trouble the waters: “”when you’re not on the mountaintop”

social justice

Scripture
Galatians 3:19-29
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. 20Now a mediator involves more than one party; but God is one.
21 Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. 22But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There 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. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Sermon
The epistle to the Galatians is not actually a letter to a church—
to a particular congregation,
but one to an unspecified number of churches in a specific geographic area
in what is today Turkey.
This was an area Paul had been through (Galatians 1:8, 9, 11)—
in which he had been with people in conversation—
people to whom he had introduced the story of Jesus within the story of God—
and some of these communities of faith
would, no doubt, been ones he helped establish.

But then, as was his custom, Paul had moved on,
and now, down the road, he was hearing news back from Galatia—
news that disturbed him.

Because other missionaries had come into Galatia after Paul—
Christian Jews—Jewish Christians—and had assumed a teaching authority
within these congregations.
We don’t know specifically very much of what they were teaching,
and what we know is inferred from Paul’s response to them,
which is always a bit tricky.
You have to be careful,
but we do know they taught observance of the law (Galatians 4:21)—
the whole Law (Galatians 5:3),
and so they advocated following the Jewish calendar (Galatians 4:10),
maybe keeping the dietary expectations (Galatians 2:11-14),
circumcision (Galatians 5:2).

Paul was disturbed by all this,
and so, as was his custom, he wrote a letter
and really let the Galatians have it:
“I am astonished,” he writes, “that you are deserting the one who called you
in the grace of Christ and are turning to another gospel” (Galatians 1:6).
That’s strong—another gospel!
Then he calls them foolish and bewitched (Galatians 3:1).

The question with which we have to wrestle is this:
why would he make such a big deal about this?
They were all Christians, right?
What’s wrong with keeping Jewish customs?
Jesus was a practicing Jew.
Christianity developed out of Judaism.
Ecumenism—interfaith respect and dialogue and all that, don’t you know?

It certainly wasn’t about hanging on to a Jewish heritage as Jews—
maintaining that sense of identity,
as these were Gentiles who were being told, as Christians,
they also had to adhere to Jewish customs, rules, expectations.

For Paul, what was critical
was the problem in a grace-based system
of having a rules-based structure.
It changes your focus
from faith to obedience—
from what God does in grace to human faithfulness to the law,
and you end up with not just a different emphasis,
but a completely different foundation.

As followers of God in the way of Jesus,
we do not rely on the law for what a personal relationship with Jesus offers,
and that’s not the juxtaposition of the letter of the law with the Spirit of the law,
but with the presence of the Spirit.

We rely not on what we do, but on who God is,
and we can allow no confusion about this.

Okay, you might well ask, but how does Paul get off on knocking rules?
He issued a few of his own, didn’t he?
In fact, while he may say here,
“there is no longer slave or free,”
what about when he wrote “slaves be obedient to your masters?”
That’s in Colossians (Colossians 3:22).

He may say “there is no male or female” here,
but what about when he wrote, “women, be subject to your husbands?”
That’s in Colossians too (Colossians 3:18)—
or “Women, be silent in church?”
That’s 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:34).

What if they’re not rules?

I have no trouble imagining Paul writing different letters to different churches
because different churches were dealing with different contexts—
different specifics.
I can well imagine different expectations for different communities of faith.

I have no problem envisioning Paul
thinking of one church—the particulars of one church
the particularities—the peculiarities of one church—
writing them a letter saying one thing,
and thinking of another church and their peculiarities—
writing them a letter saying something completely different.
That is not a problem to me.
That is respect.
That is truth.

But then, in Bible study and preaching,
we tend not to look to a specific letter to a specific church,
but to a sacred text,
and never think we might be looking at contexts
and assuming we know what he thought in general,
instead of what he thought in particular contexts—
in particular congregations.
So the question to my mind is not what Paul said
that we accept as authoritative,
but amidst what all Paul said, what sounds most like Jesus?
What fits best into the trajectory of truth and grace?

Of course, I also have no trouble whatsoever
imagining Paul getting caught up in his rhetoric!
Dealing with Jews and Gentiles,
“in Jesus there are no Jews, no Gentiles”—he’s practicing.
“That’s what I need to affirm.
That’s the key affirmation in this particular argument I’m making.
But it would be more powerful in a list—
a list of three.
There is no slave nor free; there is no male nor female.”

Those are not his points—
not part of his argument.
Did he understand them as true implication though?

Writing from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama,
Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented the rhetoric of the white moderate
that was not lived into and up to.
“First, I must confess that over the last few years
I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion
that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom
is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner,
but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice;
who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension
to a positive peace which is the presence of justice;
who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek,
but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action” ….

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill
is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
in Why We Can’t Wait (New York: A Mentor Book, 1963] 84-5).

It reminds me in some ways
of the continued talk about and pride in the United States of America
being a land of freedom and justice and equality
when it is manifestly not true—not for too many.

There is not one story of this country.
There are millions.
And most of them are not the story we like to tell of this country.

We have explored over the past few weeks,
the truths of mass incarceration,
the playground to prison pipeline,
the contexts that limit opportunity on the one hand
and privilege some on the other.
We’ve seen the way this systemic racism
shapes fears, an assumed superiority and inferiority.

Bryan Stevenson, in his powerful book Just Mercy,
on our country’s mass incarceration problem—
our problem of systemic injustice in our justice system,
asserts “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done”
(Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy [New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014] 290).
Conversely, of course, each of us is more
than the best thing we’ve ever done too. Right?
So are we rather what we’re accustomed to doing?
What we do most?
What we strive for? Commit to?
If our dreams are of a vision of an alternative to the status quo
is that enough,
or just another part of a great hypocrisy?
Because it depends on what it is for which we truly work, right?
The dream we struggle to make flesh
rather than the escapist fantasy that sounds good.

So what I would most like to imagine
is Paul, as someone thoroughly shaped by his time and context—
bound by the prejudices, the biases, the priorities of his time and place,
but with a transcendent vision—
inspired by the Spirit of God at work in and through him,
that allowed him … on occasion … momentarily,
to escape what shaped him—
that not only inspired him but changed him.

I also want to be clear,
claiming to be beyond the rules of the law,
it doesn’t mean you don’t do what the rules tell you to.
It means you don’t need the rules to do what the rules tell you to.

The first of the Johannine epistles is one of my favorites—
in part because of the priority of love
without a list of particular rules for what that means.
So from the second chapter:
But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness,
walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go,
because the darkness has brought on blindness (1 John 2:11).

From the third chapter:
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning,
that we should love one another. …
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods
and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech,
but in truth and action. And by this we will know
that we are from the truth …. (1 John 3:11-19a)

From the fourth chapter:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God,
and God abides in them.
Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars;
for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen,
cannot love God whom they have not seen.
The commandment we have from him is this:
those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also
(1 John 4:16b-21).

The writer of 1 John, or any subsequent editor,
felt no need—no need—to specify what love meant
in different situations and contexts—
felt no need for an elaborate, extensive set of rules and statements.

The church has tended (and tends)
to make everyone else’s business
our business,
instead of seeing our business
as everyone else.
We want to focus on people’s business instead of people.
It’s a way of keeping distance—
choosing the rules
instead of conversations and relationships.

The people who in the name of God
have turned their backs on family and neighbors
because they’ve been taught—
because they’ve allowed themselves to believe,
that a rule is more important than a person
betray—betray the Jesus who would sit down to eat with anyone—
not to figure what was wrong with them,
but to remind them that God loved them—
to remind them how right they are.

In some ways, this text, for our days
might better be phrased:
In the unity of Jesus,
there are, in fact, Jews and Greeks, and they are very different.
There are, in truth, those enslaved and those free,
and they too are very different.
There are men and women,
and they too are very different.
There are, in fact more categories of being than we know to name.
There are distinctive galore,
and they lead to different ways of experiencing the world—
different perspectives—
different lives.

We know this.
We are different—
very different.
The contexts in which we grew up are all different.
Some of us have defining experiences others of us don’t.
Some of us grew up in households of color.
Some of us grew up in other cultures.
Some of us grew up with a language other than English.
While I dare say all of us grew up wrestling with our identity,
some of us had to wrestle with gender identity—
and sexual identity.
Some of us grew up marginalized in this culture.

Our differences can make us strong.
They can make us richer—deeper—more beautiful.
They do not have to divide us.
If we do not allow them to divide us—
if we do not express fear in division—
if we work—will work—at not assuming
that any of our particular experience is the norm—
if we live trusting that what binds us is bigger than what divides us.

Beverly Daniel Tatum,
author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together
in the Cafeteria?,
writes of the development of racial identity
and about how that can be a healthy process
and an unhealthy one.
She also points out that Black kids don’t have a choice
about whether or not to wrestle with
and come to terms with their racial identity in our culture,
while White kids can pretend it’s not an issue for them.

We have a verse today that speaks to a great equality.
We can argue about whether or not it’s ever been lived up to.
That’s a deflection.
The question is do we try and live up to it.
Do we acknowledge what’s in the way,
and that it’s often us in the way—
our benefits—our privilege?

I read an article this week about a teacher
who designed a class project
in which the class was divided into groups,
each with its own responsibility.
But the grade was based on every group succeeding.
It’s kind of modeled after mission control for a rocket launch.
Everyone has their responsibility,
but everyone has to succeed for the emission to succeed.

He consistently observed in groups dealing with a problem,
boys arguing about it,
and girls working on it—
solving it,
but not being noticed
and not being assertive either.
He pointed that out:
“Not one of you,” he said to the boys, “saw what Kristen did …
While all of you were arguing, she built a design better than all of yours.
Kristen, why did you take it apart?”
“They were arguing,” she said, “so I thought their designs were better.”
None of them were, but they were willing to fight.
And one of them was eventually chosen,
because the boy who designed it was confident, assertive,
and most of all kept fighting.
In the end, Kristen voted for his design, too.
That’s a tragic lesson I never meant to teach:
Who the beneficiaries are of our cultural biases.
In the US, he who argues loudest and longest reigns victorious,
regardless of the collateral damage.

Make no mistake, we face the challenge of our culture.

54 years ago this past Monday,
Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech
from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
And so this past Monday, I was at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
for the 1000 Ministers March for Justice
(for which there were actually 3000 ministers registered—
and that’s not preacher counting, don’t you know!)
marching from the memorial to the Department of Justice
because we’re still dreaming—
because we still fall so far short of the dream—
because I wasn’t sure how to be in the midst of a worship series on racial justice
and not be a part of reaffirming that dream and that dreamer.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream for his children—
a dream that transcended his context and theirs.
Paul had a dream for how people might relate as Christians
that transcended his context and theirs.
And the question is not really
do we dream dreams that big—
dreams that transcend our circumstances?
The question is not do our young men and women prophecy—
our young and old see visions and dream dreams?
Not even do we encourage them to dream big?
But rather do we expect them to—
and not only to dream, but to risk following through
on the bigness of those dreams?

Do we facilitate possibility or justify what is?

As we conclude the worship series,
having really just touched on
the beginnings of this conversation,
we’re sounding a call
for those interested in/invested in this conversation—
to keep it going—
to keep reading—to keep talking—cultivating relationships—
keeping us informed—
exploring what our next steps can be?

Michael Eric Dyson, Professor of Sociology at Georgetown,
author of All the Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,
baptist pastor,
recommends White folks setting up IRA’s—
individual reparation accounts,
or, if we’re serious about repentance being more than feeling bad,
individual repentance accounts.

I’ll be talking to the service ministry about that one!

What are our next steps?
Because surely as we finish a worship series,
we don’t want to one day (maybe in 54 years)
look back to see us standing still.

I have a dream—
nurtured by dreamers through our history
of a place where anyone can come—anyone—
sit down with us at the table
and be welcomed—
be celebrated—
be included.

You’d think that wouldn’t be such a hard dream ….

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