Monday, September 26, 2016

Sermon: "Us versus Them", Acts 15:1, 6-11 (September 26, 2016)


(This sermon was written for worship with a group of PCUSA clergy that Andrew meets with annually at different churches around the country. This year, they met in Boise.)


Us versus them. It’s a mental dichotomy that we set up almost reflexively. If you say that you’ve never taken part in this sort of basic human categorizing, I’m not gonna believe you. It’s a natural way that our minds try to protect us: if someone is one of “us”, they’re unlikely to be a threat, but if one of “them”, they might threaten our resources, safety, or ideals. It’s not a foolproof system, by any means, but it’s a quick way to assess our situation and respond accordingly.

There are all sorts of “us-es” and “thems” that exist in today’s society: urbanites and country-dwellers, bosses and employees, introverts and extroverts, thinkers and feelers; you name it. In many places, people in “opposing” categories live side by side in natural tension. This is especially true here in Boise: in a decidedly red state, we’re the one place that Democrats seem to have a noticeable presence. We’re in a part of the country where Native American populations live in close proximity to those of European descent. Our LDS population makes up a larger portion of our community than every other major Christian denomination—including Pentecostals—combined. We’ve become a (perhaps surprisingly) major site for refugee resettlement. In many ways, we are a city divided into factions. How on earth do we live like this?

I’d love to say that the city of Boise should look to the Church for an answer. I’d love to say that the Church provides the perfect model of how to live in beloved community, but I can’t. I can’t in good conscience say that we’ve figured out how to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Even just within the PCUSA, we find ourselves rife with “us-es” and “thems” that we can’t seem to overcome: those who believe we should allow gay marriage and those who don’t, those who insist that “black lives matter” and those who feel that it’s not the Church’s place to get involved, those who prefer the term “minister of the word and sacrament” over “teaching elder” and vice versa. We are a people divided just as much as much as the city of Boise is. And as much as anyone, we struggle to figure out how to live in beloved community with one another.

While I can’t say that we’re a paragon of virtue in this regard, I CAN say that we’re lucky to have scripture to guide us. Because, of course, we aren’t the first ones to define ourselves as “us versus them”. Even the apostles—Jesus’ closest friends in life and most devoted followers in resurrection—had some major hang-ups here. In what sounds to me like one of the first Presbytery meetings, the early Christian community came together to discuss the most pressing issue of their day, which was, of course, the profoundly theological topic of…circumcision. Now, it might seem like those insisting that Gentiles be circumcised were just trying to iron out some of the finer details of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. But if you read closely, you can see that they were actually creating a conditional ultimatum for outsiders, one that didn’t previously exist in their own tradition. Yes, being circumcised was an important part of joining the Jewish community, but it was a SIGN of the covenant between the people and God, NOT a prerequisite to salvation. Putting conditions on unconditional love is a human thing, not a God thing. So these individuals from Judea weren’t just nitpicking; they were drawing a line between people. It’s easy for us to see now how petty such “us versus them” thinking can be, and how painfully it can divide otherwise peaceable communities, but, you know, hindsight is 20/20.

Now, while it’s easy enough to criticize those “certain individuals from Judea,” we also need to be careful about identifying ourselves too closely with Peter. OF COURSE, as Church leaders, we want to see ourselves as the ones who testify to the truth clearly and effectively, without hesitation. We want to be the ones to ride in on a white horse and win the day, welcoming everyone into the fold with open arms. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we should acknowledge the times when we’ve each been guilty of “us versus them”ing. If nothing else, I want you to walk away from worship today still trying to figure out when you’ve been the person from Judea, because like I said before, if you say you’ve never done it…I don’t believe you. It’s hard to admit when we’re wrong—especially when we’re not wrong FACTUALLY or THEOLOGICALLY. Because you can have an absolutely flawless justification for your position, and still be wrong for pitting God’s children against one another. The individuals from Judea were technically right that, if their movement was a Jewish one, converts ought to be circumcised. But they were wrong to use the issue to create a wall between Christ’s followers.

(In case you’re wondering, my own “us versus them” weakness is communion. I have such a hard time getting on board with sitting still and passing those tiny cups…but I digress.)

Now, it goes without saying that Peter and the other apostles didn’t throw all their standards out the window when they realized that circumcision wasn’t a prerequisite for salvation. Making room for different views and traditions in community doesn’t mean abdicating all responsibility to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.[1] They still sent Silas and Judas to teach the Gentiles about deal-breaking behavior in their new community. But they let go of the things that separated them from each other without separating them from Christ. Because they realized that it wasn’t about being the same in all ways; it was about being the same in the ways that mattered—living together in unity, not conformity.

While we might prefer to think of ourselves as a uniform melting pot of a community, that’s not how God created us. God created humanity to be more like a stew, all the different flavors and textures coming together to create something wonderful and unique and holy. It’s not always as easy to live like a stew as this short passage from Acts makes it seem. It usually takes a lot more than a four-sentence speech (and a few supportive friends) to open minds. But we’re still called to try. We need to reflect Jesus’ radical hospitality and Peter’s emphasis on the essentials—God’s gift of Grace and the Holy Spirit to all—so that our Holy stew might spill into the greater world. We need to break down the walls between “us” and “them” so that we can focus on the more important things. Things like loving our neighbor whether their share our faith, or our political views, or our opinions on whether the passing of the peace should come at the beginning of worship or later on.

Friends, this is where the kingdom of God breaks through most clearly—not in orthodoxy or conformity, but in the intersection of our diverse lives. Our differences aren’t a liability; they’re not something to be destroyed or overcome. They’re a gift. And what’s more, they’re a gift that can help us better understand God, since each of us is created in God’s image. As leaders, it’s our job to seek out this gift in our own lives, reflect it to our communities, and share it with the world—even when we want to stay safe in the melting pot of familiar uniformity. In the potluck of life, God prefers stew. So make sure you’re bringing your best to the table, because everyone’s invited.

[1] Micah 6:8.

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