by Rev. Joe Connolly
“…there is no distinction between Jew and Greek— all have the same Creator, rich in mercy towards those who call.” — Romans 10:12.
I have, a number of times here, addressed the fact that I grew up in New York City. One joke line I have about is that I was born in Manhattan, raised in Brooklyn, lived in Queens, went to school in the Bronx and way before I met Bonnie, way before Bonnie came into my life, dated a girl from Staten Island.
I guess that is to say I know city life and how to survive in it. In fact, know at what point the Subway cars will stop in a station, so I don’t have to run down the platform to climb aborad. I know a mathematic formula which can determine the location of a building on the north/south avenues in Manhattan. I know about the codes on the lampposts in Central Park which tell you which east/west cross street you are at in the park. Yes, I know all kinds of strange things from my time in the city.
I have to also said I grew up in a relatively poor section of Brooklyn which, at that point in time, could be described as a ghetto. Mind you, today this section of the Borough has undergone significant gentrification. Given that, I could probably not afford to live there now. (If no one has told you this before: timing can mean everything in life.)
There is, however another way to look my origins, where I was born and the circumstances under which I was raised, since there are both advantages and disadvantages to one’s background. Having already addressed a disadvantage— being poor— let me mention one advantage of growing up when I did and where I did in New York City.
One advantage to which I extensively availed myself, was an ability to be in touch with and be exposed to world class music and world class art, especially when I could get it for free, which is possible in the city. Given that I deliberately sought out world class music and art I always said I was the black sheep of the family.
More than my siblings or even my parents I was attuned to classical music and also to what was showing at the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I know it’s strange or it may sound strange to some but in my teens I was more of a fan of Leonard Bernstein and Leonardo da Vinci than a fan of pop music and comic books. Given both aspects of those early years— both the poverty and the exposure to world class opportunities— what I just described includes something most would call both a large disadvantage but also a large advantage.
I understand this description, a description with an advantage and a disadvantage, offers an internal paradox. But my bet is all of us could describe incongruities when it comes to our early experiences. Things are not always as cut and dry as they seem.
All that having been said, I want to reduced this description— this concept of time and place of origin— to a phrase academic sociologists use to describe one’s time and place of origin. Sociologists use a simple term: social location— social location. We all have a time and a place of origin. Therefore, we all come from and have a social location.
I need to unpack that just a little. Is money or lack thereof a strong influence on how one sees the world? Yes. Where-with-all matters when it comes to how one sees the world. Is race an influence? Yes. If we do not recognize that the structure of race relations in this country and world-wide matters, we have our eyes closed to reality.
But many other things matter too. The community in which we are reared matters. That’s a strong influence. And so does the country in which we come to our majority. This is a strong influence. And the people around whom we grow up are unquestionably a strong influence. In short, social location has many variables and many influences.
The point is, like it or not, our time and place of origin, our social location, has a nearly overwhelming influence on our view of the world. This social location— and what I am about to say is true both when we are aware of our social location and when we are blissfully unaware of social location— our social location helps shape which concepts are intelligible to us, which concepts help us shape the world around us and help that world make sense to us.
Social location impacts what claims will get through to us, what it is we actually hear and how they are understood by us. Social location can block or can illuminate the features of the world are salient, relevant, forceful, credible.
Well, let’s put that academic stuff aside for a minute. Perhaps this is a less academic way to put it— a quick easier way. If you grew up in circumstances of wealth, your take on a lot of things is likely to be different than if you grew up in circumstances of poverty.
If you grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, your take on a lot of things is likely to be different than if you grew up in San Francisco. If you grew up in London, England, your take on a lot of things is likely to be different an if you grew up in Tokyo, Japan. If you grew up in Chenango County…. well, you get the idea. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the Letter to the Church in Rome, often called Romans: “…there is no distinction between Jew and Greek— all have the same Creator, rich in mercy towards those who call.” (Slight pause.)
There is a term, a label, I hear being flung around a lot these days. “Loser!” I think most of the time those who use this— and I think it’s obviously being used as an accusation— those who use this are attempting to utter a pejorative, an insult, a put down.
But it’s also clear most invectives like “loser” and a bunch of others set up an us/them dichotomy, an us/them separation. What is left unsaid is, ‘If there are losers, there must be winners.’ Winners and losers— that’s the way the real world works, right? Indeed, separating people into categories, groups begs the question: ‘What is the purpose of drawing us/them lines?’ ‘Why draw up these categories, these separations?’ (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to Paul’s proclamation about there being no distinction between Jew and Greek. The season of Lent, you see, always brings the church back to the basics, to issues that are bedrock and essential.
The texts assigned in Lent invite us to reflect on where we, as communities and individuals, stand in relation to that center. They also invite us to a process of self-examination, forgiveness, new life, repentance.
And to be clear, repentance is not being sorry about something. Repentance means turning ourselves toward God and turning our lives over to God. Therefore and in short, this reading confronts us with some fundamental theological concepts and psychological affirmations. Further, these concepts and affirmations can help us define who we are in helpful ways.
Indeed, the text challenges us to ask a basic question: who is to be included into our community? Clearly the answer is everyone. You see, there is no distinction between Jew and Greek.
And, given Paul’s social location, that means everyone. You were either a Jew or a gentile, to use the modern term— Greek. And, given the concept of social location, Paul is insisting social location should not be the determining factor when it comes to who is acceptable and who is not.
So, let’s come back to our own social location for a minute. Given the world we see today— given the world Paul saw— I would actually argue that the human tendency is to break out into tribes. Our human tendency is to pick winners and losers. It is what might be called a natural tendency.
I would also argue that the call of the Gospel counters that. The call of the Gospel is to live in the grace God offers. The call of the Gospel is to see everyone as being gathered into in one tribe— the tribe of God.
Let me give a label to this idea, that everyone belongs to one tribe— the tribe of God. That everyone might belong to one tribe is not a natural tendency. It is a supernatural tendency. It is a tendency which relies on the grace God offers to each of us, Jew and Greek. Put in a different way our own social location is not and should not be a consideration when we ask ‘who belongs to the tribe of God?’
So, to what social location do we belong? Do we really belong to a social location which chooses up sides— winners and losers? Or do we belong to the social location about which Paul writes?
And yes, it is a challenge to refrain from picking sides. It is a challenge to love as God would have us love. But I suspect— no, I am convinced— that is the call of the Gospel, a call to the supernatural, the realm of God— here, now, with us. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is a précis of what was said: “I think the deep theological point I was trying to make may be more simple than what said. Do not be trapped by your social location. Instead embrace God who invites us toward unity and growth. Therefore, I want to call your attention to the thought for meditation in today’s bulletin (quote:) ‘Lent is not a “penitential season.” Lent is a “growing season.”’ Indeed, Lent is a time for growth. So, let us pray for the grace to, grow in service, grow in friendship, grow in love.”
BENEDICTION: God heals and restores. God grants to us the grace and the talent to witness to the love God has for us. Let us be ready as we go into the world, for we are baptized in the power of the Spirit. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.