Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Stranger Is Our Friend

RCL Easter VII Year A
5 June 2011
Saint Faith’s Anglican Parish
Vancouver BC

         When I was a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame, J. Massingberd Ford was a professor of New Testament studies.  Among her scholarly works was a commentary on the gospel according to Luke.  What I remember most is her view that Luke’s gospel is filled with xenophilia, ‘the love of strangers’.  The same can be said of the gospel according to John which we have been reading through this Easter season.  John’s gospel contains many stories in which the stranger, the unexpected one, acts in faith, while the ‘usual suspects’ seem unable to grasp the message of the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth.
  • A Samaritan woman, unsuitable on the grounds of gender and ethnic background, recognizes that the Messiah, the promised one, is at her well.
  • An invalid, desperately seeking healing at a holy site, recognizes that the Messiah, the promised one, has healed him on the sabbath in disobedience to the religious code.
  • A man born blind, unclean in the eyes of the religious establishment, recognizes that the Messiah, the promised one, has healed him.
  • Two sisters, bereft of support with the death of their brother, recognize that the Messiah, the promised one, gives them back their brother.

Time does not permit me to give a full catalogue of the occasions in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament when God’s grace is revealed by the stranger and the outcast in contrast to the blindness and inaction of those who should know better.  But the message is clear:  The agents of God’s purposes are not always the ones we expect.  The faithful disciple pays more attention to what the stranger does than who the stranger is.
         This same attitude is present in today’s reading from Isaiah.  This portion of Isaiah, sometimes called ‘Second’ Isaiah, was composed during the time of the exile, when many Israelites were being held captive in Babylon after the final destruction of Jerusalem in 587 bce.  But Babylon itself is about to be conquered by the Persians, a rising political and military power from what is now known as Iran.  The Persians are led by Cyrus whom the prophet calls mashiach, ‘the anointed one’.
         Now, my friends, this is a radical statement on the part of the prophet.  Do you recognize the word he uses to describe Cyrus?  For perhaps the first time in the Hebrew Bible someone who is not a descendant of David is called mashiach, the ‘messiah’, one in whom God will work to restore the people of Israel.  Imagine yourself to be an Israelite living in exile in Babylon, longing for the coming of the one who will save you and who will restore Israel to its rightful place on the world stage.  Imagine hearing the words of the prophet who tells you that this messiah, this agent of God, will not be a descendant of the kings who are still with you, still claiming to be heirs of the throne of David.  Isaiah dares to say to this exiled people that the messiah is a Persian, a non-Israelite, who will “. . . liberate Israel . . . and . . . spread the fame of the one true God of Israel throughout the world.  (The Jewish Study Bible)
         In the verses that follow and that we did not read this morning, the people question God’s choice.  Then God speaks, saying to them, “Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands? . . . I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free . . . .”  (Isaiah 45.11b, 13)  It is as if God says to the Israelites, “The one whom you call stranger and non-believer is the one whom I call beloved and chosen.”
         My friends, if there is one constant throughout the Scriptures of the Jewish and Christian people, it is this:  God has worked, is working and will continue to work to achieve God’s will for the whole of creation, using whomever God chooses as an agent of the divine purposes.  Among all the religious traditions on the earth, Jews and Christians are taught to view the stranger not as an enemy but as one who may well be an agent of God’s purposes.  We are bid to observe what the stranger does more than we are bid to question who the stranger is.
         Yet we struggle to accept this teaching.  Although the gospel according to Mark, general acknowledged as the earliest gospel, records Jesus as saying that those who are not against us are for us, Matthew and Luke, writing a bit later, cannot accept this teaching and record Jesus as saying those who are not for us are against us.
         When apartheid fell in South Africa, the Anglican Church, a long-time opponent of the racial laws, found allies in ‘strangers’, often non-believers who shared the church’s convictions.  When the Berlin Wall collapsed, the Lutheran Church in East Germany found allies in ‘strangers’, especially young people who perhaps had never crossed the threshold of the church.  When aboriginal people in Canada began their quest for justice, they found in the Anglican Church of Canada, a one-time agent of the government’s assimilation policies, an advocate who was willing to work to regain trust lost in earlier generations.
         At this time in the life of the Anglican Church of Canada we are surrounded by strangers.  They come in many shapes and sizes, but they are strangers.  Some are young people whose lives have not been shaped by the worship and spirituality of the Christian faith.  Some are skeptics who question the inflexible certainty that characterizes some Christian leaders and communities.  Some are believers from other faith traditions who have little or no knowledge of the Christian faith.  Still others are Christians who have come to believe that the status quo, an institution shaped by the last five hundred years of history, cannot be sustained and that change is not only inevitable and necessary but welcome.
         How shall we respond to these ‘strangers’?  There are voices that would say that we must resist the stranger and maintain our ‘way of life’.  There are other voices who would say that we should not only welcome the stranger but become the stranger, abandoning many if not all of the ancient practices and beliefs that have shaped how we have walked with Christ on the pilgrimage of faith.  I do not believe that either extreme is one that is faithful to the mission God has called us to share.
         There is a third way, the way of hospitality.  Let us open our doors and welcome these strangers into our midst. Let us hear their stories and share ours with them.  More than that, let us go out of these doors and seek those stories beyond our walls.  Let us hear their questions and share our questions with them.  More than that, let us go out of these doors and seek those questions beyond our walls. I know that this is not always an easy path to walk, because the path of hospitality inevitably leads to the transformation of both guest and host, but I am convinced that it is the way of wisdom.  I am also convinced that it is a path that this congregation is willing to embrace.
         So, in the months ahead as we continue to discern our future as a congregation of the Diocese of New Westminster serving God in the midst of what may seem to be an alien country, let us welcome the stranger.  He or she may come through our door in physical form as a seeker after God.  He or she may come through our door in intellectual form as questions raised and insights gained through our participation in the Ministry Assessment Process.  But the stranger will come and will be as welcome as Christ himself.  Amen.

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