“Dealing With Difference”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
September 9, 2018
This is kind of a serious sermon, so I planned on starting off with a political joke. I scoured the internet, but really couldn’t find one that was
appropriate. Then, I decided that I really don’t approve of political jokes… I’ve seen too many of them get elected!
All of us are acutely aware of the polarization, both political and cultural, that is present in our nation today. Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, older traditionalists and younger more radical folks in both parties — and in newly formed groups — are at odds in ways that are deeply disturbing. We feel torn apart, even broken, as a
Of course, this is not really new. We have experienced serious political and cultural polarization before. The Civil War is the most glaring
example. Also, as the Depression unfolded, as the civil rights movement gathered steam, and during the Vietnam War, our distance from one another was on full display.
And now, as then, there are plenty of people who want to meet others on common ground and have a thoughtful, civil debate, but there is very little encouragement for them to find their voices or to reach out towards others.
So much of what we hear today is that we should find our tribe and join it and take a hard stand and never ever consider someone else’s point of view, much less compromise.
There are definitely issues on which we should not compromise. It’s good that we ended slavery. It’s good that women and minorities have the right to vote. I hope we strengthen that right. It’s good that we are working toward ending discrimination against gay and transgender people. It’s good that we have done so much to clean up the environment and I hope we do more. It’s good that there are people fighting for equal pay for equal work for women.
I guess you can tell where I am politically, but I hope you know that I am your pastor no matter where you are on any issue. It’s important that you know that.
Like many of you, I was raised in an Eisenhower Republican home. My parents definitely didn’t vote for JFK or LBJ, but they respected them as leaders, especially around their support of civil rights.
The reason I bring this up is because my parents and their closest friends from church felt in those days that we were all coming together, slowly, but surely coming together.
My dad fought alongside African American soldiers in World War II and my mom went to secretarial school with Black and Latina women. They were glad and proud to be a part of new generation that saw race and religion as something that didn’t need to separate them from their neighbors, especially since they had heard their parents — my grandparents — making racist and anti-semitic comments their whole lives.
But do we feel that way today?
Do we feel we are moving forward, building a society in which people of different races, religions, socioeconomic realities, educational levels, and political stripes can talk together, work together, live together, make the world better together?
It’s hard to feel that way these days. It’s hard not to get lost in despair. So, I am dedicating myself to being part of a movement toward reconciliation.
Reconciliation was the theme of my Sabbatical leave and I hope to bring some of what I learned to you this morning and in the weeks going forward.
In the time that I spent at the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland this spring, I was reminded that reconciliation does not mean hiding our opinions or feelings. It does not mean staying silent when we see injustice.
It does mean resisting scapegoating those with whom we disagree and it does mean entering into courageous dialogue with them.
It means being honest with our political and cultural opponents without calling them names or vilifying them or casting them as enemies.
It means creating a safe space for listening to each other. Corrymeela is a safe space and I think our church is, too.
Allan Boesack, a leader in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, and Curtiss DeYoung, professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, co-authored a book, Radical Reconciliation. In it, they argue neither politicians nor the church have gotten it right in their approach toward reconciliation, especially around race.
The authors push for a much more focused, honest, robust effort that is based on a foundation of social justice. Only when we are real with each other about inequality and injustice can we truly have a meaningful conversation about coming together.
What do we learn in the New Testament about reconciliation? We know that Jesus wants us to be reconciled with God, but what about with other people?
In the passage we read from Mark, Jesus purposefully travels north of the border to Tyre, a city in what is now southern Lebanon. He knows he is not going to find Jewish people there, not many, anyway, even though his stated purpose in the Gospel of Mark is to bring Jewish people closer to God. He knows he is going to find people who are different from him.
When he gets there, he encounters a woman who is different from him in several categories. She is living in Lebanon, a different country. She’s from Syria and so is of a different race, at least according to the understandings of that day. She is not Jewish, so she follows a different religion.
And yet the woman approaches Jesus and asks that he heal her daughter by casting out a demon. I wish I could say that Jesus responded graciously, but I can’t. This is the most confusing passage, at least to me, in the New Testament. Jesus’ humanity is on full display here, in the form of bigotry. I wish he would just say yes and heal her, but he doesn’t. He makes a cutting remark.
Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
In some ways, this is helpful. If Jesus says such a terrible thing, I guess we can be forgiven for the terrible things we say. Historically, preachers have said that Jesus didn’t really mean it, that he was just testing her faith. I hope that’s true, but the text doesn’t really support that.
Thankfully, there is plenty of good news here.
The woman persists. She doesn’t give up on her daughter — or on Jesus. She stays with the conversation and Jesus tells her that, because of her answer, her daughter is going to be OK. Because of her faith, because of her strength as a woman and as a mother, her daughter is going to make it!
God is working in her that day, and Jesus recognizes that.
Healing happens here! Liberation happens. And that’s the takeaway for me. This could end badly. This could be a tragedy. Instead, there is freedom for this little girl.
Many of us are worried that our nation, our world, our earth are headed toward tragedy. Please, please look to this woman for inspiration and for hope.
She doesn’t despair. She doesn’t give up. She doesn’t run away or escape or attack. She reaches out in hope and in faith and in strength. She enters into a really uncomfortable conversation with Jesus. She humbles herself when she probably doesn’t want to do that. And yet she taps into Jesus’ compassion. And that makes the difference.
We, too, will have to persist. We, too, will have to enter into deeply awkward exchanges with people different from ourselves. We, too, may have to humble ourselves when we do not want to. We, too, will have to dig deep for faith and look into the eyes of those we feel are our enemies and find their humanity, find their compassion.
And we will have to rely on the power of the Divine Spirit that is both beyond and fully immersed in this world.
And that will make all the difference.