Shooting an Elephant

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There was a time when I worked for Target.

It was 2008. Mariah and I lived in Ohio because Mariah had gotten her first call as the associate pastor of the church right on the town square. And I had been unemployed for a while… because it was 2008… and no one was hiring some guy with an M.Div. and a few years of fundraising under his belt… so I was working as a cashier at Target.

In the employees only area of this target, as soon as you walked through the employees only doors on your way to the employees only break room, there was this poster. And I don’t remember what the image was or if there even was one. But it said something like, “Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching.”

And that’s true. Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching. And character is who you are when no one is looking. And those are important lessons to learn… because who we are when no one is looking… matters.

The problem with the poster, though, is that it was directly under a little bubble… in the ceiling… with a security camera inside. Because this was Target. And, just like every other big box store, Target is always watching.

In today’s reading, Paul is reminiscing about an argument that he had with Peter.

You see, Paul and Peter were together at the church in Antioch, where there were Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. And Paul and Peter used to eat together with whoever was there, including the Gentile Christians.

And that was a big deal. Because Jews weren’t supposed to eat with Gentiles.

But then, some folks came from Jerusalem to visit. And these were Jewish Christians. These were Jewish Jewish Christians. These were the folks who said, “If you want to become a Christian, then you need to become Jewish first. If you want to follow Christ, then you have to follow the Law. Circumcision, then baptism. That’s how we stay authentic.”

And Peter worried about what they would think, so he started eating by himself. And then, some of the other Jewish Christians from Antioch started doing the same thing. And then, even Paul’s friend Barnabas started doing the same thing.

And I don’t know if the Jewish Christians in Antioch started eating with the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, or if they started eating by themselves. But I suspect that it’s the latter. I suspect that there were these three groups: the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem… and the Gentile Christians from Antioch… and the Jewish Christians from Antioch…

…the Jewish Christians from Antioch who were saying, “It’s not that we’re against the Gentile Christians. They are welcome here. They are just as welcome here as anyone else. Everyone is welcome here. It’s just… well… what will the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem say? I mean, do we really want people to say we’re the Gentile church?” 

And so we end up with these three groups, each eating in a separate place.

And Paul tells Peter off. And Paul uses the story to tell off the church in Galatia. Because the Galatians are arguing about the same thing—the thing that we heard about last week—if you want to become Christian, do you have to become Jewish first? If you want to follow Christ, do you have to follow the Law? Do you need to be circumcised to be baptized?

And Paul’s answer is, “No. If you believe that you are saved by the Law, follow the Law. If you believe that you’re saved by Christ, follow Christ. But you can’t do both. If you say that you have to follow the Law… then Christ died for nothing.”

If you won’t eat with the Gentiles… if you won’t eat with the Gentiles because of what those people watching through the security camera might think… then you’re not living the faith that you claim to have.

Because integrity might be doing the right thing when no one is watching. But it’s also doing the right thing when everyone is watching.

And let’s be honest. Having integrity… having character… having faith when everyone is watching… is harder.

George Orwell—the guy who wrote 1984—was a police officer in Burma (or Myanmar) when that country was part of the British Empire. He didn’t like it. Secretly, he was all for the Burmese people and against the British Empire. He knew that imperialism was an evil thing. But he had a job to do.

One day, he got a call about an elephant that had gone rogue. Male elephants—even domesticated ones—sometimes go into a state of musth, and attack other elephants and people and even rhinoceroses. It lasts for a while and then stops.

So Orwell went. And he really did not intend to shoot the elephant. The whole way to the village where the elephant was causing trouble, he did not intend to shoot the elephant. The whole time tracking the elephant, he did not intend to shoot the elephant. The whole time that the crowd was gathering and following him, he did not intend to shoot the elephant.

And when he saw the elephant… when he saw that the musth had passed and that the elephant was no more dangerous than a cow… when he decided that he would just watch it for a while, and make sure it didn’t go rogue again, and then leave… he did not intend to shoot the elephant.

But he had an elephant rifle. And the crowd was watching. And a colonial police officer has to act like a colonial police officer. He has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. And walking away was impossible. The crowd over which he held power would laugh at him… and he said this, “my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

So he shot the elephant… “solely to avoid looking a fool.”

Integrity… character… faith… is about what you do when everyone is watching.

I’ve never shot an elephant. I eat with Gentiles all the time. But I know the power of the crowd. I know the worry of being laughed at. I know the fear of looking a fool. I know how easy it is to ask, “What will people think?”

Believe it or not, I have written a paragraph or two of a sermon and said to myself, “I can’t preach this… because if I preach this, I’m going to hear about it. Or, maybe worse, I’m not going to hear about it. Someone’s just going to disappear.”

Doing the right thing when everyone is watching… when everyone is listening… when everyone is paying attention… doing the right thing when there is a crowd… is hard.

But the thing is… I am not saved by the crowd. I am not redeemed by the crowd. I am not restored by the crowd. I am not liberated by the crowd. And while I might have a little bit of faith in the crowd, I don’t have faith in the crowd.

I have faith—I have faith—in Christ. I am liberated by Christ. I am restored by Christ. I am redeemed by Christ. I am saved by Christ.

And so are you. Not because of anything you’ve done. Not because of who you are. Not because you are well-liked. Not because you are popular. Not because the crowd speaks well of you.

No. Christ has redeemed us because of who Christ is.

And here’s the thing… here’s the trick… here’s the important bit…

Because Christ has redeemed us—and because Christ has redeemed us because of who Christ is—we don’t have to worry about the Law. We don’t have to worry about the crowd. We are free.

We don’t even have to make the kind of compromise that Peter made: the kind of compromise where we don’t quite go along with the crowd, but where we inch just far away from doing the right thing that they won’t laugh at us.

We can stand up proudly and say that we are Christians. We can stand up proudly and say that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. 

And, maybe most importantly, we can stand up proudly and say that it doesn’t matter what anyone says about us or thinks about us… or whether anyone laughs at us or thinks us fools… we are here to love people. Extravagantly. Recklessly. Even when no one is watching. Even when we’re on the security camera. Even when we’re surrounded by people.

That is the freedom that Christ offers us… again and again. Thanks be to God!

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