We stumble through the first part of the reading and then come with relief to the end and to the verses that sound familiar and that don’t seem quite so… confusing, or aggressive. First, let’s remind ourselves, Paul wrote during a particular time, in a particular place, for a particular people. I doubt Paul could even imagine that 2000 years and nearly 6000 miles away reading this letter as if it has something to do with all of Christianity, or Christianity in Wisconsin, or Christianity at Emmanuel. So What do we do with the letters from Paul.
For so many reasons we might so quickly jump down to the end about everyone being the same, sometimes we miss everything before. See, Paul can’t believe that they’ve forgotten everything that he and those who traveled with him had taught the Galatian churches when they first started, they lost track of their mission and purpose and now… they’re all caught up in the circumcision problem, in the becoming rules and expectations, and they have lost something vital about who they are supposed to be.
Have you ever lost focus? I interrupted the writing of this sermon to send an email, to Donna an email about the council meeting after service, then I thought about decorating the church for whenever we return indoors for worship, so I started researching fabrics and streamers, and then I had to figure out how big the sanctuary is, so i got up to do that, then I decided I should look through the closets in the church, all of them, again. Sometimes focus is hard.
Organizations lose focus, spreading themselves too thin, change a focus on the customers to a focus on profits. Churches, too. Some have focused on restricting what you ought to read or listen to or participate and partake in–as if what is being taught, or the folks there are… incapable of discerning. Some Churches offer all the activities, fill all your time so that there is no room for second guessing. There is the story of one church that had gotten so focused on the performance of worship: the lights and music and making sure it was perfect, that they stopped all music in their church for a year, just to find focus again. None of these things are inherently bad, and honestly it might work for a while. But we could put on the best show, and we could produce all the media, and we could program the crap out of this church. But that’s not the point, that’s not the mission, that’s not what brought Emmanuel Church together 134 years ago. I wonder if Paul wouldn’t write an angry letter to churches that have lost the point “You foolish church… who bewitched you?”
Paul’s purpose, in this letter and in most of his writing, was about building a Beloved Community rooted in the teachings of Jesus who is God with us. This Beloved Community was unique in Paul’s time. It was a time of being focused on citizenship, gender, class, status, nationality; which became the standard for how you treat each other, work, live, your role, function in the world.
Paul is focused on the divide that had been growing between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians, one believing that they were better or more right than the other. Paul is telling them it’s not the point! God has claimed them, they are under the promise of Abraham who was given a promise that all nations, gentiles included, would be blessed because of him, and they would welcomed in as full members of the family, written into the will, given their portion of the inheritance, and given the name of Child of God.
And that is to be the first identity of who they, who we are, child of God. Paul says we are to wake up on Christ. I imagine it’s the first thing and last thing we put on in the morning, and what people see when we are walking down the street, we carry Christ in on and on us becoming part of the unique and beautiful creation that you are, you do not get lost when your identity is in Christ, but becomes more fully who we are made to be.
When they come together as church in Beloved Community, we see Christ in and on and through each other, they are all family, on the same common, holy table. We see the unique way that God made each of us, but, the first thing that matters is that we are children of God, wrapped in Christ. and we so treat each other as beloved kinfolk.
It’s the kind of community that includes a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, religious history, wealth, property, citizenship. And that inclusion means that when they gathered, as the Beloved Community rooted in the teachings of Jesus, everyone sit at common and holy table.
It seems like the least we can do, church, to treat each other, when we gather, as kinfolk, as family. Sometimes we’re better at it than others. We’re practicing at it, worship is a practice so we are prepared to go into the world that isn’t committed to the Beloved Community. And that’s all Paul was talking about, the community that gathers should treat each other as kinfolk. Paul wasn’t changing society, wasn’t speaking against the larger culture, wasn’t advocating for the overthrowing of the Empire. He was very specific, when you gather as this church be the Beloved Community rooted in Jesus the Christ who is God with us, to love and live and commune in Equity with and for each other.
At that time, technically the world was the same size as it is now but it also was a lot smaller. There weren’t very many Christians in the world yet. Paul was probably including in the ranks of how to build the Beloved Community whatever believer crosses into the community. Jesus followers from Jerusalem or Ethiopia or Egypt or India or Rome, when they went to the church in Antioch, were to be received as kinfolk, as family, as children of God.
There are a lot more Christians in the world today. Sometimes we don’t believe in the same way, worship the same way, live out our faith in the same way. I listen to a lot of podcasts from folks who grew up in the Evangelical faith and one of the themes I noticed is that many of them have had to adjust how they think about our Catholic siblings, like they weren’t real Christians. Which I know some of you have similar stories from farther back, not associating with other churches, not singing or praying together, Rev Steven Welch tells a story of crossing the street before the Catholic church when walking home from school, until his father by introducing him to the priest, acknowledging their shared humanity and child of God-ness.
So when we can love each other, can we practice loving those who love Jesus too, who come to the doors of our church, the doors of our neighborhood, the doors of our nation, looking for a place, a home, a compassionate hand, a welcome on the common and holy ground because we have put on Christ as our first identity.
But, we don’t just have Paul. We have these stories of Jesus. Just the promise of Jesus’ birth had Mary singing of the powerful being brought low and the lowly being raised up and the hungry being filled. Jesus welcomed those that others rejected because they decided they were sinful. Because others have left out because of their “otherness.” Jesus gathered with, ate with, was in relationship with people of any occupation, any social status or class, any way of worshiping. Jesus taught with, worked with, was in ministry with, called into community with women and Samaritans and Romans–the marginalized and the hated and the oppressor. Jesus saw the Beloved Creator in each person that he met. Jesus was always breaking down barriers and walls that divided people from God and from Beloved Community.
And so, while Paul was just writing to a small group of believers, we have a God who came to earth in the body of Jesus to teach us what it is to love each other, to welcome the stranger, to reach out to the friendless, to visit the prisoner, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to lift up those who have been pushed down. Jesus who taught us our calling is to care for each person we meet as they are a child of God, as they are our kinfolk, and we are family, we stand on common and holy ground, no matter where it is that we are standing.
Emmanuel we are a special community, not alone in our specialness, but still special. You welcome everyone who comes before you in love and friendship. It matters not their background, what they believe, no matter how they worship, no matter their race, no matter who or how they love, no matter what their ability, they are welcome in this space, they will find a family. But you carry Christ, wrapped on your shoulders so that it isn’t just people who walk into church space, or doors; it is everyone you meet as you wrap Christ around you, as your first identity is as a child of God, as our God is love.
It means righting wrongs, it means seeking justice, it means changing the system so that those who have been left behind because black going about their lives, indigenous peoples who’s land continues to be taken and abused, those who have been beat down because they are Asian in the middle of a pandemic or transgender going to the bathroom, those who haven’t been able to live their call or have been ignored or abused because they’re women. We wrap ourselves in Christ, we see Christ in each other, and we stand up–as individuals and as a community we do everything in our power to let others live, to make it possible for other to live abundantly into the person God made them to be, so that we can stand together on common and holy ground.
So that, when we go into the world, when we interact in the world we can say there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, not because we don’t see the differences but because we stand eye to eye and hand in hand, living abundantly in the as the child of God. So we can say how we love and treat and care for each other is not first Black or white or Asian pacific Islander or Latino, neither gay nor straight nor lesbian nor transgender nor nonconforming. There is not even Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh. Not because we don’t see race, or gender or sexuality or religion don’t matter rather we stand eye to eye and hand in hand, living abundantly in the as the child of God, as they have been wonderfully made and we gather at the common and holy table. Seeking each other’s well being, abundant living, just living.
My New Testament professor Rev. Dr. KK Yao wrote a small book of prayers rooted in the Scriptures. One he wrote about this text, well, seemed important and relevant this week.
have mercy on us
when our hearts turn cold,
when war and injustice are so common that they trouble us no more,
when we think Israelis cannot co-exist with Palestinians in the city of peace
Have mercy on us
when we think we are religious by loving you without loving neighbors,
when we treat neighbors as burdens and respect colleagues only dutifully,
when we turn cynical because of the haunting past and overwhelming now.
Have mercy on us
when we have sight but no vision,
when fear paralyzes and hope i utopia,
when Cross does not shake us,
the crucifixion no more a stigma,
the resurrection a myth.
may your faith be our righteousness,
your hope our vision,
your love our doxology,
your image our humanness (as community)
and your humanity, our divinity,
thought Christ our Lord, Amen!