At its annual meeting in October, the Florida Conference of the UCC approved a resolution for adoption by the national church’s General Synod next summer in support of people who are transgender. (Copies…) Working on the resolution with a team of writers was hard and holy work…hard, because treatment of people who are transgender in our country and in the world makes such a resolution necessary…and holy, because celebrating the lives of people who want to live as God created them to be is the holiest work there is.
I was honored to present the resolution to the Florida Conference for its consideration. The discussion about the resolution was…inspirational. We heard stories about standing up to the Moms for Liberty at a school board meeting in Miami. We heard about a church that welcomed a trans teen when her parents struggled to do so. We heard about a UCC church in Ocala partnering with a synagogue to create safe spaces for trans youth in their community. Later, I learned that our conference’s Committee on Ministry had approved a transgender person for ordination.
Seeing the line of people eager to speak to the motion, hearing stories told with passion and care, it seemed like people had been waiting for an opportunity to tell their stories, to show their support for people in the transgender community…especially in light of the dehumanizing and unjust laws our state legislature has passed this year.
After the business meeting concluded, a person took me aside to share her concern that, in the resolution, we had compared transgender people with eunuchs mentioned in scripture. In truth, I didn’t know whether the reference was accurate or not. I certainly didn’t want the resolution to cause harm to anyone–especially to transgender people–but I hadn’t really thought about it enough to offer the woman a response. I thanked her for her feedback and told her I’d share it with the rest of the committee, which I did.
As I thought about today’s service, I felt drawn back to the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. For the purposes of our story, let’s call the person Abebe. So…Abebe has distinguished himself in Ethiopia. He’s made his way up the career ladder to be the queen’s treasurer. In that position, Abebe has a lot of power in the kingdom.
When we encounter Abebe in today’s scripture, he’s returning home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Something must have stirred him while he was there, because he’d stopped along the road and was reading from the prophet Isaiah.
As he reads, Philip (one of Jesus’ disciples) walks by. He asks Abebe if he understands what he is reading. “How can I,” the eunuch replied, “unless someone explains it to me?” With that, he invites Philip to get into the carriage with him. Here’s the passage he’s reading:
‘You are like a sheep being led to slaughter,
You are like a lamb that is mute in front of its shearers;
Like them, you never open your mouth.
You have been humiliated
And have no one to defend you.
Who will ever talk about your descendants,
Since your life on Earth has been cut short?’
The eunuch asks Philip whether the prophet is talking about himself or someone else.
One commentator’s take on Abebe’s story has helped deepen my understanding. The writer notes that Abebe likely had been taken as a young boy to become a eunuch. He’d had no choice in the matter. He might not even have known what was happening to him. (This next part is difficult to hear, but it is a crucial part of the story. When I read the next sentence, something clicked for me. Ready?) To become a eunuch his testicles were crushed to stop him producing testosterone.
In one sense, Abebe–or any eunuch’s–story appears to be the opposite of our transgender brothers and sisters, as the woman at the Florida Conference meeting suggested. Eunuchs’ transitioning was involuntary; our transgender siblings choose their transitioning.
But, when you think about it, it’s kind of the same, isn’t it? In both cases, the state is deciding what gender an individual should be. The process of becoming a eunuch denied them the hormones they needed to live as their true selves. That’s exactly what’s happening in our state. In the case of both eunuchs in the first century and our trans siblings today, human beings are being denied the right by the state to live as their true selves.
Here’s how the commentator described the effects of Abebe’s castration. Having no testosterone would have altered Abebe’s growth and changed his appearance. His voice never would have changed, so as an adult he still would have had the voice of a boy. His body would have had little hair and would have grown in disproportionate ways – reduced muscles, increased body fat in his abdomen. He would have developed breasts. His bones would have been weaker and more likely to break. He also likely would have been lethargic and depressed.
All of this meant that he looked unusual, and people would have recognized him as a eunuch just by looking at him. He was different. He looked strange. He sounded strange. He probably felt strange.
And he was reading from Isaiah about one who, like a sheep, was led to the slaughter. One who was humiliated and who had been denied justice. One whose life was taken away. The surrounding parts of the passage from Isaiah 53 go on to further describe this one as having an appearance so marred to be beyond human semblance, wounded, crushed, despised, rejected, a person of suffering.
The commentator wonders how Abebe’s backstory affected his reading of this passage in Isaiah. Might he have been thinking: This sounds like me. This is my story. Maybe Abebe asks Philip who the Scripture is about because he identifies with what he’s reading. Who is the prophet writing about? Because this one walks in my sandals. This one is in my place. I must know: Who is the prophet writing about? Who is this suffering one? Because he’s already taken on my suffering. He’s already in my place.
Maybe Abebe recognized himself in the Scripture and realized that his story already was joined to the story of the one talked about in the Scripture.
In response to Abebe’s question, Philip shares the good news of Jesus with him. After hearing it, Abebe can’t wait. “Look, there’s some water there. What’s to stop me from being baptized?” Philip baptizes Abebe, then is “snatched away.” Abebe goes on his way…rejoicing.
It breaks my heart that so many Christian churches reject people who are transgender. It absolutely makes no sense to me. Transgender people are…people. They’re human beings, created in the image of God. Beloved of God. Who are we, who is any of us to prevent beautiful human beings created in the image of God from being who they are created to be? Who are we to keep ANYBODY who wants a relationship with God from that relationship? It just doesn’t make sense.
Here’s what I want to say to our transgender siblings–and I know I speak for our whole congregation–YOU ARE WELCOME HERE. All of you is welcome here. Sometimes, we might not get things exactly right…we’re still learning how to be truly welcoming of folks who are trans. But even when we don’t get it right, please know that our hearts are in the right place. We see you. We see God in you. We see your beauty! We celebrate your living.
We hope that, after your time with us here today, you too will leave this place rejoicing.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2022