Sermon for Sunday, February 2, 2020 || Feast of the Presentation || Luke 2:22-40
Just a warning. This sermon leans heavily on my combined training as a political scientist and an ordained priest. It’s pretty heady. That’s why I’m going to start by talking about my favorite TV show.
In a Season Six episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise race against time to complete a puzzle locked in the DNA of the various humanoid peoples of the galaxy. The Klingons, Romulans, and Cardassians are also trying to complete the puzzle, thinking it will lead them to a new weapon of great power. But in the end, the four groups arrive on a planet after needing each other to solve the genetic puzzle, and they encounter a recording from the original humanoid people of the galaxy. The recording tells them that those ancient humanoids traveled the stars and found none like themselves, so they decided to seed the primordial oceans on many worlds with their own DNA as their legacy. The recording says, “It was our hope that you would have to come together in fellowship and companionship to hear this message, and if you can see and hear me our hope has been fulfilled.” With swelling music in the background, the recording concludes: “There is something of us in each of you, and so something of you in each other.”
On April 26, 1993, the date this episode aired, the world was thawing at the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had come down. Russia looked like it might possibly be an ally following decades of proxy war and nuclear brinkmanship. The genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia had yet to happen. International terrorism, stoked by religious extremism in a globalized and plural society, was a little less than a decade from its most terrible carnage. 1993 was a held breath of hope between crises, and this episode of Star Trek captured that hope. This hope found life in the continual rediscovery of the words of that recording: “There is something of us in each of you, and so something of you in each other.”
But then the swelling music ends, and the Klingon, who had been expecting plans to a superweapon, yells, “That’s all?” The Cardassian looks at him and says, “The very notion that a Cardassian could have anything in common with a Klingon, it turns my stomach.” And just like that, the momentary alliance breaks, and the galactic tribalism of these fictional peoples resumes. The episode of Star Trek turned out to predict the future of the peoples of the real world. In the years since – the years in which I grew up – tribalism has become the main driver of global instability.*
We might define tribalism as the desire to protect the unique identity of a group of people. This definition is neutral. We would lose so much of the amazing diversity of cultural expressions if such protection disappeared and all cultures were homogenized into one. But the tribalism I’m talking about in this sermon goes beyond the neutral definition. The tribalism infecting our planet has metastasized into a zero-sum game of cultural and religious warfare. We see this on an international scale in terrorism, genocide, and ethnic marginalization. We see tribalism within our own society in the rise of White Christian Nationalism, which worships an isolationist, white supremacist vision of America instead of following Jesus. We see the negative effects of tribalism in immigration policy, in the rollback of refugee resettlement, in the uptick in cases of violent anti-Semitism, and in the fact that racism is a consistently ignored underpinning of American law and life. The international instability caused by cancerous tribalism has so infected our global system that we might never realize the world could be, should be, different.
And that’s where we turn to Simeon’s words in the Gospel According to Luke. The old man has waited for years and years to see the promises of God fulfilled. When he meets Jesus and his parents at the boy’s ritual presentation at the temple, Simeon recognizes that fulfillment in his midst. And Simeon says, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Simeon says two specific words that struck me this week as I lamented the malignant tribalism of our world. The first is “all” – all peoples. For someone raised to value a particular cultural identity, Simeon extending the saving grace of God to all peoples is a radical and world-changing declaration. Here is a moment in which someone recognizes what God has been doing all along, and that is loving all of Creation back into right relationship with God.
The second word is “and”: “A light for revelation to the Gentiles AND for glory to your people Israel.” Simeon recognizes that revealing God’s light to all peoples (ethnos in Greek) does not diminish the glory of that light that has fallen on the people of Israel. Tribalism becomes cancerous when we change God’s divine AND into a demonic “or.” The shining possibility Simeon sees in God’s promises fulfilled is a world in which “AND” is the primary reality. Your culture AND my culture, each sharing things in common and diverging in beautiful ways. Your religion AND my religion, each striving for peace and connection and relating to the Source-Of-All-That-Is in unique ways. Your ethnic group AND my ethnic group, each deserving dignity and equality in all things, which necessitates the rebalancing of historic power to promote equal justice.
God is the God of all Creation, not the God of any particular group of people in one nation on one continent on one planet in one solar system in one galaxy. God does not belong to us. We belong to God. God is the One who is calling all people and all things back into right relationship with one another and with God. Such right relationships include celebrating our unity and our diversity AND working to correct the long lasting effects of injustice and oppression from when such diversity was not honored. In these fractious days, such a vision seems far away. But it did in Jesus’ day too. And still, the Holy Spirit empowered Simeon to see beyond the veil of tribal insularity and proclaim the Divine AND – the radical notion that the light of grace and salvation was available to all peoples. By claiming and reclaiming and reclaiming this vision, we remove the radicalness of Simeon’s words, and that’s where we find the reign of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God.
At the end of the Star Trek episode, the Romulan commander calls Captain Picard and says, “It would seem we are not entirely dissimilar after all. In our hopes or in our fears.”
“Yes,” agrees Picard.
“Well then,” says the Romulan, “Perhaps, one day.”
A thin smile of hard won possibility lightens Picard’s face. “One day,” he echoes.
By God’s grace, may that day be today.
* I cut these two sentences, but still think they are worthwhile: “Globalization plays a role in the rise of tribalism, as tribal identities fight with one another for a share in the global marketplace of ideas. The internet and social media stoke tribalism, too, as online social networks and news outlets silo people into echo chambers where they never expose themselves to ideas that differ from their preferred group’s dogma.”
The Podcast for Nerdy Christians is back for Season 2, and is available wherever you download your podcasts. Episode 2 of Season 2 is out today, and it’s all about wayfinding in Moana and in the Church. Check it out here and find the podcast on Facebook. You can also subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.