Sunday, July 19, 2009

Which group are you in?

Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

When my boys were little, we read a lot of Dr Seuss. His books always taught the readers a lesson, while having fun with language. One book was about Sneetches. There were the star-bellied Sneetches, and the plain-bellied Sneetches. The book starts like this:

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.

The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”

The plain-belly Sneetches were sad at the rejection they received. But a stranger came along who had a Star-on machine. Soon, for only $3, every Sneetch had stars on their bellies.

The Apostle Paul writes about in-groups and out-groups in many of his letters. This time he refers to the Jews and Gentiles by whether or not they have been circumcised. For centuries, since Abraham, circumcision had been the significant marker of belonging to the in-group of Jews.

But as the good news of Jesus spread around the Mediterranean, many who were not formerly Jews came to believe in him. A conflict arose. Should Gentiles – the non-Jews – have to be circumcised in order to belong to Jesus? Paul spoke passionately to the leaders of the early Christian Church that he believed it was not necessary, that all were welcome in Jesus’ flock, and circumcision was not a requirement.

In this letter to the Ephesians, which was most likely also circulated among the other churches in the area, Paul reminds the believers that they all belong to Jesus, in one body, one household, one temple, one humanity, one flock. In Christ, there are no in-groups and out-groups. All are members of the same group.

Unfortunately, because we’re human, we still tend to put ourselves into groups. I began writing down groups, and my list became as long as the sermon itself – so I’ll only mention a few.

· Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant Christians

· Evangelical or Mainline Protestant

· Rich or poor

· Gay or straight or in-between

· Single or married or partnered

· Old or young – I’ll refrain from defining youth and age

· Know all the answers or have lots of questions

· Children should help lead worship or children should be seen and not heard

· There’s too much silence in worship or not enough silence

· Republican, Democrat, or Independent

· There are many more. You’ll find a list and some explanations of some other church related group opinions on the bulletin board in the Hall.

The truth is that most of us don’t belong totally to one group or the other; we are somewhere in the middle, somewhere along a line between two opposites. For example, I think like a Democrat, and usually vote for Democrats, but I liked the Republican Congressperson from St. Joseph, so I always voted for him.

Another example: Lutheranism in practice is a spectrum of belief, as evidenced by three major and several minor Lutheran denominations in the US alone. We may appreciate Lutheran liturgy and Lutheran theology, but also disagree on our understanding of God and the world and scripture and church organization, and still be a Lutheran.

Within congregations, there will always be people who disagree with each other, often on small things, occasionally on larger concerns. And it’s even harder to determine what is a larger concern or a smaller thing. It depends on who you ask.

We’ve recently had conversations about whether we should bring our own dishes to a potluck, whether we should plan a potluck or let it truly be pot luck, and whether we could even have potlucks in church due to the interpretation of certain county health rules, and so forth. For some people these were small concerns, but for others, it was a larger issue, having to do with convenience, tradition, as well as what would be available to eat.

Hopefully, there will be few times when we experience in-groups and out-groups in a congregation. But, it’s a fact that as long as there are people in churches, there will be at least as many opinions as there are members in the congregation. And, sometimes those who hold similar opinions will band together to oppose those who hold different opinions. They were doing that in the earliest Christian congregations, and we’re human, so it’s still happening now. I’m sure it makes Jesus weep to see it.

As followers of Jesus, we can be on the lookout for that tendency and do what we can to seek open, non-judgmental conversation with each other. Jesus wants us to learn to value the opinions of all the people in his flock. Jesus wants us to respect each other, and treat each other with love, the same love he died to express.

Let’s return to the story of the Sneetches. As soon as every Sneetch had a star on the belly, some of them decided that stars were no longer the in-thing. And of course, the stranger’s machine could take care of that as well, for just $10. They went through the star-on and star-off machines so many times they no longer remembered whether they were originally star-bellied or plain-bellied Sneetches. They were also out of money. The story ends with this:

… I’m quite happy to say.
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day.
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches.
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars and whether
They had one, or not, upon thars.

I hope we can remember that we are all members of the same household, the same congregation, the same flock of Jesus’ people. And that we can keep our focus on doing what Jesus wants us to do as his disciples: sharing the good news of his life, death, and resurrection, and that this is good news for everyone.

Your challenge this week is to watch for times when you speak about some people as us, or the in-group, and others as them, or the out-group. When you catch yourself thinking that way, remind yourself that we are all part of the same in-group, those who are loved equally by Jesus.

Please pray with me. Lord, we do need your help. It’s so easy to judge ourselves and one another. Help us to love one another as you love us. Amen