Transgender Day of Remembrance is a day set aside each year to remember those who were killed in the past year because of their gender identity or expression. Every year it seems that the list of names gets longer. Every year the list is primarily transgender women, almost all of whom are women of color.
Today I want to offer a reflection in two parts.
Anytime I prepare for Transgender Day of Remembrance it’s hard not to be overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the list of names. Overwhelmed by the brutality of the way each of them was murdered; as if they weren’t even people. Overwhelmed by the fact that so many on the list were so young.
In the midst of being overwhelmed it’s easy to become immobile. To feel like there is nothing we can do. That the sheer scope of the problem is too much. Because let’s be clear, the problem is huge. It’s not just violence against transgender or gender non-conforming people. It’s also misogyny and racism and poverty. It’s the way all of those things intersect to make being a transgender woman of color extremely dangerous. It’s vital that as we commemorate these lives today we don’t lose sight of how all of these things intersect.
The Scripture we read earlier from Ezekiel starts with Ezekiel being led to a field that is covered in dry bones. These are the bones of people who died in exile from their homes. These are the bones of people killed by countries who were bigger and stronger than them. These were the bones of Ezekiel’s people and yet Ezekiel was spared. I imagine that as he looked over this field of bones he felt despair. He felt heartbreak. He felt overwhelmed. And it seems, almost, as if God is taunting him; “Ezekiel, can these bones live?”
In that moment I’m sure Ezekiel wanted to say a few choice words. Maybe he wanted to lash out. “I don’t know God, maybe if you had been there they wouldn’t have died! Maybe if you had protected your people! Maybe if the world wasn’t so messed up.” Instead he offers a kind of sarcastic retort, and in that retort sums up all of his anger and despair, “I don’t know, God, can they?” You tell me. You saw all this happen. You tell me.
In the Gospel, we read of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Jesus gets word that Lazarus is sick and instead of rushing right to him, he waits. He stays put for a couple more days and then finally heads to see the family. Lazarus dies while Jesus is waiting. When he sees Martha he greets her and she has a response much like Ezekiel’s, “Lord, if you had been here he wouldn’t have died. And again it seems that there is a taunt: Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha is like, well, yeah, I guess. At the resurrection. But that doesn’t help me now. I am grieving now.
And this is us: We are grieving now. We are maybe overwhelmed. Maybe outraged. Maybe angry at the silence of God or at the inaction of God. Or maybe we are overwhelmed with our own ignorance; how much we don’t know about transgender lives, how much we don’t know about the ways that racism and misogyny and poverty intersect. Maybe we are overwhelmed at how to deal with our own privilege in the world; overwhelmed with our complicity in systems and structures of violence and oppression. Maybe we are grieving the loss of people we know.
There can be a tendency to rush past our hard feelings. To rush toward redemption or comfort or resurrection. But for the next bit, we need to sit with the hard stuff. We need to sit with our complicity and ignorance and grief and pain. We need to be overwhelmed.
Beautiful ones we remember you. We honor you.
As we sit with our discomfort we remember that we belong to a tradition that talks a lot about death. For followers of Jesus we believe that death is not the end. The story we find ourselves in is one where an innocent person was killed by the powers that be. Killed for being himself. Killed for standing up for justice. And the powers that be thought that was it; his death would end the movement. But it didn’t. With his resurrection he told the world that God had the final say. God has power even over death.
Now, I grew up in a tradition that rushed toward resurrection without taking time to grieve. And we also believed that since things would be better in Heaven we pretty much just had to wait it out here on earth. But I want to take us back to our texts for a moment because they point out something vital.
In Ezekiel, after he gets sarcastic with God, God gives him a job. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones and make them live. And after he had prophesied and the bones became bodies there was no breath in them and so Ezekiel was told to call to the four winds and he did and the bodies were breathing. Resurrected.
So, too, in the story of Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus tells the people gathered to roll away the stone. Then he yells, Lazarus, come out! And when Lazarus does Jesus tells the people gathered to unbind him.
In each of these stories God brings people back to life, but not without help. The situations that led to resurrection were brought on by people will to do the hard work. Ezekiel was willing to prophesy and to call on the winds. The people gathered were willing to roll away the stone and to unbind Lazarus. And in the mist of the action they were all guided by a deep belief that death does not have the final word; that God is more powerful than even death.
We must prophesy so that people who are treated like trash, whose bodies are discarded, are given dignity and honor. We must name them and remember their names. And we must speak up to say that this kind of violence must stop.
We must roll away the stone that prevents people from having access to proper medical care, to safe jobs where they can work with dignity, to safe places to live. We must roll away the stones of racism and misogyny and transphobia. We must roll away our own complicity in systems that keep people oppressed.
And we must unbind people. We must unbind the messages that say transgender women are less than, we must unbind the media that makes transgender lives a joke, we must unbind the stories that say that some people are more worthy of love and respect and life than others.
We are certainly a people of the resurrection. But that doesn’t mean that we sit around and wait for it. No, we must work for it. We must work for a world where people are valued. We must work for a world in which there are no longer systems that oppress. We must work for a world that tears down white privilege and misogynistic systems so that women of color can be free. We must do this work. Our faith demands it of us. Our humanity demands it of us.
So let us believe in the resurrection of the body; and let us work for it as well. May it be so.