By Asher O’Callaghan
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours in the Triune God. Amen.
It is an honor and a joy to be joining you all here today. Three years ago during this fall semester I wrapped up my time here at Luther as a Master’s of Divinity student. So it’s fun to get to visit my alma mater here and form relationships with the next wave of public Christian leaders who will be transforming the church. It filled me with hope for the church to spend time with the students here throughout the day yesterday, especially a few of your classmates who are gender diverse and do not identify as female or male. In my work with seminarians on this campus and throughout the church, it is clear to me that the reformation movement is alive and well in Christ’s Body.
It is also an honor and a joy to be speaking with you today as a transgender Lutheran pastor. You see, when I was born I was named Mary Christine and raised as a girl. My parents dressed me up in pretty dresses and took me to modeling auditions. At Church, I learned about Hell and homosexuality, and what it meant that I was a woman. I learned that women were to be silent at church and that God made women as the weaker vessel to be men’s helpers. And I was taught that was what the Bible said so it had to be that way. Funny enough, that was actually the one reason I was grateful to be a woman – I thanked God that I would never have to lead worship, it was so dreadfully boring. I think God’s still laughing.
When I was about 5 years old I began hurting myself on purpose. I would do things like scrape my knees and elbows on purpose. No one ever suspected anything because I as a tomboy I was always skating and climbing trees and doing all sorts of things that could result in scrapes and bruises. Eventually I was cutting and burning myself.
It became a pesky habit that I didn’t know how to quit. Truth be told, I didn’t want to quit so it continued through my teenage years and into college. There was something about the blood, the pain, the open wounds that was comforting to me. It’s uniquely comforting to take the pain that you’re feeling internally and make it tangible and visible, even if only for yourself.
I knew that something was deeply inexplicably wrong. But there was nothing in my life to affirm that. Everything was supposed to be fine. Everything was fine. Except for me. So I looked around for something that might help me understand why what I felt on the inside didn’t match what was going on the outside. Church didn’t help with all the smiling faces.
I had never heard the word transgender and I had no language for what was going on inside of me. What I couldn’t do with language, I did with my body. All those feelings of pain, and shame, and self-hatred had to go somewhere, but when I looked around I found nothing on the surface of my life to show or express them. My body was the only thing I had to help me make sense of things. The physical pain was the only means I knew to affirm the inner pain I couldn’t name or explain. Others might not see it or understand it. I may not understand it. But my body was doing what it could to show me that my pain was no less real than my wounds.
And then later on as I kept trying to understand myself, I started thinking that I must be crazy. When everyone treats you like someone you’re not, you eventually start to feel crazy. So I went to go see a therapist to help make me more normal, more straight. She tried to convince me that I was a beautiful daughter of God. And I tried to believe her. I was suicidal, I nearly dropped out of college, I overdosed on sleeping pills, I stayed with a man who yelled at me and hit me because I figured no one else would ever be attracted to me.
Now I am a wildly privileged white person. I grew up with access to quality education, affordable healthcare, and access to safe housing. So I don’t say any of that to make you feel sorry for me. But just imagine. If as a privileged white person I have encountered all of this, can you imagine what it must be like for transgender and gender non-conforming people of color who don’t have easy access to the resources that I did? You can begin to see how people might become sex workers, or become addicted, or stay in abusive relationships, or end their own lives.
The vast majority of names on the list we talked about earlier of the 325 of our transgender siblings killed during this past year both within the U.S. and around the world belong to transgender or gender non-conforming people of color, particularly ones outside of the United States. And so that is part of why I chose the reading about Joseph from Genesis.
You’ve all probably heard of Joseph’s “Technicolor Dream Coat” from Genesis. The word there used for the robe or the garment that Joseph wore is also the word used for the garment that Tamar wore in 2 Samuel. So it could be translated coat of many colors. It could be translated robe. It could be translated princess dress. Who knows?
So I heard this slam poem written by a queer person of color named J. Mace III. And I’d like you to listen to it.
She asks if she can talk to me about Jesus at 3 a.m. on the C train
because something about my queer face means
clearly I’m on a path straight to Hell
I’ve come to expect this type of reaction
at least once a week
since the first time I was exorcised at 16
I’ve grown tired
and I’ve decided it is my turn to proselytize
So before you do any of that
I want to know from you
Have you heard the good word about
Joseph of Genesis?
Jo of Genesis
favorite child of Jacob
what you wanted
you desired one thing:
a kethoneth passim
Pastor called this a royal coat
I had never read the Bible before
found you and kept reading
I got to 2nd Samuel
and realized your coat of many colors
was a princess dress
your father must have really loved you
Because he got it for you
and you wore it with pride
when your brothers saw you
in your flowing dress
in your glory
they became enraged
I am sorry for the beating you received
Sorry they destroyed your dress
and smeared it with the red paint of your swollen veins
did you know they told your father you were dead
so he’d never come looking for you
Never knew your brothers
sold you as a slave into Egypt
and once you were stolen from your home fields
the earth dried up
the very ground on which you walked
mourned the loss of its genderqueer child
and all the plants died
and the animals no longer had the will to live
your family nearly starved
Saw the formation of ribs
where once grew flesh
and belly fat
hungry and desperate
traveled into Egypt
And what must they have seen, Jo?
See, in Egypt people discovered you
not as fag
not as tranny
They saw you in totality
You went from slave
to leader over lands
there you were Josephine
You looked magnificent
Your family couldn’t even recognize you through the glare of divinity
But you saw them shivering in fear
waiting to hear what this regal leader might say
Wondering if your spirit might see fit
to grant them the grain needed to survive
love broke through
the darkness of resentment
And for the first time
your family saw you
for it was your word
that saved them from starvation
Dear Joseph of Genesis
I am claiming your story
for every queer kid told
they are unholy
for every queer told
in order to love
we must let our faith die
I am going to put it in a pocket
over my heart
next to Ruth & Naomi
next to David & Jonathan
next to Hegai & Deborah
and seat them at the last Passover
with Jesus and Lazarus
I am taking Jesus with me too
To you who claim your words are from God
but whose book is pledged to King James
know what allegiances you keep
You’ve been lying about my people for too long
Beautiful. Isn’t it? It can be beautiful when we see history in a different light. And these stories of reconiciling. These stories around the world not only of transgender people who have been murdered but of transgender people who are living and thriving, these are stories that need to be raised up. Because ultimately we’re in a church that needs reconciliation. A church that doesn’t want to talk about difference, doesn’t really want to talk about diversity.
Christ ultimately will not be bound by any person’s conscience, nor by the pages of history. Christ will not be bound by bathroom laws. And the Body of Christ will not be divided against itself. We learned from Jesus that a house divided against itself cannot stand. And we learned from Paul that as parts of the Body of Christ we are members of one another. We don’t always understand one another. We certainly do not look like one another. We all bring different gifts and function differently. And in spite of what the world tells us, the Holy Spirit has taught us that as members of one another, our differences are gifts. We need one another.
Christ’s Body is wounded when we pretend that other parts of the body are not there. Christ’s Body is wounded when we can’t name the other parts of the body because we’re embarrassed.
But here’s the good news: Creation didn’t stop in Genesis, it kept going. Whether Joseph was queer or not, God is still re-creating and reforming us. When we do see one another, when we affirm one another, when we name one another in all our glorious differences, the Word becomes flesh once again. In our flesh, we behold the glory of God, when we name one another and our differences as gifts for our work together.
This is our witness of healing, of reconciliation, and of wholeness. God’s creation did not stop in the Garden of Eden in creating Adam and Eve. In Jesus Christ, God has made a new Body, a new creation even more glorious than the first. And in this Body, we have the most precious grace of becoming ourselves. Amen.
God is with you. And also with you.
Lift up your hearts. We lift them to God.
Let us give thanks to God. It is right to give our thanks and praise.
It is indeed right our duty and our joy
that we should at all times and in all places
give thanks and praise to you,
We thank you, divine Seamstress
for you never stop creating.
From the dawn of time, to our mother’s womb, even in the age to come,
your creativity is as endless as eternity.
Today you are knitting us your people
into a garment of many colors.
We thank you, Holy Spirit,
for you do not allow us to grow complacent.
You stir up dreams and visions within us
making us restless for a new Heaven and a new Earth.
You clothe us with power to bring these dreams to life.
In you, we are beginning to see all things anew.
We thank you, Christ our Savior,
for your wondrous transformation,
Word made into flesh.
You challenge us with foreign experiences
teaching us that those we thought were strange and cut off
are members in your holy body.
And so with all your people of every time and place,
the church on earth and the hosts of heaven,
we sing your praise and join the unending hymn:
“Holy, holy, holy”