Good Morning! My name is Christy Crouse and I’m a rising senior at Truman State University in Missouri and I have been interning with the Office of Public Witness here the past four weeks, and have definitely been interested in its work for quite some time now. If some of you were here two weeks ago, Pastor Jeff gave a great explanation of the lectionary and how it can be used as a guide to those preaching each Sunday. As I read through the lectionary passages for this week, one in particular stood out to me as both closely-related to issues we have been tackling in the office here and relevant to current societal trends and in our lives now. That scripture was Galatians 3:23-29.
To better digest this specific passage, I believe an overview of the structure of the chapter could be of use. Paul the Apostle is writing this letter, or Epistle, to the early Christian communities in Galatia. It’s structured a lot like other letters in the New Testament that begin with a formal greeting then move into the body of the text. Here the body begins with a reprimand from Paul for the Galatians’ emphasis on the Jewish law. Following this is an exhortation for the Galatians to remember and reintegrate the message of the gospel into their lives, that faith in Jesus Christ is the new way. Here I will read it once more, from the English Standard Version, with a bit of added commentary:
 Now before faith came (faith, being the Christ who revolutionized the interpretation of the law), we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith (Christ as the true way of justification and salvation).  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,  for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God (all, every jew, every gentile), through faith.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave(1) nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (unity through a common faith, through love, kindness, and all that Christ represents).  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
This, to me, is a hopeful passage. Paul is giving us a message of unity, of community, to grasp on to and as one who takes the Brethren’s emphasis on togetherness very seriously, this is exciting. Last Sunday, Jenn helped us see what this unity in Christ looks like, looking to work with one another, valuing the gifts of all as necessary and equal.
But I can’t help but analyze this text in the wider context of division in the community that Paul is speaking to.
He is addressing a division between those who believe the law remains the disciplinarian and that those not following it are in the wrong, and those who are led by faith, believing that the law does not teach a living, saving knowledge. This divide caused problems: discrimination, exclusion, feelings of superiority, on both sides.
In the wake of one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history, and in the context of the issues we’ve been working on in the office here, the division Paul is addressing ties to recent events more than ever.
It ties to one of the main topics I’ve had the chance to work on here: Statelessness in the Dominican Republic. This issue came out of a court decision that caused many Dominican citizens of Haitian decent to lose their nationality, their rights to citizenship, and with that, their ability to continue school past the 8th grade, get officially married, and receive formal employment, among other things. The island of Hispañola has a divided history, including an imbedded anti-Haitian sentiment that still exists today.
It ties to another issue the office has tackled: the violence and need of our brothers and sisters in Nigeria. Again, division on religious lines between Muslims and Christians, land disputes causing division between farmers and herders, division between a distrusting citizenry and a corrupt government.
Paul’s message especially ties to divisions that hit even closer to home. In American society we see division, political, racial, economic. Even in single groups, we find division.
Right now our denomination is feeling the division of our congregations surrounding political and social issues like the inclusion and participation of LGBTQ+ persons, aspects of church structure like how our peace witness will manifest itself, and even environmental issues like climate change.
So…Wow. Cities of Galatia, I’d say we get you. We understand the feeling of betrayal you got when your Christian brother did not follow a law that you thought was crucial. We understand the feeling of confusion you got when your understanding of faith was different then that of your neighbor.
And, just like you Galatia, we are able to listen. Like them, we can listen and apply Jesus’ teachings, the teaching of prophets, preachers, ordinary people around us and, yes, we can even listen and learn from those with whom we feel a divide. In fact, as Christians, I feel we are called to do so. And I have hope. We are already doing this. And we can do it more.
I see our office following that call, by hearing our brothers and sisters in the Dominican Republic and Haiti and striving to help them work alongside one another through advocacy for change, prayer for healing, and practical services to help secure documentation and mitigate the divisive situation.
We are following the call in Nigeria, where we are planning an interfaith peace conference! For me, this is the definition of fighting division by training peacemakers, by having dialogue between Muslims and Christians, between those who have significant differences from one another.
When we take the time to listen. Truly listen, to those with whom we sense a divide, a beautiful transformation can occur and a new understanding can be had.
Joshua Brockway, Director of Spiritual Life and Discipleship for the Church of the Brethren, wrote about his experience discovering this calling after a particularly divisive Annual Conference. He reflects, “In the years since that conference I have found myself … listening differently when I remind myself of our shared commitment to Jesus.”
He talks mostly about the political divide he felt between progressives and conservatives in the church. He goes on to reflect on how he has listened and learned from both of these groups. He writes: “Progressives have taught me that the church witnesses to the ways of God in the world, and we are to act in ways that build up the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
Conservatives have reminded me that this building of the Kingdom of God is not my own doing but something God is doing in and around me.
Progressives have taught me to value the experiences of others. In listening to the testimony of others I learn to see more fully the ways God is at work around and in us.
Conservatives have reminded me that deception is a real part of our fallen nature, and that in listening to others I must also test the spirit in which a testimony is given,” and after enumerating several more, he continues:
“I need my brothers and sisters to help me see when I am following Jesus and when I have strayed. And when I disagree with my community of faith, my first task is not to chastise others and set the record straight but is to ask if I am working from my desire to please God or if I simply desire to be right. More often than not, I am afraid I want to be right.” His honest reflection really spoke to me and I think that may be because I am not used to hearing such a message.
Well, until recently. I was surprised this week when a viral video showed up on my Facebook newsfeed with an ex-CIA agent telling the one most impactful lesson she learned in her 10 years of clandestine work in the middle east and beyond. Her overall lesson was this: “Everybody believes they are the good guy”, but what really struck me was that her solution to many of the conflicts that have raged around her– is listening.
She speaks of a briefing with a known militant in the Middle East where he expressed great anger at a certain policy, especially in light the future his children.
She says if you ask any American soldier, she or he will also site their own children, or future generation, as the reason they are fighting. She continues, “As long as your enemy is a sub-human psychopath that is going to attack you no matter what you do . . . this will never end.” We must humanize one another, listen to each other’s stories, and seek to understand one another’s situation.
I was surprised again, this past Thursday night in Harrisonburg, while attending a vigil for the victims of the Orlando shooting; I heard a very similar message. But this time, it was a city councilmember, who was also running for Congress. He said: Citizens, we are scared; of guns, of people with guns, of those we do not understand. But this fear leaves room for courage. Courage to be in conversation with those with whom we fear, many times due to lack of understanding. He said WE gave him courage to speak to his constituents, his fellow candidates, those who he disagreed with and who disagreed with him. We can listen. Things can be better.
From my perspective, when we do it our own way, there is Jew and Greek, there is Slave and free, male and female, citizen and stateless, farmer and herder, Muslim and Christian, progressive and conservative . . .
But, when we listen to Paul, and study the life of Jesus, we can have faith that through loving one another, pushing though discomfort to interact with and listen to those with whom we differ, we can create a stronger community, able to withstand and transform the conflict that may come.
Just like our society today, the society in central and southern Turkey where these Galatians resided, was filled with pressures- worshipping this God or that God, following these laws or not- each wanting others to act in a certain way, and exacerbating the divide between them. But we do not have to give into those pressures, rather we can listen, listen differently, to Paul and to one another. For as one scholar put it, “God who created all things and all people, God who in Jesus Christ came into this world to redeem all people, is the God who has chosen to love the whole human family. Truly, in and because of Christ Jesus, we are all beloved “children of God”; we are all chosen to be “one in Christ Jesus.”