A few weeks ago, Caitlyn Jenner publically announced that despite our previous understanding of her, she is in fact, a woman. She altered her physical appearance and her manner of dress so that her outside could more closely match who she is…so that when she looks in the mirror, she recognizes herself. She made this bold transition in a very public way, and given the trajectory of her life to that point, I’m not certain she could have done it privately.
And, Lord have mercy, has she paid for it. She’s been bashed by media, subjected to overt sexism (as though her identity as a woman gave everyone the right to comment over her physical appearance, to make her a sex symbol or a comedy act), verbally abused by people who have never once shared conversation with her. Memes have circulated which call her out of her name, dehumanize her, make fun of her family, insist upon referring to her as a man...if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you might Google search “Caitlyn Jenner memes”, but I promise you, the gall will likely rise into your throat and leave you nauseous and angry.
You know, this kind of abuse and subjugation is so very very common in the lives of Transgender people, and indeed in the lives of Two-Spirit, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people (and sometimes even in the lives of our allies). If our existence might “make someone uncomfortable” we are advised to be quiet about our very selves. Woe to the LGBT person who refuses to remain silent. He or she or they risk alienation from family, ridicule from society, rejection from the church.
Last week a transphobic, hate-filled meme (an internet picture with words super imposed) began to circulate. It showed a U.S. Army soldier who has lost both of his legs in combat side by side with Caitlyn and the words were nothing short of disgusting and hateful, but in nutshell, the meme suggested that the soldier was blown apart in the Middle East to give Caitlyn the freedom to become a woman. The last sentence of the meme said, “Guess which man made the cover of Vanity Fair, was praised for his courage by President Obama and is to be honored with the ‘Arthur Ashe Courage Award’ by ESPN?” (Now, listen, this is important: I believe there are many kinds of courage. Caitlyn Jenner’s courage does not make the soldier’s courage insignificant. Nor does the soldier’s courage nullify Caitlyn’s. There is more than one way to be courageous in this life.) The super dangerous part about this meme is that the writer was not some no-name coward, he’s a well-known Hollywood type which makes his venom all the more damaging simply because of the privilege of his verbal reach. In other words, people listen to this guy because he’s managed to “make it” in popular culture.
The treatment Caitlyn Jenner has received at the mouths of society isn’t remarkable. What is remarkable is her willingness to allow her life to be made public so that others may learn from it. During her acceptance speech for the ESPY award for courage, she said, “If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead. Because the reality is…I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.”
Courageously, she’s allowed herself to be used as a lightning rod for the wrath of a society…and for a church…which, remarkably, two thousand years later, still hasn’t learned that there’s a place at the table for everyone. That God finds value and indeed great delight in the outsider….that for God, all distinctions between good and bad lie not in identity or sexual orientation or skin color but rather lie in behavior.
In the lesson for today from the letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes to a church largely composed of Gentiles, and it seems that perhaps, they’ve forgotten just where they’ve come from. Initially the church was composed of two separate groups, Gentiles and Jews. One group was considered outsiders, the other insiders. These two groups of people were separated not only in terms of their beliefs… their identity as they understood it…but they allowed their understanding of themselves to separate them one from another. Each group rejected the other. They would not allow one “of them” to sit at their own tables.
But Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus is chock-full of the good news that God has brought these two groups of people together. “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” But here’s the part that we often miss, the breaking down of the dividing wall brings unity, right? But it does not demand uniformity…it does not require that we all be the same! Paul goes on, “(Jesus) reconcile(s) both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” Nowhere in this passage does it suggest that one group is more valued by God, that one group is better, that one group is wrong, that one group has to deny their identity…their very being…for this reconciliation. No. Both groups are welcomed into the expansive Body of Christ that each person, marvelously made, may take part in God’s continuing story of renewal and re-creation in the world.
Through the cross, the dividing wall that separated both groups is removed. And Jesus leaves us with a new commandment, “Love one another.” And this is where my all time ever favorite meme comes into play. In it, Jesus says, “OK, so here’s what I want you to do. Love others just as I have loved you. Take care of them and don’t judge them.” And the disciples ask, “But what if they’re gay? Or worship other gods? Or don’t worship any god?” Jesus responds, “DID I STUTTER?”
The Creator looks at this creation, at the wide variety and diversity of this beloved creation, and declares us, all of us, “very good”. In the cross of Jesus of Nazareth, we are reconciled to one another…we are compatible, we are called to live in harmony…not from a place of changing our neighbor so that we feel comfortable…but from a place where we can celebrate the wide imagination and creative action of God in our own lives, in the lives of our neighbors, and in all the world.
Jesus calls us to “Love one another.” Which should be easy enough. After all, through him we “are no longer strangers and aliens, but we are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” We are one in Christ!
We are called to love one another. To love our neighbor. To celebrate the diversity of creation. To find value in those whom God has called “very good”…which is all of us. Even, or especially, Caitlyn Jenner.