Stereotypes and fear - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Stereotypes and fear

Luke 8: 22-25

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22 Now it came to pass on a certain day, that he went into a ship with his disciples: and he said unto them, Let us go over unto the other side of the lake. And they launched forth.

23 But as they sailed he fell asleep: and there came down a storm of wind on the lake; and they were filled with water, and were in jeopardy.

24 And they came to him, and awoke him, saying, Master, master, we perish. Then he arose, and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water: and they ceased, and there was a calm.

25 And he said unto them, Where is your faith? And they being afraid wondered, saying one to another, What manner of man is this! for he commandeth even the winds and water, and they obey him.

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We heard as our first reading this morning, the famous story of the creation of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis.  If I may be permitted a few moments of irreverence (there is, in fact, a serious purpose behind this, as you will discover in due course), I would like to read you an alternative version of this Creation story, as recounted by the well-known journalist, broadcaster and wit, Alan Coren.  It reads as follows:

Now the Lord God took pity on the man where he lay, saying, 'It is not good that the man should be alone: I will make an help meet for him.'  And the Lord caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof.  And from the rib, which the Lord God had taken from the man, made he a woman and brought her unto the man.  And the woman looked upon the man and spake, saying: 'typical, sleeping.'

And the man stared at her exceeding hard, saying: 'look, I have got this rib-ache.  It must be the digging.  Ye have to take these things slowly ...'  But the woman said, 'never mind all that, this garden doth not look as if it hath had a fork in it ever; I do not pretend to be an expert, having been around for only six minutes, but women have a sort of an instinct for these things; we are exceeding creative.'

And the woman stood apart awhile in that place where she was, thinking; and at length, she spake unto Adam, saying: 'I have put my finger on it.  What this garden needeth is a pond, to be a feature and a conversation piece; also an artificial waterfall, for there is nothing like the sound of running water in a garden.'

Whereupon Adam, seeking only that his life be quiet, dug all that day and all that night, even unto darkness upon the next day; and when he had finished, he called out to the woman that she come and admire the pond, which he had made.  And the woman looked at the pond and spake, saying: 'Not there.  Over there by the tree.'

And so it goes on.  What Alan Coren does so deftly, of course, is to play around with one particular stereotype of the male-female relationship - namely that of the long-suffering, hen-pecked husband and the domineering wife.  And much comedy throughout the centuries has been based on a similar use of stereotypes.  When I was growing up, there was an entire genre of jokes that began: 'There was an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman ...'  and the entire point of the joke was based upon shared perceptions about distinguishing national characteristics.  And a whole generation of stand-up comedians once made their living out of jokes relating to the monstrous mother-in-law. 

Now, these kinds of jokes only work because embedded deep within them somewhere is a glimmer of human experience that is recognisable.  The problem is that the dividing line between comedic stereotyping and the kind of prejudice that diminishes and damages, can be uncomfortably thin at times.  Which is why we may find ourselves laughing at some jokes, but recoiling from others - because we find them racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or simply cruel.

Stereotypes can sometimes be very dangerous: because they put human beings, and relationships, and situations, into categories that can be misleading and deceptive.  They can play to, and confirm our prejudices, rather than challenging them.  They can cloud our judgment; mislead us; prevent us from seeing the precious individual human being in front of us, because all we can see instead is someone who is 'other'.  'One of them'. 

Some former neighbours of ours in Birmingham could remember a time when some of the houses in our street had signs in the windows saying: 'Room to let.  No Irish.'  My father-in-law was an Irish immigrant.  Ouch.

Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about, when he condemned those who criticised others for having a speck in their eye, whilst being completely oblivious to the socking great plank that was in their own.  Because stereotyping is sometimes at its most pernicious when we are guilty of the very thing that we project onto others. 

Many years ago, before women were ordained to the priesthood, a woman I know who felt a calling to that ministry, went walking in the hills with a family friend who was a Roman Catholic priest.  He spoke to her at great length about why it was that women couldn't be ordained, culminating in his clinching argument: 'the problem is', he said, 'that women are just far too emotional.'  At which point the two of them reached the top of a hill, and saw the glorious landscape unfolding before them.  The priest, profoundly moved at the sight, took out his handkerchief and said to her: 'Will you just look at that view - doesn't it bring a tear to your eye'.  Nothing emotional about him, clearly!

And it is also true, and I am ashamed to admit that I have seen this happen in myself, that the times when we are most likely to regress, and fall prey to our hidden prejudices and stereotypes, are the times when we are stressed, or anxious, or afraid.  Because those are the times when we crave the safe and the familiar, and the known, and the secure.  So those are also the occasions when we are most wary of the 'other'; of the one who is simply not like us.  When we find ourselves resorting to stereotypes, and most lacking in love, the likelihood is that somewhere underneath it all is fear.

One of the most striking things about the way in which Jesus related to others, is how remarkably oblivious he seems to have been of the stereotypes of his culture: stereotypes that rendered women inferior and untrustworthy; and regarded lepers, and prostitutes, and tax-collectors, and Samaritans, and Gentiles, as categories of people with whom you avoided contact, because they could render you ritually unclean.  Repeatedly in his encounters, Jesus simply sees before him a unique, individual human being; one who is in need of healing and hope, and he responds accordingly.

Now, of course, all this has absolutely nothing to do with this morning's Gospel reading, and the story of Jesus stilling the storm.  Or does it?   Oddly enough, it seems to me that perhaps there is a connection of sorts - and the link is to do with fear.  Let me explain.

There are certain aspects of our Gospel reading that are very odd.  Let me remind you of the story: Jesus gets into a boat with his disciples, and tells them to cross to the other side of the Lake (which is, of course, a vast inland sea).  While they are crossing a massive storm blows up: the boat is filling with water, and they are all in profound danger.  And what is Jesus doing, in the midst of this high drama - huge waves crashing over the boat, water flooding into it and threatening to overwhelm it, and doubtless loud cries of anguish and desperation amongst the disciples?  In the midst of all of this, we are told, Jesus was asleep.  Asleep!  What?  Who on earth would be able to sleep through that lot?  But the disciples have to wake him up to inform him of the fact that they are all about to drown.  In the earliest version of this story, which is in St Mark's Gospel, the disciples say to Jesus when they wake him up: 'Teacher, do you not care if we perish?'  'Do you not care?'  (Both Luke and Matthew edit out this detail out in their own versions).  But the oddness of this detail - Jesus being impossibly asleep, alerts us to the fact that, as so often in the Gospels, this story is about more than it appears.  This is not simply a story about Jesus exercising supernatural control over the weather forecast - it is also about something else, much closer to home.

What does Jesus say to the desperate disciples, who are in fear of their lives?  'Where is your faith?'  And in Mark's version, 'Why are you afraid?  Where is your faith?'

You see, this story is also about how we react at times when we feel overwhelmed, and fearful.  And in the life of discipleship this is particularly hard when we are doing our level best to do what we believe God wants us to do.   (Remember that the disciples were obeying the instruction of Jesus in taking the boat out on the Lake in the first place - he it was who got them into that mess.)   So we can find ourselves railing against God, saying: 'Look - I am trying to do what you asked of me.  And look at the situation I am in!  Where are you?  Are you asleep?  Do you not care that I am perishing?'  To which the voice of Christ answers, through the storm and the wind and the waves that threaten to engulf us, 'Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?' 

Fear can do very bad things to us.  It can get in the way of our relationships with other people, when we reduce them to stereotypes and lose the ability to see them for who they are; and it can get in the way of our life of faith - when we succumb to fear, and lose faith in God.  The challenge for us at such times is always to hold on, and suspend our disbelief - because sometimes the calm descends just as rapidly and unexpectedly as the storm.   And thanks be to God for that.

Amen

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