Saturday, July 30, 2016

Year C, Proper 13, Colossians 3:1-11, "All and In All"

“All and In All”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen

“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.  In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”

There is a fact that rattles us to the core.
Most of us, I believe.
It is a fact that we don’t like to talk about much.
It is a change that will shape our identity, our culture, and everything about the American experience.
Some will embrace the change.
Others will try valiantly to oppose it.
It will shape our politics.
It will shape our religious communities.
And for those who have the opportunity to live long enough, there will be amazement at the difference a lifetime of change can make.

Forty years ago, when I graduated from high school, there were two things that defined our identity as a country: we considered ourselves to be a “White”, and a “Christian”, nation.  We acknowledged in our best moments that there were minorities, both racial and religious, but they were clearly minorities
That was forty years ago.

If we leap ahead another forty years from now,
To the year 2055, our country will have experienced two radical changes in the landscape, the demographics that define who we are.
There will not be a racial majority.  Or to put it differently, whites will become a minority alongside other minorities.  There will be more blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in our country than whites.
And by that time, if current trends continue, there will be more people unaffiliated with any religion than there are Christians.  We will have become a secular nation, without any particular religion defining who we are. 

Actually, this second fact may not come to be.  It may be that Christianity remains the dominant religion, and that many will continue this walk of faith –
But in forty years Christianity in this country will likely NOT be predominantly white.
More likely, is that the Christian Church in this country will become predominantly black and Hispanic. 

These are simply the facts.
To quote Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changin’”

And if we are honest with ourselves, as white Christians in this country, the fact that in a generation we will be a clear minority makes us uncomfortable.  And for many of us, more than a little uncomfortable.

This is part of a larger global trend in Christianity.
As Europe and North America are becoming increasingly secular, the center of Christianity is shifting.
The Christian Church in Latin America remains strong.
It is thriving in Africa.
And in what may be a surprise to all of us, as early as 2030, just 14 years from now, the largest Christian nation in the world may be China. 

Again, regardless how we feel about it, these are simply the facts. 
My own reaction to this is mixed.
I am deeply saddened that the faith we hold so dear, is not being passed on very effectively to our children.
And at the same time, it excites me that in countries like China, and Russia, where Christianity was actively suppressed throughout the communist era, it is now exploding with growth.

However, if I’m honest with myself,
                If we are honest with ourselves,
                I think we have to admit that these changes make us extremely uncomfortable.

When people rally around a political slogan such as “Take America Back” isn’t it an effort to turn back the clock to that time a generation ago when our primary identity was of being a white, Christian, nation, led by men?

This is not a new issue.
Human beings have struggled with this for a long time.
Historically, the first major struggle within the Christian Church was over this question of identity, and who was to be included.
Christianity, of course, was closely tied to the Jewish faith.  And the first thing they had to determine was whether one must first be a Jew, in order to become a Christian.  That was both a racial question, and a religious question.  Jew or Greek – racial distinctions.  Circumcised or uncircumcised – religious distinctions.

In today’s lesson from Colossians Paul goes on to list barbarians and Scythians.  The term “barbarian” was used to refer to all those people who were not part of the “civilized” Greco-Roman world, the pagans who lived to the north in Europe.
Scythians were a particular group of barbarians, that lived from the area of Iran through the western regions of Russia and the Ukraine.  They were feared as they were some of the first to master warfare on horseback.  They were the epitome of “the enemy”.
 And then Paul mentions the differences in class, slave and free, an economic difference.  He could just as well have said “rich and poor” for the poor were generally enslaved to the rich. 

In the similar verse from Galatians, Paul also adds the distinction of male and female.
Racial distinctions.
Religious distinctions.
Distinguishing between allies and enemies.
Economic distinctions.
And gender distinctions.

In general, Paul lists all the ways that we define ourselves over and against the other, all the basic distinctions that we make between human beings, all of the things that so easily divide us, and then makes this radical statement that these things are no more, for Christ is all, and in all.

He speaks of the “new self” that is being renewed in the image of its creator.
In saying that, Paul is saying that our identity is shaped, not by the distinctions that we are so quick to make as human beings, but by the very image of God.
And all people are created in his image, which means that to fully comprehend who God is, we must fully embrace the diversity of who we are. 
But this remains a challenge for us.
“Birds of a feather, flock together.”
We remain most comfortable, both religiously and culturally, when we associate with those people that are like us. 

This is particularly true for us as Lutherans.
Because of our history, we are a Church that is predominantly German and Scandinavian in our makeup.  Even when our congregations are located in communities that are much more diverse than that, we tend to remain “who we are”.
For nearly thirty years we have tried to change that and become a more inclusive Church, but our efforts have largely failed to make any meaningful progress.
But over and against our own failings in this regard, there is the promise:  That Christ is all, and in all; that none of the distinctions which we make will finally divide us, but rather that this diversity will one day be recognized for what it is, namely, the image of God.
Christ is all and in all.  What a gift it is when we can come to embrace the child of God, the image of God, in all.  Not in some.

The Jew becomes my sister.  The Muslim my brother.  The poor my friend.  The black, or Hispanic, a beloved neighbor.  It is a recognition that mommas  love their babies in Syria as well.  The world that God created had no borders, and certainly no walls.  That's our invention.  And it is not part of the kingdom of God.

The longer I live, the more I believe that God’s love does indeed embrace ALL of his children.  And when I say “All of his children” I have come to believe that it includes everyone who is created in his image, which is, everyone. 
You see, the love that God has for us, is not just for us.
It’s not just for the deserving.
It’s not just for a particular group of people.  It’s not just for Lutherans, or for that matter, Christians.
 John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son. . .”
And in Revelation, as John described his vision of the New Jerusalem, it includes “the nations”, not one nation, not one people, but all nations and all peoples.
It is hard for us to comprehend the fullness of God’s grace, and his capacity to love all people.  Like the Jewish people before us, it is easier to comprehend that we are the chosen ones, and no one else belongs.

But God’s ability to love is greater than ours.
And one day, the promise is that we will come to fully comprehend the fullness and depth and breadth of God’s grace and God’s mercy. 
Until that day, we get only glimpses as we grow into that promise.  We have those fleeting moments when we comprehend the presence of Christ in our neighbor.

Its these moments that we cling to in the midst of all that is changing in our world.

And we cling to the notion that the love of God that unites us will prevail in the end over everything that might otherwise divide us.


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