Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Outsider and the Inside Love of God

The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel
Kent School
31 January 2009
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

The gospel reading from Luke takes place as Jesus is just beginning his ministry as the messiah.  The event itself is, initially, quite ordinary.  Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth.   He reads these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”  These are the words from his tradition that Jesus chooses as his own beginning.  As Jesus finishes reading from the scroll, he announces to the people of Nazareth, the people who have known him for his entire life: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  He seems to be finished with his message.  As chapel talks go, this is on the short side.  Many of you would like Jesus as a preacher.  I’m going to a bit longer.  But don’t get worried, I’ll keep things moving along this morning.        
Despite his brief sermon in Nazareth, Jesus encounters immediate resistance in his hometown, from those who knew him in his youth.  They don’t believe a carpenter’s son from a small town has the Spirit of the Lord upon him.  They ask, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”  By the time the day in Nazareth is over, Jesus is rejected, and the locals have nearly thrown him off a cliff.  He angers his audience by talking about moments in Jewish history when God was found in the most unlikely of places.  He refers to a time of famine when a widow was visited by the prophet Elijah.  The widow was given food and oil that would never run out; she would survive the famine by these two small miracles.  He also mentions a leper, called Naaman, who was healed by Elisha, Elijah’s successor.  What do the widow and the Syrian have in common?  Both of them are non-Jews.  They are outsiders.  This gospel is about looking for God in the unlikely place, in the unexpected person.  It is also about how the people who have known you the longest don’t always know you the best, and, how sometimes, it is the moment when you leave everything that is familiar that you find your destiny before God.   
I have been thinking about this gospel message as I watch the news about the people of Haiti.  On first impression, it would seem like Haiti is the last place where the presence of God could be found.  So-called theological commentators on television have expressed such sentiments—I won’t call them ideas.  But our first impressions are often quite mistaken, as is Pat Robertson.  God is in Haiti right now, and Haiti is also changing us.  I am optimistic that some of us may go beyond just fundraising.  Some of you may leave your comfort zone and go to Haiti one day, and to other trouble spots in the world; to witness to the love of God in the surprising place, and to find God’s love in the poorest of people.  The lasting impression of Haiti will one day show the love of God.
We are more used to thinking about first rather than lasting impressions.  Our first impressions of a person or a place are not always accurate.  But they can be corrected.  They can become more accurate over time and the experience of another person.  Two years ago, there was a small national story about the big difference between a first and a last impression.  It was the story of Joshua Packwood, a young man who graduated as the valedictorian of Morehouse College, the famous all black college for men in Atlanta, Georgia.  Packwood excelled as a student and class president at Morehouse.  He graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and he was a finalist as a Rhodes Scholar.  As a high school student, Packwood could have gone to college at Columbia, Stanford, or Yale.  But instead, he chose all black Morehouse, and he has no regrets.  His future is brighter for going to the school where he thought he would learn the most, not the one that had the highest ranking in US News and World Report, which isn’t even a very good magazine by the way.  Rank that, US News.  Joshua was so proud to be the valedictorian at the all black college that he even wept during his graduation speech.  He couldn’t even speak for several long moments while he cried, until a rousing ovation from his classmates spurred him onward to the speech he had prepared.  Packwood’s last impression at Morehouse was as a valued member of the all black college’s community, and he had the complete respect of students and faculty alike. 
What makes this story unusual is that Joshua Packwood is white.
As a high school senior, he went to a largely black high school in Grandview, Missouri, and his grades and SAT scores attracted interest, from some of the finest colleges in the nation, including Morehouse.  Morehouse called him on the phone a number of times, and they wanted to give him a full ride as a presidential scholar.  After several of these phone calls, Packwood had a strange, dawning realization--that the admissions people at Morehouse assumed that he was black, because most of the people at his high school were.
“Don’t let the white kids talk you down,” he was told by an admissions officer.  He became intrigued.
“You know I’m white, right?”
There was silence on the other end of the phone. 
What a wonderful moment where first impressions, preconceptions, and the boundaries of our world utterly collapsed.  This was not the first impression that either party expected.  Instead of ending the conversation, a unique relationship began.  Packwood made the decision to be the only white student at Morehouse College.  Though there have been other white students in its long history, he was the first to be the valedictorian.  Packwood’s first impressions were mixed, and so were the first impressions of his fellow students.  His black roommate, who was from a nearly all white school in Dallas, Texas, had chosen Morehouse to get the “black experience.”  Instead, he found himself rooming with the only white kid in the entire school, who himself had gone to a nearly all black high school.  It wasn’t what the roommate from Dallas expected or wanted.  He was certainly disappointed.  But they bonded, and a lasting and unexpected friendship formed between them. 
What impressed the Morehouse community about Packwood was that he found a way to always be himself.  You know how hard it can be at Kent to always be yourself.  As the song goes, “I find sometimes it’s easy to be myself.  Sometimes I find it’s better to be somebody else.”  Packwood adapted to a foreign community, but he was only able to do it, authentically, by maintaining his individuality.  His peers wanted to know what he thought as a white person, in both academic and social circles, and Packwood provided his own perspective honestly, with integrity. 
Joshua chose to leave his own comfort zone, and his many friends at Morehouse left their own as well to embrace him, to invite him into the inner circle of the school.  He was the outsider who became part of the family.  His peers at Morehouse appreciated the way he never “acted black.”  I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I think you get the idea.  When students and his black professors asked him what he thought in class, he realized they did it because they really wanted to know.  Packwood didn’t become something he wasn’t in order to fit in.  He and the other Morehouse students did something far deeper.  Joshua Packwood chose to be an outsider, and, by being and finding his true self, he was changed for the better.  It wasn’t easy at first, but the weird first impressions changed over time.  He learned about how to live in the world with people who are very different from you. 
Packwood didn’t choose the Ivy League for his college experience.  In his mind, he chose something far better.  He made the kind of impression at his college that will last for years to come, and he is proud to be a Morehouse man.  This kind of lasting impression is what the world needs right now.  These are the moments when who is the insider and who is the outsider get wonderfully mixed up, and the children of God start to recognize that they all belong to the same human family.  The people of Haiti are not on the outside of God’s love, and neither are you. God loves each of you as if you were the only person on the face of the earth.        
This morning I invite all of you to consider the lasting impression that you would like to make here at Kent, and in the world, a world that needs who you can be at your best.  Whether you began you career at Kent as an insider or an outsider, you are now part of this place, and Kent is a part of you.  And it will always be a part of you.  As we reach out to each other, and to those in need, we move beyond the boundaries that separate and divide us.  We find our true selves.  As we look for the presence of God in the unlikely corners of our lives, among the poorest nations on this planet, we go deeper into the mystery of God’s love for all humankind.  And in this search, we find God growing in the most unlikely place of all: deep in our own hearts.  Amen.        

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