United by the Sacred

June 19, 2016 by Emily Rowell Brown

Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39
One of the opinions almost universally held by the people of St. Mary’s–which I encountered the first time I visited the campus and which was expressed again and again during the discernment period–is how special this place is. From the sky blue ceilings, to the white wood, to the cemetery, to the simple country feel, the physical space contributes to this church’s sacredness. As much as we know that the church is about the people of God more than it is about buildings, we cannot deny that spaces matter.

And that is the realization I found myself returning to over and over this week as I listened to gay friends and strangers alike speak about the devastating Orlando terrorist attack. The gay club Pulse was a sacred space for the LGBTQ (lesbian gay bisexual transgender queer) community, a place where, as my friend Cara says, “we can be totally and completely who we are. There’s no worry about how someone will react if you are holding your partner’s hand. You can dance how and with whom you’d like. You can wear whatever you want. You can be yourself. All of that ends the second you step outside.” As many have recognized, such sacred space has been lost. Last year, it was the African American church Emanuel in South Carolina; this year it was Pulse; and many times in recent history, it has been schools. Are there safe holy places any more?

Drawing these parallels and connecting these tragedies reminds us of our connection as the human family–God’s family. “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.” Today’s counsel from Paul is not quite bumper sticker or tattoo famous like, say, John 3:16 or Psalm 23, but it ranks up there in popularity and favorites. It’s one of the quotables, isn’t it? “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Paul has a way of cutting to the chase, not wasting time with the unimportant, and such holds especially true here.

Divisions have no place in the kingdom, for baptism into Christ supersedes all differences. What is now constitutive of and definitive for every Christian’s identity is their relationship to Jesus and their relationship to one another made possible through Jesus. The Torah’s role in the Christian life is not a chief bone of contention for us today, as it was for Paul’s community, but whether we are talking about skin color, sexual identity, or political party, we can easily fall prey to the same fate as the Galatians and miss the forest for the trees.

As we all wade through the week’s confusion and grief, may we not find ourselves caught up in the trappings and distractions which pull us away from our common bond in Jesus. Rather than identifying the reasons the other side is wrong let us hold one another as we bear and process Orlando’s sadness. Diversity may serve to inform us rather than divide us. Because while we are united ultimately in working with God for justice and beauty and peace, our distinctions and unique perspectives also have their role in witnessing to God’s breadth and complexity (and insights come not only from variations within Christianity but also from other faith traditions) .

Friends and peers and neighbors and strangers have inspired me over the past few days. They have given blood, encouraged others to give blood, organized prayer vigils, written thoughtful, reflective posts on social media, called fellow friends who live in Orlando or identify as queer, wept, and held firm in their resolve to love deeply and boldly. The responses have varied widely, as everyone has been touched differently: some imagine that they, or their brother or sister, or best friend, or grandchild, could have been in that club, and their hearts break for those who were unlucky enough to be there on Sunday but at the same time thank God for sparing their own; some feel profoundly wounded because their community was specifically targeted, and they grapple with the hate that still persists in this world; some search for people or organizations or systems to blame, because pointing a finger is reassuring; some worry for their Muslim neighbors and how Islam may be misunderstood; some keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and ask, “What next?”

These reactions help keep the memories of the attack victims and their loved ones alive. They shed light on the incredibly multifaceted nature of this act of terrorism, and give witness to the many injustices prevalent in our society and the opportunities we have for learning from those not like us. They compel us to keep working to build a better world.

What can we do?

One: Pray. With prayer, we cry out to God and open ourselves up to change. Pray that the demons of hate and fear and prejudice be expelled from ourselves and our neighbors. Pray for courage to challenge complacency and complicity.

Two: Listen. Almost all of us love hearing the sound of our voice (I know we preachers are the worst!), but spend some time with perspectives of those who follow Islam or identify as queer or hold an opposite position on second amendment rights. Let us take special care with the most vulnerable among us, and listen to their experiences, if they want to share, whether that looks like sitting next to a co-worker at the watercooler or intentionally seeking out articles written by voices very different from ourselves. Ask God for help in keeping an open mind, wisdom to discern, and humility to change opinions.

Three: Love. Loving looks like getting involved with the making of public policy, texting your gay friend to see how he is doing after the attack, giving your child an extra big hug when she stands up for the classmate who is being bullied. It looks like recognizing and calling out the flaws in our neighbors but also the gifts. It looks like holding grief and hope in tension with each other.

Yes, we now live in what many would call a post-Christian world where most of us do not take seriously exorcisms or other supernatural events, nor do we fear for our lives or worry too much about being persecuted on account of our faith, as did Jesus’ first followers. But as Christians, we still have the same charge: to manifest God on this earth. That is proclaiming Jesus–being the body of Christ in this world, the hands and feet and hearts and lips which work together to create–and protect–the sacred here on earth.

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.