With Jesus, there are no more us and them

(I preached this sermon yesterday in response to Acts 8:26-40. You can find the recording of the service including the sermon on the church website – www.ststephenlc.org.)

Time Magazine published an opinion piece on Jan 15 of this year – nine days after the events at the Capital in DC – penned by Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State from about two decades ago, who is now in her mid-80’s, and well removed from the partisan political environment of today.  

This is how she started her piece – “At this moment of shock, sadness, and hope, it might be wise to reflect on the two most dangerous words in the human vocabulary: ‘us’ and ‘them.’”

At the core of her reflection she offered this – “In today’s not-so-United States, we must acknowledge that our divisions extend far beyond matters of political affiliation to include religion, race, gender, education, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and urban vs. rural.  Confronted by this reality, many citizens are tempted either to retreat more deeply into their respective group identities or to insist piously that such categories are irrelevant and should not matter.  Neither approach works.  Exacerbating our differences is one road to disaster; denying them is another.”

I think that’s a pretty good summary of the divisions we face as a nation.  But let’s not kid ourselves – This isn’t new.  It’s been building for decades.  And I don’t know about you, but all too often in recent years it feels as though the divisions of our society aren’t just firmly held differences of opinion, but almost represent people on different planets, who see those that are different from them as threats or the embodiment of evil and who are unwilling to even attempt to listen, let alone communicate with each other.  I guess we’re just too busy trying to be right.  And that makes me sad.  Because I don’t think it helps anyone.  And I don’t think it represents what it means to be a follower of Jesus either.  

Faith isn’t about having the right ideas and badgering others into adopting our ways of living and believing.  Faith isn’t about being right, rather than living faithfully.  Faith isn’t about who you get to condemn, hate, or exclude – you know, turn a person or a group of people into a “them.”  

No, faith sets us free from all of that.  Faith opens us to seeing how expansive God really is.  Faith clears our eyes so that we can see the image of God in all others – especially those we deem as our enemies.  Faith softens our hearts so that we can forgive and be forgiven.  

The Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey put it this way – “God’s subversive maneuvers to get it through our thick heads and hearts is that God’s generosity is actually for ALL people.”

And God has always been breaking down these barriers, and the expectations that humanity will be divided into an us and a them.  God has always been showing us that there is no us and them.  That there is only us.  God has been moving us past the current reality, regardless of where or when, to a new reality – one based on shalom, which means wholeness.  

That wholeness always seems to run through the wilderness – a place of chaos, uncertainty, encounters with different people and groups, different cultures, and ways of being and thinking.  

The question is do we see it?  Scripture has been telling us this story all along. 

The Exodus story was about leaving the certainty of us and them and the slavery and exploitation that those ways caused in Egypt and instead going into the wilderness for a new way of being.  God had something new to do.  A new reality.  

During the Babylonian Exile, the prophet Isaiah writes in chapter 43 – “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”  It’s God’s promise for the people – to take them out of the us and them of Babylon and send them into the wilderness back to the promised land – but as part of a new reality.  A more expansive reality.  

The book of Acts is really the continuation of the Gospel of Luke.  And in Luke 3, we hear about John the Baptist.  He’s in the wilderness, not at the temple.  It’s in the wilderness where John is proclaiming a baptism of repentance and for the forgiveness of sins.  Baptism wipes away the us and the them.  In baptism we belong to God – we are a part of God’s family.  That’s expansive.  It comes with a new reality.  

And in Acts, Luke makes over 30 references to Isaiah.  And it is Isaiah that keeps harping on the expansiveness of God – How God goes beyond the current reality to a new reality.  In Isaiah 49:6, we hear the prophet proclaim, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  There is no us and them.  God reaches to the ends of the earth.  God reaches beyond the us and the them to a new reality.  

We hear this same idea repeated at the very beginning of Acts in 1:8 – Jesus is speaking to the disciples and he says to them “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  

This is Jesus’ last instructions before he ascends to heaven.  And from there all of Acts unfolds.  Acts is all about the expansiveness of God.  It’s about moving us past the current reality.  It starts in Jerusalem, where everything has been going on up to then.  There is an us and them – the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians.  There are great debates about food, about who gets to hang out together, and where certain people can worship.  And when we get to chapter 8, things are changing.  We hear about Philip.  Guess where he starts off – in Samaria – doing exactly what Jesus said.  He’s participating in the expansion of the kingdom of God, the establishment of a new reality, one that overcomes the old us and them.  Samaritans and Jews hated each other, and yet that’s where Philip is breaking down the walls of us and them that divide and separate.  

And then we hear how he is sent to the wilderness in today’s first reading.  And it’s in the wilderness, the place that is as far away from the temple as you can get.  The temple is the holy place – the ultimate us and them location.  The temple allowed Gentiles in, but only to one of the courtyards.  Then only men could go further.  But even had limits.  It’s the priests could go in further, but not all the way.  Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year.  Lots of us’s and them’s.  

And Philip doesn’t encounter just anyone.  No, he encounters an Ethiopian Eunuch – a person who is sexually non-binary by definition.  Someone who could not get into the temple because he didn’t fit into the “us” category.  Someone who was a “them” because of his sexuality, and because he was a foreigner.  This Eunuch is the first foreign convert recorded in Acts.  This is a new reality for Philip, for the Eunuch, and for the church. 

And it’s from here, this story, that things really start to take off.  Where God’s kingdom expands in unimaginable ways.  God is in the business of changing reality, especially when that reality has been about us and them.  

Jesus changes our vision.  Makes our vision larger than our current reality so that we can see what God is up to.  So we can see past the us and them to something far better.  

Matt Skinner, professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary had this to say, “Acts, like Easter, urges you to put cautious rationality on the shelf and follow an unrestrained God into the world.  Wondering as you go what else might be possible.  Both Acts and Easter want your imagination to run wild.”

I’ve seen this.  I saw it each time we prepared a meal during our dinner with friends.  There’s no us and them.  We all sit and eat together, sing together, play games together, pray together.  We hear each other’s stories.  Us and them don’t make room in our hearts and minds for people’s stories.  But Jesus does.  

I’ve seen this in how we do social ministry – regardless of whether we are at the truck stop, doing laundry with people and sharing a meal together at the same table sharing the same food, or whether we are walking along side people with health and financial concerns.  We know people by name and share their lives through community and relationship with one another.  Us and them doesn’t make room others to have names. But Jesus does.  

I’ve seen this in how we have adapted to new ways of worshipping – ways no one envisioned a little over a year ago.  Our reality crashed when the pandemic struck.  And God fashioned a new reality.  Because that’s what God does.  

I saw a meme this week that gave a nice summary of this very idea.  It said, “The mark of a great church is not how many come, but how many people live differently for having been there.”

That’s really the mark of a church where Jesus is at work.  Where us and them are set aside so that the mission of Jesus can be carried out.  A mission that is expansive – that changes and transforms reality.  A mission that is so compelling that we want to spend our lives chasing it, embodying it, and sharing it.  

Yesterday I had a wonderful conversation with a person at an outside event.  During the conversation this gentleman asked why there were so many challenges in overcoming racial divides in the neighborhood adjacent to his church and what they could do about it.  Every attempt just seemed to be superficial at best.  One-time events with no intention of going deeper.  He was disappointed.  He really wanted to be in community with these folks.  

What we talked about was building trust.  Building trust takes time.  It’s about consistency.  It’s about showing up over and over and over again, with no hidden agenda.  Just showing up and being there with people.  Listening to folks.  And the beautiful thing about this is that when trust comes, there is no more us and them.  Us and them isn’t needed when you know someone, when you know their names, when you know their story.  When you trust each other.  

There is no us and them.  There is only us.  

Or as Prof. Matt Skinner asks – “What will it mean for all of us if the gospel is indeed good news for all people, without exception?”  

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