The Better Angels of Our Nature

Passage: Mark 5:21-43
Date: July 1, 2018
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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A message caught my eye this weekend at the Presbytery meeting in Salem. It said “Love everyone. I will sort them out, later.”—God

I believe it is safe to say that right now, globally and nationally, we are not doing a very good job of loving everyone. But we are good at sorting each other out. Human beings have been doing that sort of thing for a long time.

It may not be obvious on the surface, but the two stories we heard from the Gospel of Mark also have to do with sorting people out. Jewish purity law divided people into “clean and unclean.” The woman who was bleeding, and the corpse of the girl, both were “unclean.” Jesus’ touching them made him also unclean. (By the way, Gentiles as a whole group were considered to be unclean.) The early church had Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. These separations helped to define identity but exacerbated the divisions. Jesus’ healing touch, and his eating with the poor, the sick, and the outcast, broke down walls between Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean, between men and women, between powerful leaders and those at the margins.

His healing gave new life. Contact with a corpse made Jesus unclean, but it did not stop him from touching the twelve-year-old girl and restoring her to her family. The woman who touched the hem of his cloak did not ask for his help, but out of her desperation, reached out to touch his cloak. He could have rebuked her for making him unclean, but instead he praised her, noting that her faith had made her well.

Make no mistake, today we also deal with unrecognized purity concerns when we are sorting people into “us” and “them.” How many times in our history has one group of people set others apart, due to poverty, nationality, race, sexual orientation, political party, gender, religion?

Farmer poet Wendell Berry (“Caught in the Middle”) wrote: “Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking the heat and even the courage of a personal hatred. Categorical hatred is the hatred of the mob, which makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob overflowing with righteousness, as at the crucifixion, and before, and since. This sort of violence can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal of kindness to heretics, foreigners, enemies, or any other group different from ourselves.”

When I recently shared this quote on social media, one of my Oklahoma cousins asked, “Does this apply to those whose political or social beliefs are different than your own? From what I see on here, if you are not a Liberal, you are subject to condemnation.”

I take her question seriously because of wanting to keep in relationship. We wrestle with passionate feelings as our values are in conflict.For those who follow the Jesus, here is our challenge: the politician whom we vehemently oppose, the hardened criminal, even the most messed-up person imaginable—this person is made in the image of God, and we must not lose sight of their humanity. Wendell Berry’s statement goes beyond personal hatred. He names the violence we do in categorizing groups of people. For example, when we imply others are not human, when we hear talk of immigrants as an “infestation” or “animals,” we are in trouble.

I’ve been pondering the yard signs that many of us display that say: “In our America, all people are equal, love wins, black lives matter, immigrants and refugees are welcome, disabilities are respected, women are in charge of their bodies, people and planet are valued over profit, diversity is celebrated.”

I appreciate the vision of inclusion, but I keep tripping over the very first line: “In OUR America.” It speaks from division, our sorting out into two different nations. I’m wondering, how might I be sorting people out? Is my way of thinking dehumanizing?

We are churning with intolerance. Hate speech is being normalized. These current norms are tapping into the part of our reptilian brain, the impulsive “fight or flight” response. It feels natural to label “the other.” We easily sort into my tribe and yours, reaching for a weapon. Maybe, biologically, these are our default “caveman” settings. They are not our better angels of our nature. How do we march for justice, and yet love our neighbor on the other side? How could Jesus’ touch bring wholeness to us?

We’ve been divided before. On this Fourth of July week, we recall our history, including a civil war. Brother fought brother. State fought state. How do we express the better angels of our nature rather than the worst of us?

Though I’ve spent most of my adult life in Oregon, I was born in Oklahoma and my family’s roots are in Oklahoma and Texas. Both my parents came from farming families. Sometimes my Oklahoman grandparents cheerfully referred to themselves as Okies. I didn’t realize until I was in college that “Okie” is a derogatory term for a poor, migrant Oklahoman.

I remember sitting at the round dinner table with my Texas grandparents, Jean and Archie. Grandpa told his story of working as a gas station attendant during the Depression and Dust Bowl. He pumped gas for destitute families migrating from Oklahoma to California seeking to provide for their families. It reminded me of a scene from John Steinbeck’s book, The Grapes of Wrath. The gasoline attendant says, “You and me got sense. Them Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. Human beings wouldn't live the way they do. Human beings couldn't stand to be so miserable.”

In the past two weeks, millions of dollars have been donated, and yesterday, many marched to reunite refugee families. In addition, thousands are part of the Poor People’s Campaign, a continuation of the movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When we seek to right what is wrong, we can be guided by his principles of nonviolent action (which he credited to Mahatma Gandhi):

“The nonviolent method is an attack upon the forces of evil rather than against persons doing evil. . . The nonviolent resister avoids both external physical and internal spiritual violence— not only refusing to shoot or strike, but also hate, an opponent.The ethic of real love is at the center of nonviolence.”

That real love is the same that was shown by Jesus, as he was tortured and dying on the cross. He said, “Forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” This is the love we celebrate as we drink the cup of forgiveness at the communion table. This is where we eat bread that God has provided, “in the presence of our enemies.” Here, we are loved and sustained. Here, we are called to sacrifice in love, for our neighbor.

In the time of our nation’s Civil War, Abraham Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Let us pray: Loving God, born in baby Jesus, conceived in scandal and born homeless; refugee Jesus, fleeing with your family to Egypt; rule-bending Jesus, touching the impure and gleaning on the Sabbath; resisting Jesus, turning the tables of power; arrested and executed Jesus: may we see you in the margins, where you have always been.* Amen.

*Adapted from a prayer by the Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins