My future son-in-law graduated from Ohio State earlier this month and his father video taped the ceremony. The tape included the speaker who happened to be the famous actor, Bill Cosby. One of Cosby’s main points was the fact that people who we deem to be inferior to us have something to teach us. Cosby challenged the new graduates to take time to interview the custodians when they arrive at their respective places of employment.
Cosby came from humble roots but he acknowledges that he learned much from those persons in society who are often considered to be less important. As he spoke I remembered the custodian at my elementary school who used to open the gym on Saturday mornings so we could play basketball. He often asked us to move tables and chairs for him, but we didn’t mind since he was our friend. He really broke the rules because he had no authority to let children in the school after hours. But he loved kids and as long as we didn’t go running in the halls or get into mischief he would let us play in the gymnasium.
If we would have contacted the principal about using the school after hours we would have had to fill out a request form, have proof of insurance and parental consent. Then there would have to be approval from a list of people in official positions. Its not that educators don’t love kids, they are responsible to the local community for the security of the school. Like all good institutions, they have their rules.
I belong to the local YMCA. Depending on what program you purchase you have specific benefits. Everyone can play ball in the gymnasium, run on the indoor running track or use the swimming pool. But there are separate shower rooms and other facilities, such as the apparatus room and steam rooms that are restricted. Your membership program determines what benefits you have. We need rules to live by in to provide order and discipline. Unfortunately they sometimes exclude people because of economic status. We have other ways of distinguishing people too, such as race, sex, nationality, religion, politics or social status.
There was a faction of folks at the Church of Galatia who believed that in order to be a member of the household of God, you needed to follow certain rules. They believed that Gentile Christians needed to abide by the Jewish Law. But Paul said it is not living under the law that determines who belongs, rather it is our faith. “For in Jesus Christ you are all children of God through faith.”
For Paul, spirituality takes precedence over religion. It is not following a system of rules, laws, policies and traditions that makes you a child of God, it is faith. The Greek word for faith in this instance is pistas. Those who believe are those who receive a blessing from God. Faithfulness has nothing to do with where you come from, who you know, who you are related to, or what practices and customs you subscribe to. Faith transcends our culture, our heritage, our place of origin, our systems, even our rules.
This is not to say that we don’t have an identity. Each of us has a history, experience in a particular context, and that has contributed to who we are. But, Paul was advocating the importance of inclusiveness. It’s hard enough to make it in this complex world without religion being just another organization that focuses on a particular stereotype.
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Have you ever been excluded from a group or organization? Do you know what it feels like to be left out? I have a younger brother who was really good at football. He was recognized for his athletic ability in high school and was selected to play in college. When he showed up to register for classes he was told by the NCAA that he would be ineligible his freshman year because they could not project he would make a certain grade point average. The news devastated him and as a result he never played college football, all because of some stupid ruling. What the NCAA didn’t take into consideration was the fact that during football season my brother always excelled in school. Football motivated him to do well in class.
Those of you who have experienced the pain of being excluded because of rules and/or practices know the feeling. You feel inferior or discriminated against. You aren’t able to pursue your dreams or participate in the areas of life that have meaning for you.
I always liked the story of “Rudy.” He was the young man who dreamed to play football at Notre Dame. He worked hard and followed all the rules. His pursuit of football was a constant struggle of missing cuts, bumping up against oppressive systems and being told by most everyone that he should give it up. But he persisted and finally made the team. Unfortunately his small stature kept him out of the starting lineup until the very last game of his senior year. His teammates convinced the coach to let him in the game with only a few seconds left. It was a tremendous moment in his life as his teammates carried him off the field following the game.
Paul is saying to us here that when it comes to faith, everyone is Rudy. No one is excluded. All those who “believe” are included. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, we are all one in Jesus Christ.”
I believe the reason we tend to exclude people who are different than ourselves or be excluded is due to fear. We don’t trust people we don’t know or we avoid those who beat to a different drum. We are comfortable with certain known standards, ways of dress, speech, commonality, cultural norms, etc. Therefore we avoid strangers and are reluctant to include people in our life (especially the church) whom we don’t know.
Charles Plumb, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was a jet pilot in Vietnam. After 75 combat missions, his plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. Plumb ejected and parachuted into enemy hands. He was captured and spent 6 years in a communist Vietnamese prison. He survived the ordeal and now lectures on lessons learned from that experience.
One day, when Plumb and his wife were sitting in a restaurant, a man at another table came up and said, “You’re Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, You were shot down!” “How in the world did you know that?” asked Plumb.” I packed your parachute,” the man replied. Plumb gasped in surprise and gratitude. The man pumped his hand and said, “I guess it worked!” Plumb assured him, “It sure did. If your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Plumb couldn’t sleep that night, thinking about that man. Plumb says, “I kept wondering what he might have looked like in a Navy uniform: a white hat, a bib in the back, and bell-bottom trousers. I wonder how many times I might have seen him and not even said ‘Good morning, how are you?’ or anything because, you see, I was a fighter pilot and he was just a sailor.”
Plumb thought of the many hours the sailor had spent on a long wooden table in the bowels of the ship, carefully weaving the shrouds and folding the silks of each chute, holding in his hands each time the fate of someone he didn’t know. Now, Plumb asks his audience, “Who’s packing your parachute?”
Everyone has someone who provides what they need to make it through the day. Plumb also points out that he needed many kinds of parachutes when his plane was shot down over enemy territory. He needed his physical parachute, his mental parachute, his emotional parachute, and his spiritual parachute.
We are all in the same family and everyone of us needs a spiritual parachute. It isn’t a particular organization that will save us. It isn’t a set of rules, or customs or traditions. It is our faith in God and our trust in others, many of whom we never see, and the realization that nothing less than faith makes us and all others children of God.
Copyright 2001, Keith Wagner. Used by permission.