Tuesday, June 25, 2013

One-ness...the Theme of Galatians 3

This sermon began with a posting on Facebook by one of my pastor
friends, calling my attention to how timely this passage from Galatians 3 is
this week, in light of the news about Paula Deen…racial slurs is what her
remarks have been called in the news…the use of the “N” word…and as I
followed the story, eagerly reported by all every news outlet, all I could
think of was a wall…built brick by brick, stone by stone, of words and
thoughts and acts of prejudice and injustice and separation…all of which
deny the oneness of which St. Paul so eloquently speaks in this letter to
the contentious church at Galatia.
   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.
These were startling words in Paul’s day and time, for in declaring that
these generally-accepted delineations were inadequate, no, were no
longer even present in the realm of God, Paul was stating, unequivocally,
that the Spirit of God is about uniting, about nurturing relationship with 
God and one another. Paul’s words here in Galatians were not some
“spiritual” declaration, but rather were referring to the whole of reality…
secular and spiritual, political and religious. Not only was Paul
disagreeing with the believers in Jerusalem, he was telling them that
they were wrong! He was telling them, “Your whole conception of God’s
viewpoint is irrelevant, does not even exist!”

In Christ, Paul said, God was re-writing the old rules of humanity…
turning the world as it was understood and accepted upside-down. God
was doing a NEW THING…and life would never, ever be the same again
for those willing to enter into this dream of God.

He was reminding the Christians of his day- and ours-that as we are
gathered together in Christ, our call is to build up, to nurture, and
to unite. And we cannot do that by appealing to division, or by inciting  
division, or by building walls which divide- not in ANY realm of our
shared human life. For that is not the path to discipleship, to walking
with Christ.
In the lifetimes of many of us here, a substantial brick and mortar wall
dividing the city of Berlin, Germany, came down, uniting families, friends,
a city, a nation…something which so many had thought they would never
see in their lifetimes. The joy which accompanied that wall coming down
was a wonder to behold…and the oneness which the people of Berlin
were experiencing offered hope to enslaved peoples worldwide.
But now, again in our lifetime, walls are being built, many of them actual
physical constructions, as we attempt to keep out people unlike us…
people with a different language and skin color and heritage who are
only yearning to have a better life for their families. Some of the walls
being built are of a different kind…walls which so many of us had hoped
had been torn to pieces, the remnants of which are often so big and wide
that it seems as if they had never been breached at all.

A man is mercilessly dragged behind a pickup truck because of his race…
another is beaten and hung on a fence because of his sexual orientation.
There are still places in our world where girl babies are thrown away,
places where people are denied what we profess to believe are basic
human rights simply because they are female.
Throughout this world of ours, this amazing creation of our amazing
Creator God, religion continues to engender some of the world’s deepest
hatreds, create the greatest divides, build the biggest walls, and cause
some of the most inhuman behaviors, from Northern Ireland to the middle
east, from Burma to Somalia, to the on-going  denominational skirmishes
in North America. And the wealthy, whether nations or individuals, seem
increasingly unwilling to turn loose resources for use by the poor, even
for education and health care.

At other times, we encounter piles of rubble which remind us there is still
so much work to do in this area of one-ness, of unity…which is the realm
of God. And as we negotiate around them, we find that law enforcement
officials ARE being called to task for racial profiling…laws ARE mandating
that public buildings must be accessible to people with physical disabilities.
But there are also those bits of rubble which trip us up unexpectedly…
like the subtle stereotyping of Asians or the poor in the media, which
often escapes our notice….our lack of awareness that our language, our
behavior, or even the physical arrangement of our churches can cause
some people to feel excluded- people with disabilities, single parents,
people with limited education…and sometimes it takes an in-your-face
confrontation in the form of a workshop or an article or a conversation
calling us to face our own homophobia or institutional racism or just plain
“looking down our nose” at someone else for whatever the reason.

The remnants, large and small, of the walls we humans build to separate
ourselves from one another are with us still, though we might rather not
think about them or acknowledge them. Religious, ethnic, socioeconomic,
age, and gender differences in our day might have different labels than
in Paul’s time- Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female- and we
can say and think of those  quite casually. But what if we were to say,
instead, no longer American nor Iranian, no longer Jew nor Palestinian?  
What if instead of No longer slave or free we were to say, no longer gay
or straight, educated or uneducated, young and old, rich and poor?  The
differences, whatever we name them, still separate us, cause divisions…
in the world…in the church.

It is true that, as Paul writes, God in Christ has shattered the barriers,
broken down the walls…but Galatians 3 calls us who name ourselves
Christians to something more than just gazing across or stepping around
the rubble…or even worse, to building up the dividing walls! We are all
children of God in Christ and so we are drawn together in ONENESS…
ONENESS… ONENESS!!! And that oneness does not take away
differences- after all, the palette of an artist contains an innumerable
variety of colors and it takes many of them to create a masterpiece…
differences are the glorious Technicolor of life, if we open our eyes to see
and experience and behave in a new way.
There is an old rabbinic tale which goes something like this: A Rabbi
asked his students how they could recognize the time when night ends
and day begins.
     “Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a dog from a sheep?”
asked one.
       “No,” answered the rabbi.
      “Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a date palm from a fig
tree?” asked another.
        “No,” the rabbi replied.
And one by one the students continued guessing, only to have the rabbi
answer No to each of their responses. Finally, in frustration, they asked,
as one, “Then when can one recognize the time when night ends and day
      “It is when you look into the face of any human creature and see your
brother or sister there,” the rabbi answered quietly. “Until then, night is
still with us.”
 As created children of God, as those baptized into unity in Christ Jesus,
we have the potential of seeing each other, regardless of the differences,
as sisters and brothers. “The Christ in me meets the Christ in thee,” the
Quakers say. “Namaste”, say the Buddhists. “The divine in me recognizes
the divine in you.” What changes would happen in us individually, do you
suppose, in our congregations, and in our church bodies if we really let
ourselves see that way?
Our God will not be divided…and as we draw nearer to the heart of
Christ, we begin to feel the longing for unity which he expressed, which
he lived. But we human beings have difficulty tearing down the walls, or
in letting go of the rubble from those walls when they begin to fall. Bits
of rubble become the weapons of words and actions and attitudes with
which we wound each other, with which we wound the heart of the
loving Creator God who so longs for his created ones to truly BE ONE.
And perhaps the worst wound of all is the one caused by our not even
recognizing…not even caring that we are divided.

To know the truth of ONENESS, to long for unity is challenging, is often
painful. It is so much easier and more comfortable to retreat into our
cliques, our conclaves, of people just like us, where we can feel safe and
comfortable. But Galatians 3 compels us toward that uncomfortable
unity…challenges us to live as one with those who are radically different
from us…even those who we believe to be the most distant from God’s
accepting embrace (and we are we to make that distinction anyway?)

 Living the oneness to which God in Christ is calling us is not just doing
what is politically correct…it is not just practicing the non-discrimination
the law requires…rather, it is to have a change of heart…to be
transformed. Living that oneness means acknowledging that we are
sometimes the barrier builders and the weapon wielders…we ourselves…
US! as hard as that is to admit and to face. It sometimes means
allowing ourselves to get close to those who are most difficult for us to
love…sometimes means bearing the consequences of the pain of those
who have been relegated to the outside by standing with them. And
it means entering into…entering into…the hard work of reconciliation.

Living with oneness in Christ can lead us to work for more unity in the
world…to stand in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable or least
powerful…to become advocates for those who are oppressed or shut
out…to break down the walls and clear away the rubble. Not glamorous
or easy work, to be sure, but it is the call of the One Who Loves…the
One who has created us ALL in the divine image…the One who Dreams
of Oneness.
This week, as I thought and read and prepared for this sermon, I came
upon a lovely little poem, written by Irene Zimmerman, which reminds
us of the Incarnated One who came to show us our ONENESS in God…
it is entitled “Emmanuel: God With Us”:
          In Bethlehem
          a baby’s cry
          shatters barriers.
          Women, men
          of every creed,
          culture, race
          gaze across
          the rubbled walls
          in wonder,
          finding every face
          with godliness!
We are, in the end, being called to consider deeply, honestly, faithfully,
what no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male
and female means for ALL pairs of opposites in our world. We are, in the
end, being called to consider deeply, honestly, faithfully, God’s truth that,
in the eyes and realm of God, WE ARE ALL ONE.

Perhaps it is high time…past time…for us to follow Paul’s lead and
extend our thinking to include the whole human race as God’s
chosen people.  It seems to me that the God who created all things
and all people, the God who called Abraham and Sarah and their
descendants for the benefit of all people, the God who in Jesus Christ
came into this world to redeem all people… this is the same God who
has chosen to love the whole human family.

When it comes to this enterprise called faith, as in life and work and all
other areas of human endeavor, WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
and that includes Muslim imams and Catholic nuns and Jewish rabbis
and Buddhist priests and Hindu monks- along with people of every other
stripe and variety. The walls have come down…the Babe of Bethlehem
saw to that. We can no longer look at others as “other”; we can no
longer look down on “outsiders”. Rather, when we look at another
human being- any and every human being- we must see that person
as sister or brother…as one whom God has chosen to love every bit as
much as you or me. And that…THAT is the Good News.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Summer Solstice...

A thumbnail sliver of moon 
in the western sky, heralding its waxing
for the summer solstice...
Emboldening daylight stretches
the horizons of each day...
Darkening night is short, intense,
holding its breath in anticipation
of expanding its domain once again...
But for now...today...this glorious, shining June day,
sunlight reigns, bathing the waiting, wailing, warring world
with the benediction of Light.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Heart-felt Memories of Rwanda

Memories…my mind is flooded with memories…swirling, flowing, swept along by the current, tossed here and there…first this one rising to the surface, then that one…this one bright with reds and purples, that one shaded with varying tones of green…each one precious, individual, reminding me of the three glorious weeks of travel which graced my life this May, 2013, reminding me of the wonderful people who populated those weeks, creating a rich and varied pallet of faces and personalities.

It is the people who stay with me most. Oh, the places were amazing…beautiful and varied and incredibly rich in textures and images. But the people! When I close my eyes, it is the faces I see, the voices I hear…and they fill me with joy. Faces…youthful and elderly…of so many different shades…with expressions both strong and soft, both courageous and vulnerable, both joy-filled and touched by tragedy. Faces…when I close my eyes I see them all…

Simon…a dear Rwandan friend, just turned thirty…a genocide survivor and orphan… educated and gifted, and now working for the Clinton Foundation. I see him clearly, sitting with us in the Memorial Garden at the Ntarama Church Genocide Memorial, his voice quietly, haltingly speaking about the terrors of those days…of the memories which fill his heart and mind whenever he comes to such sites…sitting, just sitting, as the horrors of this place washed over all of us.

Florence…part of our Rwandan “family”…barely twenty and proud owner of her own business, a small neighborhood restaurant which is now employing eight area residents…her smile filled with both pride and gratitude as she welcomed us to her place, showing us around, serving us lunch, and thanking us again and again for the help we have given her over the past 2 years (little enough, but she saved it all in order to fulfill her dream).

Pelagie, Japeth, Partout, and Cherubim…the other members of our family in Rwanda… both parents primary school teachers who are working hard on their advanced degrees so that they will be able to teach in secondary school and triple their admittedly-meager wages…smiling, welcoming us into their home. And the two little boys- Partout, just 5, and Cherubim, almost 2- trying on the T-shirts we brought for them and smiling with delight at this small gift from their American “grandmothers”.
The American "grandmothers" and our Rwandan Family

Emmanuel…the now seventeen-year-old who, at age thirteen, so captivated my heart that I began- with the help of numerous friends- to pay for his school fees so that this bright, engaging, talented young man might one day realize his dream to become a doctor. And I see his eyes filled with tears, reflecting my own, as he hugged me good-by when we drove him back to school on that Sunday evening.
Then there are Innocent and Emmanuel (another Emmanuel- it is a very common name in Rwanda), twenty-something brothers, artists, who recently opened their own gallery and studio, with space for 10 artists to work and display their works, with a sewing center for women to learn marketable skills, with space for a 20-person youth dance troupe to practice for performances throughout the community of Kigali. And I see us sitting with them on the outdoor deck of the Heaven Restaurant, along with another young artist, Tu-tu…the five of us enjoying dinner, talking and laughing and sharing an evening as good friends, in spite of the vast differences in our ages and in our home cultures.
Adding color and texture and joy were the nearly-one-hundred grandmothers we met, women of beauty and strength and courage…women united by their grief at losing adult children to HIV/AIDS…women united, too, by their determination to provide a better future for their grandchildren. Their beautiful faces radiated that determination, as well as their joy at welcoming us into their midst.

How could I forget Immaculaee, the beautiful young woman who cared for our room at the guesthouse, who made us breakfast each morning, her shy smile and quiet voice and gentle spirit so responsive to our every need, so determined that we would lack for nothing for our comfort.
And how could I fail to include Rwanda itself, a truly unique nation which has risen like a Phoenix from the ashes of its own self-destruction to become a beautiful country, its people united in spirit and determination to never forget the past but to move beyond it, into a better future for all its people.

Memories…my mind is flooded with memories…and my heart is filled with loving gratitude for these people entering, populating my life.