Monday, October 04, 2010

At the Table with the "Other"

I generally don't post sermons online, because I think you don't fully experience proclamation unless you're part of the community being addressed. But I think what I preached yesterday for World Communion Sunday addresses some crucial issues in our society, not just our congregation.

The texts are Leviticus 19:33-34 and Luke 10:25-37.

Imagine a hypothetical situation with me. Imagine if I told you that there was a religious group here in Clarksville, and this religious group gave us some reasons to be concerned. This religion claims to be peaceful and loving, but their holy book is filled with violent acts done by their god and by people at the express command of this god. There’s even a passage in that book where it talks about being joyful when you take your enemies’ babies and smash them against the rocks!

Imagine that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Their holy book is only the beginning of the troubling things about this group. Throughout the centuries people of this group have raped and pillaged and murdered on a scale unrivaled in human history. Again, they claim to be a peaceful religion, but in the last decade a member of this very sect became the leader of a country with a huge military, and he used his power to invade other countries, and he frequently invoked the name of their god to justify doing it!

Now at this point, you might be thinking that this group sounds sketchy, but they’re probably no threat to me. But remember, I told you they’re here in Clarksville. What if I told you, this group is about to build a new center here in town, close to where many of us live, that they’re going to hold their meetings there, they’re going to study their holy book there, and they’re going to try to recruit more members? What if I said that they’re especially interested in bringing in your children and indoctrinating them? Now we’re probably saying, “wait a second! I don’t like this at all! Someone needs to stop this scary religious group!”

Now imagine I told you that this group’s name was Bethlehem United Methodist Church.

Wait, what? That doesn’t make any sense, does it? That’s not fair! How could anyone possibly come to the conclusion that Bethlehem United Methodist Church is a shadowy, possibly violent religious group? What on earth just happened here?

Well, first I cherry picked a few things that are essentially true and I took them drastically out of context. The part about the holy book being filled with violent acts? Check out the book of Joshua and see how the Israelites conquered the Promised Land. Some of that stuff will make your blood curdle. The part about being joyful while dashing infants’ heads against the rocks? Psalm 137, verse 9. Yikes. The long history of violence? Those are the crusades and the centuries of Protestant/Catholic wars in Europe. The modern leader of a country who invaded other countries? That’s George W. Bush, who is a Methodist. But I took it out of context, not saying anything about 9/11 or fears about weapons of mass destruction.

Selectively picking certain things and taking them out of context makes it very easy to paint a scary picture. That is, until I put a name to the group I’m talking about. Then it falls apart because no one in our community would accept the premise that a United Methodist congregation is dangerous and shouldn’t be allowed to build a new worship center. Not only would people not accept it, they would say that such an argument is intentionally misleading and unfair.

And yet that is exactly what we in our society to do all kind of other religious and ethnic groups, but we don’t protest and say, “that’s intentionally misleading. That’s not fair!” We don’t speak up, not because we’re hateful or prejudiced ourselves, but because we generally don’t know any of the people in these minority groups, so we don’t have any kind of knowledge or experience to refute these arguments. The manufactured controversies over Islamic centers in New York and Murfreesboro are a perfect example. Muslims have been part of those communities for years, but because they’re a minority, most people don’t know them, so when someone comes along wanting to stir people up by painting a scary picture of Muslims, most of us don’t really know what to think. We can be lured into believing misleading and hateful speech because we have very little else to inform our opinion.

My hypothetical example fell apart because people know Methodists, but it works in other cases, because most of us don’t really know any Muslims.

Bashing religious and ethnic minority groups is nothing new, of course. It’s as old as humanity itself. The passage we just read from Luke is one of the most beloved stories today, but in Jesus’ time it was a shocking and offensive story, because the wrong person was the good guy. The Samaritans are a different ethnicity, and they worship in a different place. If a Jewish person was traveling north from Jerusalem up to Galilee, they would take an extra day and go around Samaria because they were afraid of Samaritan gangs that would assault people along the roadside, kind of like what happened to the traveler in Jesus’ story.

But in Jesus’ parable, instead of the Samaritan being the bad guy, he’s the hero! The priest and the Levite aren’t bad guys. They actually had good reasons for not stopping. The Samaritan takes a huge risk by stopping along a dangerous road, picking up a wounded person who would slow him down, and spending a lot of money to take care of a Jewish man who probably hates him, who if he were conscious would think that the Samaritan were there to finish him off. The one who truly fulfills the Law and experiences eternal life is not the one who is a part of the right group and worships in the right ways, but the outsider who actually does what the Law says.

Jesus is telling this story in response to a question from an expert in the Law. This guy is very well versed in the minutia of the Torah, and he’s got another agenda in asking the question. Luke says that the guy “wanted to justify himself”. He’d already made up his mind about who his neighbor is, or more specifically, who is neighbor isn’t, and he’s looking to Jesus to affirm his prejudices. But Jesus won’t give him a free pass to love some people and hate others. Jesus proclaims the true spirit of the Law that commands us to treat everyone as our neighbor, regardless of whether we think they deserve it or not. That’s a message that is as relevant to our time as it was to people in first century Judea.

Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s a day when we affirm our fundamental connection with not only all Christians all over the world, but also with all of God’s children. This day is the perfect time for us to come to the table as a sign of unity with all human beings, to confront all the prejudice and hatred in our world and say “no more”.

The first thing we have to do is repent. Our Communion liturgy includes a prayer of repentance asking God to forgive all the things we have done, and the things we have left undone. Maybe we as individuals haven’t actively participated in the hatred against our neighbors, but how many of us have actively spoken against it? If we hear our friends engaging in bigoted speech, do we speak up and say, “please don’t do that. That’s hateful. That’s wrong.”? I know that far too often I just stay silent because I don’t want to get into an argument, and unfortunately my silence implies my consent with what’s going on.

So not being part of the problem is a good start, but our repentance and our resolve to do better have to go farther than that. We can begin with speaking up when we hear people being put down just because they’re different. If we’re ready to go one step further, we can take a step outside of our comfort zone and go intentionally get to know these others that we know so little about. We don’t have to go far to do this. They’re right here in our own community.

I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple weeks, and I decided to put my money where my mouth is. On the day before the anniversary of 9/11, I went to the Islamic Center of Clarksville for Friday prayers, which is the main weekly worship service for Muslims. I’ll be honest, I was super uncomfortable. I’m an introvert, so going somewhere were I don’t know anybody, where I’m the only white guy and where I’m completely unfamiliar with what is going on is not my idea of a good time.

But I went anyway, and it turned out that the Islamic community in Clarksville could not be more welcoming. They were happy to welcome a Christian to pray with them. They showed me what to do and they didn’t laugh or give me strange looks when it was obvious that I was totally clueless. Even though we pray to the same God, their way of worshiping and praying in different physical positions is unfamiliar to most American Christians. It turns out that this group where I thought I didn’t know anyone isn’t so scary after all. One guy there named Mohammed works at the Kroger down the street. I met lots of others who shared my concerns about all the hateful rhetoric out there and didn’t want more violence between our people.

Going to pray with the local Islamic community for one hour on a Friday didn’t solve all of the issues between our two faiths, but it was one small way to begin building bridges between us. Now when I see Mohammed at Kroger I stop and take a few minutes to talk about how our families are doing, and that brief conversation makes my day a little brighter. I’d like to think that we are beginning to emulate St. Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer “let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

If we can step outside our comfortable circles where we only hang out with others who are like us, we will begin to see that what unites us is so much greater than what divides us. As we come together to the table of fellowship today, let us remember that in doing so we are united with all of our brothers and sisters in this great human family God has created, whether we like it or not. Come to the table with those who are like us, and with those who are “other”, because in doing so we will truly begin to see the face of God.

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

1 comment:

Brad Smith said...

Brovo Matt. I think that we would be a lot better off if we each took the time to experience the life, customs and worship experiences of different cultures and peoples. Anytime you willingly take part in the life of someone you don't understand you learn exponentially more about them. It's kind of like the "Take Our Jobs" campaign. If people experienced the work of the illegal immigrants then they would be much more sympathetic toward our fellow man.