Earlier this fall, Donna Kummer performed in the band for a theatrical version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I knew I had to see it. And, now that my kids were older, I thought they ought to see this cult classic too. The four of us bought our tickets.
But on the weekend of the show, Jay had to travel out of town for work. So I thought, “why not invite my dad.” Obviously I didn’t think this through.
So there I was, sandwiched between my kids and my dad, as the play unfolded. Newly engaged Brad and Janet arrived at the home of Transylvanian transvestite Frank N Furter. And then came the moment when Frank N Furter separately went first to Janet and then to Brad for sex. By the time Janet sang “Touch-a, touch-a, touch me,” I was ready to Time Warp myself out of there.
Of all the scenes in the play, why did that one of Frank N. Furter with Janet and then Brad feel so uncomfortable to watch with my dad and children?
For if you know the show, then of course you can imagine all the other scenes that might be cringe worthy; no more so than the one in which Frank N. Furter hacked Eddie to death. It was violent. But none of us flinched. In our culture we struggle more with the display of sexuality than with the display of violence. What does that say about us?
This discomfort with sexuality came to the fore this fall, as throughout our country people and legislators debated transgender rights. This debate came to Wisconsin this week as the Assembly took up consideration of AB469, a bill which would prohibit transgender students from using school facilities that match their gender expression.
Representative Kremer, the sponsor of the bill, claimed the bill only protects children from predators. But in reality, we’ve never had any reports of transgender people assaulting people in bathrooms. By suggesting that transgender people are a predatory threat, Kremer added to the bais already prevalent in our culture.
And that bias - transphobia - affects the lives of people in our city. Last year Karis Anne Ross, a transgender teacher, committed suicide after a decade of bullying at the school where she taught. The bullying came from the three aides assigned to help Ross teach special education children. Despite reaching out to school officials, her torment was ignored until she could take it no longer. Our legislators ought to protect people from the real bullying and violence happening in our society instead of distracting themselves with fearful fantasies.
But of course this is not the first bill Representative Kremer introduced. Last month, after a gunman killed nine people at an Oregon Community College, Kremer introduced a bill that would force colleges to allow the concealed carrying of weapons on campus. The law would allow anyone to carry a weapon into Camp Randall.
So basically, Kremer wants to make sure students can conceal their weapons but not their biological sex. Kremer must think to himself, “guns don’t kill people; boys in bras do.”
The rising tide of transphobia can’t be separated from our cultural discomfort with sexuality. Our broad discomfort allows people like Kremer to pedal discriminatory legislation.
We need to think about this in the light of our spiritual tradition. Within Christianity, we call this Sunday, “Christ the King Sunday.” We remember Jesus as our king, messiah, and lord. And of course we remember that Jesus was a completely different king than those we know in the world.
The unique way of Jesus came out in our responsive reading from Philippians. There Paul gave a summary of Jesus: though equal to God, he emptied himself of privilege and power, took on the most vulnerable existence, suffered, and was vindicated by God. It’s a riches to rags to redemption story.
Paul doesn’t tell us this because it’s an interesting factoid; but because this way of Jesus is meant to be our way too. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Just as Jesus gave up power and privilege, embraced vulnerability, and made a difference, we’re to do the same as Jesus.
One of the great challenges of our spirituality is to follow Jesus in this movement from privilege to vulnerability to transformation. Can we imagine it?
Joseph’s story can help. We heard the beginning of his story as our first reading today - his brothers became jealous of the special coat his father gave him and they beat him up before selling him into slavery. Do you remember what came next? Joseph, as a slave, went to Egypt, where he eventually rose to prominence and freedom by working for the Pharaoh. He stored grain when harvests were plentiful so that he could feed the nation when famine struck. The famine even caused his brothers to seek help in Egypt. They didn’t recognize Joseph when they came to beg for food but he knew them instantly. After toying with them a bit, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and forgave their violence against him.
While the outline of this story may be familiar, I want to focus our attention on a forgotten aspect of it. I’m not talking about Joseph building the pyramids. Instead, I care about the coat. Our translation called it a long coat with sleeves but you might remember it as a “coat of many colors.” Or, as the play has it, “the amazing technicolor dreamcoat.”
None of these translations capture the sense of what this coat represented. Its an uncommon Hebrew word, one with a specific meaning. The word appears again in a story of King David and his daughter Tamar: he gave her the same kind of coat. In other words, Joseph wore a “princess coat.”
Jacob - the Bible’s first metrosexual - accepted his son’s gender expression. Loving his son, he gave him a princess coat. But the brothers couldn’t stand it. They watched him dressed as a woman. “There goes Josephine,” they muttered. And perhaps he just wanted to be called “Jo.” The anger of the brothers kindled against Jo. How dare Jo wear a princess coat!
One day their disgust turned to violence. Led by Judah, the brothers found Jo, beat Jo, and threw Jo in a grave. What happened here to 17 year old Jo was just about what happened to 17 year old Mercedes Williamson. Mercedes lived in rural Mississippi. She lived on the couch of a friend’s trailer. (I’ve worked with homeless youth enough to know this couch-surfing meant Mercedes was homeless). This past May she went to met a friend, saying as she always did, “love ya later.” But Mercedes never returned; at some point that day she crossed paths with Josh Brandon Vallum, a man who knew Mercedes was a transwoman. He killed her and hid her body in a pit all because she, like Jo, wore the “wrong” clothes.
Jo survived her attackers, who then sold Jo into slavery. The brothers completely abandoned Jo, who, like too many vulnerable LGBT youth, ended up ensnared by human trafficking.
But Jo’s story didn’t end there: the slave traders brought Jo to Egypt, where, as I said, Jo quickly rose to prominence in the court of the Pharaoh. Jo explained later to the brothers, “you sold me into slavery; but God went with me.” Now I’m not sure I could have gotten to this place of peace in my heart, but Jo looked back in life to see God was ever-present. Down in the pit, in the journey of slavery, in the rise to power in Egypt: Jo knew God journeyed through every moment.
One of the earliest names for Jesus was Emmanuel, God-with-us. In the Philippians reading, Paul spoke of Jesus taking on the “form of a slave.” Jesus identified with the very poor, the oppressed, and the abused. Jesus, Emmanuel, was God-With-the-Poor. Jesus’ life witnessed to the incredible, eternal commitment of God to be Emmanuel.
The commitment of God to be with the poor didn’t start with Jesus; countless people in the Bible experienced God with them at their lowest moments - God with Abraham as he left his family to start a new life, God with Ruth in her courageous loyalty, God with Esther in her risky gamble against injustice, and of course, God with Joseph. And that commitment of God didn’t end with Jesus either. I’m sure God was with Mercedes as she faced her end.
There’s not a question in my mind about God - God is with-the-vulnerable. The question is: are we?
Our congregation became Open and Affirming nearly 25 years ago; 25 years of publicly welcoming LGBT people into the life and leadership of our congregation and advocating for LGBT civil rights in the broader community. We’ve seen a lot of success.
But one of the great growing edges - in the church and in society - concerns transgender people. Over the last few years we’ve seen amazing strides for same-sex marriage. But at the same time it feels like there is an increasing intolerance of transgender people; sometimes it comes across in violent hate-crimes (with homicides doubling this year over last) and other times in legislation that demeans transgender people as dangerous perverts lurking in bathrooms.
So our challenge is to be where God already is: with people struggling with oppression, violence, and poverty. To me this means taking a stand in support of transgender rights. To remember people like Karis Anne Ross, bullied to the point of suicide. How different her story could have been if people stood with her against her tormentors. And to remember people like Mercedes Williamson, tragically killed out of hatred. How different her story could have been if people stood up across the community to embrace and welcome transgender people, leaving no room for hatred.
Representative Kremer thinks no voters will stand with the transgender community; he thinks he can be discriminatory and demeaning. But I hope this week he and your state legislators hear from you: we stand with transgender people.
And in this way, we can be true to the Gospel challenge “to look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” May the same mind be in us as was in Christ Jesus. Alleluia and Amen.