Portuguese sausage and rice.
When I saw those words printed on a sign at the local McDonald’s in Hawaii, I felt like I was in a place that GOT me. I had never been to Hawaii before and had just arrived to attend our annual Japanese-American clergy caucus retreat. My friend John was driving me to the retreat center where we would be staying and in the window of that McDonald’s we passed by, I saw that sign. Portuguese sausage and rice. It was part of their breakfast platter with eggs and spam. I just couldn’t believe it. I felt like I belonged. Everywhere we went on that trip was like an eyeful of surprises. We had sticky rice at every meal and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Every church we visited had sushi or mochiko chicken or something with teriyaki. Everybody knew what potato mac was and spam musubi could be found at any convenience store. It was the first time I really felt like I was in a place that really understood me. I didn’t have to explain what any of these things were because everybody there understood it too. Asians are by far the most dominant ethnicity on the islands – 41.6%. Caucasians just 24.3%. And of the Asians, Japanese are the most dominant ethnicity standing at 16.7% by themselves. That doesn’t account for interethnic children either of which there are a ton. And I have to tell you, it felt good and comforting and safe to be the dominant race. Not because there was a sense of power, but a sense of belonging.
I imagine that’s what it felt like for the early Christians, too.
This morning we’re going to read from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 2 beginning with verse 11. Galatians 2:11. If you have a Bible or Bible app would you please go to this verse. Now imagine what it must have been like for these early Christians. They were all Jewish. Being Christian and being Jewish were synonymous when the Christian movement first started. There were no Gentile Christians. There were no Gentile Christians. So to the Jewish people it must have seemed like the most natural thing in the world to continue observing Jewish law and Jewish customs. When God revealed to Peter and Paul and the other disciples that they were to accept Gentiles into their flock, it made sense to many of them to continue carrying on their old ways. Even after Peter received his revelation about all of us being equal before God, even Peter fell back into old habits and started behaving like those who thought the Gentiles should follow Jewish traditions. Paul finally had enough though. He saw one of his friends, Barnabas, starting to side with what they called the “circumcision group” and that convinced Paul to go and confront Peter about it, and that’s where we take up the message this morning.
11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in[d] Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
Peter stood condemned.
In Paul’s eyes, he was standing before a condemned man. Paul felt that way because Peter knew the truth of the Gospel but compromised for the sake of this group from James who convinced Peter not to eat with the Gentiles any longer. Peter’s actions were causing division in the church because everyone looked up to Peter. Peter was God’s chosen leader. If he decided not to eat with the Gentiles, it only confirmed their worst beliefs – that Gentiles were not “as worthy” as the Jews. “Separate but equal.” It reminds of that line from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “All animals are equal. Some animals are more equal than others.” Paul scolds Peter, not only for creating division in the church, but for turning his back on the truth. It seems Peter succumbed to the peer pressure of this delegation from James, these Jewish nationals, who were influencing Peter and convincing him that his association with the Gentiles was wrong. Paul was right, but I don’t even Peter’s situation. Peter was fighting against centuries of tradition, and even though Jesus had overturned those traditions, human beings have a hard time letting go of what they are used to no matter how miniscule or unimportant it might seem to an outsider. We become threatened by change, especially when that change means needing to redefine what makes us “us.” We become threatened by change, especially when that change means needing to redefine what makes us “us.”
Our historically Japanese churches stand on that precipice.
Japanese churches were formed more than 100 years ago for the purpose of evangelizing Japanese immigrants coming to the shores of America, but they became much more than that. They turned into cultural centers for the Japanese people, often used as much as a neighborhood gathering place as it was for learning about Christ. These new immigrants felt out of place and alone in a country that didn’t speak their language, didn’t eat their food, and didn’t understand their customs. But in these churches they found that place. Often, these congregations offered classes on how to learn English, how to understand American customs, and sometimes even offered a place to live until they could earn enough money to find places of their own. The world outside the church walls was hostile to them, often insulting them, calling them names, and threatening to deport them. They passed laws specifically to prevent Japanese immigrants from owning land. And then the biggest insult of all, they locked them away into internment camps when America entered the war. Churches often became storehouses for people’s belongings since every Japanese-American was only allowed one suitcase to bring into camp with them. When they returned, often the churches were used like local hostels until the people could find housing again if they weren’t lucky enough to hold onto their homes. The church was not only safe refuge but the only place they did not have to fear being attacked or bullied or cheated. Church was a sanctuary. Church was a sanctuary.
But as the Japanese-American population has dwindled, so has church attendance in these places.
Churches that were once alive with the sound of families and babies and grandparents all under one roof, were becoming empty. More of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these original immigrants, what the Japanese call the sansei and the yonsei were intermarrying. Many moved away to more populated areas where they could pursue different occupations. And slowly but surely the Japanese-American churches began to close. Pine United Methodist Church, the very first Japanese mission church from which all others sprang, Methodist or otherwise, is down to its last handful of members. Almost none employ Japanese language pastors any longer. And only a very few are still growing. Those that are have learned to broaden their appeal to a more pan-Asian crowd, to grow beyond their original purpose, but most are closing their doors. It has been incredibly hard to see these churches fade away, to have their legacy dwindle. Just in the short time I’ve been in the valley the once strong Selma Japanese Fellowship Church has closed permanently and our friends at the Reedley Japanese Fellowship are planning to follow suit. Other than the United Japanese Christian Church in Clovis, we are the only other historically Japanese church left in the valley that still has primarily Japanese-American members. And despite our shrinking population, this is still a place of familiarity to those who have been here. It is still a place where we have ozoni breakfast together to break in the New Year. It is still a place where we have tobans that take turns caring for the needs of our congregants. And it is still a place that practices Japanese-American funeral traditions like koden and final tribute. To all Japanese-Americans who still attend these churches up and down the West Coast, these are more than just traditions, these are what identify us. These are the things that shout out, “This is who I am!”
As we come together, we are learning how to identify ourselves anew.
We are learning to blend traditions (and next week we’ll talk about how loaded that word is). We are learning who each of us are and the roles we are used to playing. We’re dancing slowly around the floor together, trying to figure out how all of this is going to work. And while we all agree that if our churches are to survive in this next century, it is going to be as one body together, we can still be sensitive to the fact that for some in our Japanese-American community, this is more than giving up church. It’s also giving up community and maybe more importantly sanctuary. It’s more than giving up church. It’s also giving up community and maybe more importantly sanctuary. But we are in this together. Each of us simply wants to know that this is a place we can belong to. Each of us is looking for familiarity and comfort in a world that seeks too often to tear us down. Each of us is looking for Portuguese sausage and rice. And if we keep that in mind, if we seek to build each other up, we will do more than survive. We will thrive. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I wrote the following in our bulletin for this particular sermon but thought it illustrated something important that we talked about in worship and as our two churches continue to work together toward unity. I hope you find it uplifting and informative.
Deru kui wa utareru – It means, “The stake that sticks up gets hammered down.”
It’s an old Japanese proverb but I think it goes a long way to explaining the differences in how many Japanese-Americans approach life versus how many of our Caucasian friends approach life. In European-American culture we more easily relate to the proverb, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.” Meaning that only those who speak up for themselves will have their desires fulfilled. Japanese-American culture is inherently different. In embracing the meaning of deru kui wa utareru we are in essence saying that those who get noticed are the first to get smushed. The squeaky wheel gets attention alright, but perhaps not in the way it was hoping.
Many Japanese-Americans (not all) have difficulty speaking out against someone or something. It’s not because they don’t have opinions, it’s because they are cautious. They don’t want to get smushed. But more than that, they are also concerned with hasty judgment, saying something they might regret, or causing conflict. That doesn’t mean that conflict doesn’t occur, and sometimes it’s even more difficult in the Japanese-American community because the conflict seems to take place below the surface instead of above, but simply that each group has very different ways of approaching the same thing.
There are definitely benefits to both, but either to the extreme can be hurtful. The trick is learning to negotiate those waters together. Speak up when necessary, hold back when needed. We could all afford to learn that lesson.