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Text: 1 Samuel 17: 1 – 49
I’ve told this story before. I was a child, I think 6 or 7, and was going to be in the church Christmas pageant. There were a lot of us kids, and only so many major parts, and all those go to the older children anyway—the ones who can remember their lines—and the younger kids are the only ones willing to dress up like cows or sheep and “moo” or “baa” to the howling laughter of adults. So, they said to the rest of us, “Boys, you will be shepherds and girls, you’ll be angels.” And I started crying my eyes out because I wanted to be an angel.
The girls were going to wear white junior choir robes with tinsel wings and halos and the boys would wear terrycloth bathrobes and kitchen towels on their heads. I didn’t want to wear a bathrobe; I wanted to be pretty. When I finally calmed down enough to tell them why I was crying, I was allowed to be an angel, and I was so happy: the only boy who got to be an angel. And now I’ve gone into a profession where I get to wear a white robe all the time, every week.
You’ll see why I’m bringing this up in a few minutes. For now, let’s talk about David.
David Needs to Take the Armour Off
“Saul clothed David with his armour; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armour, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.’ So David removed them.” (1 Sam 17:38 – 39)
David can only face Goliath by taking off his armour. Saul gives him the best armour; it would protect David in ordinary circumstances; it would keep him safe from the arrows of the Philistines. But it will not keep him safe from Goliath. Goliath will crush him with this armour on because he can’t move.
It’s a coat of mail, just like Goliath’s. It’s made out of links of chain; he is literally and figuratively being put in chains. To other warriors, good armour is a source of pride—you wouldn’t dream of going into battle without your armour on; every link of chain in that mail is as strong as the links between battle-brothers that make an army strong—but to David they feel just the same as the chains of a prisoner. He feels ridiculous wearing it all. This armour . . . it isn’t him; “I’m not used to it,” he says. He is a shepherd boy; he is no warrior, not like Goliath at any rate. He will face Goliath, because it is what he must do, but he can’t do so with this armour on.
During the reading I showed a photo of Michelangelo’s David, but of his face. You rarely see the face because the statue is tall and you look at it from below. From below, you see the perfectly sculpted, muscular, youthful figure of David. But if you look at it from above, you see his face. And you see that he is terrified. He is naked before a giant. But he is honestly, truly, authentically scared. It’s who he is.
Vulnerability and the Image of God
I talk a lot about needing to see the image of God in each other. It’s a theological concept called the Imago Dei, the “image of God.” “So God made humankind in His image; in the image of God She created them; male and female They created them,” says Genesis 1. Our responsibility to each other, to love one another, is all based on the fact that we each bear the image of God.
The image of God that we receive through the Christian story is a vulnerable image, a broken image. “Here is my body; broken for you.” It is not the image of a mighty warrior or towering giant. We’re so used to thinking of God in terms of power—almighty, omnipotent, invincible—but the story the Gospel tells us is one of a God who empties Herself of that power and chooses to become vulnerable, in human form.
Goliath represents traditional strength; he is masculine and powerful. David represents God’s strength, a strength that is found not in violence, or in safety, but in vulnerability and authenticity. The same strength and power that Christ displayed by dying on the cross. David stands before Goliath without armour, but he stands before the giant as he truly is, without any pretension, without any macho posturing. Here I am, he says, and I will face my giant. You have armour and weapons; I have faith.
God created David in Their image. God is with David not in armour, but in vulnerability. In authenticity. In honesty. The David who is naked and scared looks more like the image of God than the David dressed up in Saul’s best armour.
All of us, we need to be vulnerable. Our society is obsessed with safety and we hurt so many people trying to keep ourselves safe. We cause so many problems because rather than claiming the image of a vulnerable God, we try to claim the image of a powerful one. We dress up in armour trying to be Goliath, rather than stripping down to be David. We need to be honest and authentic about who we truly are, because that’s the only way we can truly love one another as God loves us. It’s the only way we can see His image in each other.
The armour we put on may make us feel safe, but it only weighs us down. Whether we pretend to be something we’re not, whether we’re scared of how others may react, whether we’re scared of losing something like our wealth or security, we need to be ourselves. No armour or weapons; what we will have is faith, hope, and love.
I Need to Take This Armour Off
I’ve always felt weird preaching on the stories of David, because I shared my name with him. It seemed, I don’t know, kind of presumptuous, as if I’m talking about myself, as this famous Biblical hero. That when I talk about David needing to stand before Goliath without armour and without pretension, I’m talking about myself. And, in a way, I am.
But my name isn’t David. My name is Emily Catherine Cooke. I am transgender. I am a trans woman. I can’t wear this armour anymore; it is weighing me down. I cannot walk in it. As safe as it feels, I need to take it off.
I know, right? It almost feels like it came out of nowhere for me too. But this is who I am. I think back to that little kid who wanted to be an angel, and I know this is who I am. If it weren’t true, I wouldn’t be this scared; I wouldn’t feel this vulnerable.
I wasn’t lying about who I was. Saul, the king, gave me this armour and I tried my best to put it on. I thought it was the only option—soldiers do not go into battle without armour. So, I tried. I tried to walk in that coat of male in my own way. I obviously didn’t get on board with toxic masculinity, pretending to be a man’s man. But I tried to incorporate it into who I was. I’ve just reached a point where I realize that it isn’t going to work. I cannot move in this.
I have for so long felt only a connection to the crucified Christ, not just in terms of longing for my true gender identity, but in my relationship with Christopher and his eating disorder, with a vague sense of depression and anxiety I’ve felt my whole life, with looking at the world and how things are going with climate change and inequality. I pictured the God who was with me and I saw Her on a cross. I didn’t image Them with me at the empty tomb. I have never really felt a connection to the risen Christ, and I almost felt in a way that I didn’t deserve to. I was a person of privilege. Resurrection was for the truly oppressed.
I never really thought I could be happy. Not that I didn’t deserve to; everyone deserves to be happy. Not that anything was necessarily preventing me from being happy, but that it simply wasn’t an option. Like trying to find the right road to turn down to drive to Australia; that road just doesn’t exist. And I always felt like I had the hardest time putting myself out there; that in every social situation I had to force myself to smile, to engage, to simply talk, to do anything except run away and hide. And I thought it was just from being shy, an introvert. I disliked the forced happiness that I thought social interaction required.
I could preach the crucified Christ with honesty and experience, and I always felt that was the Christ I had to preach to a people of privilege, but not the resurrected Christ; He would always be an abstract idea for me.
I didn’t realize that I felt that way because the armour was weighing me down and that I had to take it off. I managed, and I thought that meant that I didn’t really have it all that bad, that the armour wasn’t that heavy. Until I started taking off the pieces one by one. Admitting it to myself, admitting it to others every person I come out to, every step I take to transition, standing before you right now; it feels like liberation, and it’s a feeling I do not think I have felt before. I have felt moments of happiness, yes, but being happy, living in it, abiding in it, this is something so different. It feels like I can move. And yes, there’s a giant out there; there’s a world full of people who hate me, a world still full of hatred and greed, but my God I can move.
I need to do this for the sake of my job. I need to be able to proclaim the risen Christ with as much authenticity of experience as I can with the crucified Christ. I need to be born again. I need to be present with you, as I am; even when we come back together, it would still feel like I was only talking to you from somewhere far away, through a screen.
I need to do this for the sake of my life, for the sake of being real in my relationship with my husband, with my family, with my friends; for the sake of being real in my relationship with my God; for the sake of being real in my relationship with you as my parishioners. In all of these, I cannot truly be in relationship if I am not truly myself. I cannot say to God, “Here I am,” if it is not me saying that.
I need to do this simply for the sake of being able to move. Like David taking off the armour of Saul to stand naked before Goliath; I have to stand as I truly am before you. Here I stand; I can do no other.
My Trans Identity in the Image of God
So, here I am. Emily, not David. I am in the image of God as a woman. As a trans person. As a person whose assigned gender—the gender people gave me when I was born and saw that I had a certain body—doesn’t match how I truly feel inside. It’s a very complicated image, but I believe that God’s image is complex.
That people are trans, that we don’t fit into the neat boxes of the gender binary, that isn’t a mistake; it’s a gift that makes humanity more beautiful. A diverse humanity looks more like the image of the triune God than a people where everyone is the same. For gender, sexuality, race, religion, ability, anything. As a trans woman, I claim the image of God. Thou loving Father, and I thy true daughter.
Something my theology professor in seminary, Thomas Reynolds, said in his book Vulnerable Communion, was, “Vulnerability and weakness carry a secret power because they radiate with divine plentitude, a surplus of love that ruptures conventional categories of instrumental value. Each being is loved into being, precious in its own right and because of its unique difference . . .” He was talking about disability, but in other words, the “mistake” of being transgender forces us to realize and affirm the fact that God loves us unconditionally, regardless of whether we are “useful” or made how we’re “supposed” to be made. She is love. The image of God is love. Being trans is not a lesser way of being one’s gender, not a mistake.
I am not a mistake. I don’t think this can be a mistake; it feels too wonderful to be who I am. There is something beautiful and amazing about being trans that I find hard to put into words.
Gender dysphoria is the medical diagnosis; dysphoria is just a Greek word that means “bad feelings.” And I never actually felt particularly bad, being male. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a man. Gender euphoria is a term I’ve only ever heard talked about by trans people: the good feelings that you get when you are living into your true gender. When someone calls me “Emily” or “she or her,” I feel giddy, unbelievably happy from such a small thing. It’s the feeling I get when I am dressed how I want to be and I see myself in the mirror and smile, and I have never smiled before when seeing myself in the mirror.
When gay people chose that word to describe themselves, they chose it because in early 20th century, people said you were supposed to be miserable if you were homosexual, “struggling with homosexual feelings.” You were supposed to hate it, but instead they chose a word that means “happy,” because it is a happy feeling to truly be yourself. The trans experience is so often presented as depressing; the statistics for attempted suicide for trans youth are really horrifying—nearly half of trans youth if they’re in an unsupportive household—but, that isn’t the whole story. This feeling of euphoria; there’s nothing like it and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It can’t be a mistake. For the first time in my life, I am happy.
I believe that God wants me to be happy. I don’t think They made a mistake with me. Being trans isn’t a mistake. Transphobia is a mistake; our narrow conception of gender and tying it to anatomy—insisting that every baby born with a penis is a boy and every baby with a vulva is a girl—is a mistake, and it’s one that we make, not God. God just makes us in His image.
This is who I am. Happy, free, and in love with myself in a way I’ve never been before: like I finally see myself as God sees me; like I can love myself as He loves me. Like I can move. This happiness, this gender euphoria, is also the image of God. It is not a mistake; it is not a distortion of God’s image, but perfectly clear, made in Her likeness. In this, I finally find my connection to the risen Christ. My “hallelujahs” aren’t cold and broken anymore. My chains are gone.
Time to Face the Giant
So, what this means is that, simply, my name is Emily. The Reverend Emily Cooke. When you refer to me in the third person, that is my name, and I ask you to use feminine pronouns: she, her, hers. I am a woman.
This is the last step I am taking to make this known. I have come out to myself, to my husband, to my family, my friends, my God . . . and now to you. That’s it; it’s public now, there’s no one left for me to tell. Here I stand; I can do no other. I cannot be anyone except for who I am.
I have to be vulnerable. I have to be me, and I have to be your minister, I have to be willing to answer questions. About moments like when I cried my eyes out because I wanted to be a girl and be an angel in the church Christmas pageant.
I am going on vacation for two weeks, and when I get back, I will be myself. And we will get to meet each other all over again. For real this time, without the armour. I want to hear all your questions; I want to answer them as best I can. I want to talk and laugh with you. I want to be able to hug you. And, hopefully, we will do all that. We will face the giants of the world together, as a people of God bound together in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. And I think . . . I will be happy. I will be me, as I am. I will be able to move. Amen.