Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Stories We Tell

Most of the time, as a preacher, I get tremendously excited when I read the lessons appointed for a given Sunday.  It’s like an electricity that courses through my spirit, my mind racing as I fire off thoughts, images, and themes.  But sometimes, when I read the lessons, my palms get a bit sweaty, my lungs tighten up, and I think, “Dear God, do I really have to work with these Scriptures?”  In a spirit of honesty, I’ve got to tell you that today is one of those ‘sweaty palm’ days.  Sure, the Isaiah text is a hopeful prophecy to a people that were beleaguered and living in exile.  But Jesus’ words to the Syrophoenician woman in the Gospel and the Epistle from James and are a one-two punch of intensity and conviction.  But, after a few minutes, my lungs loosened up, and my mind began to race, and I kept going back to the idea of ‘telling stories.’

Humans have always been a story telling people.  From the days of our ancient ancestors who looked to the stars and saw bulls and warriors, to modern day blockbuster films…we visualize characters, situations, events, and we put them together and weave tapestries of imagination and creativity.  We tell stories as a way of making sense of the world.  At the heart of nearly every religious tradition is a defining story, sometimes mythical and sometimes historical, that gives shape and meaning to the religion itself.  The people of the Acoma Pueblo tell the story of two young woman emerging from the earth.  The most significant Hebrew story is the story of Moses and the Exodus.  For Christians, our defining story is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We tell stories to make sense of ourselves and others.

But sometimes, our storytelling embarks on a less constructive and more cruel trajectory.  These stories have less to do with making sense of the world, and more to do with seeing ourselves as superior than those around us who look, or sound, or think differently than we do.  American society once lived with a dominant story of Anglo superiority, and we still feel the effects of this racist past. We collectively bear the scars of centuries of prejudice, violence, and oppression.  History reveals the way those with power and privilege often tell stories and construct narratives that succeed in dehumanizing those they have deemed ‘less than’.  What is one of the greatest strengths of the human mind, the capacity to tell stories and shape perceptions, can become one of the most dangerous weapons as our capacity to tell stories is used to push down and mistreat those we don't understand, rather than thinking creatively about ways to become a more united human family.

Jesus himself was not immune to this phenomenon. He grew up with a cultural story of Jewish purity versus Gentile inferiority.  It's easy, I think, to forget that Jesus of Nazareth was shaped and formed in a particular cultural and religious context, located firmly in 1st century Palestine, with all of the ethnic and religious conflicts that raged at that time.  Like all of us here, he was the product of a very particular time and place, and if we believe that he was truly and fully human, following the logic of the Incarnation, we must recognize and admit that his embeddedness brought with it years and years of conflict between Jews and Gentiles.  The story told of Israel’s special status as God’s chosen people evolved over time into a story of division, of the very sharp distinction between who was clean and who was dirty…of who was close to God and who was far away…of who was worthy to receive the blessings of God and who wasn't. And so, when Jesus is confronted by the needs of a pagan Gentile, he responds in the most understandable way given his cultural upbringing: He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

For my money, this is one of the most challenging stories about Jesus to hear. We want Jesus to be uncomplicated, and always above the coarseness of the human condition we still deal with.  But here, in this story, he is as human as the rest of us.  Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. In any culture, at any time in history, there is only one reason to call someone a dog, and it certainly isn't a compliment. Like any human person raised with an ingrained prejudice, Jesus is simply echoing the stories of his upbringing. The story he grew up hearing was one of Gentile inferiority, and he can't help but echo what he has heard. But God bless the Gentile woman, because even though she had just been insulted and dehumanized, her love for her daughter was strong enough to work through the pain of being called a dog, and it resulted in a true moment of awakening for Jesus: But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” Her tenacity, and the love she had for her daughter, was enough to break through the cultural prejudice and override the story Jesus grew up hearing.  A human connection occurred, across religious and ethnic lines, and her daughter was healed and Jesus’ ministry from then on was open to Jew and Gentile alike.

As a truly human person, Jesus, like us, can't be faulted for the way he was shaped by stories told to him about others.  Likewise, for those of us today who were conditioned to think a certain way by society, or by our families, or even by negative experiences, it makes total sense that we reflect the values and perspectives we were raised with and conditioned by.  But when the moments come where the prejudices we have are confronted and challenged, when we reach a moment where we must choose for ourselves which story we privilege and give credence to, when what we have been conditioned to believe is shown to be a false narrative…when those moments come, we will know if our baptisms have done their job if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with and open to the humanity of those different than us.  Will we write a new story of compassion and mutual love, or will we tell the same old stories that only perpetuate the myth that ‘separate but equal’ is an acceptable reality?

Because of this encounter with a pagan Gentile, Jesus was open to the reality that every human person possesses an equal claim on the love and mercy of God.  Of course, the Godhead enfleshed in Jesus was open to all of humanity, but the fullness of Jesus' humanity had to learn and grow in maturity like the rest of us.  The Church, as it grew, was shaped and formed by Jesus’ radical mission of love and hospitality towards all people, and this conviction is apparent in the Epistle from James: My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? James is making the connection that belief in the Lord Jesus Christ cannot thrive when prejudice and favoritism have their roots deep in someone's soul.  And then he drops this bombshell of conviction: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  Faith in Jesus Christ is dead, worthless even, if it is not coupled with a radical sense of compassion and love for those whom society has cast out or mistreated.

So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  It's a startling, striking, and almost antagonistic claim.  But it reveals something else.  James would have had no reason to write this if the Church wasn't struggling with this very issue.  Scriptural commands don't arise out of a vacuum.  They are usually responses to a present reality.  We see, then, that the Church has always struggled with ushering in a society of full inclusion and liberation.  From the very beginning, people have struggled and wrestled with the prejudices and assumptions of their hearts.  And in a strange way, this persistent struggle gives me hope and assurance.  I'm reminded that even the ancient heroes of our faith struggled with these issues and yet God did not give up on them or abandon them.  Our human struggles are not a reason for God to forsake us.  Our human struggles are opportunities for growth and transformation.  The Church in the 2nd and 3rd centuries took James' challenge to heart, and were the very people who created the first hospitals and houses for the poor.  They became known for their hospitality and compassion.  St. John Chrysostom, a 4th century bishop, is famous for saying, "If you can't find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice."

How then will we rise to the challenges of our present age?  The ugly sin of racism has reared its head across this nation with such ferocity in the recent months.  And though we may not see such conflicts here in Los Alamos, we still have a part to play in creating a more hopeful and inclusive society.  What divisions will we see if in the coming week we ask the Lord to open our eyes to see the pain of others, or pain we have endured ourselves, or even pain we have caused another?Whatever we see, my prayer is that we will be a church always known for its openness to anyone and everyone, that we may more clearly reflect the wondrous diversity of the Kingdom of God, telling a story of God's unending love for all of humanity, a love that breaks down dividing walls and creates opportunities for learning and growth.  May this be a place where the Good Medicine of the Gospel is found.

*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on September 6, 2015.  The Episcopal Church nationally participated in Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday as a response to a challenge from the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  The texts were Isaiah 35:4-7a, James 2:1-17, and Mark 7:24-37.

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