Topical Sermon ~ Romans 8:14-28
You simply cannot turn on a television set, pick up a newspaper, or surf the interwebs without being bombarded with stories of a world seemingly gone mad. Perhaps it has ever been thus, and it just feels worse because it’s happening now and we’re aware of it. But it seems to me that there’s something different. What I think is different is that we’re finally reaping what we’ve been sowing in earnest for the past hundred years or so.
In response, scripture offers us passages like Romans 8. It reminds us that we are not alone and, in fact, we are nothing less than the children of God. It recognizes that we experience sufferings (which I understand to mean anytime we are not in control), and it acknowledges that creation itself, the world, has been groaning and seems out of control.
Into this unhappy and unsettled state of affairs Romans 8 offers a single, powerful word – hope. It implores us to trust in it and to wait for it with patience, and to pray. It rightly admits that we’re not really sure how to pray for it, but promises that the Spirit will pray for us and with us “with sighs too deep for words” and in the end “all things work together for good for those who love God.”
That sounds great, but if we jump there directly we’ll have done a disservice to our reality. Yes, as children of God we know that all things will work together for our good in the end, but it doesn’t always feel that way. Today, in the here and now, we are probably feeling more of the “out of control” part than the “all is well” part.
So let’s name our reality. Let’s start with the groaning!
We could go on for hours analyzing and debating what the problem with the world is today, but for me it can all be summed up in one word – othering. Drill down into any issue troubling our world and at its core you will find one group othering another group.
Othering is the act of dehumanizing or delegitimizing a person or group for the purpose of elevating or gaining an advantage of some sort for yourself or your group.
If “they” are the problem then “we” aren’t.
It’s “their” fault.
“They” are the source of “our” worries.
It’s us and them thinking.
And the scary part is that othering is so insidious that logic and facts can’t seem to penetrate it very easily.
I don’t like to be overtly political, especially standing here, but I cannot avoid naming the most blatant and frightening example of othering in the news these days, Donald Trump. Trump’s entire candidacy is based on othering. His rallies are exercises in divisiveness, hatred, and xenophobic fear-mongering. “If you don’t want to be (or can’t be) exactly like ‘us’ you can leave.” Whatever policy merits he may offer are entirely overshadowed by a very ugly and very dangerous othering that resonates with the darkest parts of human nature.
But he’s not alone, as you can see on the news every day – and in similar movements throughout the world. It seems that othering has become the dominant political theme.
But it’s not just in politics. There are many kinds of othering.
Terrorism uses twisted, often religious-based fervour to “other” everyone who isn’t specifically part of “our” narrow group. Others are perceived as a scourge on “our” way of life – a threat that must be eliminated.
Workplace sexism rises among those who are threatened by the entry or advancement of the “other” into the workplace that “we” have dominated for so long. If “they” can do what only “we” could do before then “they” are “our” problem.
Racism builds on peoples’ inexperience and fear of the unknown and perceives “others” as suspicious because of their different customs or appearance. The laws we make and the barriers we erect limiting the ability of the “other” to enjoy the same advantages “we” enjoy perpetuates the problem. That’s when racism becomes systemic.
“I” may not demonstrate racist tendencies, and “you” may not, but “our” society has systematically “othered” minorities.
In the US the glaring systemic racist problem came from othering black people and practicing slavery.
In Canada our glaring systemic racist problem came from othering Indigenous people and forcing them into reserves and residential schools. Once we declared them “other” which means “lesser” we were free to treat them poorly to our advantage.
Prejudices against any group because of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, weight, hair colour, whatever the group, the cause of the prejudice is the othering of that group, and the reason they get “othered” is usually because of ignorance, or because of a previous negative experience with the group that was likely amplified by the systemic barriers put in their way.
By the way, this is why we need to understand and own the word privilege – because even if you’ve never had an othering thought or action in your life you still benefit from the simple fact of belonging to the dominant culture. You enjoy privileges based on nothing other than your genetic lottery win of being born white and Canadian. We don’t have to feel guilty for that, but we cannot pretend that our privilege doesn’t exist.
I can only remember truly being “othered” a couple of times in my life. One was when I was in Nova Scotia where Baptists and Catholics have the big church populations and United Churches are small in comparison. I was at a church lecture and the speaker asked us to raise our hands by denomination. He went down the list but he never said United Church – we were at the end when he said, “Other” and my friend and I were the only two with our hands up in a very big crowd. (The ironic part is that the speaker was originally United!)
Now, terrorism, sexism, racism, and prejudice are all big, dramatic global problems. But what about closer to home?
Perhaps the most insidious kind of othering comes from our simple self-interest. We are remarkably prone to othering anyone or anything that might interfere with us getting ahead, or getting what we want, or feeling like we’re right about something.
We “other” people who are dramatically richer than us thinking they were probably handed life on a silver platter and don’t have to work hard like us.
We “other” people who are dramatically poorer than us thinking they’re probably lazy or don’t care about things like we do.
We “other” people who don’t go to church thinking they’re not “good” like we are.
We “other” people who go to the “wrong” church because they’re just not as theologically astute or enlightened as “us”.
We “other” people every time we see them as an “it” and not a “thou“.
In his brilliant, seminal book, I and Thou, Martin Buber claims that life is relationship and the two fundamental word pairs that describe all relationships are I-It and I-You (or thou). (I’m using “you” instead of “thou” because “thou” language tends to make us think about God, and that wasn’t Buber’s primary intent.)
The I-You (or I-Thou) relationship, on the other hand, is characterized by encountering something or someone in wholeness and a knowing of the “You” in some way.
There’s a tree – I see it as a living organism interconnected with the ground, air, animals, insects, and me. It is green, lush, full, strong, majestic, quiet, peaceful, etc. That’s I-You (or I-Thou).
One can experience a tree and see its usefulness as wood, an It, or encounter the tree as a whole, a You.
One can experience a person as an It and notice their particular attributes, or encounter the person as a whole and know them as a You.
Encountering (or experiencing) a “You” is not seeing what it is but seeing it as it is.
“Othering” is all about making everything into an I-It. For I-You experiences you have to do something quite different. If we look to the teaching of Jesus we see a powerful answer. For Jesus, the opposite of othering is “One-Anothering”! I-You.
One-Anothering is Jesus’ third commandment. Jesus said unto them, “I command you to stop othering people and start one-anothering them!”
Well, he didn’t actually say it like that, but pretty much! He said, “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
But, as usual, saying this and doing this are very different things. The really disquieting thing is that the people who seem to be doing a lot of the othering these days are people who claim to be Christians – people who should be all about one-anothering, but somehow they’ve missed that part.
“Do unto ‘others’……as you would have them do unto you.”
Do you want to be an It, or a Thou?
So, what is a person of faith, a follower of the Way of Jesus, supposed to do in the midst of all this groaning, all this “othering”?
Romans 8 says we’re supposed to hope. Hope!
Remember, hope is not a wish, it’s an expression of confidence and trust in a future that God has revealed. As children of God we are heirs to this hope. And as followers of Jesus we are the agents of this hope.
The hope is for the flourishing of the kingdom of God. That kingdom of abundant life, of love and blessing and shalom, is not something that lands in our laps while we’re passively waiting. It’s something that emerges as our love deepens – our love of God, our love of people, our love of……one another.
In the meantime, Romans 8 calls us to anticipate it with patience, and to pray for it! And even though we may not be sure how to pray for it we’re assured that the Spirit does and that Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” And as we and the Spirit pray together we can trust that “all things work together for good for those who love God.”
Be careful with that last part.
Yes, I heartily affirm that “all things work together for our good,” but it is certainly not like God orchestrates it that way. We don’t suffer because God thinks it’s good for us.
We don’t get “othered” because it builds our character.
This verse means that for those who are in communion with the Presence and Love of God the world looks different. And in that loving reality we can perceive the good within the challenges, within the groaning.
The good comes when we take the time to notice the love that has always surrounded us. When an illness or challenge comes and we are maxed out and know that our own will power or resources are not going to be enough to carry us through, or when the challenge shakes us to our core or seriously makes us stop and think about the fragility of life – these are the times when we notice our blessings.
When you’re suffering people tend to express more emphatically what they’ve always felt about you.
They say they’re concerned.
They say they love you.
They offer heartfelt prayers for your healing.
They say “if there’s anything you need please don’t hesitate” and they truly mean it.
You are not an It to them, you are a You!
You are not your illness or challenge, you are You.
You are not an “other” – together you are one-anothering!
That, my friends, is what the kingdom of God looks like! One-Anothering!
As children of God, as followers of Jesus, as people inspired by the Holy Spirit, we are called to confront the destructive and dangerous culture of othering that pervades our society, and we are also called to strive to live a counter-cultural, kingdom-of-God life of one-anothering.
Ironically, doing so will instantly make us into “others” for some people.
So be it.
We simply respond with one-anothering, and trust that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.”