There is no longer…colorblindness? | Lent 3 | 28 February 2016

 

Text: Galatians 3:23-29

 

Galatians 3:28 includes one of the best summaries of Paul’s understanding of the church.  It was most likely a part of an early baptismal statement.  The Apostle Paul passionately believed that Christ had broken down all the barriers that separate people from God and from each other.  The church is a place of radical inclusion.  Paul writes: “In Christ there is both Jew and Greek, both slave and free, both male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Well…No.

I mean Yes, this verse in Galatians 3 is one of the best summaries of Paul’s teachings.  And yes, he passionately believed that Christ has broken down all dividing walls, and yes, this was a baptismal vow.  And yes, the church was and is to be a place of radical inclusion.  But no, he does not write that in Christ there is both Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.

What he writes is this: “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.”

The NIV translates it this way: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”

Rather than making a series of additions, “both, and,” Paul makes a series of negations, “neither, nor.”

Maybe this is just being grammatically picky, since either way gets the point across.  Both Jew and Greek, neither Jew nor Greek.  We get the idea.  Come one, come all, no matter who you are.

But maybe it does make a difference.

This verse is ripe for adaptation to the diversity of our day, and perhaps you’ve heard it expanded this way.  “In Christ there is both immigrant and native, both gay and straight, both black and white…”

That would be the way Paul didn’t phrase it.  The way he did phrase it would be:

“In Christ there is neither immigrant nor native, neither gay nor straight, neither black nor white.”

It’s a statement of negation rather than one of addition.

There’s something simple and beautiful about this.  It points us back to our common origin and common identity as humans.  Since we’ve been focusing on race…Race as a biological category has been thoroughly disproved and dismantled by the scientific community.  Go back far enough, and we share common ancestors.  Black and white are relatively recent inventions.  We are neither black nor white.

I happened to be in the middle of a 24 hour flu bug when the lunch Bible study was scheduled for this passage, so I don’t have comments from that to bring in, but I did have a related conversation with a CMCer this week.  She told me about a speech she recently heard from OSU Dr. Bennet Omalu.  Dr. Omalu was born in Nigeria and had a breakthrough in his career in 2002 when he identified the physical brain damage that happens through the kinds of constant head bashings NFL players.  His work was featured in the recent movie “Concussion.”  This CMCer noted that in his speech the doctor said that he had performed 8000 autopsies in his career, many of them unrelated to concussions.  His diagnosis of the human condition?  “We are all alike,” the doctor said.  Underneath the thin veneer of difference, we are alike.

In the language of Genesis, we are all created in the image of God.

The Apostle Paul saw in Christ the spiritual pattern of death and resurrection as the great Divine revelation utterly accessible to anyone, no matter their identity.  To let go of the grasp on one’s own life, and then to receive it back as pure gift is the journey of death and resurrection that opens up a whole new creation, a whole new and renewed human family based not on ethnicity, nor social status, nor gender identity.  We are all spiritual ancestors of Abraham, and we are all one in Christ.  Before we were named or claimed by any cultural story, we were and are children of God.

Well…sure.  Sure.

But…I don’t know about you, but when I hear “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither gay nor straight, neither black nor white,” my gut reaction is “Yes there is.”  Of course there is.  There better be.  You better not have to give up your identity in order to be “In Christ.”  If anything, it seems like a healthy spirituality enables one to embrace these identities all the more.  Gay folks find their pride.  Black folks find their power.  Women find their voice.  Why would we want to negate that?

One of the books I’ve been reading during Lent is Racial Formation in the United States, by Michael Omi and Howard Winant.  “Reading” may be too strong a word.  It’s been more of slogging through.  It’s a dense book, one that gets referenced frequently when folks theorize about race.  The authors suggest that race and racism has shifted in meaning over time, but that race continues to serve as a master category, a way of “making up people.”  The authors propose that for the last 40 years or so the predominant racial ideology in the US has been colorblindness.  They do not speak fondly of colorblindness.  Claiming that one is colorblind and doesn’t see race presents a veneer of equality, but only serves to reinforce the inequalities long embedded in the social system.

Back when Stephen Colbert – who is white – was doing the Colbert Report, he would frequently take on the persona of someone who claimed to be color blind.  To just about every black guest he would have on, at some point Stephen would comment that he hadn’t even realized his guest was black because he doesn’t see color.  I miss that Stephen.

The tensions between this idea of a universal humanity versus an embrace of the particularity of stories and bodies has been on display in the Black Lives Matter movement.  One of the initial responses to the cry of Black Lives Matter was “All Lives Matter.”

Well, Yes.  But, really?

One of the best analogies I’ve heard for this asks us to imagine that there is a house on fire in a neighborhood.  The alarm goes off in the fire department and as the crew is scrambling to suit up and get in the truck the captain calls out: “Hey, relax everybody.  All houses matter.”

Yes.  But, really?

Black Lives Matter.  Humanity = particularity.  There’s no such thing as a generic human being.  We are freighted, and gifted, with history.  And this is hardest to see if we are a part of any of the dominant or power majority side of any of those identities – if we live in a house in which there is no emergency.  What’s the big deal, anyway, what’s all the urgency?  This is the spiritual disadvantage that the advantaged have.  Colorblindness has the veneer of goodness, but ends up being simply blindness, and we who consider ourselves followers of Jesus have much to learn from his often repeated words, “Let those with ears, hear.  Let those with eyes, see.”  Jesus, who reached out to the blind, and caused them to see.

“In Christ there is neither black nor white?”  Is Paul, or this adaptation of Paul’s statement, suggesting that we should be colorblind?

Is this one of those times when we grimace and pat Paul on the head?  Even though his perspective was probably cutting edge at the time, we have moved on.  Sorry Paul, you were in the age of “neither, nor.”  We’re in the age of “both, and.”

Well…No.  I mean, Yes, to that last one, probably.  But, No.

I feel no need to defend Paul all the time, or justify what he writes, but in this case I’m going to do just that.

Because when we hear what he writes, we most likely hear it this way: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ” (right hand and left hand held out on same level, brought together).

But the world in which Paul lived was filled with hierarchies.  Everyone had their place in the hierarchy, and the higher up one was, the closer one was to god.  So when Paul writes this to the Galatians, they would have seeb it more like this:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” (right hand high, left hand low for each pairing.)

The world in which we live is also filled with hierarchies; we just prefer to think we’re all on equal footing.

What being “in Christ” negates, what it abolishes, is not these identities, these gifts of who we are, but the hierarchy these identities were and are embedded in.  “In Christ there is neither black nor white.”  The entire system that gives definition to who is above and who is below, and what kind of person is the standard for the normal human, is abolished, in Christ.  And a new creation comes into being with neither top nor bottom.

Or, as other parts of the New Testament suggest, it gets flipped entirely.  The last are first.  The first and the last one’s to get it and enter the kingdom.

We are both in that new creation, living as if the new order is in full effect.  And we are very much enmeshed in the broken world that divvies out privilege and oppression.  So it both, and, also.

If all this “Yes, but…” and “No, and” talk feels a bit like constant whip lash, then welcome to the complex conversation on systemic racism.  For just about every statement one can make, there is another layer to uncover, another angle to view.  But…It’s the place our baptismal identity calls us to be.

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The gifts of women | 27 October 2013

Text: Galatians 3:23-29

Rather than give a traditional sermon this Sunday, I interviewed three women from our congregation about their experiences in the church, their relationship to the Bible and language we use for God, and their best hopes for the what the church can become.  Below are my brief opening words, but to get to the good stuff you’ll need to listen to the audio…

Some scholars argue that this statement by Paul in his letter to the Galatians represents a summary of all of his teachings: “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 Christ Jesus.”   This was and is a radical vision for a new humanity.

This Mennonite Heritage Sunday theme is The Gifts of Women.  From the very beginning, the scriptures witness to the equal yet unique giftedness of women and men.  Genesis chapter one talks about God creating both male and female in the Divine image.  The church, historically, has not done well in living out this equal partnership of women and men bearing God’s image.

I thought for this Sunday that it wouldn’t be quite right if I, with my Y chromosome, attempted to be the main one giving voice to this topic, so instead of a monologue, I’ll be having a conversation with three women of this congregation.  Joyce W, JoAnn K, and Becca L have each given this some thought over the last few weeks, and I invite them forward to have this conversation about how the church has and hasn’t lived up to its best self in their own experiences.

I guess if there is one disclaimer to give it’s that you are completely freed from having to speak on behalf of all women, representing your own experience and perspective.

Christmas Meditations – 12/25/11

Luke 2:1-20

The evangelist Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by embedding the story in the imperial world of Rome and their occupation of the land of Palestine.  There is an emperor – Augustus, a name meaning “Revered,” given to Gaius Octavius who ruled during this time.  There is a governor – Quirinius whose territory was that of Syria.  And there is a census, a decree that all the world should be registered.  The purpose of such a census was not to see how many families had fallen below the poverty line so the Romans would know how far to extend any kind of social safety net.  The purpose was for that of taxation and military conscription, and it was a way of extending control over peoples, who were counted, head by head, reminding them who was in charge.

These are the opening statements of the story, which propel a peasant couple, Joseph and Mary, to leave their current residence of Nazareth and go to Bethlehem.  To have their heads counted.  To get their names on the list of the subjects of the kingdom.

It is here, in Bethlehem, where Mary gives birth to her firstborn, a son, and wraps him up in bands of cloth, and places him in a feed trough for animals, a manger, because all the hotels in town were at capacity limit, no vacancy.

When Mary’s son grows up, he will speak often of a kingdom.  He will tell stories about “The kingdom of God,” say that it is already coming into the world.  He will present a different way of being that contrasts with the ways of the kingdom of Rome.  Rather than strict accounting of subjects, he will speak of seeds, extravagantly flung across the landscape, which grow and multiply who-knows how many times – 30, 60, 100 fold.  He will tell a story about a disobedient son, whose father does not exile or punish, but who waits longingly and runs to greet the son and showers on him kisses and gifts and a grand scale party.  He will say, “Love your enemies.”  He will say, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  He will say, “Follow me.”

The gospel presents the nearly-impossible-to-believe idea that the scene of the barn in Bethlehem carries with it more lasting significance, more power, more of the Real, than any scene in the courts of Rome.  Who could believe such a thing?  Probably not someone like the emperor.  Perhaps not even someone like you or me.  So the people who get the first birth announcement, who are the first to bear witness to this possibility, are those who themselves knew a thing or two about hanging out with animals, sleeping on the ground, insignificant religiously and politically, unable to fulfill any of their people’s purity laws, perhaps not even noteworthy enough to be counted in the census.  The angels come to the shepherds and give the heavenly counter decree which will be for all the world: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among people.”

 

Luke 2:21-40

In 2007 Nelson Mandela founded an organization called The Elders.  The group’s self-description is this: “The Elders is an independent group of global leaders who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity” (www.theelders.org)  Some of its members along with Mandela include Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, and a leader of empowerment for women in India, Ela Bhatt.  There are others whose names I do not recognize.  The elders are old people, who no longer hold any official public office, but who use their moral and spiritual influence, and the wisdom of their life experiences, to promote harmony among the human family.  I love that I, we, have these global elders watching out for us, working for something that they themselves will not see come to full fruition in their lifetime.

Simeon and Anna are the elders of the Christmas story.  Simeon, whom Luke describes as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel,” one on whom the Holy Spirit rested; as the Lullaby poem says: “Old Simeon waits in the temple, mostly blind now from overlong watching.”  Simeon is led by the Spirit to an encounter with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, and he recognizes something he’s been looking for.  In a beautiful picture that begs to be painted, sculpted, drawn, etched, whatever, Simeon takes baby Jesus in his arms and praises God: “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the presence of all peoples.”  And then he blesses the parents.

Anna, widow, prophet woman, temple dweller night and day, comes upon the child and she too praises God, much to the amazement of those around her.

The elders are watching, waiting, praying, blessing; now gently influencing, now boldly proclaiming.  Like the father of the prodigal son; watching, gazing out as the days pass and the son does not yet return home, the elders are gazing, looking, keeping watch, over a prodigal world, gone astray.  Yet now, a flash of hope.  The elders call for a grand celebration, extend their blessing, and in doing so, extend their vision, their holy longing, to the next generation.

 

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3 ; Galatians 4:4-7

We are sharing in Communion this morning.  Today we celebrate Jesus’ birth, the first night of his life, but our Communion liturgy always points to the last night of his life.  “On the night he was to be betrayed, the final night of his life, Jesus gathered around the table with his closest companions.  He took the bread.  He took wine.  He said eat, drink.”  Communion means many things to us.  Its primary connection to Christmas, however, is the reality of incarnation – spirit and matter as one, pointing us to God.  In the words of John’s Gospel, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”

The church writers go to great lengths to emphasize that the physical body of Jesus which was born through Mary was an ordinary human body.  It was not an angelic body that only seemed human.  It was not a superior heavenly body that temporarily put on the cloak of inferior flesh.  Many of the “heresies” of the early church were actually trying to make Jesus less human and more other-worldly.  Jesus, the Apostle Paul says, was born of a woman, born under the law, just like the readers of the letter to the Galatians.  Jesus’ body, like ours, was a coming together of atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, and organs, physical matter that ages and dies, or, in Jesus’ case, was tortured, and died.  It was a normal human body, and atoms cycled through his body just like ours, so it’s kind of a cool thought that there are some atoms and molecules out there somewhere that actually were a part of Jesus’ body for a short time in their life.

The bread and the wine of Communion were one of Jesus’ primary strategies for communicating his ongoing presence with his followers, and the reality of incarnation.  “This is my body.”  “This (bread) is your body, Jesus?”  “Yes, this is my body, which is broken for you.”  Whoever eats of this bread, takes the body of Christ into their own body, and becomes part of the body of Christ.

Amy Jill Levine is a biblical scholar who believes that Luke’s imagery of placing the baby Jesus in a manger, a feed trough, is intentionally foreshadowing that Jesus’ body is food.  If this is the case, I like that it’s not just human food, as if we’re the only ones in need of salvation, but it’s food for the animals, for all of creation.  The prophet Isaiah compares God’s righteousness growing up to that of a garden, which causes what is sown in it to spring up.   All of creation groans for redemption.

It brings us around to what that first liturgy that we recited together calls, “the point of it all.”  This is a story that involves observation and seeing, it involves remembrance and retelling, but it is primarily a story that involves participation, the point of it all.

Recognizing God’s presence in this Bethlehem scene is a call, to ourselves be participants in incarnation – matter and spirit, as one, pointing to God.  To allow the atoms and cells and organs of our bodies to become animated by the same Spirit, breath, energy that animated Jesus.  The Apostle Paul puts it this way: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent the Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.  And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of the Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba!  Father!”  In other words, we get adopted in on the incarnation because the same Spirit of Jesus is available to us.

The Apostle Paul, at times, comes across as a bit heady, heavy on theological language, but it comes down to this.  Bread and cup, and the invitation to partake, to participate.  How much more simple could it be?

Taste blessing, chew on grace, ingest humility, metabolize love.  Experience the incarnation of Divine Love.  Be nourished.  And then, become food that nourishes others.

We live in the fullness of time.  The Spirit that makes us sons and daughters of God is loose in the world, and seeks bodies to inhabit and animate.

We are moving slow motion toward Communion because we have a couple things we want to do before that…