Love (an)other:Those People
"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ.
Our earliest memories likely include a sense of social identity. We belong to the family. We go to that church. We play on that team.Our parent works at that factory. We begin to shape those identities without giving it too much thought. It naturally creates a sense of 'my people' and everybody else. Those outside my group are 'the other.' Without intentional effort 'the other' can stay at arm's length, allowing us to form all sorts of ideas, opinions, and assumptions about who they are. Can 'those people' become 'my people?' Paul comes along and says, "those others? No such thing in Christ. We are one."
Special Music: “Open Up” (The Brilliance) :: The Rising
Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
Reader: Giselle Chebny
Preaching: Mark Briley
Anthem: “Deep River” (arr. Helvey) ) :: Chancel Choir; Kelly
Offertory: “We Will Stand” (R. Taff) :: Chancel Choir; Kelly
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 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. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,[a] heirs according to the promise.
A friend posted something on the ‘social meeds’ the other day that not only made me laugh but made me desperate for the same power. She wrote: “If I could have one superpower it would be the ability to plug in a USB correctly on the first try.” It was a week that required a lot of energy – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. By the end of the week, I had practiced my time-proven tactic of emailing myself documents from one computer to another, from the office to my home, only to discover yesterday – when I needed my fail-proof system to come through more than ever – it failed me. My back up plan, which would call for ample back-tracking and re-working of plan A, involved a USB port with which I struggled for dozens of seconds to get plugged into my computer – of course trying with great effort to force it in the wrong direction. I don’t think I’ve ever put one of those thumb drives in the right way on the first try; a super power indeed. It was just one of those days for me. You have those days too. One minute, you’re in a tank top and flip flops, sweating in the garage on neighborhood garage sale day being asked if you’d take a quarter for something your son had marked for fifty cents and the next minute you’re in a suit, standing in the back of a sanctuary as a family tries to make sense of a complete and devastating loss in their lives. How do we move in and out of our days and make sense of all that we’re called upon to face? “Here is the world,” Frederic Buechner writes; “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid? Okay. Thank you for that. Next you’re going to tell me that the Bible says ‘Don’t be afraid’ 365 times, once for every day of the year. Oh, it does say that? It does. And that’s nice. It is. But sometimes we’re afraid. Sometimes it’s the weariness that gets us. Or it’s the numbness of grief. Or it’s one more blow that puts us in that zone of unfixable, no-take-backs, sin-sick disrepair. So I could say, “Well – don’t be afraid” on the 152nd day of the year but maybe what you’re really looking for isn’t a quip, or a spiritual nugget, or something that rings nicely on a bumper sticker. I think, deep down, we come looking for Jesus. Not the doctrine battles. Not the political debates. Not the “God won’t give you more that you can handles…” Just Jesus; raw, pure, present, palpable, baptized in the Jordan, mud rubbed over my blind soul that I can see… Jesus.
I was with a man this week who pastored the same church for 39 years – as long as I’ve been alive, he walked with those people, dedicated babies, baptized teenagers, married, buried, sang, cried, laughed, preached and walked with them. That length of time – mostly unheard of. He’s eighteen months into retirement and honestly trying to figure out what that means. I can imagine. He told me about one of his mentors, a man who served one congregation for more than forty years. That man, had etched into the sanctuary pulpit the words found in John 12: “We would see Jesus.” It’s a turn of phrase that sounds a little odd but means, “Would you show us Jesus?” Almost a question though it sounds demanding. Do you know that passage? Some Greeks, some outsiders, were in town and they found Philip and said, “Sir, we’d like to see Jesus.” This isn’t like going to Branson and saying you’d like to see Shoji Tabuchi. They needed Jesus. Don’t we all? And Philip finds Andrew and says, “These guys want to see Jesus.” And they go together to Jesus and say, “People are looking for you.” “Sir, we would see Jesus.” For all that we are called to preach and teach and share with the world, let us not forget that simple, humble, request, “We would see Jesus.” “Please… show us Jesus.” This pastor etched those words into the top of the pulpit so he’d never forget why people got dressed, did their hair, and put on an air of hope – if even deathly afraid by all transpiring in their lives – to get to church that morning… they want to see Jesus. They would see Jesus. But only if Philip told Andrew and Andrew told Philip and they told Jesus. Sometimes seeing Jesus involves us working together.
I pray today, we would see Jesus, and I’m going to need your help. We launch a new series today called Love (An)other. It’s grounded in what Jesus says shortly after Andrew and Philip say these people are looking for him. Jesus says to the disciples, “Love one another. As I have loved you, you must also love one another.” He doesn’t say it sure would be nice if you could get along. He didn’t say, “Now, please be nice to your sister.” He doesn’t say, “You all should really love one another.” He says, “As I have loved you, you must love one another.” Must? Come on, now. Can he really demand that of us? But he does… and he actually says, all the laws of the prophets, every fortune cookie wisdom, every inspirational poster of a rock climber reaching for the next great hold, everything hinges on loving others as he loved us. But Jesus didn’t have to deal with Twitter and fake news and political ads and the people we have to put up with, right? Anne Lamott’s quote always fits. She said, “You can be pretty sure that you created God in your own image if it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” Doesn’t that just sting a little bit. Barbara Brown Taylor says “the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love your neighbor as yourself – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it. All you have to do,” she says, “is recognize another you ‘out there’ – your other self in the world – for whom you may care as instinctively as you care for yourself. To become that person, even for a moment, is to understand what it means to die to your self.” (1.) And so, we’re going to give this a shot over the next five weeks. In a world where politics rule, where fear does so often consume, where difference builds walls higher than curiosity, we’re going to try to see Jesus and learn not just to love one another, but to love an Other, capital “O” because at “its most basic level,” Taylor reminds us that “the everyday practice of being with other people is the practice of loving the neighbor as the self.”
We all start with some practice of this idea. We all have people. Al Roker on Friday mornings will stand above the crowds gathered for the Today Show’s concert series. He’ll shout, “My people! My people” and they all adoringly go wild. We all have our people whom we clamor for and who clamor for us. From the moment we enter the scene on planet earth, we’ve got people. These create and form our first social identities. We figure out who we belong to – that’s our family. We go to that church. We play on that team. Our parent works at that factory. We run with that particular click in high school. We begin to shape those identities without giving it much thought. It naturally creates a sense of ‘my people’ and everybody else. Those outside of my group are ‘the other.” Without intentional effort, the other can easily stay at arm’s length allowing us to form all sorts of ideas, opinions, and assumptions about who they are. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to have people. It’s lovely to have your people – it gives us a home base; a place of comfort where we feel safe and loved. But… it can also become the challenge to our ability to love an-Other – to love our neighbor as ourselves because, “I’ve got my people so why do I need those people?” Not needing them then begins to turn into not liking them. Not liking them turns into not seeing them as valuable to anything or anyone. Not valuing them turns them into competition of what you perceive as your way, your resources, your experience. Seeing them as competitors turns them into enemies. Turning them into enemies makes them a threat. Making them a threat leads to feelings of fear. Where there is fear, there is not love. And where there is not love, there is not God. And so – in such a godless state, we write them off, will them ill, or simply shake our hands of any concern or thought that God might know them, love them or care about their well-being as much as we do for our own. They can just go to hell. Which reminds me…
A colleague of mine is doing some research on the biblical accounts of heaven and hell – the words, what they mean, the concepts and ideologies. In his research he discovered that “Of those who believe in an eternal place of torment called hell, less than one half of one percent believes they are going to go there.” (2.) So who is hell for? Somebody else. Those people. The Other. Another colleague, the Rev. Beau Underwood, is reading a book called “Uncivil Agreement” by Lilliana Mason. I haven’t picked it up yet but it sounds interesting. The subtitle is “How Politics Became Our Identity.” Given the hostile nature of the “My people” versus “Those People” present in today’s political climate, Beau’s trying to get some help as he navigates the congregation he pastors in the capital city of my home state that is sort of purple politically, not unlike we are at HACC. The main thesis, he notes, “is that associating ourselves with groups causes us to act and see the world in certain ways, mainly privileging our own groups and going out of our way to disparage and harm out-groups.” Nothing new there. But some of the studies revelations are fascinating…. and my friend notes one. “Studies have shown that when we see members of our groups experiencing sadness, the parts of our brain associated with sadness are activated. We become sad too, biochemically. When we see members of other groups feeling sad? Yeah, not the same response. The parts of our brain associated with positive emotions are activated instead. Their sadness becomes our joy.” [This is why I just can’t control my happiness when the New England Patriot’s lose – and I feel terrible saying so but here’s the science to back my inability to not revel in their losing.] This isn’t conscious. It is instinct. Science explains it as part of our evolutionary wiring. That makes sense, as sad as it may be. Beau makes this point: “Theologically, it is a healthy reminder of sin’s power over us. And our need – instead of embracing our instinctual emotions and prejudices – to use our reason in reflecting on what we feel and naturally assume to make sure we are acting towards others in ways that intentionally align with our convictions rather than reflecting our basest natures. We shouldn’t delight in the suffering of others. Especially when those others are created in the image of God. The fact that we do reveals how much sin can warp the image of God inside of us.” (3.) And I might add; it’s hard to love our neighbor when we delight in their failings. It’s hard to love our neighbor when we’re more concerned about one’s political stripe, or color of skin, or religious affiliation when there is an act of violence than we are concerned or saddened by the reality that a person has been killed.
It seems we may have to work extra hard to see those people as our people. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have close friends or cheer for your favorite team or feel bad about feeling at home in your own church or your own faith or at your own neighborhood block party. But, if we’re going to imagine spiritual growth in our lives, we have to take this seriously and begin to see the Other for their beloved nature; their worth; their dignity.
I mentioned a piece from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book earlier – “An Altar in the World.” She suggests, in that same work, that a good way to warm up to this love-an-Other reality is to focus on one of the human beings who usually sneaks right past you because they’re performing some mundane service –like scanning your groceries at your favorite grocery store. Do you have a favorite grocery store? Someone dropped this word recently: “One day you’re not old and the next day you have a favorite grocery store.” So there’s that. But Taylor says to imagine for a moment the person scanning your groceries. “Here is someone who exists even when he or she is not ringing up your groceries, as hard as that may be for us to imagine.” She says, “She is someone’s daughter, maybe someone’s mother as well. She has a home she returns to when she hangs up her apron there, a kitchen that smells of last night’s supper, a bed where she occasionally lies awake at night wrestling with her own demons and angels.” Do you notice her? Get on eye level with her? Don’t make her a character in your own novel – those things create some of the problems we find with the Other because we presume too much. But see her humanity. What would it mean to count her as one of your people? She’s certainly one of God’s beloved? If that’s an easy place to start then stretch it to someone else whom you’ve not counted as your people before and see what that opens for you. Jesus does this eye-to-eye thing with all kinds of people that were not part of his tribe: Roman centurions, Samaritan lepers, Syro-Phoenician women, hostile Judeans, slaves, rulers, twelve-year-old girls, powerful men, people who can be useful to him and people who cannot.
The Apostle Paul learned this through some hard, spiritual warfare sort of realities. He turned everything he believed, stood for, fought for on its head and started over when he encountered Christ. He had his way, his people, and he not only hoped ‘those’ other people would lose the Superbowl, he was happy to execute them just for not being like him. But he has his, “Sir, we would see Jesus” moment and that love-an-Other stuff wrecked him. “You just got wrecked,” my kid will say. Paul just got wrecked and now he was hanging with Gentiles and making eye contact with cashiers at Reasor’s and floored by the expansive nature of God’s love in Christ. He pens that famous Galatians text that you’ve heard again today: “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.” He recounts – “Man – my people were the law people – and that served us for a time. It gave me some healthy practices but I had no love for anybody who wasn’t on board with my people and my way. I couldn’t see them. They had no value. I didn’t care what they had to say. It would have been better, in my estimation, if they just didn’t even exist. But Jesus…” Who hasn’t said, “But then Jesus”? My life would be so much easier if I just did things my way. “But then Jesus.” Paul says, “But Jesus … and now? I can’t see any people but my people.”
Sure. He doesn’t see perfectly. We still jump to judgment. We still aren’t sure there’s enough good in that man or woman or person or neighbor but Jesus… Jesus sees, longs for them as he does for you… and asks us to consider the same. “The point is to see the person standing right in front of you as one who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery.” Now, I can’t control anyone but myself. I can’t tell you everyone you meet will experiment with ‘making those people my people’ in a way that I hope we might try… in a way that will cause our spirits to grow in this practice of loving an Other just as Jesus loved us. And you may get all geared up to try this when you’re getting a Diet Coke at the fountain machine at QT and find the Other thinking “You crazy.” But if we won’t start trying even in the seemingly simplest of moments, then who will? And how can we imagine a more just and loving world if we can’t even see a fellow QT’er… which, in the city of Tulsa… must be the greatest equalizer of all… everyone goes to QuikTrip. Nonetheless, the nature of the encounter is not overly important. What is important is that at least one person in the encounter is willing to treat it as holy. And because you’re here this morning and they are not, I’m asking you to be that person. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of such an encounter, you know it can change you. Why not be the one to start it and help another encounter that too? I know it’s hard to initiate such things. We get our tail feathers all flared up and are convinced that ‘they’ or ‘those people’ started it. “I’m only judging them because they judged me first.” “I’m only condemning them because they started in on me.” Fox News only said something because CNN called them out first. Why should I be loving toward them?
It’s like that fight in the school playground. Couple of fourth graders. 10, 11 years old. Teacher pulls them apart (God bless our teachers, Amen?). Teacher takes them in to see the Principal. The Principal asks the two boys, “What’s going on, guys? Tell me what happened.” First kid starts right in, “It all started when he hit me back!” We never start the hate, right? We never start the judgment, right? We never start the debate. We never start the divisive commentary on a Face Book post. We never said ‘those people.’ Or did we? Or do we? Regardless, can we be the ones to initiate the love? Can we be the one to say, “In Christ, there is no republican or democrat, gay or straight, black, brown or white? In Christ there is no Baptist or Methodist, Jenks or Union, us or them. In Christ there is no ‘sorry for your loss’ but only the shared grief of our loss together.”
Don’t be afraid. Is that how this thing started? I mean, after my shared longing to have the super power of getting the thumb drive into the USB port the right way on the first try. Don’t be afraid? Well… let’s work at that, shall we? Let’s loosen fear’s grip on us and our fear of the Other. Isn’t it like what we say to our kids when confronted by an animal in the wild – “They are just as afraid of you as you are of them.” Which makes me have to ask, “Am I scary to others?” Maybe my actions, my words, my heart actually can make a difference in that regard. “Perfect love,” scripture says, “casts out fear.” If that’s true, maybe even our imperfect love, lessens fear of the Other and that’s a start. In such a process, those people become my people. Practice that enough, and we would see Jesus. In fact, we would begin to see Jesus all the time… all over the place.
- Excerpt from An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. By: Barbara Brown Taylor. HARPERONE publishing. 2010. Our Outreach Team recently focused on a portion of this work as they imagined the direction of their ministry. I have quoted Taylor elsewhere in this sermon (as noted) and her influence is threaded throughout as well.
- As noted by Rev. Dr. Glen Miles, Senior Minister at First Community Church, Columbus, OH. www.fcchurch.com.
- Rev. Beau Underwood is the Senior Pastor of First Christian Church, Jefferson City, MO. www.firstchristianjcmo.org.