03/06/2021 ~ First Sunday in Lent ~ Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13 ~ VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fb1QtYjnF4A.
“…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 over my time with you mentioned that I grew up in New York City. This next statement sounds like a joke but it’s true. I’ve got all five boroughs covered. I was born in Manhattan, raised in Brooklyn, lived in Queens, went to school in the Bronx and way before I met Bonnie I dated a girl from Staten Island.
I know a lot about how to survive in New York. I even know there are codes on the lampposts in Central Park which tell you at which the east/west cross street you’re located. That’s helpful since the park is big— 843 acres big.
Now, I grew up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Back then that area had a lot of poverty. And my family was not exactly rich. Parochial school teachers like my father were not well paid, paid even less than public school teachers.
The classic 1950s Jackie Gleason TV show The Honeymooners was set in that neighbor of my youth. Gleason grew up there. I grew up there. Some of you may remember the show, those of a certain age, certainly. Younger folks may have seen it on a cable channel. But if you haven’t seen it at all you can check it out on YOUTUBE, all 39 episodes are out there.
Set in Bushwick, the program showed some of that aforementioned poverty, life in that time and in that place. There were advantages and disadvantages in growing up in that time and place. I’ve already mentioned a disadvantage— a lot of poverty.
Here’s an advantage. Because I was in that time and place, in New York City in the 50s and 60s, I was exposed to and in touch with world class music and art. And I could access a lot of it for free, which is still a possibility there.
For some reason I was attuned to classical music, to the great art in the museums. I was more a fan of Bernstein and da Vinci than of Elvis and comic books. That made me the black sheep of the family since I sought out things in which my siblings and my parents had little interest. Growing up in that time and that place, that atmosphere, is a part of me, contributed to who I am today.
The phrase sociologists use to describe one’s time and place of origin and even one’s current time and place is social location. We all have both a time and a place of origin and a current location. We all have a social location, both historic and current.
To unpack that academic idea just a little, is how much money you have— does that have a strong influence on how you see the world? Yes. Is your race an influence? Yes. Indeed, if we do not recognize race matters, we have our eyes closed to reality.
In short, our social location has an overwhelming influence on our view of the world, our view of life. Whether we are aware or of our own social location or not, that location still helps us shape, conceptualize, understand and make sense of the world around us.
Social location even has an affect on what gets through to our brain. It can either block or illuminate features of the world which are salient, relevant, forceful, credible.
Well, that’s all somewhat academic. This is a less academic way to put it. If you grew up familiar with wealth, your take on a lot of things is likely to be different than if you grew up familiar with 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, California, in London, England, in Tokyo, Japan. And if you grew up in South Freeport…. well, you get the idea.
The bottom line: exploring our own social location invites us to ask some basic even hard questions. Who am I? How does who I am affect those around me? Because of my social location am I aware or blissfully unaware of my own prejudices? (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 was a label which was flung around for a couple years. “Loser!” Most of the time those who used this were attempting to utter a pejorative, an insult, a put down.
But the real purpose of invectives like “loser” is to set up us/them dichotomies since what’s left unsaid is, ‘If there are losers, there are winners.’ Winners and losers— that’s the way the real world works, right? Indeed, separating people like that begs the question: ‘Why are these us/them lines, these separations drawn?’ (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, essential.
The texts assigned in Lent tend to invite us to reflect on where we, as communities and individuals, stand in relation to basics. One part of those basics is an invitation to a process of self-examination, forgiveness, new life, repentance. And remember repentance means turning toward God; it’s not about being sorry.
And so the text challenges us to ask who is to be included in my community, our community? Clearly the answer offered is everyone— no distinction.
Given Paul’s time and place, Paul’s social location, there are only two choices of location: Jew and Greek. And given Paul’s social location the Apostle to the gentiles, the Apostle to the Greeks, insists social location is not a determining factor about who is acceptable and who is not. So what is Paul really saying? To put t in perhaps more modern language, there are no winners or losers, no outcasts. (Slight pause.)
Let’s come back to our own social location for a minute. Compared to Paul who thought in terms of two social locations, today we have a vast array of social locations which affect us. But the prime issue for us is still the same one Paul was addressing. Why? Our tendency is to break humans out into a pair of tribes: winners and losers.
Here’s my take: the call of the Gospel counters that. The call of the Gospel is to live by the grace, in the grace, with the grace God offers. The call of the Gospel, the call of that grace, is to see everyone as being gathered into in one tribe— the tribe of God.
I don’t think the idea that everyone might belong to one tribe comes naturally to us. Why? I think we like to catagorize, make groups.
Thinking in terms of all humanity as one tribe invites us to explore, to identify, to examine our own shortcomings, our own failings. I would also suggest through this examination of self, we can at least strive to, try to avoid choosing up sides, avoid choosing winners and losers.
Sociologist Robert Putnam puts it this way. ‘Relentlessly exercising individual freedom at the expense of others can unravel the foundations of society.’  I would add that relentlessly exercising individual freedom at the expense of others can unravel the foundations of God’s tribe, humanity.
And yes, it is a challenge to refrain from picking sides, to love as God would have us love. But I am convinced that the call of the Gospel is a call to examine and explore the world not as we see the world but as God sees the world. Let us pray for the vision and for the grace to accomplish this task. Amen.
South Freeport Congregational Church United Church of Christ, South Freeport, Maine
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: “Yes, I was a Catholic altar boy who grew up in Brooklyn and the nuns taught me an examination of conscience was an important method to use in exploring a Christian way of life. When I was just a little older I became familiar with classical literature and I learned Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ And so let me once again point you to one or our thoughts 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.
 This is a paraphrase of the words of Putnam from The Upswing, 2020 Simon & Schuster, pg. 19.