In Remembrance of the Stranger

Sermon by Alex Patchin McNeill at the MLP National Conference at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Tucson, AZ on Sunday, September 29, 2013.

Leviticus 19:33-34; Luke 13-18, 28-35

Many of you know that I am a transgender man. Since I was born female, I didn’t always have this facial scruff, such that it is. However, what some of you might not know is that in college I was one of the most visible lesbians on my college campus. I went to a school, the University of North Carolina to be exact, with about 20,000 of my peers, so being the most visibly identifiable queer person in a sea of undergraduates is no small feat. I was visible because though I was female in body, I was transgressing a lot of gender norms by shaving my head and not wearing women’s clothing, and strolling around campus holding the hand of my college girlfriend…who also had a shaved head for awhile. At the time I was just trying to be myself. I was trying to live in a world where being a girl with a shaved head and walking around campus with my girlfriend was normal. I bet some of you here can relate.

What I didn’t expect was that my visibility would mark me everywhere I went. Towards my senior year of college it felt like everyone knew me. People would approach me on the bus and tell me that they “see me everywhere.” When meeting new friends of friends people would claim that of course they knew who I was before we were introduced. And this was even before facebook tracked our every move.

One of the other downsides of all this notoriety is that I was frequently sought out by those with something to prove. UNC had a pretty active Campus Crusade chapter, an evangelical Christian group that at the time was embroiled in a battle within the university about whether they must admit gay or lesbian people into their leadership. I could always tell when one of their meetings let out because inevitably someone would approach me at first seemingly innocently and then with increasing intensity about whether I knew Jesus or was saved. I already had deep theological conviction about God’s love of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folks but I found myself tongue tied in these encounters, suddenly feeling very vulnerable and altogether too visible.

I realize now that I developed a fear of strangers. I started scowling more and hunching my shoulders so give off the ‘don’t talk to me’ vibe to shield myself from strangers’ reactions or prying questions.

I wonder if this is how Cleopas and his friend might have felt on the road to Emmaus. It’s dark, far from the lights of the city, and a stranger approaches. Did it run through their minds that this person might not be friendly? That this person might have been one of the very people calling for Jesus’ death the night he was crucified? The two cast down their eyes when the stranger talks to them, was it in grief for their lost hero, or fear of provoking an attack. In the silence that hangs between when Jesus first approaches and when Cleopas responds to his question I hear the heartbeat that thumps in our chests facing a world full of brutality and devastating loss. Do we respond to the stranger who could be dangerous, or walk away?

We who know deeply what it means to be a stranger have been in this place too, where every unknown person could be a possible threat. On the nights our heroes or community members have been killed: dr. king, Harvey milk, matthew shepherd, brandon Teena, Lawrence King… Or in ordinary times When we’re standing alone and feeling visible in broad daylight. When we’re holding the hands of our beloveds in public. When strangers approach we must decide as Cleopas did whether we recoil away in protective fear, or whether we face the stranger on the road in full openness.

At first Cleopas almost botches the whole encounter. Jesus asks a simple question and Cleopas does what many of us do when we’re afraid or uneasy, he tries to distance himself from the stranger by reinforcing the stranger’s outsiderness. Cleopas is incredulous that anyone could visit Jerusalem and not know about Jesus’ crucifixion. He says “Are you the ONLY visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place??” Cleopas tried to draw a line in the sand between those who knew Jesus had been killed, and those who didn’t. When those Campus Crusaders approached me in the quad, they tried to draw a line in the sand about being saved, and I didn’t know how to make it a circle. So I recoiled and walked away and both of us stayed locked in our strangeness.

But perhaps in between the moment Jesus asks the initial question and Cleopas’ response, Cleopas remembers those ancient words of Leviticus, “you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In his first response, Cleopas caught himself forgetting that he was once a stranger who followed a man crucified for preaching against the status quo. He forgot that he was afraid he might have the same fate as his leader once he had joined a band of outsiders, so he tried to distance himself from the one who approached him. But remembering the words of the Hebrew text and that his hero constantly made room for those like him who exist on the margins, Cleopas and his friend invite this stranger to dinner.

In our post 10A world, I worry about two things: that we will forget that we were once strangers, or that we will try to think we are the only strangers. I worry that when approached, we will recoil in remembrance of our fear, rather than open ourselves to new friendships and possibilities. I also worry that we will stay locked in a myopic view of our strangeness that doesn’t invite solidarity with those who are still at the margins.

The past five years have turned the tide on welcome, acceptance, rights and justice for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Suddenly it is less daunting and devastating to come out to our CPMs and COMs. In some states we can marry our spouses, and are protected by laws punishing others for violence or discrimination against us. And yet we know that there are so many strangers among us still waiting to be recognized as fully human by our society and as one of our own worth standing up for.

When Jesus, Cleopas and his friend sit down together at table, something amazing happens. Suddenly their eyes are opened and they are able to see Jesus for who he really is. We have all been on both sides of this table, as the one felling strange desperately wanting to be known, and the one who is blind to the stranger in our midst. What the journey to Emmaus reminds us is that the way to know the stranger is simple: through sharing stories and simple meals. Christ did not celebrate the Eucharist in Emmaus, but reminds us that every meal has the potential of being an event in which hospitality and table fellowship can become sacred occasions.

In one simple sharing of bread and cup the hurt and devastation of the followers of Christ was healed. Encountering the stranger caused their hearts to burn within them and rekindle their shared purpose to proclaim the Gospel. As Christians we have the opportunity to offer this healing bread of life to the strangers we encounter. We come to the table together in remembrance of the stranger, the outsider Christ to whom we were never strange. We come to the table to share stories of our journeys, to preserve a bit of our weirdness as that which propels us onward to bring together all of those marvelous, strange, creatures of God so that we might be known together: less alone, less afraid.

At this conference we were invited to meet new strangers, to make new friends, and to glimpse the work Christ calls us to among the transgender community, within those living with HIV and AIDS, for the weirdness experienced by those in our community growing old. As we leave this place may our hearts burn with the memory of being strangers in a strange land called by God to break bread together so that we might know Christ in one another.

Amen

Alex Patchin McNeill’s driving passion is working for queer and transgender inclusion in sacred spaces and serves as MLP’s new Executive Director. He is the first openly transgender ministry candidate in his conservative Presbyterian region in Western North Carolina. He currently serves as the lead trainer for the Institute for Welcoming Resources “Building an Inclusive Church” program, a national ecumenical effort to equip progressive Christians with the tools to help their churches become more welcoming to LGBTQ congregants. He is also the Communications and Development Director at Equality Maryland, a state-based organization working to eliminate prejudice and discrimination against LGBTQ Marylanders.

Alex earned his Master’s of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School with scholarship on the intersection of religion, gender and sexuality. He is one of the subjects of Out of Order, a documentary film being made about queer clergy in the PC(USA). Recently, he launched Queer Sunday School, a project of two future Presbyterian ministers to reclaim the bible as a source of liberation. He will continue to speak, organize, and fundraise for queer religious issues until all faithful LGBT individuals can call a church home.

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