Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
July 19, 2009
When our children were younger than they are now, around about 13 or 14 years old, they lived in constant embarrassment of us, their parents. Knowing that, we occasionally went out of our way to embarrass them. In fact, we considered it a parental obligation. I would sing while walking down a sidewalk in New York, or while waiting in line at the grocery store, and Warren would strike up a conversation with anyone and everyone he met. It’s one of Warren’s most wonderful qualities, his unabashed ease meeting strangers, talking to them about all kinds of things, asking questions, exchanging email addresses. I personally love this about him because I can count on him to find out about people that I should already know. He just asks them who they are, where they’re from, and all kinds of questions. He turns strangers into friends. There was the woman who was off the Appalachian Trail because of a case of Lyme disease. Warren met her at the pharmacy. She had spent the night sleeping on a fraternity pool table and she really needed a hot shower and a bed for 48 hours. Warren told her she could get both at our church. That was eleven years ago. We’ve been exchanging Christmas cards ever since. Just a few weeks ago, he met a visiting graduate student who is interested in the intersection between law and theology and is looking for a seminary program where he can also get a law degree. Warren told him – “you need to meet my wife”. We’ve been exchanging emails.
Turning strangers into friends is a primary human interaction and yet, for so many of us, it is a difficult one. For many, it requires the lubrication of alcohol. For others, it requires the relative anonymity of on-line chat rooms, electronic distance that provides a kind of artificial closeness. Some of us prefer to have loads of friends, hundreds of buddies providing us with a variety of flavors and textures. Others of us prefer to invest in just a few very close friends with whom we develop deep bonds of trust and affection. Some of us deal with so many people in our work lives, hundreds of friends in a particular work context, we have little left over to develop friendships outside of work. Some of us keep work and personal relationships separate and can’t imagine mixing the two. Some of us define friendship as that relationship in which we are completely ourselves, confiding in our closest friends, our most closely held secrets. Others of us think of friendship as that social network of people we enjoy, like varieties of books on our shelves – not particularly intimate but definitely enjoyed. Some of us consider our families our network of friendship. Others of us have made our friends our family. In other words, the system of human relating is as complex, rich and varied as is the human population. The one common denominator is that we all began as strangers.
The writer of the letter to the Ephesians understood the basic human need to be considered a friend as opposed to a stranger, to be moved from the uncomfortable role of outsider to the infinitely happier place inside, to be “no longer a stranger”. In the formation of the first Christian communities, when Christianity was in its infancy, this outsider/insider conflict was a critical one. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that the first “true” Christians were Jews. They, like Jesus himself, were God’s chosen. Gentiles were the strangers, the outsiders, needing to prove their devotion to Jesus, such a requirement not necessary for those who were Jews. So receiving these words, “you are no longer strangers” would have been like balm to the Gentiles but something of a challenge for the Jews.
Sometimes I worry that the Christian faith doesn’t translate well to this complicated, 21st century, not because its truths have lost their power but because Christianity has become too identified with power and privilege to be understood as the radical, revolutionary religion it is. When those Christians among us who have power hear words of comfort and reassurance, we too easily accept that our power is blessed by Christ. When those who already enjoy the privileges afforded to insiders appropriate the message of God’s grace as a sign of God’s approval, we’ve ignored, yet again, the genuine experience of exclusion. When we who are not strangers act as if we are strangers, we too easily bypass our responsibility to welcome those who are strangers in a strange land. When we who want for nothing hear Jesus’ message of generosity and think it means it’s acceptable to hold back enough to satisfy our own profligate lifestyles, we have seriously missed the point. Too often, we identify with the Biblical characters who are victims of the vicious rule of Rome, rather than the Romans, or the social outcasts of the day, rather than the ones who draw the lines. We absorb Jesus’ words about the last being first, the weak strong, the outsiders seated at the table of righteousness and we think he was speaking to us. Do you remember the story of Jesus speaking to the man who asked him how often he should forgive his brother? Seven times? I bet most of us think Jesus was speaking to us as the ones who need to learn to forgive seventy times seven, and that isn’t wrong. All of us need to be better forgivers. But imagine for a moment that you are the invisible character in the story whose brother was sick of forgiving you – and he asked Jesus, “how often do I have to forgive that sister or brother of mine?” That feels a little different, doesn’t it? Someone may be so tired of forgiving us, she or he just wants to be done with us.
We are the rich young ruler who did everything he could think of to be accepted into God’s reign except the last thing Jesus asked of him, give away all that you have. We are the Pharisees and Sadducees, the priests and the Romans. We are the ones who are ready to cast the first stone at the woman taken in adultery. We are the ones who listened to the story of the good Samaritan and realized the good Samaritan was our worst enemy. And we are the ones trying to keep strangers outside all the while pretending that we ourselves are the strangers who want nothing more than to be on the inside.
It seems to me that if we could find our way into the stories about Jesus, or the stories about the shaping of the early church, the stories about the prophets and David and Moses, and identify ourselves with those characters we most resemble, we will have taken a huge step forward in understanding what it really means to be faithful to God.
I like preaching shorter sermons in the summer and I imagine that on a gorgeous day like today, you like it when the sermons are shorter, so I’m going to stop here with just one final thought. If you had the opportunity to hear this letter read aloud by its author, and you knew that you were not the stranger to whom it was addressed but rather, the insider welcoming strangers into your community, your household, your circles of influence – if you were standing with the author of the letter, reading it with him, saying, “you are no longer strangers”, who would you be addressing? To whom would you be speaking if someone were to hear you say, “you are no longer strangers, but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God”? Who do you imagine needs to hear those very words? Amen.