To follow is the draft of a sermon I will be guest preaching this Sunday on Galatians 3: 23-29. The church I will be visiting is more conservative than the churches I normally guest preach at, which are Reconciling or in the Reconciling discernment process. As this church is neither, the language I use is different. Remember your audience. Push the boundaries as much as the Spirit is telling you, but also know that if you move too far outside the comfort zone of the audience, they will stop listening and become internally defensive, shutting down any meaningful conversation or reflection. As part of the worship service, there will be two baptisms, which is alluded to in the sermon.
Last weekend we watched a terrible tragedy unfold in Orlando as 49 people were murdered in a nightclub, and 53 more wounded. We watched as parents stood on the sidewalk begging for news of their children. Videos of friends and strangers helping the wounded, some being carried the two block walk to the nearest hospital. We watched traumatized survivors recount the horror that unfolded. One young man said that his dad taught him to zig zag when running from an active shooter, and that's how he thinks he survived. It was an attack on a club for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer people, what should be a safe haven in an unsafe world. In an article for The Nation, Richard Kim described gay bars as
"more than just licensed establishments where homosexuals pay to drink. Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can’t go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression."
Sounds like church for many of us. A safe place, music, welcoming people, acceptance, family. We pass the peace, not the aggression. This is our safe space. Imagine it being violated in such a horrific way?
We don't fully know the shooters motives. Religion. Homophobia. Some reports say that he himself was gay, but was surrounded by so much homophobia that he hated himself and anyone who found themselves happy living openly gay, living out their authentic, God created self. Imagine growing up gay in a homophobic household?
Where do we see God in this is one of the common questions going around.
Of all the places to see God in this, I turn to Chick-Fil-A. I love Chick-Fil-A. Sunday mornings, all I want is a big box of chicken mini's with extra honey before church. But they are not open on Sunday's, to allow their employees time for worship and family. Seriously inconvenient. Founded in the Deep South in 1946, Chick-Fil-A adheres to a more conservative biblical interpretation than many, as shown in their corporate giving practices.
But last Sunday, the Chick-Fil-A nearest to the main blood donation center was busier than ever. They made hundreds of sandwiches and gallons upon gallons of sweet tea. They loaded it up and set up in the parking lot of the blood donation center, providing free meals to those waiting to donate blood to help the survivors of the massacre. Political and religious affiliations and beliefs were irrelevant. Children of God were suffering. Children of God were in need. Isn't that what matters most?
We have hundreds of socially constructed labels: male, female, rich, poor, black, white, brown, educated, uneducated, gay, straight, young, old, fit, fat, attractive, homely, funny, boring, vegetarian, documented, undocumented. But when the rubber this the road, the only label that should be relevant is child of God, and every person on earth carries that.
In God, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all one. In baptism, we are all clothed in Christ. We have this beautiful act this morning, as two young girls were baptized before us, clothed in Christ and welcomed into the family of God. They may carry many labels thorough their life: student, dancer, graduate, scientist, fashion model, firefighter...the possibilities are endless. But the most important label they will have is child of God. And I pray that every person who looks upon them will see that above all else.
It easy to see why Paul would write these words today, but why would they have been needed in 55ad?
Paul established the churches in Galatia during one of his missionary journeys. He would visit a place, establish trust and a home church, train leadership, share the important of sending money to the temple in Jerusalem (apportionments have been around since the very beginning) and then head on his way to the next church. He would continue to make himself available to those churches through the writing of letters, which were so cherished, that they were preserved for generations. We don't have the letters that were sent to Paul, but from his responses, scholars have been able to deduce their content.
The Galatia church wrote to Paul because apparently another branch of Jesus followers came to town with a different message than Paul. The Galatia church was primarily Gentiles, non Jews. Paul believed that all people were to be welcomed without conditions. Welcome Jesus into your heart and off you go. These new preachers believed that the only path to Jesus was through Judaism, which required circumcision and adherence to Jewish laws (all 613 of them). Two very different messages. What were the people of Galatia to think?
Paul replied that the law was a prison, and Jesus was the key that set humanity free. The law was in place to keep people in line until they could experience that faith that sets us free, the law that is written on our hearts to tell us right from wrong.
And if anyone knows about the law being a prison, it's Paul. He was a lawman. In the name of law, he led stonings, he murdered the followers of Jesus, he instilled fear and drove people underground. He hunted and killed the followers of Jesus for living out their lives as God had called them to do, to live authentically into their identity as children of God.
In his prior life as a Pharisee, Paul saw people simply by their legal status: legal or illegal. If you were illegal, you were put in prison, banished, killed. They did not have humanity or identity. There was no grey area, no grace, no compassion. Just judgement and conviction.
After his conversion, Paul understood the damage of this type of thinking. He understood the importance of baptism, that the label of child of God is the most important label and the only one that mattered. That the law has no importance in comparison to living and acting with faith.
Following the Jewish laws was not necessary, following Jesus was. But it is much more difficult. The appealing aspect of the Jewish faith for so many was that it provided clear ethical directives. Follow these 613 rules about everything. From worship to clothing to what to do if your neighbors ox falls into a ditch on a Tuesday. Check things off the list and you are living properly. Paul lived for that stuff! Right vs wrong. Someone wearing a cotton-poly blend? That is against Leviticus 19:9 and Romans and off with her head! The law was a babysitter, a guardian designed to keep people in line under the threat of God, but also under the threat of the death squads guys like Paul ran.
Living in Christ was different though. Jesus was by all accounts a good and faithful Jew, but he began questioning these laws that didn't match what his heart was telling him. The law said no healing on the sabbath. So he was supposed to let someone suffer until the law said he could end that suffering? Seeing the suffering on the faces of the mothers looking for their sons, I would have done anything to alleviate it. Anything. The law or the love, which matters more?
The law saw people based on their infractions. Love sees people differently.
|Drawing by guest at free breakfast program|
How do we see people? Those of us in homeless ministry cringe at the label of homelessness, because it reduces the entirety of someone's being to one adjective that seems to overrule all others. A homeless person could be an artist, a cancer survivor, compassionate, or a comedian, but the label of homeless is all that they are seen as. Most certainly they are not seen as a child of God.
The person at Starbucks who can't get our order right might be labeled stupid or lazy, but what if they are grieving a death, struggling with an unexpected pregnancy, or tired from having been up all night studying, trying to make their kids lives better. Most certainly they are not a child of God, as you give them an angry, exasperated glare.
To so many, those killed at the pulse gay club are just gay, with whatever preconceptions and judgments go along with that. Why is the label of their sexuality the predominate factor in how we look at them? When I watch the coverage, I see people who were taken advantage of at their most vulnerable, compassionate people helping others in the midst of their own suffering. I see fathers and sons, sisters and brothers. I see children of God. And my heart weeps.
In addition to this national tragedy, last week we also lost an American icon in Muhammad Ali.
His daughter Hana shared with CNN the words of her father: "There is only one true religion, and that is the religion of the heart. God never named it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. Man gave the titles, and that's what separates and divides us. My dream is to one day see a world that comes together to fight for one cause -- the human cause..."
( http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/14/opinions/muhammad-alis-daughter-muslims-want-peace-florida-shooting-ali/index.html )
The human cause. Isn't that what the message of Jesus is all about? The human cause. Ensuring that the hungry are fed and the lonely are visited and all people are able to live in peace and justice and love. Because the labels that we put on one another mean nothing compared to the label of child of God that surpasses all else. Love one another, do not pass judgement. Look at every person you meet first as a child of God, and then wonder if all those other label really matter.