Distinctions That No Longer Matter
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
June 19, 2016

Homily for the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year C, with a baptism at the Saturday night vigil. 
Scriptures: Zechariah 12:10-11, 13:1; Psalm 63; Galatians 3:26-29; Luke 9:18-24. 
Preached on June 18 and 19, 2016, at 
St. John XXIII University Parish in Knoxville, TN

It has been said that a priest must preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Last Sunday, in light of the horrific massacre in Orlando, one theologian tweeted: “If you have never preached a sermon about God’s love for LGBT people without including caveats and qualifications, now would be a good time.”

The lectionary has given us an opportunity to reflect on God’s unconditional love for all people today. Our second reading, a well-known passage from Galatians, has sometimes been called “The Magna Charta of humanity.” But the other readings offer us a challenge. Our reading from Zechariah speaks of the LORD pouring a spirit of grace upon the people, leading them to grieve the death of one who has been pierced, and to purify themselves of their sins. Jesus tells us that we will only save our lives if we voluntarily deny ourselves.

The first person who denied himself for the greater glory of God was Abraham. Paul tells us that we are all descendents of Abraham, heirs of the promise of God.  Let’s take a moment to celebrate that.

The devil triumphed in Orlando last Sunday. Last weekend’s tragedy brings together so many of the “hot button” issues in the United States today, that if it didn’t involve death, injury, and mourning, it would sound as if it were out of a movie script. Gay and lesbian Hispanics were mowed down with firearms by a mentally-ill Muslim man claiming allegiance to several terrorist organizations. This tragedy touches on so many different divisions in our society. 

Approximately 20 years after the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, St. Paul addressed a dispute that was dividing the Christians in Galatia. Did Greeks need to observe the Jewish Law in order to be considered Christians? He famously answered, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

My friends have reacted to the Orlando massacre with a phenomenal number of posts on social media. Many friends have vociferously called for gun control reform. Other friends said, this isn’t about gun control; it’s about terrorism. Democratic friends have criticized Republicans with vehement, colorful language. Republican friends have responded in kind. Some Catholic friends criticized the majority of U. S. bishops who issued statements about the tragedy but did not acknowledge that the victims were gay. Another friend posted a blog defending those bishops. Some of my gay and lesbian friends have said that straight people can’t really understand the impact of the attack of the LGBT community. 

The author Madeleine L’Engle once wrote: “Separation is the triumph of the devil.” I can’t help but feel as if the devil’s triumph in Orlando last Sunday is being magnified by well-meaning, passionate people highlighting the divisions among us. Honestly, I don’t understand what is accomplished when an LGBT ally retweets an insensitive comment by a Christian minister, or when a friend from one political party shares the latest divisive comment made by a leader in the other party. Do we expect that sharing these statements will change anyone’s mind? Or does it just make us hate each other more? One friend posted an article about the flaws in proposed gun control legislation, but the author was so pejorative to people who disagreed with him that I couldn’t find the energy to work my way through the vitriol to read the article. 

Everyone agrees that something must be done about the increasing frequency of mass shootings in this country. And the anger everyone feels about the situation is, no doubt, at least partially fueled by the righteous anger of God. But obviously, a lot of the anger is coming from a spirit that isn’t nearly as holy. The Old Testament prophets spoke strongly about the sins of the people, but not even the Ezekiel, the most Technicolor of the prophets, used the language that so many of us casually use on the internet!

I wish I knew how to help us reach a consensus. God’s love is unconditional. All life is sacred. There must be a way for us, as a nation, to agree on that! We’re addressing the problem in the wrong way, as we do about so many of the political issues dividing us today. Call me naïve if you like, but I truly believe that at least 95% of people want to do the right thing at least 95% of the time. 

Today, for the first time in the gospel of Luke, Jesus foretells that he will be killed. As Christians, we believe that Jesus died for all of our sins. Can we take some time this week to gaze upon the crucifix and ask Jesus how each of us have contributed to the divisions plaguing our nation? 

As mentioned previously, some people have called today’s passage from Galatians “The Magna Charta of Humanity.” That’s probably going a bit too far. If someone is going to cite this passage as an argument for civil rights for all people, I’d hate to think that equality is only granted to those baptized into Christ Jesus. The other thing that’s complicated about this passage is that we have different ideas about what we mean by the word “equality.” Do we mean absolute sameness, or do we mean equal dignity? Not only are there Jews and Greeks, but there Hispanics and Afghans. Not only are there male and female, but there are people who don’t identify as either. None of us may be slaves, but it sure seems as if some people have more freedom and influence than others.

John Stott explained what St. Paul meant this way: “When we say that Christ has abolished these distinctions, we mean not that they do not exist, but that they do not matter. They are still there, but they no longer create any barriers to fellowship.” I’ll put it another way: most of us are not looking for a radical uniformity among all people; we’re looking for a radical unity that still respects our diversity.  

But that’s a tough job, respecting diversity… especially at a university that no longer receives funding for offices that support diversity efforts. What is the litmus test for truly respecting and welcoming those who are different from us?  

The theologian Elizabeth Johnson has named a sin that prevents us from achieving unity in the face of diversity: she calls it hierarchical dualism. Dualism is the dividing of one entity into two subsets, which is not necessarily a problem. But hierarchical dualism is the sin of declaring that one subset is inherently better than the other. So, how do we Christians fight against the human inclination to prefer Jews over Greeks or Greeks over Jews? How do we rise above partisan politics? Perhaps Jesus gives us the answer in today’s gospel: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself.”  

We live in the world that values seeing ourselves as special, as set apart from – and as set above – others. How do we overcome the temptation to not deny ourselves? I pray that God will once again deliver what he promised to Zechariah, that God will once more pour out on us a spirit of grace and petition. 

As Zechariah declares, God opens a fountain for us to purify ourselves from sin and uncleanness. John and Ashley, in a few minutes, you will bring Callie forward to be baptized in that fountain. But it is a fountain God continually opens to all of us.  May we avail ourselves of the graces to cleanse ourselves of our past sins, to deny ourselves places of privilege, and to see all people as children of God.