A Muslim woman is seen reading a book in Arabic on an airplane and detained by authorities. An African-American man is seen at the door of a middle-class neighborhood in New York; the police are called and he is arrested. In fact, neither of those stories is what it seemed. The African- American man was a professor; it was his house. He had mislaid his keys and was trying to get in. The woman on the airplane was Faizah Shaheen, a British psychotherapist, and one who works, in fact, to prevent the radicalization of youth in her country. The book she was reading was called Syria Speaks; it is collection of essays challenging the violence in Syria.
In neither of these cases were things as they seemed. Perceptions, racism, stereotypes – all combined to lead people away from seeing the truth. Our brain can’t help it: we are guilty of unconscious bias, we tend to remember the facts we heard most recently, we are influenced by falsehoods presented as facts. Our brains naturally want to categorize. Don’t we learn that as young children? To sort the red blocks from the blue? The circles from the squares? The very way we learn is by dividing items up by difference. Is there any wonder that we do it with people?
The danger of the stereotype is our lesson in the gospel this morning, presented to us by the questions that Jesus poses to the crowd about John the Baptist. John is in prison, and he has heard about Jesus; he sends a message to find out if it is true. Jesus sent back word to let him know of the miracles and healing he is performing, that what John predicted is coming true. “And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me,” Jesus concludes in his message to John.
But then Jesus turns his attention to the crowd and addresses them specifically about John himself: What did you go out to see in the wilderness? A reed that sways in the wind? Did they think that John was someone who would abandon his belief, or reject his own values when his life was in danger? We can imagine the crowd shaking their heads to say no, because Jesus asks another question: Then what did you go out to see? Someone in fancy robes who lives in a kingdom? In fact, Jesus says, the crowd met a prophet. Whether they thought John fit the image of a prophet or not, whether he was what they expected to find, Jesus is saying that John wasn’t only a prophet; he was THE prophet.
There are several parts to unpack here. First of all, so much of Advent and Christmas is about challenging our stereotypes. In this case, the one who paved the path for Jesus was not an educated man, or even a fisherman. He was a wild man from the wilderness. He was the last person you would expect to have a line to God, or to be the opening act for Jesus. What is the lesson there for us? Surely, we, too, need to question all the times we make assumptions about people. When we assess their character by who they are, or what they do, or what they wear. Had we done that in the crowd listening to John, we would have been so busy snorting at his smelly clothes and eccentric ways we would have missed what he had to say.
What’s more, if John is lifted first above everyone, then we are to emulate his dress. We don’t have to be like him in his style of shouting, angry oratory – we can choose to be soft spoken. Those are qualities only on the surface of John: the part to emulate is his character. And most specifically what was mentioned: he was not someone who bent to the will of others in a way that dismantled his own faith.
This week, while reading online, I came across something an American minister had written about the readings concerning John during Advent. In his essay, he said a version of this: I have some bad news for you – some people are good enough for God. And some people aren’t good enough for God, and they will be cast out. (You may recall this kind of language in our gospel last week.)
The problem I have always had with this interpretation of the Bible – and why we must resist it – is where it leads. I don’t presume to be God; I am your pastor; I try to lead you, just as I am so often led by many of you. That is our role for one another. Yet, when someone decides that God also sorts people, it encourages us to the do same. Why shouldn’t we get started at what will happen in heaven anyway? And so you see where that leads, where it has led. What’s more, it often puts us in some kind of competition for God’s divine attention, as if there were a finite number of spots in heaven. In that case, I had better raise issues about my neighbor’s flaws, so that I look better. Why would I help my neighbor, if it cost me a spot? For there to be so-called “worthy” people, there must be those who are unworthy. And the only way we can decide that is a shortcut kind of way with stereotypes. Otherwise, we would have to truly get to know someone and we might find out they aren’t who we thought.
Yet we are cautioned in our second lesson: “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See the judge is at the door!” The judge is God. And we cannot presume to know what God sees in someone else.
Think of what our stereotyping does each day, even aside from the great tragedies of history. This is why a single mom on welfare worries more when her son breaks his arm in the playground and she has to bring him to the hospital – will they assume she was abusive? Why young black men, doing nothing differently from their white peers, worry when they encounter police officers. White skin confers on a person an advantage, whether we are comfortable admitting it or not. Until we ourselves are judges. I think I have told you the story about summer between university years when I worked as a plumber. After work, dirty and in construction boots – probably doing my best version of John the Baptist’s style – I went to cash a cheqie. I was turned down. I went home, got dressed in my suit, and went back to the bank. (I really needed my cheque cashed!) And guess what? They did it, no questions asked. It was the exact same cheque. I was the same person. But they saw me with different eyes.
We are in a time in North America when we need to begin asking ourselves, and one another, to think about the stereotypes we hold – sometimes without even knowing it. We need to question some of those assumed truths. We need to insist that people are not red blocks or green blocks to be so easily categorized. And we need to resist any law that might treat them so.
The next time we go looking for a prophet in soft robes, Jesus might suggest we recall John the Baptist. We can only hear the truth of the gospel more clearly when the more people we are open to hearing deliver its message. Amen.