This is a rough and unedited manuscript of the sermon I preached on January 14, 2007. The text for the sermon is Isaiah 62. I used the column I’d written for UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum (to be published on January 15) as a starting point.
When I was in college I earned a reputation for being something of a campus radical. I actually got an award at graduation for being the most outspoken person in my class on social issues. They gave me a plaque. I’ll show it to you next time you come to my office.
Now it wasn’t a hard distinction to earn nor was it a hard award to win considering where I went to school. I’m pretty sure that a fair number of the students at my college didn’t know the difference between Church and the John Birch Society, none the less, I’ll give you an example of the kind of thing I did to earn my award.
We had mandatory chapel three times a week, and once a semester the college President came to chapel and would respond to students’ questions and concerns. So one time I asked the president why the college didn’t take a day off to celebrate Martin Luther King’s Birthday.
It was an accusatory question, but the president was quick on his feet and responded by saying “well, Ben, if we took a day off to honor Dr. King, you wouldn’t be thinking about civil rights, you’d be at the beach.”
I wasn’t quite prepared for that answer, and I didn’t come up with a good retort for a couple of hours, and by then, of course, it was too late to say what I should have said, which is: “yea, but we get Columbus day off, and I’ve never once considered the bravery of Italian explorers on October 12.”
None the less, I’ve in the years since then, I’ve decided to take the college president’s answer as a challenge, and to spend at least a little time each year to think about the legacy of Dr. King, about the Civil Rights movement, and about the status of race relations in America on Monday that celebrates King’s birthday.
My observations vary. Sometimes I have gone so far as to re-read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, or the introduction to Cornel West’s book Race Matters, but usually it’s something more simple—a prayer or a few minutes of reflection.
And one of the great gifts that has been left to us by Martin Luther King and others is that those of us who claim to be followers of Christ can no longer think of the kingdom of God monochromatically. When we read Biblical passages like this morning’s lesson from Isaiah, when we read about a re-created world, about God rejoicing over the New Jerusalem, the City of God adorned with beauty, we cannot escape the fact that what makes the Kingdom of God beautiful is the colorful diversity of God’s children.
This is a gift, and if, by faith we are citizens of God’s Kingdom, and if our eyes are set upon the City of God, then we will look at the world around us with gratitude for what progress we’ve made and with impatience with how far we’ve yet to go.
Let me give you and example of what I mean.
I’ve been gone for the last two weeks, and many of you have been kind enough to ask how the Post Christmas vacation treated the Daniel family.
The honest truth is that while some of the time off was great, most of our trip was marked by a particularly virulent strain of intestinal flu. While most of the world celebrated the New Year, we celebrated the day when each kid finally kept down a sip of ginger-ale. It was bad.
The low point came on New Year’s Eve, when Nellie, who is almost three, started hallucinating. That was scary. My father-in-law, who is a physician, was concerned enough that he sent us to the San Diego Children’s Hospital, and they were concerned enough that we were moved to the front of a crowded emergency room and into an examining room within minutes.
Then a funny thing happened. Because we’d been rushed into the examining room, the hospital had to send someone into the room to get our insurance information, and when the insurance person saw the racial make up of our family—Nellie is Asian, my wife and I are white—she demanded of us that we produce proof of adoption, which, of course, was safe in a filing cabinet in San Jose.
It was weird. This woman kept asking for the papers, and she kept changing the question as if asking it in a different way might get me to hand over Nellie’s adoption papers. I kept answering her in slightly different ways, hoping that a morphed response would make her drop her demands.
But it didn’t work.
So she went to get her manager. He also demanded proof that I am Nellie’s dad, but his asking for the documents didn’t make them any less in San Jose. A similar dance ensued, a similar stand off. Finally, he took my driver’s license from me and disappeared into the bowls of the hospital. I don’t know what he did there, but it took a long time. I assume that he must have run some kind of background check on me, because when my license was returned, they let the subject drop
And here’s how the story relates: every day I give thanks that I live in a world and in a society that accepts international and interracial adoption. The fact that I am allowed to be the father of my daughters is a sign of real and wonderful progress. Yet despite that progress, and maybe even because of that progress, I am impatient—spiritually disquieted—knowing that I live in a world where the racial makeup of my family can raise suspicion in the emergency room of a world-class pediatric hospital in a city as cosmopolitan as San Diego.
Maybe I’m wrong about this, but no one I know has ever been asked to prove paternity in a hospital emergency room. Parents are not usually expected to show up with a birth certificate or adoption papers. But our family looks a little unusual, and we live in a world where people are afraid of psychopaths who do horrible things to children.
That night we were at the nexus of racial stereotypes and fear. The stereotype is that children are racially similar to their parents. The fear is that the world is full of people who kidnap children. It was scary to be at the meeting place of that racial assumption and that anxiety.
But, of course, it happens all of the time, and what we experienced was only the mildest example of the nefarious nexus of prejudice and fear. As disturbing as it was, it only lasted about fifteen minutes.
Today in our country and around the world, people denied housing, deprived of justice, subject to abuse and even killed because they are caught in the nexus of prejudice and fear. As a society and as a world, we still have a long way to go.
And, of course, it’s not just race. Prejudice and fear intersect in the way Gays and Lesbians are treated; this intersection is the driving force behind anti-Semitism and the mistreatment of Muslims. It’s a big problem.
It’s hard to rid ourselves of stereotypes, and it’s even more difficult to shake our fears. These are deep seeded and often they are with us from the cradle. What is easier, I think, where we may have some control, is where prejudice and anxiety intersect.
And this is where our faith comes in. The place where stereotypes and fear intersect is a dangerous place, but our Christianity gives us tools with which to keep prejudice and fear separate.
Our Bible tells us that everyone is created in the image of God. The passage that Joyce read reminds us to think of ourselves as diverse members of the same body. By faith we are given the gifts of faith, hope, and love, and the confidence that these three abide.
We must take our faith, our Biblical promises, wisdom and mandates, and erect what we believe to be true as a barrier between stereotype and fear, so that the two don’t intersect and don’t cause the damage they are so capable of wrecking on our world.
We need to place faith between prejudice and fear in our personal lives—because we all have prejudices and fears—and we need to do it in our communities by getting involved in the schools and in local organizations and politics. And we need to raise our voices on a societal level and on a global level we need to insert the values of our faith between prejudice and fear wherever it is found.
By the way, we never found out what Nellie’s problem was. At one point the doctors went out of the room to consult about giving her a spinal tap to check for encephalitis. Before they left the pediatric resident on the case gave her a popsicle, and that popsicle was magic. A few licks into it and Nellie was fine.
I realize that there is not magic popsicle that will make all of the world’s problems and around race disappear. When we place or faith between prejudice and fear we won’t solve all of the world’s problems. We are, after all, only human. But working to keep stereotypes and anxieties separate seems like a good practice as we continue our journey toward the beautiful city of God.