Sermon: “Standing in a New Place”
Presented at ARK Community Church in Dalton, MA
October 20, 2013
I held up a card with one word in large block letters on each side, as follows…
and then said (more or less)…
All of us can see one side of this card, but not the other. Most of you see Green, the rest of us see Red. Each of you can appreciate part of what this card is, but not the whole thing. You can see one aspect of its truth, but not all of it. What you see depends on where you are sitting, but you cannot appreciate all that this card is without your changing positions or my rotating the card – there has to be movement of some sort. Bear this in mind as you hear this message…
Please pray with me…
Lord, open our eyes that we may see the truth you have for us here today; place in our hands and hearts the wisdom and courage to follow your Truth wherever it may lead us, and so come to a deeper appreciation of your Gospel from a new perspective. Open my mouth, Lord, that I may be a faithful witness to your Gospel, that the eyes of our hearts might be opened, and that your love for all of us, your children, is made manifest. Prepare our hearts to share your gospel with all we whom encounter today, and in the days ahead. Amen.
I recently visited a dear friend, Carolyn, and we began talking about my ideas for this week’s sermon. This in turn reminded her of a story, one that I’m sure most parents have run into (at least a few times).
When her family was much younger, they all went to a ball game. Later, in talking about an event during the game, the narrative that Carolyn related to her children differed a great deal from the one her husband Don gave about the same incident. When Carolyn realized this, she sat her kids down and told them that even though mommy and daddy’s versions were very different, neither of them were lying, and neither of them were wrong, it was just that they remembered it differently because different aspects of the event mattered to each of them. They saw the same thing from different perspectives, which is why their memories of it, and their narratives, differed.
Their truths were different, but neither was wrong. When we differ with others, and we always do, it isn’t because one is wrong and the other is not, it is because we see things through different “lenses.” Our life experiences help shape what things are more or less important to us, what aspects we remember, and how we remember them.
Carolyn’s story brings to mind another story, the testimony of my friend Aziz Abu Sarah, a man for whom I have profound admiration and respect. A Palestinian, born in Israel, raised in Jerusalem, and a Muslim.
Aziz grew up seeing Jews as the enemy; and ending the Jewish occupation and injustices against his people was the focus of his activism as a youth.
But he eventually realized that even though his Palestinian school was only a stone’s throw from a Jewish school up the street, he had no Jewish friends: he really didn’t know what Jews were like. He couldn’t even speak their language. In fact, the only Jews he’d ever talked with had all carried guns – like those who arrested his brother, and released him months later, shortly before his death from the injuries inflicted upon him in prison.
Aziz had plenty of reasons to hate and fear the Jews, but as he grew to adulthood, he chose a different path. He enrolled in a Jewish University and took a class in Hebrew. It was there that his eyes were opened, he began to see that Jews were not as he’d believed them to be. True, some were not nice people, but the variety among Jews was just as great and amazing and wonderful as among his own people. He realized that he had more in common with his Jewish neighbors than not, but he’d never been in a place where he could see that before.
Aziz eventually met an Israeli Jew whose young daughter had been killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. They became friends, and today they work together to build bridges of understanding and compassion between Jews and Palestinians; and to help others understand the concerns and challenges of the lives of those on both sides of the Wall that has divided Jews and Palestinians for so long.
Aziz and Carolyn both innately understand what our scripture readings today are teaching us. Neither they, nor we, can stand in someone else’s shoes – we aren’t The Other. So, we can never fully comprehend The Other’s perspective. But, just because The Other’s truth is different from ours doesn’t make it a lie. It’s just a different insight into the great Truth of God. And their insights, when combined with our own, help us come to a fuller understanding of the nature of God, and God’s love for each of us.
Our perspective is ours alone, it is based on where we stand – on our life experiences and background, our parents, class, faith, capabilities, education, skin color, sexual orientation – you name it. All of the myriad of things that make each of us unique also make our perspective, and ultimately, what we perceive as “Truth,” unique.
Carolyn and Aziz both realized that there can be multiple truths at the same time – and it was up to them, and to us, to decide whether to view other truths as complementary or in contradiction, whether differing truths shall give rise to conversation or confrontation.
This is something that the Rabbinic tradition of Judaism does rather well. As a Rabbi friend of mine has told me more than once – “If you get two Jews in a room, you’ll have three opinions. Heck, if you have one Jew in the room, you’ll have three opinions!” I admire the Jewish Rabbinic tradition, as it does not seek to present a single truth for all to adhere to, but seeks to present the conversation that has evolved over the centuries as each scholar discerns new nuggets of truth and contributes their insights to the future. They see themselves as part of a journey, as part of the unending task to attain an ever more complete appreciation of the universal and unchanging Truth of God.
The Book of Job illustrates this. All that Job relied upon had been taken away. He demanded an explanation from God as to why; and God responded; saying in essence, “Job, if you could stand where I stand, you’d see.”
We cannot fully grasp God’s truth, because our finite natures cannot grasp the infinitude of God. But, we can get a glimmer, we can see that perhaps it’s not all about us, nor about The Truth as we understand it. And this revelation is in Job’s response, which I’ll quote – this time from the NRSV: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you…”
Job had come to a new place, he had a new perspective, he now saw things in a deeper and more comprehensive way. His understanding of The Truth had grown and expanded because he stood in a new place, in deeper intimacy with God.
And, I might add, God never apologizes to Job. But, God took the time to help one individual better understand where God stood. This says a lot about how much God cares for Job, and for us. Just because we find ourselves in hard places does not mean God hates us, nor does it mean that God will rescue us, but the whole point of the story of Job, and Jesus’ ministry for that matter, is that God is with us in such places. No matter where our paths lead us, no matter what new places we find ourselves in, God is already there, waiting for us, loving us, walking with us.
Aziz came to a new place, one he deliberately sought out. He set aside his doubts and fears and deliberately put himself into the midst of those he had long seen as enemies. He opened himself up to being changed. And, he discovered new and wonderful truths. He came to know the truths of others, his knowledge of The Truth of God was expanded, and he was given a vision of what could be, a vision that he has worked towards ever since.
And so it was with Carolyn. She was given an insight into her own nature, and that of her husband and her marriage. Human truth is not mutually exclusive. She and her husband could both be truthful and honest, even if their understanding of the truth differed. And she taught this to her children.
And it is the lesson Jesus is attempting to teach the “local official” in today’s reading from Luke, the “Rich Young Man” as he is called in a parallel passage from Matthew. A person of privilege and power, one who obeyed all the laws he knew. He was earnest in his faith and wanted to do all he could from where he was, to assure himself of favor with God.
But, Jesus’ response to him was not “Do more of what you’ve already done” or “Here’s where to go from where you are standing now;” but rather, “Move to a new place” and “Let go of what you have.”
“Moving to a new place” is an often repeated theme in the Bible, think of all the great journeys in those stories. And think about it – we can’t take everything with us when we travel. We have to let go of all that stuff that we suddenly find is not vital to our existence, nor our happiness. Moving to a new place gives us the opportunity to release some of the burdens of our past, and gives us new perspectives on our past and future. You see and explore new things, you find God’s truth in places you never suspected were there.
And that is why Jesus asked this Rich Young Ruler to let go of all of the things he had trusted in up until now, which is what Job had been forced to do. Would he let go? Or, would he hold on to what he had? Would he trust Jesus in his search for a deeper understanding of God’s Truth and call on his life? Would he become the follower of a nomadic preacher? Or, would he stay where he was – secure, but unlikely to grow? He already knew the trap he was in, but wanted an escape without the costs he knew must be paid.
Letting go is hard to do, and in his case, perhaps harder than it might be for many of us, because he had so much to let go of – as Jesus says near the end of our reading “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who have it all to enter God’s kingdom?”
Accepting that other truths can be as valid as your own is hard to accept, it means letting go of the certainty of your own truth and accepting your own fallibility and limitations. But don’t be afraid: by letting go, by moving to a new place, new perspectives will be revealed, and God’s truth will take on a new fullness and new dimensions that you never suspected existed. You will see God, as Job and Carolyn and Aziz have.
Copyright (c) 2013, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site).