Sunday, June 22, 2014

God's Gang

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 22, 2014

Year A, Proper 7: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

God’s Gang

            I don’t know the first thing about soccer but I’m impressed by how excited so much of the world gets about the World Cup.
            I was at a meeting this week with someone who told me that he and his son were about to leave for Brazil to see four World Cup matches. He told me that when they had booked this trip long ago they had no idea what countries they would get to see compete. As it turns out that one of the games they’ll get to see the USA vs. Germany. I’m sure it’ll be an amazing experience.
            On the one hand, these games bring out nationalism – there’s lots of flag-waving and anthem-singing and chanting all the rest. But, the games also remind us of our common humanity – these athletes demonstrate amazing skill and stamina whether they come from big, rich countries or small, poor ones. And, every once in a while, a small country scores an upset over a powerhouse.
            The World Cup has sparked lots of soccer-related stories in the news.
            The other day while I was driving I heard on the radio a story about an organization that tries to provide lower income people and homeless people with the opportunity to play soccer. The story focused on a tough Brooklyn neighborhood called East New York. Although many of the people who live there come from soccer-crazed countries, there aren’t too many chances to play.
            Why? Well, first there isn’t much open-space in the neighborhood for soccer fields.
            That makes sense.
            And then the reporter mentioned another reason: gang turf wars make some streets too dangerous to cross. People in that neighborhood might have to literally risk their lives to cross the street to go play a game of soccer.
            That made me sad. And it surprised me, though I guess it shouldn’t have.
            We have plenty of gangs and gang-related violence right here in Jersey City – right in the neighborhoods where many of us live.
            Not quite two weeks ago two young men were shot and killed while sitting in a car on Van Nostrand Avenue. As far as I know the police haven’t released more information but no one would be surprised if this was a gang-related killing.
            And, many of us know that lots of other stuff happens on our streets goes that never makes it into the news.
            There’s nothing new about this and certainly nothing unique to a particular ethnicity. People have always grouped themselves for safety and for power. We don’t usually call these groups gangs – we use nicer words like nationalities, or extended families, or even religious denominations.
            We group ourselves together. And we classify others as outsiders who are unwelcome on our turf.
            That’s what we humans have been doing all along – we’ve been forming gangs.
            Us versus them.
            Meanwhile, all along God has been trying to get through to us that there’s no us versus them. There’s just we. There’s only supposed to be one gang – God’s Gang – the gang where all are welcome.
            We hear about God’s Gang in today’s reading from the Book of Genesis.
            God chose Abraham to be the father of God’s people. It’s encouraging that in choosing Abraham, God chose a dysfunctional family to begin the spread of God’s message. There’s hope for us all.
            Anyway, in today’s reading we hear about the weaning of Isaac, the son of Abraham and his wife Sarah, this child born miraculously in Sarah’s old age. Now, back when it seemed that Sarah couldn’t get pregnant she had given the slave Hagar to her husband. Together Abraham and Hagar had a son named Ishmael.
            But, now that Abraham and Sarah have a son of their own, Sarah wants Hagar and Ishmael gone. Sarah can’t stand having this slave woman and her son in their family – in their gang – on their turf.
            As we heard, in the story Abraham goes along with this after God assures him that Hagar and Ishmael will be OK. They’re expelled from the family – out of the gang - and go off on their own. But, God doesn’t abandon them. We’re told that God heard Hagar’s cry of despair. And God blesses Ishmael, making him the father of a great nation.
            Now, the usual interpretation is that Ishmael is the father of the Bedouin tribesmen who live south of Israel. The usual interpretation is that they are related to the Hebrews but inferior.
            But, another way of looking at it is, yes, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac have a special place as God’s chosen people. But, God blesses everyone. Hagar the slave and her son Ishmael were expelled from the gang but they were still welcome in God’s gang.
            Later, some Hebrew prophets offered a vision of the last days when all our divisions would be erased and all the nations, all the gangs of the world, would gather at Mt. Zion and worship the one true God.
            Kind of like God’s World Cup.
            We Christians believe that those last days have begun. God’s World Cup has begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
            In his earthly lifetime, Jesus had no interest in human gangs.
            Jesus stressed out his followers and outraged the authorities by reaching out to people he had no business talking with, crossing streets he shouldn’t have crossed. In the gospels Jesus is remembered reaching out to women, tax collectors, children, Samaritans, Pharisees, pretty much everybody he met.
            Jesus invited everyone to be part of just one gang: God’s Gang.
            In today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus warns that it’s not easy to be part of this gang.
            And at first glance, God’s Gang sounds pretty much like any other gang.
            If we’re part of God’s Gang, we’ll be accused of all sorts of stuff.
            If we’re part of God’s Gang, we’ll have to risk our lives.
            If we’re part of God’s Gang, we’ll have to put that allegiance above all other responsibilities – even including, even especially, family.
            Sounds just like the gang keeping kids from playing soccer, right?
            Except that everyone is invited to be part of God’s Gang.
            And, as membership in God’s Gang grows, there is less bloodshed and suffering as we – all of us - find our true identity and unity as God’s children.
            Let’s be honest. The world is a tough place and it often seems that God’s Gang isn’t doing too well. But, when we look carefully we can see signs that God’s Gang is growing.
            Here are two signs – one far away and one close to home.
            For more than a thousand years, for all sorts of reasons, Christians have been broken up into rival gangs: the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, the Anglicans, all sorts of Protestants and on and on. For more than a year, Pope Francis has been busy bridging divisions, inviting everyone to be part of God’s Gang. He’s become good friends with the Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of Orthodox Christians. Along with the Patriarch, he recently held a prayer summit at the Vatican with the presidents of Israel and Palestine. All of this was unthinkable not long ago.
            This past week the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of our Anglican gang, visited the Pope at the Vatican for the second time in a year. They spoke about different ways that our two gangs could work together, which the pope summed up as the “Three P’s” – prayer, peace and poverty.
            At the end of their time together, the Pope – the Pope! - bowed his head and asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to bless him.
            God’s Gang is growing.
            Closer to home, a couple of weeks ago some local clergy representing Jews, Christians and Muslims – gangs that often don’t get along - met to discuss the possibility of praying at places in Jersey City where there have been murders. We reached an agreement and hoped we wouldn’t be called to do this anytime soon.
            A day later those two young men were shot on Van Nostrand. A week later a group of us – a rabbi, an interfaith minister, a Methodist pastor and two Episcopal priests – gathered at the spot and offered prayers for the dead young men, for the perpetrator, for peace on our streets and around the world.
            That group of clergy has all kinds of theological differences and yet at that moment it felt like we were all part of God’s Gang – the gang that offers peace and love – the gang where everyone is welcome - the gang that can build a world where kids of all different nationalities can cross any street they want and play a game of soccer.
            In and through Jesus, God invites us – all of us – to be part of God’s Gang.
            It’s up to us to say yes.