There is No “Other”: Listening, Curiosity, and a Witnessing Presence

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Previously on Sermons: last week, we looked at the dynamic of encountering “the other,” and how, through the person of Jesus and his encounter with the ostracized, bleeding woman, we see that, in God’s own vision, there is, essentially, no “other.”  We are all connected through the Spirit of Christ within the imaginative dream of God.  Our persistent sense of separation comes from our own sinful grasping onto the illusion of otherness—and our tendency to categorize “others” who do not fit into our expectations or customs.  We’ll pick up here this morning.

First, a brief story: When our daughter was three, His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to Atlanta for a visit at Emory University.  He had been once before in 2007 when Evelyn was a toddler, but now she was old enough, we thought, to go to one of the teachings.  I had shared incredible experiences with the monks at Drepung Loseling Monastery off Oglethorpe Road, so Lisa and I took the chance to go to a special ceremony presided over by Ganden Tripa Rizong Rinpoche, the head of a major school of Tibetan Buddhism.[1]  The ceremony was going to be filled with incense, chants, prayers, and the dismantling of the intricate sand mandala the monks had painstakingly created over the preceding days.[2]

We arrived, said hello to our friends, and took our seats in the meditation hall.  Evelyn sat on my lap and listened to the chants and drums and bells as the monks led us in a series of prayers.  She was transfixed as Rinpoche guided the chants by pulling leaves off a stem and tossing them into the air.  We were all transfixed.  With each toss of a leaf, the monks would seamlessly shift their chants into different tones.

As the monks gathered around the mandala, this beautiful image made from grains of colored sand, Evelyn looked at us and asked if she could go up closer to see them.  So, this three year-old toddled off up the main aisle by herself.  We watched her walk up to the mandala platform and stand there next to the monks.  She watched them so closely as they chanted and raked the sand with their hands into a pile in the middle of the table.

After a little while, she walked back to our row, crawled in our laps, looked at us intently, and said, “Look.  They’re cooperating.”

I will never forget that experience.  It is a powerful icon for me of what Jesus just might have meant when he said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).

We all encountered an “other” in those Buddhist monks, and we watched as our daughter walked closer to learn more about them.  She was curious and open, and if there is a quality of children that I continue to learn from it is curiosity.  Have you ever wondered why Jesus paid so much attention to the children?

Jesus went home for a visit in today’s text, and he offered a teaching in the synagogue there, undoubtedly with people who had known him his entire life.  “Many who heard him were astounded,” but some began their line of questioning: “Where did he get all this?  What is this wisdom that he is sharing?  How is he doing these deeds of power?  Isn’t he a carpenter?  Mary’s son?”

“And they took offense at him.”

Why?  That has been a lingering question to me for as long as I have explored this text.  Why did they take offense at him?

Upon hearing the Gospel message that challenged their assumptions, their worldview, when they faced a perspective, an “other” point of view that questioned their grasping agendas, “they took offense at him.”

Isn’t he just a carpenter?  What box can we put him in to diminish the challenge to my agenda?  How can we objectify him?  We saw last week Jesus encountering an “other.”  This week, he is the “other.”  We would all do well to pay attention.

Jesus gets it, that their lens has been fixed, that their rigid framework is set—and that he falls well outside of it.  “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

This story is more than the age-old story of the city boy who returns home to the family farm.  It is an icon of our own resistance to a Gospel message that questions our egoic grasping.  It is an icon of our resistance to “the other” point of view, the message of compassion that questions our fearful assumptions.

Over the past several years, there have been times when folks have been upset at a sermon or two—or more—that I have given.  Every preacher has this experience, and these are not easy days to offer sermons.  No day should be an easy sermon day if we’re paying attention, but these days are particularly difficult.  Sometimes we struggle with what we hear.  For a while, it really pinched me when folks got upset at a sermon.  I have worked so hard on it, how can you be offended?  It bothers me that you don’t think highly of me.  And so on.  My own ego’s need for affection.[3]

That experience has shifted for me now.  Now, when folks are upset, I really want to lean into the conversation.  I tell folks, I would love to talk with you about this, to really listen to you.  In order to do that, I need you to help me see where you are coming from.  I’m going to offer you two options, two spaces that will help me understand, that will help me hear you.  So, are you upset because you think what I said was theologically unfounded or inappropriate?  Do you think what I said is contradicted by the Gospel message?  If so, let’s talk about that.  That is an important conversation. Or, are you upset because your assumptions have been tested, your political agenda has been challenged, or some prejudice has been exposed?  If so, let’s talk about that.  That is an important conversation as well. But, keep in mind that these are very different conversations.  These are not the same thing.

And it is only fair to both of us that we are honest about how we are pinched when we encounter “the other,” and that we cultivate this practice of awareness and honesty in our conversations, in our relationships.

Those who experienced Jesus reacted immediately from their egoic grasping, laying out their arguments about how he was just a carpenter.  The diminishing categories rolled off their tongues.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

My heart breaks when I think of how this urge to “otherize” ripples through my own life story.  I think of times in my own family when I was silent in the face of blatant racism.  Times when I didn’t say anything and allowed the otherization to continue when I knew it was wrong.  I am ashamed at how I deferred to the “wisdom” of “elders” when my heart was screaming that their words were not of God but were rather anchored in fear.

And, I think of my sweet niece and how she came home last year after another child had informed her that she was not white.  It was the first time she was told that she was a person of color—and even as a little kid she had been informed that she was an “other” who was somehow less worthy.  It broke my heart—and ticked me off.

I think of the times I have experienced conversations about churches when someone said—or I said back in the day—“well, you know the Baptists.”  Or the Pentecostals.  Or anyone not as sophisticated as we Episcopalians. How shameful.

Or times as a teenager when I took part in conversations about “the Mexicans.”  Shameful.

“Can anything good come from someone who is black?”

“Can anything good come from someone who is Baptist or Pentecostal—or not Episcopalian?”

“Can anything good come from someone who is Mexican?”

“Can anything good come from someone who is Muslim?”

Shameful.

These are shameful days, my friends.  And we have had many shameful periods before.  I would argue again that we will not move past this shameful tendency until we stop tripping over the persistent rock of “otherness” that plagues our walk as human beings.  This sinful illusion of separation.

So what can we do?

In the Christian contemplative tradition, there is a practice that I think is a crucial first step in lessening this grasping.  It is called “witnessing presence.”  I thank my dear friend Rebecca Parker who helped me feel my way through this last Sunday at lunch.  With a witnessing presence, we become aware of how we are aware.  We can place ourselves in this story and imagine how we would have felt listening to Jesus offering a teaching that challenged our assumptions, our frameworks.  How would our bodies have reacted?  How would our own categories or fears have risen to the surface?  This is what I try to do in conversations around sermons: can we be aware of why we are pinched?

Can we step back and pay attention to ourselves before we react out of egoic grasping?[4]  Can we witness ourselves, and wonder about why we are resisting growth, expansion, new insight?  Can we be curious about why we are fearful or angry, why we feel this urge to otherize and objectify?  Why do we seem to immediately react out of scarcity rather than see the abundance?  How can we be curious about this impulse in ourselves?  That is the key question, I think.

Because curiosity and wonder are the key, my friends.  Wonder, I believe, is the first step on the journey of transformation.

I learned so much from our daughter when she bopped up the aisle at Drepung to get a better look at the monks.  She was curious in the face of an “other.”  She wondered about the insight, the experience they were bringing, and something in her little soul felt that their teaching was increasing compassion.  It was broadening, not constricting.

Wonder is the key.  Curiosity is the key.  Being curious about what Jesus tells us about our call to love our neighbor.  Notice he doesn’t put any stipulations on that teaching.  Our egos supply the stipulations, and we need to be aware of that.  Jesus says “love,” and we say “but.”  Jesus says “welcome,” and we say, “well, we have laws.”  Jesus says grace permeates all of life, and we feel like there is such scarcity.  The illusion of separateness slips in under the door like a black fog, dragging our souls down as the Spirit beckons us toward the Kingdom of God.

Are we willing to witness ourselves, to pay attention to our tendency to grasp and control?  Are we willing to realize the call placed upon us as followers of Jesus Christ?

I think John Main’s words are rich and true, to close.  We will explore his teaching in our next Contemplative Summer School on July 22.  Here’s what Main says:

“We mislead ourselves and others if we try to play down the extremity of the Christian vocation and the total demand it makes.  If we have been directed by the Spirit to undertake the pilgrimage, and every Christian is chosen to do so, then it must be with the mature understanding of what is at stake. . . We cannot remain the person we were or thought we were.  But we are, in fact, not being destroyed but awakened to the eternally fresh source of our being.”[5]

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 9 Year B 2018
Ezekiel 2:1-5; Mark 6:1-13
July 8, 2018

 

[1] Rinpoche was then the head of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, what is known as the “holder of the Ganden Throne.”  For those who are not familiar, the title “Rinpoche” in Tibetan Buddhism entails a lama who is the reincarnation of a great teacher in the lineage. He was the 102nd Ganden Tripa.

[2] For more information on Drepung Loseling Monastery, in Atlanta, explore here: http://www.drepung.org/.

[3] I think of Fr. Thomas Keating’s discussion of the emotional programs for happiness, the way our egoic grasping will latch on to the need for safety and security; affection and esteem; power and control.  For me, it seems that affection and esteem lure me… I need to pay attention.

[4] I think of what Tilden Edwards describes in Embracing the Call to Spiritual Depth, when he describes this capacity of a spacious openness.  I also think of John Main’s work and Laurence Freeman’s ongoing rich conversations with the way a mantra practice nurtures a “harmonic” in one’s soul that fosters a deeper resting in God’s presence.  See Word Into Silence.

[5] John Main, Word into Silence: A Manual for Christian Meditation (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006), 30.

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