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.

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