Resilience in Community

This is the sermon I preached yesterday at the joint service of MCC of the Redwood Empire and Reflection MCC.

In our society, the violence of oppression is often hidden from sight. But it is still all too real, as evidenced by the 37 trans people killed in the United States this year, and 350 worldwide. I will speak a few of their names, and I want us to take a minute of silence, right now, to remember and honor those lives that have been lost. Dustin Parker. Neulisa Luciano Ruiz. Yampi Méndez Arocho. Scott(lynn) Devore. Monika Diamond. Lexi Sutton. Johanna Metzger. Serena Angelique Velázquez Ramos. Layla Pelaez Sánchez. Penélope Díaz Ramírez. Nina Pop. Helle Jae O'Regan. Tony McDade. Dominique "Rem'mie" Fells. Riah Milton. Jayne Thompson. Selena Reyes-Hernandez.

I struggle, often, with two competing narratives: the one where the Spirit of God, and God’s love is in infused in all of us, part of all of us, and all humans are essentially good. And the other: there is true evil done in the world – people hurt each other on purpose. People hate each other, and sometimes murder the people they hate. I don’t always know how to square these two – particularly when it comes to how identity, sometimes by gender, or race, or sexuality, or others, can be a focus of violence.

I know that people often act badly out of fear. And that fear and anger, unconsciously acted out, can be extremely hurtful, even fatal to people who are the objects of that fear and hatred.

But my question today, is different. My question is how do trans people, and any people targeted by violence, live our lives with joy in the face of such danger? Obviously, we work toward policy and community changes that make our lives safer. But we also work to live our lives in such a way as fear doesn’t have to control us, or how we feel about ourselves.

I was teaching a workshop recently, and a participant talked about how they had received as many negative comments about their transition and their life from other trans folks as they had from cis folks. This is, unfortunately, not an uncommon phenomenon. And it makes sense – we live in a society that strongly polices gender – and trans folks ourselves policing what it means to be trans isn’t new. And, sometimes LBGTQIIA folks often police what it means to be LGBTQIIA. There’s the arguments about which letters really count. It’s a way that we all can act unconsciously out of fear and self-loathing.

This is not to say that we are in as much danger from within as without – that’s far, far from the case. It’s just to say that we all have in us ways we react toward ourselves and each other out of unconscious fear and hatred.

The title of this sermon, “Resilience in community”, is about how we build a resilient community full of resilient individuals, all of whom are loved for who they are. That’s really, for me the answer to my question – that’s how we get to joy. And love, for me, love is the center of it all.

Webster’s has two definitions for the word “resilience”. The first is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” The second one is more interesting: “the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress.” At first look, it seems like that’s about materials science, which it is, but I like to think about the “strained body” as, our bodies, in the emotional, psychological, and even physiological sense. Our capability to recover from the stress of our lives is resilience – and cultivating resilience allows us to live our lives with happiness and joy – even in the face of transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, etc.

One of my favorite parables that Jesus teaches is the parable of the good Samaritan. First, Jesus lays out the commandments, including loving your neighbor as you love yourself. That one seems, at first blush, to be kinda straightforward – but then, really, how many of us, especially if we’ve been fed messages that we should hate ourselves for our sexuality or gender identity, really love ourselves well? Jesus didn’t mean, love your neighbors mediocrely, like many of us love ourselves. He meant love our neighbors expansively and generously, as the Samaritan loved the man in the ditch.

The thing too I love about the parable of the Samaritan is that most of us learn the Sunday school version – the Samaritan as just a good guy, just an ordinary person. But in Jesus’ time, using the Samaritan as his example was super radical. Samaritans were really hated in his time. If Jesus were alive today, he would likely use a refugee queer trans woman of color in this parable. How can we make real Jesus’ commandment to love one’s neighbor, and, since I’m talking about community, community member, as we love ourselves? Love is a critical element in resilience – you can’t have resilience without it, I think that if we can really make this real, we can become that resilient community – a community that can deeply support all of its members.

In these troubled times full of acrimony and division, I’ve been thinking a lot about words used for love. I want to outline 3 of them today. The first, is the Greek word “agape” – used often in the bible and used in that parable of the good Samaritan. Agape is a kind of unconditional love – the love God has for us, and the love we should have for each other. Richard Rohr says, "[Agape] is a love grounded in God that allows us to honestly desire and seek the other’s spiritual growth."

In Hebrew, there is the word “hesed” – translated as lovingkindness. The Talmud has a teaching that acts of lovingkindness, g’milut hasadim characterize God and human beings as the image of God. In Buddhist parlance, Metta is a word in the Pali language, which also means “lovingkindness.” It is defined largely as: “strong wish for the welfare and happiness of others.” These three words, central pillars in all three traditions, mean pretty much the same thing.

One of the Buddhist practices I teach and practice often is a Metta meditation, where you wish Metta, lovingkindness to yourself first, then outward to other people in your life, and then ultimately to everyone. For Buddhists, lovingkindness starts with lovingkindness toward ourselves. Greek has another word for love, philautia, which is love of self. Too often, though, especially in Christian circles, self-love is not only ignored, but considered a moral flaw, akin to selfishness or pride, considered one of the seven deadly sins. But self-love is not pride or selfishness. How can we possibly follow Jesus’ commandment if we don’t love ourselves?

It turns out, self-love is not only important, it’s necessary for mental health. Newer psychological studies have shown that self-love and self-compassion help us make good decisions for ourselves, and actually increase our likeliness to grow. And newer science is also showing that compassion practices change the brain and change our self-image and behavior. So how do we go from learning to love ourselves, to learning to love others? How do we make manifest Jesus’ commandment? What is lovingkindness in action?

First, we can learn not to judge. As we learn to love ourselves as we are, we learn to not judge how we are in the world. We can then learn not to judge others for how they are. We can learn not to gatekeep. Not to decide what it means to have one identity or another for someone else. We can lovingly hold each person in their own identity, as they are. Second, we can learn to practice accountability. We are human beings, and as such, we’ll never be perfect. We will harm ourselves and others, in times of fear, anxiety or pain. We can learn to take responsibility for our own mistakes, and hold others to loving account for theirs.

Third, we can learn to be willing to be vulnerable, and ask for help. This one is hard for me. Because of my upbringing, where I pretty much had to be responsible for myself, and it wasn’t good for me to show vulnerability, it’s hard for me to admit that I need anything from anyone else. And I think there is also fear that if we show vulnerability we will somehow seem weak or needy. But as human beings we are by nature needy. We need other people – it’s how we are wired, even though our society tells us we shouldn’t need anyone (or perhaps not anyone except a spouse or partner.) But in a resilient community – it’s safe to show vulnerability, and to ask for help – to demonstrate the truth of interdependence.

All of these are, as I often say, simple but not easy. But we have a lot of guidance. Hillel the Elder, a Jewish teacher who lived about 100 years after Jesus, famously said: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."

Helping to build resilient people, and thus resilient community feels, in this time, like one of the most important things I can do. And this weekend, as we honor those who have fallen to transphobic violence, let’s do our work so that more trans and gender-non-conforming people have resilience, and can live in resilient community. And today, let’s remember our trans and gender non-conforming siblings throughout history. They paved the way for us to be free, and live in resilient community.