These are such words of promise and hope which are ours to receive today. Indeed, they paint an image of a world wholly unlike the one we live into and navigate every day, where too much, far too often, we are divided, and often by things a whole lot smaller than the markers Paul lays out before us now. Without a doubt, at least in in my experience, the vision before us now is one we can hardly imagine for ourselves, much less one which we find ourselves living in or into in even incremental ways.
Clearly, this has always been so, or Paul would not have found it necessary to write this to the church at Galatia so long ago. This being so, it is easy to see that the seemingly human tendency to compartmentalize our faith in such a way that it has no bearing on how we actually live is a powerful, life-altering, life-threatening challenge with which we likely will always contend.
Over the last couple of years as I have been called to go deep into our collective history and relationship with race, it is apparent that this is so even in the church. One might even argue that the church was instrumental in setting up this basic construct which continues to divide in ways both deadening and deadly.
Spend a minute with even one snippet of history and you will see what I mean. For instance, in 1667 the state of Virginia’s colonial government passed an act declaring that baptism did not confer actual freedom upon those who were enslaved. You can read the original wording of this piece of legislation here. Or if you wish, dig into Jemar Tisby’s work, The Color of Compromise which explores the ways in which both what the church has done and what the church has failed to do continues to keep people enslaved, regardless of their baptismal status. Indeed, regardless of the vision Paul so succinctly offers now.
To be sure, one can come up with a whole lot of ways in which we divide ourselves, neglecting to hear Paul’s words now as both gift and promise into which we are called to live. And perhaps this has never been more true than it is today.
So it is I would offer a story now of such division. I expect you will find yourself somewhere in it as well.
I was heading home from work, needing to make a stop for something on the way. As I stepped out of my car, I saw her. Truth be told, my first thought was to turn my back, to pretend I didn’t see, to walk quickly to the front door of the store I was headed into. She was a ways off. Maybe she wouldn’t notice. Maybe I could get away with not actually seeing the one who was headed right in my direction then.
I hesitated though. She called out to me. I took a deep breath and forced myself to stand still and wait.
As she drew near, I could see some of the ways which already divided us, which set us apart from one another in this world now. As I stood and listened, I heard about the rest.
- She was a black woman, likely a number of years younger than I am.
- Her clothes appeared to be slept in and the purse she held close to her body apparently didn’t have much in it.
- She had no teeth, literally none at all.
And as she talked, I heard much more.
- Of her having spent the night in jail, having been put there with her son. I never did hear why.
- Of her hunger — her assertion that at least in Chicago jails they feed you. And in this the truth that she had some experience with all of this, deserved or not.
- Of the fact that her son was driving her home to Chicago, but now he is in jail and she has no way to get there and no money to make it happen.
And oh, she knew exactly what she needed to get a bus to the train station and the train home. She needed $38. And she was hungry so she would be grateful for a little more.
I told her I wasn’t carrying any cash, but she assured me I could get cash back in any of the stores just steps away. Which of course was so.
So we walked together towards one of them. As we walked, she went on to tell me that she was grateful that she had been able to take her meds for her ‘bipolar,’ as she put it, the day before. Although she said they had taken them from her at the county jail and she was worried about this.
I suggested she find some shade while I went inside. I made a small purchase and came out with my bag and some cash. As I approached her, her eyes widened and she said, “You came back!”
Now there is a whole lot wrong with this story. I expect I did not solve many of her problems by giving her a couple of twenty-dollar bills, although she said she was heading into Subway right then to get herself a sandwich. And yet, even if she used the money for exactly what she said she was going to use it for, all it would do was get her home to a place which likely is not all that life giving either.
Indeed, more than anything, this is what stays with me now — the surprised look on her face and her exclamation, ‘You came back!’ And oh, I cannot help but wonder how many others she had chased down in the parking lot that day, only to have a kind promise made and then have the person simply disappear. And yet, even with this, to be sure, there is a whole lot wrong with this story for my response did not begin to address the sorts of systemic challenges which keep this one woman enslaved or imprisoned by forces so far out of her control.
And so this is where I land after that brief encounter in a parking lot a few days back:
- We live in a world so awfully divided by the things Paul lays out for us now and so much more.
- But we are also called to live with a faith which reminds us that this is not the world God intends for us.
- And this much I know. As long as you and I keep living as though what we say we believe has no bearing on our lives in the world, we are allowing ourselves to carry on the work of those legislators in Virginia centuries ago where they so publicly decided that what we say we believe has no actual bearing on the world in which we live and how we live in it.
I believe we are called to a better way.
And I do believe that Paul’s words today point to a way of being in the world which may seem out of reach, but are not. Not if we hear them as true. And not if we hear the sure call to each of us embedded within them to remember and to live as though what we believe matters.
Not only for some far distant future, but for right now.
- How does the vision of ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ preach where you are? What sorts of divisions might you be called to still address?
- What does it, what might it, look like to not ‘compartmentalize’ our faith? How might everything begin to move closer towards the vision Paul offers now?
- I have offered a clear historical example of when a decision was made to not live into the promise offered in our reading today. Can you think of others which illustrate the same? What might they be?
- How might this be heard as truly good news in your context in the days to come? What difference would it make if all that divided us simply no longer were?