Sermon on “us” and “them”

Sermon on “us” and “them” September 30, 2014

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Bethany started a hilarious meme this week on Facebook.

She used a picture of Rebel Wilson’s character Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect to start a “sometimes I feel God convicting me” meme – her first one said “Sometimes I feel God convicting me to do crystal meth, but then I think…hmmm…better not”

One of you recently forwarded me an email from someone who you haven’t heard from in years, who suddenly came out of the woodwork to inform you that God “put it on her heart” to basically shame you for your sexual orientation. …You know, because obviously that’s how God spends most of God’s time these days.

But – as much as I wish I could pull it off, if I were to say that “God convicted me” to tell my friend Clayton to get rid of his hand-guns it would of course be another example of what in my previous sermon I called using Jesus to co-sign on my own hang-ups.

My very favorite retort of this kind of nonsense comes from the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. In a book of the same title we are warned that people who are so certain of God’s direct desire “may have forgotten the possibility that [their] own wishful thinking and the human tendency to rationalize have likely distorted [their] so-called guidance. They force their own will into all sorts of situations with the comfortable assurance that they are acting under God’s specific direction”

I just don’t think I could ever be free enough from self-interest and grandiosity to reliably know that something in my heart or head is being authorized by God and not by me.

And often when people say that God is giving them specific instructions about something, it almost always happens to set up a situation where they get to then place themselves above others and not “speak into” their life, so much as speak down to them from above. Putting that person ipso facto in the position of God. It almost always seems that if God put something on your heart, it results in some kind of spiritual dominance over another person. “You” get to be over “them”.

And, man, are there a million ways of doing this.

But the thing to keep in mind here, the thing to remember when we use God to place ourselves above others is that this is exactly the opposite of what Jesus himself did. In our reading from Philippians we hear that Jesus himself, the one person in history who could legitimately pull that off, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited but humbled himself to the point of death even death on a cross.

Now, hold that thought and we will come back to it in a moment.

Because first we have to look at our Gospel reading for today, which starts out with Jesus being asked by the religious leaders, “under what authority do you do these things?”. Now, the responsible thing to do when a reading starts like that is to figure out what “things” they are talking about. And it ends up that if you go and read this chapter from its beginning, you will discover, as I did, that it starts with Jesus entering Jerusalem.

OK, so the God who we think operates by dominating others, enters the Holy city of Jerusalem in a royal procession, not on a velvet covered litter carried by slaves, but on the back of an ass. He is followed, not by the aristocracy and religiously important people, but by the hoi polloi, the great unwashed masses, it was an absolute Parade of imbeciles. Not exactly the way a God who co-signs on us spiritually dominating others would act…but it gets worse from there.

He gathered to himself all who were unwelcomed at the center, all who had been dominated and kept out. Then he entered of all places, the temple with them; the very center itself, the place where broken people, and gender variant people, and the religiously “other” and the blind and lame were not allowed to enter. He went into the temple and he overturned the tables and chairs of the merchants and moneychangers as a sign that the exchange of money is not needed in order to have access to God. (Which – parenthetically, is a super inconvenient text to come up the night of our church stewardship meeting! So if you are considering not staying for that meeting please be assured that I HAD planned to preach that you have to give 10% of your income to the church in order for God to be pleased with you but then I read this text about Jesus overturning the tables of the temple and I thought, “dang it!” that’s not gonna work)

Anyhow, When Jesus upturns the tables and chairs, it’s like he is also single handedly changing the seating chart in the temple. Which is to say, the velvet ropes fell to the ground, the doormen were dismissed and all were welcomed. In came the lame and the lost, the lonely, the last and the least. Which was bad enough but then right after that came the children. Loud, filthy screaming toddlers.

And that’s where our Gospel text starts – the religious authorities were not amused by all of this. So they came to Jesus and said, “by what authority do you take down these barriers?”

I wonder if for so long these guys had been the ones who dominated the weak, they controlled the lame, and the blind and small children. That way they could keep out any painful reminder of the parts of themselves they wish did not exist. And then Jesus comes and invites in all the people they were trying to keep out. Just like Jesus does even today among us.

By what authority do you do this Jesus? and he responds by showing them that maybe they were looking for God’s authority in all the wrong places. Do not look for it in human power and purity codes and the lines in which you exclude that which you hate in yourself.

He told them you know who totally gets this? Tax collectors and prostitutes, and all who have been excluded, all who know too-well our own failings- those of us who can’t manage to function, or can’t manage to walk on our own, or can’t manage to not do just a wee bit of heroin. These are those who readily recognized Jesus’s very real authority.

Because then and now there are those for whom the good news is that there are insiders and outsiders and that we get to be on the inside. But to others, the good news is that there no longer are outsiders.

There is no “them”. There is only “us”.

And we at House for All Sinners and Saints love this kind of thing, don’t we? We love an open door and an open table and as well we should.

But the thing that started gnawing on me this week was all the ways that, despite my own commitment to an open door and an open table, that I still get trapped into the us and them BS. Like how I consider those who embrace openness “us” and those who oppose it as “them” and how then all I’ve done is to create another division. I think of those who say “God just put it on my heart to stand over you and speak into your life” as “them”. I think of the NRA as “them” and those who don’t ordain women as “them” and people who listen to Nickleback as “them”.

But the Gospel is only good news if it is good news for everybody. And man, is that hard to swallow.

But strangely, it really is good news that there is no room to boast. Meaning, all our attempts to put ourselves in the place of God are thwarted because we get the place of God wrong. If we think that “the place” of God is one of domination and divisions, we’ve not been paying attention.

Which takes us back to Christ’s authority and the cross. Because Jesus himself, the one person in history who could legitimately pull off standing above everyone else, did so – but when he was above all of us, it was when he hung from the cross we prepared for him. He did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited but humbled himself to the point of death even death on a cross.

So the reason there is no “them” and there really is only “us” is not because of some lofty, self-congratulatory lived-into commitment to inclusivity and being nice. It’s because Christ has made it so. God has taken all the domination and the borders and boundaries and divisions among people and destroyed them by willingly taking all that sin into God’s own self in Jesus’ death on the cross and then defeating it all thought the glory of resurrection.

In a week when I was particularly filled with self-righteous indignation and feelings of “us” and “them” – when I was pridefully standing above and feeling spiritually superior to those who, unlike me, were clearly not taking the high road, this all sounded like really good news. Because keeping score, and knowing where I stand above or below others, and maintaining divisions is just so damned exhausting. So I am grateful to again come to this table of God’s grace where there are no doormen, there is no them, there is only us and know that it is Jesus and not me that has decided this.

Because what was true then is still true today. Jesus still calls the tax collectors and prostitutes and housewives and social workers and Pharisees into the very heart of God. So come and join me at his table, at this holy of holies, not because you have made it past the velvet ropes, but because the ground at the foot of the cross is level and there is room for all of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Yes. I needed to hear this today. <3

  • Jason Blomstrom

    Loved it. Thank you..spend a large amount of my time helping recovering addicts, as I am a recovering addict. Have always had problems with religion, organized ones anyway, since a very young age…tried again…was welcomed,,but after a understanding of my contijing mission, and the time it takes, (and also helping take care of aging parents, and problems with my daughter) noticed a rather unwelcoming air…maybe it was just me…shared about the problems my daughter was going through….our leader said, rather dismissally, ” saw that coming” . I became very cold….told said person that I’d like too see you in my shoes for a minite. Although I wouldn’t want anyone to have to expirence it. Have your health in jeopardy, go through a divorce, find a new place to live, see your only child a coue times a week, watch the person who betrayed you take up with a man she divorced you for…pay your bills, support your parents…deal with your daughter going through heartbreak and trying to commit suicide…try to have any kind of social life, outside of working your butt of to pay for medical bills and support for your daughter…good news is…cancer gone for now, still in recovery, head above water. Belief in God and Jesus strong…but not gonna be around arrogant people who think they know better. The fellowship I belong to sustains me, teaches me, makes me grateful for another day…prayer and meditation are a daily part of my life.
    Although alone, I am not lonely, but miss my former life…so, I’m kinda done with church for now…but I did say that 40 years ago too….I will, however, be listening to your sermons…you at least are aware of Nickelback. Blessings to you and your work, many hugs

  • dcsloan

    If you are going to “correct” me or “disagree” with some personal aspect of my life or express a “concern” about some characteristic of my personality, there first has to be a relationship. Not just an acquaintance or classmate or casual friend, we need to be “family” in the best relational expression of the word. You cannot “correct” or “disagree” or “be concerned” unless you are comfortable with and desirous of me doing the same for you. You cannot “correct” or “disagree” or “be concerned’ unless you are willing to stay with me and walk with me regardless of my response. You cannot “correct” or “disagree” or “be concerned’ unless you have spent the time and emotion to know and understand who I am.

    Otherwise, you are being abusive. It is not about my health or well-being. It is about you coercively gaining power over me. Which means, whatever imperfections I have, you have the problem and it is bigger and more severe than anything in my life. I will pray for you and that you find a competent mental health professional and a church that preaches and lives unrestrained boundless love and unconditional grace.

    • Cynthia Brown Christ

      Your comment was right on! I am going to paste it into my favorite comments notebook – if you don’t mind!

      I used to devote a lot of my time to attempting to explain your concept to people (people I had relationships with, mostly), but most people don’t get it.

      Once I was in this evangelism group. I made a comment like: we should be careful about how we talk to people when we evangelize – we should respect them, know their culture, stuff like that…..

      I knew the church was not the right place for me when an elder hautily lifted up his nose and responded: You are wrong. I can say whatever I want to anybody I want to – because it is the holy spirits words not mine!

      The vicar agreed, and I got out of there as fast as I could!

      • SueAnn Jackson Land

        And I’ll bet you were grateful you did. I would do the same (get out of there as fast as I could).

  • Total Consciousness

    I think Jesus draws the like be at Nickelback.

    • Keith Douglas


  • Johnny

    Thanks for the line “using Jesus to cosign on my own hang-ups.” I would rather not recount the times in my short ministry career of placing a burden of my calling on another. I struggle with this in walking alongside others and thinking to my self, “if you would just accept my thoughts on God’s will or mission for your life, you would be so much more fulfilled.” How absolutely burdensome of me. UGH! Lately I have been remembering about the compassion that was shown to me by my papa in the faith. How gently he taught me, encouraged me, and sometime even corrected me as Jesus would. Thank you for your ministry, and the courage you live out your faith. May your blessings abound.

  • another sarcastic Lutheran

    So, those who follow Scripture and don’t ordain women aren’t worthy of salvation through Christ, in your opinion? Hmm.

    • $1754985

      Clearly you didn’t read past what she thinks of as “them.” You need to learn to read the entire article. Otherwise you royally miss the point, as you did here. Read it again.

      • summers-lad

        The phrase “worthy of salvation” is itself missing the point.

  • Linda Williams

    Thank you for writing and posting this. The Lord used this to speak to me today.

  • The very first problem listed in scripture was our need to lord over and control another.

    To want to hold ourselves to an impossible standard, all the while projecting that very real self hatred on others.

    Cain earned his cookies and brought them to God “Lookie at all the good stuff *I* did!”

    Abel didn’t work like that, but bowed down and said “Y’know, I know I still need everyone, protection, and cover.”

    We know how that story went down.

    Yet here am I at my yearly progress report with my finger up my nose and not a clue.

    Take care when you fight monsters, lest you become, and it grows bigger than yourself and eats you.

  • William Robertson

    That’s a beautiful sermon. One of the best I have read. Thank you.

  • Gary

    Thanks. Love it.

  • Jesus Christ

    And then Jesus came upon his disciples and said, “Brethren, I’ve heard it said among you that I am the Son of God and was sent to die for your sins.

    Brethren, may I asketh, who in the goddamn hell came up with that Neanderthal bullshit!!!!!!!????

    Blood sacrifice!!!!???? Are you out of your fucking minds with that idiotic caveman lunacy!!!!!!!!!!!??

    Brethren, I’d sooner lick Judas’ ass crack than be a part of your disgusting dying for sins horse shit!!!

    And the disciple whom Jesus loved the most said, ….”Well fuck you Jesus!! I always thought you were kind of gay anyway!!!

    Holy shit fellas!!! What the hell are we gonna do now!!?

    Hey, maybe Billy Ray will die for our sins. Anybody got Billy Ray’s phone number?”

    ——The Gospel of Jesus, if it were composed by a sane, rational person and not a bunch of Bronze Age religious lunatics

    • $1754985

      Is this supposed to be funny? Because I’m not laughing. And I doubt any of the other readers here are, either.

      • Jesus Christ

        I’m laughing my ass off.

        So, apparently the problem is you.

        Oh, and don’t get sassy with the Lord and Savior.

        Or I might just smite thee.

        • Gary Roth

          Have a problem? Or just like trolling?

    • Keith Douglas

      Dude, the Bronze age was about 3000 year too soon. But speaking of Him being kind of gay, Stephen Prothero’s book “American Jesus” talks about how He has an increasingly feminised depiction. It’s an interesting read, not of religion but how people view it. You might like it.

      • Jesus Christ

        Hey, thanks.

        I’ll put it on my reading list, right after my in depth study of Paul Bunyon and the Easter Bunny.

      • JenellYB

        “American Jesus” is a real eye opener for those that think our image of and ideas about Jesus have always been as we think of him now. I read it for a Rel Studies course a few years ago, and being from a pretty narrow evangelical background, it sure smashing that idea for me!

    • $122284574

      Are you saying the Aztecs got their version of blood sacrifice wrong?

  • FoundationLapper

    A complete misunderstanding of the gospel. The same Jesus also spoke of people being “cast into outer darkness” for saying the right religious words but not having a religious heart. The same Jesus spoke of sheep and goats, narrow paths to Life and broad roads to Destruction.

    • David Zirilli

      But who did he throw into outer darkness? Sinners. So the question remains, is that “Us” or “Them”. “Us” are no better than them, different than them. Christ is Lord of all and died for all. So, let “us” let God determine who’s a sheep and who’s a goat. As for “us”, we can love our enemies and love those who persecute us and love those who say all kinds of evil against us, (whether they be religious zealots or atheist elitists).

      I have no opportunity to cast anyone into outer darkness today (though the thought has crossed my mind at times), but I do have an opportunity today to share Christ’s love and grace and open the gates of the temple of God (the church, people who love and follow Christ).

      So what is the misunderstanding of the Gospel? Do we selectively offer Christ only to those who will one day receive him and not be cast into outer darkness? Maybe that is the main reason that we have no idea this side of eternity who will be cast out and who will be received into his kingdom. We might then forget that no one is righteous, not one. We might forget that I am not worthy of the Kingdom of God. I am loved by God and forgiven by God according to His will and His good pleasure for His name’s sake.

      Praise God that salvation is by grace through faith—and this is not from ourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

    • Gary Roth

      Too narrow of a reading – you need to take in the context as well, and remember the whole of his ministry. Who, indeed, did he cast out? The only ones he ever condemned were the Pharisees and Sadducees – those whose hearts were closed to others. “Sin,” in Jesus mind, following the Psalms and Prophets, had to do with “the demands of a right relationship,” not moral failings. And his instruction to us was, “do not judge;” that’s God’s business, not ours. For Paul, the greatest evidence of the resurrection was not the reanimated body of Jesus, but the tearing down of boundaries between people, ie., love. John says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in him, and he in them.” Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, to love one another as I have loved you.” Our only command is to love. Those who refuse to do so may end up in the “outer darkness,” but it is their own doing. Our business is not to separate them – only to love them.

  • Guest

    I’ve never looked at the story of the Jesus upending the tables in that way before, but I can tell you that I will never look at it in any other way again. So much to chew on here. So much to digest and process. Loved it. Thank you.

  • Meredith Indermaur

    I’ve never looked at the story of Jesus upending the tables in that way before, but I can tell you this: I will never look at that story in any other way again. So much to chew on. So much to digest and process. Loved it. Thank you.

  • Keith Douglas

    This NRA supporting, economic disciple of Milton Freidman loves your work. Thanks.

  • $122284574

    “’Convictions cause convicts.’ Whatever you believe imprisons you.”
    ~Robert Anton Wilson (Cosmic Trigger, 1977)

  • “often when people say that God is giving them specific instructions about something, it almost always happens to set up a situation where they get to then place themselves above others”

    This is a difficult one for me. I have been preparing Bible studies for others. I believe God gives me “specific instructions”. I think that God uses me to convey things that he wants discussed. I do this after prayer and self-examination and contemplation; relying on my talents to do the job as I am able.

    Now, if I thought it was just me making it up, I would pack it in and shut up. It has to be God doing the majority of the work, because I don’t trust myself. However, having found myself in the position, without particularly trying hard to be in it, I would have thought that there must be a good reason that God uses me and not somebody else.

    I try hard to create a platform in which dialogue can ensue. I try very hard not to give my own opinions, and if do, I make that clear. The rest is what I hope is going to be God breathed. I simply see the task – as far as I am concerned – as one of bringing information to the table, in order to facilitate a little consideration.

    If I am doing something wrong, then somebody please let me know.

    • David Zirilli

      Wrinkled, I believe that Nadia has the same beliefs about this as you do. She speaks to her congregation and her on the net what she is confident God has given her to speak. But there is a difference between that and something else that I have encountered and participated in at times in my life.
      As a pastor/teacher, it can be very tempting to take what we know (or think we know) about someone else and prepare a message to “fix” them. The example Nadia used in her sermon fits.
      The thought process of the person is something like this. 1 – I know that this person is a homosexual. 2 – I know that is against God. 3 – I wish I could help them see the Truth. 4 – Pray for God to fix that person. 5 – That person is not getting fixed fast enough. 6 – God, you must want me to fix that person. 7 – I will fix that person. 8 – “God told me to tell you that you are a sinner. Let me help you.”
      It is possible, such as when David was confronted by Nathan, that God would send one person to speak directly into the life of another. But more often he would speak directly to the person. So, beware if your teaching every becomes guided by your own desire to fix someone else in the group.
      I have misguidedly created whole sermons to address the sins of one person in the church (and there are times when that person didn’t even show up to church that week!) I have learned to be very suspicious of my own desires in this regard.
      Other times, I have felt God’s direction leading me to craft a sermon, unsure if anyone in the church could relate. And, afterward, had one or more people come up to me, saying, “That sermon was for me. Thank you.”
      The difference is motivation and intent. Hope this encourages you to keep studying and working hard and listening to the Spirit as you embrace your role as teacher. May God bless you.

      • Gary Roth

        There is a great difference in speaking from “over” a person, and speaking “under.” Jesus, Paul said, made himself the “least,” and speaks to us from that position. I think of a fellow I had in a former congregation who would come up to me after the service, and start pointing his finger at me, as he talked about all that was wrong with the church and the world, then he would finish by saying, “Of course, pastor, I know that when I’ve got my finger pointing at you, I’ve got three pointing back at me. I’m the worst sinner you’ve got!” That’s where we speak from – we speak with three fingers pointed back at us, from the point of our own weakness: “Have this mind in you, which is yours in Christ….” Or, another way to think of it, is a woman in that congregation who was always talking about “those” people; when she served in the food pantry, it was always clear on which side of the table she stood. She quit when we started having people who received from the pantry run it. We are all on the same side of the table, Jesus is saying, and he is there with us. Or, as ML King said, “No one can say, ‘Your end of the boat is sinking.'”

      • JenellYB

        David, your comments bring to mind some incidents over the years, in which a preacher, or SS teacher, or just some individual, that decided to, some even having a regular habit of, thinking to ‘speak’ through a sermon, a scripture quote, a SS lesson, to someone about a sin or weakness they think the person has, to ‘fix’ something wrong with them, get a message across, indirectly, without actually directly and personally addressing the matter with that person. Thoughts and feelings about those incidents range from frustration, hurt, confusion, embarrassment, and at times, even humor. when what they thought they knew, or had judged, about someone, was completely off the mark, and may have even been nothing more the petty gossip to begin with. While most were relatively minor, some have resulted in tragic results.

        One of the peculiarities of churched culture that never made any sense to me at all has been what seems to be an entrenched cultural idea that “concerns” about someone’s behavior are better addressed by slipping comments in sideways, through “delivering” the message to them by pretending to not be directing it specifically to them at all, and through “dropping hints.” And if the person does sense it is being directed at them, without knowing why, and say something, it’s often taken as the shoe must fit if they thought it was about them.

        In such situations, while they may not speak directly to the person, they do talk to others about the “problem,’ and/or deliver their “fix it message” in such a way that others can guess who the intended recipient is.

        Whenever anyone feels they should “fix” someone else’s problem in such a way, how much better they speak to that person directly and honestly, not try to deliver the “fix” covertly.

  • David Zirilli

    It would seem that you and I are on opposite ends of the “us” and “them” spectrum. But, we are united in the belief that there is no “us” and “them”. There is only “us”. If you ever want to have a conversation with someone that you would feel tempted to define as other, I would be glad for it.
    I have just encountered your posts today and have been challenged and encouraged by them. I am reminded again that God’s grace is sufficient. His power is made perfect in my weakness.
    I am the pastor of a home church that we began two years ago with the hope of eliminating the divide between church people and non-church people. I come from an evangelical Baptist background and have had to unlearn many things in order to find sanity.
    There are still many things that would threaten to divide us, but I am confident that God’s love is broad and deep and wide enough for us to find unity in Christ.
    Thank you for your honesty and candidness, humility and confidence.

    • Dear David

      I replied to your earlier post, which I found encouraging, but it vanished!

      People who will not walk into a church, may well walk into a home. Unlearning stuff is the absolute key, for God will address Himself to each new generation. I am a great fan of A W Tozer, a true man of God, but he is speaking to Christendom 50 years ago. He struggled with the same basic things we do, but he was talking to mid 20th century America. It is the same with Francis Schaeffer and others. Biblical truth stays the same, but it necessarily requires interpretation in the light of the issues we face.

      I hope you are blessed in your work.

  • ablortez

    Trying to use logic to understand the bible is like trying to use physics to understand Narnia.

  • Claire

    Wonderful sermon!! I needed to hear this message. “I think of those who say “God just put it on my heart to stand over you and speak into your life” as “them”. ” This really spoke to me. I find myself getting caught in this mind trap as well. I worked for a Christian organization for a year which had a few members who felt it was their responsibility to basically fix my life in the ways that they saw fit. The individuals had no intentions of keeping me around unless I succumbed to the way they thought my life should look. I felt judged and looked down upon and eventually grew very bitter about the situation and definitely developed the “us” and “them” mentality towards those individuals. But what I really need to remember are the words you ended your sermon with: “the ground at the foot of the cross is level and there is room for all of us.” If I continue to keep that bitter,angry “us” and “them” mentality then I am acting no better than those people who hurt me. “The ground at the foot of the cross is level and there is room for all of us.” Truly, thanks be to God for that!

    • thx 4 your story. it is so perplexing and nuanced this encounter w/ ‘us/them’ syndrome! But I think it’s inevitable given how tribal and selfish unevolved & unenlightened human nature is. When I do it it is very likely it’s been done to me. How could it not be? I never had a role model to teach me differently!