A sermon by guest preacher Kat Lewis (they/them/theirs)
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN.
Holy Spirit to touch my lips, open our hearts & transform our lives. Amen. Please be seated.
When I was in preschool, my family moved to Cairo, Egypt. I remember those years of my childhood so fondly – I loved our group of international family friends, I loved the weather and landscape of Egypt, I loved speaking Arabic and eating Egyptian food. I was a part of a friend group that loved to gender-bend. We took pride in being tomboys and I loved to dress androgynously. Not androgynous as in the absence of gender, but androgynous as in a funky mix of masculine and feminine presentation to the extremes. I was obsessed with princesses and ball gowns, but I also wore my older brother’s hand-me-down clothes every day to school. When I was a kid, it felt like I was doing drag just by getting dressed every morning.
It was a huge culture shock when my family moved back to the United States in fifth grade. Getting dressed to go to school was no longer a fun expression of who I was. My classmates and school administrators pressured me to dress more feminine. Puberty’s dawn had not begun to reveal itself over the horizon of my body, but I remember getting made fun of for not shaving my leg hair or wearing a bra yet. I was so scared of puberty, I wished and wished to never get my period. It felt like my body was going to betray me and become something that no longer matched my spirit. I did not have the language to talk about or even conceptualize gender as a child, but my instincts were drawing me away from both girlhood and boyhood. Both options felt wrong to me.
College was a slow re-awakening of the joy I felt in queer gender expression as a child. In the first few years of college I was very involved in feminist spaces. However, I was always a little uncomfortable in them – hearing the slogan “the future is female” made my skin prickle because I couldn’t help but feel that is such a limiting view of the future. I want to dream of a world that is so much more than historically violent and colonial gender binaries. I do not want to have to keep fighting for agency within them. After thinking for years that the future I wanted to work towards was actually non-binary and not female, I realized that I myself am genderqueer. A huge part of me claiming my transgender identity was by re-connecting with my inner child. Before choosing an outfit for the day, I would imagine what 7-year-old Kat would have wanted their adult body to wear. When I was young, I dreaded the changes my body would go through during puberty, but I have since come to accept that my body is not my gender. My body was created to be a home to my genderqueer spirit.
Fluid performance of gender outside of the traditional Western gender binary is not a recent creation of either postmodern theorists or rebellious younger generations. Rather, fluid gender performances are found in various traditions and cultures across time. For better or for worse, biblical texts and literature have had a profound impact on Western society and how western societies view gender, bodies, and sexuality. There is an undeniable history of violence against queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people at the hands of western religious institutions, including Christianity. In the face of so much new anti-trans legislation in the United States, my reflections on Biblical texts and queerness has become a self-care project of sorts. I hope that sharing this sermon with you all today might have a similar effect, to find hope in each other and solidarity. Understanding the story of St. Philip and the Eunuch unsettles assumptions on what these texts say about gender and sexuality.
During the exile in Babylon, some of the Israelite men were forcibly castrated and became eunuchs in the king of Babylon’s palace (20 Kings 20:18). They were considered to be without a gender, neither men nor women. It is impossible to directly compare today’s transgender and non-binary people with eunuchs because eunuchs often did not consent to their castration and their resulting different gender status. During exile, the Israelites had to worry about survival and how to keep their faith alive while no longer having a temple to worship in and many of the priestly class had been killed. The texts we have in our Bibles today mostly come from the post-exilic period when the newly reunited community was trying to figure out how to recover from decisions made in exile. In Deuteronomy 23, eunuchs were prevented from accessing the temple and could no longer be a part of the community in the same way.
Today we listened to Acts 8, the story of St. Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. This story is one of a conversion experience, but also one of someone who desperately wants to worship but is turned away from the temple because of their body and their gender status. The eunuch is “Other” in many ways: Black, African, gentile, Ethiopian, without gender. Philip greets this eunuch and tells him about the Jesus movement, and the eunuch excitedly asks to be baptized. In his book “In the Margins: A Transgender Man’s Journey with Scripture,” Shannon T.L. Kearns writes “by claiming baptism, the eunuch throws open the doors of faith in Jesus to new people. They reimagine for everyone what this new Jesus movement could be and do. It’s a rewriting of the boundaries of who is in and who is out. It’s a radical reordering of the rules” (20).
For modern readers, stories about eunuchs resonate with transgender and non-binary narratives for a few different reasons. The structure of our world is set up to prioritize binaries in many different ways, including biological sexed binaries and gender binaries. When non-binary people proudly proclaim their truth, we are met with pushback and a lack of understanding. We are told that our pronouns aren’t “grammatically correct” or they are too hard to remember, especially if our bodies still “look” male or “look” female. To live outside of Western binaries, or move between them, is a beautifully unique experience of humanity. Kearns poses the questions,
“What does it cost us to honor another person’s experience and identity? What does it cost us to use the name and pronouns that are correct? What does it cost us to offer empathy even if we lack understanding? … On the flip side, what does our lack of honoring others cost? Our refusal to use correct names and pronouns? Our refusal to offer empathy? The cost is deadly, but cisgender people are not the ones to pay it… the cost is paid by the very people who cannot afford to pay it… We are told that we need to be recognizable to cisgender people, that we need to conform so as not to make other people confused or uncomfortable” (21).
Gender binaries do not just harm transgender and genderqueer people. There is a larger picture of gendered expectations that is dangerous for all of us. From men who refuse to see doctors because they do not want to admit that they need help, to women that are not believed by doctors and whose reproductive decisions are controlled by misogynistic institutions, to trans folks who struggle to get access to any health care at all, the system of gender binaries impacts everyone’s physical health on a daily basis. Gender also impacts our mental health. Suicide rates of trans kids are astronomically higher than their cisgender peers, not because being trans makes you depressed, but because living in a world that isn’t built for you takes a significant toll. Men are told not to express their emotions, women are expected to shoulder an incredible amount of domestic and emotional responsibilities. The harmful impacts of rigid gender and sexed binaries increase dramatically when racial discrimination is taken into account. Trans liberation would not just aide transgender people, it would bring about greater freedom, joy, and spiritual wholeness for everyone. In Isaiah 56, the prophet says:
“And let no eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.’ For this is what the Lord says: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.’”
I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. The Bible grapples with issues of gender and sexuality and does not land on one singular position; however, reading that the Lord will bring special praise and recognition to eunuchs invites us to think about what other bodily boundaries we have in our modern world that we need to overcome.
Dionne Stallworth, a trans edler and activist, writes:
“I exceeded my statistical life expectancy over 30 years ago. I remember that for the first time in my life, I have a family, a partner and a home. I remember there’s so many who are like me and are not as fortunate. So, where is my faith? Where did all this strength even come from? Then, I remember a line from my favorite movie: ‘If there is a God, He would exist on every mountain. He would exist in the heart of every man.’ …Pride reminds me that the fight goes on and victories today can be the new battlegrounds of tomorrow. My faith and my hope come from what I’ve seen and been through before. We will all win in the end. I truly believe that” (Pride, History and Faith).
Unsettling gender, both what we assume to be in the biblical texts and our current perceptions of gender, helps with the long-term goal of undoing cisheterosexism, white supremacy, and colonization. We have a duty to love and serve one another, to see that our fights for liberation and spiritual wholeness are interconnected. God’s love is universal and all-inclusive. Philip did not hesitate to jump into the water and baptize the Ethiopian eunuch. He did not think about the eunuch’s gender or race before welcoming him into the Jesus movement, or ask church authorities if it would be okay before accepting him as a partner in worship. Taking from Philip’s example, how might we cast aside the harmful boundaries and prejudices we have been taught to uphold and maintain? How wonderfully connected we might feel if we release ourselves from acting conventionally and push ourselves to do acts of radical, liberating love? How much more could we know ourselves, our body-minds, and our spirits?