Beyond Us and Them – A Sermon of Feb. 19, 2 (Epiphany VII) – The Rev. Amy McCreath

As many of you know, I lived in the Central Province of Kenya for a year, among the Kikuyu people. In the village of Kangare, where I lived, there were two greetings you could offer someone when you met up with them on the road or elsewhere.  One was exchanged between two Christians and one for everyone else.

When two people who knew one another to be Christians met, they would say, “Mwathani Agosua,” which means something like “Praise God.” When others met up, one would say, “Wi mwega,” and the other would answer “Ni kwega muno.” This means, “How are you?” “I am very good.”

I had mixed feelings about this practice. It was nice to celebrate a common connection with another Christian when we met, but it was also a sorting mechanism. We were Christians; they were not. People had to sort out one another’s status while walking towards one another, and I was part of not a few conversations in which people were trying to figure out what to say to someone coming toward them: Is she a Christian? I hear she was baptized recently.  She is a backslider.” Backsliders, a term used often in this community,  were people who claimed to be Christian but were heard to be doing “unChristian” things behind the scenes. Backsliders were shamed through being greeted with the non-Christian greeting. The practice also involved  a measure of hypocrisy, as some people were greeted as Christians who were known to be notorious sinners, but they had a lot of power  and could not be crossed for fear of retribution.

There are two kinds of people in this world: Christians and non-Christians; Liberals and conservatives; Patriots fans and everyone else; people wearing safety pins and people who refuse to wear safety pin; Mac users and PC users; People who divide the world into two camps and people who don’t.

Christians are people who don’t divide the world into two camps.

In today’s gospel, Jesus warning us against us-and-them thinking and us-and-them living. Be perfect, he says. But perfection is  not about being better than others or more right than others. It is about continuing to see everyone as a child of God and imagine their transformation long after that seems reasonable. It’s about loving your neighbor, and holding everyone in the category of neighbor, when it seems foolish in the eyes of the world, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians.

I thought about those greetings on the road in Kenya this week when I heard excerpts from Thursday’s presidential press conference. I won’t comment on the specifics of that event here. If you hear or saw it, you have your own thoughts about it, I am sure. But I will say that it was a full illustration of us and them thinking and a reminder of how unfruitful it is — how it holds no power for transforming anything that needs transforming, and how it leads us further from becoming who were created to be.

Surprisingly, frustratingly, maddeningly, we cannot be fully ourselves without those we label our enemies. As Brother Curtis Almquist, ssje writes, it is those whom I consider my enemies, those who “frustrate my program,” those who stir me to the perfection for which I was created. This drives me crazy. I so wish I could just write those people off. I so wish sometimes that I could just post another sarcastic comment or put-down on facebook and be done with them. But Jesus is pretty clear that it’s not enough. The only thing that keeps my heart open just a little bit when I want to slam it shut is this:

God’s grace towards me. There are plenty of reasons why God could greet me on the road with a  “Good morning” rather than a “Christ is risen.”

Do I turn the other cheek? Occasionally – when it’s convenient.                                                 Do I give to everyone who begs from me? I do not.                                                                             Do I always leave the fallen grapes for the poor? No.                                                                           Do I sometimes reprove my neighbor. Yes. Do I sometimes bear grudges. Yes.                         Do I sometimes lie. Yes. Do I treat my body like the temple of the Holy Spirit that it is? Not well enough.

God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Good thing, otherwise we’d be standing on parched ground.

Thomas Aquinas said “Love bears all things equally.” God does that, because God is Love. Only God can do that perfectly. God did that for us in Christ: bore us, bore our imperfection, bore our tendency to turn our pain and anguish outward in the form of anger, violence and judgmentalism. Love bears us.

We cannot be perfect in our bearing of others.  And we are not called to simply lie down in the face of injustice and cruelty – That’s really important to note, since today’s gospel has been misused to justify the subservience of women, slaves, and others.  Today’s gospel is not a call to give up or to give in to violence and hatred. It is a call to resist — but a particular kind of resistance. We are called to resist, but to resist with love. To assert over and over and over that we are neighbors, that we do need one another, that we are all connected to the sacred ordering of the universe, through intentional acts of compassion and patience and outreach.  

So what does this look like this week, here and now?

Prayer –That’s where Jesus begins. Pray for your enemies. Not that God would strike them dead. Not that God would get those louses to wise up. But that a way for reconciliation may be made where there seems to be no way. That they and we might find ways to honor one another. That they and we might be surprised by love. That is the promise of the gospel after all. Help me God to see with your eyes, love with your heart. Bishop Doug Fischer of the Diocese of Western MA suggests that we spend less time on facebook and more time praying.

Can’t get there yet? Then pray, “God, help me to be able to pray for my enemies and those who wish me harm.”

Second, avoid reductionism in thought and word. Just as you would not want someone to assume that all Christians believe and vote the same way, remember that not all “liberals” or “conservatives” think and vote the same way. Avoiding reductionism is hugely counter-cultural right now, when we are healing so much us-and-them rhetoric and living in a world where our minds and lives are impatient with in-depth explanation and analysis. Whomever the “they” is to you, remember that their intentions are complex and so are yours. Their knowledge is incomplete and so is yours. Look for strands of commonality and celebrate those.

Stay creative. Find opportunities to play, to rest, to make and experience art. Any work of reconciliation will necessitate creativity. As you begin to consider a Lenten discipline to begin in a few weeks, I urge you to consider something that bring creativity and joy closer in. After a long, hard winter and in the midst of deeply furrowed brows, it will be a gift to you and open up possibilities for action and prayer for you.

I began today talking about handshakes and greetings. I leave you with more of that, this time in the words of Maya Angelou, whose poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” ends with this beautiful vision of a handshake and a greeting from the heart. It was written for a presidential inauguration in January 1993.

Lift up your eyes

Upon this day breaking for you.

Give birth again

To the dream.

…Do not be wedded forever

To fear, yoked eternally

To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,

Offering you space

To place new steps of change

Here, on the pulse of this fine day….

Here on the pulse of this new day

You may have the grace to look up and out

And into your sister’s eyes,

And into your brother’s face,

Yuour country,

And say simply

Very simply

With hope —

Good morning.

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