My cousin Alan is a big teddy bear of a guy. He’s kind of a cross between a bouncer at a club and a young Santa Claus. Imposing enough that you’d never mess with him, but so gentle and kind that being with him is kind of like sitting on Santa’s lap.
Alan tells the story of the day he learned never to judge a book by its cover.
In his high school gym class, there was the typical cast of characters – the group of big bullies who everyone stayed away from, and most people just avoided getting tangled up with. But in his class was this one scrawny little redhead kid, who was the stereotype of an easy target. As you might expect, the group of bullies decided to zero in on him. But little did they know that he had been studying martial arts since he was a young boy, and so when this group of bullies started in on him, nobody saw it coming. In Alan’s words, he watched as this kid roundhouse kicked his way out of this group of attackers; Alan said that that day, he learned never to judge anyone based on what you see.
It’s a natural human tendency to make decisions about other people before we really know them – we draw lines in the sand, we put people into boxes so we understand them through our own worldview. We more easily relate to people once they’re in certain “categories” in our mind.
Sometimes it’s all in good fun. We say things like “Oh you’re such a Brooklynite” or “you know how musicians are” or “of course it’s the clergy, always stirring up trouble.” In Armenian culture, even though we are a century removed from the villages in Ottoman Turkey where our grandparents were born, we still joke about inherited traits like a gift for music or the tendency to be a party animal that are old stereotypes of the people from these different villages.
Some judgments we make about people aren’t as good-natured. Perhaps without even being fully aware of it, we make judgments about people based on things like their race or ethnicity, religious affiliation, class, education level, or gender. We assign certain levels of intelligence, capability, leadership acumen, and strength, based on biases we’ve inherited and biases that are all around us. The constant work of becoming beloved community is the continued confrontation and dismantling of these thought patterns – and the humbling part of that work is that the more we dismantle, the more work we realize we still have to do.
Sometimes – and I would even dare to say often – these judgments happen within the body of Christ. I remember when I was a teenager, in my rather conservative Armenian church, one day as a well-dressed, beautifully coiffed woman walked past me on her way to her pew, I heard her person behind me mutter, not so quietly, “Would you look at her? For shame! She’s wearing pants!” How many times have we passed judgment and looked down on someone within our own faith community?
This human tendency to judge others is as old as time, and it affected even the earliest Christians. Paul’s letter to the Romans addresses this very issue in the church in Rome, where Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were struggling to figure out how to be part of the same community. But instead of how to dress appropriately for church, they were bickering about dietary differences – the devout and rigorous Jewish Christians abstained from eating meat, while the Gentile Roman Christians happily carved away at the dinner table.
Paul highlights an important element of these differing practices that these two communities can’t seem to understand – that both do what they do in order to honor God. In the Jewish framework, abstaining from meat was part of their covenant with God. In the Gentile framework, meat was part of God’s gift of creation. How can you honor God by doing two completely opposite things? One has to be right, and the other has to be wrong! But no, Paul says, not everyone honors God in the same way.
And on top of that, Paul adds another layer – he talks about weak and strong people in the faith. He gets right to the heart of what’s happening in that community – some of them think they’re better than others. The Roman Christians – the people of power, the people of the Empire – are finding themselves superior to these strange Jews with their bizarre and legalistic eating habits that they think brings them closer to God somehow.
This is important for us to hear in our own context today. Surely, none of us is immune from somewhere, deep down, seeing others around us as “weaker” or “lesser” members than ourselves. Is it those who are poor, homeless, and hungry? Is it the immigrant and the refugee? Is it those who suffer from addiction or abuse? Is it atheists? Those who are new to the faith, or just returning to church as adults? Is it Christian fundamentalists, right-wing conservatives who preach a Gospel of intolerance? Who do we think of as weak – who do we think we are better than?
Because it is us to whom Paul is speaking when he says, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”
Now, I don’t like that any more than you do. It’s not comfortable to hear that I’m not totally righteous and I might have to check myself and my own heart and examine it for its own operational biases.
But as Scripture does, there is not condemnation, but hope, offered here.
The earliest Christians called themselves “people of the way,” and Paul reminds us that we are people of a third way. Not Jew, or Gentile, but the way of Christ. Paul says: If we live, we live unto the lord; if we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession. Jew and Gentile, black and white, male and female, rich and poor, vegetarian and carnivore, we belong to God. One isn’t better than the other.
It can be easy to read this letter to the Romans from our 21st century lens and say that Paul is calling for tolerance, or for a celebration of diversity. But that would be missing the point. Paul is less concerned with celebrating diversity, and more concerned with celebrating our unity in Christ. Because he really believed that identity as Christians was more powerful than any dividing line our own humanity created.
That’s powerful stuff. And it’s an important challenge for us as a community of faith, ESPECIALLY in our culture where the focus is constantly on what divides us. What a beacon of light the church could be, how brightly we would shine Christ’s light to the world, if we are willing to do the work of looking inside our own selves and examining our own judgments and biases and allow God to enter even the darkest corners of our hearts and unite us to one another, even with all our differences and disagreements, Jew and Gentile, standing side by side and worshipping the same God.
My friends, If this can be the place where we do that –
If this can be the place where we know that above all else, we are beloved by God and always recipients of God’s mercy –
If this can be the place that we enter the safe zone of confession and reconciliation –
If this can be the place we can be vulnerable enough to confront our imperfections, the ways we fall short —
If this can be the place where like Moses and the Israelites, we can trust in God to provide against all odds —
If this can be the place where we can cultivate the teaching of Jesus to forgive beyond what we think is our capacity to forgive —
If this can be the place where God’s grace abounds, and divisions begin to disappear –
If church can be the place where love is the way, and we are transformed…
What a church we will be.
For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
Let us pray.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.