Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sermon for the Feast of St. Nicholas

When Chris first asked me to preach today, I threatened to preach on St. Nicholas instead of on the readings for the second Sunday of Advent. Of course, Chris decided this was a wonderful idea. And I can’t really complain too much because St. Nicholas has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up the child of two Polish immigrants and my parents strived to make sure that Polish traditions and customs were ingrained in us. Every year on December 6, we’d wake up and search for presents. They might be under our pillows or in our shoes or they might be strewn around the house. They were never wrapped (St. Nicholas doesn’t wrap presents) and never big. There would be some candy or chocolate (usually including a piece of chocolate wafer cake), oranges or clementines, and then something like winter socks, long underwear or pajamas. Occasionally, there’d be a small toy. It didn’t matter what we got as long as there was something. Eventually, of course, we knew that my parents were the ones who put out the presents, but that never stopped us from believing because the presents were distributed ‘in the name of St. Nicholas’- my parents were his agents. Even when we moved away from home, we would always get a care package for St. Nick’s day with the same type of present. It was tradition.

St. Nicholas wasn’t just around the house though – he’d be at Polish School, Polish Scouts and the Polish Christmas pageants (and the Christmas around the world show we did at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago). Of course, this was where someone dressed up as him. St. Nicholas wore red – but it wasn’t the red and white of Santa Claus and there was no belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly. St. Nicholas was a bishop – who walked around in red and gold bishop robes with a mitre on his head and a staff in his hand and two angels in attendance. One was the good angel who came to distribute presents and praise those who had been good. The other carried a bundle of sticks with which to affectionately spank children who were naughty. Never hard, but just to encourage them to be better. When St. Nicholas came, every child would be questioned by him – it wasn’t just were you good or bad – there were specifics. Did you go to church? Did you say your prayers? Did you listen to your parents? It was almost like confession. This was the St. Nicholas I grew up with – a bishop who walked with angels, who left trinkets under the pillow or in your shoes on December 6 – not the American Santa Claus who came down the chimney on Dec 25.

But who was St. Nicholas? After all, this tradition (and others like it across Europe) had to come from somewhere. Why did this saint get associated with presents for children? Turns out, Saint Nicholas was a real person. He was known as Nikolaos of Myra during his lifetime – a Greek man who became bishop of Myra (which is a place in Modern day Turkey). He lived from about 270 to 346 AD in the Mediterranean. The earliest accounts of his life tell us that he was born to wealthy Christian parents who sent him to study scripture when he was five years old. His parents died while he was young and he was raised by his uncle who was a priest. Nicholas himself became a priest and later bishop of Myra (probably when he was about 30 years old). Not long after this, he was imprisoned by the emporer Diocletian for a number of years and released when Constantine came to power. Supposedly he was at the council of Nicea where he was a staunch opponent of heresy – stories have it that Nicholas slapped the arch-heretic Arius in face! (Of course, we don’t know if this is true, but it certainly makes for a good story).

But how did this bishop who was known for his opposition to heresy, become the patron saint of children and the needy? Well, those wealthy parents of his – the ones who died young – they left him a lot of money. Money that Nicholas decided to use to help the poor and needy.

One of the earliest stories about Nicholas helping the poor and needy is that of St. Nicholas helping a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value— a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas and one of the presents often given on St. Nicholas’ Day.

Another story tells of Nicholas helped free innocent men. The governor had been bribed to condemn three innocent men to death. On the day fixed for their execution Nicholas stayed the hand of the executioner and released them. Then he turned to the governor and reproved him so sternly that he repented. In the West the story took on more and more fantastic forms; in one version the three officers become three theological students, traveling on their way to study in Athens. A wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered them, hiding their remains in a large pickling tub. It so happened that Bishop Nicholas, traveling along the same route, stopped at this very inn. In the night he dreamed of the crime, got up, and summoned the innkeeper. As Nicholas prayed earnestly to God the three boys were restored to life and wholeness. In France the story is told of three small children, wandering in their play until lost, lured, and captured by an evil butcher. St. Nicholas appears and appeals to God to return them to life and to their families.

How much of this is truth and how much is fiction? Well, that’s up to debate, but does it really matter? Nicholas was bishop who gave up his money to help the poor, something that each of us can strive to emulate. Although, I’m not sure if any of us have the ability to bring dead pickled boys back to life, but you never know. St. Nicholas’ Day isn’t just about giving, or getting, presents – it’s a glimmer of hope during the season of Advent. As the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, it gives us a small reminder of the charity and kindness of those who have gone before us, particularly a certain bishop. The presents are certainly nice, of course, and are a little pick me up during the cold winter days. In a way, it reminds us of what we’re waiting for during Advent. While St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, Jesus certainly has him beat on that.

Almighty God, in your love you gave your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness both on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Delivered on 5 December 2010 at Christ Church Somerville in Massachusetts

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Making the Invisible, Visible

I preached last week for Christ the King and am crossposting the sermon here for posterity. It's not my favourite sermon that I've preached, but it seemed worth sharing:

Christ the King is a bit of an odd feast day. It marks the end of the liturgical year while also reminding us of Christ’s role as sovereign and leader. It’s one of those established feasts, instituted in the twentieth century with a goal in mind – in this case, to give the faithful an example of an ideal sovereign – particularly in opposition to tyrants who were governing nations at the time. Yet the feast did not arise out of nothing. Throughout Scripture, we see examples of Christ as ruler and leader, as judge and king. But this Sunday is not simply focus on the notion of Christ as monarch – it also marks the end of the year. Next Sunday we enter into Advent, the beginning of the new year, the transition between the season of Pentecost and the celebration of Christmas. For those of us in academia, this time of the liturgical year is, simply put, odd. We celebrate the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of the new one while trying to juggle the end of the semester and finals. At this time of year, it’s easy to get lost and spin off track. There are so many things clamoring for our attention, it’s hard to focus, particularly on God (unless it’s to offer up frantic prayers for help with final exams and papers).

The feast of Christ the King gives us an opportunity to focus. In Jeremiah, we hear the prophecy of the king to come – the divinely ordained king who will deal out justice and protect God’s chosen people, the heir of David, the Messiah. But we also see God’s judgment on those leaders who have let their sheep go astray. Consider these shepherds in opposition to Christ as shepherd; Christ leaves the 99 to go find that one lost sheep while the shepherds in Jeremiah scatter and destroy the sheep, and for that, are subject to the judgement of God. Through this account we are encouraged to examine our own lives. Here is our opportunity at year’s end to take stock of our own lives. Have we been good shepherds or bad? Have we been blind to the needs of the sheep in our company or have we gone out of our way to care for them – to help the ones who were lost or hurting? Maybe we have, maybe we haven’t. Regardless, this year is coming to a close, but soon there will be a new year, an opportunity for a fresh start.

Being a good shepherd isn’t easy and we can’t do it on our own. God doesn’t expect us to; the reading from Colossians reminds us that we don’t have to. We will be made strong with the strength that comes from the glorious power of Christ – in order that we might endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to God. We have been rescued from the power of darkness, from the injustice of this world, and brought into the kingdom of Christ, brought into the light. Paul reminds us of Christ’s glory, heaping epiteths onto him and reminding us of Christ’s centrality. He is the image of the invisible God. His Incarnation provides us with the example we have to follow. He is our leader, the one who stands at the head of the Church, at the head of each one of us. He is, to put it another way, our King.

And yet, his kingship is different than anything we have seen before. It is manifest in suffering and death, in love and not in power. Bishop Oscar Romero wrote:

Christ is presented to us as the shepherd king,
king and shepherd of all the world’s peoples,
of all of history.

His is not a despotic regime,
but a regime of love…. (From Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, July 22, 1979)

This is not our traditional notion of kingship. Might does not make right for Christ the king. Instead, Christ is the Shepherd, the lover, and the leader. He forgives those who crucify him and offers redemption to all. How then are we to follow this example? How do we live out the kingdom of Christ on earth?

In a sermon that Newman preached during his Anglican days, he observed that “it is as unmeaning to speak of an invisible kingdom on earth, as of invisible chariots and horsemen, invisible swords and spears; to be a kingdom at all it must be visible, if the word has any true meaning.”

Newman’s words provide us with a call to action, serving as the trumpet that raises us from our apathy and turns us back to God from our destruction. We can speak of God’s invisible kingdom as a lofty ideal, but are we ready to work towards a visible manifestation of that kingdom? Are we ready to begin this work now? To strive to be the good shepherd, looking out for the lost sheep and tending to them. Are we ready to approach life with a sense of radical love, bringing the light and justice to those we meet?

We live in a world of injustice. A world filled with senseless violence, war, corruption – a world filled with so much wealth where people still die from starvation and a lack of clean drinking water. A world where innocent people are killed. On this particular weekend, as we celebrate Trans Day of Remembrance, we remember those who were killed simply for their gender identity. In a world such as this, where is the king of justice? When people are murdered for having a ‘variant’ gender identity or when teenagers kill themselves because they are being bullied – it is hard to imagine the kingdom of God here on earth. Yet it is up to us to bring the kingdom of God, to bring justice into this world around. It is our job to look for those who are suffering, to go out of our way to help them, to strive for justice. Our calling is to bring God’s invisible kingdom into the world around us, to bring forgiveness, justice and love into this world.

Some of you may know the story “One Solitary Life” that stems from a sermon by James Allan Francis. I heard it recently in a performance and was reminded of it last night while watching the new Harry Potter movie. The story goes something like this:

“A child is born in an obscure village. He is brought up in another obscure village. He works in a carpenter shop until he is thirty, and then for three brief years is an itinerant preacher, proclaiming a message and living a life. He never writes a book. He never holds an office. He never raises an army. He never has a family of his own. He never owns a home. He never goes to college. He never travels two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He gathers a little group of friends about him and teaches them his way of life. While still a young man, the tide of popular feeling turns against him. One denies him; another betrays him. He is turned over to his enemies. He goes through the mockery of a trial; he is nailed to a cross between two thieves, and when dead is laid in a borrowed grave by the kindness of a friend.

Those are the facts of his human life. He rises from the dead. Today we look back and ask, What kind of trail has he left across the centuries? When we try to sum up his influence, all the armies that ever marched, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned seem trivial in their influence on mankind compared with that of this one solitary life…” (paraphrased)

As we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, we have as our example a man who doesn’t seem to fit with the stereotypical notion of a king. Though wars were fought in his name, he himself raised no army and turned the other cheek instead of repaying a blow for a blow. His message was one of love, radical love that seems out of place in our world today. Yet we cannot leave Christ as the invisible king. We cannot relegate him to the margins – out of sight and out of mind. We should take Christ for our own king, following him wherever he may lead us, even if the odds seemed stacked against us. A king’s power is not always revealed in the crushing of his enemies – sometimes it just requires bringing justice and reconciliation. In the last words of today’s gospel, Jesus promises a place in heaven to the thief who asks to be remembered. Jesus forgives those who crucify him and promises salvation to a thief. This is our king. Merciful and loving. What greater calling can we have than to bring Christ into the center of our lives, to bring his kingdom into our lives. To make the invisible kingdom visible.

As we go forth today – into the last weeks of the semester, into the end of this liturgical year, let us go forth with determination to bring Christ’s kingdom into our world, to follow our King wherever he may lead us.


[originally preached on 19 November 2010 at Harvard Divinity School

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hacking Gender, Outlaw Style

The very phrases “hack gender” and “gender and its transitory” send up the trans theory flag. After all, transitory has the word “trans” in it. But it’s more than simple word association. When wiscon attendees first told me about hackgender, an impish grin spread across my face. After all, what would be a better vocation for a gender outlaw than to hack gender – hack the notion of gender in academia, in ministry, in society… and among friends and family.

Perhaps the prompt shouldn’t be about gender and its transitory state in society, but about the transitory state of language in regards to gender. In the words of Carrie Davis, “Trans language is an evolutionary vocabulary that changes intergenerationally, geographically, and within a political context. Trans language is somewhat fluid and continually evolving. Some trans terms have emerged organically from within the community; others have been developed by science or academia (Social Work, 58).” There are so many words to choose from: trans, trans gender, gender variant, gender queer… the list goes on and on. Yet most of these words and terms come from a time when gender was a binary and sex equaled gender. Certain theorists propose that sex is biological and gender is psychological – deos that mean that trans individuals are psychologically wrong? Any trans person who wishes to receive hormones or surgery needs to convince a mental health official of gender identity disorder. As if just because we don’t think of gender as predetermined, unchangeable, absolute; as something that is black and white, pink and blue. I am not disordered. I am what I am, and the terms I choose to identify myself vary from day to day. I went to a woman’s college and my history as a girl is part of who I am. Currently though, calling me a young lady or a woman is the surest way to get me to bristle. Don’t assume. Sure, my body still has that hourglass figure and having a large chest means that even with two or three binders, I’m still a bit curvy. None of that gives you permission to assume my gender. What if you assume wrong? Do you know how much it hurts to be referred to by the wrong gender? Or how much it hurts to stare at every form that insists you check either Male or Female? Where’s the neither box?

Until we can remove gender as an identifier, as something required by the TSA for travel, as a stamp on our passports and driver’s liscences, then the binary system will remain in power and everyone else will simply be an outlaw. There are certainly people in the world for whom the binary system works and I don’t wish to rip their world out from under them, but I want to shake it up a bit, show them that there are other ways of thinking about gender , there are other realities.

It is virtually impossible to ignore the gender binary model that pervades various aspects of our society: the segregation of toy aisles with pink for girl, blue for boy; the need to quickly determine whether a child is a boy or a girl; the desire for men’s groups and women’s groups. The majority of the population has subscribed to this binary gender model on which notions of what it means to be male or female become more normalized and stereotypes. While such a system may work for some people, particularly those who’s gender identity matches their assigned gender, it does not work for everyone. For many trans persons, there are days when there is a strong disconnect between the gender they were assigned and their gender identity, when the mind does not match the perception of the body. This is not simply an emotional disconnect, but a situation wherein the mind – analytical and logical – arrives at a ‘does not compute’ message upon processing the image it sees in the mirror. A more encompassing definition of gender would, in theory, allow a person to alleviate some of this dissonance and reflect a society wherein there would not be heavy pressure to conform to binary gender norms. If biological sex is not just limited to male and female, then how can we attempt to limit gender to such a binary? Is it more appropriate, perhaps, to view gender identity, at least, as any number of points on a linear spectrum?

My narrative doesn’t follow the ‘man trapped in a woman’s body’ model that seems to be the baseline for FTM (female to male) coming out stories, though I am disturbed by the fact that there even is a baseline narrative. Sometimes I wonder how much my story even fits within the transgender category, yet discernment, discussion, and growth over the past two years have taught me is that there is no right or wrong way to be trans. Being gender-variant is to not fit in with society’s imposed gender rules – why then should my story need to fit in with what is supposedly acceptable within the trans community? Isn’t it enough to not be normal? Do I now have to try and be the right type of weird?

I worry about not having the words or vocabulary to articulate my narrative – to articulate the feelings and emotions, the intrinsic internal sense of disconnect, of wrongness, or otherness that has been manifest at various points throughout my journey. As I’ve come to terms with my trans identity, people have asked, “But why can’t you just be a girl?” My response of “Because it just feels wrong” never seems to provide a satisfactory answer by any stretch of the imagination. How do I even begin to articulate what I can only describe as the fractured ontological truth I’ve discovered within myself?

Sometimes I think I can’t identify as FTM because I don’t know how to be a man. I look at my closet full of hand me downs from my older brother and my roommate’s father alongside thrift store purchases: men’s clothes of varying sizes because nothing fits quite right over my bound large breasts or my womanly “childbearing” hips; the perfect hourglass figure gone to waste, as my mother put it. The Harry Benjamin code says I must live full time as a man (and be diagnosed as having gender identity disorder (GID) by a mental health professional) before receiving hormones or letters of support for surgery and all I can think is how can I live as a man when my body is still that of a woman? How can I live as a man when I have never yet been a boy? I didn’t grow up male, no one instructed me, and yet coming to terms with a gender identity somewhere on the male spectrum means I have to catch up quickly. It doesn’t matter how many female gender normative behaviors I disregarded, it seems I never paid close enough attention to male behavior. I viewed people as people. I didn’t understand why boys couldn’t wear dresses or why girls shouldn’t play with trucks or sit with their legs spread apart. None of these norms fit into my conception of gender and I disregarded as many as I could. The world in my head was genderless, how was I supposed to fit into a binary gender system? I lacked the words and I lacked the understanding.

Maybe I was just ahead of my time, imagining Virginia Mollenkot’s “Omnigendered” society where labels and stereotypes didn’t matter; a world where people were simply people. Perhaps I’m doomed to be an outlaw, always existing on the fringes of society, never quite fitting in. I don’t always pass and perhaps maybe I’ll never will, but if I can make just a few people question their assumptions, then I’ll consider that my contribution to hacking gender. After all, if a gender outlaw like me can’t ride a horse through the city and steal from the rich and give to the poor, perhaps I can just try to take off a few people’s blinders. Open your eyes, humanity, and see the beauty and diversity in gender around you.