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Sunday, August 18, 2019
Scripture: Genesis 13:14-18 & Galatians 5:1-6
Rev. Kristine Aragon Bruce

The “I wonder” question we are tackling today is “ I wonder how we are to address racism.” The first conflict of the early church had to do with ethnicity. While our passage from Galatians this morning talks explicitly about circumcision, what Paul is actually addressing is the barrier early Christians are upholding to separate one group of people from the other. Specifically, separating Jews from the Gentiles. Many of the earliest converts to Christianity were formerly Jewish. This made sense as Jesus himself was Jewish, a member of the nation of Israel. God’s promise throughout the Old Testament was that the Messiah would be a descendant of Israel’s King David. Because God often works in ways that we don’t expect or in ways that flat out don’t make sense to us, Israel had to come to terms with the fact that their expectations of the Messiah were wrong. Jesus came to save not just Israel, but all nations. This was going to take some getting used to for many in the early Church.

Something that marked you as being Jewish was being circumcised. This was commanded by God himself to Abraham and so circumcision was something done for generations within Israelite families.

The earliest Christians struggled with what it was supposed to look like to worship Jesus, when they were so used to Jewish forms of worship – not to mention what it should look like to worship with others belonging to a different ethnicity (i.e. the Gentiles). Whether those who converted from Judaism just wanted to stick with what they had always done, or wanted to be the ones who got to define what it meant to be a Christian (whether they did this consciously or subconsciously), the issue was that they were telling Gentiles they needed to be circumcised in order to seal the deal that they were indeed followers of Jesus Christ.

And this is why Paul has such harsh words for the church in Galatia. Circumcision was what historically separated Jews from Gentiles. What Paul wants them to know is that anything that separates one nation from another, one people group from another people group has been abolished through Jesus Christ. Furthermore for Paul (who was an Israelite himself), circumcision was a sign of Jewish nationalism. To ask a Gentile Christian to be circumcised was communicating the idea that you can only be a true Christian if you uphold the Jewish rite of circumcision. This communicates that to be Jewish is superior to being Gentile. And that line of thinking just has no place in the church.

It’s why Paul implores them to no longer be slaves to old ways of thinking especially those that make one ethnicity superior to others. In Jesus Christ and only in Jesus Christ can they be free from such ideologies that continue to segregate people based on their ethnicity, or their culture, or their race. So Paul pretty much tells them to start living this way because this is who you are now in Jesus Christ. They now have the freedom to expand God’s family through Jesus Christ to not just include Israel, but people of all nations. Jesus himself commanded his disciples and us to “GO…make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

I wish I could say that the church in Galatia was the only church that struggled with segregation and prejudice. Sadly this issue comes up time and time again in the rest of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. I wish I could say we’ve gotten better as a church as a whole today and in many ways we have. In many other ways we still have a ways to go.

So how are we to address racism as a church? One way is to just pay attention to your own biases as we all have them. Unfortunately we’ve all been subtly exposed to ideas that people of a different skin color are inferior or that people from one particular country all have a certain negative trait, and so on and so forth. Pay attention to what biases we hold. This is nothing new. We see in our passage this morning the biases Jewish people held against Gentiles.

In seminary I worked as an intern for a church plant. One day the leadership were in a planning meeting deciding what our postcards would look like that would be sent to the neighbors inviting them to our new church.

One team member I’ll call Bob, who no doubt loved Jesus, and also had an Ivy League degree in business and marketing adamantly shared: “Based on my extensive experience in marketing there should not be any person of color shown on these church mailings. Research shows such images will discourage people from attending your event.”

As the only person of color on the team I waited for him to say: “Just kidding that research is wrong because it’s racist.” But instead he kept going on and on about how great this research is and how it’s something he’s followed in his line of business with successful results. Finally when I got air back into my lungs and recovered a bit from the shock I said: “Well I’m just not sure about this research…” to which Bob cut me off and snapped: “Do you want people to come to this church or don’t you?”  This effectively put me, the seminary intern, in her place. No one else on the team said anything else either. A week went by, which gave me some time to process and pray about all that Bob said. When the team came back together the following week I was ready. I had bullet points to help me carefully form a rebuttal to Bob’s ridiculous suggestion and that would help me stay focused and professional in my presentation, preventing this from becoming a personal matter. Well, Bob launched in again about how I shouldn’t question the research, and suddenly out went my professional presentation. I yelled: “Would it be helpful then, Bob, if I wasn’t present on Sunday morning??? Because if you haven’t noticed, I am a person of color and what this research states is that the color of my skin is a detriment to the growth of this church.”

The color drained from Bob’s face and tears filled his eyes. He then said to me: “I didn’t think about it that way. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” As Bob presented his research he made eye contact with me several times. But because his learned bias against people of color were so ingrained he 1) didn’t even realize he had such biases 2) because of this didn’t realize how hurtful his words would be to me or any other person of color.

Here are 3 concrete ways we as Christians and we as a church can address racism:

  1. Be aware of your own biases-racism is subtle.
  2. Ask people to share their stories. Jesus asked people to share their stories. My story is different from an African-American’s story about discrimination.
  3. Know that this is going to be hard. You won’t be popular. You’ll be called someone with no sense of humor or overly sensitive. There are times when you’ll have to call out racism for what it is, but most of the time it’s subtle. When hearing comments that are discriminatory ask: “Have you though about how this might make a person of color feel? Have you heard their story?

Last week I met someone who leads a multicultural church. There are Hispanic members and members who speak Swahili. Many are refugees. They don’t just translate a song into another language, but pay attention to how that song would be truly translated by a native speaker. Worship is led as it’s done in those particular cultures. It’s hard work, but they’ve found that worship is all the more enriched experiencing the Gospel through the eyes of another culture. It’s a powerful witness as their worship shows that the Gospel of Christ knows no bounds, even the limits we’ve set based upon the color of someone’s skin.

Addressing racism is hard work. But it’s work that is worth doing. This is what Paul meant when he said the things we do or believe that segregate people have no place in Jesus Christ. Getting there is an act of faith working through love.