A Black and Blue (or is it White and Gold?) Christmas – Romans 2:1-8
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.
There’s a beautiful quote that concludes the book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where Harry says to Dumbledore, “‘Sir, there are some things I’d like to know, if you can tell me…things I want to know the truth about…’
‘The truth.’ Dumbledore sighed. ‘It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.’”
It seems to me that in this season of Advent, given the events unfolding in our world, we could use a reminder about the beauty and terror of the truth as well as our need to treat it with great caution.
For most of us, most of the time, we think about the concept of truth in black and white terms–a reduction into categories of right or wrong. We prefer to have a straight line differentiate the things that are true from the things that are not.
For most of us, most of the time, uncertainty is unsettling. We feel vulnerable when we can’t decide what is true and what is not. After all, the inability to differentiate between fantasy and reality is an indication of a mental disorder (or an indication that you are between 3 and 7 years old).
But get this. There’s a study reported by Time magazine back in 2011 that found “people’s ability to distinguish between what really happened and what was imagined may be determined by the presence of a fold at the front of the brain that develops late in pregnancy, and is missing entirely in 27% of people.” (http://healthland.time.com/2011/10/05/reality-check-why-some-brains-cant-tell-real-from-imagined/)
Just think about that. There’s a chance that over 1/4 of us here tonight can’t tell the difference between reality and our imagination. Now, before you come up with a list of people in your life you’re certain are missing this brain fold, think about what it would mean if it were true for you.
How does it make you feel to consider that your understanding of the truth might not be…true? How does it feel to be plunged into the grayness of not knowing–the area between the stark contrast of right and wrong. Well, actually, it doesn’t matter if you have that fold or not, because most of us spend more time in they grayness of not knowing than we care to admit to ourselves.
I feel like this happens to me a lot! My most recent experience happened just yesterday, when I went to the cardiology department at Hancock Regional for my every-decade echocardiogram. Twenty years ago my family doctor recognized my irregular heartbeat, ran some tests, and diagnosed me with mitral valve prolapse. I was told there was nothing to worry about, but that I should have follow-up tests every ten years to keep tabs on it.
Yesterday after the ultrasound, the technician said, “I should tell you that in my preliminary report to the cardiologist I’m going to note that I didn’t find any indication of mitral valve prolapse.” My eyebrows raised and my nose crinkled. He showed me on the images that the valve was working exactly as it should. He said he didn’t have any insight into what was causing my irregular heartbeat, but in his opinion my original mitral valve prolapse diagnosis was incorrect.
It’s a strange feeling to realize that something I believed about myself for the past twenty years just wasn’t true. So now I’m living in that world that exists in-between the polarities of certainty. It’s not mitral valve prolapse, but what is it?
That’s an innocent and simplistic example. But there are other examples where our black and white oversimplification is tearing our local and global society apart; and no easy solution seems within reach.
I’ll give you a chance to read this recently-published comic strip and I’ll keep it up as I identify a few of the contentious issues in our world today. (If you have trouble reading the text, click on the picture to see a larger version).
–Gun control vs. the right to buy and own whatever and however many guns you damn well please.
–The overwhelming scientific evidence that humans are contributing to catastrophic global warming vs. the conspiracy theory that it’s a farce created by liberals in order to destroy the American economy (or the belief that God wants to destroy the Earth and this is how it will happen).
–The idea that police use an unnecessary and unequal degree of lethal force in dealing with suspects of color vs. the idea that people of color are bringing it on themselves because they can’t get their act together and be decent citizens.
–The right of lesbian, gay, and transgender-identified people to marry their partners vs. a particular reading of one religious group’s scripture used to prohibit these people from marrying.
–The reality that all Muslims are not terrorists vs. the reality that many terrorists are Muslim.
–The idea that our country was founded on the principle of welcoming the stranger vs. the idea that we fear the stranger and how they will affect our way of life.
–The idea that the President of the United States of America, whomever that is, while being held accountable, should be treated with dignity and respect vs. the idea that the President is the one person responsible for all bad things happening in the world and is thus fair game for demeaning and hateful insults.
–The idea that the United States is a Christian nation and that all laws, practices, and traditions should serve to uphold the rights of Christians (or rather, a particular subset of the most vocal Christians) vs. the idea that the United States is a place where people are free to practice whatever religion (or lack thereof) to which they adhere.
These are just a issues which typically get framed in black and white, right and wrong, good and bad. You are welcome to stake a claim in either side of each argument. But just because you stake your claim on one side or another doesn’t mean it’s true.
Here’s another comic to remind us of that idea:
Now let’s jump from comic-strip theology to social media theology. Recall back in February when an image of a dress went viral because people couldn’t agree on something we consider a basic fact: the color of the dress.
What is the color of this dress?
I remember showing this picture to my wife and saying something like, “Can you believe some people think this dress is white and gold?” To which she replied, “It IS white and gold.” What followed was a heated exchange. She was challenging my understanding of color. She didn’t see colors correctly. She was so wrong I couldn’t even pretend to understand where she was coming from. And she felt the same way about me.
Our perception of a dress, an ugly dress nonetheless, created or exposed a difference between us that seemed foundational to our identities.
Fortunately we had the tools to mend any damage done due to our argument over the color of the dress. And also, fortunately, it was later revealed that the dress is, in fact, black and blue, which meant I was right all along. It’s nice to feel vindicated once in a while.
The point is that the differences in how we understand what is true in our world can easily drive us apart. When people disagree with us our first reaction is to dismiss them, belittle them, condemn them. Relationship in the midst of disagreement requires the hard work of empathy and relinquishing one’s ego.
Anne Lamott puts it best, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”
The color of the dress isn’t of any ultimate importance; however, the issues of death, oppression, injustice, anger, racism, and inequality–these things matter. And Jesus has something to say about each these issues.
In regards to every contentious issue with which we are called to contemplate and engage, we must begin with the truth of God as revealed through the Word–God’s son, Jesus Christ. The same God who, “proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
A parishioner recently told me that his opinion of a particular Bible Study at Cross of Grace as a place where people can say whatever they want and be heard without being condemned. I initially thought this was a great compliment dripping with grace. But then he continued, “I’ve heard people say some pretty racist stuff and no one challenges them.” That’s unsettling.
And yet, this quote from an Augsburg Fortress bible study guide by David L. Miller sums up the issue well, “The church is not a gathering of the like-minded bound together by friendship or ideological and political convictions. It is a shoulder-to-shoulder gathering of very diverse people who come to hear a common word, break a common bread, confess a common creed, offer mutual forgiveness, and be joined in a common heart with a common hope for the fulfillment of the mystery of God.”
We’re not all going to agree on everything. That can be as difficult as it can be beautiful, as I noticed when I arrived for my first interview at Cross of Grace two years ago and saw the sign by the road that said, “Conservatives and Liberals Worship Here.”
As Christians we are called to proclaim and practice the truth of God’s unconditional love and grace for all people and all creation. That’s our starting point. That’s the lens through which we are called to analyze all the contentious issues before us. That’s the line that tethers opposing views together in the midst of conflict. That’s the truth that will remain after all things have passed away. And that’s the truth that should be treated with caution in this time of Advent preparation, hope, joy, love, and peace.
So take a stand, choose a side, and stand up for your convictions; but keep your heart, mind, eyes, and ears open to those on the other side and make sure your convictions are rooted in the truth of the love and grace of Jesus Christ above all else.