Beauty in the Gaps

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The phenomenon of crown shyness. 
Plaza San Martín (Buenos Aires), Argentina

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:10-28

The first time I ever came to the Northeast in the winter was, believe it or not, only a few years ago. I believe it was the winter of 2012, and because I don’t do things halfway, I went up to Saranac Lake, NY, to the Adirondack high peaks. It was a bitterly cold January, at least to me, and as we drove through the winding mountain roads around and through the high peaks, I gazed up at the frozen waterfalls and gray / white landscape as the wind whipped the snow around the salt-covered roads.

From Lake Placid, New York, I posted on Facebook from the passenger’s seat as we drove: “I believe we have entered God’s freezer.”

Without missing a beat, a few minutes later, a Facebook friend — a Lutheran from Minnesota — replied, “I bet it’s really full. You know God never throws anything away.”

God is patient, it seems, and sometimes too patient. There are things in God’s freezer that I wish had gotten thrown away long ago because they keep resurfacing to thaw and smell: racism. Hatred. Terrorism. White supremacy. Neo-Nazism.

Some folks seem to be worried about denouncing white supremacy and Neo-Naziism in particular because they fear offending conservatives. Let me be clear: I was raised by conservatives and I think much more of mainstream American conservatives than to assume they in any way identify with white supremacy.

One such conservative who helped to raise me landed on the beaches of Normandy at D-Day fighting the Nazis. My grandfather arrived in the second wave, and of the fighting, he only said in his Southern drawl, “The first wave was a surprise. By the time we got there, they were ready for us.”

He, an Alabama conservative at heart, had no patience for Neo-Nazis or white supremacists when he was alive. I don’t believe that would change if he were still with us today.

He, like most of us both liberal and conservative, would not be able to believe that we were still rehashing that Nazis are bad.

Indeed, sometimes I wish that God would throw some things away for good.

But it’s also not surprising that we have to because it’s a tale as old as time: because of our differences, we dehumanize each other. One group finds dominance and abuses another and endless bloodshed and oppression ensues.

Everyone pays dearly, in blood or in soul.

The truth is that we humans have never learned to live together in peace for long. In the times that it feels like we have, it’s because one group is firmly in control of another one with tension and violence bubbling just beneath — or on — the surface.

In our Isaiah reading this morning, you may not notice it, but Isaiah is saying something revolutionary. Ancient Jewish faith highly valued lineage and was suspicious of foreigners. Foreigners could, realistically, be an invading or corrupting force on them. In their history, in many times, they had been. Israel was no stranger to foreign invading forces, so it makes sense that they would be suspicious of foreigners.

Like I said, we humans have never really learned to live together.

But Isaiah says that God will be a God of the foreigners as well as the Israelites, which to the Israelites — operating under the idea that they’re the only chosen folks and God don’t love nobody else — this must’ve seemed crazy.

Now, the Romans reading from today is pretty clear about God choosing Israel and never un-choosing them (God doesn’t really clean out the freezer or un-choose people), but God’s also trying to teach the Israelites something that we’ve never been able to figure out — how to live in peace with people who are different from us — because it is the only way to lasting peace.

We want to be tribal. Whether we like it or not (or whether there’s a good reason for it or not), we tend to be more comfortable around people that we read to be “our people.” People who look like us, sound like us. It still amazes me when some New Englanders visibly cringe when I intentionally slip into a deep Southern accent or how rural Southerners will accuse me of “sounding like a Yankee” if I’m not careful to code-switch into my native accent — because in both cases, the person has imagined me to be one of their tribe, but by sounding different, I jar them.

For reasons — some reasonable, some horrible — we’re comfortable around people who, based on a number of factors, we read to be “our people.” And that would be fine if it didn’t mean that some groups need to dominate everyone else. Today and in modern history in the West, this has looked like the evil of white supremacy. It has looked like many things around the world throughout history. Domination. Slavery. Conquest. Forced religious conversion. The removal of native peoples.

We humans have never learned to live together.

And we relegate the “others” — those who are not our tribe — into useless objects rather than people. When I was a 23 year old seminarian just out of college, I took two classes with Dr. Luther Smith, a wise pastor, teacher, and activist. He said something in one of my first seminary classes that I will never forget: “People think we make too much of slurs, but never underestimate the destructive power of calling someone a derogatory name. If you call someone a name, you take away their humanity and turn them into an object. And once you’ve done that, you can do whatever you want to them.”
We saw that during the Civil Rights movement.

He emphasized the civil rights tactic from the 1960s of activists looking into the eyes of those who were beating them. The idea was to make them see you as a human being, not an object.

Of course, objectifying people is more than just sinful, it is irrational. Diversity makes us stronger. Different experiences, skill sets, and ways of thinking make us stronger. And yet we act like everything foreign to us is an invading, threatening force.

We see other groups as useless odds and ends, but there is no junk drawer in God’s kingdom. (1)

We need each other.

Oppressing the other and regarding everything foreign as a threat is not only sinful, it is foolish.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus begins by saying that it is not what goes into a person, but what comes out, that corrupts us.

This also applies to ideas. (2)

You will not be corrupted by hearing something you don’t want to hear. As John Dickerson, host of Face the Nation, says, “Ideas are like filters — they are useless unless you run things through them.”

In other words, it is of no worth to have your own opinion if you do not test it frequently to maintain its factual accuracy.

We are not all the same. This is not an easy thing, but it is a good thing.

After giving this speech in the Gospel reading about what goes in not corrupting but what comes out, Jesus meets a Canaanite woman who begs for her daughter to be healed. If this passage didn’t strike you in some kinda way in light of recent events, you might not have really been listening, so go back and read the end of it again. I’ll wait.

Jesus obliquely calls this woman who is begging for healing for her child a dog.

What are we supposed to do with that?

Some say that she changes Jesus’ mind about foreigners. Others say that Jesus was testing her faith and knew all along that he was going to heal her daughter when she believed hard enough.

I think neither is correct or helpful, tbh.

Jesus has just given us a crass metaphor about how it’s not what you’re exposed to that corrupts you, but what you produce, in a system that tells people to that foreign stuff is unclean. In response Jesus says, who cares about things you literally or metaphorically take in, digest, and poop out?

If you think that’s too crass for church, take it up with my Boss.

To be clear, I mean Jesus.

Both the bishop and the council lead busy lives.

In other words, Jesus says to worry more about what you’re putting into the world than what you’re exposed to.

People often think that when they are asked to wear masks to see a patient in the hospital, that the mask is to protect them. It usually isn’t. It is usually to protect a patient with compromised immune system.

Worry more about what you’re exposing others to than what you’re exposed to.

You get the idea.

After Jesus gets this idea across, a foreigner comes up to him and asks for healing and I think he intentionally gives the answer that might be expected by his audience: “Sorry, no foreigners — I’m only here to serve the Jews.”

This particular foreigner is gentle but direct. Even in not challenging his characterization of her as a dog, she shows her humanity. She is a mother who just needs her daughter healed. And Jesus knows the disciples and others see and hear all of this. And he validates her faith and heals her daughter immediately this foreigner is not an invading force — she is human. She is faithful.

We have never really learned to live together as humans, but it is part and parcel of our ability to survive together. We — as a church, a nation, and as the human race — have got to figure this out.

God has no junk drawer. Each human being was created with love by a creative God. When we dismiss, enslave, hate, oppress, and kill others because we see their differences as an invading force, we sin. And in addition to calling out the sin of white supremacy, let us also look for the sin of hatred and prejudice within ourselves.

Lastly, we members of majority groups have a tendency to say things like “It doesn’t matter to me if you’re black,” or “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay,” or “It doesn’t matter where you’re from.”

But it does matter. It matters because being black, or being gay, or being an immigrant, or being part of any other group shapes who we are. Pretending that we are all the same does not help us because we are not the same. God is a creative artist, and each of us is treated differently for a variety of identity-related reasons each and every day. Our differences matter. Our differences are gifts from which we can each learn.

This week I found myself researching a phenomenon in the trees called “crown shyness.” If you have a chance, look up images of it from your favorite search engine when you get home. The trees grow up next to one another, often with roots intertwined, but when their tops reach the canopy, they seem to give each other space. The gaps between the trees that result create a beautiful canopy.

All of humanity shares a root system. We are all intertwined with one another, and justice for one group is connected to justice for all others. But I pray that someday we, like the trees, can create beauty in the gaps, not by trying to all become the same tree, but by giving each other space to grow, even as we share common humanity.

The God who created all of us has been moving towards us since we were created, teaching us to create beauty in the gaps. This God took on brown human flesh in the middle of an occupied country to show us that God has no junk drawer. Each person is not only loved, but necessary. We all have gifts to share, a purpose to fulfill.

Jesus taught us today that ideas that go into us do not corrupt us, but those that come out of us do. Let us examine our own hearts and our minds, cleaning out of the freezer the ideas and prejudices that long ago started to stink. We all have them.

And let us give each other space to grow, knowing that God intends to create beauty in the gaps between us. Let us see differences not as invading forces but as new ideas to be wrestled with. The God who created us different also created us beloved and calls us into a future with hope that someday, someday, we might finally learn to live together. And just maybe we can learn something fro the trees. Amen.

 

  1. This idea appeared in Sundays & Seasons’ “Ideas for the Day” in the Planning Guide, p. 241. Kudos to Lisa, our music director, for calling my attention to it.
  2. Dr. Brooks Holifield first articulated this idea in my hearing with regard to this text in a sermon at the Candler School of Theology c. 2010. 

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