Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sermon: Silence Toward Injustice—Luke 10:25-37

Silence Toward Injustice
A sermon for Scarsdale Congregational Church
March 6, 2016 | Luke 10:25-37

Before I start this sermon, I have to tell you something funny. In Church School, we’ve been talking about loving your neighbor as yourself, and accordingly, I tried to teach them a new song about diversity:
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
Isn’t that cute?
I learned it when I was a kid.
Before I could finish singing the song, however, I had a chorus of young’uns saying things to me like:
·         Hey, people aren’t really yellow!
·         Who’s black?
·         There aren’t any red people!
Wisdom from the mouths of babes, but… my, how times have changed!
Let us pray.

Sermon

Have you ever learned the wrong lesson by accident?
When I was in 2nd grade, my school began teaching units on multiculturalism.
I was slightly darker than I am now, and everyone in town knew that I am half-Filipino and half-German-American Farm Boy. 
My family was, as far as I knew, the only interracial couple in our small hometown.
·         My teacher in 2nd Grade was Mrs. S., who was one of the coolest people I had ever met. 
o   She had silver hair, yet she was still pretty young, which made her even cooler!
o   She wore interesting-looking jewelry—stuff that 2nd graders would think was fun.
·         This particular day, she was wearing a denim pant-suit with her shirt collar spiked as always. And she had a book about Black Latino culture.
·         Josephina February is about a dark-skinned girl who doesn’t have much money, and so she sells items at the market.
As storybooks draw to a close, Mrs. S. routinely asks some questions to help us learn… 
·         This time, she asks if we know any Afro-Americans. (That’s what we called African American or black people in the 80’s.)
·         No one knows what she means. (Like that song I tried to teach our kids.)
·         In our Northwestern Indiana classroom, the faces are pretty fair-skinned.  I’m the only person of any shade of color in the room.
·         And so, silver-haired Mrs. S. briefly explains to us differences between white and black. 
One of my best friends, Justin Smith, raises his hand. 
·         (“He must know an Afro-American family,” I think to myself.) 
·         He points at me and says, “Daniel is.”
·         Without missing a beat, Mrs. S. says, “Justin Smith, you apologize.”
  
That’s how I learned about race.
  • She had given us fruit from the knowledge of good and evil.
  • In that brief exchange, I learned:
·         That my darker skin made Justin Smith think I am Afro-American. (I wondered if I were.)
·         And that his accusation about being Afro-American must be a bad thing.
·         And that I deserved an apology for being called that name.
·         And that teaching multiculturalism could create resentment in a 2nd Grade classroom.
To his credit, Justin Smith didn’t apologize. But I was, indeed, resentful.
  • (Insistent) Maybe it’s because I knew of how my Filipina mother sacrificed a relationship with her large Catholic family to come to the United States to marry my white Protestant father.
  • Or maybe it’s because I already felt like an outcast—as the one mixed-race child in my classroom—without someone pointing it out to me.
  • Or maybe it’s because I didn’t see how the book Josephina February related to me—as a half-Asian child in 2nd Grade.
Why did it have to happen like this?
  • Why didn’t that book help me better understand and appreciate children like Josephina February? (Because it didn’t.)
  • I left thinking I was wrong for being different and that difference matters in the worst possible way.
  • I learned the wrong lesson.
I’ll ask again: have you ever looked back in life and discovered that your entire worldview was a distorted reality—that you had learned the wrong lesson somewhere in your life… like me?

When we think about who we are, of course we don’t want to think of ourselves as racist in any way, or sexist, or classist, or ablest, or homophobic… but if we were self-reflective enough, maybe we would find some similarities between ourselves and the righteous people in the Bible—who said all the right things, but they still lived their life of privilege without regard to the plight of others.
 Consider the set of readings from bell hooks. In two breaths, she exposes patriarchy as a mindset that affects men as well as women.
·         It is a power that subverts equality, and we all pay the price. We all submit to it.
·         bell hooks offers us, in its place, a mindset which frees us from bondage and lovelessness... in favor of freedom and love.
I’m using this passage of feminist/womanist analysis—not to talk about women exclusively—but to give us a lens through which we can comprehend any -isms or phobias: like racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, and even Islamophobia.

Consider that often-told story: the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
·         Let me put on my Christian Ed hat and tell you that “parable” means it didn’t actually happen, but we can still learn a lot from this hypothetical situation.
·         And that is how Jesus communicated some of the hardest lessons.
Upon first glance, it seems this parable is about doing good for others. Not a bad interpretation, but it’s incomplete.  That would be learning the wrong lesson… because look closer:
·         First, understand that in First Century Jewish culture, before the destruction of the temple, the priests were the only ones who had access to God’s presence.
o   They could go behind the curtain (which would be torn on Good Friday)  and enter the Holy of Holies, where it was believed that God’s presence dwelled, and not have their faces melt off, as in Indiana Jones.
o   It was particularly important that a Temple existed in the midst of the people, because that signified that God was with them.
o   So, in this hypothetical, the priest—who has direct access to God—passes by the person in need.
§  It’s understood that priests could not touch certain things, or else they would become ceremonially unclean.
§  This part of the Parable says that strict adherence to the Law does not fulfil the greatest commandment—which is to love.
·         Second, a Levite has the opportunity to help the person in need.
o   What is a Levite? A Levite is one of the tribes of Israel, with a special task and authority to carry the Arc of the Covenant—which, by the way, is stored in the Holy of Holies.
o   Levites, therefore, are designated by God as having the right pedigree  to be the literal standard-bearer of holiness.
o   The Levites, like the Priests—many of whom are Levites—also put adherence to minor portions of the Law in front of compassion.
o   In effect, Jesus says TWICE that strict adherence to the minor parts of the Law will be the failure of humanity—because it prevents grace, and mercy, and compassion.
·          Finally comes the Samaritan.
o   Who were the Samaritans? Samaritans were genetically similar to Jews, but culturally: considered an enemy. (Think about Palestine and Israel. Yea, that intense.)
§  Samaritans recognized the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) but did not subscribe to the Nevi’im (the writings of the prophets) or the Ketuvim (Psalms, Proverbs, and the other Biblical writings in Hebrew canon).
·         They had their own interpretations of Rabbinic Law, and they did not adhere to any of the Oral Law.
§  Also, Samaritans decided that Mount Zion was not, in fact, God’s holy place but rather decided that Mount Gerizim was.
·         Zion is thought to be where King David is buried, and Samaritans decided to reverse thousands of years of history and tradition… and metaphorically moved God’s mountain into their own territory.
§  In other words, Samaritans were the worst possible kind of ethnic and religious minority: they were brazen heretics, willful enemies, and, worst of all, ceremonially unclean. Not like “us.”
o   For a Samaritan to help a mainstream Jew was to risk her life to help an enemy…
o   The hearers of this parable had their worlds turned upside-down, because the narrative that they were used to hearing valued Law above love.
o   Jesus asks what the most important Law is.
o   Hint: it’s not about being clean. Because surprise: It’s about love.
o   Jesus appeals to the humanity of his listeners, and he circles back to the Law, which they desperately want to adhere to.
o   Anyone can see that the hero of the parable is the one who shows compassion—even if they are the enemy.
o   And Jesus uses legal language to help them understand what he was saying: he explains that the most important Law is often neglected in favor of the minor laws.
o   Or, as bell hooks might say, Jesus breaks the patriarchal voices that silence truth—and are, themselves, stopped.
o   Jesus says what they knew deep down was the Truth—and in turn, stripped away the comfort, which strict adherence to the letter of the Law.
§  “If I just abstain from this, then God will see I’m really serious.”
o   But Jesus says, “It doesn’t work that way.” The truth is grace, and mercy, and compassion. And Jesus says, “Go thou and do likewise.”
So what? We’re living in the 21st century, and the Bible is archaic.
·         No no no no no. Our culture still creates Samaritans.
·         What about children who can’t even finish high school because they have to work to support their families?
o   Or kids who can’t concentrate in school because they had no breakfast, or because they couldn’t sleep due to the gunshots in their neighborhood?
o   They become disadvantaged and marginalized by their failure to finish school before their lives even get started.
o   These are no longer exceptions.
o   This is the norm for many individuals in our country—as close as three miles away from this church building.
o   Who will be a neighbor to them?
·         And don’t get me started on police use of excessive force.
o   Or the judicial system’s unfair bias against people of color.
o   Or how the corporate media tends to blame the victims of racial profiling.
o   Or that retort: Hashtag: “All lives matter.”
Who is my neighbor?—the Rabbinic Lawyer asks.
·         Of course, it’s the person sitting right next to you, but it’s especially the marginalized, those without power or privilege.
Notice: Jesus doesn’t speak poorly of the priests or the Levites in this parable.
·         Their actions condemn them, without further commentary.
·         Rather, Jesus shows us that the most likely people to help  decided to preserve their position rather than to obey the greatest commandment.
o   Instead, Jesus says that… even the most unexpected person can be a neighbor.
o   Say, for instance, that you’re a straight, white male. (You have some privilege, my friend… whether you like it or not.)
§  This passage does not say you are bad.
§  This passage does not say you must disavow how God created you.
§  Rather, this passage shows how you can use your place of privilege for good…    and what it looks like if you don’t.  /
The American Psychological Association published an article back in 2009 about a subtle expression of bias… or microaggressions.
·         It’s not that we want to be racist, but sometimes we stumble over language.
·         For example: I get some of the same questions all the time.
o   Of course, people ask “How tall are you?” at least five times a day. No exaggeration.
§  I’m sure Tegan and Christine can relate.
o   Second, I hear “Can you speak up?”
§  I’ll give you a hint at who says that <cough> John Werner.
o   Lastly, at least once a month, someone will ask me, “What are you?”
§  “A religious professional,” I say.
§  “No… I mean where are you from. Like Persian or what?
§  That’s when it becomes a microaggression… because I am othered, and I have to explain something intrinsic to my nature. I am asked a question, which the dominant culture is rarely asked.
·         Being tall, presumably, is something they think is cool.
·         Being soft spoken is something I can control.
·         But asking me where I am from presumes I am not from here… and it’s like saying, “I can’t label you. Would you please help me racially profile you?”
o   My mother was more gracious than I am.
§  When people told her “Wow, your English is good” (another microaggression), she didn’t tell them that she spoke four languages since elementary school.
o   Another kinda humorous thing that happens is… I guess I appear to dress in uniform (when I’m not in this suit)… because anytime I’m in an office supply store, someone almost always asks me where to find a certain product.
§  It’s not in a neighborly way, like: “Oh, there’s someone. Let me ask him.”
§  It’s like, every time I go, someone asks ME.
§  And they get mad when I don’t know… until I tell them I’m not a store employee. Then they leave in a huff and say, “You’re no help.”
§  Silly, but also a microaggression. This time, not about race. It’s a class thing.
o   Or sometimes people try to give what they sincerely think is a compliment—saying things like: “Oh, I didn’t know you’re gay. You don’t talk gay.”
§  This microaggression gets into the assumption that men ought to act like “men” and incorrectly links gender presentation to sexual orientation.
o   Or the idea that my Asian descent somehow makes me better at math.
§  That’s the old “Model Minority” microaggression.
·         It sounds like a compliment, but it actually groups the majority of humans together into a single category and makes an assumption about all of them. Sounds like racism to me.
“Oh, Dan. You’re just being overly sensitive!” Rather, that society has been teaching us the wrong lesson.
·         American Psychological Association psychologists report that these microaggressions “assail the mental health of recipients.”
·         Surely, none of us would intentionally assail anyone else… but think about how the other person—who may not be coming from a position of privilege—might receive your words.
Think about ways in which you might have been targeted by a microaggression.
·         When you were in your 20’s (or maybe in your 90s), how did people treat you? Not very seriously, I imagine. Microaggression.
·         Or, if you’re female, have people said they thought it was surprising that a woman could be as effective as a leader? Or as non-emotional. Microaggression.
·         The list goes on.
The easy way out is silence:
·         If we observe racism, or sexism, or classism, or ableism, or ageism, or homophobia… are we more likely just to “hope” the other people will know implicitly that we disagree? As if a roll of our eyes is good enough…
o   Or are we willing to break the silence and say, “Hey, that’s not OK,” and disavow these -isms or phobias?
·         Let me be clear: whether we’re talking about Jim Crow-magnitude racism… or a microaggression… our silence and inaction are tantamount to committing the action ourselves.
·         Of the holocaust, pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that: “silence in the face of evil is itself evil…” and: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
·         Also, Dr. King once said of the Civil Rights movement: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
This sermon is not about feminism or womanism, though we have much to learn from their voices.
This sermon is not about racism, though it illustrates the point.
This sermon is about looking at ways in which we embody our privilege, if we have it.
·         Think about ways in which you may carry privilege—which, again, is not a bad thing…
o   Are you part of the race that has the most power?
o   Are you expected to “come out” to people about your sexuality, as if it’s something to apologize for?
o   What about your gender? Are you paid equally?
§  Or, even if you’re not, would you need surgery or hormones to confirm your sex?
o   Do you walk with a limp or with a cane?
o   Is your face and body considered beautiful?
o   Do you have access to healthcare and transportation?
§  Or does your socio-economic status give you fewer options?
o   How many degrees and letters do you have behind your name?
o   Do you speak with an accent or with slurred speech?
o   Have you ever been denied employment or housing because you have a criminal record?
o   Are you targeted because of your faith?
o   And—a privilege that is often overlooked—do you “pass” as being part of the dominant culture?
·         Finally, notwithstanding the above, do you give tacit approval of inequity and injustice, or  do you even participate in it somehow?
·         I’ll bet many of us have never considered how we might have greater advantages. May we be thankful for such blessings. And, may we also use our power and privilege for good—and not to harm.
We have been given a choice.
·         We can be like the priest… who has all the knowledge of the Law… and attempts to please God by honoring the minor portions of the Law… but in so doing, we break the greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.
·         We can be like the Levite… who is born into an elite, privileged, and powerful caste… but decides against helping a person who does not have the same pedigree.
·         Or, we can be that unlikely hero to someone… the Samaritan… who does something and says something… who risks life and limb in order to live-out his religious values…
o   Even if you’re white and can’t relate to people of color—you can be a racial ally.
o   Even if you are a male and think you know what women face—you can fight for women to make their own decisions.
o   Even if you are college-educated and can’t relate to people who aren’t, you can invite them to talk during coffee hour—and maybe even hire them.
o   Even if you can’t relate to transgender folks, you can still advocate for their legal right for things as essential as access to use the restroom.
o   Even if you can’t relate to Muslims, you can still disavow any politician who advocates for war-crimes against them, and then, in the next breath, traps them in their war-torn lands by turning away refugees.   
Perhaps some of us have never thought about this parable in this way. But this is the path of Jesus.
·         We can still speak up.
·         We can still act according to what this passage elicits in us.
·         Even if we are high-born like the Priest or Levite, we can turn this thing around and become the unexpected hero… and live-out the greatest commandment.
·         And most importantly, we can use our place of privilege to bring about justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
·         It can be a thankless job, but consider the impact we can have!
·         And that – Jesus says – that is how we love our neighbor.
May God grant us the strength and fortitude to follow the greatest commandment even when it is socially unacceptable to do so.
·         May we love the Lord our God… and love our neighbor as ourselves.

·         May it be so.