name changes to Paul. Of course, you also might not have heard any of those things before, in which case you can check out some of these stories and – to quote LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow – “You don’t have to take my word for it!”
            Names have meaning, and Jesus’ name is no exception, although the way our texts are translated tends to obscure this fact. The name “Jesus,” you see, is an Anglicized version of the Latinized form of the Greek rendition of the Hebrew name “Yeshua.” (Did you get all of that?) While the gospels were written in Greek, Jesus and his disciples – like other 1st century Palestinian Jews – would likely have been most at home in the Aramaic language, a Semitic tongue closely related to Hebrew. So while we’re used to calling Jesus “Jesus,” his friends would have called him something like “Yeshua.”
            Yeshua, as it turns out, can also be anglicized into the common name “Joshua.” The Jesus of the gospels and the Joshua of the Hebrew Bible share a name. And that name has a meaning.  It comes from a Hebrew root meaning, “rescue” or “deliver,” combined with the first syllable of the name of God. So Jesus and Joshua’s name means, “Yahweh delivers,” or “Yahweh is salvation.”
            The translation of Matthew’s gospel that we heard this morning does a good job of representing this meaning when it says: “you are to name him Jesus – Salvation! – because he will save the people from their sins.” We’re getting an English translation of a Greek translation of a Hebrew play on words. Isn’t that fun?
            The author of Matthew’s gospel wants to make sure the reader knows, explicitly, that the name “Yeshua” isn’t just a name. It’s connected to what this Jesus will do. The name this newborn messiah is *called by* is directly related to the mission he is *called to.*
            Now, us North American Protestant Christians are so used to a certain narrative of how Jesus saves people from their sins that we tend to just zip right over that line from Matthew. Whatever you might personally think about the way the church has traditionally taught, a certain understanding of sin and atonement has tended to dominate the conversation so that we miss the implications of this little sentence in Matthew’s gospel.
            Matthew’s gospel, however, takes great pains to place Jesus in line with Jewish tradition. In Matthew, the first thing we hear about Jesus the Messiah is that he is “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” In Matthew, Jesus goes up on a mountain to teach, recalling Mount Sinai where the Law was given to Moses. There are more citations of Hebrew Bible passages in Matthew than in any other gospel, many of them accompanied by the formula: “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet.” So when Matthew’s gospel says the Messiah is named Yeshua, “Yahweh saves,” because he will save the people from their sins, its original readers – most of whom, remember, would have been faithful Jews, not Gentile converts – would have had an instant moment of association with another figure named Yeshua.
            The guy we heard from earlier, commanding the people: “Now shout! Yahweh has given you the city!  The city—and everything in it—is devoted to Yahweh for destruction.” Joshua, the guy leading the charge when the Israelites raze Jericho to the ground, killing all the men, women, children, and, for good measure, the cattle, sheep, donkeys, and pet parakeets.
            Joshua’s name – Yeshua – means “God will save,” and throughout the book dedicated to his exploits we get a pretty good sense of the type of saving that God is expected to do. It involves a whole lot of putting things to the sword and to the torch. A whole lot of saving the people from their sins of disobedience by making sure they know that, without total obedience to God, they will not succeed in their military conquest of the people who stand between them and the land they want.
            Now, I could say a lot about the book of Joshua. Many theologians, such as American Indian scholar George Tinker and Palestinian priest Naim Ateek, have critiqued the conquest narratives of Joshua, arguing that for             indigenous peoples, such theologizing of conquest has justified subjugation and ethnic cleansing. Other theologians have taken pains to point out that Joshua is not historical record, but rather some combination of mythic account and theological argument for the power of Israel’s God.
            But Matthew’s audience would not have read up on the latest in historical critical scholarship of the book of Joshua. They would have known the stories, and they would have heard, “you will call the child Yeshua, because he will save the people from their sins,” and they would have known exactly what kind of saving this Jesus-character was going to get up to. They would have looked around at their own context – in which the Roman Empire had just destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, burned it to the ground, crucified anyone involved in recent anti-imperial activity, and sent others into exile – and they would have made some assumptions about the type of good news that would be announced by this Jesus, this Yeshua, this first-century-Joshua.
            And they would have been quite surprised by the story that unfolds throughout the rest of the gospel.
            Because it turns out that what Jesus is *called to* is a complete subversion of the name he is *called by.*
            It turns out that the type of salvation and deliverance announced by this Jesus is nonviolent rather than violent. That it’s found in solidarity rather than dominance. In seeming weakness rather than coercive strength. In taking up the cross rather than avenging those who have been put to the cross. In identifying with and loving the Other rather than purifying ourselves by expunging the Other from our midst.
            Jesus takes all the religious and political assumptions of his followers and turns them upside down, dumps them right on their heads.
            And that, I would argue, is what Jesus is up to no matter what name or label we try to apply. Word, Lord, Lamb, Messiah – you name it, Jesus subverts it. Jesus takes all of the things that we try to call him and turns them inside-out, into the question of what we are called to.
                        Now, if you’re a Dumbarton regular, this isn’t exactly news to you. You’ve heard plenty of sermons about how Jesus’ nonviolent ethic of compassion and justice challenges and subverts the assumptions of good religious folks.
            But I want to  go a step farther and suggest that one of the things God is still up to in our midst is subverting our religious language, turning inside-out what names we are called by and breaking open new understandings of what we are called to. And I want to suggest that this is true even when the religious language being employed is language that we like to use – us progressive Christian folks, us Methodists of the Reconciling persuasion at places like Dumbarton and American University. I want to suggest that God is still up to the type of language-subverting work that we see in Jesus’ name – even when the language that we like to use is good language like “welcome” and “inclusion.”
            Recently, one of the AU students that I work with sent me a quote from a Facebook discussion they were having regarding the inclusion of transgendered folks. I’ll read you part of the quote:
“When we talk about making a word or a space more inclusive, I think many of us imagine that this means those of us already included are, like, at a party in our house, and there are other people outside, and making it more inclusive means we open the door and let them in, where they will presumably take up some space and eat some of our food and the like. This model is problematic, because it implies a residual right of possession (the house, inviting people in) and a slight imposition on our part….Instead, we need to think of inclusivity like this: we are ALL already at a party and its not owned by anyone but there are far more people than chairs, and some people have been standing up for centuries. We need to get some more in and, if we can't get enough right now, we need to take turns. If that still doesn't do it, maybe we should move the whole party someplace else.”
           Now, I like the word inclusion. And I like the mission statement of the AU Methodists, which includes the words “Welcome All.” But I suspect that what God is up to inside of words like inclusion and welcome is bigger than what we’re often up to when we use them, just as what God was up to in words like salvation and deliverance turned out to be something deeper, something more surprising, than what those words meant to their first century hearers. I suspect that, as that quote indicates, God might not so much want us to invite those folks over their to our party as much as up and move the party somewhere else – or, even more so, to recognize that this party wasn’t ever ours to begin with, that it was always God’s party, and oooohhhhh the types of people that God has invited to that party.
         See God’s party, God’s church, God’s realm, isn’t a white party that maybe we could squeeze some folks of color into.
         God’s party isn’t a straight party that maybe we could squeeze some gay folks into, nor a cisgendered party but maybe we could find a few more chairs for some trans folks.
         God’s party isn’t an upper middle class party but, hey, maybe, if you ask nicely enough, we’ll let a few poor folks in.
         God’s welcome, God’s inclusion, is deeper and wider and way more radical than all that. And, I suspect, it isn’t about us welcoming those people to our church. It’s about uprooting ourselves from our comfort zones and our sense of ownership and displacing ourselves to the kinds of parties that Jesus attends – places that might be just as surprising to our religious assumptions as Jesus would have been to those who thought they knew what his name meant.

What do we call Jesus? What assumptions are embedded in those names? And what is God up to in that -- subverting, shaking up, and redefining what we are being called to?


The quote is from a personal correspondence with one of the students I work with at American University. Their name has been withheld in order to protect their superhero identity. But if you want to support their ministry, you can donate to the AU United Methodist-Protestant Community