Looking for Christ
November 21, 2008
As mentioned some time ago, I am no longer maintaining this site save for occassional odds and ends. Here is one of those, my senior seminary sermon. Note that the audio problems at the begin go away after a couple of minutes.
(If that doesn’t work, click here.)
My son is in third grade this year, and at Lee Elementary, that means that this is the year for the Hawaii program. You see, each year at Lee Elementary, there is a designated play or show for each grade, a sort of liturgy for the kids (and their parents) to either look forward to or to dread, depending on their personality, gifts, and talents. This particular year, Brian’s production was the history and culture of Hawaii.
Now I thought that would be wonderful, because my brother lives in Hawaii, and having visited there and being familiar with it I thought my son would find it interesting. Hawaii has an wonderful natural history, and native Hawaiian culture is so rich and deep. So when the curtain went up and the opening music was the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari,” accompanied by about a dozen 9-year-olds in sunglasses and swim suits pretending to surf on the stage, I suppose I should have had a hint of what was to come. I have to admit that it was cute, even it if wasn’t exactly what I would call…educational.
The production started, and the kids promptly sang to us and told us about the wonders of Hawaii’s origins in the depths of the ocean thanks to the earth’s volcanic activity. We moved right on to the discovery of the islands by the British explorer Captain Cook in 1778… Amazingly, when Captain Cook landed, there were people already there! The play did not explain how, if he discovered the islands, he found people already present, and I kept wondering what the kids must have thought. Did these other people just appear magically when he stepped off the boat? Did Capt. Cook bring some indigenous looking people with him so he could mirror Christopher Columbus’ landing? Or, had the native Hawaiians who had already been there for 1600 years, just not been there long enough to justify calling it “discovered” yet without the benefit of a male Western-European hero? I wondered what would it feel like to be a culturally and ethnically indigenous Hawaiian transferring into the third grade at Lee Elementary and then have to participate in a program where your existence was just omitted, probably not intentionally, but maybe worse—maybe just because it didn’t occur to anybody to put you in, because they just weren’t aware that they didn’t know who you are, or that you could have even existed before they arrived. It made me very sad.
Of course, Lee Elementary isn’t the bad guy here, although I had hoped that an elementary school in 2008 in a University setting would have understood the concept of the breakdown of the Western Euro- and andro- centric narrative by this point. No doubt, they’ve probably had the same rubrics and the same anamnesis for many years—before it was, at least, commonly understood that there is more than one point of view for exactly how Hawaii was discovered. “Surfin’ Safari” may have very well been the most prominent thing on people’s mind when the play was written—but of course those authors may not have realized that the surf board was invented by the indigenous Hawaiians, not by Elvis in Blue Hawaii. I guess “Hawaiian culture” is relative.
I was probably taught about the history of Hawaii in the same way, and I know that’s how I was taught other facts about history that I now understand very differently—the glorious empire of Rome that brings order everywhere it goes instead of a many times cruel and unjust imperial overlord; the so-called dark ages instead of the middle ages with a culture and value in and of its own; the genocide of Native Americans and Africans by Europeans in North America, camouflaged by history in order to avoid facing a difficult truth.
Isn’t it funny how we humans get when we are so convinced that we have the “truth,” blind to anything but our own myopic perspective?
I heard another story this summer that reminds me of our convinced-ness, but on a more pastoral level. A chaplain was visiting a room in a hospital, and in it a mother and daughter who had long been estranged were talking. When the chaplain walked in, the mother immediately started crying and telling the chaplain about her conversion experience, about how she wanted to be reconciled with her daughter and begin going to church because she was ready to know Jesus. As the mother was talking and facing the chaplain, drowned in her experience and the agony of her life, her health, and her failed relationships, the daughter was behind her, ecstatically mouthing words to the chaplain and beaming, “I did it! I saved her! It was me!”
Over the course of the conversation with the chaplain it became clear that the mother wasn’t “converted” at all but was scared, and was trying any kind of bargaining she could to save her life. The daughter, as you can see, was finished listening, though. She had “saved” her mother. The daughter “knew” she had brought her mother salvation. Like the author of the Hawaii program, she “knew” the truth. Her mother had no meaningful existence until she stepped onto the scene and rescued her, healed her. Now she was healed, and ready to go to the priests to be rejoined to the community, the church, where she would live a happy life knowing that she was saved, unified with her in her belief-system, in her world-view. The end. They would all live happily ever after.
And that’s so often what happens, isn’t it? We play the part of Jesus. We want so much to be the healer, the teacher, the prophet, the giver. We have the kingdom of God in us and, by God, we’re going to share it! Just like the daughter, or like the storyteller in the play, we have what it takes and we know it! We’re so amazed by the healing we can do, or the lessons we can teach, or the sermons we can preach, that we escort the “other” off to the priests to see them get their blessing and join the community—because it’s our community. Why should we give it a second thought? We’re the Body of Christ! Receive the Good News!
Of course, that isn’t quite how the story goes in the Gospel. In today’s lesson, they don’t all run off to the priest right away, and Jesus doesn’t go with them. One of them turns back, a Samaritan. The one whose whole religious identity has been based differently now turns back to Jesus, as if to say, “My God—the kingdom is breaking in right here! Right here in you, in this.” It is the other—the Samaritan, who we focus on, not the other nine– it is the other one who turns back.
I’m reminded of the illustration that Scott Bader-Saye, used in his presentation to us a few weeks ago. The way he exegeted the story of the tower of Babel was that the primary sin of those building the tower was not to try and reach God by going higher and higher, but rather was fear—fear of being separated. Their identity was based in an unhealthy unity that prevented them from living into their vocation. That vocation, he said, was of going into the world to fill it, as God had charged them to do, and so they kept constructing sinful ways to be together—even if it meant literally living on top of each other—in order to do anything but be “othered” from each other. One might even say that they were trying to reconstruct the homoousious, the one substance of the Trinity, trying to achieve unity of substance when we are necessarily limited and finite creatures, contained by our otherness and only able to have total unity with God. It feels to me very much like the kind of false unity that, for its own sake, may just not be able to see the original discovery of Hawaii by Polynesians. We know how the story of Babel ends– they are forcibly “othered” one from another.
Our story of the lepers has a similar theme but phrased much differently, much less harshly, without a “bad guy” in it—this story focuses only on the way it should be rather than the way it should not be, as the story of Babel does. It, perhaps, is the complement to the story of Babel as we’ve interpreted it just now. The lepers desperately long to rejoin their community. I’d want to rejoin my community too, if I’d been cast out like lepers were. It’s important to note that Jesus did ask them to go back to the priest to uphold the purity laws so that they could come back into community. Healthy community isn’t a bad guy here, nor are purity laws. Jesus asks them to do what any good Jew would do in that day once healed of leprosy and see the priests to uphold the purity code, and that is just what nine of them do right away.
But the really interesting part of the story is that the one who is lifted up, the one Jesus calls our attention to, is the Samaritan, the other. We all know by now that the Samaritan is not Jewish, at least not Judean, and represents something outside Jesus’ community. He is the “other” one in this story; the one who stops, turns back, and gives thanks. And Jesus seems to delight in the turning back of this othered person. Jesus highlights the significance of the other, here, in a way that shows us what the folks at Babel didn’t get. It’s the other whom Jesus takes special delight in, whom Jesus calls out, whom Jesus lifts up, and who sees the kingdom most clearly.
What if we took more interest in being like this Samaritan, this other, that Jesus directs our attention to, and worried a little less about how much like Jesus we are, the healer in this story? The Samaritan must be open to the possibilities of the world around him, he is not limited to his world view, his pre-existing limitations that his own culture and context have defined for him. He realizes that he doesn’t have the answers within himself, but must look elsewhere to find transformation. When the Samaritan comes into contact with Jesus, he realizes that the healing he has received is so full and great that he has to turn back and give thanks. He has been transformed, not because he already had the healing powers he needed within him, but because he found them outside in the world around him.
I wonder if we haven’t made a mistake in building up our identity as the church—as Christians– as being based so heartedly in unity instead of in otherness.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Mt. 25:35-36). The Jesus of Matthew identifies himself with the other, perhaps even with our Samaritan: not with the one who is already at our table, who is already unified with us. Looking at it this way, we look not within the religious community for God as those building the tower of Babel seemed to do, but we must turn our attention outside of it. Just as Jesus looked outside his community and lifted up a Samaritan, we are charged not just to carry the light of Christ into the world, but to be transformed by the very world ourselves, being awakened by it as we go.
When we’re out there—somewhere—anywhere—outside where that cross is, out beyond those windows– we find him, and delight in him, as He delights in us. That is where we find our unity. A unity not based in same-ness, but based in other-ness. That is the unity of the Trinity—that is the very mystery of it. That is what they didn’t get at the tower of Babel.
Tomorrow night, I will be at Lee Elementary again. This time it’s my daughter’s turn for her first grade right of passage. My son did this production two years ago. The first graders do a production of the first Thanksgiving. I researched some details about the first Thanksgiving and I found out some interesting and hopeful things. Sure, there is some mythology that goes with the first Thanksgiving. The black suits, the fun pilgrim hats—that’s all a later invention and fashion that just didn’t exist until later in the 17th century. But what historians generally regard as the first “official” Thanksgiving happened in 1621 in Massachusetts. And what did happen there was that some pilgrims invited some native Americans over for a three day party. And the pilgrims ran out of food because the harvest was thin that year. So the Wampanoag Indians went back to their home to bring some of their harvest with them to share it with their hosts. They spent three days together eating, and playing, and getting to know each other in a rather rowdy and festive celebration. It wasn’t a religious celebration, or it would have been quiet and exclusively celebrated by the Pilgrims. But it happened, nonetheless, and both the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims risked something in that year of not such a great harvest to spend that time with each other. Can you picture them, delighting in each other? I can only imagine that they were all transformed somehow in growing from their differences—and their common humanity.
So as the year marches on, the plays, pageants and parties wind up, and we move closer to the end of another semester, saying goodbye to some old friends, getting ready to make some news ones, and wrapping up another Church year, perhaps it is worth reflecting upon how we can worry a little less about how like Christ we are and a little more about how we’ll seek and serve Christ in the world around us, living humbly into our own other-ness and the other-ness of everything and everybody we encounter.