Dorothee Soelle in her book The Strength of the Weak: Toward a Christian Feminist Identity tells the story of a Rabbi who asked his students how to recognize the moment when night ends and day begins. “Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a dog from a sheep?” one student asked. “No,” said the Rabbi. “Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a date palm from a fig tree?” another student asked. “No,” said the Rabbi. “Then when is it?” the students asked. “It is when you look into the face of any human creature and see your brother or your sister there. Until then, night is still with us."
Of course, that kind of “us against them” thinking has pervaded human culture. It would seem that regardless of time or place, regardless of status or faith, the human family has a deeply ingrained need to differentiate themselves from others they can look down on. Whether it surfaces in wars between nations, ethnic and racial hatred, or social discrimination, it seems we are obsessed with defining our own worth in competition with others.
In our text this morning, Galatians 3:23-28, Paul was addressing his letter to a church where Jewish Christians joined together with gentile converts. In order to understand the problems that caused, we have to understand that one of the fundamental aspects of Jewish identity was the belief that they were chosen by God. It would seem that many of the Temple leaders in that day and time thought that their election meant privilege rather than call. So they assumed that God’s special relationship with them meant that they must be special, and therefore better than the “gentile dogs” (that is, all non-Jewish people). Of course, if the gentile “sinners” wanted to, they could convert and become Jewish, and they would be part of the privileged people. Otherwise they remained outsiders and should stay outside. Well, when the Christian gospel started bearing fruit among all the people groups outside Judaism in the First-Century world, the Jewish Christians had some challenges with it. In fact, some of them insisted that people must first convert to Judaism before they became Christians! But Paul saw that for what it was—not only an affront to the Gospel but also an affront to the God of Abraham, who called Abraham and Sarah and all their descendants for the benefit of “all the families of the earth.”
Richard Rohr addresses this head on when he calls out the church for domestically the Gospels. For generations we cultural Christians have spoken of Jesus the Christ as if Jesus were his given name, Christ the surname. Rohr reminds us that Christ was the title given to Jesus because of his connection to a God of all things, all places, and all peoples. Jesus was a good Jew, as you and I are good Christians, as my friends are good Buddhists. But Jesus found a connection to something larger, bigger, more encompassing, to the big picture, where he could see the face of any human creature and recognize his brother or his sister there.
In these later chapters in our text for August Rohr asks us if our religious identity has helped up achieve this connection or rather created a barrier to making this connection. It’s clearly not an either or question, there are parts of our faith formation that have helped us to see others as family and parts that have made it more difficult. I ask you to spend some time reflecting on this. For me the United Church upbringing I inherited helped me see others as family when those Methodist do-gooder sermons, outreach programs, prayers, and actions were linked to Jesus and his ministry. I remember those connections well. The United Church was one of the first institutions in Canada to advocate for socialized medicine, so everyone, regardless of wealth, had access to the healing touch of medicine.
The barriers I recall had to do with buildings, when churches made assumptions about whom the building was for and whom it was not for. Us/them, worthy/unworthy, family members/others, these terms were very real to me in church life. I remember well an outreach program in the church of my youth, the staff and participants were allowed into the building but always watched, most of the building was locked up and inaccessible to the user groups, these folks coming into the building were not treated or regarded as family.
Now I would like you to turn to someone near you and spend 5 minutes sharing the answer to this question, was your religious formation helpful to you in recognizing the other as a “brother or sister” or did it create barriers for you as you sought to make this connection? (Pause)
Rohr says that part of the reason we insist on using us/them, worthy/unworthy and family/other distinctions is that it helps us feel better about ourselves. To feel better about ourselves we need to point to others who are doing worse than we are. But Rohr asks, if love is a gift, if we are loved unconditionally by our God, then why is it necessary to create these distinctions? Rohr writes, “God always became bigger and led me to bigger places. If God can include and allow for others why not me?”
How do we create space in our churches, send messages, and lead programs that make for places where seeing “the face of any human creature we also see our brother or our sister there?” In “churchland” there can be the assumption that “this is the Minister’s job”. I’ve heard that. But let me tell you why that solution does not work. When someone new comes to the church they do take account of who leads the worship service, what the sermon is like and if the Minister remembers her/his name. BUT they are also checking to see if you are welcoming them, if you are making space for them, if you are treating them as if you would treat family. If you doubt me ask yourself what you were looking for the last time you were looking for a church? Imagine the shoe on the other foot. And before you judge others for not seeing you as a sister or brother in faith ask yourself how well you do when a newcomer sits nearby. It’s interesting to me that when people have told me that they went to a church and “no one spoke to me” I’ve asked them, “When someone came to our church and they were new did you speak to them?”
How do we create this culture, how do we reinforce this theology? I believe God does not make junk, that there is something in the other that is kin to you and me. That does not mean I condone everything everyone else believes or does. But disapproving of the other’s opinions or actions does not prevent me from looking into their eyes and seeing this human creature as a sister or brothers in Christ. Surely every one of us has siblings we don’t always agree with. But they are still family. All of us can work on our theological eyesight here.
Let me share one last example, one that I know Richard Rohr would find spot on. Recently I attended a wedding where the father of the bride was tasked with welcoming this new member of his family. This was a wedding with two brides so the father of one bride was welcoming the other bride. The father was a life long Anglican, raised in the church, taught Sunday School in the church, was a Parish Warden, Treasurer, lay reader, and long time member of the Diocese. This man was steeped in the church! The father shared with all 130 of us how his Christian upbringing at first caused him to question the appropriateness of this kind of family. When his daughter came out to him he struggled with it, took time to pray over it, talked to others about it. In the end he came to the conclusion that this human creature was a member of his family. In fact he said, “Frankly I think we got the better of this deal” talking directly to the other bride’s parents.
Friends, there is no reason to look down on others. There is no us/them, worthy/unworthy or family/other. Would Jesus speak this way? Paul said, “there is no longer Jew or Greek…we are all one in Christ.” When the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” So Philip commanded the chariot to stop, and Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptized the eunuch.
Let’s take the time to “stop”, and not allow the moment to pass so that we can look in the other’s eye and see once and for all the family member we have yet to claim as our own. Amen.