Our Sermon for November 20, 2016: Holding the Cup in the Time of Trial, Col. 1:11-20 and Luke 22:33-43
Holding The Cup In The Time of Trial
"Everything about my life is better than I could have dreamed." So, says the then almost-Reverend Malcolm Himschoot in the 2004 film that tells part of his life story, Call Me Malcolm. Now ordained and serving in the national setting of the United Church of Christ, at the time this film was made, Malcolm was in his mid-20's and finishing seminary, engaged, preparing to be ordained and begin his first call as a pastor. While you might not be surprised to hear a young adult at such a time in his life express this level of optimism, if you watch the rest of the film or happen to have the opportunity to hear Malcolm talk about his earlier life, you might not have expected him to be able to express such joy about his present or his future. You see, when Malcolm was younger, he was not so optimistic. By the time he was 21, he was actually thinking of ending his own life. He said that when he came to the point when he decided not to kill himself, after that, he just had to decide what to do to help himself live. That meant creating his life in the image that he knew was true. That meant coming into himself as Malcolm.
When he was born, because of how his body looked, his family thought he was a girl. He was given a name that is usually given to girls and treated as a daughter and sister. He grew up in a small town in Colorado and was part of a religious community with a very rigid sense of what were men's roles and what were women's roles. There was very little overlap between the two. As he grew older, he began to be pushed into the increasing separated spheres of girlhood and boyhood. He chafed against the life he was supposed to be living even as he found friends and activities to enjoy: theater, church potlucks, good preaching, baseball, hiking in the mountains near where he grew up. Something in his life never felt right. He described his life up until he was around 20 as a tomb experience. Even as he graduated high school and went away to college... even as he changed churches and a pastor saw potential in him for ministry... even then, he felt bound, like tomb clothes had enveloped him, impeding his movement and growth.
Rolling away the stone from his tomb took some time. I won't go into all the details that he shares in the movie because you should go watch it yourself. The shorter version of this journey into life started with finding friends in the LGBT community. Then, he learned about transgender identity. Then he found stories that seemed more like his own. Then he found a support network of men who were making transitions similar to his own. His church supported him. His seminary supported him. His new friends supported him. In the film, he told a great story about the first time he shared his new name, Malcolm, with a friend right before class. He whispered in her ear, "I'm going by Malcolm now." She said ok and started the process of trying to remember his new name. Moments later, he was called on in class to begin a presentation. The professor used his old name. Malcolm said, "I'm going by Malcolm now." His professor rolled with it and invited Malcolm up to begin. It those two moments, people heard his needs and responded to him with care. It was one more step to shaking off those tomb clothes and pushing away that stone.
The movie was made about three years after Malcolm officially began transitioning. As you might imagine, it didn't all go as smoothly as that first public announcement of his new name. Even three years into his renewed life, some of his family struggled to call him by his new name and refer to him with the appropriate gender. One of friends said that it easier for that friend if Malcolm had died rather than transitioned into his true gender. Others asked Malcolm, to his face, who he imagined would ever want to date or fall in love with a person like him. All of this was on top of the more mundane struggles with insurance companies, the department of motor vehicles, and the cable company to get the proper name on all of his paperwork.
In the letter to the Colossians, the writer hoped to shore up the church's faith by describing the utter transformation he believed Christians undergo when they began to follow Christ. He offered a prayer for the people of the church, beginning with these words: "May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from Jesus' glorious power." Knowing that some in this community felt threatened, the author prayed that they would remember that God called them to be inheritors of the light. He prayed for their patience and endurance. He hoped that they would remember that God was always in the process of saving them, rescuing them from that which would destroy them. When I hear Malcolm's story, I hear bits of this endurance and strength that he found wrestling with his calling from God and wrestling with creating a renewed life. His cousins welcomed him with open arms, calling him by his name at a wedding and inviting him to catch the garter belt with the other bachelors. His mother, who was still struggling, did give him advice on how to purchase his first tie. His family, even the ones who weren't sure that his transition was appropriate, came to his ordination and cried tears of joy with his church. God had made him strong, and was making his family stronger, calling them to transform, too. That's what Jesus does... changes you, or at least, helps you change yourself. My hunch is that their journey together, with God, was not complete.
In one striking conversation in the film, Malcolm is interviewing an actress and dancer named Calpernia Addams. After they talked about transitioning and supporting people who are in transition, Malcolm asked her what she thought he could do as a minister in the church for transpeople like themselves. Calpernia asked him to find a way to "bring the love and sensitivity in concept of God to the people who really need it." She did not feel like she had that in the church of her childhood. In fact, at the time of this interview, she felt so scarred by the kind of religion that she had encountered that she didn't feel like she could ever regain a sense of connection to a religious institution or even to God. She found far more love and meaning in dance clubs and drag shows than she found in churches. Still, she did seem heartened that Malcolm had found that love in church. She even came to his ordination.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus, nearing his death, grew fearful. He asked his friends to pray with him. He asked God to remove the cup from him... but he also was willing to go through trial if something greater would come from it. Scripture reports that an angel from heaven came and gave him strength. Jesus was not the only one who went through a time of trial. In the film, Malcolm described his time of trial in a couple ways. He said that he once struggled with the question of why God would create him the way he was and then not help others to see him more clearly and know his truth. He also spoke of shifts in his relationship with the Bible. His understanding of Scripture, and of the journey of faith, matured so that he would come to understand his transition like the struggles of Jacob with the Divine. He said if you don't wrestle, you don't get the blessing. Now, he feels like his life is the blessing. He sees the transitions, all of them, as beautiful, in the same way that the Grand Canyon is beautiful. It may look like destruction and erosion, but he says, it was really creation. Sounds to me like God's messengers gave him some strength, too.
One of the last things Malcolm says in the film is that when he thinks about the future, he generally anticipates good things. What a change from being on the brink of suicide... from feeling as though you are living in tomb... from thinking that the cup you inherited will only drown you. Imagine the power of deciding in one moment that you want to live and then being able to construct a life, with God, that helps you live fruitfully. Creating this life will not be without struggle. Some changes will be very hard. Some people you have trusted will not show up to support you. But, others will. And, the ones who are afraid might come around. If they don't, it won't be your fault. You will know that you have found life. You have been made strong. You have been given then patience to create and endure the transformation. You have been rescued from the tomb and brought out into the sun. May we all learn that we can be so transformed. And, may we help transform this world, with God's help, to make it safer for all God's children.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Frank Crouch: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3083
Miriam Kamell: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1849
To watch the film Call Me Malcolm, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sh4Pv10lFyc
To learn more about being transgender, please visit:
Trans people, particularly trans women of color, are often targeted for violence. Here is a list, likely incomplete, of trans people who were killed in the last year.
If you would like to offer some concrete financial support for people in transition, please visit the Trans Relief Project: https://transrelief.com/
If you are trans and in crisis, know that you are a beloved child of God and you are not alone. Please call the Trans Lifeline: 1.877.565.8860
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.