Texts: Romans 3:19-30;
John 8:31-36; Jer 31:31-34
FREED FROM THE US-VS-THEM THINKING TRAP, PART 2
This morning I offer you Part 2 of a two-part sermon on how human beings ordinarily lived trapped in Us-vs-Them thinking. It is such a trap for us that God had to send Jesus in order to begin to free us from it.
Last week (Proper 25C), I used a Chinese Finger Trap as an object lesson. [Continue while demonstrating with and actual finger trap:] Once one’s fingers are inside, you can’t really get free of it without some sort of external help. Inside the trap, the internal pull of your finger trying to get out only tightens the trap’s hold on you. You have to some sort of help from outside to get your fingers loose.
This is similar for human beings and our Us-vs-Them Thinking. From inside that thinking, the pull of it only seems to strengthen its grip. The Reformation, for example, multiplied the Us-vs-Them Thinking into Protestant vs. Catholic, and then a subsequent splintering into many, many bickering Protestant groups. The Reformation once again missed the fulcrum of salvation of God coming from outside our Us-vs-Them Thinking to save us from it. God sent Jesus as the Messiah who lets himself be crucified — sentenced as a criminal, one of Them — and then God raised him up as vindication to begin breaking the hold of Us-vs-Them Thinking on us — though the failure of the Reformation keeps us caught in the Trap.
Last week’s Parable of Pharisee and the Tax Collector is also a good illustration of this trap (Proper 25C). Jesus intends at the beginning of the parable to use stock characters who represent typical Us-vs-Them Thinking of his day: a Pharisee who represents good, and a tax collector who represents evil. But then he further paints a picture that seems to reverse things: the Pharisee is a self-righteous jerk, and the tax collector seems to want honestly confesses his sins. Do we remain trapped in Us-vs-Them Thinking with things reversed? It’s now the tax collector who’s good and the Pharisee bad? Which is it?
On this day that we observe the Reformation, let me give you an historical answer: since the Reformation, Protestants have bitten the apple. We love to see the Pharisee as bad. We think that Jesus has given us an example of so-called “works righteousness” in the Pharisee, someone just like those Catholics who we are against. I kid you not. You can read the commentaries on this parable written by Protestants and see how they make the Pharisee epitomize what we are supposedly against. God wants us to be more like the tax collector, someone who’s sorry for their sins and seeks God’s mercy. And so we remain trapped, in short, in our Us-vs-Them Thinking. Last week, we saw how this parable actually provides a way out of the trap, primarily based on how we translate one little word. We won’t rehearse that whole argument here but simply repeat our reading as Jesus talking about the two going home justified alongside each other. One is humbled and the other exalted not so that they reverse places but so that they come out like God sees them — namely, as equally God’s children deserving of grace.
The history of violence that goes with our Protestant version of Us-vs-Them Thinking helps prove the failure of getting the point. The first couple centuries after the Reformation were marked by bloody wars of Protestants vs Catholics. We must see our enemies as God’s enemies rather than God’s children in order to justify killing them.
The Us-vs-Them Thinking trap then deepened as we took the Protestant message global. The five hundred years of Protestantism coincides with the five hundred years of White Supremacist Racism — and it’s not a coincidence. Being lost inside Us-vs-Them Thinking, the Protestants of Europe took it on their journeys to colonize other continents like the Americas and Africa. Worse than even those Catholics, it seemed, are the so-called pagans who don’t believe in Jesus. It justified our enslaving them and killing them in large numbers. If we are honest about the hold of Us-vs-Them Thinking on us, then we might be bolder in continuing to examine ourselves for the hold of racism on us. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel Reading, “The truth will set us free.”
Today’s Second Reading can be read as another test to show how tight of a grip Us-vs-Them Thinking has on us. I’ve offered us another translation this morning1 because I think that our usual translations subtly leave us open to continue the Us-vs-Them Thinking — especially if we’re unaware of the problem St. Paul was trying to address in his day. I introduced the reading today with some of that background. The biggest trap for the new Christians like Paul — since they were all Jews like Paul and Jesus and the early apostles — was to continue in the Us-vs-Them Thinking in terms of Jew against Gentile. Paul was writing to the Romans because he had heard about early Christian teachers who had also gone to the Galatian churches before moving to Rome. In both those letters, to the Galatians and the Romans, Paul is trying to address what he felt was dead wrong. These teachers were teaching that Gentiles had to become Jews first, like Jesus himself, in order to be proper followers of Jesus. Paul emphatically says, “No!” The point of Jesus going to the cross in the first place is to finally begin to jolt us out all our Us-vs-Them Thinking. On the cross, Jesus lets himself become an outsider, one of the Them, one who was declared evil by both the Jews and the Romans. And so he’s arguing to the Roman churches that we are all sinful in God’s sight, but also that the loving God we meet in Jesus forgives us all, too. We are all able to start out on the same footing as children of the same God.
The translation I offer this morning (given below in the endnote) makes it clear that Paul is arguing with these teachers’ position, making it clear that there’s no room for Jews to boast that they’re better than Gentiles. The Oneness of God, who sent Jesus to die at the hands of our Us-vs-Them Thinking, is the source of our reconciliation, our unification. It is Jesus’s faithfulness in going to the cross — not our faith in him — that comes from the outside in order to break the internal grip which the Us-vs-Them Thinking Trap has on us. The grip has been so tight that not even with the best of our religions, neither the Jewish Torah or Christianity, has been able to free us. Our religions and our cultures end up keeping us trapped in the Us-vs-Them Thinking, unless we center on the cross and its power to break that thinking.
We need to ask ourselves: Hasn’t Christianity as a religion kept us even tighter in the grip of the Trap? We’ve come to interpret our religion as a religion superior to others, and so it ends up keeping us trapped in Us-vs-Them Thinking. We’ve even come to proclaim it in terms of an eternal division, that in the afterlife some people go to heaven and the rest go to hell . . . on into eternity. Can we see how this has just been deepening the trap of Us-vs-Them Thinking? And did the Reformation undo this, or simply give us another way to play the game — Protestants vs. Catholics? Do you see how pernicious this is?
This morning, I want to offer another object lesson of sorts: Max Lucado’s beautiful story for children, You Are Special. I’ve printed out a synopsis of it. I encourage you to get a copy for all the young children in your lives. Perhaps it can even be the occasion of conversation with their parents about what we are learning together here at Bethlehem — about how Jesus came to free us from the perniciousness of Us-vs-Them Thinking. Let me very briefly give an overview of the story. It’s about a village of wooden people called the Wemmicks, who have this habit of giving each other gold stars when they judge something to be good or gray dots when they perceive something to be bad. Naturally, some people tend to get stars and some dots. Punchinello was one who mostly received dots, so he began to stay inside more and more, embarrassed to have everyone see all his dots.
One day he meets a young Wemmick who amazingly has neither stars nor dots. Punchinello ask her how this could be? She tells him that she makes a daily visit to Eli their maker, and so all the stars and dots gradually fell off her and wouldn’t stick anymore. Punchinello makes the trek up the hill to the woodmaker’s shop for his own visit. Eli lifts Punchinello high upon his workbench, where he asks him how the marks don’t stick to Lucia. “The stickers only stick,” says Eli, “if they matter to you. The more you trust my love, the less you care about the stickers. . . . come to see me every day and let me remind you how much I care.” Eli lifted Punchinello off the bench and set him on the ground. “Remember,” Eli said as the Wemmick walked out the door. “You are special because I made you. And I don’t make mistakes.” Punchinello didn’t stop, but in his heart he thought, I think he really means it. And when he did, a dot fell to the ground.
In this beautiful story, it paints a picture of how we can remain trapped inside the Us-vs-Them Thinking. It’s only when we gain an outside perspective, our maker’s perspective, that we can begin to feel the trap of Us-vs-Them Thinking begin to loosen. To see how pernicious this can be, we might imagine another kind of ending, one where Lucia and Punchinello lapse back into Us-vs-Them Thinking and begin to feel superior to others because the stars and dots don’t stick to them. So the new Us-vs-Them becomes those with stars and dots and those without. Isn’t this the sort of thing that happened first with the false teachers St. Paul was struggling against when the Jesus movement began? The false teachers were trying to make it a matter of converting to their ‘superior’ religion instead of reconciling divisions. And isn’t this what repeated in the Reformation? We simply found another way to think ourselves superior and hence yet another version of Us-vs-Them? And look at all the killing that happens in its wake, all the violence, when we remain trapped in Us-vs-Them Thinking.
So let’s end this morning by considering the challenges before us right now in our historical moment. There’s the bitter Us-vs-Them of Republicans vs Democrats that this week even resulted in an attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul. It was the same kind of political violence we saw on the infamous January 6 attack on the Capitol. Can you and I as followers of Jesus support any candidates for the important election who are less entrenched in such Us-vs-Them Thinking? Who can more truly lead us to work for the Common Good?
And this thing of racism I mentioned earlier: I’m currently writing an essay for our synod’s anti-racism team that being anti-racist is the heart of the Gospel message, not some side issue that we can take up or not. I’m basing it on Paul’s struggle in the first century with Jew-vs-Gentile. This morning’s passage is an argument against this, and yet the opposing teacher still asks at the end, “Isn’t God the God of Jews alone?” Paul is incredulous. ‘Of course not!’ he replies. The entire point of Paul’s argument is that the God revealed in Jesus the Messiah is the God of both Jews and Gentiles. Two thousand years later, we add that the God revealed in Jesus the Messiah is the God of both white people and people of color. The whole point of God’s gracious salvation begins with God creating one new humanity in place of all our divisions (Eph 2:15). There is no longer Us and Them but only Us.
And this is my final proof of the failure of the Reformation. I had to add on the verses about God being God for both Jews and Gentiles. My proposal to you today is that these left-out verses (29-30) carry the central revelation of God’s grace in the world. What’s the point of lifting up the Gospel message as one of grace if we leave out what that looks like in the world. In our world of the last five hundred years, it looks the dismantling and healing of White Supremacist Racism. Grace is but an empty shell (or “cheap,” as Bonhoeffer called it at the rise of Nazism) if it isn’t creating reconciliation in God’s family. The Reformation — in spawning new divisions instead of looking to heal them — is an empty shell of grace without a ministry of reconciliation within the human family. It is emblemized by touting Romans 3:19-28 as grace while leaving out the main point in verses 29-30. Brothers and Sisters, let us take up a New Reformation which doesn’t miss the point. Let us dedicate ourselves to a ministry of reconciliation in this time and place. Let us above all dedicate ourselves to dismantling and healing the White Supremacist Racism that has plagued the human family for the last five hundred years.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, October 30, 2022
1. Here’s my translation of the days Second Reading, adding verses 29-30. For more on how I arrived at the translation, see the webpage for Reformation Day. Here’s the translation, laid out as a dialogue between Paul and an Opposing Teacher:
St. Paul: 19We know that, whatever Torah says, it speaks to those who are ‘in’ Torah, such that every mouth might be silenced, and that the whole world might come under God’s judgment. 20For we say “no flesh will be justified before God” by practices of Torah — since it is through Torah by which consciousness of sin comes.
21Now then — beyond Torah — the justice of God has been disclosed, and is attested by Scripture: 22the justice of God through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah for all who trust him. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they now are all justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Messiah Jesus, 25whom God intended to be the source of unification in his blood, effective through his faithfulness. God did this to show God’s justice, because in divine forbearance God granted amnesty for sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the perfect time that God’s justice is just — in the very act of justifying everyone by the faithfulness of Jesus.
Opposing Teacher: 27Then what becomes of boasting?
St. Paul: It is excluded.
Opposing Teacher: By what sort of Torah? Which practices?
St. Paul: By none, but rather by a Torah of faithfulness. 28For we hold that a person is justified by a faithfulness which is beyond practices of Torah.
Opposing Teacher: 29Isn’t God the God of Jews alone?
St. Paul: And not of the Gentiles, too? Of course, of the Gentiles, too! 30Since God is one — the God who will justify the circumcised out of the faithfulness of Jesus — then it follows that God will also justify the uncircumcised through that same faithfulness.