First Church of Christ, UCC, Woodbridge, CT
September 9, 2012
For many years now this urban legend has been circulating via email and word of mouth. On a British Airways flight out of Johannesburg, not long after apartheid was abolished in South Africa, a middle-aged, well-off white woman was seated next to a native South African. The woman called for a flight attendant to complain about her seating.
“What seems to be the problem, madam?” asked the attendant. In an angry huff the woman replied, “Can’t you see? You’ve seated me next to a kaffir. I can’t possibly sit next to this disgusting creature. Find me another seat!”
“Please calm down, madam,” the attendant replied. “The flight is very full today, but I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll go check to see if there are any seats available in club or in first class.”
The woman turned and gave a snooty look at her affronted seatmate, as well as to all the other surrounding passengers. Presently, the attendant returned, presumably with good news that her seat would be changed. With a smug grin and an air of satisfaction the woman could not help but look at the people around her as the attendant spoke to her.
“Madam, unfortunately as I suspected, the economy cabin is completely full, as is also the club cabin. However, there is one seat available in first class.” Before the woman had a chance to answer the flight attendant continued, “It is most extraordinary to make this kind of upgrade, however, and I did have to attain special permission from the captain. But, given the circumstances, the captain felt that it was outrageous that someone should have to sit next to such an obnoxious person.”
Having said that the flight attendant turned toward the black South African man seated next to the woman and said, “So if you’d like to collect your belongings, sir, I have your seat ready for you.” As the man followed the attendant to the front of the plane, the woman’s jaw dropped while the other passengers gave a round of applause.
We’d like to believe that virtue will be rewarded and the patient among us will eventually get the level of service we think we deserve. However, most of the time, the story goes the other way. It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, the obnoxious complainer who gets satisfaction, not us who quietly wait our turn. Jesus said that the meek will inherit the earth but sometimes it seems it will only come to us after the bold and arrogant have finished with it.
Stories like this one and the one of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman help to set the world to rights. Even if neither of these stories actually happened, they give us a measure of comfort; that even if it is only in our imaginations, someone is standing up to those who feel entitled to special treatment over those against whom they harbor prejudices or regard as their social inferiors.
Most of us would profess that everyone should be treated impartially and equally, but truthfully we really do appreciate those times when we are treated preferentially, when the powers that be are partial to us. It can be as random as winning a prize or finding a parking space or a stranger paying us a compliment or getting bumped up to first class. It can be as big as getting a promotion or a raise or recognition of our hard work. It can be as small as when we’ve been standing in line and another teller window or cash register opens, beckoning us to come forward, and we feel not only relief but that somehow the universe is bending toward us. Our egos are flattered, our ruffled feathers are smoothed, and for a time we are pleased.
It all goes back to when we were children, to our siblings and parents, to the classroom, the team, the playground, the backyard. As soon as we could form the words we were complaining about the lack of fairness, that an older or younger sibling or classmate or friend got more than we did. We are biologically geared to clamor for the goodies: for food, protection, respect, affection, favors, privileges, power, anything to ensure that we will survive. Rivalry, competition, survival of the fittest—this is how we evolved. When push comes to shove, we are on our own side or the side with the most advantages.
Perhaps Paul was not referring to this but it could easily apply, when he said, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” And he ended his thoughts with the words, “and the greatest of these is love.” No longer do we need to always seek out our own advantage because the greatest thing we can possess is love: love that seeks the good of others.
Love that seeks the good of others was a huge shift in consciousness in the time of Jesus. If you weren’t a Roman citizen you were a bug to be crushed. If you weren’t Jewish you weren’t one of God’s chosen people and you lived outside of the covenant. If you were poor or a woman alone or both, you were at the bottom and at risk for a variety of evils. If your child had a demon, no one went near you. Jesus encounters just such a woman in the region of Tyre, where he had gone to get away from it all. But since there isn’t any place where people don’t need God’s help, Jesus is pulled into an earthy debate with a scrappy woman in need of divine grace.
Jesus had left the borders of Israel, not for the purpose to extend the reach of God’s grace, but to give himself some preferential treatment for a change. Instead, Jesus finds that God’s call is relentless because God’s grace is persistent. Jesus came face to face with a truth he desired to teach others, that the gospel demands more of human nature than we are willing to give.
It is not entirely clear whether Jesus was testing the woman or his own heart needed opening or maybe he was just feeling tired and cranky. After all, he called her a dog. However, what is clear is that while we may think God’s grace is impartial, in truth God is very partial: to the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed, no matter who they are. And here we see how our hearts are to incline and where our focus ought to be.
The gospel in seven words or less is this: Love God, love neighbor, love self, and in that order. More often than not, as followers of Jesus we have not been faithful to this seemingly simple six-word creed. And even though faith without works is dead, we cannot earn our way into God’s grace. The goodies of love, acceptance and forgiveness come to us and surround us wherever we are, no matter what we’ve done. But it is up to us to pick them up and share them with everyone.
How has partiality hurt this community of faith? Are there any old resentments that need to be let go of and forgiven? Where you place your focus determines your reality. How is God pulling the focus off of you and onto those who suffer from the injustices of this world? What might be the next step this congregation could take as an Open and Affirming church?
When human beings disagree, God does not take sides for God is not a box: one side fits all. It is in Christ that the universe bends toward us, not to favor us, but to show us the way of compassion and self-gift. Through the Holy Spirit we are made whole, that we may be on the side of the poor, the hungry, the sick, the homeless, those who are imprisoned and forgotten. Let that be our partiality, let that be our witness. Amen.