Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” (John 6)
In a remarkable essay in last week’s New York Time Magazine about Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court, Stephen Carter (one of his former clerks) described Marshall as one of our nation’s great story-tellers, in the same tradition as Abraham Lincoln. “He told stories to teach lessons,” Carter writes, “and also like Lincoln, he never told the same story quite the same way twice. The message was what mattered.” Here’s one example, told in Carter’s own words:
It concerns a lawsuit that arose in the 1960s, in which the plaintiff was well known in New York’s federal courts because she filed complaints regularly, the sort that claim the government has installed electrodes in the plaintiff’s brain to steal her ideas for television shows — things like that.
Her lawsuits were always thrown out, her appeals always dismissed without a hearing.
At this time, the chief judge of the circuit was J. Edward Lumbard. One day Lumbard, without a word to anyone else, put the woman’s appeal on the calendar for oral argument. Nobody could figure out what was going on.
On the day set for oral argument, the United States attorney sent along “the Most Junior Junior Assistant” with instructions to say 10 very precise words, and no more.
The clerk called the case. The plaintiff, representing herself, got up to make her argument. She rambled incoherently as the three-judge panel sat impassively.
When her allotted 15 minutes had elapsed, the plaintiff returned to her seat. Judge Lumbard turned to the Most Junior Junior Assistant United States attorney and invited him to respond.
The Most Junior Junior Assistant stepped to the lectern. With great confidence, the young man recited the 10 very precise words he had been instructed to say:
“May it please the court, we rest on our brief.” In the grandiloquent language of the law, the Most Junior Junior Assistant had stated that the appellant’s case was so utterly frivolous, that there was no need for the appellee [the State] to respond.
Lumbard glowered. His voice thundered:
“Are you trying to tell me, young man, that after this woman, in the exercise of her fundamental constitutional right to petition her government for the redress of grievances, has come into this courtroom to argue her case, her own government will not even do her the dignity of a response? Get up here and argue, sir!”
[In the end,] the court dismissed the appeal without comment. But here’s the kicker: The woman never filed another lawsuit. [She had at last been heard.]
And so ends the story. But in reflecting on it, Carter describes its point as being an illustration of what he calls Thurgood Marshall’s “gregarious humanity,” his ability to see past the prejudices that separate us, to appreciate the human core of every person, all in the name of honoring our common human dignity. Judge Lumbard, Marshall would have said, was someone “you could do business with,” because he was a person who never lost sight of either his, nor anyone else’s, fundamental humanity, and so was always trying to find a way to connect.
I think that Jesus also was somebody you could do business with. Why, just look at today’s gospel, the well-known story of the feeding of the five thousand. The disciples look out upon the gathered crowd and see only a hungry, surly lot who have nothing to offer—in the minds of the disciples, they are nothing but a throng of needy people.
But Jesus looks out upon the same crowd, and sees people who are ready to share and even celebrate, if only they are given a model of how to do so. And so he calls up the one boy who has offered his modest store of five loaves and two fish—and by sharing them, Jesus persuades the people to share what they too have heretofore concealed, and lo and behold there is more than enough for all!
Jesus was someone you could do business with, because he never got stuck on the stereotype of those who came to him in need. Look at every one of the miracle stories, and you’ll see that Jesus was someone who saw through to his petitioners’ humanity, and so was able to bring something new out of them that they hadn’t realized was possible. That’s the real miracle!
And isn’t that a lesson that we all especially need right now when we are mutually so imprisoned by the divisive stereotypes that get repeated over and over again of left versus right, black versus white, red versus blue … on and on it goes. If we were to follow the lead of our greatest exemplars of a “gregarious humanity,” we just wouldn’t settle for such unproductive drivel. We would have to bore down to something deeper.
Let me share with you second story that gets at the point of finding our common humanity even more vividly.
In a rap video that has gone viral in Israel, called “Let’s Talk Straight,” two young guys sit on either side of small table in an auto shop. One (Uriya Rosenman) is an Israeli Jew, and the other (Sameh Zakout) a Palestinian Arab. The Jew launches into a verbal harangue against the Arab, venting all of his frustration with what he regards as the self-absorbed violence, laziness, and untrustworthiness of the Palestinians. The Arab man impatiently hears him out. But then he too lets fly with all of his pent up frustration with the Jews—their self-righteous obsession with the Holocaust, their indifference to the suffering of those they displaced, their air of cultural superiority.
Both men truly “talk straight” (as the video’s title suggests). The columnist Roger Cohen, also writing in the New York Times, put it this way: “The two hurl ethnic insults and clichés at each other, tearing away the veneer of civility overlaying the seething resentments between the Jewish state and its Palestinian minority. … By shouting each side’s prejudices at each other, at times seemingly on the verge of violence, Mr. Rosenman and Mr. Zakout have produced a work that dares listeners to move past stereotypes and discover their shared humanity.”
And there you have it – we’re back to that common thread. The video ends with the two sharing the simple meal of pita, hummus, and Coca-Cola laid out on the table between them, as if to underscore the point that though we may be scared of one another and controlled by fear, we are (as Mr. Zakout put it), “fundamentally human. Period. We are human beings first.”
Now he, too, is someone you could do business with—they both are.
So if you can stand the almost excruciating tension created in the video, I’d really encourage you to watch it if you haven’t already (“Let’s Talk Straight”—you can find it on YouTube). It’s an incredibly powerful portrait of what simultaneously divides and binds human beings who are caught on opposite sides, yet in the same vortex, of conflict.
And then you might then ask yourself the question, What similar haranguing monologues are hurled in our own situation, by people on opposite sides of the conflicts that entrap us?
And then you might further think, if Jesus was able to look upon that tired, hungry, empty-handed, surly crowd stretched out before him on the mountainside, and see the potential for a feast—how might he look upon us as a people now, and what capacity for generosity might he see in the humanity that lies hidden beneath our relentless discord?
Think about it. A lot depends on the answer. Amen.