Sermons

By Pastor John Johnson

May 9 Us and Them

May 10, 2018

Patricia and I had a wonderful few days of break that lie behind why I was not here this past Sunday. And while we visited a good friend who is experiencing MS and I did some pre-marital counseling with a niece and her fiancé — and Patricia visited two of her friends, — all of these occurring in the Chicago area, the main purpose of the trip was to visit a particular program at the University of Illinois one-hundred thirty miles to the south, well known for its football ineptness, but coming to be known in some circles for its fine Lyric Theatre program led by two friends of ours.

What the heck is “lyric theatre”? Simply musical drama — opera and musical plays, — and last weekend, as I had indicated two weeks ago, the Lyric Theatre program was presenting, at my suggestion, “She Loves Me!” which I had incorrectly stated was a 1962 musical when it was in fact a 1963 musical. Whether I perjured myself, I leave to you.

I had not been able to free myself seven or so weeks back when, in the same program, one of those friends was directing (and himself singing in two performances of) “Don Giovanni,” an opera by Mozart with words in Italian. In February, I had traveled to Champaign-Urbana — not at the cost of a missed Sunday here — to do the funeral of one of my two closest friends, and had seen some of the rehearsal for that opera the afternoon I arrived. There were two performers for each part, since opera singing is a challenge for young voices, and one of the students I saw in one of the smaller parts was a bearded fellow who appeared to be Asian. I neither spoke to him nor met him; I was not there to interfere with the rehearsal; I was just waiting for my friend to arrive.

But apparently this bearded fellow saw me watching, because either during the intermission or at a reception after “She Loves Me!” on Thursday night a week ago, he saw me flash a possibly-puzzled look of “I’ve seen you before,” and came over and gave me a greeting hug. He looked familiar, but I did not immediately know why, but we conversed and I soon recalled where I had seen him. “Tell me about yourself,” I asked, and he said he was a doctoral student in voice; “Where are you from?” “China.” “Where in China?” and I did not know the place he named, which he said was in the north.

Isn’t it fascinating? Not the “What is a Chinese doing singing in Italian in a USA university?” but that I had two months earlier stood, I thought, unobserved, and this fellow, who almost half the time I was at the rehearsal of “Don Giovanni” was going through his paces acting and preparing for the one song he would sing, yet when he saw me two months later, not merely recognized me, but joyfully greeted me as though I were, what, a friend? A neighbor?

I did not ask him, “Are you a Christian?” For his was rather Christian-like behavior, but I would almost never ask anyone that question, because in terms of my own behavior, the more immediate fact is always that the other person is always a fellow child of God; he or she is always my neighbor.

And perhaps even more importantly, and driving my understanding of “fellow child of God” or “neighbor,” is that Christ died for him, too. That, I believe, is the full message of the story in Acts that we read this morning, in which Peter expresses that Jesus died not just for His fellow Jews, but for the Gentiles, too.

But it is so human to classify humans into tribes, as Jonah Goldberg writes in his book, or into divisions of “us” and “them.” It is so human, and people of faith are not above thinking of “us” and “them.”

In a recent “Biblical Archaeology” email, one of my favorite authorities on the [Hebrew Bible] Old Testament, Richard Elliot Friedman, headlines a re-printed piece, “Love Your Neighbor: Israelites or Everyone?” And not to my surprise, nor to the surprise of those who have studied Deuteronomy or Leviticus with me, Friedman says that it is, indeed, “everyone,” citing among other verses, as I so often do, the same chapter of Leviticus in which we find, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the thematically parallel and grammatically near parallel,
The alien who resides with you shall be to you like a citizen of yours, and you shall love him as yourself, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

The writer of Acts does not describe what thoughts were going on in Peter’s mind, of course, only the words coming out of his mouth, but I have to wonder, “Were those words from Leviticus also going around in his head?” For the idea of loving everyone suggests to me that God would want everyone to be saved! And for those who might say back to me, “Yes, but God conditioned that on their accepting Jesus,” I respond, “That’s between Him and them.”

Why does this matter? What does “tribalism” have to do with anything? I believe that tribalism — which includes what is called “identity politics,” with identity being not merely race or gender but in fact political philosophy or interests or alignment, tribalism causes us to fail to see the other as a child of God, as one for whom Christ died, and when tribalism appears as it sometimes does within the Christians family (just read a specific one of my fellow “pastor’s” columns when they appear in the Florence newspaper), it tears at the fabric that should bind together those of us who profess to be part of the capital “C” Church of Jesus Christ.

. . . and tribalism in the specific form of racism has a horrendous history — though I am sick of the denomination’s constantly hammering on “racism” as the topic with which we should be most concerned, and sick of the way “racist” is so irresponsibly used.

Still, that past racism offers an interesting prism through which to see how we fail to see others as who they are: fellow children of God

Bill Curry has to be about my age. He is a retired college football coach who apparently does some TV work now. He is white, like me, as well. Curry grew up — Presbyterian, by the way — in Georgia where his parents acknowledged that it was “wrong” that there were separate water fountains, but accepted it. He played college football in the south where, until Southern Methodist had one Jerry Levias on its team beginning in 1966, only the historic “Black” colleges allowed African Americans on their teams. Curry was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1964, before that first step of integration happened, and had some absolutely fabulous comments in a last year’s ESPN radio interview. I wish — and not just for this reason — our cheeseheads had not all returned to Wisconsin for the summer, because I know they would have appreciated more than one aspect of what he said:
I was undersized; I was the last draft choice of the Packers. And they were the next to last team choosing, so I was the next to last guy chosen in the ’64 draft. I had lived in the South all my life, but none of those were my biggest problem. I had played for Robert E. Lee “Bobby” Dodd [at Georgia Tech], who was the epitome of the Southern gentleman. And I walk in the [Packers’] locker room where the guy [he is speaking, of course, of the legendary Vince Lombardi] is definitely not Southern, plus he’s a Yankee, plus he’s a Catholic … and it was just foreign to me. He was all of those things that we weren’t supposed to like. I was put off by his manner and his profanity and by the screaming and yelling and all that. But that was not my biggest problem.
My biggest problem was I had never been in the huddle with an African-American person. There were teams in the league that had quotas, or they had no African-American players, and they bragged about it. In the Packers’ training camp, if you said one racist sentence, you were cut immediately. That was the talk in the locker room. On a 40-man roster we had 10 African-American players, and [Lombardi] would have had 40 because he didn’t care about the color of your skin. He cared a lot if you could play football, and he cared a lot if you were a good human being.

Curry, by the way changed substantially from his Green Bay experiences; three years into his time there, he felt he needed to attend the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have further reasons for admiring Vince Lombardi having nothing to do with football, itself let alone the Green Bay Packers, but the point in my relating this is that it was only during the adult lifetimes of most of us here this morning that the “us” and “them” of White versus, then, Negro, now African American, died — died almost.

And that “almost” is sad and, I regret but believe, while it is partly because we seldom have enough contact with people of other races, it is also true that there are those who benefit from maintaining the separation of “us” and “them.”

Frankly, I do not believe there is a soul here today who would argue that it is Christian in any way to have Whites, which it would appear all of us here today would be classified, consider ourselves the only and the exclusive “us,” and those others as “them”; and not quite so important to God as are we. That would make Jesus weep; that cannot be compatible with what Peter learned and then said.

I have had many wonderful experiences, true gifts from God, in my life, including working in a steel mill’s filthy coke batteries where ninety percent of my co-workers were African American; including serving at an African American church; including now working now with a Tohono O’Odham Nation church; including my world-wide business experiences with Brazilians, Japanese, Indians, Chinese, and others. I had Jewish college roommates, and one of my best friends — the one with MS — is Jewish. Am I bragging? No; I am thanking God for letting me see what Peter saw.

In our first encounters with any “them’s,” discomfort and uncertainty are to be expected. It is to be expected, but once we turn out the visual, and sometimes accent or other aural, differences, we know that we are dealing with what — whom — God has made, dealing with more“us’s,” not with “them.”

But John, what does this have to do with the Chinese student singer?

Is it not clear? It is not that he is a fellow Illini, it is that what binds us as humans, as children of God, is greater than what separates us. Us; everyone is us. OK, everyone is we, does that sound better? And even a glance that recognizes the presence of another can make someone aware that we is us!

I really doubt that anyone here today needed to hear these words from me; you are all good people. Yet as mainline Christians, I think we need to hear them in a way that is possibly more akin to the “Jews and Gentiles” perspective of the writer of Acts: as tough as it is for me not to scorn some of those who proclaim Christianity differently than do I, they are children of God seeking to do God’s will however imperfectly, and even harmfully, they might seem to me to be doing so. Those Mormons seeking to convert me are children of God. Those atheists and militant agnostics I am seeking in my writing to persuade are children of God.

As children of God, they are not a “them.” I truly believe that Jesus died for all as much as Jesus died for me. No one is less important, less loved, than I — who feels much loved by God — because that one might not know Him or I might feel he or she does not know Him in the light I might prefer, but Jesus died for them as for me.

But while some — many, even most — may believe that only those who profess Jesus as Christ will see the Kingdom of God, I have hope; for those who do not profess or have not yet professed are still children of God. So let us at least pray that “them” will come to know God through Him.

. . . pray, and direct His Church to reaching “them.”

Peter found out in a “trance”; let us find in reality: God shows no favors.

And in Jesus’ name, Am

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