Sermon: Pride Sunday 2017

By Logan Rimel

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, God, my strength and my Redeemer.

Good morning. Some of y’all are probably wondering who on earth I am, and that’s fair. I attended Sunday services here somewhat irregularly for several months about a year and a half ago. I fell a little in love with this community, but unfortunately work and living circumstances have made it difficult for me to cross the Bay on Sunday mornings. But still, I’ve been very happily a part of the East Bay discipleship group for the past several months, and maintain my deep fondness for First Mennonite. When Sheri asked if I would give a reflection on Pride Sunday, I jumped at the chance to get back here.

Some of y’all might also be a little confused about me for reasons other than not knowing who I am, so let’s just get that out of the way. I’m trans….denominational. I’m nominally Episcopalian, but like so many other parts of my identity, my faith is bigger and more complicated than the words I could use to describe it. I’m also a trans…plant. I’m originally from Missouri, and came to reside in Berkeley through the Episcopal Service Corps, which is pretty similar to the MVS program here.

I’m also transgender. To put it simply, I was identified as a little girl when I was born, but now I know I’m a man. To put it less simply, I’m a genderfluid, nonbinary transmasculine person currently using “he/him/his” pronouns. My gender moves and breathes, expanding to new and unexplored places, then contracting back to a place of solidity and security. My gender identity is unstable, uncomfortable, and unsettling. Which, honestly, has been good practice for my life as a Christian. I set out to write a more “traditional” sermon for today, but what’ come out is a testimony. And I’ve decided to just go with it, because there’s power in transgender people of faith claiming our stories.

I was born in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. If you’ve ever seen the documentary Jesus Camp, then you’ve seen a little bit of my hometown. Unlike the Pentecostal youth in that movie, I was raised Roman Catholic, and went to Catholic school until I was in Junior High. At Our Lady of the Presentation, I chafed under the uniform rules, not wanting to wear the red, white, and black plaid skirts that girls had to wear. I mean, let’s be honest, they were also pretty awful and I doubt many of you would’ve wanted to wear them, either. One of the privileges of the directionality of my transition was that I only received a few comments and raised eyebrows when I quietly started wearing the “boys” uniforms to school everyday.

I was about 7 years old when I realized that I wouldn’t grow up to be a boy, and man, that was disappointing. I remember the day vividly, playing a game of imagination with my little brother and cousins. I was pretending to be a boy, and I caught sight of myself in the mirror, my waist-length blonde hair was suddenly offensive to me. I knew that no one was fooled by my pretending, and they never would be. I cried, but I didn’t explain why to my bewildered playmates. I knew that I shouldn’t, even then.

“Transgender” wasn’t a word that I had access to, my imagination limited by my context. I resigned myself to being a girl, kind of like “well, what can you do?” I wanted to be a priest like my fellow students wanted to be firefighters and veterinarians, but knew that it was impossible for me. And when I started talking about becoming a nun – the next logical conclusion – well, that’s about the time when my parents pulled me out of Catholic school. As I got older, I knew that I was different than other girls and I had this sense that I was failing at doing something. I just couldn’t get comfortable in my skin or in my clothes, and both boys and girls held me at arm’s length in their still gender segregated friend groups.

Our identities are squishy, and we use the words we have, because even having words that aren’t quite right is better than having none at all. If you’re starving, any food will do, and if you don’t see yourself reflected anywhere, the first glimpse of something familiar feels like coming home. And that’s how I came out as a lesbian when I was 15. Now, I’d had a born-again experience a few years prior, and had started worshiping at a conservative, non-denominational Evangelical church, much to my Catholic mother’s chagrin. I don’t remember ever discussing homosexuality at this church, but we didn’t have to. It was intuitive enough to me that I’d no longer be welcomed if and when I went public. So I stopped going. The internet wasn’t what it is today, but I did find Gay Christian networks and websites during my angsty Googling. It didn’t matter, really. The arguments and walls of text from these 2003-era webpages couldn’t defend me from the cultural and spiritual shame I felt. The knowledge that I was wrong was too deep, and the message was too present in my daily life. The calls were coming from inside the house. I stopped praying at all, except to ask God for one thing: to change me. And God was silent.

Sometime during my senior year of high school, I stopped believing in God and started picking fights with every religious person I knew. I was the militant atheist, angry in a way that you can only be if you feel you’ve been betrayed. Looking back, I don’t think I would say I “lost my faith” so much as I put on a tourniquet. I cut off part of myself so I could stay alive.

I went to college 1300 miles from home, helped found the Atheist League, and wrote for our publication, the Godlessness Quarterly. I also, inexplicably, majored in Religious Studies. I wanted to know the Bible and the history of Christianity better than anyone. I wanted to be armed, to use this knowledge as a weapon of self-defense. I would never feel shame like that again. “Don’t come at me with a clobber passage, bro, or you’re gonna get a ten minute lecture on original Greek, the sexual mores of temple sex workers or cultural roles of women in early Israelite communities.”

It was during these same first few years of college that I started meeting transgender and nonbinary people of all stripes. There, there was that glimpse in the mirror again, that indescribable feeling of being known, of being familiar, even with strangers. I know you. I know you.

I started coming out as transgender when I was 19, slowly, slowly. I was Logan and Loghann – yes, my parents named me Loghann – the convert and the unconverted at the same time. Paul moonlighting as Saul, I guess you could say. That couldn’t hold up for long, because to come into contact with a life-giving truth is to be compelled to follow it. I had new words for my queerness and I could see a life that seemed livable for the first time. I never could look ahead into the future before I named myself – it just didn’t seem possible that I’d live very long. And now I had a future, and that future drew me toward it. By the time I was 21, I was living full-time as a man.

It was about this same time that I started feeling doubtful that I was an atheist. I remember it culminating one night, sitting with some friends in a car outside of a campus dorm. The green numbers on the clock lit up 11:11, and I forced all of my friends to make a wish, something I always did at 11:11 as a child. Then I made all of us go around and say what we wished for. It was in that moment, talking about our wishes, that I realized that the form, the texture of my wish was different than everyone else’s. I wasn’t wishing. I was praying. Crap. Inconvenient.

Graduation came and went, and now I had a BA in Religion and no real prospects. I joined the Episcopal Service Corps because it seemed like a good way to get some professional experience, but also because I thought it was time to sort out this whole God thing. I didn’t know anything about the Episcopal church except people called it “Catholic light,” and I figured it’d at least be somewhat familiar. I entered my first year at St. Hilda’s House in New Haven, CT with the jumpy suspicion of a queer young adult still reeling from spiritual shame. I wasn’t a Christian, I just knew that maybe God was real? And maybe wanted something from me?

This was how I found myself, months later, in a 150 year old church at 2:30 in the morning, praying alone. I was part of the crew that stayed up all night between the end of service on Maundy Thursday and the beginning of the noon o’clock service on Good Friday. For hours at a time I was alone in this huge, beautiful, incense filled church, meditating and praying. I was thinking about the word “apocalypse” and how it means “lifting of the veil, ” and that in the Orthodox church the last book of the Bible is called “The Apocalypse of John” instead of “Revelation.” And I asked God, earnestly, to show me the truth at the end of the world.

And I felt it. I felt warm and loved. And I had the deep knowledge that I’d already lived through the end of the world. God said, “I made you queer. Your queerness undid the world. It was a gift I gave you. I called you into this life, and I love you.”

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

My faith isn’t about the right argument. My faith isn’t about Greek or Hebrew or being able to wrestle with apologetics. Truly, I’ve felt the presence of the Living God, who made me and called me “good.” At the core of who I am, underneath every part of me that I can name or glimpse or have words for, I am good. My gender is a vocation given by God and it is good. And that is animating, that is life-giving, that is the future that compels me toward it.

I’ve not been to any kind of public Pride celebration since 2010. Pride celebrations, as they are, just haven’t been my thing. And I’m not up here to humblebrag or to pass judgment on Pride celebrations, parades, and parties, and certainly not folks who like to go. The truth of the matter is that I’m a grumpy introvert and I don’t like crowds. Or being hot. Or loud noises. Really, it’s just better for everyone involved if I keep my wet blanket presence at home on such a nice summer day. So I don’t have much to say about Pride celebrations as we usually think of them.

But this, this basic human goodness, I do have something to say about. Pride has gotten a bad rap, particularly in Christian history. CS Lewis, in his seminal text Mere Christianity called Pride “the essential vice, the utmost evil” and names it as the opposite of the chief Christian virtue, Humility. He says “anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind…it is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.”

The thing is, I don’t think he’s wrong, not under his definition of Pride. Pride, to CS Lewis and to so many other Christian writers and thinkers, is self-aggrandizing and inherently competitive. It is the need to be better than others. It is liberal smugness. It is conservative judgment. It assumes that my position, my self-acceptance, is possible only through the subjugation of yours. It is…absolutely not what today is about. For the queer community, Pride celebrations are actually about that chief Christian virtue, Humility.

The word “humility” means “low to the ground,” and it comes from the same word we get “humus” or “earth” from. To be humble is to know your earthiness, your creatureliness. Your createdness. And you were created good. I once heard queer pride described as “the force you must expel outward to keep from being crushed.” That is humility. To know that you are good, and that at your core, there is no external pressure or internal shame that can take that from you.

This is a gift for all of us. When folks say, “Where’s our straight pride parade?” that’s both frustrating and understandable. It’s the confusion and conflict of these two meanings of “Pride.” The folks who say that are fearing subjugation, but they don’t realize that what’s asked of them is to take responsibility for their own goodness. Because the gift of goodness, of queerness, is for all of us. It’s the idea that we have worth and dignity and goodness. It’s God asking Ananias to pray with Saul and when Ananias says, “Saul?! I hate that guy. That guy succcks.” and God says “Yo, just trust me on this. You don’t get to call him not good, and I’m gonna do something powerful with him.” And Ananias says, “Alright, Brother Saul it is” because God made Saul good. That’s humility. That’s pride. That’s basic goodness.

It can be hard right now to feel proud, about really anything. Our elected leaders are threatening the healthcare of millions to benefit the wealthiest. We are constantly reminded that the live video recordings of the death of black people can be consumed as a grisly spectacle, but cannot convict a killer. That the testimony of women, even dozens of women, is belittled and not believed. That the lives of trans women of color are not considered worth preserving by so
many. And we don’t know what to do. We are oppressed, oppressor, and complicit. And we feel shame.

It is hard, in the midst of all of this, to assert our worthiness. But I challenge us to take this moment. To take this day. And to know that you are good. Your neighbor is good. Creation is good. Your whole self is good and your healing is paramount to the world’s healing. Anything that demeans the dignity of our whole selves or the goodness of others is worth resisting. We are good. And we are worth fighting for.

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