Sermon for Sunday, June 19, 2016 || Proper 7C || Galatians 3:23-29
During the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 8 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.
This is a sermon about two pronouns. The two pronouns today are “us” and “them.” Remember that for just a minute, because first I need to tell you why Paul is so mad. We’ve been reading the letter to the Galatians for the last month, and we haven’t really mentioned it in a sermon yet. But just quickly, here’s why Paul is upset during the letter to the Galatians.
He starts his letter vehemently angry. Paul is upset because the Galatians have started to backtrack along the path that he had set them on. Paul had gone to them and preached the faith that he had received. And then some other folks had come in and started to change that faith in a way that made Paul very angry. Basically, Paul said, “Anyone who wants can be part of your group, and they don’t have to go through any test, they don’t have to do anything. They can just be baptized and they are part of your group.” Then some other people came in and said, “Yeah, but those Gentiles should probably get circumcised first.” In other words, “Those Gentiles, those non-Jews should probably become Jewish and then they can become Christian.” You see what happens there? They’re setting up a barrier. And Paul gets incredibly angry about this. “You don’t need to set up this us vs. them mentality. They are all part of us.”
So that’s just a little history of why Paul is angry during Galatians. So it makes perfect sense when we get to chapter three and Paul says something revolutionary. Something incredibly revolutionary. He says this:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
“All of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Now I don’t think Paul means here that you all have to be the same. He’s not preaching uniformity. He’s preaching unity. He’s not preaching conformity. He’s preaching inclusion. You see the difference? Not uniformity, but unity. Not conformity, but inclusion. He’s saying, “Doesn’t matter if you’re a Jew of Greek. It doesn’t matter if you’re a slave or free. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female.” If he were talking today, he might say, “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight, or if you’re transgender or cisgender, or if you have mental or physical handicaps or not…”
You are part of us. There is no them. That was revolutionary in Paul’s day and sadly it continues to be a revolutionary thought today.
When I was in seminary, I saw firsthand a witness of how this is still a revolutionary thought. It was my first year of seminary, and I took a class that helped us learn where we might want to be for our field education placements. And we had to visit all these different churches, different types of churches. So we were invited a very small church and very big church. We were encouraged to visit a church plant; that is, a church that is just starting up. And then we were invited to visit a diverse church. So my group went into DC to visit this “diverse” church, and when we got there, everyone there was African-American. Everybody at this church was African-American. Is that diverse? No! It’s just different from the group that was going from the seminary.
My seminary fundamentally misunderstood the concept of diversity because a diverse church would have all different types of people in it: all of those different classes that Paul says are part of the one. And yet we were sent to a “diverse” church that just had people who looked different from me. That was an adventure in missing the point right there.
Our goal as followers of Jesus Christ is to remove the “them” from the us/them dichotomy. One of the ways we have failed in that as Christians over the course of history is through the history of imperialism: going into other countries and setting up our own rule there. And that has filtered down through the ages into the way that mission work has happened in the church. Missionaries going to a place in Africa or South America and saying, “You know what? I think you need a well in your village. I’m going to build you a well.” You know what they should have said? “What do you need? How can we help?” Or better yet, in the word that we use here at St. Mark’s: “How can we partner with you? How can we be with you? How can we be an us together?” Not an “us” here and a “them” there, and we’re going to just plop aid onto you because it makes us feel good. No. A partnership is where we come together and we are together even if we are far apart.
That’s why we use the word “partnership” when we talk about our relationship with the school in Haiti, St. Luc. It’s also the ethos behind our children’s education program here at St. Mark’s called Godly Play. Godly Play exists as a beacon of hope in the world of Christian education because it does not purport [sic] an us/them mentality. Or in a classroom setting, the teacher as the knowledgeable one and the students as the ones who need their heads opened and information poured in — which is an us/them dichotomy. No, what Godly Play says is that children know just as much about God as any of us (probably more so); they just don’t have the language yet. And so what we do in Godly Play is that we all sit together in a circle, and we share a story together, and together we learn more about God and about ourselves. That is the power of the “us,” the togetherness, the all, the “one” that Paul is talking about.
So when we are confronted with a situation like the shooting that happened last Sunday morning in Orlando; when we’re confronted with the horror of a situation like that; a situation in which one person takes it upon himself to try to set up a “them” for us to hate: it is up to each one of us to say “NO” to that type of worldview. It is up to us to say “NO” to a hate that takes lives and takes dignity away from people just because they have been labeled as a “them.” It’s up to us to erase that word from this dichotomy so that this sermon is no longer about two pronouns. But is only about one pronoun: us, together, one, and one with God.
* The image associated with this post comes from the film made of the musical Rent, which is one of my favorite shows. In the image, a support group for those living with AIDs comes together to give each other comfort and courage. When they sing, “There’s only us,” I think it is a dual cry: of abandonment and solidarity at the same time. It is my prayer that when someone who feels abandoned cries out in such a manner, he or she may know there is an “us” to which to belong. It is our duty and joy as followers of Christ to live and proclaim this hope.