Pentecost 8, July 18

Rev. Susan’s Sermon, July 18, 2021, Pentecost 8/Proper 11 

I think one of my earliest memories of being included comes from the first grade. We had just moved to Mexico City. I was new, a stranger, and in school for the first time.  Alone and hugging the wall at recess I was asked to join the game I had been watching the kids play.  It was one of those games that has an ultimate goal, involves a song and has all sorts of rules about how it’s played.  

Of course, I had no clue about any of this. It was foreign to me. I had been watching, hoping, I could figure it out, when one of the girls –bless her!– said, ‘come on, get in!’ “But I don’t know what to do!” I protested.  “Nonsense,” was her reply.  “Everybody knows this game!”

I didn’t. But 6 year olds have a way of making mistakes fun, either by declaring “new rule! New rule!” or, “this one doesn’t know the words yet, so she gets a pass,” giving everyone a chance. Innocent, play is more about being silly together than it is about following the rules.

There’s a special feeling that comes from knowing that you are included, that you might belong. It may be a sense of safety, or calm. It may be knowing that others care. It may be a sense of trust, that the group affirms who you are.  It may be a sense of welcome and hospitality every time you lay eyes on each other. I hope each and every one of us can point to specific times and places where they knew –beyond any doubt– that feeling of inclusion and ultimate belonging. I sincerely hope that this church, this community is one of those places.

I say that because we spend an awful lot of time and energy focusing on everything opposite of inclusion: distinctiveness, difference, exclusivity.  We are enormously invested in individuality, independence, using our divisions as if wielding a knife, to separate, isolate, even discriminate and segregate.

This seems to be true throughout history. No sooner than a group coalesces into a cohesive form, it creates a sense of identity by setting boundaries, limits on inclusion and exclusion, ways in which others know that they belong, and whether they are in or they are out.

It’s the wonderful reading from Ephesians that got me thinking about this. How we get to the point of organizing ourselves along likes and dislikes, from the individual to the national and cultural level. How a symbolic action becomes fixed, cemented into ritual, and becomes a way of thinking and then into a way of being, understanding the world and being in relationship with God.

“Remember,” Paul writes,  “that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”… remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world…”

Wow.  talk about being on the outside! About not being included! Gentiles were strangers without hope and without God!  And talk about a way to know and signify this distinction: circumcision.  This being a willing and indelible mark, it was a sure way to tell the difference between one group of people and another. (Though I wonder if anyone actually checked!)

For perhaps obvious reasons, we don’t talk much about circumcision in the church. Can’t say that I’ve preached about it much, but it was, is, a prominent feature of Judaism and a dividing issue in early Christianity.

Circumcision as a token of allegiance, as commitment and service to God can be traced all the way to the covenant Abraham makes with God in Genesis (Gen 17:13). Clearly it was serious business.

 But as a practice, Male circumcision wasn’t unique to the Hebrew people.  In fact, it is the oldest known human surgical procedure, with historical records and archeological evidence dating the practice back to ancient Egyptians in the 23rd century BCE. Not all cultures in antiquity practiced it, not all countries or societies do now. But at one point, it became the mark of distinction, the gate, the way in which some were in, and some were out.  So much so that for the early Christian community, it was one of the earliest controversies the disciples had to work out: Is it a requirement for all who follow Jesus?

Peter first and now Paul, say no. There are other ways to profess our commitment to God. Paul specifically said, “in his flesh [Christ]  has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two…” Of course, Paul isn’t only speaking about circumcision, but indeed about all the ‘commandments and ordinances that are between’ jews and gentiles.  The goal is to make believers of us all, to include everyone, without distinction.

How difficult that is for us to accept that God accepts us all.

In today’s gospel, Jesus looked at the crowds and “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…” Jesus, just like God does, accepts who we are: a people consumed by petty divisions, ground down by gatekeeping and rules, oppressed by systems that denigrate our common humanity.  Jesus’ heart breaks when he sees this, and he is moved to heal, to teach, to reach, to ultimately include those who were always on the sidelines: the weak, the vulnerable, the outcast.  He doesn’t ask if people follow the rules; full of compassion, he lets them know they are worthy, just as they are. 

Maybe it’s because we are still recovering from the pandemic; maybe it’s because our politics are fractured and our nation so divided. Maybe it’s because the world seems to be coming apart from the effects of climate change and extreme weather events, or maybe it’s just me,  but I feel as fragile and vulnerable as a lamb.

A little compassion would go a long way. 

The words of today’s collect remind us that we are needy and ignorant, weak and blind, always counting on God’s compassion just to get along. God is there for us, but we need also to ask, where is our compassion?

One clue is that we won’t find it insisting on our own way, delighting in individualism, a misguided sense of superiority or by keeping others at arm’s length. In fact, we won’t find compassion without a sense of community.  It will be what brings us together, give us a way forward, because compassion is what motivates us to go out of our way to consider and even address the needs of others because we can see them, their pain, their suffering, as our own. 

Compassion may be a new way, a more inclusive way, to show our allegiance, our service and commitment to God –it’s not circumcision, but it does involve giving up something of ourselves for the sake of others: it might be our time, our resources; it might be giving up some long-held beliefs in order to make room for others, it might mean taking a look at our wastefulness and pausing on our consumption for the sake of the earth.  

What does compassion look like?

In God it looks like a shepherd who deeply cares for his flock

In Jesus it looks like a reconciling cross that brings everyone into his hold.

And in six year olds, it looks like inviting others to play. Amen.