Sermon: On Partiality
Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17; Acts 10:34-39a
Date: January 12, 2020
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Back in the day when I was Associate Pastor at Kirkland Congregational Church, the church helped us welcome our daughter Emma into the world. I remember one day sitting in their lounge area for some event, holding another church child on my lap. Emma—who was around two years old at the time—came running up in a fury and gave the kid in my lap a mighty shove, declaring loudly, “That’s MY mommy!” She thought my lap was her exclusive territory, apparently. The child I was holding (who was not injured in the charge) and I were both surprised. Whose lap is it, anyway?
That memory was sparked by reading an article in a recent Christian Century. The author, Kyle Rader, was visiting relatives in southern Germany. His sons and their cousins were playing on a neighborhood playground. “At some point, one of [Kyle’s] sons climbed onto a rocking play animal. The girl who had been on the toy earlier now returned, climbed on it, and pushed him off. He began to wail. The girl’s father came over to ask her what happened. [Kyle] overheard her saying, “Er gehört nicht zu uns.” ‘He doesn’t belong to us.’ The father responded that they needed to leave in a few minutes.” Kyle goes on to say that a child still learning how to share is not really news, and he tries not to judge other parents’ choices. His son was not seriously hurt or traumatized. But the little girl’s father’s decision not to challenge his daughter’s statement—“He doesn’t belong to us”—stuck with him because of the way it resonated with so many other events in the world. The German right-wing populist party is strongly supported in that area of Germany. And Kyle was thinking, too, about children stuck in cages in our country, and about the way folks from nonwhite or immigrant backgrounds are told by the president and others to go home. “They don’t belong to us.”
We are territorial creatures, aren’t we? The children in these vignettes are playing out physically with genuine, clear-cut shoving what adults usually do more subtly or surreptitiously in their speech and actions and politics. Words like “mine” and “us” hold sway over our hearts and souls in such profound ways. The impulse to define and claim “mine” and “us” is deeply rooted in our human psyches, in our personal and inter-personal histories. The desire to be chosen, beloved, cherished and affirmed; the need to belong to a family of some sort is a deep and insatiable hunger in all of us from the moment we take our first breath.
There are words of loving affirmation in both the Isaiah text and the Matthew text as God lifts up Servants who are being commissioned for their Spirit-blessed work in the world. Isaiah has God’s voice presenting an unidentified person with these warm words: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” Matthew’s gospel echoes that warm designation as Jesus rises up out of the waters of baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Since both Servants (Isaiah’s mysterious Servant, and Jesus) will suffer greatly as they carry out their commissions, it’s lovely that they get to hear the words of affirmation for which we all hunger to wrap them around with warmth that will give them confidence and courage when the going gets rough. All of us who parent, grandparent, teach and otherwise nurture children try to give the little ones a strong sense of their belovedness, their delightfulness, right? We hope it will hold them through the rough patches, the hardships and rejections they will experience.
I believe that having a clear vision of being beloved, cherished and chosen was a great gift to both of God’s Servants being commissioned in our texts today. I have a hunch that God would like to give that same kind of vision and clear message to every person on earth. While the Servant in Isaiah’s prophecy and Jesus had unique and particular commissions to serve, the Divine love and affirmation that were expressed as they were being commissioned is universal. That is, each of us are chosen, upheld, beloved, delightful and well pleasing to God. And not just each of “us,” however we constitute “us” in our imaginations. All the people, all the creatures God has made. God delights in all of the creation.
That is an article of faith. It stretches human imagination almost to the breaking point. Here’s what we can, perhaps, imagine: that we are personally beloved by God, embraced and affirmed. We can imagine–in our less insecure moments at least–that we are embraced by God like a toddler in the Divine Lap. But it’s harder for us to fully grasp that others might be equally beloved. It seems to me that there is a bit of the shoving toddler deeply rooted in each of us that looks at people of different faiths askance—“You can’t sit there in the lap of divine affirmation; that’s MY mommy!” And other forms of tussling, insulting and shoving ensue—“They don’t belong to us.”
One wishes we wouldn’t have to speak about the harm that erupts from feeling territorial about God. It seems so elementary. But apparently we haven’t learned our ABCs as a species. In the context of today’s texts, I’ll call the ABCs Affirmed, Belong, and Commissioned. We’re all affirmed in our unique delightfulness, we all belong to the family of God’s beloved creation, and we’re all commissioned as God’s servants in our particular lives. Elementary ABCs—Affirmed, Belong, Commissioned. You can hear it in the fragment of Peter’s remarkable sermon we heard in Acts, can’t you? “I truly perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” [Acts 10:34-35]
Sadly, on the whole, humans haven’t learned that elementary lesson, or deeply grasped the “no partiality” clause in God’s covenant with humanity. I’m going to bring up some recent religiously motivated or connected violence as evidence. Just about a month ago, on Dec. 10, a man and a woman stormed a Jersey City, New Jersey, kosher supermarket in an apparent act of domestic terrorism and fatally shot three people before they were both killed by police. The alleged shooters are believed to have expressed interest in the Black Hebrew Israelites, a group that espouses hatred toward Jews and is known for anti-government and anti-police sentiments, sources told ABC News. It was just a few days later in that same part of the country that a man armed with a machete stormed a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi’s home in the New York City suburb of Monsey, stabbing six members of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish congregation.
Authorities arrested a 38-year-old man in the attack and discovered his journals contained anti-Semitic sentiments, including references to Hitler and “Nazi Culture” “on the same page as drawings of a Star of David and a Swastika,” according to a criminal complaint charging him with federal hate crimes. Anti-Semitic acts are up in the New York City area by 21% over last year.
Elsewhere in the world, as many as one million Muslims in the ethnic minority group of Uyghurs in China are being held in prison camps. Christians in China are also being increasingly held in prison camps and subjected to brutal conditions and forced labor. In Myanmar, 750,000 Muslims from the ethnic minority group of Rohingas have fled to neighboring countries to escape genocidal violence. In India, there has been a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes by Hindu extremists.
In the past seven years, according to Factchecker.in, an organization that tracks hate crimes, there have been a hundred and sixty-eight attacks by Hindu extremists, in the name of protecting cows, against Muslims and other religious minorities. The attacks left forty-six people dead. Perhaps you recall last March when a “Christian” extremist engaged in two consecutive terrorist shooting attacks at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, during Friday Prayer. The gunman live-streamed the first attack on Facebook. The attacks killed 51 people and injured 49. Muslims, of course, are not immune from extremist violence emitting from their ranks of believers. Also last year, as Sri Lanka’s minority Christian community celebrated Easter, six suicide bombings struck churches and hotels across the country, killing at least 290 people and injuring more than 500 others…Sri Lankan officials are pointing the finger at a little-known local jihadi group called National Thowheed Jamath.
Let’s bring this global look-see on home. A Seattle Times report last summer noted the sharp increase in hate crimes in Washington in general and Seattle in particular. Hate crimes rose 78% between 2013 and 2017 in Washington State, according to a new study that shows this state saw the nation’s ninth-largest rise in bias crime during that time period. Among cities, Seattle had one of the sharpest reported increases in hate crimes, according to the study by Safehome.org, which analyzed data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This 78% statewide rise in hate crimes compares to a national average rise of 22%. (We’re winning…?) The report noted that racial animosity is the most common nationwide cause for bias crimes, which are known in Washington State as malicious harassment. It accounts for 60% of all single-bias offenses, followed by religious animosity at 21% and sexual orientation at 16%, the study found.
Depressing, right? All too often the juvenile impulse to hurt someone who doesn’t belong to “us” results in horrifying violence. I’ve reviewed all these stories today because we can’t, as religious people, ignore the corruption of religion for violent purposes. We are not culpable in religious violence but we are responsible. We must respond—if for no other reason: that’s the God we worship and rely on who is being slandered by portrayals of God as a narrow, vengeful, violent Being. The narrow, vengeful, violent deity is not the God we worship and emulate.
It’s sad how many people think of religion as some kind of contest, as though there will eventually be a winning religion and a whole lot of losers. Christians are especially apt to make this error, having appropriated and colonized all the “Chosen One” language from our Jewish ancestors and become obsessed with Heaven and Hell for a millennium or two. How might we avoid this error as we go forward? Maybe we should make Acts 10:34-35 as our byword, responding to any of our co-religionists harping on Hell by reciting “I truly perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” [Acts 10:34-35] We’ve learned other verses and slogans, why not this one? It is a lens through which we can see into and beyond our religious heritage with a wider, love-molded view.
Relinquishing triumphalist and exclusivist claims about Jesus—letting go of the idea that we’re backing the Winner and every other faith claim is a Loser—does not mean that we love Jesus any less or follow any less whole-heartedly. I really appreciate the way theologian Paul Knitter portrays religious language as confessional language, a kind of love language. He writes, “Exclusivist Christological language is much like the language a …[spouse]…would use: “You are the most beautiful woman in the world…you are the only woman for me.” Such statements, in the context of the marital relationship and especially in intimate moments, are certainly true. But the…[spouse] would balk if asked to take an oath that there is absolutely no other woman in the world as beautiful…no other woman whom [they] could possibly love and marry. That would be using a different kind of language, in a very different context. It would be transforming love language into scientific or philosophical language.” Knitter suggests that Christians took the love language of the early Christian movement and hardened into dogmatism that altered its confessional tone and purpose. In this new era, we can understand our confessions of love for Jesus as the language of love without becoming dogmatic and exclusive in our claims.
We might take on purpose-fully for ourselves the brief description Peter uses of God’s purpose in sending Jesus: preaching peace. We could put our emphasis on the lifetime mission Jesus had as Peter describes it: “going about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” We can keep the “d” in “devil” in the lower case as it is in the Acts text, thinking of all the oppressive powers that bedevil people—poverty, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and so forth. What if the worldwide Christian church was mainly known by the way we all preached peace and went about doing good and healing and liberating? Wouldn’t that be an encouraging change?
I want to lift up a part of the Servant’s commission as appropriate for us to adopt as well: to “be a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” The idea that one religion (the Winner) is naturally superior to all others (the Losers) is a kind of blindness. Religious exclusivism–varieties of religious fundamentalist extremis–function in people’s imaginations like blinders put on a horse. The world needs people right now who don’t just blindly fight back but who seek to remove those blinders with the kind of gentle strength Isaiah’s Servant was seen to possess. This is about being a light, not seeking to extinguish the light of others. At the same time, we approach with humility, knowing our own limitations in understanding God. We make it our aim practice compassion.
Every religious person in the world might one day take off the blinders about their own and other people’s religious heritage and practice, appreciating the light of truth that is contained in each and critiquing the potential for harm in each. We may need a wider criteria for helping each other see both the light and the potential for destruction in the faith traditions we inherit and shape. Paul Knitter suggested one such criteria for evaluating the truth value of a religion or religious figure. “1) Personally, does the revelation of the religion or religious figure—the story, the myth, the message—move the human heart? Does it stir one’s feelings, the depths of one’s unconscious? 2) Intellectually, does the revelation also satisfy and expand the mind? Is it intellectually coherent? Does it broaden one’s horizons of understanding? 3) Practically, does the message promote the psychological health of individuals, their sense of value, purpose, freedom? Especially, does it promote the welfare, the liberation of all peoples, integrating individual persons and nations into a larger community?” Such serious contemplation gives us a respectable middle ground between “my way or the highway” and “anything goes.”
Remember the question I posed when I told you the story of my daughter Emma shoving the child who was in my lap while she yelled, “That’s MY mommy!” Whose lap is it, anyway? That’s the big picture, Beloved. We are, I believe, affirmed in our unique delightfulness; we belong to the family of God’s beloved children; we are commissioned to be a light, to preach peace, to bring healing and liberation as did Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We are held in God’s embrace. But it’s God’s lap, and we have no right and hopefully no need to shove any of God’s children out of that lap as if they didn’t belong. May peace prevail on earth.
 Knitter, Paul F. No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1985, p. 185
 Ibid. p. 231