Earlier this year, the Washington Post published several stories of Indian boarding school survivors. Dora Brought Plenty recalls: “[Two men in black suits] came toward me, grabbed me by my little arms, jerked me up out from the desk, out the door, to a black car.” She was 6½ years old and too terrified to ask who they were or where they were taking her. She had no chance to say goodbye to her grandparents, she said, and never saw her grandfather again. The men drove her to the Pierre Indian School, nearly 200 miles from her home. Once there, she was told to climb up on a stool. A matron “jerked my head back and cut off my braids,” Brought Plenty said. “I remember seeing them hit the floor.” The next day, she got the school’s uniform—a white shirt with a Peter Pan collar, pedal pusher pants and saddle shoes. She was taken to church and asked if she was Catholic or Episcopal. When she said she thought they were the same, they put a metal cross in her hand, told her she’d be Episcopal and said she should “go pray for forgiveness for who you are.’”
In the United States our government, in collusion with the church, both Catholic and Protestant, forced hundreds of thousands of native children to attend residential schools between the 1860s and 1960s. Their stories, taken together, describe an attempted genocide—a systematic, intentional effort to separate families, wipe out languages and cultures, and sever indigenous people’s physical and spiritual connection to their land. For hundreds of years, the idea that being native was wrong—was a sin demanding forgiveness—was the mainstream Christian position. Being progressive and prophetic Christians in our time means truth-telling, confession, and repair that atones for this, and many other, damaging misuses of our faith. This work of repentance will continue for generations. And, simultaneously, we are called to re-imagine a liberated and liberating faith. How can our way of relating to others be rooted again in the actual witness of Jesus? As the poet Jan Richardson puts it, we are listening for “strange syllables” that bear an “ancient familiarity.”
Understanding today’s excerpt from Paul’s letter of the Philippians requires a deep dive into the mind and world of Paul. The context of this reading is an argument. For Paul, the world was divided between Jews and Gentiles (that is, non-Jews). Other church leaders like Peter and James were saying that if Gentiles wanted to join the church, they had to practice Jewish customs and follow Jewish dietary laws. Paul disagreed with this passionately. He thought that Jews and Gentiles should keep their own identities as they came together in a new community that followed Jesus.
Paul made this argument as a Jew who had no intention of creating a new religion. Paul, in fact, never used the term “Christian” in his writings; it was not a concept that even existed in his world. Scholars today recognize that the two distinct religious traditions emerged slowly and gradually, and that for centuries after the time of Jesus, people blurred the boundaries between them. Paul boasted that he was the most faithful, observant Jew anyone could imagine. His claim to “confidence in the flesh” refers to his circumcision, an admittedly male-centered bodily mark of Jewish identity. It also refers to the fact that he was born into the inner circle of Jewish ancestors. He could trace his lineage back to one of the original twelve tribes of Israel. Paul’s whole life was anchored in the covenant, or intimate relationship, that God had established with God’s chosen people. And furthermore, Paul was a Pharisee. Jewish scholar Amy Jill Levine corrects the negative and antisemitic view of Pharisees that Christian interpreters of the New Testament have cultivated. She writes:
Pharisees were a lay-led movement whose members were known for walking the walk, as well as talking the talk, and for interpreting the Torah [that is the law] to make it more egalitarian, for showing the people how they could be like priests in the temple and how they could make their meals comparable to the sacrifices in the temple.
Paul was undeniably proud of his identity as Jew and a Pharisee. That did not change when he became a follower of Jesus. We have to carefully peel away the layers of antisemitism so that we can hear what Paul truly meant when he said “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish [or, more accurately, excrement], in order that I may gain Christ.” For Paul, knowing Jesus did not cancel out his Jewishness but fulfilled it.
No longer was Paul bound to what he could achieve under his own strength; now his life was enriched by a transcendent experience of unifying love and common ground that had the power to heal his whole world. The cross and resurrection of Jesus, for Paul, gave flesh to the way of loss that leads to gain; to the self-emptying that makes space for the true self to emerge, the self that is in community with the divine, and with all of creation. This way of divine love, for Paul, countered the exploitative ways of empire, revealing a God who transforms human suffering by sharing in it. The book of Acts describes how Paul changed course after a blinding vision of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He went from being a zealous “persecutor of the church” to believing with equal zeal that Jesus was the Messiah his people awaited, the one anointed by God.
The coming of the Messiah, Paul believed, indicated that history was near its end. These final times, however, were not days of doom and gloom. They brought a joyous and hopeful awakening. The role of the chosen people would be brought to culmination, as they extended God’s blessing to the whole creation. The age of the Messiah, for Paul, meant that Jews and Gentiles would finally come together as God intended. For this reason, Paul, as a Jew, felt called to reach out to Gentiles, as Gentiles, with Christ as common ground.
Perhaps we understand Paul a bit better now. And yet, his world of Jew and Gentile is not our world. And we don’t share Paul’s expectation that God will intervene to bring an end to history or swoop in suddenly to heal the world. So, applying this passage to our own time and context requires some creativity on our part. I am drawn to Paul’s profound and beautiful insight, that Jesus can be common ground that brings creation together in wholeness. The burning question for me is, given our history of genocide and supremacy, our track record of demanding violent assimilation, how can we hear this call to unity rooted in Christ differently than we have in the past?
Our congregation is actually doing this work right now in some interesting ways. In ministry team meetings, we’ve been having a lot of conversations about our capacity, as a smaller congregation, to do the work that we are passionate about. We’re talking about how we want church to reach beyond Sunday worship. We’re imagining that students and other community members might want to join our work of justice, hospitality, or care, that we might somehow become a hub of connection and mobilization. And a vision for sharing our space more robustly is beginning to emerge in our work with consultants from Flourish Placemaking. We look forward to hearing from all of you on November 12—your ideas, worries, and hopes about sharing this sacred space. What is taking shape for me is the idea that we can deepen our partnership with the Community Kitchen, even as we connect with more folks of diverse backgrounds and traditions who want to invest with us in creating community here.
As we do this work, I believe we can claim common ground rooted in our identity as Christians, as people seeking to be more like Jesus—even as we humbly respect and learn from others. We can nurture a common willingness to empty ourselves of power over others, so that we can serve, share, and connect. We can make a common investment in community care, as an antidote to the ways of scarcity, exploitation, and empire. And we can embrace a common hope that a new kind of life together on this planet is possible. Amen.
 The Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 638