So I start with a confession: I don’t know if it’s a personality tic I was born with or something in the way I was raised, but as a kid I was always inclined to think that whatever way my family did things was better than any other way. My mom hung our laundry out on a clothesline to dry, so I sneered at the smell of dryer sheets on my friends’ clothes. We ate a lot of Asian food (my parents began their married life in Japan), so I looked down on kids whose families served them hot dogs for dinner. My older parents took me to plays and symphony concerts, so I thought kids who went to movies were lame. Only as I began to get older did I start to get a sense that the lives of other kids in my suburban neighborhood were in fact much more ‘normal’ than mine, that it was me who was the weird one with rice crackers in my lunchbox and no sense of pop culture. I was the one these more normal kids looked down on, it turned out. So I learned to try to pass for mainstream.
I thought of that years later when I took a class in seminary on multicultural ministry with the Rev. Eric Law. One of the first things he had us do was draw a picture of our family dinner table and talk about what food was on it. Did we grow up sitting down to dinner, or did everyone grab food on the fly? Did Father sit at the head of the table, or were we all in a circle? Did Mother prepare the food, or was it takeout? Was there lots of food, or did we sometimes go hungry? And so on. And from there, Eric pointed out all the assumptions we had been raised with, the things we as kids had taken for granted about security, food, family relationships, power dynamics, and so on. Because of course every person in that class, of whatever ethnicity, had come from a different family culture – and so had a different approach to pretty much everything in the world. Not better or worse in comparison with one another – just different. Knowing those differences, we could communicate more clearly with one another, and build a more real community together.
In our string of Sundays focusing on core values, we chose to focus this Sunday on the value of diversity. Today we celebrate the feast of St Jude – yes, and St Simon, but Jude is the one who counts for us, being the patron of the chapel St Michael’s helped support in the first part of the 20th century. Straight toward Central Park on 99th St, when that street went all the way through, there was St Jude’s, a church that existed less than 50 years, and that served as a segregated chapel for the surrounding neighborhood – a neighborhood that was uprooted and destroyed in the name of urban renewal in the 1950s. It’s a sadly typical story of injustice in an American city. And it’s part of St Michael’s story, because it’s part of our history. St Michael’s helped support that chapel, but it was a separate chapel – and when the city wanted the land it was built on, St Michael’s didn’t fight it. In a word, the story of St Jude’s was one of racism: the need of white people to distinguish and problematize people of color, creating artificial boundaries to serve the purpose of purity and supremacy. James Baldwin memorably said, and I paraphrase, I am not your negro, I am a man. If you think otherwise, it means you need it. Racism is not just a social problem. Racism is a sin, one of the ugliest manifestations of the need we seem to have to say, whatever I am, at least I’m better than that.
Jesus had something to say about that sin. He told a parable, like he often did to make a point. And like many of his parables, this one he told has a trap in it.
It’s such a simple little parable. Two people go to pray. One, the Pharisee, does all the right things and more – he’s a model and example of pious faithfulness. The problem is he’s also self-righteous and high on himself. The other person is a tax collector, a collaborator with the occupying regime, outright flouting Jewish law. But he throws himself on God’s mercy. The tax collector, Jesus says, does it right. And that’s the end.
Luke introduces this story with a little interpretation of it: Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. So we take from that the moral of the story, Don’t be like those people. Fair enough. We all want to think we’re woke, don’t we.
So therefore, who do you identify with in this parable? Do you like the Pharisee and identify with him, good pious man that he obviously is? Do you feel like he gets a bum deal in this teaching? No, probably not – probably your sympathies are with the tax collector, who seems so humble and ready to repent of his misdeeds. No one likes a boaster, and besides, Jesus praises the tax collector, so we know he’s the one we’re supposed to like. After all, he’s not like the Pharisee. And thank goodness we’re not like the Pharisee either, because after all, we’re not self-righteous. But then – isn’t that exactly what the Pharisee said? Thank goodness I’m not like the tax collector? Aha, Jesus says. Gotcha.
And just to muddy it a bit more, there’s a translation problem too. Our version says the tax collector ‘went down to his home justified rather than the other.’ But the original Greek could equally be translated, this man went down to his home justified because of the other. The tax collector is justified because of the Pharisee. Which would mean that they aren’t just individuals standing before God, one better, one worse…but that they’re somehow tied together. Their justification, their rightness with God, is somehow connected to each other. Somehow they’re part of the same community…like it or not.
The phrase we wrote to flesh out the core value of diversity is, ‘We celebrate the fullness of humanity’s differences, building a community where everyone belongs.’ The fullness of difference; and everyone belongs. Sounds like good things for well-meaning humans to come up with and try to live by. But it sounds even more like something God is up to, something that is baked into creation, something that is more than our good intentions alone. Something much more than feeling like we’ve got it right, while others don’t.
Because the problem is, just when you think you’ve got it over those people, it turns out you’ve got it all wrong.
Over several weeks this fall, a group of us studied stories in scripture that dwell on the insider-outsider theme. That theme is not just prevalent in scripture, it’s intrinsic to the whole story of salvation itself. God calls a group of people to be insiders, the chosen people, the people of Israel, and promises that through them, everyone, all the outsiders, will be brought into the blessing. The exclusivity of it is unavoidable, right down to the story of one Messiah, one anointed one, Jesus, who alone of all humanity becomes the Savior of the world. Yet over and over again, outsiders intrude into the insider story. Outsiders outshine the insiders in faithfulness and in correct theology; outsiders teach the insiders what forgiveness and mercy look like; outsiders even argue the insiders into realizing they’re part of it too, the way the Syro-Phoenician woman does with Jesus, the way the Gentile Christians do with the Jewish Christians after Pentecost. The distinction of outsiders and insiders gets flipped on its head. It becomes clear that God, in the end, doesn’t intend for that distinction to exist at all.
Our dear parishioner Rick Hamlin wrote a blog post this week that reminded me of a story of this. Thomas Merton, the great monk and spiritual writer, wrote of one of his moments of conversion as a young man. Standing on a street corner in downtown Louisville, KY, watching the crowds rush by, Merton wrote, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness…”
I don’t need to tell you that it’s a tough time to be living this out in the world. Like in the parable, the traps are everywhere. No sooner do we become ‘enlightened’ (about the falseness of our own assumptions) that we start feeling superior to those we think aren’t so enlightened. And then we find out that all along, they’ve been feeling superior to us. It’s a vicious, neverending cycle – and no one wins.
Created with all our differences, each of us shaped and formed by different paths and experiences, all of us part of a creation that is profoundly diverse and marvelous in its variety… Jesus’ teaching, God’s revelation, is to tell us over and over again that this is God’s way. There is no room for contempt in God’s world. Everyone belongs – even the worst in each of us is redeemed and brought in by grace. Like it or not, our salvation depends upon all of us being welcomed to the table. So here we all are. We may as well come and break bread together. Amen.