I collect quotes. I always think other people say things so much better than I do. An English proverb says, “Faults are thick where love is thin.” A Chinese saying goes, “All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its great power.”
Jesus was humble, and He was powerful. People who are arrogant, and boastful, and full of themselves- we know they’re that way because inwardly they feel weak, vulnerable. They have to cover themselves, protect themselves with displays of false power. But you want to know what is powerful? Humility is powerful.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans today, we see community that is torn over the right way to do things. Arrogance was running rampant. This was the situation:
In the ancient world, eating meat was rare unless you were a king. The only time regular people like you and me would eat meat would be if it was sacrificed to a god. You gave the dove to the priest; he slaughtered it on the altar; he kept the good parts; you got the rest back for your evening meal, or it was sold in the marketplace.
Now, Jews made sacrifices to the Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem. And they freely ate the meat offered to the one true God. But if, like Paul and his gentile converts, you didn’t live in Jerusalem the only meat available to you would have been meat sacrificed to the pagan idols.
So being a good Christian, what do you do? Do you eat the meat or not? What does your conscience tell you? If you are theologically astute, you say, “Of course we eat the meat! We know that their idols aren’t gods. There’s only one real God. It would be the waste of a good filet not to eat meat sacrificed to idols.”
But what if you aren’t so sure that eating something that has been dedicated to a false god is right? What if your conscience tingled at the thought? Wouldn’t you offend God by not keeping strict lines between pagan food and Christian food?
This was causing quite a rift in the Christian community in Rome. The liberal Christians whose consciences were convinced that idols could just be ignored, would eat the meat right there in front of God and everybody. And the conservative Christians, who were nervous about offending God, were absolutely appalled, and just knew that God was going to strike those liberal Christians down.
Both sides were judging each other harshly, and neither side was going to give in. And the arrogance on both sides was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
It sounds uncomfortably familiar, doesn’t it? The way we hold each other up as demons- the way we cast blame and lay down fault lines. It’s my way or the highway, and God help you if you’re on the other side of the highway. Oh, excuse me. That’s the whole point: God won’t help you if you’re on the other side of the highway.
Uh huh. I bet you thought I was just talking about politics, and how the right and left just can’t stand each other.
And how we’re so frozen in our society that nothing can get done anymore. I could be, heaven knows! But our tendency to look at each other with disdain doesn’t stop at Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. Our arrogance extends to anywhere that we draw lines of ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable,’ and look down our long noses to those who offend our sensibilities.
We see a child acting out in the parking lot, screaming, kicking, having a melt-down:what we see is a bad parent, a bad child. What we don’t see is a kid who is so anxious, so scared, so tired, so frustrated or angry that they their emotions have no place else to go but out. What we see is a child or a parent at fault.
I was reading a blog on Asperger’s syndrome. One of the parents, StacyAnne, wrote, “The first thing I need to do when having to confront my child or correct my child is to toss out any indications of “blame”… We have to go right into solution mode instead of blaming mode, or else we end up in a meltdown.”
The parents talked about how their kids with Asperger’s seem unmotivated, unwilling, uncooperative, or rude. The counselors give the behaviors names like “Oppositional Defiant Disorder,” “PTSD”, “video game addiction.” And all these names might be accurate up to a point, but what is really happening is that the kids have emotionally shut down because their environment has gotten too much for them to be able to handle.
They turn on their Defense Modes to protect themselves.
What if, instead of blaming these kids, these parents, we try to understand that they are terrified. They are reacting in anger or frustration or shutting down and freezing us out because they are unable to do anything else.
If we’re terrified, it doesn’t matter if we’re public schooled or homeschooled, Christian or agnostic. What matters is if we can ever feel safe again. And pointing the finger does nothing to make any of us feel safe. What makes us feel safe is if someone will try to reach across the wall and make connection.
Another parent on this blog asked, “What can I do about a kid with a video game addiction?” And the response was- You’ve got to get into their world. What they need is human connection. Join them playing the game. Connect with their world. The more you can connect with them in their world, the more they will feel like you’re trustworthy, they more they will feel like there is a world outside of this video game. And it will end up that they spend less time with the video games.
But you know what all that demands? It demands humility. It demands that we get off our high horse and see what it is the other person needs to feel safe, to feel valued. It demands that we get down on the floor and enter their world. Arrogance just doesn’t work when we’re trying to make connections.
What if that’s not just good in dealing with kids with ADHD, or Aspergers, or Autism, but good for dealing with any situation that has frozen up and become unworkable? Any situation where laying blame does nothing but make things worse?
When Paul was speaking to those two factions in Rome, he tended to agree with the liberal side- that you can go ahead and eat meat offered to idols, because they aren’t gods anyway.
But he goes on to say that what really matters is the person standing in front of us. “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat.” (Romans 14:20). And so out of humility and love for our neighbor, we don’t do something that will make them fall.
The obvious example is how we observe Communion. We don’t serve alcohol, because if someone with an addiction comes forward, it would be unconscionable to either exclude them or cause them to fall. And so we just take alcohol out of the equation, even though the majority of us could drink it with no problem.
Sometimes the examples aren’t so easy though. Back before everybody loved and accepted gays and gay marriage as they do today (???!), there was this argument out of Paul that we shouldn’t talk about gay rights because there were those who considered homosexuality to be a sin. So even though we liberal Christians understood that homosexuality was not a sin, some of us suggested that the gays should just keep quiet and stay in the closet, because other Christians would be offended. Hard to believe they used to think like that, right?
Paul’s argument could be twisted so that any time the status quo was being questioned, any time the majority were made to feel uncomfortable, it was the people who sought change who were told to accommodate. But what if the issue isn’t about who is comfortable and who is uncomfortable, but how we can respect the humanity of the person standing across from us?
On Sunday morning in June 1991 in Lincoln, Nebraska, Cantor Michael Weisser and his wife, Julie
were unpacking boxes in their new home when the phone rang. “You will be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph St., Jew boy,” the voice said, and hung up. Two days later, the Weissers found a packet flung onto their front porch. “The KKK is watching you, Scum,” read the note. Inside were pictures of Adolf Hitler, caricatures of Jews with hooked noses, blacks with gorilla heads, and graphic depictions of dead blacks and Jews. “The Holohoax was nothing compared to what’s going to happen to you,” read one note:
The Weissers called the police, who said it looked like the work of Larry Trapp, state leader, or “grand dragon,” of the Ku Klux Klan. Trapp was a Nazi sympathizer who led a cadre of skinheads and klansmen responsible for terrorizing black, Asian, and Jewish families in Nebraska and nearby Iowa. “He’s dangerous,” the police warned. “We know he makes explosives.”
Although confined to a wheelchair because of late-stage diabetes, 44-yr old Trapp was suspected of the firebombings of several African American’s homes around Lincoln, and was responsible for what he called “Operation Gooks,” the March 1991 burning of the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Center in Omaha. Oh… and Trapp was planning to blow up the Weisser’s synagogue.
Trapp lived alone in a drab efficiency apartment. On one wall, he kept a giant Nazi flag and a double-life-sized picture of Hitler. Next to these hung his white Klan robe, with its red belt and hood. He kept assault rifles, pistols, and shotguns within instant reach for the moment when his enemies might come crashing through his door to kill him. In the rear was a secret bunker he had built for the coming “race wars.”
When Trapp launched a white supremacist TV series on a local-access cable channel, Michael Weisser was incensed. He called Trapp’s answering machine. “Larry,” he said, “do you know that the very first laws that Hitler’s Nazis passed were against people like you who had no legs? Who had deformities and handicaps? Do you realize you would have been among the first to die under Hitler? Why do you love the Nazis so much?” Then he hung up.
Weisser continued the calls to the machine. Then one day Trapp picked up.
“What the f___ do you want?” he shouted.
“I just want to talk to you,” said Weisser.
“You black?” Trapp demanded.
“Jewish,” Weisser replied.
“Stop harassing me,” said Trapp, who demanded to know why he was calling.
Weisser remember a suggestions of his wife’s. “Well, I was thinking you might need a hand with something, and I wondered if I could help. I know you’re in a wheelchair and I thought maybe I could take you to the grocery store or something.”
Trapp was too stunned to speak. There was silence on the line. Then he cleared his throat.“That’s OK,” he said. “That’s nice of you, but I’ve got that covered. Thanks anyway. But don’t call this number anymore.” “I’ll be in touch,” Weisser replied.
During a later call, Trapp admitted that he was “rethinking a few things.” Then, however, he went back on the radio spewing the same old hatreds. Furious, Weisser picked up the phone. “It’s clear you’re not rethinking anything at all!” After calling Trapp a “liar” and “hypocrite,” Weisser demanded an explanation.
In a surprisingly tremulous voice, Trapp said, “I’m sorry I did that. I’ve been talking like that all my life… I can’t help it… I’ll apologize!” That evening the cantor led his congregations in prayers for the “grand dragon.”
The next day the phone rang at the Weisser’s home. “I want to get out,” Trapp said, “but I don’t know how.” The Weissers offered to go over to Trapp’s apartment that night to “break bread.” Trapp hesitated, then said, “Apartment No. 3.” When the Weissers entered Trapp’s apartment, he burst into tears and tugged off his two swastika rings. Soon all three were crying, then laughing, then hugging.
Trapp resigned from his racist organizations and wrote apologies to the people he had threatened or abused. Two months later, he learned that he had less than a year to live. That night the Weissers invited him to move into their 2-bedroom / 3-child home. They converted their living room into his sickroom, and Julie quit her job as a nurse to care for him. Six months later he converted to Judaism; three months after that he died.
The American nonviolent activist Gene Knudsen observes that in every conflict she has observed, all parties to the conflict had been wounded, and that the unhealed wound was at the heart of their violence. It is no surprise that Larry Trapp had been brutalized by his father, and was an alcoholic by the fourth grade.
An English proverb says, “Faults are thick where love is thin”; but God says: “faults are thin where love is thick.” And Paul said that what’s important isn’t why you believe this way or that, so much as the humanity of the person in front of you. And the uncle with the nephew with Asperger’s got down on the floor and played the video games with him until the boy could come out of his trauma. And the Jewish couple took the Klansman in and nursed him until his death.
And all if this is based in a deep humility, because humility carries within it the very power of God.
In the Name of the Humble One, who will never let us go; even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Resources: D. O’Reilly, “Converting the Klansman”, Philadelphia Enquirer, April 9, 1995, H1, 6; Walter Wink, When The Powers Fall, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN 1998, pp. 29-32
Scripture for Sept. 24, 2017 Romans 14:1-12
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.