Our Protestant Heritage

This sermon was preached on October 28, 2018, at the Wolcott Congregational Church. The Scriptures were Galatians 3:21-29, Luke 7:36-7:50

Last week, I went to my seminary reunion for the first time at Andover Newton at Yale Divinity School. Andover Newton, my alma mater, merged with Yale last year, and many of us were upset about it.  In the merger there would be a loss of autonomy, and identity.

So, I registered for it somewhat grudgingly, thinking I wouldn’t have a good time there, I would see a couple of folks I hadn’t seen in a while, but I had kind of written the day off from the start.

It doesn’t help that I am a millennial, part of the most institutionally distrustful generation in recent history. Therefore, I was a perfect storm of resentment. By all indicators, I should not have enjoyed the day.

But I did.

Part of the reason why I enjoyed it, beyond the fabulous bookstore on campus, was that the Dean of Andover Newton at Yale, and UCC Minister Rev. Dr. Sarah Drummond, gave a talk that explained a lot of why the world seems so scary and weird now, and, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

Thankfully for us, and especially me, this ties into our Bible readings quite nicely. The main thrust of Dr. Drummond’s lecture was that we are moving beyond the extreme individualism of the past thirty or forty years, towards more collective- her word was “tribal” thinking. 

Gone are the days of “everything goes”.

Anyone who goes on social media or watches the news can see this now.  Depending on your social circles, your opinion on certain issues might get you dogpiled from the left or the right. There are correct ways to speak, to think, to believe now, and they’re enforced with a greater rigidity by social circles then even 5 years ago, much less 15 years ago.

Dr. Drummond called this phenomenon the “new Tribalism.” Basically, as a society, we got tired of total independence and individualism, and started becoming more group oriented. These groups are called tribes partly in reference to how Native Americans have organized themselves socially.

And these tribes, once we attach ourselves to them, then begin to shape our behavior too. Research is finding that, for example, Republicans and Trump supporters, even if they were secular, unreligious, or even atheists, are now increasingly likely to go to church.

Likewise, even religious Democrats are now becoming less likely to attend church regularly. And this isn’t to put down Republicans or Democrats, but to point out that how and who we identify with shapes our behavior, just as much as our behavior shapes our identities.

The apostle Paul was intimately familiar with idea. 

Paul knew that inside churches like his, and indeed, in churches like ours, that there were often multiple competing identities going on in each person which shaped their behaviors.

Just as our church is made up of men and women, blue collar and white-collar workers, and conservatives and liberals, so too were the churches in Paul’s time. Paul dealt extensively in his letters with issues of ethnicity, gender, and economic class, not only in this letter, to a church in Galatia, but also in the letters to churches in Romans and Corinth.

So issues surrounding identity are not new to the church. We know that the biggest controversy in this time period for the church was if gentile- Non-Jewish- Christians had to follow Jewish dietary laws and rules about circumcision. 

This was the big difference between the churches based near Jerusalem, and the churches that Paul founded in what is today Greece and Turkey.

The church in Jerusalem said that to follow Christ, one had to identify and behave as a Jewish person, following the restrictions on diet and clothing which are still held by religiously observant Jews today, in order to enter into life with Jesus Christ. Paul disagrees.  Paul says that Jesus Christ is big enough, that God is big enough, to hold both Jews and Gentiles who followed Jesus in his embrace.

Paul believes that the most important legacy of the Jewish people isn’t their ancestry, and It is not how to avoid pork or shellfish, but how to trust and abide completely and absolutely in God. That behavior, that absolute trust, which we call faith, is the cornerstone that shapes the identity of a Christian.

This is the identity shaping behavior that we see in the woman in our gospel story today.

Jesus is eating at the home of a religious scholar and lawyers when a “notorious” woman- almost certainly a prostitute of some sort, comes and anoints him with an alabaster ointment. This is an incredibly intimate scene, as she cries, her tears drop onto his feet, and she wipes them away with her hair.

This was incredibly courageous of her, both as a sign of emotional vulnerability, but also for her physical safety. The man who’s house they were at snidely remarks about her and her behavior and identity- as a sinful woman, she should have had no place near Jesus Christ.

In his eyes, she’s so bad that her presence alone invalidates his behavior and identity- his claim to being a prophet. Jesus, being Jesus, turns this around on him. Jesus asks him about debt and gratitude; who is more grateful? Someone who has $500,000 worth of debt forgiven? Or someone who has $5,000 worth of debt forgiven?

Jesus then points out her devotion, in contrast to his own behavior. Her total and utter dependence on God, her faith and faithfulness, are the cornerstone on which her new identity as a follower of Jesus is to be built on. It is faith and faithfulness, that complete trust that a child has for a parent, which is the cornerstone on which the faith rests.

But here’s where it gets interesting.

Were the devotional acts of applying the ointment onto Jesus and crying tears on his feet what made God forgive her? Was it the behavior of weeping at Jesus’s feet what convinced him to forgive her of her sins? Are signs of piety needed for the forgiveness of sins? Should we expect the weeping and oil to appear at our next church service?

I don’t think so.

If we read closely the metaphor that Jesus uses, we hear that gratitude comes after the forgiveness of the debts.  Jesus’ proclamation of the forgiveness of her sins was a teaching tool for those present; her sins had already been forgiven.

So what then, had she done in order to deserve to have her sins forgiven? Was it anointing Jesus with oil? Could be.

Mary, in the story of Mary and Martha at Bethany, was commended by Jesus for doing so. But I think that the real moment of forgiveness didn’t happen with a physical behavior, but a change in her heart.

She became vulnerable with God, so utterly so that she allowed God to dwell in her and forge a new identity in and through her. This identity was didn’t forget that she was a woman, it didn’t degender her, but it accepted her as one who was close to God.

Remember that this was a society in a culture that very tightly governed women’s social relationships and status, and how close they could be to God. It was easy for men to be close to God- they made up the priesthood.  They could enter the holy of holies in the temple. But women? Not so much.

But Jesus says something different.  Jesus proclaims that her faith made her just as equal in the eyes of God as any man who followed Christ, something that we as a religion are still struggling with the implications of today.

Yes, we are still struggling with the same questions of behaviors and identity that our theological ancestors were struggling with 500 years ago, and 2000 years ago. 

The church’s identity is one of the big questions that will come up during the search process. What does it mean to be a member of this church? What does it mean to be, as it says on your website, a little slice of heaven on the Town Green?  What does it mean to be Christian?

These are big questions; ones that I can help facilitate your answering, but cannot answer for you, especially with about 2 minutes left to go in this sermon. What I will leave you with is a piece of advice for how we might live out the calling of Christ, in this era of “tribal identity”

For many of us, our Christian faith is another aspect of our “tribal” identities. This makes sense. We all want to know a Jesus Christ who is like us. Maybe this is a Jesus who, if on earth today, would drive a pick-up truck and listen to country music, or a Jesus who would drive a Prius and listen to NPR.

And I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that by itself. As long as we also remember that Jesus is not just the savior of the Republican or the Democratic party.

As long as we remember that the precondition for God’s love in Christ is not a particular form of worship or denominational membership, it is not having the right political or social views, it is not about who you vote for.

The precondition for God’s love in Christ to become known to us is not the size of your paycheck or your whose posts you like or don’t on Instagram or facebook.

It’s the simple and total dependence on God which we call faith. It’s the giving up on the idea that we can do this alone, that realization that I am a person, and that all of us are a people equally in need of a saving.

For there is no longer Democrat or Republican, White or African American, Union Laborer or CEO, and still, as the events of this weekend have needed to remind us, Jew or Greek, for all are one in Christ Jesus.

Thank God for that.