Matthew 7:1, 12; Luke 10:25-37
The Rev. Tom Herbek
March 18, 2018
I like what Richard Rohr says about parables:
A parable confronts our world and subverts it. It does not create but re-creates our destructive and illusory myths. It has a hard job, and so it usually does not call for discussion, debate, or questioning. A parable is not God-as-information. Rather it is God-as-invitation-and challenge. A parable calls us to insight and decision. A parable doesn’t lead us to more and more mental analysis; it’s either a flashing insight or it’s nothing. It calls us more to decision and a change of perspective.
You are supposed to struggle with spiritual texts, but when you make the Bible into a quick answer book, you largely remain at your present level of awareness. There are groups who would describe the Bible as an answer book for all of life’s problems. The Bible is actually a conflict book. It is filled with seeming contradictions or paradoxes, and if you read it honestly and humbly it should actually create problems for you!
The way you struggle with the fragmentation of the Bible is the way you probably struggle with your own fragmentation and the fragmentation of everything else. The Bible offers you a mirror that reflects back to you how you live life in general. There are very high levels of consciousness and holiness in the biblical text, and texts which are frankly hateful, selfish, and punitive. You need to recognize them as such. As Wendell Berry says, “the mind that is not baffled is not employed.” The Bible mirrors our own human fragmentation, your own two steps backward and your own occasional three steps forward.
There are many things that can be used in different ways- sometime to unite, other times, to divide.
Color can be a really good thing, and can be a way to bring everyone together. On St. Patrick’s Day, we all wear green and we all become “Irish” for the day. There is green beer, and green milk for kids, and McDonald’s even has a green milkshake. Color can be a way to bring people together, to show a sense of solidarity and unity. There is red on Valentine’s Day, and red, white and blue on the 4th of July. No sailor would ever mistake a Navy uniform for an army uniform. Color can help identify us.
But even color can mean different things to different people. White for us symbolizes cleanliness and purity, thus first aid supplies are in white boxes. But in Japan and much of Asia, white symbolizes death. For us, green symbolizes something natural, earth-friendly and full of life. In Malaysia, green represents danger or disease. Yellow flowers, particularly yellow roses, are symbols of expectant waiting for someone to return home for us. In Mexico, yellow flowers mean death or disrespect. So color can mean different things to different people, can both bring people together, as well as separate people.
A few years ago, the “Community Reads” book here in Canandaigua was James McBride’s The Color of Water. It is the story of James and his mother Ruth.
Ruth was the daughter of a Jewish rabbi and store owner, who married a black man, was shunned by her Jewish family, and had several children, including James. The book is James’ struggle with color and his attempt to understand and claim his place in a world where color and race were used to define people.
The title of the book comes when James asks his mother, Ruth, a question. He asks her “What color is God?”, and Ruth replies, “God doesn’t have a color. God is the color of water.” Ruth’s statement that “God is the color of water” succinctly captures Ruth’s attitudes towards race and religion. Ruth believes that race occupies a secondary role to goodness. She believes that no matter one’s race, God creates our worth.
She believes that God loves all races equally, and that goodness and devotion, not a certain race or class, make people worthy of God’s grace. When Ruth says she thinks of God as “the color of water,” she means that God is not black or white, God is not of one race or another, but of all races and none. While Ruth embraces both black and white people, she knows that prejudice is widespread and intense. God’s spirit, on the other hand, welcomes people of all races, sexes, and backgrounds.
Isn’t it strange how color can be used? Color can be used to bring people together, and also as a wedge, a barrier, a division between people.
Jesus chose a story with a complete surprise ending to show what he thought of using color, race, religion– or anything else– to separate people from one another, or to make one group believe they were better than another group. The Samaritan was a person who was beneath contempt, not even worth noticing, scum of the earth to any good Jew of Jesus’ day. Jesus was very clear that we are all neighbors, and that God is the color of water, not owned by any group, race, or nation- not even by any one religious group.
Only if our beliefs bring life and love and compassion can they be God’s will. Interpretations that prevent us from extending God’s grace to others (like those of the priest and the Levite) reveal the use of belief, of faith, to become instruments of death rather than instruments of life. Unfortunately, every faith institution has proven itself susceptible to using religious laws, rules and beliefs to shame, exclude, and judge others rather than to welcome them, encourage them, and embrace them.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, is his final book, Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life, writes:
Beliefs, theological premises, don’t qualify as religion until we translate them into behavior. Feeling sorry for a homeless person or feeling lucky that we have a roof over our heads, feeling outraged when we read of a crime or feeling lucky that we were not the victim doesn’t help the homeless person or the crime victim until we translate those sentiments into helpful acts. For many years on the High Holy Days, I would share with my congregation excerpts from a meditation entitled “The Protester and the Prophet,” credited to Robert Rowland. It read in part: “I was hungry and you formed a humanities club and discussed hunger. I was sick and you thanked God for your good health. I was lonely and you left me alone while you went to pray for me. You seem so holy, so close to God, but I’m still hungry, I’m still lonely and I’m still cold.”
Sounds something like one of my favorite sayings from Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times: when necessary, use words.”
In a wonderful movie called “Chocolat”, a small French town has lost the ability to live, because everyone is so concerned about the religious laws, about rules, until a strange woman and her young daughter move into town. Both the woman and the townspeople are forever changed by their interactions, by the fresh winds of change. Even the young Catholic priest, Pere Henri, stops being an instrument of law and becomes a voice of grace. The dramatic break for the priest occurs in his Easter sermon, where he sets aside the prepared, approved sermon and speaks from his heart.
He says: “I don’t want to talk about Christ’s divinity today. I’d rather talk about his humanity. I mean, you know, how he lived his life here on this earth– his kindness, his tolerance. Listen, here’s what I think: I think we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think we have to measure our goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.”
I think Pere Henri is right. We do have to measure our goodness by what we embrace, by what we create, by who we include. But it is not easy to stop judging other people; keeping our distance is a way we have learned to protect ourselves from pain, from being hurt. How can we embrace, create and include without becoming vulnerable to the hurts and pains of the past?
So much harm has been done, in the name of religious beliefs, for so long, that we are tempted to feel we need to apologize for being people of faith. I really enjoy Lillian Daniel’s story about apologizing, which appears in her book with the wonderful title, Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To:
When a stranger started talking to me in the long checkout line at Marshall’s, I welcomed the distraction. We commiserated about the inefficiencies of the system and both swore we wouldn’t be coming back to this store again. In other words, we exchanged pleasantries and lied to each other.
But as the time passed, both of us standing there with nothing to do, he started to talk about real things. It was one of those strangely intimate meetings. He wanted to talk, I was ready to listen, and the lady in front of us was processing a massive return from an earlier bad shopping day.
Before we started talking, I had noticed that he was wearing a turban, a sign of Sikh religion. But we weren’t talking about religion, thank God. Standing in line in the suburbs of Chicago, he told me he had been raised in India, moved to Chicago as an adult, but now most of his family lived in London. That included his favorite elderly aunt, a woman who was dearer to him than any living relative. Now she was dying, across the ocean in London, and he was trying to figure out whether to purchase an incredibly expensive airline ticket right away so that he could go to his aunt’s dying bedside before she passed away, or whether he should wait and fly to London later, for her inevitable funeral.
“What would you do?” he asked me with a catch in his throat.
His emotion and openness startled me, so I deflected by asking more questions, heading straight to the land of logistics, where I was more comfortable. Could he make two trips? What were the family’s expectations? Was his aunt alone or did she have others by her side? Had he heard about the various discount air travel websites? Why not make both trips? What exactly was his financial situation?
“Well, I’m shopping at Marshall’s!” he replied, and that made us both laugh. He knew he could not afford to go to London twice. He could barely afford to go once.
Last-minute airline travel is expensive. Like most people, he was on a budget, hence his presence at an understaffed discount store. He had to make a choice.
Should he break the bank to buy the last-minute ticket that would get him to her dying bedside in twenty-four hours and say good-bye to his aunt in person? Or should he save the money and plan ahead, to go to London for the funeral, when the rest of the family would be there? He was really wrestling with this, trying to make a decision.
Once I realized I couldn’t solve his problem with obvious answers and travel tips, we talked more deeply. Knowing he could make only one trip, he was leaning toward making the trip the next day, to be in her presence, despite the enormous expense. I told him about all the times I had visited my mother when she was dying, when it felt like I was using the airplane like a bus, racking up credit card bills, never knowing if this visit would be the last. At least she and I had been in the same country. His situation was harder. But I told him I was glad I had gone. He nodded as if he had been right there with me, and said, “I want to see my aunt while she is still alive. I want to remember.”
Suddenly a flashing light above the cashier’s head broke our connection. “I can help you down here at number five, sir,” she called, and with that, we were separated, he to his payment station and me to mine. It seemed too abrupt but we moved as instructed. My cart was full of items that looked unfamiliar to me. Why did I think I needed these things? They were useless, cold, and plastic. I was having trouble remembering why I thought I needed them in the first place. As I picked up my receipt, I knew it was time to leave, but I didn’t want to go without saying something to this man whose story hung between us. As he collected his receipt, I tapped his shoulder and said, “Hey, I’m going to pray for you, and for your aunt.”
I wish I could tell you that his eyes lit up with joy at our powerful connection but it was quite different. He pulled back almost in horror, and backed away from me. I felt terrible, as if I had poisoned this beautiful moment. But what poisoned it? I knew it was my announcement that I would pray for him. I was mad at myself. I had to introduce that religion thing, right?
Besides, I could have just prayed for him without an accompanying announcement. Prayers still work when you don’t brag about performing them. In fact, if you take Jesus’ word for it, they work better that way. I didn’t have to blow the whole moment. I made this poor man uncomfortable. My words were like a roll call at the dentist’s office; no one wants to be in line for what’s next. My prayer plans made him back away from me.
He was out in the parking lot before I was, no doubt rushing to his phone to tell someone in India that yet another obnoxious American had tried to convert him.
He probably associated the phrase “I’ll pray for you” with other Christians who had said that to him and judged him for his Sikh religion.
I wanted to pray for him to let him know that I valued him and the tender story he had told me. It had nothing to do with belief in my faith or his. But clearly that hadn’t come through. I pushed my cart full of junk to my car, and clicked open the trunk, only to discover it was already full of other things I didn’t need. Just then I heard these running steps behind me, and a screech of a grocery cart pulled to a stop, and it was him. He’d run outside after me. “I wanted to say thank you,” he said.
“I wanted to apologize,” I said.
“For saying I’d pray for you, for the Christian Church, for whoever said that to you in your past and didn’t mean it, or for whoever said it and did mean it but wanted to convert you. I want to apologize for all the religious whack jobs out there in the world and for the disproportionate number of them who attend church in the western suburbs of Chicago.
I want to apologize for how the Sikh people have been treated. I want to apologize for the high price of air travel, for the fact that your aunt is so terribly sick, and for the long line at Marshall’s, too.”
“That’s a lot to apologize for,” he said, looking rather stunned. “So you’re responsible for all of that?” And then we laughed.
The priest and the Levite, religious leaders, good people of their day, defined their goodness by what they did not do, by what they denied themselves, by what they resisted, by who they excluded. And so, for whatever reasons, they did not get involved. They walked right past the wounded man on this dangerous road. They did not get involved. And Jesus shows us how they missed out on life. They missed the whole point of life, and of faith.
Color is a wonderful thing, something that can unite us, but also it can be a dangerous and unhealthy thing when it divides us.
And so can religion, and so many other things. Perhaps we can find ways each day not to have to apologize for the way religion or so many other things are used to divide us. Perhaps we can show by our willingness to get involved- by the compassionate actions of our lives– that God is bigger than anything that can be used to divide us.
So let us enjoy the wearing of the green, take pride in the colors of our uniforms, our flags, our race, our heritage, our religion, as long as we never forget that those who wear a different uniform, salute a different flag, have a different racial or ethnic heritage, follow a different religion, are also our neighbors.
Jesus was clear that we are all God’s children, that God is the color of water, and that God loves us all– no matter what color we are or what color we use to define ourselves. This Jesus that we follow crossed all the boundaries of his time. And we are called to do the same- and not to apologize for it!