September 14, 2014

The Task—and Treasure—of Trust


Text: Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

One of the sadder stories of this sad summer has centered on a people most of us had never heard of until July of this year. They are the Yazidi people, a group of about seven hundred thousand people living in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq.

This is not going to be a sermon about the distinctive culture and beliefs of the Yazidi people, other than to observe that they are a very small religious minority in the global scheme of things, that they have been around for at least as long as Islam and possibly longer, and that as a people generally gathered in a landlocked place with no access to water or expansive trade they have a history of influencing, and being influenced by, the beliefs of the people around them.

Living as they have in a part of the world that has seen a good many changes of ownership and control over the centuries, the Yazidis have had to get used to living among others who are not part of their distinctive belief community. They’ve lived in the presence of Persians, Turks, and Arabs, each of whom had a distinctive culture and language before they all became places where Islam was the dominant language. The Yazidis have watched all this happening around them for twelve or thirteen centuries, always maintaining their distinctive identity while being neighbors with a variety of other people.

All of this worked until just this year. And then, almost overnight, as all of us know, a group intent on creating a state for only one kind of religious belief set upon the Yazidi people, killing thousands of them and sending all of them fleeing to a mountain.

All of that is bad enough. But the terrible story of what has befallen these people isn’t really a story about an outside group coming and destroying a millennium and more of peaceful coexistence. It’s a story about another, more basic kind of human weakness.

An article in the New York Times a week and a half ago made the point. It described scene in town of northern Iraq, in which a Yazidi man was visited by three of his Arab neighbors, including one of his closest friends. As the four men shared tea together, one of the neighbors raised the subject of the insurgent fighters that were advancing toward the town. He told his Yazidi friend not to worry; they would protect the Yazidis in the town from these people. They had been friends all their lives; they had done business together; their parents, their grandparents, generations of their families had lived together.

As the writer of the article puts it, something about the conversation didn’t sit right with the Yazidi man, and that very night he gathered up his family and with as much as they could carry and fled.

Later, from a refugee camp, he called back home. And he learned that the men who had shared tea with him—even the one who had given him those assurances—had joined the insurgents when they flooded into town. The Yazidi man told the reporter, “Our Arab neighbors turned on all of us. We feel betrayed; they were our friends.”

The article went on to describe a great many more stories like that. Another Yazidi man who called his closest friend from a refugee camp, an Arab who owned a shop in their village. When he asked his friend what he was doing, the man answered that he was out looking for Yazidis to kill.

We look at stories like this, so far away from our existence in almost every conceivable way, and we cannot quite connect what is happening there with our own lives. They are so violent. They are such extremists. They are so backward. They are such zealots.

But all of that is perhaps something of a smokescreen. Because what has really happened in this part of the world is the erosion of the basic bonds of trust between neighbors and community members upon which their well-being all equally depended.

They came to believe that the differences they invented between themselves were somehow real, so real that they were more important than life itself. Whether those differences were differences of religious sect or ethnic identity, someone taught them that those lines meant something desperately important. And when the lines were drawn, the bonds of trust were quick to fall.

This is not a story unique to Iraq, or the Middle East. It is much the same story of the Holocaust, of the bloody campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, of the horrors of tribal warfare between Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. This is not a story about backwards and faraway places; this is a story about a human universal, and about how delicate, how fragile, are the social institutions and the bonds of trust we build to protect ourselves against the darkest side of our own human nature.

And do we really think we are any different?

Can we look at the violence and bloodshed in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri and think that we are different?

Can we look at the fact that the disparity of average household income between white families and black families is greater in our country today than it was in South Africa during apartheid—Nick Kristof reminded us of this in last week’s New York Times—and think that we are not just as skilled, just as talented, just as mistaken in inventing reasons to discriminate, to justify inequality?


Where does all of this intersect with the Gospel?

When we meet here we meet together in the name of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That God is a god of compassion and mercy, a god of acceptance—and most of all a god who is disturbingly accurate in knowing just how we are likely to fall short, how we are likely to get off the rails. God knows that because God made us.

And God knows the ways in which we can make the kinds of mistakes that come when our will diverges from God’s plan—when we act out of fear instead of love. When we team up with the strong against the weak because we ourselves fear being weak. When we draw lines between us and them, between the right people and the wrong people, the true believers and the heathen, the clean and the unclean. Whether it’s the Islamic State or the Westboro Baptist Church, intolerance and hatred is the same everywhere. It’s the difference between a proclaimed ethic and a lived ethic—and the gospels make plain Jesus’s clear preference for a lived ethic.

The Christian scriptures hold up again and again our human capacity to create tribal distinctions—whether they are defined in terms of race or faith, gender or class. And they make plain that when we are living in line with God’s hope for us, we have to do two things:

We have to stay alert to the fact that we are liable to this basic sin, not just as individuals but as a society; and

We have to actively struggle against it by standing with those that the rest of society is ready to ostracize, to judge, to forget, to destroy.

The hard truth, the Good Friday truth, is that the capacity for betrayal that the Yazidi man spoke of is a capacity that lies in absolutely each one of us. The only antidote, the only inoculation for falling into that sin ourselves, is to practice the habits of trust and the bonds of our common humanity here in the community of brothers and sisters God gives us.

For it is here that the grace we receive, the forgiveness we receive, transcends all of the differences we invent to separate humans from humans, communities from communities, peoples from peoples.

If the Good Friday truth is that all of us are liable to the trap of betraying another, then the Easter hope is the fact that Christ has given us the means to overcome this weakness in each of our hearts.

That means is our self-awareness as baptized Christians to be on the lookout for the things that divide us.

It is the practice of building community here in the church, building community with people we sometimes can’t stand, that gives us the strength to overcome our natural tendency to make divisions.

And it is the habit of gathering, as two or three or any greater number, in the name of the God who calls us always and everywhere to break down the walls of our own making that separate human heart from human heart, to be a community of not just of forgiveness but of accountability, not just of cheap grace but disciplined lives building bonds of deep trust and welcoming others to do it with us. This is our mission as Christians, and by holding up each other we will find the strength to live it out. Amen.