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"Others Praise God" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - November 19, 2017

posted Nov 20, 2017, 12:22 PM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Nov 20, 2017, 12:24 PM ]

I’ve noticed a shift in how strangers react to my family.  And it happened in ways I didn’t expect.  When our boys were little, Jay and I easily stood out as gay dads.  We didn’t need to say anything.  Just showing up, one of us carrying a kid and the other toting a diaper bag announced to the world: “Gay Family.”


Sometimes being a gay family led to unexpected benefits.  This especially happened when flying.  Years ago, back when Midwest Express baked cookies on flights, we couldn’t get off the plane without flight attendants sending us home with extra cookies.  And Disney World; we took the boys there, two dads with their two sons, in an amusement park staffed by our tribe.  Every show, every performance: one or both of our kids were picked to go up on stage with the actors.  Just making a guess, but those gay actors looked out and saw us, and said, “I’m picking that family.”


Not everyone liked seeing a gay family, but everyone easily figured out who we were.  But now, with older children, I’ve run into a different reaction: people can’t figure us out because we don’t fit their stereotype of a family. The first time I really remember this happened in Krakow.  Walking across the town square, a sex worker approached us with an offer.  “I’m with my family,” Jay indignantly said to the woman who’d misjudged us.  But, I realized, she just assumed we were another stag-party come to town, four unrelated men.  Then came times when we’d check into hotels; just recently, standing in the lobby, as a hotel clerk looked at Jay and I with confusion, “Okay, I have double beds for them, but your room only has one bed.” “We know, that’s what we reserved.”  “But it’s only one bed.”  “We know, that’s what we wanted.”  “I can change it for you,” said the clerk who couldn’t really see us even though we stood there right before him.  And so it goes; just recently, standing in the Delta lounge, as the woman behind the desk checked Jay in and then looked at the rest of us, “Who are they?”  And everything in her voice said, “You don’t belong together.”  


These encounters sent us the message “You don’t belong.”  I find it helpful to name these experiences as one of “othering.”  We were made to feel “other.”  Who we were and what we were didn’t fit the categories of normal.  “Othering” - this process of making people feel they don’t belong - happens in many ways in our society, often far more oppressively and destructively.  Today I want to think with you about the experience of “othering” and how one famous person from the Bible responded to it.


Rahab, even 3,000 years after her death, remains known as “the other.”  People most associate her with prostitution; Rahab the prostitute.  And yet, details in the story suggest another identity.  She hid the spies on her roof, under the flax she had harvested.  Sounds more like a farmer than a madame.


I’m suspicious of the prostitution label for another reason.  Women who defy cultural expectations often get labeled as prostitutes.  This happened in antiquity: Aspasia, the wife of the famous Athenian leader Pericles, refused to be confined to her house.  She went about the city, debated with men, wrote her husband’s speeches.  And so people called her a prostitute.  It happened in every generation.  Some women cross-dressed to fight in the American Civil War.  When caught, they would be dismissed with accusations of prostitution.  Even recently, when Hillary Clinton ran for president, a fake news story circulated that she ran a child prostitution ring out of a pizza parlor in DC.  Women who break gender norms sometimes get labeled as prostitutes.


The animus against Rahab comes out in her name as well.  The only other Rahab in the Bible is a mythical sea monster, a creature of the deep. ... So at the least we can hear in her name the people of Jericho calling her “monster” and “beast.”


And this “othering” of Rahab literally pushed her to the margins of society.  She lived with her back against the wall; so much on the outside of Jericho that her window opened over the wall of the town.


Prostitute, beast, outsider: the people of Jericho missed no opportunity to make clear to Rahab that she didn’t belong.  She lived as the “other” in Jericho.


Which is why she seemed to shed no tears when an opportunity to leave came.  First, she saw the spies, and by the look in their eyes, she knew that they were outsiders too, the dangerous “others.”  Something about them told her they shared her experiences: men who knew what it was like to be called names in the street - slave, boy; men who knew all the legal and implicit ways people tried to put them in their place.  And she saw too the glint in their eye, the look that said, “I am somebody.”


Then, she shared with the spies her hope: she knew what God had done in Egypt, liberating the oppressed, and now she hoped God would do the same for her.  Rahab gave voice to a spiritual insight: God stands with those treated as “other.”  Rabah represents a fundamental spiritual choice: she chose to believe in the God of liberation, hoping that the God who freed the slaves would free her too.


Sometimes people want to separate questions of justice from questions of spirituality.  You might have seen a post on my facebook page to that effect, someone asking when I would stop talking about justice and start being more spiritual.  But to me, questions of justice are fundamentally spiritual questions.  We’re raising questions of racial justice at Plymouth, not because it’s a good thing to do, but because I think the very character of our souls is at stake.  I believe in a God of liberation, a God who, as Isaiah and Jesus said, “Brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, and lets the oppressed go free.”


At the end of our reading, Rahab symbolically connected her story to that of the freed slaves of Egypt by tying a red ribbon to her window.  This mimicked the “others” in Egypt painting their doors and windows red with sacrificial blood on the first passover.


Rahab didn’t just proclaim her faith in the God of the “others” but committed herself to solidarity with the “others” who fled Egypt.  As Rabah and the spies spoke to each other, they realized their fates were tied together.  We translate the Hebrew saying as, “Our lives for yours.”  But we might better translate it as the Musketeers’ motto, “All for one, one for all.”


This bonding of Rahab and the spies rejected the logic of othering.  The people of Jericho wanted to make Rahab feel rejected, inferior, alone.  They called after her, “beast!”  But the spies saw her humanity, formed community with her, and saw their fate linked to hers.


How do we react to those moments when we feel like the outsider, the “other”?


Rahab reacted to attempts to make her feel marginal by opening her heart and home to “others.”  Forced to the outside of the community, she found herself in solidarity with “others” in the world.  Knowing that the God of liberation stood with the oppressed, she stood with them too.


We can see what comes of solidarity when we think of what happened to the people of Jericho and Joshua’s people.


The people of Jericho tried to build their community on the basis of an enforced, singular identity: you either fit in or you were pushed to the edge.  Jericho didn’t have room for someone who didn’t fit that singular identity.  We didn’t read the end of the story, but in the end, the walls of Jericho come crumbling down.  Think about it: their walls of insider and outsider collapsed.  An identity built on walls could not be sustained.  The fate of Jericho shows the weakness of societies built on an enforced identity, the vulnerability of a culture that excludes the “others.”


And this becomes clearer when compared to the rag-tag group around Joshua in the hills.  When Joshua defeated Jericho, he let Rahab join his community.  But nowhere does it say Rahab converted, becoming Jewish.  Rahab honored the God of liberation but retained her own identity, her own sense of self.  And, while remaining a Canaanite, Rahab went on to become the ancestor of David and by extension Jesus.


So here it is: Jericho reacted to Rehab by making her feel like an outsider, an “other.”  But Israel reacted by allowing the “other” to change and strengthen the community.  Hence the Proverb, “And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”


Recently I saw this in action when we hosted a program called Roots with the Jewish Federation.  Roots brings together Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank for the deep work of dialogue, developing understanding, and peace building.


We thought our event would include Ali Abu Awwad.  But the US government would not give him a visa to enter the country; his cousin, who lives in Ohio, came instead.  Ali’s visa complication speaks to the on-going way Muslim people are treated as “other” in our country; even a peace activist doing groundbreaking work gets labeled as dangerous.


Thankfully we were able to hear from Rabbi Hanan Schleinger and Fady Abuayyash.  Each described how they had long looked suspiciously and cautiously over the lines that divided them.  Rabbi Hanan grew up in New York City but moved to Israel, building a new life for himself in a settlement.  He spoke with awe of living in the land of his ancestors.  At one point he talked about the Israeli practice of picking up hitchhikers.  “I thought of myself as someone who’d give anyone a ride,” he said.  And then he confessed, “And then one day I realized I only saw Jewish hitchhikers.”  Rabbi Hanan’s vision had narrowed to the point of only seeing Israelis; his Palestinian neighbors were those “others,” who lived unseen and unconsidered.


Hanan decided to seek out some Palestinians.  But he didn’t know any.  So he contacted a Christian pastor he knew in Virginia; the pastor put him in touch with a Palestinian who lived about a ten minute walk from his house.  One of the costs of “othering” is the loss of community; we know someone around the world better than we know our neighbor.  And when Hanan said that I thought of Milwaukee and how Milwaukee exists as two or three cities together - a white city, a black city, a Latino city.  I have more dear friends who live in Boston than I do friends who live in Harambee.


Rabbi Hanan went to see the Palestinian, who happened to be Ali Abu Awwad. He had to overcome his own fear to walk through the farmhouse gate.   But there he found Palestinians and Israelis in deep conversation.


Fady Abuayyash grew up in the West Bank but settled in Ohio.  As a young man he returned to Palestine to marry.  His wife’s family were some of the Palestinians meeting with Israelis; marriage drew him into conversations he thought he’d never have.  Fady grew up deeply afraid of Israelis and especially settlers.  He suffered through indignities of searches and suspicion; worried whenever his younger brother went out of the house; “What will happen to him today?”  The “other,” the Israelis, represented danger.


And yet on Ali Abu Awwad’s farm he found Palestinians and Israelis hugging, something he never expected.  Through the discussions of a program like Roots, Israelis and Palestinians are finding a way to hear each people’s narrative and to create space to hold each people’s truth, building what they call a “painful hope.”  And really building a new kind of community in the Holy Land, one in which “those people” aren’t treated as the “other.”  Building a new kind of solidarity.  They seem to me to be modern day Rahab’s.


Rahab can be our guide too as we seek to be disciples.  She experienced the pain of being treated as an “other.”  But she responded with a spiritual insight: God stands with all those treated as “others.”  And that led her to take risks to be in solidarity with “others”: sheltering the spies, helping Joshua, forming a new community of outsiders.  Alleluia and Amen.



Sources:

  • Craddock, Fred, “Othering,” Restoration Quarterly

  • Reddie, Anthony G., “Being the Enemy Within: Re-asserting Black ‘Otherness’ as a Riposte to the Homogeneous Construct of Whiteness.”

  • Lichem, Walter, “Capacity for Otherness in Pluri-Identity Societies.”

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