What’s This Cross Stuff?

First Church UCC, Middletown, CT, April 2, 2023

First Reading:                                                                                                Matthew 21: 1-17 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 

“Tell the daughter of Zion,  Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 

The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, 

“Hosanna to the Son of David!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” 

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, 

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;

but you are making it a den of robbers.”

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 

But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,  ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there. 

Second Reading:                                                                                          Matthew 26:36-46

 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

On Friday evening, I often watch the Shabbat Service from Central Synagogue in NYC.  I expect that if I were a Jew, this worship space would feel like my “home congregation”.  In this time when I can’t attend my own church, it’s often been the space where I could simply be a worshipper.  

This Friday, there was a naming ceremony.  A young trans man, a high-school junior or senior,  was receiving a more appropriate Hebrew name, marking his journey.  In the middle of the blessing, the officiating rabbi’s voice broke.  He’d known the young man all his life, had celebrated his growth into his Jewish faith and also this passage into his deepest identity.  

And yes, on the Trans Day of Visibility, that rabbi, the young man, and indeed everyone watching, knew just how dangerous that young man’s journey is in our world today.  Surrounded by a loving faith community, surrounded by three generations of his family, Cooper Hartog is known now as who he is, and he’s safer in himself.   But living truly as a trans person today is not safe, never safe.

Jesus came into Jerusalem two thousand years ago, surrounded by those who knew him, followed, him, loved him, called him their rabbi, their leader.  They laid on him all their expectations – that he would heal the sick and raise the dead… that he would drive out the despised Romans and reinstitute the beloved rule of the descendants of David.  Some of his followers were already planning their new homes, paid for with the money they’d make in this new day.  On that Palm Sunday, anyone in Jerusalem would have said that surely no one was safer than Jesus of Nazareth.

Five days later, he was dead, executed by the Roman authorities.

Jesus wasn’t executed because he was trans.  But like trans people, his existence challenged every one … not just the folks with whom he disagreed, but even the people who loved and supported him.  His existence challenged them because he called into question their deepest assumptions about right and wrong and ways to be.  And so I want us to understand just how it is that the triumphal entry of Sunday could turn into the execution on Friday.  

People who hate trans folks can come up with, have come up with their reasons, their explanations but I think that one major reason, one they’ll not acknowledge, is exactly the same reason Jesus was arrested.

They challenge, as he challenged, everything. 

Jesus challenged the assumptions of his world.  He challenged the assumption that safety was better than honesty…. that it was better to go along to get along than it was to wash your hands of evil.  He challenged the universal assumption that it’s better to have money and power…. and yes, it is better than starving on the street corner, but he suggested that was a false dichotomy – that it was NOT better to have more than enough than it was to have enough.  He said it was not true that the powerful, the rulers, were better human beings than the poor people who scratched out a living on their teeny-weeny farms.  In fact, he said that God blessed the poor more than the rich.  In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, he said 

. . . it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.

What you have is all you’ll ever get.

And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.

Your  self will not satisfy you for long.

And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games.

There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it

Trans people challenge all our assumptions about gender identity and what it means to be a woman or a man.  They challenge conservative assumptions about the limitations within which women are to live.  Their existence tells us that there is no longer one right way to be, to be male or female, husband, wife… and that scares the stuffing out of people.

Here’s the thing.  The danger that trans people live in?  It’s our danger,  the danger we all live in when we choose to follow God.  The danger that Jesus lived in?  That’s our danger too.  Because following Christ is dangerous stuff.  It’s not just that your friends will scoff when you admit you go to church, though they may.  When I say dangerous, I mean dangerous.

A year or so ago, Shawn Fiedler, who was then one of the pastors on the staff of the Old South Church in Boston, started posting funny videos on Tik-Tok, videos that promoted the welcome of the UCC.  The videos made it clear we welcomed gay people, that we believed in using our minds, that, gasp, we had women as pastors… and people responded.  A lot of folks liked what he was saying.  A lot didn’t.  People used the internet to not just find out where he worked, but where he lived.  He started getting threatening messages.  His family, which does not live in the northeast, started getting threatening messages.  His husband got harassing messages at his job.  Eventually, Shawn shut down his TikTok account.  I don’t know if it’s connected, but he’s now working in fund-raising, for a big church in Chicago.  Maybe he’ll do ministry again; I hope so, he’s one of the most gifted leaders I know.  But standing up for Jesus… it put him, and his family, in danger.  It made him sick.  It made him stop.

Churches are being attacked for sponsoring drag gospel breakfasts and drag library events.  The Loomis Basin UCC in California is being attacked for their support of LGBTQetc people.  They’ve had to stop having in-person worship because it wasn’t safe to be on their property.  

It’s not safe to follow Jesus.  But it’s a good thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.  

One of the questions I’ve been asked the most often throughout my years as a minister is “why does God allow these things to happen?”  You can major in this in seminary – in the study of evil, why it exists, and all that. 

Personally, I’m no big fan of the philosophical answer – that if there were no evil, there would be no good; the theory is something like this:  you need contrast in order to recognize good, better, worse, and so on.  I don’t think the logic of the answer deals adequately with the pain of the reality of evil.  And I am not going to say that the evil of killing trans people exists only so that we can appreciate the good of our world.  

And saying that, well, stuff happens, that can sound like I’ve given up.  Jesus died, well, what did you expect?  The Romans did that sort of thing.  That’s a path that makes it “just one of those things” and robs the life affected of any meaning at all.

Maybe my answer is too simplistic as well, but here’s where I end up – the world was created with the capacity to choose.  That’s it.  That’s the challenge God has placed before us.  God didn’t make it so we had to choose evil.  God made it so we could choose to be good.  

We tell that story in Genesis, framing it as Adam and Eve’s choice to eat an apple…. and then we worry about what kind of apple it was, or if it was an apple at all – when the story is really about the freedom to choose.

Sometimes the choices God places before us seem innocuous – but that’s rarely true.  Sure, some choices are ethically meaningless – shall I have this kind of apple or that kind of apple.  But God’s choices are never ethically meaningless, even as they can be very dangerous.

Do you know these names?  James Chaney?  Andrew Goodman?  Michael Schwermer?  Do you know Jonathan Myrick Daniels?   Eric Liddell?  Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  

Each and every one of those people made choices which put their lives in danger, ethical choices, not always because of their faith, but always because they had a clear vision of what was right and what was not.  They chose to step into danger because it was the right thing to do; they chose to stand up against evil.  They chose to stand up for good.  And each of them died because of their choice.

Cheney, Goodman and Schwermer were murdered in Philadelphia, MS, while working for racial integration. And Jonathan Myrick Daniels was a Episcopal seminarian who died in 1965 protecting Ruby Sales, from a shotgun attack by a county deputy in Alabama,  

Eric Liddell, the runner about whom the movie Chariots of Fire was made, died in a Japanese internment camp during World War 2.  He had chosen to remain in China when the war came, knowing the danger.  Of him, the theologian Langdon Gilkey, who was in the camp with Liddell, wrote: “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humor and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the choice to fight Hitler, chose between being a traitor to his country or a traitor to his God, and was executed by the Nazis on April 9, 1945, just days before the liberation of his prison camp.  

Jesus stood up for what seemed right, and on that Palm Sunday, it was all fun and games, loud cheers and probably, a feast… but during that week, the reality of the choices Jesus had made, changed the atmosphere.  It’s way easier to cheer someone you think is going to smack down your enemies, especially if you think it might mean you’ll have more money, more power, more prestige. 

We’ll see, as we follow the events of the week, especially on Thursday evening at our Maundy Thursday service, how that worked out.  A lot of Jesus’ followers disappeared during that week

So, what can we take from all this?  Nasty stuff happens.  And how we respond matters.  If you’d been there, in Jerusalem, during that last week, how would you or I have responded?  If someone makes a nasty crack about trans people, where will you be?  The right wing is saying that the Nashville killer was trans and that’s why they killed… trying to whip up fear of trans-people as potential murderers.  Will we stand with Jesus on this, or will we turn away, pretend we didn’t hear the slur, figure we don’t know anyone…. but, of course, we do.

The week starts with joy… but it ends with choices.  What will we choose?  Where do we stand?


© 2023, Virginia H. Child