I preached this sermon at the Queer Christian Fellowship Conference on January 13, 2019, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. The texts referenced are Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.
I want to tell you a story about the worst date I have ever been on. I went out for coffee with a guy who was studying to be a podiatrist (that isn’t the bad part), and we were making small talk. Now first date conversations are usually bad, but at one point we were literally talking about the weather. That’s when you know it’s not going to work out. So we’re making this awkward conversation and suddenly he asks, “Has your voice always been this high?” I skipped class to go on this date, y’all!
I answer, “Yes – it always has. I got bullied a lot in high school over it, but I’ve come to love and accept it as a part of who I am.”
He then says, “You know, I know exactly what that feels like, because my voice is so deep that when I order food at Chipotle, they can never understand what I’m saying.”
He was being really genuine, but I hate to say that years of suffering homophobic abuse in high school, enduring femmephobia from cis gay men, being misgendered every time I answer a phone, and feeling anxious just opening my mouth in public is really not the same as experiencing some awkwardness while trying to order a burrito.
I tell you that story to illustrate the way that many of us have been taught to express empathy for someone. When a loved one shares something hurtful that they’ve experienced with us, like a rough breakup or losing a job, we naturally want them to know we care, so we try to find a similar experience in our lives to show them that we’ve been there. The desire is noble – you want to connect with someone you care about in their moment of need and let them know that they’re not alone. But in bringing up your own experience to “match” theirs, you’re now centering your own story, and making them feel bad for you. Now if a person asks you directly if you’ve gone through something similar, then yes, it’s totally fine to bring up your experience. But otherwise, sharing your own pain isn’t the best way to express support; more often than not what someone needs in that moment is to know that you’re listening to them, not to feel assured that you know “exactly” what they’re going through and can offer them some sage advice. This is important because in the grander scheme of things, without properly practiced empathy, we cannot build authentic solidarity with other people in our movements for justice.
So how do we cultivate empathy?
We have to be aware of our privilege and our limitations. Even as LGBTQ people we may hold privilege over others. My struggles as a nonbinary queer able-bodied Latinx person are different from that of a cisgender, bisexual disabled Black woman. Although there may be aspects of our experiences that are similar, I cannot fully relate to her experience. White LGBTQ people do not share the same racialized experiences of LGBTQ people of color. Cisgender LGB and Q folks do not experience transphobia and may not fully understand the experiences of trans and gender nonconforming people, and so on. This awareness of our differences isn’t meant to divide us as some people claim, but it is to honor the journeys of all members of our community. So because we don’t know what it’s like, we must listen deeply and attentively to other people’s experiences.
In an intentional community that I was once a part of, we were trained to “resonate” with people’s stories, to listen deeply to what they were sharing, to notice the physical feelings and emotions their words brought up for us and share them with the other person. When someone shares a story with you, listen deeply and be aware of your body. Does it make you tense? Does it make you feel cold? Hurt? You can then gain a sense of what someone was feeling in that moment. Share those feelings with the other person. Let them know you see them and hear them. The point of empathy is to enter into someone’s experience, however brief, to make a connection with them and make them feel less alone in their pain and grief. It’s through making these connections that we can build better relationships both in our personal lives and in our movement work.
We celebrate today the moment when Jesus was baptized by his cousin John. Now we understand baptism as the washing away of sins – so it’s unusual that Jesus chose to do this, because he did not sin. But Jesus chose to do it, because Jesus is God entering into our experience. One of the names for Jesus is Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’, but I like to translate it as God’s solidarity with us. He knew what it was like to be human in the most intimate of ways. Jesus listened to people who didn’t hold power in his society, advocating for their concerns and naming them as loved by God when society treated them as anything but. When we talk about becoming more Christ-like, we should be practicing this level of empathy and concern for others. When we become empathetic, we learn to listen deeply to other people’s pain, to follow their lead rather assuming we know the best way to fix something. Jesus’ ministry models for us what it truly means to be in community with others.
It’s important to name that empathy and solidarity do not magically take away other people’s pain, because we cannot uproot unjust systems overnight, and it takes more than simply being in relationship with others. Empathy is the foundation of a much larger, longer struggle of life and death. We may not even see the fruits of our labor. But solidarity is a promise we make to each other, to make concrete our dreams for a world that is more loving and more beautiful than the oppressive nightmare we currently live in. In the passage from Isaiah this morning the text says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned”. God does not say, “You will walk through the waters and you will not get wet. You will walk through fire and you will not feel the heat.” But God does say I will be with you. When you’re rejected, when you aren’t treated with dignity, when you’re forgotten by other people, I will bring you through. This is God’s solidarity with us, in the person of Jesus Christ, and it is this love that embraces us with arms stretched out on the cross.
So today, let us recommit to building stronger connections with each other. Jesus shows us the way. Begin with listening to those around you, those who are different from you. Hear what their concerns are. Walk with them and amplify their voices. Enter into their experience. As you leave this conference today, I pray that your hearts continue to open, that you continue to develop stronger solidarity with others, so that together we can build a better world. Amen.