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Courage to Be

“You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” Jesus said to Peter.  I mean, Satan.  No, I mean…Simon Peter?  Satan Peter?  Simon Peter Satan?  Did Jesus change this man’s name yet again—he was Simon, then Jesus renamed him Peter, then Jesus nicknamed him Satan? 


What’s in a name, anyway?  In today’s Old Testament lesson, God is changing someone’s name: Abram, which means “the father is exalted,” becomes Abraham, which means “the father of a multitude.”  Similarly, his wife Sarai will now be called Sarah, and “she shall give rise to nations.” 


There’s a lot said here about ancestors, but in the sense of thinking of future generations—what ever happened to the parents of Abram and Sarai?  What would their parents have thought of their children having names different from what they were given at birth? 


I hadn’t thought about this before until reading an article by Joy Ladin, a poet and professor of writing who has taught at Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish institution.  Dr. Ladin considered the story of Abraham and Sarah and wrote this in an article for Sojourners magazine:


“According to the Bible, the starting point for what would become Judaism is the moment when Abraham—who, as Terah’s first-born son, is expected to care for his father all his life and assume his father’s position after his death—hears God say, ‘Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’ (Genesis 12:1) 


“If God had created human beings to be always and only the men or women we are born, raised, and expected to be, then Abram would have said no.  And if Abram had believed that he was and could only be what his culture said a first-born male should be (with all the rights and responsibilities of inheritance in a primogeniture system), then the Bible as we know it would never have been written. 


“Abram might have said to himself, ‘Real men don’t abandon their fathers…and real gods don’t tell people to violate ancient traditions and sacred family duties.’  Or maybe Abram would have believed, as trans and nonbinary people are often told to believe, that the voice summoning him to live the life God created him to live was not the voice of truth but the voice of temptation, irresponsibility, selfishness, deviance, delusion, and sin.


“Abram didn’t let being a first-born son stop him from recognizing and answering God’s call.  He left behind the gender role he was born into and the identity and responsibilities that went along with it and accepted a new identity, one defined not by his relationship to his family or his people but by his relationship with God.


“God also called Sarai, Abram’s wife, beyond assigned gender roles when God tells her she will bear a child in extreme old age.  Sarai’s miraculous conception confounds traditional binary gender roles—without divine intervention, being both a new mother and an elderly woman is impossible—as well as the gender binary assumption that biology (in this case, Sarai’s age) determines who we are.


“Again and again, the Bible highlights people—Abram, Sarai, Moses, Deborah and other Hebrew prophets, and Jesus and the apostles—who answer God’s call to stop being the men and women their family cultures expect them to be and let God, not gender, define them.”[1]


What would it be like to let God define who you are?  What would it be like to set one’s mind on divine things, rather than human things?  In the Gospel lesson, Peter thinks he knows what Jesus’s life and mission are about, but Peter is mistaken and Jesus corrects him: following the way of God will lead through death all the way to resurrection.  Apparently there’s no bypassing the death part. 


But it needs to be said: when Jesus is talking about death and resurrection, he’s still saying “follow me…if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  These words of Jesus have been used to justify all kinds of abuse, where people are victimized and told to put up with their abuse because that’s “their cross to bear.”


But there’s an important difference here: if someone is instructing you to suffer, and instructing you to keep silence to protect someone more powerful, that’s not looking out for your best interest, and that’s manipulation—setting one’s mind on human things.  But if someone like Jesus is saying, yes there is suffering, and I’m with you in this suffering and in fact, I’ll go first, that’s solidarity—setting one’s mind on divine things. 


It's not an easy thing to let God be the one to define you, when the world has so many other ideas.  Joy Ladin writes about her experience growing up “aware of and engaged with God’s presence” even as she was raised as a male while understanding herself as female.  She writes, “Contrary to culture-war assumptions, I have never felt a conflict between being religious and being transgender.  Without God’s presence and help, I wouldn’t have survived a childhood spent hiding who I was from a family and a world I knew would reject me.  God did not reject me.  God had made me.”[2] 


Dr. Ladin doesn’t deny that there was struggle and suffering in the process of becoming herself.  She writes, “…after decades of pretending to be a man I knew I wasn’t, I realized that—even though it would cost me my family, friends, and job—I had to live as the person God created me to be.  My life as an openly transgender person is not a rejection of God or the Bible: it is an expression of the truth God planted within me, my way of bearing witness to the incomprehensible image of God in which, the Bible teaches, each of us, trans or not, is made.”[3]


It takes a great deal of courage to set one’s mind on divine things, to trust God enough to lead us into abundant life.  Abraham and Sarah had to trust God’s promise, the covenant of a family.  Peter had to trust Jesus that death would not be defeat, and that resurrection would be victory. 


Transgender individuals have to live with courage every day, especially in a world that keeps trying to complicate their lives or interfere with their health care or even deny their existence—who can be trusted to ensure the safety of transgender people?  Can the community be trusted?  Can God be trusted?  Can the church be trusted?  I want to say yes, but I can’t pretend there isn’t plenty to fear. 


This is why Gethsemane Lutheran Church is open with our welcoming statement—because it needs to be said, over and over again.  This is why we take action for healing, through ministry like Project Sanctuary, a monthly sound healing event held here in the sanctuary, at a time other than meeting for worship.  It’s a chance to enter a sanctuary and create a safe space here, a space to heal a broken relationship with God. 


Is it risky?  Maybe.  Does a ministry like this make us a target for people who make gender or sexuality part of a culture war?  Perhaps.  But what good is it to gain the whole world, to hide yourself out of fear of what other people will think, or to please your parents or your neighbors, if that means forfeiting your life: giving up the abundant life God created you to live? 


This isn’t a bait-and-switch—Jesus doesn’t call out orders like “Do what I say!”  No.  Jesus says, “Follow me.  I’ll go first.”  Because we have a trusting relationship with the God who creates us, who loves us and provides everything we need, we can follow. 


Many years ago, when I was in college, attending Lutheran Campus Ministry, I joined a small group that met weekly—our spiritual director called them “covenant groups.”  Every week we closed with a prayer that I’ve learned is in our hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and this prayer was written by Eric Milner-White in 1941, and he gave this prayer a title: “The Call of Abraham.”  Let us pray:


O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 


Pastor Cheryl

[1] Joy Ladin, “Meeting God Beyond the Binary: How the Bible Prepares Us to Embrace Transgender and Nonbinary People,” Sojourners magazine, November 2021, page 31.

[2] Ibid page 30.

[3] Ibid page 31.


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