Saturday Night Theologian
7 August 2005

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

In the movie The Man without a Face, Mel Gibson plays a teacher, Justin McLeod, whose face has been burned in a terrible car accident. (If you've heard that something similar happened to Gibson as a young man, don't believe it; it's an urban legend). His student, Charles Norstadt, overcomes his fear of the teacher's unusual looks and begins studying with him over the summer. When asked by his friends, who view McLeod as a "freak," how the tutoring is going, Norstadt responds, "He's pretty cool, . . . . for a hamburger head." Norstadt stands up for his teacher, whom he thinks of as his best friend, to a certain extent, but at the same time he goes along with the crowd in belittling him. In today's reading from Genesis, Reuben plays a similar role. When his brothers want to kill Joseph, Reuben says, "Instead of killing him, let's just throw him in a pit and leave him there." The text says that Reuben intends to come back later and retrieve him from the pit. Before that can happen, however, the other brothers sell Joseph into slavery to a traveling band of Midianites bound for Egypt. After Reuben discovers what happened, he participates fully in the cover-up, making their father believe that Joseph is dead. When faced with the opportunity to stand up for his brother, Reuben declines to do so, though he plans to save him later surreptitiously. What was Reuben afraid of? What would have happened had he refused to go along with the crowd? Perhaps the brothers would have thought better of their scheme to kill Joseph. Perhaps they would have overwhelmed Reuben and done with Joseph what they wanted. In any event, there is no indication in the story that Reuben himself was in any danger from his brothers, who apparently looked up to him as the oldest and took his advice (for awhile) concerning Joseph. When we have the opportunity to stand up for someone who is unpopular at work or school, do we do it, or do we go along with the crowd? Maybe we don't join in fully, offering only the occasional comment or grin. Maybe we fidget silently, uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation but more uncomfortable with speaking up. "It's not so bad," we tell ourselves. "What he doesn't know won't hurt him. They're just words, after all." But words can cut deeper than knives. Deep down we know that, because we've been cut before. Why do we find it easier to take a stand on international politics or public policy debates or doctrinal differences than to stand up for someone we know who is being maligned? Maybe it's because we crave the approval of our coworkers or fellow students entirely too much. What would happen if we spoke up? Maybe someone else in the crowd would say, "You know, I was uncomfortable with the conversation, too, but I didn't have the courage to say anything. Thanks for speaking up." Maybe everyone in the group would dismiss our concern, but they might think again before launching into someone else. The same God who calls us to stand up for the poor and oppressed of the world wants us to take a stand as well for the pariahs in our midst. Who knows how the story might turn out?

Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b

George Washington Carver was born on a slave plantation in Missouri in 1864, and after the war he and his brother were raised by his former master. Carver developed an early interest in agriculture, and he applied his brilliant mind to discovering new uses for such crops as peanuts, pecans, soybeans, and sweet potatoes and to inventing devices and processes to help southern farmers rebuild after years of war and soil depletion. From his humble beginnings as a slave, he became a man whose discoveries and inventions helped black and white farmers alike, and he received many awards and distinctions over the course of his life. Joseph began his life in Egypt as a slave, and he overcame his humble beginnings by his wits and by his devotion to God. Eventually, Joseph delivered his entire family during a great famine. It's good that people can sometimes overcome their disadvantaged origins to achieve great things, but all too often a person's later life is determined by his or her beginnings. Those who grow up in poverty often remain in poverty throughout life, have poor educations, and raise their own children in poverty. Those who are malnourished growing up may have developmental difficulties. Crack babies and children of alcoholic mothers often have the same problem. And it's not just socio-economic or physiological factors that play an often determinative role in a child's future. Children who grow up hearing words of hate against people with different skin color or of different religions often adopt those same attitudes as adults. The stories of Joseph and George Washington Carver are inspirational, and we do well to remember them. They remind us that no one can be written off because of their humble or troubled background. We should applaud those few who are able to overcome their disadvantages and make great contributions in life. At the same time, we should work to ensure that fewer and fewer people have to be born into lives of squalor, drug addiction, or hatred. Access to enough food to maintain a healthy life is a basic human right. So is access to affordable (or free) health care and education. While we rejoice over those who make great contributions despite their origins, let us also do all we can to see that every baby born truly has an equal shot at a good and productive life. Here's a hint: it won't happen as long as the disparity between rich and poor, both within nations and among nations, continues to grow.

Romans 10:5-15

When my grandmother was close to 90 and had come to live with my family, she told me one day, "You know, I don't know why people treat colored people different. They're just like plain folks." For someone born in a small Texas town in 1894, she had a pretty enlightened attitude. If "colored people" weren't actually "plain folks," at least they were like them. She recognized that the way white people treated blacks when she was a child, and the laws that discriminated against them (up until fairly recently), wasn't right. Overcoming prejudice is something that is hard to do, especially when it is ingrained from birth, but it is not impossible. When Paul said, "There is no distinction between Jew and Greek," he was making a radical statement. Most Jews of his day would have disagreed strongly. "We're the chosen people," they might have said. "We're special in God's eyes." Of course, the Greeks thought of themselves as superior to their neighbors as well. Those who spoke languages other than Greek they called barbarians, an onomatopoetic word that is based on the repeated monosyllable, "bar bar bar bar bar," which was how ancient Greeks thought other languages sounded. During the Rwandan massacre of 1992, Hutus on the radio urged their fellow Hutus to kill Tutsis, whom they said were nothing more than cockroaches. The examples of one group considering itself superior to another are innumerable--European Americans and Native Americans, European Australians and Native Australians, Germans and Jews, Russians and Jews, almost all Europeans and Roma (Gypsies), Greeks and Turks--and they are by no means limited to ethnic or nationalistic differences. The mutual animosity between many Christians and Muslims is nothing new, but it is particularly devastating today in the wake of terrorist attacks and wanton slaughter of civilians (on both sides). The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is largely religiously based. In India, Hindus and Muslims fight, and in Northern Ireland there is ongoing animosity between Catholics and Protestants, despite a subsiding of violence in recent years. Why do humans insist on seeing themselves and their social group as being better than others? When we think of ourselves as God's chosen people, does that necessarily mean that others are not also God's chosen people? Paul goes on to say, "The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him." In other words, God doesn't care what your ethnic or socioeconomic or national or linguistic or religious background is. God accepts you as you are: black or white or mixed or otherwise, male or female, Jew or Christian or Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist or Sikh or atheist, rich or poor, gay or straight. God loves everyone. That's not to say that we can't all change our ways and our attitudes as we grow closer to God, but the point is that we all start from the same place in God's eyes. And if we're all equal before God, we should consider all others as equals in our own eyes as well.

Matthew 14:22-33

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, a special council is meeting in Rivendell at the home of Elrond, a powerful elf, to discuss how to defeat Sauron, the Dark Lord. The gathering includes a powerful wizard, wise elves, strong dwarves, brave men, and two small hobbits. They debate, and eventually dismiss, the ideas of hiding the Ring of Power or of attempting to wield it themselves. They finally conclude, reluctantly, that the only hope is to carry the One Ring back to the mountain where it was forged and to cast it into the fire that burns inside the mountain. But who will carry the ring? After much discussion, primarily concerning the possibility of wielding the One Ring or of countering the power of the Ring with other rings of lesser strength, the course ahead has not been determined, and no one has volunteered to do the impossible: take the ring back to Mordor, the land of Sauron, to cast it into the bowels of Mount Doom. As the group considers the matter silently, a small, timid voice is heard. It is Frodo, a middle-aged hobbit who has carried the Ring safely, through great personal peril, to Rivendell. "I will take the Ring," he says, "though I do not know the way." Frodo was not the logical person to bear the ring. He lacked the magical powers of the wizard, the wisdom of the elves, the strength of the dwarves, or the warrior skills of the men, yet he was the one who volunteered for the task, and ultimately he was the one who accomplished the task, though with help from many others. When we read the story of Jesus walking on the sea, it is not particularly surprising to us, because Christian theology calls Jesus the Son of God, a term that usually incorporates the idea of divinity. If Jesus is divine, what's the big deal about him walking on the water? What is surprising in the story is that Peter walks on the water, too, at least for a little while. Peter gets scared when he sees the wind and the waves around him, and he begins to sink. Jesus reaches out his hand and saves him, then he offers a mild rebuke: "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" It's true that Peter had only a little faith, but the fact of the matter is that his faith was sufficient to get him started in the right direction. While the other disciples were cowering in the boat, Peter went over the side into the deep. Peter may have begun to sink, but only after he took some steps on the surface of the water as though it were dry land. Peter was brash and boastful, hot-tempered and impulsive, but he was also a man who acted on his faith. Sure he made mistakes under his tutelage with Jesus. He publicly disagreed with Jesus when he began to speak of his impending doom in Jerusalem. He cut off a man's ear in the Garden of Gethsemane. He denied Jesus three times the night before he was crucified. But let's look at those stories again. When Peter argued with Jesus over his determination to go to Jerusalem, he clearly didn't grasp the necessity of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, but he understood better than the other disciples that Jesus had a great destiny. When Peter cut off the man's ear, he was acting rashly and against Jesus' wishes, but at least he was acting, while the other disciples stood around in fear. It's true that Peter denied Jesus three times, but he was only disciple who dared to enter the courtyard of the temple in order to see what would happen to Jesus. Yes, Peter was imperfect in many ways, but he was also a man of action. He was a person who always had faith, even if it was only a little faith, and he lived his life by acting on his faith. Sometimes he misunderstood God's will, but he never doubted that God had called him to Jesus' side, and he was always willing to act according to his best understanding of the situation. After the Day of Pentecost, Peter became one of the main leaders of the fledgling church. He still made mistakes, as we see in his conflict with Paul at Galatia (told from Paul's perspective, of course), but overall his ministry was a great success. Under the leadership of Peter and others, the gospel spread from Judea and Galilee to Samaria, Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, Italy, and further east and west in Peter's own lifetime. Ultimately Peter ended up in Rome, where he followed Jesus in martyrdom, after living a life that had many more successes than failures. May we all have a "little faith" like Peter's!