Differently Abled. Differently Labelled
What do you get when you cross an atheist and a Jehovah’s Witness?
Answer: Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason.
What do you get when you cross a pit bull with a collie?
A dog that runs for help after it bites your leg off.
Those two giggles, by the way, do have something to do with this sermon. So does this.
Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
And so between the both of them,
They licked the platter clean.
How many have seen the poster that says, “None of us is as smart as all of us?”
On March 17th, if I remember, I will wear something green for St. Patrick’s Day. But I’ll feel like a bit of a fraud because I am absolutely certain I do not have a drop of Irish blood in my veins. Unless there was some libidinous Irishman wandering around southern Manitoba sometime during the last century.
My forebears were all good, flatfooted Mennonite dirt farmers. Every one of them. All four of my grandparents came to Canada the same year, probably on the same boat. They came from the Ukraine, where they had all been good, flat footed Mennonite dirt farmers. Every one of them. If I was a horse, they would call me a “purebred.” Being a purebred Mennonite boy is not necessarily a blessing.
Some of you have asked me, is “Milton” a Mennonite name? Well, “No it is not. It is a very English name.” And thereby hangs a tale.
Have you heard of a philosophy called “eugenics?” It’s a Greek term meaning “good stock” or “good kin.” It’s a set of beliefs and practises aimed at improving the quality of the human race. You know how they breed horses and cattle and dogs and cats and other animals? That’s eugenics. “Human wisdom directing evolution,” was one of their slogans.
It was a movement that began in England in the early 20th century, and spread to many countries including Canada.
Eugenics was enthusiastically embraced by Adolph Hitler and the German Reich. They set out to purify the Aryan race. Those humans considered superior were encouraged to breed. Those considered inferior were actively discouraged. First legal bans. Then enforced sterilization. Finally, those terrible gas ovens at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, into which they threw the Jews, homosexuals, and anyone with a mental or physical handicap, or who otherwise was considered inferior.
Because Hitler lost the war, the eugenics movement lost a lot of popularity in Western Europe. But it was still alive and well in the USA and could be seen in all its horror in the way African Americans were treated. It could be seen in Canada in the residential school system, and in the way we treated immigrants from Asia.
The idea of eugenics was to improve the quality of western European white folks by keeping the breeding stock pure — unsullied by the people whom Rudyard Kipling called, “the lesser breeds without the law.”
When John and Tessa first became part of our church family, I commented to them that they had very beautiful children, and that children of mixed race parents were often exceptionally beautiful.
Tessa then pointed out that mixed race children are also healthier because they have a broader spectrum of antibodies along with several other advantages. So I did a bit of digging, and sure enough. Mixed race children are generally healthier.
If you want to breed healthier humans, mix ‘em up. If you look at the breeding of animals, you’ll discover that very narrowly bred horses and dogs are subject to all kinds of maladies. Purebred animals tend to be high-strung and fragile. The healthiest dogs are the mongrels.
Now about that name. Milton. That was one of my given names. The family name I was born with is Friesen. My mother was a Reimer. All of them hailed originally from the district of Holland known as Freesia. Menno Simon, from whom the Mennonites got their name, was Frisian. They migrated from Holland to the Gdansk are of Poland, to the area of Russia that is now part of the Ukraine, then to Canada and the US, all to escape service in the military. They were radical pacifists. And, more importantly, they wanted to keep their children uncontaminated by evil, foreign influences.
If you are old enough, bring your mind back to the early 1950s. The memory of the Second World War was still very strong. Thousands of Canadians lost their lives in that war. I was in my late teens and on my way to becoming rich and world famous in show business. But my name was a problem. Ethnic was out. The image the media promoted was one of a good British, well-educated, polite white persons who belonged to the the Anglican or United Churches.
I was offered a job at a radio station in Calgary. CFAC. Half-time actor. Half-time news hound. Except I couldn’t use the name Friesen. “Too German,” they said. It was the residue of the British version of eugenics. Keep those bad foreign influences – foreign blood lines – out of the way. Hidden. We don’t want anything that makes us uncomfortable.
Do you remember the big show-biz stars of the era? Danney Kaye was born Danny Kaminsky. Doris Day was Doris Kappelhoff. Any name that sounded Germanic, Jewish, southern or eastern European was just not acceptable if you wanted to become a star.
So I took the name Milton because I wanted that job so badly, I could taste it. I’ve often regretted it. But life and family and reputation caught up to me, and so Milton it has remained. But if you scratch a little below the surface veneer, you’ll find a pure bread, flat footed, dirt farmer Mennonite boy.
But there’s a price to be paid for that kind of exclusive attitude. Any group of people that turns in on itself faces the danger of a narrow, inbred focus that can be very limiting, destructive. And dangerous. It tends to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit the mold.
At its worst, at the extreme, it leads to fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism is a way of thinking, where we assume we have all the answers to everything, and anyone who disagrees is not just wrong, but evil. And right now our world faces three kinds of fundamentalism that are becoming more and more dangerous. There’s Christian fundamentalists. Jewish fundamentalists. Muslim fundamentalists.
All of them believe they are under a direct and exclusive mandate from God, and that anyone who opposes them should be eliminated in whatever way works.
Of course, you and I are not fundamentalists. We wouldn’t be here in this church if there was even a whiff of fundamentalism around. But we do share a few ways of thinking that are less than helpful. Mostly it’s a habit of comparing our best, with their worst.
Every one of us is guilty of that to some degree. And every once in a while we engage in a satisfying little game called, “Ain’t It Awful,” where we raise one complaint after the other about “them,” whoever “them” may be. Among us seniors, a favorite version of “Ain’t It Awful” is to complain about “kids these days.”
Those with political interests play the game of “Ain’t It Awful” in which the subject is their least favorite political group. You could really see this in the last federal election campaign. The game called “Ain’t it awful,” begins with the assumption that we know what should be and what should not be, and that others are just plain wrong. The mistake we make is refusing to listen openly and carefully to what those with different viewpoints are saying.
Which brings us, finally, around to the scripture which Beryl read for us. It was part of a letter that St. Paul wrote to a church in Corinth, which was a city in Greece. It seems the folks in Corinth were playing that “Ain’t It Awful” game.
So Paul uses the metaphor of the human body. Paul was celebrating God’s most terrible handicap. God, it seems, is incapable of doing anything twice. No two plants, no two animals, no two snowflakes, no two mountains are identical. Not even identical twins are identical.
Some of you remember Clyde Woollard who was minister of this church some years ago. He had an identical twin brother named Keith. At different times, I found myself working with each of them, and while they were very similar, even I could spot their differences.
It’s one of God’s beautiful and holy gifts to us. Diversity. Especially the diversity of human beings. We are part of a colourful mosaic of God’s children who come in all shapes, sizes, colours, convictions, practises, ideas, and it is that gift of diversity that makes human growth, human civilization possible. Culturally and genetically.
And Paul is telling the folks in Corinth, that this diversity is what they need to celebrate. You need different kinds of people, with different outlooks, different ideas, different ways of doing things. None of us is as smart or as effective as all of us.
The kind of open society, that celebrates diversity – the kind of church that Paul was talking about to the Corinthians, is dangerous. You never know who is going to show up, or what kind of a problem they might create. When you have a wide variety of people involved, things get messy. But if you don’t have a variety of people involved, you get a tightly focused, narrow minded, insular church which sees nothing beyond its own four walls.
That’s one of the reasons I am delighted to be part of First United Church. We’ve declared ourselves to be a rainbow congregation, a community that is open to all kinds of people – not just differences of race and sexual orientation, but also different points of view – different ways of doing things – different ideas. It’s OK to be a little bit weird at First United, because we are a rainbow people.
I think we’re almost the kind of people Paul had in mind. We’re not perfect. Far from it. But we have come a long, long way. We have been wonderfully enriched by a broad spectrum of rainbow people. People who have a huge variety of talents and backgrounds and ideas and skills and experiences. Being a rainbow people means we embrace all the colours of the rainbow, not just the colours we like best.
Paul says something very interesting in his letter. “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honour and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.”
Remember, Paul is using the human body as a metaphor for the body of the church. He’s inviting us to think of First United as a body, and ourselves as those body parts, each of which is different, each of which has a unique and essential function that others don’t have. But what does he have in mind when he talks about our “less respectable members that should be treated with greater respect”?
Well, I’m not dumb enough to start pointing fingers and saying “You, you and you are those less respectable members.” But I invite you to think of who it is in this congregation that you like least of all. Who is your least favorite person? Who would you least like to be caught on a desert island with? Who is least qualified to be chair of the board? Well, that is the person Paul says you should treat with greater respect.
That’s the person you need to befriend. That may also be the person you need as a friend, for your own spiritual and social health.
Each of us have skills. I can talk the hind leg off a jackass and my computer is like a giant sausage machine turning out great gigabytes of words that nobody would ever want to read.
But 90% of what Cheryl Perry does – 90% of the work that happens here in the church, I couldn’t do to save my soul. If I were running this church, I’d have the thing in total chaos within a couple of weeks. If you want to run this church into the ground, elect me chair of the board.
I find people who can keep track of things – people who keep good financial records and who write notes to themselves – I write lots of notes to myself but I mostly lose the notes – I find people who have such organized lives — annoying. But they are exactly the people that I need the very most. Without them, my life would be a total magnificent mess.
The philosophy of eugenics is disastrous, because it turns a society in on itself, and forgets that what it needs to be healthy, are the very people it is excluding. We’ve all heard of monks who go to live in caves all by themselves, in the belief that if they can keep themselves from being contaminated by the sin of the world, they can achieve salvation. They wind up being deeply contaminated by their own sin of selfishness.
And so here we are at First United Church. We’ll be having our church annual meeting in three weeks. We are in the process of finding another minister to work with Cheryl. We’re in a time of transition.
St. Paul’s letter gets delivered to our mailbox just in time for this transition period. We get it 2,000 years after he wrote it – he must have sent it by Canada Post – we hear St. Paul’s message to understand our faith community here at First United as the body of Christ, with many parts, many members. And Paul especially calls us to work on our attitude to the unseemly parts, — the people we like least, the ones we think of as least capable – for as we learn to value and to love them, we may discover the heart of Christ.