As part of my daily routine, I receive and read an e-mail newsletter called Heartlight. I was struck this past week by the heartfelt confession of a member of the Anglican Church in Canada called Joe. He was recounting a tale from earlier years in his life, one that he wasn’t all that proud of now, but one he valued for the lessons it taught him and the change of attitude that it worked in his life.
It happened while he was a student at university. He was involved in lots of different societies so had lots of separate groups of friends. Amongst his friends from the politics society was an openly gay young man with whom he had a lot in common and they became good friends. Unfortunately not everyone was as welcoming and inclusive, especially the president of the Christian Union, who was also amongst Joe’s friends albeit in a totally separate group. But being a small campus, one day the inevitable happened. Joe was walking along when he spotted his gay friend walking towards him; their eyes met, recognition was made and the young man characteristically raised his hand in greeting. But just as Joe was raising his own, the familiar voice of his friend the Christian Union president called out from across the quad. It’s in shame that Joe remembers what happened next. He halted his greeting before it reached shoulder height, dropped it quick as a flash, and turned to cross the street to shake the esteemed president’s hand. Basking in the glow of attention from the president, he wrote off the dignity and significance of another whom he had called “friend.” It’s embarrassing for Joe to remember now, but imagine how dehumanizing to the other young man. Imagine how it must have felt.
I don’t think it’s hard for us to imagine because we’ve been there – befriended only to be dumped when our acquaintance’s circumstances changed or when their good fortune returns or when someone they conclude to be more “acceptable” arrives.
That is the fear on the part of foreigners and God’s concern for them that we heard about in our Isaiah reading this evening. Israel’s circumstances were about to change. God was promising release. Their time of bondage would end. He is going to restore them, but He doesn’t want the foreigners who have joined themselves to His people, who have turned away from their false gods and embraced Him as their saviour and king to think that they’ll now be forgotten, written off as after thoughts. Nor were these concerns misplaced.
Again and again God warned his people not to compromise the practice of their faith by associating with foreigners or creating alliances with other nationalities. They were to remain God’s chosen, rather “unique” people.
Nevertheless, they were God’s chosen “unique” people in order to be a “light to the Gentiles.” Just a few chapters before this Isaiah had spelled out His plan. From the 49th chapter verse 6 he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” From the 14th chapter we also hear: “The Lord will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land. Aliens will join them and unite with the house of Jacob.” They were God’s people, separated; but with a purpose – to prepare a way by which God’s saviour would be brought to the whole world.
Unfortunately, they often missed this. They would miss it again in the days to come. Think of the Samaritan woman at the well. The idea that Jesus, a Jew, would be talking to her – why she’s beside herself. She can’t imagine such a thing happening because, Gentiles, especially Samaritans, were despised in those days. That’s what makes the story of the Good Samaritan such a powerful one. The fact that one of the Pharisees Jesus was talking to had to admit that the Samaritan who took pity on the man beaten by the road was more of a neighbour than his fellow Jew was hard to admit, though the circumstances Jesus drew in that story left no other choice.
And I suppose some might point to the meeting of Jesus and the Canaanite woman and say, “Heh, doesn’t Jesus do the same? And at first glance it may appear so, after all he does say, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” But look again. Jesus acts the way he does not to belittle her, but to encourage her to greater faith; a faith which he commends to her in the end.
The point of all this is that God’s people missed this part of God’s word of promise. They grew to ignore their God-given mission to be lights to the world, missionaries of God’s grace. Instead they grew to think of themselves as the sole object of God’s love and refused to associate with foreigners at all.
I find it disturbing that still today that some groups in society still feel that they are not welcome in the Church (and I don’t mean our church but the Church as a whole), or maybe they just feel that they are not welcome because the Church communicates that they’re “not good enough” to fit in. Let me tell you another story from the diary of the young man Joe that we heard about earlier. Much later in his life he became a minister of the church and went to live in the United States with his wife Carolyn. One day he was talking to some members of his new church and describing a wedding that he had been asked to perform while still in Canada. The “wedding chapel” was an old cabin on the side of a mountain in the sagebrush just beyond the timberline. The bride was twenty-seven years old, and the groom was forty-seven. They already had two children, and the bride was seven months pregnant. But they were getting married because, as brand-new Christians, they had come to believe that the Lord wanted them to quit living “common law.” Of the handful of wedding guests, five or six were alcoholics, some were drug addicts, and one woman was a prostitute who had often sold herself for a case of beer. Another man was on parole – attempted murder. At the end of the ceremony, instead of kissing the groom, the bride shouted, “Where’s my rolling pin? I’ve got a license now!” A sordid bunch; Not respected by many. Yet, all except two had recently come to Christ and it was one of Joe’s favourite weddings.
But in Indiana when he and his wife described those mountain nuptials, one man stood rather defiantly and asked, “Don’t you ever bring any good Canadian people to Christ?”
It’s the kind of question that’s been asked in many ways, in many churches around the world. “Why are you marrying that couple in church when they’ve been living together for years?” “Why is that fellow getting a Christian burial? He never crossed the threshold of the church until a week before He died.” “Why should we allow two people of the same gender to get married?” “Why should I forgive someone like that? Look at what they’ve done.” “Why should we baptise that child, their family never come to church?” They’re the kind of questions that say, “No foreigners welcome.” “If you’re not someone like us, then you’re not someone at all.” But the truth is none of us really are, at least not in God’s book.
Look at us by nature. R. Scott Richards has got it right when says in his book, “Myths the World Taught Me” – “every one of us starts life as a little savage, completely selfish and self-centered. We want what we want when we want it. Deny us these once, and we seethe with rage which would be murderous were we not so helpless. We are, in fact, dirty; no morals, no knowledge, no skills; children born delinquent. And if permitted to continue every one of us would grow up a criminal – a thief, a swindler, or worse.” That’s what we all are except that God, quite often with the help of family and friends, intervenes in our life by the power of His word for positive change. When we exclude others, when we cut them off, when we fail to let go of our prejudices, we’re actually in jeopardy of cutting ourselves off. We’re in jeopardy because we are not acknowledging that we too were foreign until our faith in Christ brought us to God.
So we must remember that God alone is righteous and holy, and that we are all “foreign” before Him, and thus we would remain if not for the grace of God which has made us righteous by faith in Christ and His cross and gathers us together in His love. On the cross Jesus bore away our “foreign-ness” before God, He himself taking our place that all might be given the right to become God’s children. He took every one of our sins, even our exclusive attitudes towards others, and made us clean. He made us righteous in His sight, and this not only to save us for eternity, but in the hope that we will live this out ourselves by welcoming everyone into the family of God.
It’s part of the joy of the Gospel. None of us are excluded – not for our past, not for our family history, not because we are physically weak, not because our names aren’t among the socially elite, not for who we love, or where we come from, nor for the colour of our skin. God’s promise is that we’re all welcome, that we all belong, by virtue of our faith in Christ, the one who has welcomed us through baptism and bids us to his table to share in his sacrificing love. Sinners all, made righteous in Christ’s blood; and in this gracious righteousness we look at others in new ways. We see them as we are, another sinner for whom Christ died, another one lost who needs God’s grace, a potential brother or sister in God’s house forever.
God’s plan is to gather still more besides us whom he already has gathered. And the joy of it is that he would use you, once foreign yourselves, now brought near; once lost but now found and fashioned into tools of the Spirit to gather even more – people of every walk in life, peoples of every nation in the world – He would use us to gather them all to the joys of knowing Christ Jesus and the eternal blessings that spill forth from His Church.