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“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” Wow. Do you hear it? The frustration? The passion? The sheer urgency of what Paul is trying to say to the church in Galatia? Again this week we are reading from his letter, addressing these people about one of the fundamental conflicts facing their community, and Paul is past the point of being his pastoral self, being his supportive self, being what we ministers like to think of as a “non-anxious presence.” Paul is raw. He is agonized. He might even be angry, because they Just. Do. Not. Get. It.
The conflict is the same one we spoke of last week. It’s about the dividing line some want to draw about who is in and who is out of the community of Jesus-followers. As Paul summarizes, it’s about “Jew versus Greek,” the opposing positions of whether or not the historic marks of Judaism need to be carried forward in order to follow Jesus faithfully. But it makes me think of so many other dividing lines that we face day to day, in our homes, in our communities, in our culture. So, here, I will share some recent experiences of “the lines that divide us.”
Fat versus Thin. Well, the internet exploded this week when remarks by the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch were circulated. Among other things, he said that Abercrombie and Fitch only carries women’s sizes up to 10 because the store doesn’t want its core customers, whom he described as “the cool kids,” to see “people who aren’t as hot as them” wearing the clothes. They carry men’s sizes to XXL because athletes—well, male athletes—are still considered the “cool kids,” even when they’re extra large. He summarized A & F’s marketing strategy by saying, “Abercrombie is only interested in people with washboard stomachs who look like they're about to jump on a surfboard.”
Putting aside issues around health, which we all should take seriously, as well as the common sense notion that every business has a marketing strategy which we may or may not think is a good idea, it’s rare to have someone state so baldly and unapologetically such a nasty and exclusionary world view. Writing for the Huffington Post, Amy Taylor observed,
Mean-spiritedness aside, Mr. Jeffries' comments raise a flag about a bigger, more troubling cultural issue. Pretend, for one moment, that instead of fat chicks, unattractive people or “not-so-cool” kids Mr. Jeffries had said “African Americans” or “homosexuals” or “single moms.” As a society, we would rise up and crucify any brand that flaunted that kind of exclusionary business plan.[i]
Black versus white. Another news story, even bigger than the one about people who are judged to be too big, was the story of three women and a child who were rescued this week after nearly ten years in captivity in Cleveland. A neighbor, Charles Ramsey, in the middle of eating his lunch, heard pounding on a door and screams for help, and responded by helping to break down the door, releasing a young woman whose abduction nearly ten years earlier had made the national news. When the police arrived, they discovered two more young women as well as a small child. The heroic neighbor was later interviewed, and I’m sure many of you saw that interview on TV or the internet. The interviewer asked him, “What was the girls’ reaction when they came out?” His response was striking. “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway.”
In the middle of being instrumental in helping to save three women and a child, by all accounts a hero, Mr. Ramsey made a profound observation about race relations in this country. That a white woman should see a black man as her helper and rescuer revealed to him the extraordinary nature of the moment. It was, as he said, a dead giveaway.
Christian versus Muslim. I was in a downtown shop when a gentleman came in looking for a particular item, which the owner of the shop promised to help him find. The shopper had been referred by a friend, and as he turned to go, he said, “And you won’t have to wait for me to pay you,” evidently a reference to his friend. We all laughed. And then he said, “You know, no one should make you wait for your pay. There is a precept in Islam, ‘Pay your laborers before their sweat has dried.’”
He went on. “I can’t stand it when Muslims give themselves a bad name. I hate it that Islam has been hijacked by people who have it completely wrong, terrorizing and bombing people. You know what Islam means? It means ‘peace, submission.’ And Muslim means, ‘one who has submitted to the peace of God.’ Muslims believe that Jesus was right when he said that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. That’s what Muslims believe.” A few moments later, he left, seeming relieved to have imparted a message that was clearly urgent to him.
Like Paul’s message was urgent. There are so many lines we allow to divide us. I’ve named just three. But if we look closer we begin to notice that the lines blur, because, as it happens, larger people like to be fashionable and comfortable, just like smaller people; and in a moment of fear and danger, people come together without regard for things like race but thinking and acting only with regard to helping, and finding safety; and people of different religious beliefs can have core values in common, such as peace, loving God with all you are, and loving your neighbor as yourself. The dividing lines are not so absolute as some would have us believe.
And as astonishing as that notion is to us, imagine how it was for the Galatians. “There is no longer Jew or Greek,” Paul tells them. Which means that there are no second- and third-class Jesus followers, no Christians who are superior by virtue of their religious practices. “There is no longer slave or free,” he goes on. Which means one of the most ancient and rigid societal classifications—who is owner and who is property—has no bearing on who is a member of the community of faith, or what their position is in that community. Just like that. “There is no longer male and female,” Paul insists. Which I am confident his audience finds nearly unthinkable, because many people, many churches of Jesus Christ still have a tough time fully embracing the notion. “For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
All of you are one. Which doesn’t, by the way, mean “all of you are indistinguishable from one another,” or “all of you believe exactly the same thing,” or even “there is no difference between any of you.” If you look around, you will see that our creating God loves diversity… no two of us are alike, even if we are twins. We are unique, and uniquely gifted, and the community—the church, the neighborhood, the workplace, the world—needs our unique and irreplaceable gifts if it is to thrive. All of you are one. And all of you are different. And that difference is precious. It is difference that enables creativity, and innovation, and art. It is difference that opens our eyes to the extraordinary—the contrast of purple and orange and green, which seem so opposed, and yet in a garden, sparkle and show one another’s beauty. It is difference that enables blessing to flow, from one to another to another.
And still, and yet, “all of you are one.” It all comes back to blessing. Do we believe that blessings are to be gathered up and stored like keepsakes in a china cabinet, or hoarded like bottled water and cans of soup for an apocalypse? Or do we believe that blessings ought to flow through us, like water in a riverbed? Paul reminds his Galatian church that one of God’s promises to Abraham was that all the Gentiles, literally, all the nations, would be blessed in and through him, through his descendants. We are blessed, not so that we can have yet another dividing line, those who are blessed versus those who are not blessed, but so that those lines will be erased once and for all. We are blessed so that we can be a blessing to others. So that in sharing our blessings, we all may truly be one… not identical, not uninterestingly bland and mashed together like so many potatoes, but one in the Spirit, one in the Lord. One. So that the distinguishing mark of being a Christian will be, as Jesus prayed it would be, love. Thanks be to God. Amen.