(Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) By Rev. Rick King—When we discussed these two texts on Tuesday morning in Bible study this week, we all pretty much agreed that we liked Paul’s words in the second one a LOT better than Zephaniah’s in the first. Zephaniah is harsh, his God is angry at something the people have done, and seems to have it in for them. It fits all the negative stereotypes of a vengeful God that turn people off on Christianity.
More than that, it overturns our expectations for the Sunday before Thanksgiving: In normal years, we expect—indeed, we may feel entitled to—an early celebration of Thanksgiving, where we can look back and count our blessings. And this year would seem to be a season in our church’s life that brings forth more praise and thanks than usual for all that God is doing. And in Zephaniah, it seems from the context that the people he’s speaking to were expecting something different from him, as well—a message congratulating them on how well they were doing as God’s people.
I think this is important, because today is not only the Sunday before Thanksgiving, but also our observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance, which was started in 1999 to remember and mourn the lives taken by transphobia-motivated violence. At this time of year, as the temperatures drop and the nights become long in the Northern Hemisphere, the seasons in the Christian Year invite us to turn inward and get more reflective. Two weeks ago, All Saints’ Day reminded us of the shortness of life and the faith legacy of people close to us who have died. In two more weeks, we will begin the season of Advent, when we are invited to prepare for the coming of Jesus by doing a spiritual housecleaning of sorts.
Don’t worry, it won’t all be introspective: We have Schubert’s Mass in C and “Just a Lowly Camel,” this year’s Christmas pageant, coming in the two Sundays after that! But as a church, we need to be able to look at hard things, and take a hard look at ourselves and the human condition, without shrinking. Beware of a church that can’t do this, in which everything needs to be sweetness and light all the time; beware a church that can’t do dark. Not everything is gloomy all the time, but not everything is all good.
So, to set the context a little bit more: Both of our readings deal with something called “the Day of the Lord,” a time of reckoning and taking stock, and if you and I were doing such an inventory of our lives, both Zephaniah and Paul would prompt us to ask how we’re doing as people of faith—both in the gratitude department, AND the “Allies” department. After all, things are different in the world than we would like them to be, and part of a prophet’s role is to name things for what they are, and that’s what Zephaniah is doing. He might be saying to us that today is a day of deep anguish at the culture of death that’s reemerging around the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people.
In the gratitude department, you and I would be remiss if we didn’t recognize and give thanks for the progress that’s been made in LGBTQ rights in the last decade; yet we can’t rest on our laurels, or what Zephaniah calls “our dregs”—the long-ago-won victories of the past. In the “ally” column of our inventory, we need to address our vigilance, or we will witness the undoing of all those victories won since Stonewall. And as a cisgender, straight white male, I know I really have a lot of catching up to do on trans rights and what life is like for members of the trans community. And what I can do as an ally.
In our inventory, the gratitude and the vigilant ally columns are related: true gratitude and a focus on the progress we’ve made encourages us and spurs us to further action, because we know we can make a real difference. At the same time, if we ask regularly how we’re doing as vigilant allies, we can keep from putting on rose-colored glasses and have a more accurate grasp on reality, which provides its own kind of motivation to be agents of change in the lives of those who are in peril.
If we were to imagine what Zephaniah and Paul might be saying to us on this Trans Day of Remembrance, it might go something like, “Beware of treating ONA as though it’s a finish-line, because that’s an illusion: it’s really only a starting line, and you shouldn’t think, ‘Whew! Thank God we’re ONA!’ and slack off; that’s living in the dregs; and allies don’t rest when there’s justice to be done. Being ONA is a trust, and if we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backward.”
And yet, I get the feeling I’m reminding you of things you already know, and this is where Paul’s approach is helpful. He says in the opening words of our chapter, “You don’t need to have anyone write to you about times and seasons. For you are children of the day, and you already know what time it is.”
But we take time out on this day to focus on the fact that trans lives are still being lost—indeed, the rate of hate crimes and suicides based on gender identity and gender expression are on the rise again. Rights of trans members of our military are being rolled back, as are employment protections for LGBTQ folks in the workplace. Not to mention the continuing health care challenges trans folks face from a lack of understanding and acceptance of their distinctive set of medical needs.
So there’s a great deal yet to be done. Part of a prophet’s role is to interpret the signs of the times through the lens of God’s will, and if we take that look through clear eyes, Zephaniah’s view looks right on—pretty bleak, I admit, but right on. Zephaniah’s warning is also there in Paul’s words to the church at Thessalonica: Remember who you are, and how important this is. Don’t let the Day of the Lord come upon you like a thief in the night: Don’t underestimate how bad things are, and how much worse they can get if good people rest on their laurels of what they’ve done in the past, but do nothing in the present.
So on this day of mourning, let us remember the lives lost because of transphobia and neglect of the rights of these precious children of God. And the Day of the Lord is never a day of doom in the Bible; it’s always a day of turning and transformation, of our lives, and the lives of all. Amen.