This sermon was delivered at St. Paul United Church of Christ, Old Blue Rock Road, Cincinnati on June 16, 2013.
Back in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. said that the 11 o’clock hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. People of different races, ethnic groups attend their own churches. People of various political or theological views also huddle together in their own faith communities.
Even in a 2012 article, it was found that only seven percent of churches with less than 1,000 attendance are multiracial.
We think we’ve come far in this world. No more segregated water fountains. Interracial couples are legally allowed to marry all over our country where it wasn’t legal a few decades earlier. Yet, very often people of a certain color live in one neighborhood while another race lives in a separate area. And, like in 1963, we still celebrate God in very different spaces.
People always use scripture or faith to find ways to separate the “us” from “them” and to distance themselves from “the other.” Back in the 1800’s people used to scripture and faith to justify both slavery and abolition. Texts from Ephesians 6 and Titus 2 were used to affirm slavery whereas proponents of abolition looked at the ongoing Biblical themes of justice and equality to affirm their stance. Still today, there are multiple issues that one side affirms with Scripture as the other side opposes the issue with Scripture as well. And this keeps our communities divided and ever so segregated.
Why do we have this mentality of us versus them? Of course, it’s not new.
In the gospel reading from Luke, we see Jesus eating with a Pharisee. So, yes, Jesus associated with those with greater societal standing. And then a woman who the world sees as the “other” or somehow “less than” comes in and showers Jesus with attention. Jesus affirms that he experiences more love and hospitality from the woman with the lesser reputation than the Pharisee with the better reputation.
We don’t know much about this woman except that she was a sinner. We don’t know what type of sins she engaged in. They could be referring to her more as a law-breaker rather than a sinner. But wasn’t the Pharisee a sinner too?
The Luke text reminds us that Jesus associated with all types of people: women, the unclean, those who were sick. In fact, he didn’t just hang out with them, but he touched them when healing. He allowed them to touch him too. Whether it was touching dead corpses, people with leprosy or the woman with the hemorrhage, when Jesus came in touch with these people, he became unclean like them – at least according to Jewish Law. Scripture never says he went through purification rituals each evening. As our Wednesday study class had learned the other night from the Saving Jesus Redux video, Jesus had become unclean to relate and save the unclean.
If anyone was allowed to be judgmental, it was Jesus. But even Jesus wasn’t that judgmental about sins. He focused his life and ministry on showing love and grace.
In the reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Cephas used to eat with the uncircumcised Gentiles even though he was circumcised. Cephas would eat with those who followed very different food rules.
Then James and the group who followed the law, the Jewish members of the early Jesus movement, came back into town. In order to keep people happy or to have people continue to like them, Cephas and Barnabas ditched their relationships with the Gentiles. This is when Paul confirms that there is something greater that the law that some of them followed: grace. Through that grace, both Jews and Gentiles learn to place their differences aside.
During the first century, people segregated themselves because of their rituals and food choices. Sixty years ago it was water fountains and eating spaces. What are today’s issues?
This gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves from whom would 21st century Christians divide themselves and who would Jesus hang out with today? Those who have engaged in drug use in their past? Those who swear? Our gay brothers and sisters? Interfaith or interracial couples? Those who pass a hungry man on the street? Those who own guns? Those who are against guns? Democrats? Republicans? Liberals? Conservatives? Divorced people or people who live together before they’re married? Maybe all of the above???
Wherever Jesus was, it was probably one of the least segregated places in Israel because people from different groups of people wanted to hear about love and grace. They wanted to experience healing. And Jesus himself hung out with both the Pharisees and the unclean. If Jesus showered all sorts of people with love instead of intense judgment, should we do the same?
We may not agree with our neighbors on how they live their lives. As individuals, we each build our moral codes based upon how we relate Scripture to our sense of reasoning, experience and traditions. And we don’t see Scripture, reason, experience and tradition in the same ways. But we aren’t necessarily given a free pass to shun people just because our faith and their faith doesn’t line up. Just the opposite. We are called to be in the presence of those with whom we would never intend to associate.
Jesus was one who prioritized relationships over rules. He healed the sick on the Sabbath, touched the unclean making himself unclean and ate with all sorts of people. Might Jesus be asking us to place our relationships with others over legalism and minute differences? If Jesus, who some think was perfect, was able to associate with all sorts of people and become unclean to be like them, then we who are definitely not perfect are absolutely called to associate with other imperfect people. And as for me, I’ve experienced some of the greatest hospitality and unconditional love from those who many people consider “unclean” in our society.
The way we each look at faith, at our beliefs are going to be different. At a church like ours, it’s not what you believe because, let’s face it, we’re across the board. And thank God we’re not told what to believe. But even when we are different and we’re individuals, we’re still part of the body of Christ. We’re not called to agree with one another but be one in Christ. We are still in covenant with one another even as we live autonomously. There is the Great Connection, and whether we see it on this side of heaven or that side of heaven, we will see that all of us are loved by God and called to do the same.
So as we go forward in asking ourselves “Where is God calling us” do we need to ask ourselves who is God calling us to invite and include? Are we needing to reflect on who we include and reach out to? What would this church look like if it were filled with those who are so different than us? This would be scary – – yet how would this help us to grow and live out the great commission that the Spirit has be nudging Christians to do for centuries?
As we abide in this most segregated hour of the week, let us find ways to bridge the great divide as there is no longer slave or free, male or female, clean or unclean, us or them, but, instead, one in Christ. Amen.