Making the Invisible Visible

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto Sermons and Reflections
Making the Invisible Visible
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Invisible people roll past us, walk among us, even speak to us . . . and what’s even stranger, we are sometimes invisible to them. This isn’t a fantasy movie, but instead, a strange fact of our existence, one that Passover urges us to challenge and change. For we can all be free only when the invisible becomes visible. We also celebrate Palm Sunday and the Transgender Day of Visibility this morning.

And we are honored to welcome the people of the Unitarian Free Church, Blaine, Washington, who are joining us this morning.

Worship leader: Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Special music: Aaron Lington, saxophone, Victoria Lington, piano

Follow along in the order of service: bit.ly/uucpa_oos_20210328.

Video of the entire March 28, 2021 service with copyrighted and private information removed.

Transcript:

Readings

Exodus 1:1-12

The last chapters of the book of Genesis told how the Israelite Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, became an advisor to the king of Egypt, the pharaoh, and, through his wise counsel, helped Egypt prepare for a long famine so that the country prospered. Our first reading picks up the story, with the first twelve verses of the book of Exodus.

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.

From the memoir Redefining Realness, Janet Mock

“Living by other people’s definitions and perceptions shrinks us to shells of ourselves, rather than complex people embodying multiple identities.

“I can’t help but marvel at the resiliency of trans people who sacrifice so much to be seen and accepted as they are. Despite those sacrifices, trans people are still wrongly viewed as being confused. It takes determination and clear, thought-out conviction, not confusion, to give up many of the privileges that [we do] to be visibly [ourselves.]”

Sermon: Making the Invisible Visible

Passover, you probably know, is the festival of freedom. During this weeklong holiday, which began last night, Jews tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt: how their ancestors were enslaved there and how, through God’s miracles and Moses’s leadership, they gained their liberation.

Something else that runs through the story is a theme of invisibility and visibility. It’s a theme that arises in two other celebrations this week: Palm Sunday, which is today, and the International Transgender Day of Visibility, which is always on March 31. And this matter of visibility and invisibility has everything to do with freedom.

As the story of Exodus begins, the Israelites have become uncomfortably visible to the king of Egypt, the pharaoh. They have been in Egypt (we learn later) for many generations, several hundred years, and it seems they have been living under the radar for much of that time. But not any longer. Now he notices them: the way they are growing more numerous. And he responds by setting taskmasters over them to enslave them. Visibility, it seems, is a liability.

On the other hand, visibility is an asset. For a long time, the pharaohs respected the Israelites living among them because they remembered what Joseph had done for them. He and his brothers were the first Israelites to settle in Egypt, and all the Israelites who are now there are their descendants, benefiting from this family reputation. Now along comes a king who, in the words of the text, “knew not Joseph”—he didn’t know, or chose not to acknowledge, what this Israelite leader of generations before had done for the Egyptian people. He allowed Joseph’s memory to fade from his sight. And that invisibility was the beginning of the Israelites’ woes.

Which is it, then? Is it better to be seen or not to be seen?

Well . . . it depends. It depends on whether they are really seeing you . . . or seeing something else that they think is you.

Since we’re celebrating the Transgender Day of Visibility, it’s essential to note here, before I go on, that the point of such a celebration is not to compel trans people to be any more visible than they wish to be. No one has to reveal any part of their life story to anyone unless they want to. One of the great privileges of being cisgender, after all, is to have a match between the gender that others assume one to have and one’s internal sense of gender, and many trans people want nothing more than this. When they express the gender that they know to be theirs, they are claiming that same privilege for themselves: “I am a woman, full stop,” or “I am a man, end of story.” As Janet Mock also says, people often ask her “how it felt to be in the closet, to have been stealth.” She says,

These questions have always puzzled me. . . . I never hid my gender. Every day that I stepped out into the sunlight, unapologetically femme, I was a visible woman. People assume that I was in the closet because I didn’t disclose that I was assigned male at birth.

What people are really asking is “Why didn’t you correct people when they perceived you as a real woman?” Frankly, I’m not responsible for other people’s perceptions and what they consider real or fake.

Amen to that. She is a woman and she lives the woman’s life she wishes to live. In her memoir, Mock writes about how much she loved relocating to New York City, because unlike the people in the community where she grew up, no one there knew that she had once been assigned male. She could live free of the assumptions and projections that people tended to bring along with that knowledge.

Choosing what we do and do not share about our stories is not invisibility. We all have aspects of ourselves that we choose to share with very few people, or only one, or none. That’s just privacy; dignity; freedom.

What is invisibility is feeling that we do not really have a choice. The Transgender Day of Visibility celebrates trans people who are out and proud, yes—and it also celebrates being exactly as visible as one wishes to be, no more or less. So the foundation of freedom is safety, and cis people help provide that for trans and non-binary people by pledging to them that they can be themselves without the threat of violence, cruelty, or ostracism.

But freedom requires more than that. For trans people, choosing to share their story can, ironically, cause them to disappear behind a veil of other people’s assumptions, fears, beliefs, and prejudgments. The moment a person utters the sentence “I am trans,” if the people around them can only see that label, then the person, as they truly are, unique, complex, and irreducible, becomes, for all intents and purposes, invisible.

This phenomenon was described vividly, heartbreakingly, by someone who found himself to be invisible for another reason. The narrator of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man introduces himself this way:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe. Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids, and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Do they pass right by and not even register that someone is there? No. Rather, he observes,

It is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

Have you ever been deep in an emotionally charged conversation when suddenly you feel as if the person you’re talking to isn’t seeing you at all, but someone else? The assumptions they make are so off-base that they must be remembering past interactions with other people.

At these moments, we realize someone is seeing us in a way so completely shaped by their assumptions that they don’t really see us. What they see is what they expect to see. Everything we do and say is interpreted through that expectation, and because we have so little effect on that interpreation, what they are seeing, essentially, is themselves.

And we’ve all been on the other side . . . haven’t we? As we move through the world, seeing strangers around us, are we aware of who they really are? –their childhoods, their worries, their loves? Of course we aren’t. And yet we sometimes fill them in, making assumptions or at least guesses about what other people are like based on the tiniest snippets: the clothes they wear, a few moments of overheard conversation, even their resemblance to someone we used to know. In other words, we can’t possibly be seeing them. We’re looking in a distorting mirror.

That’s the experience of Ellison’s narrator, the invisible man. He is invisible because he is a black man in a land where racism makes it impossible for many people to see a black man as he is.

What about those other “strangers in a strange land,” the people of Israel living in Egypt? For a long time, they lived in the shelter of invisibility. One wonders whether it was a chosen invisibility—chosen, to be sure, under duress, as a survival skill, an adaptation to a vulnerable and frightening position: refugees living as a minority in a powerful country. Maybe they realized that if the king saw how powerful they were growing, they would be in danger.

As bell hooks says, “Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power—not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.”

Visibility, as the Israelites learned, can be dangerous. So one way to stay safe is to cloak oneself in the invisibility known as assimilation.

One midrash—a creative speculative story—about Exodus imagines that when Moses, guided by God, led the people out of Egypt, many Israelites chose not to leave—maybe as many as four out of five. They had created a quiet life for themselves there. They had blended in; they had assimilated.

But if they thought that that would preserve their freedom, they thought wrong. They were still the dreaded minority, the people who kept growing and multiplying, the people the Egyptians feared because they knew that no matter how much the Israelites blended in, they were not the same. And the Egyptians chose to be afraid of that difference: to coerce it into hiding, eradicate it through assimilation, deny it, anything but embrace it.

We’ve tried that over and over, we human beings: faced with difference, so often, we try to shut it out, like the U.S. government did with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, or a later administration did with a proposed wall along the southern border. We try to force difference into hiding, as we’ve done by allowing discrimination against those who are openly transgender, discrimination in housing, jobs and healthcare. We try to ignore difference, as we’ve done by segregating ourselves politically so that we need not hear differing opinions–we know they’re out there somewhere, but we don’t want them near us. And we try to pressure those who are different to assimilate, as we do when we seek to control how others express themselves in spaces we consider “ours”: I will welcome anyone into “my” neighborhood as long as they make sure their houses and front yards look like mine; new people can be a part of “my” church as long as they don’t suggest changes in the music or have a different theology than I do.

By flexing our power in these ways, we humans seek to cast a spell of invisibility over anyone who is different. But there are always those of us who persist in our difference: who will not be shut out, who will not hide, who will not cease being ourselves. In those moments, we insist on being visible. And whenever we do that, we bring a precious gift, the gift that only we can bring: our authentic selves.

Assimilation is one response to being a minority within the dominant culture. (As we all are in one aspect or another.) To assimilate is to change oneself to fit into that culture. It is a deliberate invisibility: hiding, or erasing, one’s differences. We might be an oddball kid who hates pop culture, fitting in with the crowd by pretending to love the Avengers and swapping stories about television shows. We might be a first-generation American letting our parents’ language slip away from us so that we can be a “real American.”

Assimilation is incompatible with freedom; we have given up the freedom to be ourselves. It is a kind of belonging—but a belonging whose price is invisibility.

What if, instead of assimilation, we insisted on integration? On being fully visible as our true selves? Belonging does not come quite so readily then; it is hard won. But when won, it is true belonging.

Integration is adapting to the culture in some ways, allowing it to affect us, to change us; but it is also changing the culture by being ourselves. This is the concept of ubuntu that we heard in our centering words: we are people through other people. We change each other. If the change only goes one way, as in assimilation, then no one has the full benefit of transformation, of ubuntu, in which we become fully ourselves by being fully a part.

Integral means whole. In integration, everyone involved remains whole, and together they make a greater whole. Whereas to assimilate means “to make like, copy, imitate, assume the form of; feign, pretend.”

We heard the story of Palm Sunday from Dan. Why, oh why, we may wonder, did Jesus come riding into Jerusalem in that splashy way? Riding a donkey colt, the way the prophet said the Messiah would? Bringing all that attention on himself: the attention of the crowd, and the attention of the people in charge? Dan suggested that he was surprised by it, and probably he was. But he could have avoided any risk by just carrying on teaching quietly, to little groups of students here and there.

But his vision was greater than that. To live into his whole vision, to be his whole self, he couldn’t adapt to the fears of the religious authorities, the angry bigotry of the government. He couldn’t pretend to be other than he was. They might choose to willfully misunderstand him, but he wasn’t going to make it easier for them. He wasn’t going to assimilate.

And the people who left Egypt instead of slipping back into invisibility—they asserted the whole of themselves, insisted on freedom. The freedom to worship their god, who was invisible. This greatly confused the king of Egypt. This invisible god could not be reduced to anyone’s assumptions. This was the god who, when Moses asked it its name, said, “I AM.” Jesus, too, riding into Jerusalem, was asserting, “I AM.” The people hurriedly gathering up a few things in the night, carrying their unrisen bread, and escaping across the Red Sea to freedom, each of them was uttering an implacable “I AM.” Transgender and genderqueer and nonbinary people living the way they wish, persevering in following their own vision for their lives, each of them is saying, “I AM.” When we live this “I AM”—this refusal to feign or pretend to be something we are not, this stubborn insistence on integrating, being whole, instead of assimilating—we bring a gift to everyone we encounter. Instead of showing them a distorted mirror in which they will see only a confounded version of themselves, learning nothing, we bring ourselves, which will help them to become themselves.

And when someone else offers us the gift of their true selves, and we do not shun their difference or pressure them to erase their difference, but accept the gift as it is, as they are, then we, too, become more free.

So may it be. So may we do.