Us and Them = Othering

October 23, 2016

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
23rd Sunday After Pentecost – Proper 25
Joel 2:23-32
; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

(Gospel Text provided below)

As I reflected on today’s parable, it brought to mind an unexpected Facebook interaction I had last month. Rest assured, it had NOTHING to do with the presidential campaign, so you can all breathe easy.

As you may know, on the 3rd Sunday of each month the young parishioners of Christ Church spend the first part of the 10:30 service over in the youth center, for Service & Prayer. During this time we begin with prayers of thanks, and then we make sandwiches to be taken to Emmaus House or one of the other food ministries in our diocese.

14341748_10208999235850840_1526923341_nThe 3rd Sunday in September was September 18th. That was the day we had the blended bi-lingual service. Consequently, we had even more youngsters at Service & Prayer that morning. To capture the moment, I took a few pictures as the kids were busily spreading peanut butter and jelly… a much messier undertaking than you might expect. That afternoon I sent the pictures to Robin Miller, who handles our Facebook page, so she could post them. I asked her to include this message:

Service & Prayer Sunday… Making sandwiches and trail mix for the homeless. Hands and hearts in action!

The next morning I saw that Beth King had sent me a private Facebook message. Beth is very active in the diocese. She’s a parishioner and verger at the Cathedral of St. Philip, and works with Church of the Common Ground, our diocesan street ministry in downtown Atlanta. I’ve known Beth for several years through diocesan activities, but we’ve never really interacted on Facebook before. Her message said:

Jody, could we have a conversation about your posting about the youth’s wonderful lunch making project. The action is great for everyone but working with Common Ground a while now I have come to understand the wording can be a problem. Many of our parishioners are on FB and it is difficult for them to see themselves labeled this way. Thank you.

I had to reread the last sentence a couple of times before it sunk in. Many of our parishioners are on FB and it is difficult for them to see themselves labeled this way.

It hadn’t occurred to me that by saying we were making sandwiches for “the homeless” I had imposed a label on them, but I had. With one word, I had othered them.

us-and-themAs I was quickly working to change the wording on the Facebook post, Beth went on to explain that it’s more than just using the correct words. The point is to not unintentionally create “them” and “us” which is what labels do. Those who receive the sandwiches we make are children of God and made in God’s image. They are, as she pointed out, “our brothers and sisters experiencing need.” They are also parishioners along with us in the diocese.

I must admit that I hadn’t considered those who attend worship in Woodruff Park on Sunday afternoons, as being fellow parishioners in the diocese. I didn’t see that I had painted those who go to the Lokey Center at Emmaus House for assistance and a sandwich, with the label of “homeless” instead of seeing them as my brother or sister experiencing need. Unintentionally, I had othered them.

As we look at today’s parable from Luke’s gospel, we see the Pharisee in the story doing his own othering of outsiders. It begins: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee is understood by Jesus’ followers to be the model of a faithful, religious person. In this story, he is standing by himself in the Temple and says:

God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

By contrast, the tax collector is standing far off and won’t even lift his eyes. We don’t know if he could hear the Pharisee’s label-filled prayer, but his posture and society’s stigma, would certainly have been known.

usthem1-hi-photo-credit-david-cooper1-600x394There’s a real burden of living an othered life. Living under the weight of the labels others put on us is draining. Labels related to age, body size, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, mental health, addiction, and countless others. If you’ve ever been othered, you know what that feels like.

So, here was this tax collector, an outcast, beating his chest as he says, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ There is no attempt to justify himself. He doesn’t list the countless things that happened in his life that led him to the choices he has made. That isn’t the point of the story.

Remember, parables aren’t about the specific characters in the story, they are telling us something about God. As the conclusion of the parable, Jesus asserts:

I tell you, this man [the tax-collector] went down to his home justified rather than the (Pharisee); for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

In this summation, Jesus reveals once again that God’s love is available to all people, even those who live a life that others think is unworthy. God is the judge of worthiness, and, thankfully, God is generous!

So while the Pharisee displays outward signs of righteousness – fasting twice a week, giving a tenth of his income, and standing and speaking in the Temple, his words betray him. He labels others and puts them in a lesser place. But, the name-calling and belittling isn’t part of God’s plan. It runs counter to God’s call for us to love all people. Yet, it too, is forgivable if brought humbly to God.

Jesus’ pervasive message throughout Luke’s gospel is one that lifts-up those who have been othered and restores them to community. This means acknowledging and removing the labels that other people. It also means we are called to help those we know see how their actions or comments could be hurtful and may serve to label others.

us-and-them-1I know that speaking up isn’t always easy. It can be risky to step out there, like Beth did with me. It would have been much easier for her to ignore the post and let it go. I’m thankful that she didn’t.

We can all learn from one another if we’re open to the lessons put before us.  It’s important to act with kindness when those opportunities present themselves. You never know where it can lead in transforming one’s understanding of themselves and inviting relationship with those around them.

In today’s culture the labeling of people is ever-present. We see messages of division at every turn. I pray that we can rise above this way of being with one another, and set an example of inclusion despite of our differences.

Jesus commanded us to love God and love our neighbors… and to even love our enemies. I hope we can show faithful perseverance in that endeavor in the weeks ahead, striving to un-label the othered, and embrace God’s image in all people.

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Gospel Text:

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

One Response to “Us and Them = Othering”

  1. James Greenwood said

    Jody: A truly beautiful and timely message. You are a great blessing. Have a great Saturday and rest of the weekend.

    Love,

    Dad James “Jim” Greenwood III 1306 B Potomac Houston, TX 77057-2063 (713) 468-8102 (primary) (713) 898-2293 (mobile) jmgrnwd@aol.com

    >

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