Monday, April 29, 2013

Sticks and Stones

15 minute sermon for preaching class:

It doesn't take a lot for someone to hurt you. One of my earliest memories is of riding in a car with my mom; I couldn't have been more than six or seven. As we rounded the corner of our block, there were these two girls standing there, maybe a few years older than me. They looked at us through the window, then pulled at the corners of their eyes, the way kids do when they're pretending to be Asian, and they screamed, "Chinese!" and then burst out laughing. Even at that young age, I knew that what they had done was wrong. I knew it somehow in my gut, even if I didn't understand it in my head.
I had a similar experience a few years ago. I was working for a medical supply company, and I had gotten a patient's wife on the phone. I can't remember exactly how the conversation ended up going where it did, but she ended it by saying, "Okay, gay guy!" and hanging up on me. I was a little shocked, and I yes I wondered if I was sounding especially gay that day, but I had never experienced anyone saying anything like that to me before. I was so stunned, that I actually left my desk and started walking around the office telling everybody about it. But, the interesting thing was after each time I told the story, the person I was talking to would say, "Oh my gosh! Are you okay?" And each time, I would say, "Yeah, I'm fine." I thought it was weird that they all kept asking the same question, because the only reason I was telling people the story was because it was so crazy, and I actually thought, at least at first, that it was a funny and shocking story to tell.
After I had made my way around the office, I was telling one final person, and again, after I was done telling her about it, she said, "Oh my gosh! Are you okay?" Only that time, I wasn't. I walked out of that office so fast, and I sat down in the lobby and I just burst into tears.
Labels. We love labels and we love labeling things, especially people. I'm guilty of it; we're all guilty of it. And, as our passage shows, we have been doing this for a really long time. Circumcised and uncircumcised, Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean. It's so easy to lump people into a group, and slap a label on them letting us know that they are different. It's a world of us verses them, a world of tribes, a world of othering, where we turn people into "others." It helps us to feel more secure in our own positions, to know that we belong, as defined by the fact that others do not. And as we can see in this passage, it even happens within the family of God.
When Peter comes back from Caesarea, the other disciples kind of give him the side-eye, because they had heard some things about what he had been getting up to over there. Hanging out with the wrong crowd, sitting down with them for dinner, the uncircumcised! And, the passage makes it very clear at the beginning, that the disciples knew that these "uncircumcised" were believers! These were people who had accepted the word of God! But apparently, that didn't make them acceptable company for one of their own.
Human beings have a tendency to form tribes. If you want to look at it in evolutionary terms, the people that were the most tribalistic were the ones who survived. They looked out for each other, gathered together for protection, made sure that everyone had enough to eat, even if it meant that anyone outside of the tribe wasn't going to make it. The people in the tribes, the successful ones, were the ones who passed down their genes. Every single one of us is in this room here today because our ancestors survived. They were part of the tribe, and we are their legacy. Tribalism is part of our genetic structure, part of who we are, and as much as we try to fight it, as much as we try to tell ourselves that it's wrong, it's something that we all do, even if it's only a little. Even if we try and hide it deep down inside.
It almost seems like the whole of human history can be boiled down to us vs. them. We have Christians fighting Muslims, Israelis fighting Palestinians, even Catholics fighting Protestants. Republicans and Democrats. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, this gang fighting against that gang, lines being drawn around geographic and ethnic differences. Male and female, gay and straight, the 1% and the 99. A lot of people really don't like the idea of original sin, but, if there is such a thing, then I think this is it, or at least part of it anyway. We have this deep, ingrained need to turn people into others, just to make absolutely sure that we aren't the ones that don't belong.
I like to tell people that I am from the Chinappines, because my dad is Chinese and my mom is Filipino. It's my own little tribe, and I'm actually kind of proud of it, plus it's fun to say, and I love the look of confusion that people get when I say it. It's a tribe that I wholeheartedly embrace and love.
But, I know what it's like to be pushed out of a tribe. I was raised in the PCUSA, and for thirty years, that was the church that I belonged to, proudly belonged to. But, when it came time for me to start thinking about ordination, it suddenly didn't matter that I had been Presbyterian for thirty years, that I was baptized in a Presbyterian church when I was a baby. All that mattered was that I was gay, and gay people weren't part of the tribe. I wasn't part of the tribe.
Since I was born and raised in Southern California, I didn't have to deal with a lot of this. The two stories I told earlier are the only two "name-calling" incidents that really stick out in my mind besides the silly schoolyard stuff that most kids have to unfortunately deal with. But, what really stands out for me when I think about those two times when it did happen, is the types of words that were used: the first one being "Chinese" and second one "gay." These are technically neutral terms, neither positive nor negative, so it wasn't the words themselves that were cutting. It was the intention behind them that made the words so hurtful.
In the case of the girls calling me Chinese, those girls weren't making an observation about my ethnicity. They were reducing me to a single descriptor, as if that was all that I was, and not only that, but mocking it, because it was so beneath them that mockery was okay. You don't have to use slurs to hurt someone. You just have to let them know that who they are is insignificant, and the simple descriptor of "Chinese" accompanied with some childish laughter is all it takes to do that.
Now, the woman that I was talking to on the phone when I worked for the medical supply company, even though I'm sure she didn't put very much thought into what she was saying, affected me more in three words than all of the hateful speech I had ever heard. "Okay, gay guy." In those three little words, she managed to convey the fact that she thought there was something wrong with being gay, that she didn't agree with what I was trying to tell her about her husband's medical equipment, and that she didn't need to listen to me because I was gay, and therefore, not worthy of consideration or respect. It was probably the most condescending and dismissive thing I had ever heard, will ever hear, in my entire life.
When I try to explain this incident to people, the only way I have to describe what it felt like is that she stabbed me with a psychic knife to the heart. It was so swift and awful and devastating, that it's hard to think about even now. But she felt entitled to use such a horrible weapon because I wasn't part of her tribe, and furthermore, the tribe that I did belong to, in her eyes, was so far beneath her own, that it didn't matter what happened to me. That is the nature of tribalism, of othering. When someone is an other, they are suspect, unacceptable, and dangerous.
Which is why the disciples confront Peter about his activities, when he returns. He was consorting with others, people who were not part of the tribe, and they were worried that Peter was going to be contaminated somehow, that they would be contaminated. So, Peter tells them this story: He tells them that he had a vision of a sheet coming down from the heavens, and upon that sheet was every kind of unclean animal, and a voice from above told him to kill and eat. He protests, saying that nothing unclean has ever passed his lips, but the voice says that what God has made clean, he must not call profane.
And after that, three men from Caesarea came and brought him to a man's house, who told him that he had seen an angel who said him that Simon Peter had a message for him by which his entire household would be saved. And as Peter spoke, the Holy Spirit descended upon this man's household, just as the Holy Spirit had done with the disciples.
The Holy Spirit has descended upon each of us in equal measure so that no one can claim that anyone is not a part of the tribe. No matter who we are, or where come from, or how much money we have, or how we vote, or even what faith we profess, God loves us. We belong to the human tribe, and God's grace is big enough for all. Come, be part of the tribe. Open your arms and welcome everyone that you see. 

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