The Myth of the Melting Pot

As shown in Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad, a ton of damage was done to the future United States of America through the preaching that happened on ships like Arbella as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1630.  Setting the colonial experiment up as the choice grain, sifted from the evil chaff in England and planted by God in the New World, the foundational narratives of colonialism (and therefore the United States from which they were born) has been one of eisegesis, presupposing God’s blessing upon the colonies and a fictional biblical narrative for our expansion and development.  As such, it isn’t too far of a stretch to see how some of Paul’s most famous words, found in Galatians 3 and appointed for this Sunday, have been used to create this image of American homogeneity, commonly referred to, at least since 1908, as “the melting pot.”

In the play, “The Melting Pot,” that popularized the term, the Galatians 3 passage is expanded upon to include all kinds of ways in which we might divide ourselves as people. “Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian,—black and yellow—/Jew and Gentile—/Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross…”  The vision of David, the play’s hero, is a world in which all ethnicity fades away such that we are all one in the “Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God.”  In contemporary society, we often hear this dream articulated by those who “don’t see color.”  While I would agree that the telos of racial healing is a world in which we all share power equally and in which all are born with the same opportunities available to them, this idea of a melting pot falls short when the base into we are all expected to melt is white, male, heteronormativity and all other cultural expressions are expected to just evaporate away.

Despite Paul’s deep Jewish roots, I think it is safe to say that his image of being one in Christ Jesus isn’t based on an assumption of assimilation to a prevailing culture. Rather, as we hear through his letters and the stories about him in Acts, Paul seems quite comfortable adapting the message of Jesus to the cultural context in which he finds himself. So, as you prepare to preach Galatians 3 this week, dear reader, please be careful not to assume Paul is defining Christianity exclusively in a way that looks, acts, sings, and loves like you do. Rather, I encourage you to lift up the vast diversity that is welcome within what it means to be one in Christ Jesus.

He did not live in a house

It can be easy to dismiss the stories of the Bible because of how far removed from it all we seem to be.  Events that happened 2, 3, even 5,000 years-ago can feel like they haven nothing to say to us now.  We like to think that we live in a society that is more civilized.  Technology is certainly more advanced.  Science has taught us much about what was thought to be supernatural.  Since Darwin first published On the Origin of Speciesthe church has struggled to keep the Bible relevant and active despite places where the story of scripture doesn’t seem to match the story being revealed to us.  Some, like Jesus Seminar Scholars have tried to throw the Biblical narrative all away as myth.  Others, like the car I saw on Sunday with a bumper sticker that says “Evolution is a Lie” have made the choice to throw out science.  Neither have been very successful because theology and science aren’t zero sum games.

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The reality is that we live in a world where God is constantly being newly revealed to us both in scripture and in science.  God’s story continues to intersect with our story even more than a thousand years after the canon was finally established.  This came to light to me this morning as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday.  Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac is a story about which we have changed our understanding due to advancements in psychology, but we can also very much relate to the situation.

A man who is clearly suffering from some kind of mental illness has found himself outside of the bounds of normal society.  Likely after years of his family trying to support him, finally the man’s struggles had burned every bridge and, as Luke tells it, “he did not live in a house.”  As I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would about the root causes of homelessness, I’ve heard a version of this story quite often.  Mental illness, left untreated for a variety of reasons, eventually self-medicated with street drugs, is the story of some, not all, likely not even most, of those who have found themselves experiencing homelessness here in Bowling Green.

While we don’t have the ability to just cast that which possesses folks into a herd of swine, we can still learn a lot from how Jesus interacts with the man he met on the lakeshore.  First and foremost, Jesus saw the man and engaged him.  He didn’t cross tot he other side.  He didn’t put up a “no panhandling” sign filled with dubious “facts.”  He didn’t shake his head and say “somebody should do something about that.”  No, Jesus met the man, in all of his difficulty, face-to-face.  He heard his story.  He had compassion.  And then, because there is no compassion without action, Jesus did something about the man’s situtation. This is where the rubber meets the road for those of us who follow Jesus.  We are called to action.  We are called to seek ways in which all of humanity can be restored to right relationship with God and one another.  It isn’t easy work.  In fact, as in this story, it can be downright messy, but it is the work to which we all have been called.

The Abyss

There are very few idiomatic tropes that carry meaning across generations, let alone thousands of years.  Mental Floss generates thousands of clicks by giving readers insights into how words and phrases have changed over the years.  There are, however, a few images that carry weight over centuries, one of which we hear from the lips of Legion in the Gospel lesson for Sunday.  Keenly aware of the power of Jesus, the demons, Luke tells us “begged him not to order them to go back to the abyss.”

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A real picture of a real sink hole in Guatemala (2010)

While this fear is from the demons in this story, there seems to be something universal about their fear.  Hollywood knows this, as images of the deep abyss show up with great regularity in films from “This is the End” to “Indiana Jones.”  Despite long giving up on the idea of a three tiered universe, humanity seems to have written in its DNA a fear of that which is deep below, be it hell, the earth’s core, or, as is likely the source of the fear, that which resides deep within our souls.

We would prefer that Jesus not dig too deeply within us.  We’d like to keep those deepest parts of us nicely locked away, never to be dealt with.  There is some comfort in not having to deal with our own, inherent prejudices, fears, and sinfulness; even if it means holding onto those undesirable parts for eternity.  But Jesus will not allow us to stay out of the abyss.  In his life and death, he showed us that only in the depths: his temptation in the wilderness and his decent into hell; is the fullness of God’s grace-filled love for us discovered.

Legion can’t understand this.   They beg not to be sent to the abyss, and Jesus grants their wish.  They are forced into a herd of unclean animals that promptly head down the steep ravine and drown in the waters below.  He banishes them not into the abyss, but into death by shallowness.

The imagery of Gergesa

One of the classes that I’m taking here in my last summer as a DMin student at the University of the South, is taught by the Rev. Martin Smith called “Implanting the Word: Skills for Helping People Internalize Scripture’s Transformative Symbols”  The core thesis of the class is that through imaginative engagement with the symbolic world of the Scriptures, religious leaders can help their people make the transformative work of God in their lives more of a living and active thing.  With my fears that the class would be nothing be spiritualist navel gazing suitably dispensed with, I’ve found this class to by actually quite a lot of fun.  We’ve made deep cuts into developmental psychology, symbology, and hermeneutics.  As we now turn our attention to the role of symbol in the sermon, today we spent time brainstorming the symbol of exorcism in Mark’s version of the story of demoniac from Gergesa.

What struck me in the work of my small group was a) how much I miss my long-lost lectionary study group, and b) how my engagement with a symbol from my particular context can inform and be informed by the engagement of another from his/her particular context.  As we bounced ideas around, we alighted on all sorts of profound images and symbols in Mark’s story, many of which make their way into Luke’s version which will be heard this Sunday.  I would encourage you to read this lesson aloud a few times and to let the various symbols sink in through mediation.  (I know what you’re thinking, can Steve Pankey possibly be writing this?  To paraphrase Paul, “I type with my own hands).

Of particular interest to me is the image of binding and loosing.  Maybe because it took me back to the first few days of my seminary experience and Tony Lewis’ brilliant teaching of Greek for dummies, but this idea of being loosed, one that has very little standing in contemporary American idioms, is a powerful one.  To what am I being bound by outside forces?  More importantly, to what do I bind myself?  What his holding me back from a full relationship of love to God and neighbor?  And, in light of the story, what is Jesus doing to loose me from those bonds?  What does it feel like to be set free?  I’m once again finding myself drawn to music, and specifically to Chris Tomlin’s work on the classic hymn “Amazing Grace” for a recent film on William Wilberforce, a man who worked to set people free even as he struggled to be loosed from the confines of his position in English Parliament.  The preacher might engage those thoughts imaginatively in sermon prep this week. For me, even thought I’m not preaching, that work has already been fruitful.

Our Common Humanity

As the news about the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando came upon me yesterday, I found myself caught short.  In a nation where these things seem to happen with great regularity, it is easy, eventually, to fail to see the death of 5 or 10 or even 50 people as anything other than “everyday life.”  For this sin of complacency, I continually ask God for forgiveness.  Still, there was something about the events in Pulse that made this one feel different.  My response wasn’t quite as visceral as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and yet there were some stark similarities for me.

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I came to understand this feeling deep within me with the help of a post my mother would later write on her Facebook feed.  My mother’s brother was a gay man who contract HIV in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.  He lived for probably twenty years with the disease when most others died within months.  As a result, my childhood is in many ways defined by the ongoing struggle in the gay community to find voice as well as safety.   I grew up on the periphery of the gay culture of the 80s and 90s, and I can still vividly recall overhearing stories that the grownups would tell of harassment, hatred, and even violence.  I remember how taken aback we all were when my uncle, who was fairly apolitical when it came to gay rights, focusing his attention instead on those marginalized because of HIV/AIDS, showed up a family holiday wearing a shirt like this one.

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I may not have understood it at the time, but these stories have framed the way in which I have experienced the ongoing struggle for equal rights in the LGBT community.  With those sorts of memories in the foundation of my life experience, perhaps it is no wonder that I can see the tie between the innocent slaughter of children at elementary school and the intentional killing of such a vulnerable group of people, targeted in a soft location, with few exits, by a man who was radicalized by Islam in much the way many have been radicalized against the LGBT community by Christianity.  Like those children in Sandy Hook, these beloved children of God at Pulse were sitting ducks.  In the midst of my reeling over the appalling details, I posted a short prayer.  It was all that I could muster:

That we might someday figure out how to respect the dignity of every human being; we pray to the Lord.

Many preachers came to the news of Pulse too late for it to inform their sermons yesterday.  I do not begrudge them not dealing with it in the homiletical exercise on short notice: the implications are too dicey to be handled with haste.  This Sunday, however, after a week of reflection, with the 24 hour news cycles repeating the story again and again and again, it would seem wise, perhaps, to engage with the portion of Paul’s letter to the Galatians appointed for Proper 7C.  In it, we read Paul’s famous words about our common humanity.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

As followers of Jesus, our task is to make these words of Paul a reality by living in such a way that declares that in Christ, there is no gay or straight, no black or white, no HIV+ or HIV-, but rather a common humanity, made holy and indivisible through the saving power of the incarnation.  In light of our common humanity, we show respect for the dignity of every human being: gay, straight, Muslim, Christian, male, female, black, white, ignorant, and learned. Or, more simply, as Jesus put it, quoting Leviticus 19, as Christians, we are called, above all to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

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