Some days there is a word that jumps out from the scriptures and grabs my imagination. Rather reluctantly, I admit that this time it’s the word, wait for it, circumcision. Sigh. It’s one of those squirmy words, right up there with money, to get people, including me, feeling rather uncomfortable.
And how do I talk about something so personal, so intimate, and so outside of my own experience as a woman? I can think of several men whom I know who, no, not the right time and place for that story. And then there’s, nope, not my story. So although I am going to preach to the scriptures, just take a deep breath and relax. No surgery stories coming from this pulpit today.
Instead, I’m going to talk about some people in Vancouver. They are part of an organization that has been around since the 60’s and that’s a pretty good track record for any group. They are having a problem though. They need to recruit new members, and they tried to have open houses, once a year, for that’s a tradition of theirs. They went on CBC television, to lament that they are getting older and feeling that they can’t keep up with all the work. They want some younger folks to join up and take over. They really don’t understand why people aren’t flocking to their open houses. Any guess as to what this group is?
Yup, it’s a nudist colony! That would be one group that wouldn’t be squeamish about discussing circumcision. And I would have thought that it would be the last group to struggle to have new members. I mean, surely their children and grandchildren would join? I can understand why people aren’t joining churches, but a nudist colony? Wow. Let’s face it, bowling leagues, The Legion, Lion’s Club, even the Chamber of Commerce are all hoping that some day the young people will come and get to work, keeping up the traditions that have kept those groups going.
Frankly, I remember coming to church as a 20something, and I wasn’t seeing myself as the person to take over all the work of the church. I can’t imagine anyone saying to me ‘come to church so you can organize cleaning bees and roofing fundraisers, start a children’s choir’ and so on. No, a friend of mine said to me, ‘I can see you are hurting, why don’t you try going to church?’ I thought he was crazy, but I was in a lot of pain, and thought that if it worked for him, maybe it would work for me, atheist though I was.
People are struggling. They are in pain. I see articles such as ‘sleep deprivation is a major crisis in North America,’ or ‘we are seeing an epidemic of the dis-ease of busyness which is causing all kinds of emotional and psychological trauma and we are inflicting this dis-ease on our children’, or the headline in last month’s United Church Observer, “All the Lonely People”, something like 6 million people live isolated, lonely lives.
This epidemic affects 20 somethings and senior citizens, male and female, circumcised and uncircumcised alike. It’s also an ancient epidemic. Unlike the Nudist Colony, we’ve been building community for a long time. 2000 years or so of sending out folks to stay with people they don’t know, sharing hope and healing with whomever will listen. But we often get it wrong.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a stark example of that. Rather than being a perfect little community since it was founded by people very close to Jesus, it has debates and conflicts tearing it apart. One person is arrogantly sure he or she is right about what the rules are; after all, aren’t Christians really Jews? So shouldn’t all Christians look the same as Jews? The rest of the community are unsure how to address the situation; do they yell at the circumciser? Do they kick him or her out?
Do they pull out their extra nice manners in hopes that they will either get the person to change their mind or drop out? Or do they write to Paul for advice?
And Paul reminds them that Jesus didn’t come to tell everyone to get circumcised. Jesus didn’t come to set up a bunch of rules and regulations on how to worship. The Law was to be a finger pointing to God, not God alone. When we start to worship our law, our tradition and forget that it is to be a pointer to God, we lose the focus of our Christian identity.
Jesus wanted Christian identity to be about having a mission in their lives beyond the day to day struggles to eat, drink, and pay the bills. He wanted them to know that there was more to life than an endless round of appointments and busy days, over scheduled tasks, meetings and social gatherings to keep to. He wanted them to know that there was hope. Like African Americans struggling with slavery, they gathered together to share stories and songs of hope. They knew when they did their ring shouts that they were not alone in their suffering and that they found God’s healing love in the midst of the brutality they were forced to endure. The promise of Paul and of Jesus that all people, regardless of what they looked like, were human beings worthy of respect, kept them singing about freedom and hope and following the Drinking Gourd to Canada where they would find a better life. And if they couldn’t find Canada, they would remember that there was a better day coming, that on the other side of Jordan, they would be free once again.
Jesus said that if we want to build our community, if we want to reach out to others, we have to do it with vulnerability, humbleness and respect, and going out to where they are. Last weekend I was with a group of new age people, the ‘spiritual but not religious’.
They shared stories of their church childhood, and two came with memories of being United. They were turned off from bullying, power struggles, and cliques that weren’t interested in hospitality. But hearing my stories of the congregations that fed me and helped me and healed me got them curious.
They felt surprise that we weren’t as stuffy and rule bound as they remembered, and felt curious that religion might still have something to offer them. I hope that one day, they may find a thriving congregation who are not just a nudist colony searching for new workers, but a fellowship helping each other along the way as we follow in the footsteps of the 70, going out into the world to listen, to share, to give hope and to build God-centered communities. May it be so for us all.