John 13;34-35; I Corinthians 12:12-13; 27
The sermon title and question for today was prompted by Marylou Belknapp Jones when we were in the same breakout group at the Race Talks with Donna Maxxey last month. I immediately told her, that would make a great sermon. And so here it is. Thank you Marylou — and perhaps a lesson learned here: always be careful what you say around a preacher, it may end up being a sermon title.
The Cycle of “Moving On” in Spokane
When my family first moved to Spokane, we lived in a rented house four blocks from the school where I would begin sixth grade. My mother made friends with one of the neighbors, but one seemed enough for her. Within a year we would move again, and six months later again, and as my mom explained, there wasn’t much point in getting too close to people we would have to say good-bye to. I have told people that I have lived in almost every neighborhood of Spokane and with each journey of moving, there were no tears or even good-byes for that matter. It was more of a “see you later” situation, but still I adopted my mothers attitude, as it allowed me to pretend that not making close friends was a conscious choice. I could if I wanted to, I would tell myself. It just wasn’t the right time.
Growing up in this dysfunctional reality, moving every 6 months or so, never fully investing in the present or in the people around me, always guarded and protecting myself, everything revolved around an “us” vs “them” attitude, I deeply yearned for something more, for something real, for something permanent that I could hold on to. Somehow, I knew back then that an “Us versus Them” mentality would always create a polarizing effect and only serve to separate people more and more from each other. I didn’t want that. I wanted something more––I wanted just “Us”.
Love casts out all fear
When we do not understand something or someone, when we do not take time to invest in others, or go out of our comfort zone, we tend to become fearful. And this fear often leads to anger and anger to hate. And, from the place of hate flows fear-based rhetoric that pushes the other further and further away. Fear does that. It has a polarizing effect on people. We see this being played out in our current political culture. All sides are firmly entrenched in their views. Fear isn’t interested in building bridges, only walls. Fear only leads towards isolation. Fear separates. Fear sees the world in terms of “Us vs Them”. And yet, the writer of I John 4:18 says, “Love casts out all fear.”
As people of faith, we know that love, not fear, lies at the center of who we are, and we will look for ways to build bridges, not walls. Love gives us eyes to see people as they really are, past the externals to the core of their humanity. Love becomes the catalyst that enables us, not to ignore differences, but to see past them to the person who holds them. Polarizations disappear when love, not fear, is allowed to take center stage in our lives. Author Dan White Jr. once wrote: “A polarized civilization wants us to ‘take sides’ but God’s love invites us into paradox and complexity that will baffle the world.” It is time for us Christians to baffle the world!
Matthew 25: There is only “Us”
This month, as you know, we are taking a deeper dive into Matthew 25. Last summer, we became a Matthew 25 congregation which is a designation for PCUSA churches who are committed to vitality, confronting issues of poverty and overturning systems of racialized privilege. There is one common theme put forth by Jesus in Matthew 25: there is no Us or Them, there’s just Us. So what are we going to do about us? Matthew 25 is an invitation for all of us to come to the table: the thirsty, hungry, searching, lonely, abandoned, ostracized, disenfranchised, and all those who are afraid are all welcomed to come inside and enjoy the feast! Everyone has a place here. There is no Members Only sign on the doors of the kin-dom of God. The doors are open wide and Jesus invites all of us to join him on the inside.
Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor describes an experience she and her husband had while attending a conference at a church camp in North Carolina. The evening program was over, so they decided to walk down toward the lake. They did not think they would go far and brought no flashlight. As they walked along the lake, they found themselves facing what she describes as a “mouth” on the path…where the path led through a tunnel of dense Carolina laurel. Almost daring each other, they decided to try to walk through the tunnel, where even the starlight did not penetrate. She writes:
“Inside the tunnel, neither of us could see our feet, much less the way ahead, but we knew the path and we knew each other…. Without sight, I relied first of all on sound…I could feel the presence of the laurels, the same way I could feel the presence of [my husband]. …When I strayed too far left or right, I could feel the laurels practically breathing on my face, and when I [felt that] I found my way back to the center of the path again.” “Pretty soon,” Taylor writes, “we were walking by faith and not by sight. The faith was not in an unseen deity, however. It was faith in this exquisite physical fine-tuning that neither of us had known we had…” Taylor goes on to explain that it was faith in the power of “us’ that helped her to see that she was not alone as well as the deep connection of self to the world around her that gave her confidence.
The Path of Breaking out of the cycle of Them and Us
Living through this past year, it feels like we have been living in a tunnel––a never ending tunnel with very little light seeping through––we have been caught up in a cycle of fear and taking sides. We have all been discouraged and saddened by the polarization all around us. Living by faith in the power of “us” and having a deep connection to the world around us can seem so difficult these days. As people of faith, we also know that when we stop trusting in ourselves, our own vision, then we can find blessings in the experience itself––then we can feel the laurels breathing on our face keeping us on the path of “us”.
That is the path that Jesus, the zealot for justice followed. It is the heart of the religious message for me and certainly within Matthew 25––namely, that we can choose to live by faith and not by sight. That we don’t have to live in an “us and them” world any longer. Instead, we can choose to invest in relationships and build bridges with others, especially those who are different from us.
Instead, we can create a world of just “us” and break the cycle of fear that only promotes increased divisions. Instead, we can seek to understand as much as we seek to be understood. Instead, we can determine to stay in the conversation even when it becomes difficult and uncomfortable to do so. Instead, we can welcome all to come and join in the feast because we know that we are co-creators in a world that is just “us”.
May each one of us and all of us break out of the cycle of them and us and choose the path of just “us”.