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Us and Them

January 19, 2015

“Us and Them” Mark 9:38-41 and Matthew 12:22-30 © 1.18.15 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

My dad had a good many opinions I thought were odd and unfounded, and I know he felt the same way about me. The most eccentric and bizarre of his ideas and practices, I recall, was his disapproval of people who showered in the morning. Of course, he would never come right out and ask you when you showered, but if he found out you took yours after your night’s sleep, he’d sneer: “One of those, huh?” That’s what he did to me when I told him I got cleaned up in the AM. Then he accused me: “You go to bed all nasty!” He wouldn’t accept that in my work, I don’t get very dirty or that a morning shower is refreshing or that if I get all sweaty from working in the yard, for example, I take a shower, whatever time of day it is. No. To him, for that moment, I was just another one of “them,” a member of a despised class.

Daddy’s way of dividing the world was unique, I think. But in some way we all separate people into “us” and “them,” don’t we?

I suppose we could argue we have no choice but to do that. It’s ingrained in our nature. Look at the world, full of opposites. Male and female. North Pole/South Pole. East and west. Plus and minus. Day and night. Apples and oranges. Up and down. Left brain/right brain. Electrons and protons. The list could go on. So much of the world is either this or that, we can’t help ourselves, can we?

Our natural inclination is helped along by what we’re taught and experience every day. Think about it for a minute. Is there any human activity, especially any American activity or relationship, that isn’t in some way about competition, getting ahead, beating someone else, insiders getting more while outsiders get less or nothing? Meals: who’s going to get the last piece of pie? who’s going to get any food at all? Romance: an old song sums up a typical dilemma. A guy looks at his friend’s woman and says: “I wish that I had Jesse’s girl.” Government: How can our party get power and keep it? How can we convince other nations our policies are right, our ambitions noble? Sports: how do we exploit the other team’s weaknesses and play to our strength so we can win again and again? The Top Ten List: plenty of items, products, songs, etc. compete for our attention and for popularity, but only a few make it to the top. Awards ceremonies honor the best, at least as voted by this group or that. Reality shows exalt the human tendency to do anything to win money and keep someone else from having what we want. Businesses survive or prosper depending in part on how well they distinguish themselves from the competition in quality of products and customer service. As James Kirk said on a classic Star Trek: “We compete for everything.”

We might wish, think, pray that the Church would be different. Paul said that we should not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds. As believers, we’re supposed to be distinct from the world’s way of doing things and follow a new path. And at least as I read the Bible, that means being part of God’s dream of gathering everything into one.

But that’s not quite true to what we actually see and do, is it? In fact, the church often leads the way in dividing the world into us and them. In congregations everywhere and any denomination you care to name, decisions are routinely made about who is in and who is out, who can be ordained and who can’t, who is a believer and who isn’t, whom we can trust to lead us and whom we can’t. The church reflects and promotes quite often the worst divisions and prejudices of society instead of healing them. This sad state of affairs has gone on for centuries. Benjamin Franklin once observed that organized religion “serves principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another” (The Nation, 12/26/05: 8).

And why not, we ask? We’ve got the support of Jesus: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Pretty clear! You’re either with Jesus or you’re not. He says so! You’ve either acknowledged Jesus as your Lord or you haven’t. You either trust him to save you or you don’t. You either believe him and believe in him or you don’t. Not a lot of wiggle room there as far as I’m concerned if we’re taking Jesus seriously.

But before we go congratulating ourselves on how well we follow Jesus as we divide up the world into us and them, let’s listen to something else he says.

Here’s the set-up. A man who is not one of the official disciples has been casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and he’s been successful. He’s helping people. But the disciples try to stop him because he’s not one of them, their group. “He’s not following us,” they told Jesus. But Jesus chides them and says they were wrong to try to stop him. Someone who does a deed of power in Jesus’ name, who behaves like a follower of Jesus, will not be able to speak evil of Jesus. Actions of compassion and healing produce words of praise. And here’s the really important line for us today: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Is that just the same thing as we heard before stated differently? I don’t think so. Jesus makes a distinction between himself and the group gathered around him. In other words, the in group is not the only group honoring Jesus. The officially recognized man or woman is not the only one who follows the Lord. Presbyterians or Baptists or Catholics or whatever have no exclusive claim on him. He doesn’t belong to you or me. And Christianity of whatever kind is not the same as Jesus. Jesus is not the same as Christianity.

Bottom line: You can be with Jesus and not be with me. Let me say that again: you can be with Jesus and not be with me. And I can be with Jesus, and not be with you.

Dr. Al Freundt was one of my professors at Reformed Seminary in Jackson. I guess it was he who first helped me understand that you can be with Jesus and not be with me or us. He preached a sermon called “Who is My Adversary?” one day in chapel. In fact, it was March 2, 1975, when he became chair of the Department of Historical Theology. Dr. Freundt once recalled, "It was a temporal message preached to show that fellow Christians are not our enemies. We share a lot in common with others." Here is some of what he said all those years ago: The Bible teaches that we are to love our neighbors. We are even to love our enemies and pray for those who despitefully use us. But at this moment I am not discussing neighbors or enemies. I am talking about brothers and sisters in Christ, concerning whom our duty is to love one another as Christ has loved us. Degree of knowledge, sanctification, and reformation notwithstanding, Christians, I am to love and accept you. My obligation to love you is not lessened by defects in your theology, character, or practice. Christ doesn’t withhold His love from me because of the imperfection of my theology, character, or practice. I must love you because you are my brother in Christ. And the things that separate us culturally, confessionally, racially, nationally, age, degree of spiritual maturity, amount of knowledge, are less important than the things that unite us in Christ. All who in Christ have God for their Father are brothers to me. I must love and accept them in their ignorance and error and they must love and accept me in my pride and prejudice.”

Much more recently, the author and pastor Brian McLaren called on Christians to practice what he terms a “generous orthodoxy.” He means that to refer to “something lived, not just talked or written about, “a humble rediscovery of the simple, mysterious way of Jesus.” McLaren says that this kind of orthodoxy is a practice, that is, something we do. It includes, first, humility “that allows us to admit that our past and current” doctrines and formulas of faith “may have been limited or distorted.” Then charity or love toward those of other traditions who “may understand some things better than our group—even though we are more conscious of what we think we understand better.” Next, courage “to be faithful to the true path of our faith as we understand it even when it is unpopular, dangerous, and difficult to do so.” And finally, diligence to see again and again the true path of our faith whenever we feel we have lost our way, which seems pretty often” (A Generous Orthodoxy [2004]: 19, 30).

OK, let’s say you’re buying the idea that you can be with Jesus and not be with me, and vice versa. We’re generously orthodox like Dr. McLaren recommends and graciously Reformed in the way Dr. Freundt wanted. Still there’s a nagging, gnawing question: how do you know who’s with Jesus?

Maybe we can tell by the way they dress, as we can for a Sikh with his turban and ceremonial knife or an Orthodox Jew with dreadlocks and prayer fringes. But that doesn’t really work, does it? A cross around the neck might just be a piece of jewelry. A plain dark suit or dress might be covering up a hateful heart. On the other hand, somebody whose attire or personal adornment turns heads in amazement or disapproval, who doesn’t look like the typical Susie Sunday School or Johnny Churchgoer, could in fact be deeply in love with our Lord.

Well, if it isn’t dress, then maybe how they talk. They punctuate their speech with “praise the Lord” or long to be “getting into the Word.” Or they’re always blessing people, saying things like “Have a blessed day.” And they never utter a four-letter word. OK, yes, such a person may very well be a follower of Jesus. But our Lord himself said it: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’  Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’” (Matthew 7).

Talk is cheap. Deeds matter. Donald Miller, author of that great book Blue Like Jazz, once put it this way: “What I believe is not what I say I believe; what I believe is what I do” (quoted on www.emergingminister.com ).

And that’s how you tell, isn’t it? Again, Jesus said it: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7). In other words, does someone do what Jesus did?

Think of it this way: how do you tell who are your friends? Just look at how they treat you over time, allowing for human failing. Do they treat you with justice, kindness, compassion, and hospitality and do they ask the same from you? Do you feel like your conversations are real dialogues, two people taking each other seriously? Are you accountable to each other?

So, who is with Jesus? Look at the fruit of their lives. Do they act like Jesus? With compassion toward the left out, with self-sacrificing love, with concern for justice, with an insistence that the so-called “religious” live up to their self-description? Or as he himself put it in the scripture we read this morning: “He who does not gather with me scatters.” Jesus gathers. He gathers together disciples from all walks of life, whose paths might never cross except for him. He gathers us in to praise him. He gathers up the broken pieces of our troubled lives and puts them all together and makes us whole again. He gathers all who belong to him, so none is lost. And as Scripture says, he died to gather into one all the dispersed children of God (John 11:52). And this as well: “God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9,10).

The one who does not belong to Jesus scatters, promoting suspicion, brokenness, hatred, and discord. The one who belongs to Jesus, who is with him, gathers as he gathers. And people are brought together with understanding and compassion, those who shower in the morning, those who do so in the evening, and the ones who don’t shower at all.

As somebody said, in the gospel, there is no us and them.

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