I preached this sermon the week of October 5 as part of our Fall Justice Series. The text is Galatians, 3:23-29.
In November of 1969, a man named Tom Andrews wrote a letter
to the Editorial Board of the New York Times.
The letter was entitled, “Why do they hate long hair?”
In it, Mr. Andrews told the story of sitting in a cab at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue
waiting for a red light to change.
In front of the cab, a teenaged boy wearing bellbottoms and a sweater crossed the street,
his hair swinging down to his shoulders.
Mr. Andrews writes,
“The driver turned to me just before the light changed,
and with deliberate hatred in his voice, said,
‘You see that?
Boy, if I could get outta this cab right now,
I’d go up and whip that kid and shave his skull naked.’”
Mr. Andrews wrote to the Times in defense of this young men, telling not only his story,
but that of another pair of long haired young men he met who one night were thrown in jail
for illegal possession of a very dangerous weapon: a pocketknife.
This past summer Peggy Orenstein observed that the “last time classroom attire was this contentious”
was the 1970’s, when most of the high-profile cases centered on boys and hair length.
“Young men were sometimes attacked by their peers.
In an all-too-familiar scenario, it was the victims who were blamed for such assaults,
accused of provoking classmates with their “distracting” appearance.
By 1974, there were 150 court cases involving young men’s [haircuts].”
Looking back, contention over the length of a boy’s hair may seem antiquated or quaint.
But the vitriol and violence of the cabby’s remarks are neither.
I’d whip that kid and shave his skull naked.
The cabby was imagining actions intended not just to hurt the boy,
but to put him in his place.
There’s a sense of dominance in his words --
He wants to show him.
There’s a certain kind of anger that tends to spill out in our country
when citizens feel that some sense of boundaries are being violated.
That cabbie felt that the boundaries -- the borders that kept his world in tact --
that kept men in some roles in women in others,
were somehow threatened by this young man with long hair.
And his response was one of imagined dominance:
he imagined himself reasserting those boundaries violently.
Paul writes a letter to church community in Galatia.
They have not yet seen violence, at least not yet,
but they too are struggling with the very real questions of boundaries and borders.
Paul is writing to a group of people who are trying to figure out how to live together as a church.
And some of those people were raised all their lives,
with the notion that boundaries, very strict boundaries,
were what kept them holy.
What made it possible for God to dwell with them.
There were important rules that needed to be followed
to keep their Jewish community in tact in the midst of a religiously diverse world.
Circumcision, observing the Sabbath, keeping food laws --
these were customs and traditions that told them who they were.
These were the ways they ordered their lives and understood themselves as faithful.
And now there were a bunch of Pagans who didn’t do any of that stuff,
but wanted to follow their God.
Wanted to follow their teacher, Jesus.
It must have been very unnerving for the Jewish-born members of the community,
to sit down to eat a meal alongside these Pagans
who ate whatever they wanted -- all sorts of stuff that Jewish people saw as unclean.
Maybe something like a life-long vegan watching his friend dig into a spit-roasted pig.
Where were the boundaries?
Where were the borders?
If these Pagans wanted to follow Christ,
shouldn’t they learn at least some of the traditions that Christ followed?
Abide by at least some of the boundaries that keep life holy and sacred
and in tact?
Paul’s letter arrives in the midst of this roiling controversy.
Tension is high every time the community gathers,
but even higher that night as they read Paul’s letter at worship.
They gather in close to hear just to see who’s side he will come down on.
Maybe he’ll say new Christians don’t have to be circumcised
but DO have to keep the food laws. Or maybe the opposite!
But Paul does something unexpected.
He doesn’t mediate, he doesn’t compromise.
He throws out all the boundaries.
All those rules we followed,
he tells us,
those were good.
They were important to how Jewish people lived.
But now that Jesus has come, and given us the gift of faith,
we don’t need those rules anymore.
All the boundaries have disappeared.
Now the only thing that marks us is that we are in Christ Jesus.
There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female.
We are all one in Christ.
It’s a shocking pronouncement, in Paul’s time and in ours.
Everything that keeps us separate from one another has melted away in Jesus.
And we are one.
What would our angry cabbie in 1969 have to say about this passage?
Yeah, sure, that kid has long hair,
but in Christ there is no male and female!
The boundaries that once defined us have been erased!
I’m not sure he would have gone for it.
Paul’s bold proclamation that “in Christ there is no male or female”
raises some questions.
Does he mean only that men and women should be treated the same?
Or that when we’ve been baptized into Christ we really don’t have gender anymore?
Or does he mean that we are who we are,
but that our gender is reflected in Christ,
in the same way we were each made in God’s image?
It’s a tangle of questions too complex to untangle tonight,
but suffice it to say, Paul’s proclamation is bold,
and confuses our standard boundaries when it comes to not only gender,
but religious identity and class status.
Those who were slaves and those who were free.
Basically everything that defines us, then and now.
Looking at gender though,
Paul’s statement opens up a lot of room for people
who’ve felt that the boundaries we have set up around male and female,
the containers we sort people into, if you will,
don’t leave enough room for them to simply be the people that God made them.
The unnamed boy in 1979 grew his hair long, and in doing so
rejected a container that somebody wanted to put him in.
He ditched the crew cut and muddied the waters around what was masculine and what was feminine.
And it set people on edge.
My little friend Adam, who’s five years old and doesn’t really like soccer much,
like the boys in his class do.
But he really likes to play with dolls and dress up in costumes,
like capes, and sometimes princess dresses.
And it sets people on edge.
Or Jenny, who used to be Jim,
buy now looks pretty much like an attractive soccer mom
as she teaches writing and shuttles her kids to fiddle lessons.
It can set people on edge.
You may be familiar with this idea that gender is more of a spectrum
than a binary,
and that we fall somewhere along that spectrum.
Or these ideas may be new to you.
You may be aware that some among us have stories
of being born into bodies that never felt right,
and yearn to wear different clothes or be called a different name,
or make our bodies reflect the person we understand ourselves to be.
Or these ideas may be new to you.
But I don’t think you don’t have to be transgender to have an experience
of feeling like the containers you’ve been asked to fit in
don’t feel quite right.
As a ten-year-old I cut my hair so short
that people used to mistake me for a boy.
I decided to play trombone and spent junior high and high school
leading sectionals with the brass players.
I was only girl in the room most of the time.
I climbed trees but hated sports,
I liked to wear dresses but didn’t care about hair and makeup.
And I always had this sneaking feeling
that there was something about me that wasn’t quite right.
I read the Anne of Green Gables books,
drinking up stories of this redheaded girl
who was all spark and imagination, never thought to be very pretty,
and didn’t quite fit in anywhere.
We all have a little trouble finding the right container.
That’s because each one of us is more complicated
than the selection available.
Still, blurring the boundaries sets people on edge.
The National Gay and Lesbian task force reported in 2011
that 61% of transgendered people report being the victims of physical assault,
64% report being the victims of sexual assault,
with even higher numbers in both these categories for people of color,
especially African Americans.
19% were refused medical care by doctors.
Statistics are hazy on the number transgendered people murdered in acts of hate-based violence,
but it is clear that transgendered people, especially those who are African American,
face extraordinarily disproportionate rates of violence.
Apparently blurring the boundaries
sets people a little on edge.
This is violence designed to put people back in their containers.
I wonder what Jesus would have thought about a young man
wearing bell bottoms and long hair in 1969.
Or about my five-year-old friend Adam’s delight in princess dresses.
I seem to remember Jesus crossing all kinds of boundaries.
He made friends with the “loose women” he found hanging out at the well
and ate with them too.
Even Samaritans who the Israelites weren’t even supposed to talk to.
He healed on the sabbath when everybody thought it was breaking the law,
he shared supper with his friends and not his family,
because he was creating a new kind of family.
One that had no boundaries.
The hindsight of history isn’t so kind to the boundary-keepers of our world.
Somehow the people interested in keeping our boundaries strong and secure
seem to always be the ones who are standing behind fire hoses
or riot gear
Who are building walls or staging rage-soaked protests
to try and keep some imaginary line firmly in tact.
To keep Ruby Bridges out of their all white school.
Or a couple of people who love each other from tying the knot.
There are other boundaries we can think of.
Other borders, other walls that,
through the years, we’ve battled to keep high and secure,
capped with barbed wire.
To make sure everybody stays where they’re supposed to.
There is no longer Jew or Greek, Paul writes,
No longer slave or free, no longer male and female;
for all you are one in Christ Jesus.
And we think, that can’t be right...can it?
But as the old hymn goes, the love of God is broader
than the measure of our minds.*
And perhaps the boundaries and containers we cling to
are, for the most part, human-made.
Let’s lose our interest in drawing lines,
in building boundaries,
and making containers.
Jesus isn’t interested in any of it.
Jesus is making a new kind of family
and your hair can be as long or as short as you want it to be.
There are no containers here.
*There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, Frederick William Faber.