Nov 21 | “Embracing Fluidity” (Sermon, Reign of Christ/Transgender Day of Remembrance 2021)

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

John 18:33-37

Somehow, once again, the wheel of the year is completing its revolution and we are heading into Advent, but not before our regularly scheduled stop at the weird junction of prophecy and fulfilment that is Reign of Christ Sunday, or Christ the King Sunday; the day where we celebrate a king or ruler who is anything but, a scorned desaparecido, a victim of state violence hung on an instrument of state violence; the day where we fix our gaze on that atrocity and say, “Yes, this is the one to whom we have given our hearts.” Yikes.

But it’s not just any Reign of Christ Sunday. Yesterday, people across the world gathered to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance. Transgender Day of Remembrance was begun in 1999 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a trans woman murdered in 1998. The vigil commemorates transgender people lost to violence, often by reading the names of those reported murdered across the world. It always takes a long time. This year, in fact, has been one of the deadliest on record according to a study by the Human Rights Campaign, a queer and trans advocacy group.

It is imperative to mourn the monumental loss of these beloved children of God through public grief. And I also want to say that all too often, the only stories we hear about what it means to be trans or gender-nonconforming are stories of degradation and misery ending in violent death or suicide. Those stories are far too common, but if we focus on them to the exclusion of all else, it subtly tells us that this is the lot in life for all trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people, and therefore to be expected, even accepted, and that is not true. We live lives that contain joy and beauty and delight, and we deserve joy and beauty and delight just like anyone else, and joy is an act of resistance.

So now let me introduce you to one of my favourite nonbinary artists: Alok Menon, a writer, performer, mixed media artist, and public speaker. Like me, they use they/them pronouns. They also dazzle me daily on Instagram.

Alok is ethnically Indian and has a lot of body hair. They make a point of keeping it visible and unshaven, and have rocked sensational makeup with a full beard and a boat-neck dress, or an incredible patterned pantsuit with heels that raise them to heaven. They regularly explore, through lovely illustrated book reports, how the policing of gender cannot be untangled from colonial and racist mindsets. It’s a fascinating lost piece of history. Even hair removal in women only became seen as mandatory in the late 19th century and was explicitly tied to white supremacy – because the hairier you were, the less evolved you were said to be. When the few models of what it means to look nonbinary are almost always willowy hairless androgynous types like David Bowie or Tilda Swinton, Alok, with their brown skin, fluorescent palette, flawless makeup, and five o’clock shadow magnificently shows us a fully realized paradise of gender freedom.

Alok’s look has received a lot of scorn and anger from bigots, but to a comment as predictable and unkind as “You are not a woman, bro. Man up,” Alok consistently responds with things like, “You mistake your armour as an identity and your pain as a personality. You are climbing a tree that bears no fruit. Ascending a ladder that goes nowhere. What you seek isn’t here with me. It’s within you. This isn’t about my freedom, it’s about your repression. You resent me because I live what you fear. I love you because I have no fear. I’m sorry you’ve been told you can’t express yourself. You can. I promise. Have a great day!”

Jesus, betrayed by his disciples and turned in by his own people, terrified of the Empire crashing down on them as they had before, is hauled before Pilate, governor of Judea, who’d come into Jerusalem from his resplendent seaside property to remind those gathered for the subversive festival of Passover, a celebration of liberation from another Empire, whose boot they were under. Pilate seems baffled, even amused, and clearly expects his presence will be enough to cow Jesus into blubbering submission.

But Jesus does not respond that way at all. The scene is heavy with irony. His tone is impossible to gauge. It’s easy to read contempt. But it could also be a tone similar to Alok’s, a calm refusal to be humiliated.

In a post titled “Grammar Lessons,” Alok writes, “My first word was irony. Growing up a boy, they called me too feminine. When I finally claimed femininity as my own, they called me a man. These are grammar lessons: some of us are only allowed to be thought, never to think.”

Jesus didn’t have worth in the eyes of Pilate or Empire. He was only allowed to be thought. And yet here, he proves that he can think. And to his credit, Pilate seems intrigued by this, asking, “What is truth?” although he doesn’t stick around to hear the answer. Instead, he becomes profoundly unsettled the more he learns about Jesus.

The refusal of oppressed peoples to be confined always does that to Empires. It happened before Pharaoh and now it’s happening before Pilate and will continue to happen until the world runs out of either Empires or humanity.

Alok writes, “Being nonbinary is about embracing my fluidity. My becoming. My journey without fixed destination.” Perhaps that’s one reason why trans and gender-nonconforming people are murdered constantly. To small-minded tyrants, that is the only way to deny us that fluidity, the only way to make us freeze in place.

How sadly mistaken they are, in light of the story of Jesus, for God through Jesus embodies the most sacred truth of what it means to be trans: the inability to be frozen in place. Jesus is born a boundary-breaker, divinity taking human form, and for his whole ministry, he broke down walls. Here, in the space between Pilate and Jesus, oppressor and oppressed, ruler and subject, bully and victim, God starts the work of breaking the boundaries between life and death.

And now the real work begins. Those of us who are trans have to be brave and live into the holiness of being trans-formers, radiating the beauty of in-betweenness. We have to love ourselves because as long as we exist, we embody a kaleidoscopic world of beauty and freedom, refuting all that refuses diversity as unkempt and uncontrollable. We prove God’s fullness. We are an outward sign of the inward grace of reconciliation.

There are lots of practical things allies can do like sharing and respecting pronouns, speaking out against transphobia and transmisogyny, and challenging unjust legislation that oppresses trans people. But you can also help us by doing what we’re doing: loving and leaning into the parts of yourself that defy convention. The more you shine, the brighter the whole world becomes.

And so we remember those taken from us, but we do so knowing that those who murder and abuse and oppress thought they were throwing rocks into a pond. Little did they know they were throwing stars into the sky. Little did they know that those who come after will use those stars to guide their way across oceans of their own seeking and struggle. Little would they have ever suspected that these deaths they hoped would intimidate only gave the rest of us a cloud of holy witnesses, a galaxy of saints.

Little do they know that in the aftermath of the Christ, death no longer freezes anything in place.

As Alok says, “What if this world was just one draft? What if everything could be rewritten? …There are ideas we haven’t considered yet. Feelings we haven’t encountered yet. Love we haven’t surrendered to yet. “Yet” is the most wondrous word ever built. Let’s live there together.”

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