Delivered at Ames UCC
on May 28, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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WHO DID IT?
Who has bewitched you? You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you??
I feel like screaming this to the young man who died to kill others in Manchester last week; to the young man who murdered Bible students in Charleston; to the young man who gunned downed dancers at a nightclub; to the young man who did the same at a youth camp in Norway; to the older man who killed at a women’s health clinic; to the University of Maryland college student who lynched a Bowie State University student; to the young man who has made bomb threats against synagogues in three countries; to the man and woman who abandoned their child in order to destroy social service workers in San Bernardino.
Christians, Muslims, and Jews, who so bewitched you that you thought the violent deaths of strangers was your right and the most faithful response to God and care of country?
You foolish people, who has bewitched you??
Then I look at Paul’s letter today and have part of the answer.
As a progressive Christian church, one of our all-time favorite lines comes from this letter from Paul, the Roman Jew turned apostle to Jesus Christ, to the emerging Christian community of Jews and Gentiles in Galatia, which is contemporary Turkey.
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.
This is how my own leadership has been justified to fellow Christians who prefer women to be quiet and gay people to go through “conversion therapy.”
But as with all scripture, this magnificent piece of sacred truth exists within a larger context. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is not, really, a universal testimony advocating total human liberation and equality. It is a letter for a specific people addressing a specific problem at a specific time a long time ago.
Paul is trying to solve the same problem that came up the last two weeks: Who is in and who is out in this new way with Christ? Given that Jesus was Jewish, are all followers of Jesus required to practice the same covenant rituals as Jesus, namely circumcision of all males?
Professor Mark Douglas of Columbia Theological Seminary writes that there is also another problem at hand: drawing attention from the Romans. Judaism was a formally recognized and sanctioned religion in Roman occupied areas—this new Jesus Way thing was not. Incorporating non-Jewish Jesus followers within existing Jewish practices would provide political cover and protection for God’s fragile new movement.
This is a story of religion-building. And building a religion is to build boundaries. Not necessarily barriers that block, but certainly boundaries around what counts as faith in God. And, because it involves groups of people, religion-building is also political work and politics can have unintended consequences.
Let’s take the signs around our campus, for an example. Several of you have heard this story already, because it is sitting with me so heavily.
Weeks ago now I was at one of the cafes downtown. I was chatting with the barista. She asked me to remind her of which church I serve God through. I referenced our banners, saying, “It’s the gay- and refugee- and Muslim-loving one up the street.” The barista responded, “Oh, those are great. I bet they help keep the wrong people out.”
Her first sentence warmed my heart and her second one stopped it cold.
This is not a church of exclusion. We have those signs up for just the opposite reason. But she was right: The content of those banners is most assuredly deterring some of our neighbors and potential siblings in faith from walking through our doors. They also probably also make some viewers believe that this church and its members are aligned with one particular political party, though that is not true and not our intent.
I am not advocating for their removal, not at all. But they are an embodiment of the consequences of institutionalizing our relationship with God and then applying that relationship to the public square. By defining the boundaries of right relationship with God, we humans inevitably condemn others as being in wrong relationship.
Paul is saying that only once a person is clothed in Christ do the markers of Jew, Greek, male, female, slave, and free person fall away. He is not saying that the Christ moment eliminated them all together. Some are blessed, others remain condemned. So when we say holiness blesses queer people and refugees and Muslims, then we are also saying holiness condemns people who do not follow suit. Even if that is not what we want to say.
These attacks are a product of condemnation. Any and all religions have the capacity to incite and enact the violence we are living and dying through these days.
So what do we do? Stop asserting our convictions? Walk away from religion? Where is the guidance to move beyond our violent tribalism and into the universally beloved community we want Paul’s words to describe?
The book of Lamentations in the Hebrew Bible describes the complete destruction of a city from war. The language is blunt and accurate:
All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength. (1.11a–b)
Is it nothing to you, all you who
look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow (1.12a–b)
All our enemies
have opened their mouths against us;
panic and pitfall have come upon us,
devastation and destruction.
My eyes flow with rivers of tears because of the destruction of my people. (3.46–48)
I don’t think there is any kind of human suffering that the poetry of Lamentations does not address. And it does so without providing a happy ending. Lamentations does not conclude with the restoration of a people. It doesn’t have the promises of God’s redemption that so many of the prophets offer. It just ends with a plea to God.
Yet in the middle of the ashes and blood—literally in Chapter Three of five—the author still finds cause to proclaim that:
The steadfast love of the Lord never
God’s mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; (3.22)
When all the prisoners of the land
are crushed under foot,
when human rights are perverted
in the presence of the Most High,
when one’s case is subverted
—does not the Lord see it? (3.34–36)
Lamentations is the wisdom we need in these times, not Paul: The pain we create through our many boundaries abounds, intentionally or not, and the salve we need to heal it is not yet obvious.
The Galatians were trying to figure out what it meant, in practical terms, to bring diverse people together. And how to do so without getting anyone else killed. We feel like bewitched fools, ourselves, when with all of our technology and compassion we find we have still not learned much better than them; when we realize that even professing universal love is to create opposition.
So on this Memorial Day weekend, in the deathly shadow of yet more and more diverse forms of war, I am not even going to try to offer a peppy or rousing conclusion. Instead, I will trust our forebears enough to follow their example of letting sorrow and uncertainty stand, unresolved, while remaining resolute in my profession that we have not yet lost God’s eternal love or ever-witnessing presence.