Tribalism

1 Comment on Tribalism

Preached at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – Tifton, Georgia

James 2:1-17    Mark 7:24-37

Those of you who know me well
know I’ve never really been
that much into college football.

There’s nothing wrong with it,
and there’s nothing wrong with me.
I just wasn’t raised on it,
and I didn’t go to a big SEC school.
I guess you could say
I just don’t have a dawg in that fight.

But high school football?
That’s a whole different matter.

I grew up in Valdosta, Georgia:
Winnersville, TitleTown USA,
home of the mighty, mighty Wildcats.

With high school football,
it’s not just love of the game;
it’s love of the community;
it’s small town pride.

You know each other.
You helped raise each other.
And so, by God, you go
and you cheer each other on.

Such was life as a Valdosta Wildcat.

BUT, over the last nine years
I have made the conversion.
I’ve hung up my black and gold
and am now a proud Blue Devil
with a whole lot invested
in this community,
in this school system,
in this small town.

(I’ll admit, there’s a strange pride
in knowing you were the one
who baptized the arm of
the county’s all-time passing yard
record breaking quarterback.)

So imagine my dilemma two weeks ago
when for the first time in my nine years here,
I was home for a game against Valdosta.
By some strange fluke of the schedule,
that has never happened before.

So there we were on Friday afternoon,
getting ready at home.

The peanuts were boiling.
The Coca-Cola was chilling.
The girls were putting on
their Blue Devil cheerleading outfits,
and Jay even had someone come over
and do her hair.

With all that bustle going on,
I emerged from our room ready and dressed,
not in my typical blue and white,
but in a simple, black Polo.

A ‘discussion’ ensued.

“Where’s your Tift County shirt?” asked my sweet bride.

“Well, I thought I’d wear this instead,” I replied.

“Mmm,” she said,
“I don’t think you should wear that,”
implying with her tone
that I’d probably get beat up . . .
and that she’d have no part
in rescuing me if I did.

“But honey,” I said, pulling at my black shirt,
“this is where I grew up;
these are my people;
this is my tribe.”

And my wise wife looked at me—
she who was once a proud Woodstock Wolverine—
and in her blue and white Tift County shirt
and her perfect game day hair, she said,
“But honey, these are your people now.
This is your tribe.”

She was right, and I changed.
(And yeah, Tift County beat Valdosta 24-10.)

*     *    *

I tell you this admittedly silly story
as an easy way to point to “tribalism.”

Tribalism is alive and well in our culture,
and once you become part of a tribe,
it is hard to leave.

Of course, it’s one thing when
the tribes we’re talking about
are South Georgia high school football teams.

But you know as well as I do
that our tribalism
goes much deeper than that.

From Colin Kaepernick, and Nike, and the NFL,
to issues of civil rights and law enforcement,
to Republicans and Democrats,
and all the little factions and sub-tribes
fighting within those tribes . . .
the truth is we are splintered
into a million little factions,
and we are struggling to be one.

*     *     *

This, of course, is nothing new.

In the letter of James today,
James takes the Church to task
for their easy, natural proclivity
toward tribalism.

“Have you not made
distinctions among yourselves?” [1]
James asks.

He chides them because
whenever a wealthy person
walks in the door,
they get excited,
throw a party,
and give that person
a mimosa,
a pledge card,
and the best seat in the house.

But when a poor person walks in,
they ignore her,
or—worse yet—
they tell her to sit on the floor
like a footstool. [2]

“My brothers and sisters,” he says,
“do you with your acts of favoritism
really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” [3]

While this particular instance
is about the division between rich and poor,
the point is much bigger than that.
In Jesus Christ, there are no tribes.

As Paul says in Colossians:
“There is no longer
Greek or Jew,
circumcised or uncircumcised,
barbarian, Scythian,
slave or free;
but Christ is all in all!” [4]

In Christ Jesus,
there can be no distinctions,
but oh how we still act like there are.

*     *     *

Recently I’ve seen both sides of this coin
as we’ve been working hard
to bring Family Promise to Tift County.

In any given year,
our school system can identify
an average of fifty students
who are either homeless
or live in insecure housing.

Family Promise is a proven way to remedy that issue,
relying on a collaboration of local churches.

Host churches take turns hosting a few families
one week at a time, four times a year.
At night, families sleep on cots at the churches,
but during the day children are taken to school
while parents team up with a case worker
at a local Family Promise Day Center
to do their laundry,
work on job applications,
save up money,
and move toward sustainable housing.

Families are strictly vetted—
including drug tests—
and the national success rate for Family Promise
is high: nearly 82%.

But the concern expressed
by some of our local churches
has been, “But what kind of people
would we be letting into our churches?”

“What if it’s not the ‘right’ kind of family?”
“What if it’s a family with two mothers or two fathers?”
“What if the parents are divorced or unmarried?”
“What if they’re undocumented?”
“What if they’re not Christian?”

Seems to me our own Lord Jesus
was once a homeless child,
born of a young mother who had also
become pregnant out of wedlock.
They, too, had a hard time
finding a place to sleep.

On the flipside, though,
I’ve seen some amazing signs of hope.

Those of us who have signed on—
including us pastors—
have already begun to feel
a new and invigorating sense of collaboration.

Maybe we don’t all agree
on every whim of doctrine,
but when it comes to caring
for the kids and families of our county,
we’ve come to see
that there are no distinctions,
and nothing else really matters.

As the pastors’ recent PSA
hit Facebook, YouTube, and the airwaves,
folks across Tift County
have begun to perk up and realize
not only the severity of the problem,
but also the promise of the solution.

People across denominations seem genuinely excited
to see our divisions falling by the wayside
in service to the Gospel,
and hash tags like #unityinthecommunity
are being stamped on their social media ‘shares.’

God is up to something good in our midst,
but he won’t be able to bring it to pass
so long as we’re focused only
on distinctions and tribes.

*     *     *

But if all that is true—
if in Jesus Christ there are no distinctions—
what do we do with the story in today’s Gospel
between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman?

By all measures, this woman
was from the wrong side of the tracks.
She was a foreigner, a Gentile, and a woman:
the triple whammy in biblical times.

When this woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter,
his words are a slap in the face:

“Lady, I gotta help my people first.
I gotta do for me and mine.
I can’t take food for the children
and throw it to a dog like you!” [5]

Now, there are a million ways to interpret this,
and believe me, people have tried.

Some say Jesus was having a bad day.
Some say Jesus was just kidding around.
Some say Jesus—even Jesus—
was an unfortunate product of his place and time.
And some say Jesus was just being a class A jerk.

Whatever the case, the truth is
he was pointing to a distinction,
and it was a distinction that hurt.

A ‘discussion’ ensued.

In a surprise twist,
that woman turned around on him,
and she bested him.

“Yes, my Lord,” she says,
“but don’t you know
that even the dogs
deserve the scraps
that the children are too stupid
to keep for themselves?” [6]

Somehow, this convinces Jesus.
“Huh,” he says, “Go.
By the time you get home,
your daughter will be well.” [7]

I honestly don’t know
how to explain Jesus’ behavior here,
but I do know that it is a rare grace
for anyone to acquiesce
when someone else
has made the better argument.[8]

When it comes to being right
versus being in relationship,
most of us would rather be right,
and that’s a huge part
of why we’re so tribalized
in the first place.

But here, with grace, Jesus says,
“Okay. Good point. You win.”

What that woman didn’t know
is that one day in the not too distant future,
she would win again . . . and win big.

What she couldn’t possibly have known
is that one day, Jesus would trade places with her.

Jesus would become the dog.
Jesus would become the lowlife.
Jesus would become the despised,
hanging from a tree like a criminal,
the greatest outsider of all.[9]

And in so doing,
he would fling wide
the gates of the Kingdom
once and for all,
even for the likes of her . . .
even for the likes of you and me.

*     *     *

I don’t know what tribes you belong to.

Maybe you’re a Valdosta Wildcat,
or maybe you’re a Tift County Blue Devil.

Maybe you’re a Georgia Bulldog,
or maybe you’re a Florida Gator.

Maybe you voted for Hillary, or Bernie, or Trump.

Maybe you side with Colin Kaepernick and Nike,
or maybe you side with the NFL and back the Blue.

Maybe you think the New York Times op-ed was heroic,
or maybe you think it was craven.

Whatever.

Just remember, O Christian,
that in the humble glory
of our Lord Jesus Christ—
who is the all in all—
there are no distinctions,
and in the end,
all these ‘tribes’ of ours
mean exactly
jack squat.

As the old hymn goes,
“In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north;
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.”

Now act like it.

Amen.

[1]James 2:4
[2]James 2:2-3
[3]James 2:1
[4]Colossians 3:11
[5]Mark 7:27 (paraphrase)
[6]Mark 7:28 (paraphrase)
[7]Mark 7:29 (paraphrase)
[8]Perkins, Pheme.  “The Syrophoenician Woman,”Matthew & Mark, p. 611. The New Interpreter’s Bible, general editor, Leander Keck, vol. 8, Abingdon, 1995. 12 vols.
[9]Jones, Scott & Jason Micheli. “What’s in a Name?” Audio blog post. Synaxis: A Lectionary Podcast, 2 Sep. 2018. Web. 4 Sep. 2018.

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