Wednesday, August 05, 2009

No Strangers Allowed!

Eph. 2:11-22[1]

The 2002 film My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the story of Toula, a young woman in a Greek family struggling to make her own life. What you have to understand is that her father Gus is not just very Greek, but fanatically Greek. Their house is modeled after the Parthenon, complete with Corinthian columns and statues of Greek gods. And the garage door sports a larger-than-life-size Greek flag. Gus believes there are only two kinds of people in the world: Greeks and those who wish they were Greeks! When Toula meets and falls in love with Ian Miller—who is in no way, shape or form Greek—you can imagine what a stir it causes. Gus is distraught that she doesn’t want to marry “nice Greek boy,” but a “xeno.” In Gus’s own words, “A xeno with big long hairs on top of his head.”

The word “xeno” is probably not one you’re familiar with. It is the Greek word for “foreigner” or “stranger.” It’s the source of our word “xenophobia”—which means an irrational aversion to people who are perceived to be different from oneself. In ancient times, to the Greeks everyone who was not Greek was a “xeno.” But that’s okay, because to the Jews everyone who was not Jewish was a “gentile dog.” And everyone who wasn’t a Roman was a barbarian. You get the idea: if you’re not one of us, then your less than us. While we may pride ourselves on being so “modern” and “advanced” in our civilization, I’m afraid that principle of human behavior is still true for some folks. Make that most folks. Especially in this country of ours that has become the de factor dominant culture of the world. If you’re not (fill in the blank with whatever it is we think we are), you’re not one of us!

We live in a world in which we all have all kinds of dividing lines between people who are like me and “not like me.”[2] Unfortunately, Church has been a place where those dividing lines and hostilities have been reinforced.[3] My friends, it should not be so among us. One of the fundamental principles of our faith is the inclusion of all people in the community that bears Christ’s name and is formed by his work of reconciliation.[4] That’s not a modern innovation; St. Paul the Apostle was convinced that it is a major implication of Jesus’ death on the cross. We who were alienated and estranged, who were without hope and without God, we who were far away have been brought near and every barrier to our full participation in the household of God has been removed. St. Paul affirms that the cross of Christ means that God’s shalom—God’s peace that brings new life—has been extended to all people, without exceptions, qualifications, or omissions!

The good news that our faith proclaims is that all the barriers have been destroyed—the ones between heaven and earth as well as the ones we throw up around us to make ourselves feel “safe.”[5] As we seek ways to help our congregation find new vitality, it seems to me that this view of salvation—in which we are all the strangers who have been taken in—must take center stage. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it: having a thriving church is not primarily about strategies and techniques, but about a quality of life.

I would have to say that that the most pressing factor in that “quality of life” that can seem so elusive is hospitality.[6] Now at first glance that might seem so simple as to be positively trivial. But what we’re talking about here isn’t covered by Southern Living or Martha Stewart. The kind of hospitality we’re talking about is something the Bible reinforces over and over again—“it is a matter of welcoming, caring for, and befriending the stranger, the poor and needy, the homeless and destitute, the unloved and unlovable, the weird and the strange.”[7] We’re not talking about the kind of hospitality that calculates the number of finger sandwiches needed for a reception, but rather a way of life that flows naturally from our experience of God’s generous grace and mercy and love to our joyfully extending that grace and mercy and love to others. We’re talking about a quality of life that makes a congregation a place where God really lives (cf. Eph. 2:22).

The most pressing question for any church in this culture that is splintered by divisions of all kinds and poisoned by fear and suspicion of others must be “how do we convert hostility into hospitality, exclusion into embrace?” How do we convert the “closed fist of hostility” into the “open hand of hospitality”? [8] Throughout the centuries, the saints and sages of our faith have recognized that hospitality is the central practice of the Christian faith. It is essential to our life as a congregation because, more than any other Christian practice, it demonstrates who God is, who we are called to be, and what the world can become through God’s grace.[9]

We live in a world where grace and mercy are foreign concepts. In our world we’re much more comfortable with posting a sign like “No strangers allowed” that reflects the suspicion and fear of our time. But perhaps it is time for us to acknowledge our fear, confront it, and turn that very slogan on its head. “No strangers allowed” means that we refuse to acknowledge the barriers and boundaries that divide our world. “No strangers allowed” means that we acknowledge that the one God loves and accepts all persons through Jesus the Christ, and therefore we do too. “No strangers allowed” means that in the Kingdom of God nobody is a stranger, therefore in this congregation nobody is a stranger.[10]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/19/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, 46.

[3] Cf. J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 188-89.

[4] Cf. Confession of 1967, 9.21-26. Cf. also Amy Plantiga Pauw, “Theological Reflections on Ephesians 2:11-22,” Theology Today 62 (2005): 81: “Christians are invited into this new space to live lives that conform to the reconciliation already accomplished for them in Christ.” Cf. similarly Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.4:323.

[5] Cf. Ronald Goetz, “Miracles of Inclusion,” The Christian Century (July 2, 1997): 625: “After the dividing wall between gentile and Jew has been broken down, the destruction of all other human barriers must follow.” Cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 84, 104, 188-89.

[6] Cf. Arthur Sutherland, I Was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality, 83: “Hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls.”

[7] Paul J. Waddell, “Toward a Welcoming Congregation,” Christian Reflection 2007:77; cf. also Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 83.

[8] Waddell, 76, 78.

[9] Waddell, 79; cf. also Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 82: hospitality “stands at the heart of a Christian way of life, a living icon of wholeness in God.”

[10] Cf. Waddell, 79: “There is no fear in the Kingdom of God because there are no strangers there.” Cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 316: “The community of [equals] proclaims the kingdom of God through its way of life, which provides an alternative to the life of the world surrounding it.” See also ibid., 342.

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