Saturday, September 16, 2006

Sisters in Exclusion

The following sermon is the first of five sermons in a series introducing the Belhar Confession which is under study for adoption by the Reformed Churches in America as a new confession of faith. This confession is a gift to our church from the Unitimg Reformed Churches in Southern Africa. the text of the Confession is found in the liturgy which is included below this sermon.
Feel free to contact me with questions.

Sisters in Exclusion
John 4:1-30

She was born in a matchbox sort of place sandwiched between the large tracts of subdivision which had devoured her community since it was discovered to be next best place to commute from. In that home as a child she knew the safety of an ever present mom and the happiness of a playful father. She lacked for nothing – at-least as far as she knew. Oh she was a bit chubby and she didn’t have the same clothes and certainly not the same hair as the other girls she saw on television – but they seemed happy enough and so did she – and so it goes and so it went. Until she became old enough that she had to leave her nest wedged between sub-divisions and venture into a larger world.
She was from one of the “old” families the other kids called her a “townie”. The first time she heard it made no sense – of course she was – weren’t they? The pain of it began slowly to set in – lunch time snubs – hall way whispers – but most of all – the silence of no one to talk to – the awkwardness of standing alone in a crowd – in the lunch line.
She did soon make some friends – but not until the sifting had occurred – the sorting of “haves” and “have nots” - of “ins” and “outs”. They found their place some how assigned to a distant corner of the lunch hall – the shoulder of the gymnasium, the edges of the hallway.
It’s amazing how human beings can so easily differentiate and sort themselves out until they reach a certain degree of seeming comfort.
Let me tell you about another woman I have known. She died only this past April – she was 91. We met only once. I have never forgotten. Ellen was already nearing 70 when we met. A collection of crows feet on either side of her head pulled her eyes up just enough to give you the impression of a grandmother who “was watching you” – observing what you were doing and what you might do next – lips in a gentle smirk – turned up enough to know that you were in friendly territory but not easily off the hook for what you might do. She also had begun her life in pleasant surroundings – a family farm in what they called the Orange Free State of South Africa. Being the daughter of an educated father and grandfather had allowed for them to own a farm of their own even though it was South Africa and her family had black skin. But that was 1930. By the time her mother died the land surrounding the family farm had been declared an area forbidden to back people. Ellen was thrown into a mean world where people of her “color” would be required to carry “passes” and you could wind up in jail for no reason at all – and jail – well – jail inevitably meant the unspeakable.
I met her as that institution which we called apartheid was already beginning to crumble. Her story includes the struggle through divisions of race and gender that have never been exclusive to her home land – it was just so incredibly blatant there. Ellen had gone on to be an award winning novelist and community organizer in Soweto the most noted of the “black” ghettos of that time – a place where anger and violence constantly simmered and boiled over, a place of burning automobile tires and rocks and weeping mothers. She brought with her the power of her motherhood and grandmother hood and her relentless faith that the world could be changed and the barriers of race and gender would be removed from her society.

We meet our last woman at a well as the desert sun beats down upon her in the middle of the day. She comes to the well at noon – the hottest part of the day choosing this over the exclusion from the women of her own villiage. They all come in the cool of the morning or if they must at the end of day when the sun give just a bit of a break. They come to chat – to escape for a moment the tyranny of a patriarchal society with its rules and control and punishments. They all know this woman’s reputation and – you see – oppression is a hierarchical endeavor – you may not have access to the top but you can make sure you’re not on the bottom.
It’s a violence of sorts but not one we confess much – to confess it would be to loose the small bit of solace it promises. So we sort people out black and white as it is – men and women – African and European – Sunni and Shitte – Jew and Samaritan, haves and have nots.
As (my wife) Donna and I spent our sabbatical time in South India this past winter one of the most profound experiences was that of caste. It was amazing how clear and powerful the distinctions of caste remain in India. I will never forget the women of the ‘sweeper” caste who spend their days – as their mothers and grandmothers had – in the back of small dump trucks knee deep in garbage – or the arrogance of our Brahmin Guide who reminded us every 10 minutes that he was after all a Brahmin concerned that insensitive westerners might miss the difference.
For our sister at the well – she has been cast – as something akin to the village harlot – you know her story – 5 husbands – live-in, not so significant other. Some one the rules seem to justify excluding.
She has come to the well at noontime to escape all of that and who does she meet? A man – a Jewish man you don’t get much higher than that – I mean the next step has to be God – little did she know. A man when no one else is around to verify that she’s not doing what they all figure she does. She must think to her self “O great – this really makes my day – do I hold back - walk back to the village to come another time?” Her experiences with five husbands has taught her to hold her own – even at the bottom – she shores herself up and refuses to turn back - she has faced his kind before – or so she thought.
As the story goes: something besides tenacity seems to captivate her – holds her in place at the well of her ancestors while this potential scandal – as likely humiliation approaches – she holds her place as the man asks for a drink – one more demand from privilege – from power. “Get your own water” she likely thinks to her self and says indirectly by turning his own privileged class rules back on him; “How is it that you a Jew (a man) ask me a Samaritan (a woman) for a drink? Your own rules protect me for at-least this little bit from having to be your servant.”
In the jousting between them his eyes meet hers and he sees the emptiness of those at the bottom – he sees through her past with compassion and he begins one of the most profound lessons in all of scripture. The conversation moves to a deeper level – now they’re talking about the meaning and the source of life – and worship and what human beings really thirst for.
She knows he’s onto something – he has named her thirst – she wants that kind of living water – she has been thirsty a long time – she has been living in the desert of the margins her whole life.
Once more – what Jesus breaks down are the barriers in which we often find comfort – the walls we love and depend upon. If a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman can talk together what else might happen? What breaks in upon her is nothing less than one ray from the light of the Kingdom of God. A new age is fulfilled in this man from Nazareth – barriers are broken down – the desires of the Creator of heaven and earth are realized – at least for a moment.
The one who was himself crucified outside the city gates calls us to live past those things which separate and divide and ultimately steal life from those both inside and out.
Back to my friend Ellen for a moment; Ellen and all of our sisters and brothers from the Uniting Reformed Churches in Southern Africa have offered us a gift. The gift is a way toward this living water – a way toward the realization of the Kingdom of God. They offer to us a confession – a statement of belief which comes out of their experience of intuitional racism – it’s a faith statement which says we will not accept this world as it is with its divisions and the pain they inflict. It says that our acceptance – even of acquiescence to such division is sin.
The Reformed Church in America has humbly accepted this gift and committed ourselves to study what it has to say. A confession is something which arises out of the mix of experience and scripture. It becomes something with which we measure our own behavior – it challenges us to ask if we are living as we say we ought. A confession holds us to our word.
It’s something that us preachers know so painfully well. I can’t tell you how many times some one has caught me with my own words – especially when you have to get up in front of a group of people every week and tell them what you believe – especially when you have children who are more than eager to remind you of what you said you believe – it keeps you honest and humble.
Confessions do that.
This confession we call Belhar for the location at which it was crafted calls the church – calls us to consider who we might meet at the wells of our lives – and asks us whether we welcome them or seek the shelter of separation and privilege. It asks if we are willing to take on the “gift and obligation” for the Church of Jesus Christ in the work of reconciliation and the pursuit of a new reality where separation, enmity and hatred among people and groups is conquered.
This past week I made my regular escape to the treadmills of the local YMCA. While I do penance for the previous day’s sins I am subjected to a variety of cable television opportunities to dumb down for an hour – between the Young and the Restless and Oprah I chose Fox news ( my father thinks its good for me – get my head out the clouds of my over educated liberalism I guess). This week on my run – the producer of the television series Survivor was being interviewed – apparently the newest episodes have people of different races compete for whatever it is they compete for – survival I guess. I mean you can’t make this stuff up! Now I’m not going to take this too seriously but shouldn’t that make us feel a little
uncomfortable? Have we chosen to forget? Is it just entertainment? Is it at least a reflection of ourselves?
Our sisters in exclusion call us to consider our place in things – they call us to consider what we say we believe and then call us to live it. Amen.

H. Delhagen


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