It Is For All People
by Rev. Wright
What is it like to be a stranger? I'd like you to think about a group you're part of
fairly regularly, a group in which you are different in some way from most of the other
people. Maybe you're the only woman on a planning team at work, the only girl in a
woodworking class, the only boy taking ballet, or the only man learning to quilt. Maybe
when all the relatives get together, you're the oldest one in the room. Maybe you're the
only white person in the group you're thinking of, or the only person of color. Maybe
you're the only one in the group who uses a wheelchair or who is visually impaired.
Have you thought of a group where you can say, "I'm the only one"? Now,
what's it like?
Several years ago I went to Liberia as part of an assessment team for The United
Methodist Church. UMCOR sent us there to see how the church might respond to the
tremendous humanitarian need after the civil war. As we visited some of the centers that
had been set up for those who had been displaced from their homes and villages, we noticed
people staring at us. These were schools, unfinished buildings and camps with grass huts
where literally thousands of people lived. As we walked through the children ran after us.
Finally someone said many of these children had never seen a white person. They shouted,
"Take a picture of me, white man." They wanted to pose with us for pictures.
They wanted us to squat down so they could feel our hair because it was not as curly or as
course as their own. In that setting I understood the feeling of being a stranger,
different from everyone else in my surroundings.
What was it like for our team to be so different from almost everyone else there? I was
lonely. If it hadn't been for the others on our team and the few people there that I knew
through other associations, it might have been unnerving. When the people spoke in their
tribal languages - as many of them did when speaking to one another - I couldn't
understand what they were saying. Regardless of the friendliness of the people, we were
strangers in the land, strangers in a different culture.
In biblical times, most people lived in small communities, places where the presence of
a stranger was as quickly noted as a White person in a Black culture. Perhaps that is why
in both Jewish and Greco-Roman circles, there were rules about how strangers - or
foreigners - were to be treated. The Israelites were warned repeatedly to be hospitable
toward the stranger - or as the New Revised Standard Version translates some of the Hebrew
terms, "resident aliens" - because they themselves had lived as resident aliens
in the land of Egypt. So we read in Leviticus, for example, "...you shall love the
alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (19:34). The Israelites
were also commanded to grant certain rights to the strangers in their land. Strangers were
to be granted sabbatical rest, access to the cities of refuge, the chance to glean for
grain in the fields after harvest, the opportunity to participate in certain religious
festivals, and so on.
In spite of the attention leaders of Israel gave to acknowledging, protecting, and
welcoming strangers, there was historically a deep gulf between Jews and people of other
nations - aliens. You've heard about that before. The punch line in the Parable of the
Good Samaritan is that in the minds of Jesus' listeners, there was no such thing as a
"good" Samaritan. But we're not talking about a judgment or bias, here. We're
talking about a whole way of life. If they didn't have to by law, the Jews really did not
want to deal with foreigners. So after Jesus' resurrection, when Jesus' followers set out
to fulfill the command to make disciples of all nations, the leaders of this Jesus
movement quickly ran into a big problem: What do we do about the Gentiles?
Remember, the followers of Jesus, with a few exceptions, were Jews. They saw Jesus as
the Messiah, God's anointed, the One who had been promised centuries before to Abraham and
David and their descendants. How could people who had not been worshipping the one true
God, who had not been waiting for God's promised one, suddenly become followers of this
Teacher, the Messiah? Why, that's worse than trying to get a high school diploma without
ever passing an exam! That's like expecting to inherit all of Jack Kent Cooke's estate,
all of his millions, when you're not even a member of the family.
Yes, that 's exactly what it's like! In the eyes of those in first century Palestine
the Gentiles were not the inheritors of the promises made to Abraham and David. Why should
they be included among those privileged to be a part of God's household? Yet, the writer
of the letter to the Ephesians says, "You are no longer strangers and aliens, but
...members of the household of God." Even if we are not inheritors of the promises to
Abraham and David, we can be members of God's household. That might not seem remarkable in
this day or this country, but it really is. If the early church leaders had not paid
attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit, we could have been left out in the cold!
So what does this mean, being members of the household of God? First, because we belong
to God's household, we don't need to feel lonely or scared. Think again about what it's
like for you to be a stranger in some group. Being a stranger is no small matter, is it?
When I was in Liberia on two separate occasions, it was obvious that I was different from
most of the people I encountered - in more ways than the color of our skin or the texture
of our hair. And it was about being part of a household that made a difference. That
household to which we belonged is The United Methodist Church, symbolized there as well as
here by the cross and flame of our symbol. We were bound together in the family of faith,
and that made things OK.
But being part of the household of God makes things more than OK. Being part of God's
household means we don't have to feel afraid or alone, even in the face of the greatest
challenge of all: death itself. I remember one man who asked me to take a picture of his
family. There were 15 or so of his family, from young children to grandparents, who were
together in that Displacement Center. He got them all together and posed for my picture. I
was both stunned and moved when he said to me, "Now, even if we die, we will live on
in your picture."
But we, people of God's household, know that through His death and resurrection, Jesus
Christ has overcome the powers of death. We know that we don't need a photograph in which
to live beyond death. We know that even in the hour of our deaths, our fellow household
members can stand with us to usher us into eternal life.
The second thing it means to be a member of the household of God is this: we ourselves
are to welcome all nations to join the household with us. Being a member of God's
household does not mean "the last one in closes the door." It means that the
door must always remain open to anyone who wishes to enter.
This is the reason it is so important that we keep trying to do Korean Ministry and
Hispanic Ministry. These are people who have come to our door. We must keep the door open
and invite all to enter in the name of Jesus and to become part of the household of God.
Think of the person you would least like to have sitting next to you in church -
someone you may know, or someone you have read about, or just someone you can imagine.
That is the person God wants you to invite into this assembly. Just as Jesus' Jewish
disciples were first commanded and then led by the Spirit to preach the gospel to all
nations, including non-Jews --strangers and aliens - we are called to preach the gospel to
everyone, including those we find totally repugnant. This household is for everyone, not
just for people like us, people with whom we feel safe and comfortable, people we would
like to get to know. It is for all people.
The opening verses of the letter to the Ephesians are a two-edged sword. The one edge
is a challenge to us to follow Jesus' command to go out and make disciples of all nations.
The other edge is a word of grace: we are members of the household of God, and that means
we don't have to feel afraid or lonely. We will always be in good company, perhaps the
company of strangers, but nonetheless, God's company. ...You are the people of God's
household. Rejoice and be glad!!