(Sermon re-printed here with permission of our 2nd child Calelia Cristian Avery)
Am I My Sibling’s Keeper
Preached on January 31,2015 as part of a series entitled: The Light of Justice Shines
Genesis is full of sibling rivalry stories. Cain vs Abel, Ishmael vs Isaac, Esau vs Jacob, All of the sons of Jacob vs Joseph… These aren’t just moralistic tales of familial struggle with happily resolved conflict and love all around. (the likes of which we might see in a mini-series on ABC Family or the Disney Channel.) These are the gritty, often impossibly pain-filled stories of violence and rejection, stories that tell of bitter and even dangerous rivalries born out of fear and jealousy and almost always characterized by the sibling’s inability, dare I say, unwillingness, to recognize the image of God in their brother.
For Cain, in this moment in his life, the bottom line was simply that he didn’t like it that Abel’s gift was seen more favorably by God when his was ignored. He didn’t want to recognize the truth that although he had a different way of life (shepherd vs. farmer), Abel was just as gifted as Cain was. And Cain couldn’t tolerate the reality that in God’s eyes, both brothers carried the divine image.
And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! What have you done?
Here’s the thing: Just as Adam and Eve couldn’t hide from God’s all-seeing gaze, Cain, it seems, cannot escape God’s all hearing ears.
“What have you done, Cain?” God asks.
For more than 30 years, I have been involved in one form or another in issues of gender and Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexual and Queer justice. This activism began in a Presbyterian church that I stumbled into in 1986 – Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church. When I wandered into that church, I found myself in the middle of a community where LGBTQ people out and not just out, but visible as leaders in a time when being gay was synonymous with having AIDS. This little church (it was a tiny church then, it is a tiny church now, 30 years later) in the Inner Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco was outrageously courageous in its vision to care for the rejected ones in the city. Among them were El Salvadoran refugees and Nicaraguan immigrants. This was also the church that was among the few Christian organizations that would offer funerals for AIDS victims.
Through my involvement in that church I became aware of The Covenant Network and More Light Presbyterians and in Phoenix, I discovered, in the middle of that conservative city, a progressive clergy group called No Longer Silent. I’ve worked side by side with brothers and sisters, straight and gay, male and female and genderqueer. We’ve worked and struggled for LGBTQ rights both within and outside the church. I can’t tell you how many times I have been grateful for that work. It taught me so much and fueled in me a kind of ferocious dedication to full inclusion in society for LGBTQ people. But I’ve never been more grateful than I was in June. That work helped prepare the way for the coming out of our 2nd child – the one most of you know as Peter Cristian.
In April, this child of our heart came out to us as gender fluid. Now, I can give you websites to help you understand what that means. It’s complicated and we’re still working on it. In June, they invited us to use a new name: Caleilia Cristian. In June they invited us to use the pronouns they/them instead of he/him. The journey for us as a family has been a little bumpy, as you might imagine. For example, when I get angry at them (like a parent does), it’s “Peter Cristian!” that comes out of my mouth. When I’m worried, it’s a different and new kind of worry. My own struggle began immediately and has not dissipated over time. It is really, at it’s core, a struggle with fear. In spite of all the activism and advocacy work I’ve done as an LGBTQ ally, I felt woefully unprepared for the reality that hit us when we first saw our 2nd child in a skirt. It was fear. Because if I had learned anything doing all the advocacy work I learned statistics. And the statistics alone about genderqueer people are enough to strike terror in anyone’s heart.
For example: How many of us remember Sasha Fleischman, a genderqueer senior at Maybeck High School, whose skirt was set on fire by another 16 year old when they fell asleep in the rear of a bus heading for East Oakland?
- 32% of Genderqueer individuals suffer physical assaults.
- 31% of trans and genderqueer people face police harassment
- 76% are chronically unemployed
- 36% Avoid healthcare treatment for fear of discrimination
All of these and more rush through our heads every time Calelia leaves the house. Like parents of transgender and genderqueer children across the country, we hope beyond hope that our friends and neighbors are willing to be their sibling’s keeper. We yearn for the day that we won’t have to be afraid – that we won’t have to wonder whether if the person we’re talking to will treat Caleilia as if they were their sibling’s keeper.
If this difficult text about the beginnings of humanity’s relationship with God, it’s that we are not to question the giftedness of our siblings. In God’s sight the blessing of the offering belongs to God alone. The Genesis story reminds us that in the beginning, God created us in God’s own image. All of us – not just the people we agree with, not just the ones who are like us, not just the ones we understand and definitely not just the tells us that all of humanity is created in God’s image. Being created in God’s image means, like Abel, we can bring our whole self before God. Whatever it is that we create, whatever it is that you hold dear, whoever you ARE is a gift from God and worthy of being returned TO God.
This is something we should not just celebrate, but work to make a reality – not just here at First Presbyterian Church of Oakland, where we have for many years been working to make reality in this beautiful place. but it’s something we need to work on in our schools, our jobs, our neighborhoods, our homes.
It’s clear from statistics and common experience that we have work to do. The blood of trans and queer people is literally and figuratively on the ground. that blood calls out to God’s heart. We have work to do because some still believe that somehow queer lives and queer gifts are less than acceptable as an offering to God. So we need to keep asking ourselves. What does it mean to be our sibling’s keeper?
When God asks Cain: What have you done? We need to hear this as a question for our own hearts. What have we done? We need to understand that this question is spoken by the loving God who always sees and always hears and always knows when a victim’s blood has been spilled. These words speak the truth that we feel inside, but that we need to claim and own and live:
All persons are under God’s protection
All persons deserve God’s care and ours.
And when blood is spilled, before more blood is spilled – all creation needs to stand as their sibling’s keepers, cry out and say “No More.”
(Painting: The First Mourning by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1888)