Sermon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Maine
August 18, 2019
Luke quotes Jesus: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided…
Jesus may as well have said, “I will divide you against your own self.” When we let him, he divides us against ourselves, breaking the rocks within each of us, and then giving us, blessedly, the cure of grace.
This happened to me in seminary, when I was shown this “portrait” of Jesus. [I’ll walk it around to you.]
It’s an image made by a medical artist, with guidance from a team of British forensic anthropologists and Israeli archaeologists. (Because of this thing called “science”, we have someidea of what people looked like in those days.) And because we know from Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus looked much like his friends, we think he looked at least something like this. And he was shorter than I am. I would have looked downto look into his eyes.
When I first saw it, I was shocked. I still am. This was not the man, the God, I had pictured when I prayed. I grew up in my exclusively white Episcopal church in Kentucky knowing that Jesus was white! His image was everywhere. Go to Kentucky today, and you’ll see white Jesus on billboards as you drive to go fishing. As the commentator Megyn Kelly said matter-of-factly on her Fox News show a few years ago, “Jesus was white.”
Having had my comfortable self upended by this image of Jesus, I showed it to a Lenten-study group I was leading at a church up in Auburn a few years ago. I confess to having had a subversive motive, a divisive one. What would happen, I wondered, if I showed this image in a community actively wrestling with issues of race in the wake of the great migration of African refugees to that area? So, I did. My question was answered by a very sweet, elderly woman who said, “Ooh, I wouldn’t want to meet himin a dark alley!” She was not joking.
I think she and I were reacting in different ways to the same paradox: Genesistells us that we are made in God’s image, but we keep making God in ourimage. After all, if I’m made in God’s image, and I’m white and male, isn’t God, well, whiteand male? But what if you are gender-fluid? What if you’re bi-racial? What does the heart of God look like, what does Jesus look like to you then? Who do you say that he is?
A friend of mine who is an evangelical Christian openly hates both President Obama and his wife Michelle. He said in my presence a few years ago, “I am sodone with black people.” This brings to mind the late Catholic saint (small s) Dorothy Day, who wrote, “I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” And you should know that, despite his burden of hate, he has done and continues to do some profoundly beautiful things in this world.
Born in Asia to an absent white father and a poor, local mother, my friend was sent to an orphanage as a little boy. There, he was tormented by his peers because they saw him as white. They beat him up. Then, he was adopted by a white family in the US and raised in a culture here, where there were very few people of color. And he was beaten up because his peers saw him as Asian! What did he do to bring this upon himself? He made the mistake of being born into a world, our world, in which we reject The Other. Others. Thosepeople. Over there.
Why do we do this!? Why did Megyn Kelly need to think Jesus was light-skinned? Why did the sweet lady in church in Auburn not want to meet dark-skinned Jesus in a dark alley? Why am I stillconflicted about this image of Jesus? Through this picture, he reminds me and us that we allhave a problem with The Other. Just by looking something like this, he comes to us over the waters and over the centuries, and says, “I am The Other you turn away from. Indeed, you turn meaway. You would Send Me Back. You deny me entry into your country, your neighborhood, your soul.” Because Jesus is The Other and The Otheris Jesus. The Otheris alwaysJesus. Those people, over there, are always Jesus. Thatperson is always Jesus.
Who is The Other to you? The rudest awakening I had to my Other-ism was a few years ago, when I was training as a hospital chaplain. One night, I walked past a woman who had been brought by her friend to the Emergency Room because of a medical scare. As she talked to her friend, her voice was ragged from smoking. She was overweight. Her speech was ungrammatical. She had bad skin and bad teeth. I didn’t want to visit her, unconsciously preferring to visit someone who was closer to my elevated station in life. And at a reptilian level, I was probably afraid that I would contract–as if it were contagious–her skin, her grammar, her apparent poverty. Well, God pushed me through my Other-ism, and I visited her. Or, I should say, she visited me. Sure enough, she was full of gratitude, kindness and grace, an absolute Light in the world. She was the face and presence of Jesus.
Bishop Thomas told us in his sermon here a few weeks ago that when Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, he asked God to free him from hatred. Because he knew that if he hated the white people who had taken so much of his life away, he would neverbe free, and would suffer a spiritual death sentence. He knew that all animus, all hatred, all Other-ism is nothing more than taking poison and waiting for The Other to die.
So, who is The Other to you? Who are the people, who is the person you recoil from? I have a kind, much-loved relative who lives in Manhattan and says, “I don’t think I knowany Republicans.” And it’s clear when she speaks that they are Others to her. When my evangelical Asian-American friend hates black people, he has unwittingly taken poison. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in his deeply moving book on the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1956 that we cannot be so involved in diagnosing humanity’s sickness that we ignore the cure of grace.
The cure of grace. It comes for me in the Prayers of the People when we pray for our President, Donald. It is a gift from God to be able now to hold Donald in my heart. He needs God’s healing and peace just like me. I’m not theologically able to ask God to change what Donald thinks or does, as abhorrent as I find much of it. No, I ask God tohealhim, exactly as I ask God to heal me. His brokenness is my brokenness. Knowing this, I cannot make him into The Other. At our cores, he and I are just two more wounded people in the world, two bodies of broken bones walking with Jesus toward dinner in Emmaus. May we all dine there together.
So, when we pray, let us always pray for those whom we struggle to pray for. Let us pray always for The Others in our lives, whoever they are. Let us hold them in our hearts. Ask God to hold them in God’s heart. Allow Jesus, after he has divided us, to bring us back together as one body.