Journey to Wholeness – Lent 2

“The Company You Keep,” Bob Ryder

READINGS
“If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb

There are two questions we must ask ourselves. The first is, “Where am I going?” The second is, “Who will go with me?” – Howard Thurman

REFLECTION
Susan began our Lenten series last week speaking about Jesus using his wilderness experience as a time to prepare for his ministry.  She reminded us to think of that familiar “40 days and nights” interval as a way of understanding that the event took as long as necessary to accomplish what needed to happen, in this case for Jesus to sort things out and get clarity for the work he felt called to take on.  I’ve thought about her explanation a few times in week since, imagining the internal conversation Jesus might have had with himself as he considered his way forward; the kinds of things he planned to say and do, the kinds of distractions and temptations he’d reject.  As a native saying goes, “I don’t know whether or not it really happened this way, but I know this story is true.”  Did Jesus, the historical person – the Jewish peasant carpenter, actually begin his ministry with a wilderness retreat to consider all the competing priorities and preferences that needed sorting out?  Maybe, or maybe he clarified things as a work in progress as he went along.  Maybe it was both.  However he got there, one of the main reasons Jesus’ ministry was sufficiently compelling to secure a place in history was because he developed a crystal clear vision for his work – a deliberately inclusive community with people who were estranged.  That’s how I see it anymore – Jesus accomplished his work primarily by the company he kept.

We don’t need to read very far into the gospels for hints at this.  Some of the first stories written about Jesus are those that recount who he invited to follow him and what he said to his critics on the subject. In Mark 1:16-20 we’re told this about how Jesus invited his very first followers…

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

As he happened upon people going about their normal routines and making a living, Jesus intuitively understood these were the sort of folks who needed to be included in a community of reconciliation.  He didn’t begin by recruiting the wealthy and well-connected who might be able to help him cultivate political influence.  He didn’t seem to have a list of qualified candidates in mind.  He began by spontaneously inviting commoners.  Anyone would be welcome and appropriate to develop the kind of community that might transform the world.

And it went further than simply being open to the masses; he defended their dignity against the condemnation of the wealthy and well connected.  In Mark 2:13-17 we read this…

Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Levi he got up and followed. As he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

Let’s consider that phrase “sinners and tax collectors” for a moment.  For as long as I can recall hearing stories like this, I’ve interpreted references to “sinners and tax collectors” as a signal to look down on the people being referred to.  To be told Jesus’ associated with “tax collectors and sinners” has always prompted me into a patronizing state of mind.  The way it’s always fallen into place in my unreflective thinking is that it’s partly a credit to Jesus that he’d be willing associate with people who ought to be regarded as “unworthy, ” and of course it’s partly a shaming of those unworthy people who were the very fortunate recipients of Jesus’ mercy as he bestowed the blessing of his attention and company upon them.  I’m not sure if it’s been the preachers I’ve heard recount these stories who’ve inculcated that interpretation, or if it’s been my own ego exalting myself at the expense of those characters – probably both.  But it happens subconsciously for the most part, so it’s worth examining the bias, wherever it comes from.

Saying it aloud, it seems more and more doubtful to me that Jesus could have created the compelling experiences of community he was known for by exacerbating people’s sense of unworthiness.  Calling someone a sinner, even in the third person, does not invite admiration from those on the receiving end of the description.  So now as I imagine that exchange in which Jesus retorts to the scribes, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” it doesn’t make sense anymore to take it at face value.  Intuitively it seems more like Jesus’ is throwing their self-righteousness back in their faces.  The tone might sound something like this.  The scribes say to some of Jesus’ disciples, “Hey, you guys – you run around with that folk preacher, right?  Why does he hang out with those dirtbags?”  Jesus overhears and hollers back “Hey, you can mind your own damned business, beautiful people.  I’m not here for the likes of you.  These folks here – the ones you call “dirtbags” – these are the folks I came to see. I belong to them, not you.  Go dot your “Is” and cross your “Ts!”  I can’t point to any scholarly Greek translation to bear this out.  It’s just my own sense of why Jesus was experienced and remembered as he was.  It might well be that Mark intended the more patronizing sense of the exchange I’ve always taken for granted.  But the more I contemplate the reputation Jesus had, the more it feels like it had to be based on empathy, authentic curiosity and unconditional positive regard for people’s core humanity, the precise opposite of how those at the bottom of society were used to being treated by those at the top.

In my privileged life I’ve been criticized and judged as much as the next guy – sometimes fairly and sometimes not.  Thinking back as best I can, I don’t recall a single instance of being condemned by someone that left me better off for the experience; better informed or more open-minded, more inclined to expand my thinking or transcend my ego to live more graciously.  And I certainly can’t recall an instance of being judged that left me feeling drawn to the person doling out the judgement.  Yet just off the top of my head I can think of several relationships that have changed me for the better with people who just took an interest in me and included my in their lives as a simple gesture of hospitality.  Has that been your experience?

I want to suggest a few resources to look up when you get a chance.  What they have in common is that they are the explorations of Deeyah Khan, a British documentary film maker and human rights activist who also happens to be Muslim. She recorded her conversations with members of a white Supremacist group and radical Islamic jihadists.  You can find links to her website (http://deeyah.com), FB page (https://www.facebook.com/pg/Deeyah.deeyah/posts/?ref=page_internal),her TED talk (https://www.ted.com/speakers/deeyah_khan), and a partial transcript of her interview on The Ezra Klein Show podcast (https://www.vox.com/world/2019/1/14/18151799/extremism-white-supremacy-jihadism-deeyah-khan) in the manuscript for this reflection, and you can currently view on Netflix two of the documentary films she’s made in recent years entitled “White Right – Meeting the Enemy,” and “Jihad – a Story of the Others.”  The audio recording of the podcast interview I heard is entitled, “The Roots of Extremism.”  It was recorded for the Ezra Klein Show and you can find that podcast on Apple, Google, or Stitcher.  If you need a starting place, being with The Ezra Klein Show podcast.  I’ve listened to it a few times and I promise it will make an impression.  For the purposes of time, I’ll just share a few of her observations that get at the gist of her work as it speaks to our approach to Lent as a journey to wholeness.

Ms. Khan approached the projects from a standpoint of genuine curiosity.  While she certainly was and is appalled by the ideology and behavior of the people she interviewed, nevertheless she approached the conversations genuinely interested in each individual as a human being. What was their story?  What did they care about on a personal level?  How had they suffered?  What were their hopes?  In her view, the hatred espoused by extremist groups is a manifestation of feeling lost and alienated, and hate groups provide a sense of purpose and belonging.  She’s very deft about not getting drawn into debates about the premises of the causes, reciting historical facts or quoting scripture.    She noted that for the most part the individuals weren’t well versed in the philosophical background of their belief systems, and at any rate that kind of engagement only results in people talking past one another preventing the possibility of a human connection.  “They are so practiced on their talking points,” she says, “so practiced on that way of engaging, which is why when I went in there and I didn’t ask them any of that stuff and I asked them more questions just about them, most of them found that really confusing, and they found it really strange, because – they said it to my face several times, ‘Nobody has spoken to me in the way that you’re speaking to me.’  And it’s like they’re looking for trouble, they keep looking at me going, ‘When are you gonna yell at me?  When are you gonna fight?  Because that I know, and that I like.”  She observes that in such arguments it doesn’t matter who wins the debate because either way the adversarial nature of the relationship is still the underlying reality and each person only experiences the other as an abstraction. As she listened, she found that in some cases she and her interviewees began to empathize with one another despite the vast differences in their orientation to the world, and in some instances even came to like one another.  Mind you, as movements, both the white supremacists and the jihadists wanted her dead, and she took enormous personal risks to her safety to pursue these projects.  Nevertheless, she found it was not impossible to develop a relationship with people who were and are participating in some of the most hateful and violent movements in the world.

 

“… deprivation is not just about economics, it’s a spiritual / emotional / inner deprivation.  When you feel lost, when you feel like your life and the world around you is just crumbling down on you, if somebody offers you acceptance, somebody offers you understanding, somebody offers you a place and a community and something – a goal that you can pour all of those feelings towards, it’s incredibly powerful and intoxicating. It’s a very appealing invitation.  When I sat down with the jihadis, I found myself – to my horror, actually, because as I said, I hated these guys. I have hated guys like this most of my life.  I’ve been afraid of them like nothing else.  They have been the source of destroying my life in so many ways for so many years.  So when I sat down with them and they would say what their life has been like – the sense of rejection that they feel, and I remember sitting there saying, “My goodness, me too.”  And then they’d talk about alienation and racism and discrimination, and what that does to you, what that really feels like, and  I remember sitting there just nodding and nodding and saying , “Yeah me too, me too.  I get it. I completely feel like that, too.” But then at the end of all of that I would always sit down and think to myself, “What is it that makes him pick up a gun and I pick up a camera?”  And the answer to that question is, when you are lost, or when you are in that dark place, or that insecure place, or that fearful place in your life, it really matters who shows up at that point in your life.  If the person that shows up is somebody loving and caring, somebody who wants the best for you, somebody who’s a teacher or a mentor or a loved one, or if it is somebody who is looking for another recruit, what you end up doing with those feelings is two very different trajectories.  But the starting point is remarkably similar.”

“As a society, we have a responsibility to make sure that people feel like they belong, and feel like they have a place, and feel like they have something that they can contribute, that they are valuable and that they matter and that people do actually care about them.”  None of that costs us anything.  Many of these guys are people who have given up on themselves, and have given up on us.  And I think it’s really important that we don’t do that, that we don’t end up giving up on them, as well.  It’s really easy to be kind and to be there for people that you like and agree with. The true test of your principles and your values really is, are you going to afford all of that – those rights and those opportunities – to people that you dislike and people that you disagree with.  That’s when your principles really matter.   As satisfying as it is, as great as it feels to be judgmental and self-righteous and to condemn them, it’s not productive.  It doesn’t actually get you anywhere other than just feeling good about yourself for 2 minutes.  It’s didn’t solve anything.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take for the rest of us to realize that we all have a part to play.  Bombing something into peace isn’t enough.  Arresting our way out of some of this isn’t enough, and just political responses aren’t going to be enough.  Human connection at the end of it is ultimately what ends up really mattering to people.  Because it’s the lack of human connection that usually drives people in this direction anyway.” (Deeyah Khan from the Ezra Klein Show Podcast – https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/vox/the-ezra-klein-show/e/59339814)

 

Listening to Ms. Khan’s insights reminds me that gathering at Jesus’ open table is one of the most important responsibilities in the world.  Not just for the few minutes each week we pass these particular plates and cups, but letting Jesus’ approach to community – his very deliberate openness to fellow human beings – letting that philosophy influence the way we engage with our neighbors.  Jesus’ used his wilderness experience to find clarity on how he would invite others on a journey to wholeness.  That’s what we’re here for, too.  If our experience of Lent is similarly a time for gaining clarity about our own approach to living, one of the things to notice along the way is that those whom we might reflexively think of as others are actually our neighbors, or – at very least – that we are called to be theirs.  Amen.