In his book, At Hell’s Gate, Claude Anshin Thomas tells of his time fighting in the Vietnam War. He describes how the training he received left him filled with anger, an anger targeted at the enemy, anyone who was unlike him. In disturbing detail he shares how he perpetrated horrific acts of violence during his tour of duty, and how these experiences led to his severe post-traumatic stress and problems with addiction.
Claude’s return home was difficult, and he suffered for a long time while trying to get help in various rehabilitation programs. Eventually, he managed to stay sober for a time, but the emotional pain became too much to bear, and a social worker suggested a Buddhist retreat for Vietnam veterans led by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk in a community called Plum Village. When Claude arrived at the community he found himself surrounded by Vietnamese people, and this so triggered him that instead of staying in one of the bungalows he isolated himself by pitching camp in the nearby forest, and he put up booby traps in a perimeter around his campsite.
Near the end of his stay at Plum Village he approached Sister Chan Khong to apologize for the booby traps and offer to take them down. She responded by saying “It’s good that you can take them down, but if you need to put them back up, put them back up.” Claude describes how those words summed up a kind of unconditional acceptance he experienced there, a feeling of inclusion that he had never known before, and how it was that acceptance that started his healing and transformation. Claude’s path led him to be ordained a Zen Buddhist monk, and the name he was given, Anshin, means “heart of peace.”
Radical acceptance like this is what Jesus models for us in today’s gospel reading. The Pharisees find it completely inappropriate that Jesus and his disciples would eat and drink with sinners, people they consider to be at the margins, living outside the community of God’s people. For the Pharisees their identity and sense of goodness is defined by what and who they exclude, be it certain kinds of food or certain kinds of people. So it’s impossible for them to offer the kind of hospitality that Jesus offers, the offer to accept and love people for who they are, just as they are, which, ironically, is often what it takes for healing to happen.
We’re all made in the image of God, and our challenge is to see others, all others, as God sees them. Like sunshine or rain we need our love and compassion to fall on everyone. We need to practice including over excluding, accepting over rejecting, as much as we’re able. Maybe we need to practice with an acquaintance or loved one who has a difficult personality. Or maybe we need to practice with someone who comes from a religious tradition that we don’t understand. Or maybe we need to practice with the person we see every day living on the street, the one we usually ignore. Like Claude, these people all suffer, and they look for what we all look for: safety, acceptance, and love. God willing, as Christians, we can help them find what they seek by embracing them as they are, and including them in our open hearts.
One of my favorite movies is Chocolat. In the movie a woman and her six-year-old daughter open up a chocolate shop in a small, conservative French village — the shop is across from the church, open on Sundays, and during Lent. The young, newly installed priest has yet to preach his own sermon, because the mayor of town rewrites every sermon to attack the woman, the chocolate shop, and a visiting group of gypsies. Finally as the movie closes on Easter Sunday, the young priest gets to write his own sermon which reads in part: I’d like to talk “about [Jesus’] humanity… how he lived his life here on earth. His kindness. His tolerance… I think we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do. By what we deny ourselves… what we resist… and who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace… what we create… and who we include.”
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