Sunday, August 17, 2014

Changing our Minds

A sermon preached at Andrews Presbyterian Church on August 17, 2014

Ruth 1, Matthew 15:10-28

          I had intended to preach something different this morning, but the events of the week have tugged at me all week.  The death of Robin Williams was big news, and brought to the forefront discussions about depression and mental health, and that is a good thing.  The terrorist group, Boko Haram, kidnapped 100 men and boys in Nigeria, adding to the 200 girls kidnapped earlier in the summer.  The kidnapping of two Amish girls in northern New York.  The spread of the Ebola virus.  The discovery of 35 men and boys in a shipping container in Great Britain, dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia.  The continuing wars in Gaza and Israel, and Syria, and Ukraine/Russia.  The humanitarian action by US forces for the Yazidi people in northern Iraq.  The list goes on and on.
          But what has really captured my attention is the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, where one week ago, 18 year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, and the continuing protests and police actions this week.  Once again, a discussion about racism has begun, with sides being taken and vociferously defended.  There are those who insist that racism no longer exists in our country.  There are those who loudly proclaim their racism and insist on perpetuating it.  And there are those all along the spectrum in between.  There are instances of racism that seem inconsequential, small, unintended, thoughtless.  But there are also those instances that are unbelievable to many of us, those that incite strong reactions, that are easily labeled evil.  And there is everything in between. 
Students at Howard University
          There has been lots of discussion this week in the press about racism.  But more importantly to me, there has been much discussion among my colleagues about racism, and about our response as Christians to it.  To be honest, while I think this discussion is important among all people and especially people of faith, I didn’t want to preach this sermon, because racism is such a loaded subject in our society, fraught with emotional and political baggage.  Because despite all our protestations to the contrary, our country is still divided by racism.  To be clear, this condition does not just exist between blacks and whites, but also between whites and Mexicans, between black and Asians, and between many other ethnic groups.  Interestingly enough, I discovered in New Mexico that there exists racism between the Hispanic people - Spanish, who originally settled NM - and other, more recently arrived Hispanic folks, especially those from Mexico.  This week, however, my attention was focused on the continuing conversation about the racism that still exists between black and white people in our country.
          The reason that this event and the discussions that follow make me uncomfortable is that if I am honest with myself, I know that there exists within me some part that is racist.  An example – when we lived in NY, we lived in a small village - suburb, if you will – that was predominately white.  It was settled by farmers, and became the headquarters for Xerox, where many people in the village worked.  In addition, the headquarters and factories for Kodak were just across the bay, and many folks from our village worked there, too.  It was an upper middle class village – in fact I would describe it as being at the top of the upper middle class.  There were few minorities there, so much so that you really noticed if you ran into a person of a different race.  Many of the “minority” people there were Asian, which only helped to perpetuate the stereotype of Asian people being better at math, etc.  City workers were white.  People in the service professions were white.   Most of those who lived in the one small public housing complex were white.  So I became unaccustomed to see anyone who was a minority in the village.
          One winter night when I was on the way home from church in the dark, I stopped at the light at the four corners in the village.  Walking toward me on the sidewalk, minding his own business, doing nothing but making his way to wherever he was going, was a young black man.  My first thought, my very first thought was “What is he doing here?”  I didn’t mean what is he doing out in the zero temperatures or what is he doing out so late – because it wasn’t late.  I meant what is he, a young black man, doing walking down our sidewalk.  I was immediately ashamed of myself, and acutely aware of my own deep-seated racism.
          I have known many folks who have experienced racism, probably more often than I know.  I have a friend who is a black man who has been stopped just because he was in a nice neighborhood driving a nice car.  I had a friend, very fair-skinned, with a son from South America, who experienced racial slurs and sexual comments because it was assumed she was in a relationship with a “Mexican” man.  I know people who, when black workers who experienced racism in the workplace and dared to speak out about it, wondered where else “those people” would get a job and said "that they should be thankful that they had a job".  Even my own family has experienced racism to some small degree. 
          I found myself wondering, as I read Ruth this week, what her experience was when she went to Bethlehem with Naomi.  Ruth was from Moab, and Moab was a place that incited passionate feelings in most Israelites.  Those from Moab were unclean.  They worshipped foreign gods.  They intermarried.  They were to be avoided at all costs.  Israel was in constant conflict with Moab.  Ruth, at the end of Chapter 1, is identified as “Ruth the Moabite.”
          I found myself wondering if part of the reason Naomi ordered her daughters-in-law to return to their own families is that she knew that they would face racism in Bethlehem, and she feared for them.  I wondered at Ruth’s insistence that she accompany Naomi, knowing what her reception in Bethlehem might be.  And I was captivated by the depth of the relationship between Naomi and Ruth, that Ruth would willingly put herself in that situation.
          And then there is the story from Matthew about Jesus and the Canaanite woman.  It is not the most flattering depiction of Jesus; in fact, it might be described as one of the most disturbing.  Canaanites were also enemies of Israel, and unclean.  The people of Israel were to avoid them at all costs.  So when the Canaanite woman approaches Jesus, he doesn’t see a woman in need; he sees a woman to avoid, a woman to scorn, a woman that is less than because of her race.  He responds with the most disturbingly human remarks he makes in scripture.  “I was sent only the lost sheep of Israel,” he says mildly.  He next responds a bit more harshly: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  People of faith have tried for centuries to explain Jesus’ harsh words, but the fact remains that they are shocking and uncharacteristic.
          But the Canaanite woman challenges him, much as this week’s events and discussions challenge us.  She engages him in conversation and forces him to rethink his position.  She makes him see her, REALLY SEE her.  And Jesus’ mind is changed.
          Much the same happens to Ruth.  We don’t know what happens when she enters Bethlehem.  What we do know is that throughout the story she is described as “Ruth the Moabite,” as if to remind us that she is NOT an Israelite, but by the end of the story, the women are saying, For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons……...”
          It’s interesting that in both stories, what changes the minds of those who hold prejudices is the faithfulness and love of those who are “other.”  Jesus is changed by the Canaanite woman’s persistence and love for her daughter.  The people of Bethlehem are changed by Ruth’s devotion and love for Naomi.  Love and relationship are key here.
Photo by David Carson.  St. Louis Dispatch.
         What’s also interesting is what Jesus is saying to the disciples just before he encounters the Canaanite woman:  “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” If what comes out of the mouth is from the heart and can defile them, then conversely, if what comes out of the mouth is good, it shows us that they are good.
          So what do we learn from these stories?  We learn that when one continues to say something over and over again, perhaps they feel that have not been heard.  We learn that insistence on being heard can be life changing for those who need to listen.  We learn that behavior is a much better indicator of character than words.  We learn that minds can be changed, even Jesus’.
          What can we do?  First and foremost, we can be like Jesus.  We can pay attention when someone continues to say what their reality is over and over again, and not reject them.  When people say they experience racism, pay attention. We can hear the fear of black parents who fear when their children leave the house.  We can understand the horror of having to teach children of color that when they are stopped by police, they must keep their hands where they can be seen and never ask questions or talk back and that they must suffer the indignity of a search even when there is no reason for it.  Hear their experience and their feelings.  We can affirm and bless others’ experience even if it isn’t the same as we have experienced.
We can be open to changing our minds like Jesus was.  We can learn to see the individual instead of the “other.”  When I was in college, I had a friend who grew up in El Paso.  She was in the habit of calling Mexican-American people wetbacks.  She had several friends from high school who were Mexican-American.  After hearing her talk about “wetbacks” so often, I finally asked her one day how her Mexican-American friends felt about the term.  She had never honestly thought about it.  For her, those “wetbacks” were the other, totally unrelated to her friends from high school.   
          We can be like the Canaanite woman, and persistently say what we know to be true:  that ALL of us are God’s children, deserving of respect and love.  We can choose not to perpetuate stereotypes – all Asians are good at math, all black men are thugs, all Mexicans are wetbacks.  We can choose to proclaim that in each person is the image of God.   That we are to love one another as Christ has loved us.    We can claim God’s blessing for each person, and not just for those who are most like us.
Photo by Laurie Skrivan.
St. Louis Dispatch
We can learn to say what we know to be true, and to challenge others even in the face of ridicule and the possibility of anger or dismissal.  We can bear witness for others when they are unable to do so for themselves.  We can gently challenge people when they speak from stereotypes and prejudice.  We can speak up when racist jokes are made.  We can intervene when we see acts of racism. We can do our best to be consistent in our own actions and words, so that our words do not defile, but build up.
And perhaps most importantly, we can like Ruth and the Canaanite woman: we can seek to be in relationship with those who are different, who don’t have the same experience as we do, who perhaps are even hostile to us.  Because it is relationship that changes minds.  It only takes an encounter with one person who is different to help us see others in a different light, to begin to understand their reality and their experience.  It only takes a relationship with one person who challenges our understanding to crack open our hearts so that we might be made whole.
Not By The Sword is a book published in 2012 about a Jewish cantor, now a rabbi, in Nebraska who was threatened by the Grand Dragon of the KKK.  The story evolves as the young man, Larry Trapp, continues to threaten Cantor Michael Weisser and his family with phone calls and mailings of Nazi propaganda.  Instead of responding with fear or hatred, Cantor Weisser called him each week and left a positive message on his answering machine.  One night Mr. Trapp answered, and Weisser made an offer to Mr. Trapp, who was disabled – a ride to the grocery store.  While Mr. Trapp did not accept, he did begin a conversation with Mr. Weisser, which led to him leaving the KKK with the help of the Weissers.  He moved into their home so they could care for him, and renounced all his previous ties, making apologies to many that he had threatened or harmed.  He died less than a year later.
It all began with a relationship.  I don’t know how they did it.  I can’t imagine inviting someone who threatened me and my family into my home.  When I think about the racism we have encountered, it makes me furious.  How do you develop a relationship with people who consciously - or unconsciously - do harm?  How do you initiate a conversation with someone who perpetuates racism?  How do you take that risk?
It’s not easy.  But God did not call us to a life that is easy.  Being a person of faith is hard.  We’re called to be open-minded and to be willing to change our minds.  We are called out into places we would rather not go.  We are called to challenge the –isms that are expressed in our culture, even when it is uncomfortable or frightens us.  We are called to stand up to injustice and to stand with those who experience it.  We are called to relationships that challenge us and change us and enrich us.

It is not easy.  But we are not called to a life of ease.  We are called to a life of discipleship, following One who showed us the way to be in relationship with each other and with God.  And even when he got it wrong, Jesus paid attention and changed his mind.  May it be so for us.  Amen.

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