No Longer Strangers

(This sermon originally preached July 26, 2015 at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, TN)

Ephesians 2:11-22

11 So remember that once you were Gentiles by physical descent, who were called “uncircumcised” by Jews who are physically circumcised. 12 At that time you were without Christ. You were aliens rather than citizens of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of God’s promise. In this world you had no hope and no God. 13 But now, thanks to Christ Jesus, you who once were so far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. 15 He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. 16 He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.

17 When he came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near. 18 We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit. 19 So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household. 20 As God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. 22 Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.

Hear the good news: Christ is our peace. We are no longer strangers.

A couple of weeks ago, several Glendalers joined with folks from all over the world in a gathering of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America/Bautistas por la Paz at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The text for today was the basis for the theme, “No Longer Strangers: Crossing Borders for Peace.”

For those of you who have never been to Peace Camp, here’s a picture of what goes on in that mystical place with those hippie Baptists-for-peace; for those of you who have been to Peace Camp, here’s a reminder of why we gather there:

At Peace Camp, we met new friends from places like New York City; Richmond, Virginia; and Phoenix, Arizona…but we also met folks from Cuba; Puerto Rico; Chiapas, Mexico; Haiti; Sri Lanka and Sudan. In a seminarian’s discussion group I joined this year, I heard about the faith of mujerista theologians in Puerto Rico–women who are studying Scripture and theology with significant attention to their social location as Latina women. I heard about the struggles of a small seminary in Chiapas, Mexico, raising money to replace their old truck that struggles to get across the hills to sell bread to local churches in order to support their eco-theology farm. I learned what surprises our Sri Lankan brother Jude was facing as he studies at Andover Newton Theological Seminary in Newton, MA–not only was he learning about American food culture (I had the joy of witnessing him meet a grapefruit for the first time!) but he also shared with me some amazing interpretations of parables from a south-Asian context. At the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (better known as “AWAB,”) annual prom on that Thursday night, people dressed how they wanted, danced with whomever they pleased and shared in the celebration that is imperative to sustaining the work of justice and peacemaking. We were crossing borders for peace.

All week, we considered how we cross borders in our own spiritual lives; in our day-to-day encounters; within our families who may or may not understand us or have different political or religious views than ours; in our schools and workplaces and seminaries; in our home churches and around the world.

In this letter to the Ephesians, the author (whom I will call Paul despite the fact that this letter is not a verified Pauline letter, but more likely one written by a disciple of Paul’s), encourages budding Christian communities who are learning about unity in Christ, and how it is lived in a broken world.

In our passage today, Paul directly addresses those who have been “far off,” those who were “strangers” to the covenant and promise of God, those who had no hope and no god. In one sense, Paul is speaking about the Gentiles, the non-Jews. Because most of us modern day Christians do not share in the lineage of Israel genetically, the text speaks directly to us. In another, more metaphorical sense, Paul is speaking to all of us in this world who have felt God’s distance and experienced being cast out or written off by some group in power.

Karen Chakoian, writing on this lectionary passage in Feasting on the Word, says: “By using the loaded word atheos [in reference to “you who were once far off”, meaning those without God], the author evokes the strong emotional separation of Jews and Gentiles. This was not merely side-by-side coexistence, but active antagonism and hostility. To remove the dividing walls was no small feat…to make these hostile groups one is nothing short of miraculous. What had been separate for generations–indeed, for the whole of covenant history–was now being made into one body.”

This sounds familiar to those of us brought up in the United States of America, where slavery and genocide are the original sins of this nation, and where now much of society is absorbed in discussing race and the #blacklivesmatter movement is picking up momentum. Now, we are in the thick of the work of truly becoming one body and one household.

Speaking directly to us, those who have been far off, Paul informs us that we are no longer strangers. We have come near to the presence of God in each other, across time and geography and language barriers, and Jesus has come with us. We, who have before been excluded, are fellow citizens with folks who speak different languages, whose skin is a different shade of human than ours, who eat foods we’ve never heard of and whose communities of faith might look different from ours; we have been embraced into the community of Christ, into the household of God.

Simply put, we are family. You and you and you and me–we are no longer strangers, to God or to each other. Reconciliation is the new way–folks who had been separated are now together, and in communion with God. Tell me that’s not some real Good News!

But what do we do now, knowing we are no longer strangers? It can’t be all sunshine and daisies, being part of the household of God and experiencing the unity of Creation instead of the division and hatred. In the term “reconciliation,” there is also a call to action.

At the same time as we begin the hard work of reconciliation (the deep listening and analyzing our privilege and empathizing with folks on the margins), let us be wary of calling for reconciliation too soon. Oftentimes reconciliation is the “safe word” we use to talk about the time when people will stop disagreeing with us and will be assimilated into our modes and ideas, when there is no longer something uncomfortable to us. The call to reconciliation is a call to make ourselves uncomfortable. Because since we are no longer strangers, we don’t have any excuse to keep treating others as strangers.

Paul writes, “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us.”

Jesus, with his body, broke down barriers that divided us. Whether you think about his body washing his disciples’ feet, his body hanging on a tree used as an instrument of torture, his body eating and praying and crying and healing–Jesus, with his body, went up against the man-made Law in order to observe the higher Law of loving his neighbor to make peace between groups that not only disliked each other, but had oppressive power dynamics.

Jesus, with his body, made us no longer strangers. Jesus, with his body, brought us all into the family of God. And we are called to do likewise.

At Peace Camp, we were humbled to have among us Rev. Osagyefu Sekou, a prophetic preacher who is a part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and a native of St. Louis, speak about reconciliation and the immediacy of incarnational Christianity in today’s United States American society, where race has repeatedly (and necessarily) been at the forefront of public discourse.

In response to Paul’s words illustrating Jesus’ body breaking down barriers, Rev. Sekou implores us to always consider this question: “When they shoot a black baby in the street, where is your body?”

We need an incarnational Christianity, we need to think about our bodies because Jesus thought about our bodies. Why else would he have healed on the Sabbath, disobeying religious law? Why else would he have healed the woman with the flow of blood or the lepers or the blind, all of whom had been outcasts in their community?

We need to think about bodies because Jesus had a body–one that was labeled so “dangerous” and “disruptive” by the State that it caused him to be killed by capital punishment.

We need to think about bodies because each and every day, someone with a non-white body; or a non-heterosexual body; or a gender non-conforming body is being similarly labeled “dangerous” and “disruptive” and is murdered at the hands of the State.

Paul writes, “…you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God…in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Just as Jesus chose to cast his lot among strangers, God chooses to be present with us–we are a bunch of people with different experiences, with different ways of loving, choosing to be in community with each other. And God chooses to be among us, not in this physical building of Glendale Baptist Church, but in the ekklesia, the gathered congregation, dwelling among flawed people who aren’t always the best allies, who aren’t always the best lovers or teachers or parents or truth-tellers. God aligns God’s self with humanity…and that is our calling too. To align ourselves with our family in Christ– no matter if we have even met them or not–we align ourselves with all our cards out on the table, messy and dirty–and blessed.

We are all family. And when it is our family on the line, we stand up in a different way than if harm is being done to one who is not related, though hopefully we’d stand up for them too. So when we turn on the television or pick up the newspaper or log on to CNN.com in the morning and hear about yet another child of God struck down violently by any number of institutions, we need to treat these situations, the Charleston and Mike Brown and Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice situations, as if these people are members of our family, because they are.

            Because we are no longer strangers, because we have been outcasts and we have now been brought into the promise of God’s family and household–because we have crossed the border of the internalized white supremacy that most of us in this room carry without knowing–because we know in our hearts that there must be another way to be the family of God besides only showing up when there are funerals to attend–that’s why we need to think about where our bodies are.

Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” In turn, he welcomes us. Likewise, the presence of God-with-us already has empowered and equipped us to engage in reconciliation work in the world and manifest peace in what may seem to be hopeless situations. We must choose to dwell with The Stranger, so that they too will be brought into this household, the place where the Spirit of Love and Light dwells with us.

Incarnational Christianity is part of this–being the ‘household” or “family” of God or “body of Christ”, the unity of the body paints a picture of the members of the body protecting each other. We belong to each other. If one is without wholeness, all are incomplete; when one body is abused for generations upon generations, what do the rest of the members do? Knowing what it is to be an outcast, they reach out and embrace those in pain and pray for each other and work for each other’s full inclusion in the household of God.

That is what reconciliation can be. But how do we practice reconciliation?

The Baptist Peace Fellowship/Bautistas por la Paz is in the process of becoming a truly multilingual organization. At Peace Camp, I’d become fed up with my monolingual self, and decided that I would start gaining some more tools to be a peacemaker–I would learn Spanish! As I was talking with my new friend Josue, nervously pronouncing some new Spanish words I’d learned from my iPhone app, Josue looked me right in the eyes and said: “You must not be afraid of doing it wrong.”

And something clicked. In many situations, our hearts are in the right place and we plan and serve our world with grace–but really, much of the time we are actually self-deprecating and shut ourselves down because we are afraid that we won’t be the perfect ally, that we will embarrass ourselves or be too vulnerable or lose control. Well, guess what? Sometimes we will do it wrong. Sometimes we will talk too much and be arrogant and shut other people down and listen only for what we want to hear…but we can’t let our fear of failing stop us from stepping up and standing up for justice for our siblings in Creation. That’s the real work of reconciliation.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says: “We are called to be allies of God in the work of justice and reconciliation.” This work is already in motion, the uniting of the people of God and of all creation is in motion–that’s the struggle, the revolution, the speaking out, the cause for disruption—God’s justice is rolling like water in the mountains, in Baltimore and in Charleston and Detroit and Cleveland and Texas…and in Nashville…can you hear it? It’s already on its way. Will you be caught up and become an ally with God? The only way any of us will flourish is if we all do.

Our joy in darkness, our striving towards justice, our hope for peace–all of these are bound up together.

In the words of James Taylor,

“Let us turn our thoughts today

To Martin Luther King

And recognize that there are ties between us,

All men and women living on the Earth.

Ties of hope and love,

Sister and brotherhood,

That we are bound together

In our desire to see the world

Become a place in which our children

Can grow free and strong.

We are bound together by the task

That stands before us

And the road that lies ahead.

We are bound and we are bound.”

Hear the good news: You are no longer strangers. They are no longer strangers. We are no longer strangers.

In the haunting words of author Arundhati Roy:

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

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