As I’ve mentioned on previous occasions, there are several reasons why Galatians is in my top two favorites of the Apostle Paul’s letters. And one of those reasons is our reading from Galatians today. In my faith journey, as I was listening for God’s call upon my life, Paul’s words, “there is no longer male and female,” spoke to me as God was showing me that God was indeed calling me, a woman, into the ordained ministry, despite the fact that the church body where I first heard of God’s love for me said that it was not okay for a woman to be a pastor.
These words of Paul’s, I would argue, are the centerpiece of his letter to the Galatians. For the first several chapters of this letter, he is saying that the Galatians, as Gentiles, do not need to first become circumcised and follow all of the requirements of the Jewish law in order to believe in Christ. Rather, it is the faithfulness of Christ and Christ’s work of dying on the cross that makes them right with God. In the part of chapter 3 that our lectionary skips over, Paul continues to make the argument that, since Abraham believed what God promised him and God reckoned that belief to him as righteousness, so, too, all the Galatians need to be right with God is belief and trust in Jesus Christ. That’s it. And God promised Abraham also that all the Gentiles shall be blessed through him. So, therefore, Paul says, the Galatians are descendants of Abraham because they are descendants of the promises God made to Abraham.
So, let’s take a look, then, at today’s passage, and I would like to read it again, just to refresh our memories:
We are made right with God through faith, both the faith that we have in Christ and the faithfulness of Christ to God’s command to live and die for us. All of us who are baptized into Christ are made one in him. In God’s eyes, there is no longer any separating line between us, because we all belong to Christ, and we are all Abraham’s children, and heirs of God’s promises. Do we get what a radical statement that truly is? When we think back on what we know of Paul’s previous life before Christ came to him, when he was persecuting Christians, isn’t it hard to believe that this is the same person? Can we fathom how greatly the Holy Spirit moved and changed Paul? Can any of us say that the Holy Spirit has moved us that deeply and profoundly?
Here’s the thing: these categories that we make for ourselves may be invisible to God through Christ Jesus, but because of our sinfulness, we still see them, and we have difficulties bridging them. Just because we are one in Christ does not mean that our differences are erased and we are just happy, happy all the time. Ideally, what this should mean is that we see our differences and, instead of being afraid of them and condemning them, or somehow trying to ignore them, we acknowledge them and celebrate them. Celebrating our differences does not always mean that we will get along or agree on everything. But celebrating our differences means taking joy in how God has created each individual as a unique and beloved person who God has claimed as God’s own. It means treating each person with respect because we believe that somehow, each person does reflect the image of God. And it means loving and supporting each person we meet to the best of our abilities. Because each one of us has been shown immeasurable and complete grace and love from God, we should be fearful of showing anything less to each person we meet, regardless of who the person is or what she or he has done.
You can probably guess where I’m leading with this. If the Apostle Paul were writing today, I believe that he would say, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, there is no longer gay and straight, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” We have had a horrific shooting in Orlando, Florida, this week. The target was a gay bar. This shooting is not about one single issue. This has to do with many issues: ISIS, gun control, terrorism, and fear of the sexually “other”. But today I’m going to talk about our fear of those who identify as sexually “other”. I do so knowing that we in our congregation have different beliefs about what it means to be sexually “other”, and I am not going to get into all of that today. I am not even going to talk about hot button issues such as same-sex marriage. Instead, I’m going to talk about how we are called, in Christ, to treat other human beings.
The first thing I want to do is to ask you to think about how you would react when you hear the following statements:
A gunman walked into an elementary school and shot 49 people, including both children and teachers.
A gunman walked into a bar and shot 49 people.
A gunman walked into a gay bar and shot 49 people.
Do you have different reactions to each of those statements? If you do, why? What is more or less horrific about each of them? Shouldn’t the loss of life be absolutely horrific to us, no matter who the people killed are? Any time a mass shooting happens, we should be thinking not only about who the shooter is and what his problems are, not only about who the victims are or how they identify as a group, but also simply, “That could have been me. That could have been my sister, my brother, my daughter, my son. Those people who were killed in fact were my sisters and my brothers, even though I did not know them. And because they each bore the image of God, something of God’s image has been destroyed and taken away from this earth. I should be weeping for this loss, just as God weeps with all of us who are hurting.” As Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said, “We are killing ourselves.”
I have friends who are gay. Some of them are closer to me than others. One of them has journeyed with me since college in my walk through life and through faith. We have discussed faith and theology. I have watched him return to the Episcopal Church. He rejoiced with me when I was ordained, even though he wasn’t able to be present. Another one of my gay friends gave me one of the stoles that I own, one that he commissioned to be made especially for me, even though he has had difficulties with the church in which he grew up. Another gay friend of mine respects me for my faith, even though he doesn’t share it. They are people—different from me, but people nonetheless, and I treasure them and love them. So when I hear people who are supposedly Christian say that the people who were killed “got what they deserved” for supposedly violating God’s law, or that this was God’s “righteous” punishment upon them, I get angry. These are my friends. These are human beings, children of God, whom God loves and rejoices in. They make mistakes, just as I make mistakes. They are broken, but so am I. We all deserve God’s righteous punishment, but through God’s grace, through God’s Son, Jesus Christ, we are saved. We are loved. We are all claimed as God’s children. And all means all. “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.” There is no longer gay and straight, for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.
So, where do we go from here? How can we live this out in Powell, Wyoming, which is far removed from Orlando? First of all, let’s not be afraid. Over and over in Scripture, God tells us not to be afraid. We need to confront our prejudices, repent of and confess our sins, and find ways to spread the good news that we are all one in Christ Jesus and equally loved by God. We make that statement on the bookmarks in our hymnals, but do we find ways to make that statement when we go out into the community? Pastor Jim Barth of the United Methodist Church did this recently by displaying a rainbow flag on his front porch. I admire that courage and wish I had it. Next, we need to learn about and talk to people who identify somewhere under the acronym of LGBTQ. Hear from them their stories, empathize with them, and love them. The history of this group of people includes a lot of violence against them by people who are afraid of them. One example is what happens when they come out of the closet as teenagers. Did you know that a great number of teenagers who are homeless in this country are homeless because their family kicked them out of the house when they came out of the closet? Did you know that many teen suicides can be traced back to fear of what their family and friends would say when they came out? I don’t pretend to know what it is like to identify as sexually “other,” but I think it is safe to say that, based on the threat of violence alone, people would not identify this way if they felt they had any choice about it. We as Christians are called to show unconditional love to everyone, and everyone means everyone, including those who are LGBTQ.
For the last few weeks, as I’ve preached on Galatians, I’ve ended each sermon with an assignment based on the portion that I’ve preached. Here is your assignment this week: Find someone you know who identifies as LGBTQ. It’s not as hard as you think it is. If it’s not a friend, then it’s a friend of a friend. The person may live here in Powell or somewhere across the country. When you talk to this person, express sorrow over what happened in Orlando. Ask the person, if they are able, to speak to you about how what happened in Orlando affected them. And listen. Do a lot of listening, and speak only if the Holy Spirit moves you to speak. And if the Spirit moves you, and if the timing is appropriate, share with this person the good news that God loves them. God loves them as they are, and in Christ Jesus there is no more barrier separating us from them. In fact, there is no longer us and them, there is simply us. And then, invite them to experience God’s love and grace just as you have heard it proclaimed to you. “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.” Amen.