IMV is dedicated to protecting the rights of transgender people in our state, which is why we have joined with Freedom for All Massachusetts in campaigning to defend our current public accommodations law at the ballot box this November. Education is the critical factor in ensuring the opposition does not mislead and frighten the voters on this subject, which presents a special challenge in the current echo chamber-y climate. Our Deputy Chief, Esther Brownsmith, recently took an opportunity to share this message with her faith community, using her background in Divinities to build the biblical case for acceptance and love for our transgender neighbors. Below is the sermon she shared with us.
By Esther Brownsmith
I’d like to start by telling you a story that’s also a metaphor.
Once upon a time, there was an ugly duckling. It hatched from the same nest as the other ducklings, but the older that they grew, the more that they teased the ugly duckling for being different. Its feathers were pale grey, instead of fluffy yellow. Its beak was black, not pink. Its neck was long and strange. It was the ugliest duckling they had ever seen!
But of course, you and I know how this story ends: the “ugly duckling” was actually a swan all along. And one day, that swan realized what it had always been, and it spread its beautiful wings, and flew.
Today, I’m preaching to you as one of the ducklings in that story. When I was born, the doctor looked at me and said, “It’s a girl!” — and once I grew old enough, I knew that the doctor was right. Conveniently enough, I was a girl. And as a duckling, it was easy for me to assume that everyone else was a duckling, too.
But things weren’t as convenient for many of my friends. Their birth certificate said that they were ducklings, but they were actually beautiful swans. And because their gender was different from that initial assumption, they’re called “transgender” people, or simply “trans.”
I’d like to talk to you today about my trans friends, and about what the Bible says about how we should treat them.
Today’s Bible reading from Acts is about someone else who had people making a lot of assumptions, based on what was between his legs. We know him as the Ethiopian eunuch, and the apostle Philip encountered him on the road through the wilderness.
So what did it mean to be a eunuch in the ancient world? Well, when I did some research, I found that it depended on where you lived. In the Greek and Roman world, the world of the author of Acts, eunuchs as a group were oppressed and despised. Most were slaves, castrated against their will. “Everybody knew” that they were strange. Unclean. Broken.
But being a eunuch meant something else in the Middle East, the region that culturally influenced the Ethiopian. We know that eunuchs held top political positions in royal courts, and were often treated as a “third sex,” neither male nor female. Yes, eunuchs were still different, but that difference didn’t mean alienation.
So we have these two different views: the author, who saw eunuchs as unclean outsiders, and the Ethiopian, who saw them as just another group of people. Because of this, I’m going to do something a little unusual. Like the eunuch, women in the Bible are often unnamed, anonymous. So to give those women agency, feminist scholars will sometimes give them names. And in that spirit, I’m going to call our eunuch “Chairon” (χαίρων). It’s a Greek word from our passage, and it means, “the one who rejoices.”
Now, Chairon was a smart, literate bureaucrat. He probably knew the negative opinions that some people had about eunuchs. He’d heard that Romans thought it was “an ill-omened, ill-met sight” to meet a eunuch. He’d read that some Jewish scriptures forbade people like him from full citizenship in Israel. But despite all that, Chairon still traveled to Jerusalem. He still read those scriptures, seeking meaning in a community that had excluded him. And it’s on the wilderness road, in that in-between place of ambiguity, that Philip met him.
Imagine: Chairon is riding along, reading from his dusty scroll, and a man runs up and shouts at him. I wonder if the first thing he felt was fear. Trans people, and especially trans women of color, experience extraordinarily highrates of assault and murder — simply for being who they are. Yet despite his real fears, Chairon stops and speaks with Philip — and more than that, he invites Philip in to sit with him, side by side.
Sometimes I wonder if this invitation was also a test. “If you want to tell me what my scripture means, you have to be willing to get close to me first. You have to treat me as your equal.”
And Philip does. “Starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.”
But what was that good news? That’s where I want to focus now.
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter.” Chairon was reading from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. And soon after, in the 56th chapter, the Bible speaks to eunuchs directly. “To the eunuchs who … hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and … an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
It doesn’t matter whether your gender is what other people expect, the Scripture says. What matters is the commitment in your heart.
And that’s a message we see, over and over and over, in today’s readings. The Psalmist says, “The poor shall eat and be satisfied … All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” He says that God’s love is for everyone, stretching to the ends of the earth.
Then we get to our epistle, a beautiful passage that some of us may have heard quoted in wedding ceremonies. “God is love.” “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” God loves us, lavishly, unconditionally, and that love becomes visible when we love each other. It’s that simple.
But, of course, simple doesn’t mean easy. The passage continues, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. … Whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
So what’s the enemy of love? Fear. I’m reminded of Yoda’s famous saying in Star Wars: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Well, Yoda could have been reading 1 John, because our passage agrees. Immediately after it warns us about fear, it tells us: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.”
Fear leads to hate.
In Chairon’s story, both people had to overcome their fears. Philip had to overcome his society’s fear of people who were different. Chairon had to overcome his fear of a society that labeled him as different. Yet because they both overcame their fears, they were able to learn together about God’s love.
They recognized what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” All of us are branches on the same vine. All of us will die if we’re cut off from the rest.
A few weeks ago, I went to the food court with my friend Kaydin. As we sat together, eating our greasy fast food, he said, “You know, this was the first place I ever used the right bathroom in public.”
Can you imagine an entire life of being stuck in the wrong bathroom, surrounded by people of the opposite gender? Because that’s exactly what he experienced, up until he came out as trans. Because his birth certificate said he was a woman, he spent thirty years cut off from spaces with other men.
1 John says, “The branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine.” Study after study agree — they show that trans children and adults flourish, once they’re allowed to live out their true identity. What’s wrong with them isn’t that they’ve embraced their gender, any more than it was for Chairon. What’s wrong is a society that cuts them off from love.
Now, for some of us, even thinking about trans people may be a new thing. For others, we may be reconsidering or reconciling some assumptions. But I am grateful for the wonderful people here at Grace, and I am confident that many of us already know and believe what I’ve said: Trans women are women. Trans men are men. And some people are non-binary, fitting neatly into neither category. As Christians, we are called to treat them all with the same respect and dignity, the same love, as everybody else.
But if you know that, then you know that not everyone in this country agrees. Not everyone in Massachusetts agrees. Not everyone in Medford agrees.
Two years ago, this state passed laws that protected trans people’s human right to use public spaces. But as soon as those laws passed, a vocal hate group filed for a ballot question to take away those rights.
When I first heard about the anti-trans ballot question, I wasn’t worried. After all, Massachusetts is a wonderful, liberal state. But my former home of Houston was also a wonderful, liberal city. We voted for Democratic mayors for thirty-five years. And yet, in 2015, two thirds of the city voted to deny trans people equal rights. Why? Fear. And the same fear-mongering tactics that worked in Houston, the same deceptive TV ads and flyers and canvassers, are starting to flood Massachusetts right now.
We will be the first state in the country to vote on trans rights — and the side of love might not win.
Let me be honest. There’s one specific moment that led me to stand here, talking to you about this. I was looking at the website of that hate group, and on the top of their webpage was a section labeled, “For Pastors.” These people were using the Christian faith as a weapon to cut off trans people from community. And as a Christian, my heart broke to see it.
God is calling us to do better. As the scripture says, “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
All right. So we’ve got to love our fellow humans. That’s crystal clear. But what does it mean? Well, it means opening your heart to friendship, even with someone who seems very different. It means abundantly welcoming everyone who comes to this church, no matter who they are. Love means respecting another person: respecting their choices, respecting their boundaries, respecting their name and pronouns.
And what if we already do all that? Well, that kind of one-on-one kind of love is vital — but it’s also not always enough. We’re called to do more.
Chairon knew it, too. Even after Philip had sat with him, spoken with him, and shared the good news of God’s love, he still worried about the outside world. And when he learned that baptism was the way to publicly commit to his new beliefs, Chairon hesitated. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” he asks.
As a eunuch, was he allowed to take this public step? Was Philip really willing to jump into the water with him?
You know, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this question happened right at the same kind of place that’s used today to spread fear of trans people: the bathroom, the locker room, the changing room, the public places that feel most private. Let me explain the connection. According to ancient pictures and writings, early Christians were baptized in the nude. So in this outdoor “bath room,” Chairon would have been fully exposed to Philip: every part of what made him different, put on open display.
But you know what? Philip doesn’t waver at all. We don’t know what he’s thinking here; maybe he’s a feeling little nervous himself. But he still shows his love in his actions, and the two of them step straight into the water to be baptized. It’s one of the earliest moments of unconditional acceptance that we see in the early Church. Philip shows, in public, that Chairon has the same right to exist, the same right to join his community, as anybody else.
Today, there are groups fighting to put that same love into action around the trans ballot initiative. This is a movement with space for each of us to participate, and a representative from one group will be speaking at Grace this Wednesday. I encourage you all to come and find out about how you can get involved.
But here’s my good news: talking about trans acceptance doesn’t require fancy techniques and training. It’s actually pretty simple: sit down with someone, really listen to their fears, and then speak from your heart about what matters. It can feel scary at first — believe me, I know — but we are all branches on the same vine, all connected by God’s love. And we can use that security to reconnect our loved ones with the most marginalized people in our society: trans people, immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities, anyone we see being cut off from the rest of the world. Because fear may lead to hatred, but fear can be overwhelmed by love.
And one last thing. That message isn’t just for other people. I bet that everyone here has fears of our own. I know I do. So what do you fear? Who are you afraid of?
Some of our fears, like Chairon’s, are based on real threats: rejection, economic insecurity, physical violence. Other fears may only be in our minds, but that doesn’t make them any easier to ignore.
Yet this is the other side of Philip’s “good news.” 1 John tells us, “perfect love casts out fear.” And it goes both ways. We conquer fear not only by being loved, but by loving. Making the choice, in a world full of dangers, that we will love anyway—that we will live that love, just like Philip did, in our words and our actions.
And the more that we act with love toward those who need it most, the less we’ll be focused on our own fears, and the more that we can embrace God’s promises. This is our good news.
So yes, we all have fear. But we all also have the freedom to act: to cast out our own fear by choosing our next steps in love. The Scripture says, “No one has ever seen God. [But] if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”
Ducklings and swans alike, we are all connected. So may God’s love be perfected in us all.