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Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: “Everyday Peacemakers”

 

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20

 

A young, powerfully built black man and his friend come toward a middle-aged white woman, all by herself, down the aisle of an Athens, Georgia, store.

 

Pause. Where’s this story going in your head? Listen to the script you’re writing.

 

If you’re like me, it’s shaped by the headlines of trauma and violence we’ve been reading daily: war, racism, riots, suicide, military invasion. Conflicts between neighbors who’ve become enemies, over decades or overnight: Israelis and Palestinians. Ukrainians and Russians. The peoples of West Africa. The citizens of Ferguson, Missouri.

 

As Eric asked last week, quoting from The Lord of the Rings: “So much death. What can we do against such reckless hate?”

 

His teaching: “Look inward in a new way. Claim your identity as made in the image of God and never let that be shaken, no matter how society looks at you or treats you. And then cling to the hope for change God offers us, in the short and the long term—a hope that’s called faith.”

 

In response to the reckless hate all around us, I complement Eric’s teaching with an invitation to look outward in a new way. A way shown in the story from Exodus this morning. A way shown in the story from Georgia that I’ll finish at the end of this sermon.

 

At the heart of our Gospel reading last week was a powerful, unnamed Canaanite woman who asserted her self-worth, her humanity, to Jesus in a loud voice. In this act, she inspired hope—and woke Jesus up!—so that she and her daughter could be fully healed in a society that devalued them. She looked inward in a new way.

 

This week, we also have an unnamed woman to teach us how to look outward in a new way. But she’s at the opposite end of the power scale: she’s the Pharaoh’s daughter. And into her life floats a mysterious infant: crying, alone, hidden in a basket among the reeds in the river where she’s come to bathe.

 

Pause. Where’s this story going? In Egyptian society, this person she’s found is an outlaw sentenced to death. By all outward signifiers, he’s her enemy: a male; a Hebrew; a future threat to the security of her father’s kingdom. Looking outward through the lens of all she’s been taught to value, all she’s been taught to fear, the Pharaoh's daughter should react to this baby as a wild animal, not a tender human. An animal to be killed.

 

But a miraculous shift occurs in her perception, in the opening of her heart.

 

At work in this ancient story are all the same factors that, to this day, divide us and stir hatred and misunderstanding. The same pressures that trap groups of people into dehumanizing each other.[1]

 

Egypt has a power structure to defend. Although the Israelites were once friendly guests within this kingdom, they’ve been driven into slavery, contained and controlled within an oppressive class system. A culture of fear and dread is reigning. What if the Israelites outnumber us? What if they join forces with our enemies? What if they fight against us and escape? The Pharaoh’s answer is a preventive war, a “stand-your-ground” attack, on children defined as a category of threat—and less than human.

 

But this is a baby lying in the water beside the Pharaoh’s daughter. One, small baby. She recognizes him as a Hebrew child. But she sees nothing but the purity of his humanity. No threat to power: he’s all alone. No fear: there’s no negative story to project on him. No barrier of tribal or national identification: he is simply a child on the water, floating toward her heart.

 

In this stunning moment, the Pharaoh’s daughter gets past what researchers today call “thin-slicing”: the way we subtly, unconsciously, rapidly process every conceivable clue to prejudge people and their behavior―often based on their physical appearance.[2] This rapid cognition is the source of our subtle, immediate prejudice against some groups of people based on their looks, race, or class; their sexual orientation, religion, or politics.

 

And when we react with this immediate prejudice, we fuel conflict; distort our interpretation of complex situations; consciously or unconsciously support systems of oppression.

 

How can we look outward in a new way? See humanity through a lens of hope, rather than fear? Become everyday peacemakers? This is our call as people of faith.

 

As Paul counseled the early Christians of Rome: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” We must not dehumanize people who appear to be our enemies. For as Paul says, “Individually, we are members of one another.”

 

This is a big step in renewing our minds: Like the Pharaoh’s daughter, to open our eyes and our hearts to see each person around us with individuality and tenderness, the way we would look on a baby. To recognize that each person has the same longings for safety, health, happiness, and peace that we have. To see each person without a fixed label; with the same humanity.

 

But there’s more. We may genuinely work to change our attitudes, but research shows that the best way to reset our prejudice against groups of people is by actively increasing our associations with them.[3] Pharaoh’s daughter does not just tolerate the baby Moses; she adopts him into her family.

 

Think of a time you crossed a boundary toward another person you’d been conditioned to shy away from, distrust, dislike, or even hate. And formed a relationship that’s good and acceptable, in Paul’s words. Often one genuine relationship unlocks the conditioning of prejudice. One peaceful act of connection becomes a key to the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

Maybe you’ve experienced this along the way. An individual floats into your life—perhaps in school, the workplace, church, or even a family reunion. And this person becomes real and important to you. Not an opponent or a category of race, or sexual orientation, or religion, or nationality. But a person, whom you take into your inner circle, against all odds and social expectations, and who forever changes the way you respond to similar individuals in the world.

 

By making that person family, you push back against reckless hate. You look outward in a new way.

 

Consider the program Seeds of Peace, which every year brings together “several hundred teenagers from conflict regions such as Israel and the Palestinian territories for a three-week summer camp in Maine. The teenagers sleep, eat, and play games together, and engage in daily sessions to talk about the conflict between their groups and their own experiences with it.”[4]

 

In a forthcoming four-year study, from pre-camp to post-camp, researchers found that Israeli and Palestinian teenagers alike reported feeling more positive toward, close with, similar to, and trusting of the other side.[5]

 

They also reported feeling more optimistic about the likelihood of peace, more committed to working for peace.

 

Most important? “Regardless of their initial attitudes, campers who were able to form just one close relationship with someone from the other group were the ones who developed the most positive attitudes toward the other group.”[6]

 

Now let’s hear the true and hopeful story from Athens, Georgia.[7] Malcolm Mitchell, a powerfully built young black man and star University of Georgia football player, has come to Barnes & Noble to help a friend choose a book for her trip home. Malcolm loves to read, but is unfamiliar with the bestsellers on the rack. He glances at a middle-aged white woman to his left, juggling several books. He hesitates to approach her. In his words, he expects she’ll think, “He’s weird. I don’t talk to strangers.”

 

But he takes the risk. He sees the human connection: he loves to read, and so does she. He heads down the aisle to ask what books she likes. And as she easily opens up in conversation with Malcolm, recommending titles, Kathy Rackley mentions that she’s shopping for a book club she’s just joined.

 

“You did? I want to be in a book club,” Malcolm reveals. He asks if she’d ask the other members if they’d allow him in—thinking he didn’t have a chance to be included in Kathy’s group of all white women between 40 and 60. Kathy was doubtful he’d like their company. “I don’t care,” he said. “I just like to read.”

 

Now he reports that, in his words, he’s been adopted into Kathy’s book-club family—and definitely enjoys it. Not only the book discussions. His new friends invite him over just to hang out with their kids, eat, have fun, talk. “All the ladies in the club are great people, definitely good friends,” he says. “The relationships are great, and I cherish them.”

 

What can we do against such reckless hate in the world? Ask Malcolm and Kathy. Amen.

 

~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Associate for Parish Life

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

August 24, 2014

 



[1] Jon Huckins, “3 Barriers to the Church’s Ability to Love Others” (August 21, 2014) [http://www.relevantmagazine.com/current/3-barriers-churchs-ability-love-others]

[2] Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking (New York; Little, Brown & Co., 2005), p. 76.

[3] Ibid.

[4]

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Samer Kalaf, “Georgia Football Player Joins a Book Club with Some Very Nice Ladies” (August 13, 2014) []