The Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge yesterday became the first transgender priest to preach at Washington National Cathedral. You can read his sermon by clicking Read more at the end of this item, or you can watch or listen to it on the cathedral’s site.
The Washington Times‘ story included quotations from the sermon as the remarks of Bishop Gene Robinson, who celebrated the Eucharist at which Partridge preached and those of the Very Rev. Gary Hall, the cathedral’s dean.
The New York Times has a video report that includes a short excerpt of the sermon.
Good morning. I am so glad to be with you today in this season of celebration—three Sundays into the season of Pentecost and in the ongoing celebration of Pride here in D.C. and across the country. I am very honored by your invitation, Dean Hall, and to get to serve with you today, Bishop Robinson.
About thirteen years ago, while on a retreat with about forty other Episcopalians, I participated in an exercise called “circle of oppression.” The leader called us to stand in a circle and explained that she would name particular groups of people who experience various, often intersecting forms of oppression in day-to-day life. When she named a group to which you belonged, you could step into the circle and then step back out. In this way, we could become mindful, both individually and collectively, of what we carry as we walk through the world. As I contemplated the categories that might move me into the circle I began to panic. At this point I was known as an openly gay, partnered woman, and I was just beginning to come to terms with being trans. I was still discerning how I might be called to embody that identity. I also knew that people are punished every day, in various ways, for transgressing the male/female gender binary. Including in church—perhaps especially in church. And so I stood there thinking if I hear ‘step into the circle if you’re trans,’ I’ll pass out. We moved through several categories. Finally the leader said, “if you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, step into the circle.” Thank God, I breathed, stepping in easily— with those four categories together I could safely be both seen and not-seen. Then she said, “if you’re a woman, step into the circle.” For what felt like an eternity, I froze. It didn’t feel true to step into the circle. It also didn’t feel true not to move at all, so I slid my foot halfway in and hoped no one would notice. Initially it seemed no one had. But as soon as we stopped for a break, someone made her way to me from across the room. Quietly and respectfully she said, “I saw what you did in the circle, and I don’t know how you identify, but my partner identifies as trans.”
“Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known,” our reading from the Gospel of Matthew proclaims. “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops” (Mt 10:26-27). These sentences have quietly moved me for years, prompting me to wonder: What troves of trouble do we hear from God in the recesses of our hearts? What might it mean for us to tell them in the light? And if we decide to disclose in a world of uncertainty and vulnerability, what lives might we lose and find? How might we bear witness to the God who sees us? In what ways might God be drawing us into the project of revelation?
Our passage from Matthew forms part of a wider set of instructions for the twelve disciples that Jesus is sending out into the world. They are being sent both as healers and as leavening agents. They are to cure the sick and raise the dead, to proclaim the good news of the coming of the kingdom, he says shortly before our passage (Matt 10:7-8). Later in the gospel, in chapter twenty-five, he dramatically declaims that in feeding the hungry, bringing water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, reaching out to the estranged, they do those very things to Christ himself (Matt 25:31-46). This work of justice is part of a much broader, deeper, more challenging process: the uncovering of God’s work in the world.
Underpinning this entire enterprise is the Christian concept of revelation. Our passage uses verbal forms of the Greek term apokalypsis– an uncovering, unveiling of that which is hidden. Another key term for the Christian idea of revelation is epiphaneia, which means appearance or manifestation. Fundamentally, revelation points to the Good News itself: that God in Jesus Christ assumed our humanity in the margins of our world, healing the chasm between Creator and Creation, so that we might become partakers in God’s own life, our very bodies marked by the paschal mystery. Into that mystery we are immersed in our baptism. By it, as by our own sojourns in death’s valleys, we are marked forever. As agents and emblems of that mystery we journey into every layer of creation, every facet of our lives and loves. When Jesus tells his disciples to speak in the light, to uncover the hidden, to proclaim from the heights, he is charging them to become active participants in that blindingly good news. He is calling them to see, uncover, and proclaim God’s work in the world, knowing that in doing so they will participate in the transformation of that world.
Of course, Jesus also explicitly warns the disciples not everyone would judge such revelation good, and that some might actively persecute them for it (Mt 10:17). Doing this work would be utterly demanding. No relationship would be untouched by it. The power of this revelatory work could in some cases divide and reshape their own families (10:21, 35, 37). Indeed, the disciples would become family to one another. Perhaps most challenging of all, their “foes” would become members of their own households (10:36). Jesus is both galvanizing and warning them, seeking to impart strength and resilience to navigate the turbulence that would inevitably accompany their revelatory project.
For inspiration they might have turned to Hagar, the central figure in our first reading. Hagar is identified as an Egyptian slave woman, forced into surrogacy for Sarah and Abraham. In our portion of the story her son Ishmael is pushed aside for Sarah’s son Isaac. Ishmael and Hagar are banished to the wilderness with bread and a skin of water that soon run out, leaving them close to death. In the midst of her despair, God shows Hagar a well and they survive. Hagar had long been gifted by the complexities of vision. Earlier in Genesis, incensed by the injustice of her enslavement and sexual exploitation, she had looked at her mistress with contempt and then fled into the wilderness when Sarai retaliated (Gen 16:6b). Hagar had held up a revelatory mirror, intolerable to Sarai. As the feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible has commented, “Hagar [had] seen a new reality that challenge[d] the power structure” and then “claim[ed] her own exodus” (Texts of Terror (Fortress, 1984), 13). There Hagar encountered the angel of God who urged her back and told her that her offspring would form multitudes. In the wake of that exchange, Hagar had dared to declare a divine name, “‘You are El-roi’ for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive’” to tell the tale?” (Gen 16:13)
Hagar is both a visionary and a survivor whose example has inspired so many, particularly African American women, as the Womanist theologian Delores Williams shows in her groundbreaking book Sisters in the Wilderness (Orbis Books, 1995). Generations of readers have with Hagar praised “the God of seeing” and declared: “God helped us make a way out of no way” (“Hagar in African American Biblical Appropriation” in ed. Phyllis Trible and Letty Russel, Hagar. Sarah, and their Children (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 183). Hagar dramatizes how the work of revelation, of seeing and uncovering, can emerge from a resilient endurance, an ultimately unquenchable hope.
Like Hagar, so many people in the LGBTQ community, and particularly in the trans community, have at one point or another found ourselves in situations of intense oppression, isolation and despair. Too many of us—and particularly trans women of color – have been harassed or assaulted – as several women have here in D.C. over the last week – have been denied access to resources from housing to healthcare. Too many of us have died. Many of us have at various points been unable to see beyond the horizon of the often multiple, intersectional margins mapped on our bodies. So often, the worlds we live in have either failed to see us, have stared at us, or have sought to erase us. In the midst of this wilderness, we have needed to seek out and see each other, to support and galvanize one another. For decades dedicated, local, grassroots community advocates and organizations have been engaging this work of sight. One to one, people have reached out to one another to say I see you, I care about you, I join with you in creating spaces for you to be and become who you are. These folks have held up the mirror to the systemic, interlocking oppressions that have held so many of us back: sexism and heterosexism, homophobia and transphobia, racism and classism. And now, strikingly, the wider public is also beginning to see. As Lavern Cox said in Time magazine a few weeks ago, “We are in a place now…where more and more trans people want to come forward and say ‘This is who I am.’… More of us are living visibly and pursuing our dreams visibly…” (Laverne Cox, Time, June 9, 2014: 40). Even as our communities make inspiring advances— particularly as states and municipalities increasingly pass non-discrimination legislation, as we increasingly gain access to healthcare, to change our legal documents, as we are able to marry each other – we need the blessing of such collaborative vision more than ever. We have survived because we have seen one another, been revelations to one another, have show one another resources we literally may not have been able to see or access on our own.
That is the kind of revelation my friend and colleague offered to me that morning thirteen years ago. What she did in a spacious and unassuming way was to see me, to walk across that circle of difference and to share what she saw. In that moment I knew in a way I had not before understood that I was not alone. In that moment I gained a new measure of courage to imagine more fully my life and vocation and the lives and vocations of others like me, to dream that one day this Episcopal Church family in which I grew up might join other traditions and inspire still others by embracing our gifts and leadership at all levels of its life. I am so grateful and proud to be in a Church that is now living into this charge. But more fundamentally I am moved by how our decisions are calling us into a deeper awareness of the mystery of the human person. For at the end of the day to respect the dignity of every human being—as we promise in our Baptismal Covenant—is to actively create space for the unfolding of our lifelong growth as members of Christ’s body, whoever we may be. Crucial to this is the work of seeing. But also crucial is the honoring of the limitations of our sight. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face,” says Paul. “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). As we behold one another in these days of celebration, may we honor the ways in which we have sustained one another with God’s unexpected promptings. May we give thanks for the unfolding mystery of our humanity. And may we revel in our participation in God’s ongoing project of revelation. May we shine.