Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sermon: Our Work of Radical Acceptance

Our Work of Radical Acceptance: A Sermon on Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ “

I’m going to take you back in time. No, not to the long ago time of ancient Jerusalem, where the Roman officials and Temple priests ruled, but to a small Ohio town in 1981. In those days, in that town girls with perfectly feathered hair and gymnast bodies in Jordache jeans ruled. There was another girl in those times, eleven years old, who wasn’t of the ruling class. Although she tried, her clothes were never quite right. Her figure was chunky, her hair uncooperative and her face bespectacled. What’s more, she had the odd habit of saying things that went against the popular culture. Whether the ones in charge were scared of her peculiar ways or merely scornful, they did not accept her. They taunted her, brushed her hair with the broom used to sweep the school bus, made certain she had no place at the table.

As I’m sure you’ve probably guessed, that girl was me. I have known profound exclusion at times in my life. As a teenager, my friends and I were targeted by the police simply because we looked different. Some of us had mohawks or shaved heads, some rode skateboards, most wore unusual clothing. We liked to hang out downtown and talk about philosophy, music and politics. We were courteous and friendly to those around us, even helping older folks to their cars with groceries but that didn’t matter. In the eyes of those in power, we were a menace. We were not only watched carefully, but were even told that if we weren’t there to buy anything, we should go on home. This, by the way, is not uncommon treatment of teenagers, who have little power in the dominant culture, no matter how much today’s advertising may target them.

I was subjected to exclusion as an adult, too, by the Presbyterian Church in which I grew up. Having dreamed for years of walking down the red-carpeted aisle in a white wedding gown to be married by our pastor in our sanctuary, when the day of my wedding did arrive, the service was not done by our pastor nor was it held in that church. I was not even allowed to place a wedding announcement or anniversary date in our church newsletter because I fell in love with a woman. Moreover, it was made clear to me that I would always be excluded from any kind of ordination in the Church. While the people of the church were kind to us in many ways, and a number of them have become good friends to both of us, the overall atmosphere was ultimately one of tolerance rather than of acceptance.

There is a difference. I have been treated to a great deal of true acceptance in my life, as well as being excluded or merely tolerated. In my early 20s, one of my co-workers at the bookstore invited me, along with another bookseller, to a Passover seder dinner at her parents’ house. I was very interested and excited, not having had the opportunity to learn much firsthand about Judaism. I also felt honored to be invited to this special family dinner. Elana’s whole family welcomed us goyim with open arms and loving hearts. Her uncle, a rabbi, made certain to explain each portion of the seder as he went though the old rituals, purely for our benefit. That night will long remain a sparkling light in my memory. The family could have merely tolerated us, but they went out of their way to make a Catholic and a Presbyterian feel truly accepted on that night different from all other nights.

When I lived in a small rural town outside of Nashville with my then-partner, her sister Teresa and brother-in-law Tim opened their hearts and their home to me, making me part of the family. My partner spent a week in the hospital during that time. Her sister could have legally excluded me from visiting or she could have merely tolerated my presence at the hospital. She, Tim, and their children, Travis and Tasha, made a space for me to stay in their home during that time so that I wouldn’t be alone in the apartment. Tasha, who was fifteen, gave up her bedroom for me. Travis, twelve, told me jokes to cheer me up. Knowing I would go straight from work to the hospital, Teresa fixed me a plate of her wonderful cooking each night and left it in the microwave. When I arrived at the house after everyone had already turned in for the night, I would warm up pulled pork, fried okra and buttery corn. After a piece of fudge pie that was so good, that, in Tim’s words, if you put a piece of it on top of your head, your tongue would beat a path through your brain to get to it, I would climb into bed knowing that I was radically accepted.

The work of acceptance is going on in this church, too. In our first meeting to develop a new vision for the church, acceptance was one of the core values chosen by the members present as among the top values of the church. While I don’t think we‘re at the point of radical acceptance that Jesus shows us in his dining with tax collectors, forgiveness of adulterers and companionship with prostitutes and the poor, the light of acceptance shines in myriad ways here. As a newcomer, I am impressed that this church not only donates to a food pantry, but actively welcomes and accepts homeless people as one of the host churches for Interfaith Hospitality Network.

I was immediately struck by this church’s accepting attitude when, on our second visit here, Diane and Andrea remembered our names and Roger and Lollie invited us to host coffee hour with them the following month! I have been heartened by hearing parishioners’ accepting words about those of other faiths and by seeing the respect given by many to the ONA process. Of course we have a long way to go, but we must not let that dampen our enthusiasm. Each step we take, each friend we make is another stride down the path to living out our core value of acceptance.

In choosing acceptance as one of our key core values, we are making the pledge not merely to pay lip service to the idea, but to enact it every day, in all manner of ways, in the life of the church. It is imperative that we remember that acceptance generally implies that we are experiencing a situation or person without the intention to change that person or situation. Thus, in conversation with a person who is Muslim or Hindu, in order to truly accept them, we must simply share ourselves with them and be open to what they have to offer. If we are in the interaction purely for purposes of conversion, we are not truly accepting of that person.

Acceptance does not necessarily mean that we approve of or desire the situation or circumstance, but we must not be in a mode of trying to change it, either. Thus, we can be said to truly accept someone from another life circumstance without wanting to be just like them, as long as we are not trying to make them be just like us. How boring it would be if everyone were alike! I was speaking to a member of this church this week and he posited that God scattered the people at the Tower of Babel because God likes diversity. I have to agree that God must like diversity. How else can we explain the glorious array of colors, the diversity of flora and fauna, the change of the seasons? God could simply have made a utilitarian, grey world with no sensual variety at all. God could have made us all look, think and act alike had God wished. However, God chose to give us free will (even though that doesn’t always seem to work out so well considering our human foibles and problems with little things like envy and greed). God chose to give us green-blue lakes and pink hyacinths. God created scents like vanilla and skunk, that inimitable harbinger of spring in the countryside. God made raspberries and asparagus. We are blessed with a richly diverse bounty of everything God created, including people. I believe God wants us to accept the gifts we have been offered in this diversity.

In making the stand for acceptance, we stand in good company. When Abraham and Sarah prepared a welcome table for strangers who turned out to be angels, they were rewarded with good news so astonishing that Sarah laughed out loud and Isaac, her son, gained his name. When Lot protected strangers, again angels in disguise, from a threatening mob who sought to do them harm, he was saved from perishing in the destruction of his city. When Jesus accepted outcasts as companions, he was rewarded with followers who would have done anything for him.

Not only do we stand with Biblical figures when we practice acceptance, but we stand with some of the most important figures of more modern history, as well. When William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists, including a goodly number of Congregationalists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, advocated acceptance of all races as equals, the nation was forever changed for the better. People like Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers continued the work of acceptance between the races, right alongside people like Michael Schwerner and Elaine DeLott Baker. When the Congregational Church in South Butler, New York accepted Antoinette Brown as their called pastor in 1853, she became the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the United States. While her ordination was not recognized by the denomination and she eventually became a Unitarian, this was a big step, bravely taken by that New York church. Oberlin College, which had refused her either a license to preach or a degree in theological studies, granted her an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in 1908, after she had made a name for herself in the women’s rights, temperance and anti-slavery movements. Mother Teresa dedicated her life to helping, and learning from, the poor of Calcutta. Desmond Tutu advocated for an end to apartheid with an eye to acceptance and reconciliation rather than revenge. While God smiles on our acts of welcome and acceptance, the biggest reward for us is in the exchange itself. There is so much to be gained, and little to be lost, when we truly accept and are open to learning from one another, even those who may seem strange to us.

Friends, our work here in the world is not yet finished. We may not be casting out demons in the literal sense, but each time we welcome the stranger into our midst, we are casting out the demon of inhospitality which was the downfall of Sodom and Gomorrah. We may not be performing miracle cures, but every time we act as though we have as much to learn from someone of another race, age, economic class or theological bent as we have to offer, we are curing prejudice in a deeply important way. Herod holds no power here, but there are those like him who would try to kill our spirits and use the stones of tradition to build walls rather than bridges. It is imperative that we tell those foxes that we must be on our way. There is much work to be done for Christ and little enough time to do it.

4 comments:

seasonalkat said...

Daria, what a lovely sermon! Thank you for posting it...I would love to hear something like that at our own church!

Denise said...

Daria,

Outstanding job!!

Gandksmom said...

I love, love, love this. Our sermon was a lot more about time rather than acceptance. Our church is working very hard towards embracing diversity. Last night we were watching part of a series called "Living The Question" and it was about diversity in the church. It feels so good to hear people in the church accept our family in the church. The article I wrote a while back about being a lesbian in our church is being sent to prospective pastors (we have been searching for a pastor for about 2.5 years)as part of the church showing a glimpse of the congregation. Anyway Daria, I thought this was well done. Bravo!

Daria de la Luna said...

"Living the Question" is a great series! I took a class with one of the contributors, Tex Sample. I'd love to start a LTQ group at our church, but I have too much on my plate right now. I'd love to start a Marcus Borg study group, too. Your church sounds great. If I were a prospective minister & got that article, it would definitely sway me toward your church!