Romans 14: 1-12
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 14, 2014
When David and I first got married, we made an effort not to fall into the typical gender roles. We took turns mowing the lawn. We paid the bills together. We both like to cook. The laundry got done one way or the other. When we had Andrea, David would get up with me when I would nurse her in the middle of the night.
But after I stopped working, and even more so after we had Olivia, he was paying the bills and mowing the lawn, and I was cooking dinner and doing the laundry. It was just so easy because it also played to our skills. I wanted to rebel and yet it was oh so comfortable.
I once saw a set of cocktail napkins with two different images. One had an image of a man, 1950’s style, with the words “Don’t assume I fix things”. The other had an image of woman in similar style with the words “Don’t assume I cook”. As much as the last century of social movements has done to liberate us from stereotypes and prejudice, it still takes a considerable amount of conscious effort to approach a human being as just that: another human being.
Jennifer Finney Boylan, in her transgender memoir entitled “She’s Not There”, writes about how she struggled with her eating habits once she began presenting as female. She would order diet soda and a spinach salad when what she really wanted was barbequed ribs and a beer—you know, real food. She writes that she realized she had bought into the madness that she had spent years imploring her students to fight against. As she began to own her true identity as a woman, she found that what she was really after was to belong. But in the end Jennifer saw that at times she was trying to prove she was truly female by oppressing herself.
As egalitarian as I think I am, I have found myself sorting people into neat little categories; in effect, oppressing their ability to surprise me, their birthright to be themselves. A few years ago, in my role as a floating pastor, I was visiting a woman in her home in Redding, CT. Redding is an upper-middle class town in what some Connecticut folks call a rural area, which really means the zoning per home is more than an acre.
Arlene lived at the end of a small lane. Her house was sizable but she was confined to one level; she couldn’t manage even a single step up or down. Her living space was the size of a great room. She had a handicapped bathroom installed and a small kitchen space for a fridge, sink, a small oven, and a few cupboards. The rest of the room was filled by her bed, a small fireplace, and a sitting area where she could watch TV and have a visitor.
We talked about faith and what it means to be a human being. Like some New Englanders in the Congregational church, Arlene was more of a Unitarian Universalist in her beliefs about God. She was also very progressive in her views about homosexuality. She was a feminist.
At some point I asked her if I could use her powder room. Rather than use her personal bathroom, she directed me to another bathroom in another part of the house. On my way there I passed a beautiful grand piano; I made a mental note to ask her if she was a musician. But then I stopped in my tracks: on top of the piano was a bust of former president Ronald Reagan. It was all black and stood about a foot high. Arlene was more than just a fan; she was GOP tried and true.
Later in our visit, as I was still trying to put her Republican passion with her progressive theology and social views, Arlene then told me that she was having her living space redecorated—to look like an Egyptian tomb. She described in great detail wall sconces, furnishings, paintings, statues, even hieroglyphics on the wall.
It was then that I realized in my bones that I could no longer assume anything about anyone. The longer I live the more I am of the opinion that there is no universal human experience, save that we’re born, we live, and we die. That though we all live in these fragile cases of skin and bone, blood and flesh, each experience of life is unique.
When I was about six years old, I can remember looking into the mirror and thinking that I was the only person who had to look into a mirror to see themselves; as if this whole existence was a play on a cosmic stage with me as an audience of one. It wasn’t long before that illusion was shattered. Then when we have our first “you too?” experience, we feel the joy of not being alone but we also begin to surround ourselves with people similar to us. Pleasure-seeking, pain-avoidant creatures that we are, we’re a long way from going boldly where no one has been before, let alone making camp with a stranger so very different from us.
The miracle of church that Paul is describing to the Romans is that we can be church, we can be community for each other, and we can be different from one another. What makes this possible is when we acknowledge that God is in the driver’s seat: “Every knee shall bow to me and every tongue shall give praise to God.” As Anne Lamott puts it, “I surrendered. I lay down my weapons and went over to the winning side. I am a recovering Higher Power.”
When we size up another human being and find them lacking in some way, we have put ourselves in the driver’s seat. But what about our expectations, we say? Our expectations often say more about us than they do about what we hope to get out of someone else. What expectations do we have of a God who willingly became weak and suffered for the sake of love? We have no idea what it is like to be someone else until we put aside all our experience as a human and listen to theirs. It’s too easy to sum up a person with shorthand, see them through our imperfect lenses. It takes hard work to discover layer after layer of suffering and scars, of living and loving until we see that tender soul that lives within all of us.
That tender soul is an image of God, an imprint of holiness, a unique expression of the divine trying to know itself, and not only know itself through its own experience but also through the lives of others. Imagine the interconnectedness: me knowing myself, you knowing yourself, my experience of you, your experience of me, our shared experience of our connection, and then they told two friends, and so on. The divine looking out through your eyes into mine, the divine in me looking through my eyes into yours, and it makes all the difference in the world whether we are looking with compassion, love, and forgiveness or with fear, judgment, or with just plain old assumptions.
This is why I think looking into the eyes of another is one of the highest forms of prayer: because what we see and how we see each other has the power to change us and to change the life of another. Jesus looked into the eyes of those he healed and spoke to and called and saw someone who wanted to know that they belonged, that their journey on this earth mattered, that they were worthy of love and care.
Remember that Joan Osborne song? “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus trying to make their way home? Like holy rolling stone.” We’re all just trying to make our way home, all just trying to find our way, all of us transgressors, travelers, testing God’s patience. None of us are experts. We’re all a work in progress, for God is still speaking. In the words of the poet Antonio Machado, “Wanderer, your footsteps are the road and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road; the road is made by walking.” Thank God we don’t have to walk it by ourselves.