Sunday, January 11, 2015
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
I can’t stop thinking about Leelah Alcorn. Leelah was 17 years old. She lived in Kings Mill, Ohio. The weekend after Christmas, Leelah left her house and walked in front of a semi truck on Interstate 71 near her home. She died.
Leelah’s story is, tragically, not at all unique. People who do not conform to gender norms commit suicide at a staggering rate, to say nothing of the other violent acts committed against people who are transgender. A recent study shows that nearly half of all people who are transgender will attempt suicide at some point in their lives. Leelah’s story is not unusual.
What is unusual is that Leelah left a heart-wrenching suicide note posted on social media and that note has gone viral. Leelah’s final words were a manifesto of sorts – a call to action.
In the letter, Leelah describes a life of loneliness and despair. She came out to her parents as trans* when she 14. She describes the joy she felt in learning that being transgender was a thing – after 10 years of just being really confused. But her parents were not supportive. They were Christian and told Leelah that it was just a phase, that it was wrong, that she could fix herself if she tried hard enough. They took her to Christian therapists who told her more of the same. Leelah became angry and acted out. Her parents responded by isolating her – taking away her phone, access to social media, cutting her off from her peers.
After a long and lonely summer, Leelah spiraled into the deepest of despair. She writes, “There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say ‘it gets better’ but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.”
Leelah closes her note with these words, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say ‘that’s [messed] up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
Leelah’s words are a call to action. This beloved child of God has lost her life – mostly because others who share our religion were hateful to her. What can we, as Christians who understand that God has created people in across a healthy spectrum of gender identities called them all “good” – what can we do?
I am resolved to love loudly. More loudly than I have in the past. It’s one thing to know deep in your heart, that God loves all. It’s another thing to shout that from the rooftops every time you get the chance. The voices of hate are strong in our world. Those of us who preach a gospel of love are going to have to continue to love loudly, boldly, persistently.
Today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark is loud. The baptism of Jesus was no quiet affair. People flocked to John out there in the desert, seeking the baptism of repentance. Jesus, too, came to John at the edge of the Jordan and asked to be baptized. John agrees and immerses Jesus in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit came down onto him like a dove. A voice from heaven cried out, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The heavens were torn apart. The Greek word used here for “torn apart” is used just one other time in Mark’s gospel – at the very end when Jesus is on the cross. After Jesus breathes his last, the curtain in the temple is “torn apart” – same word – and the Roman Centurion professes his faith that, “Surely, this was the Son of God.”
It’s a stunning parallel construction: as Jesus is dunked down into the water, he experiences a death of sorts, but also a rebirth. The sky is ripped apart – the separation between heaven and earth is breeched. And this loud voice from heaven calls out, “You are my Son!”
And then again, at his death, we see the same thing unfold. Just after he dies, the separation between heaven and earth is again breeched. This time, one who shouldn’t believe, one who symbolizes the powers who killed Jesus with contempt – this is the voice we hear, affirming the Jesus was God’s beloved child.
It makes me wonder if Leelah Alcorn was baptized. I assume she was. She came from a family that spent a lot of time in church. She complained about having to attend church every week as a teenager and hating having to be around all those people who thought she was an abomination.
I wonder about all those people who were present at her baptism. Did they make the same promises we made to Harrison earlier today? Did they promise to be for her a family in Christ whose love for her could not be broken? If so, they did not follow through on those promises. Their love of orthodoxy, their decision to make the Bible into an idol – those things kept them from keeping their promise to Leelah. And the price was her life.
We must take these promises seriously, friends. When we promise an infant or a young child or an adult that we will not allow our love for them to be broken? That’s no small thing. It is difficult work – and I cannot imagine any work more important than committing to love someone in the spirit of Christ.
Because I believe in my heart of hearts that when Leelah Alcorn came out of those baptismal waters, there was a brief breech in the separation of heaven and earth, and a voice from heaven cried out: “This is my child, the beloved. With her I am well-pleased.” For that is the gift of baptism. To be affirmed. Made new. Loved fully and loudly.
And I believe in my heart of hearts that when Leelah Alcorn stepped in front of that semi truck, she was not alone. God was right there with her, weeping with despair. And after she breathed her last, the veil was ripped in two and heaven and earth became indistinguishable for just a moment. And we, the Roman guards who have witnessed her death are left behind saying, “Surely, this was a daughter of God.”
This week in the office, Sandy and I have fielded several phone calls and walk in visits from people who are offended by our Black Lives Matter signs. I’ve spent a fair amount of time wondering whether the signs could potentially do more harm than good. After all, what good does it do to make racist people angrier? But then I sat in my office and watched as a Black teenager walked past. He noticed the sign. I don’t know what went through his mind, but my prayer is that he experienced the statement as an affirmation, as a blessing. My prayer was that he would see those words and know that – although we live in a nation that loudly spews hate at people of color – there are places in his own community who are determined to love loudly. To shout out the truth that Black lives matter. That he is a beloved child of God and with him, God is well-pleased.
During our time of reflection today, you are invited to reflect with your feet. I invite you to come forward to the baptismal font, reach in, and take two stones from the water. As you do so, please read the words on the sign and write them on your heart. You may even wish to say them out loud. One of the stones is for you to keep – to remind you that you are loved loudly by a God who will never allow her love for you to be broken. The other stone is for you to keep until you find someone else who needs that reminder – and then to give the stone to that person and offer them words of blessing. If you would rather stay in your seat, please just give me a wave and I’ll bring a stone to you. Come now to the fount of blessing…know that you are loved.
 You can read Leelah’s full note here: https://web.archive.org/web/20150102043958/http://lazerprincess.tumblr.com/.