Tuesday, July 31, 2018


Ephesians 3: 14-21
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 29, 2018

In the first century of the Common Era, fathers in the Roman Empire had absolute power. The term ‘paterfamilias’ entailed more than just being the head of the family. Only the father could own property; sons would receive an allowance for their own household until their father died. Fathers could decide whether a child lived or died or was to be sold into slavery, even if the child only angered their father. When a child was born, the midwife would place the baby on the ground. If the father picked up the newborn, then the child was formally accepted into the family. The father could also choose not to pick up the baby for any reason: deformity, female gender, or unwanted children for lack of support. The child would then be placed outside in a particular place and abandoned. Some of these children survived as slaves; others died of exposure.

So when Paul refers to God as Father and says that every family in heaven and on earth takes their name from God as Father, to those who are reading this letter it means that God claims everyone—those who have gone before, those who are on earth, and those to come—everyone is a part of God’s family. No one is rejected. No one is abandoned. When Paul writes from prison to a church of primarily Gentile Christians in a rich cosmopolitan city of the Roman Empire, it’s like he’s writing to a primarily white church of the 1%, people with privilege and power, people like us, reminding us what are the true riches of this world. Earlier in his letter Paul writes about a new humanity in which peace is made between Jews and Gentiles, no longer strangers and aliens but members of the household of God that we would all become a dwelling place for God.

What would it be like to have no dividing wall between human beings, no hostility between groups? What does it mean for us to be one human family? We are still so tribal, so provincial, so comfortable in our bubbles, our own points of reference. Friday night I went to a Billy Joel concert in Philadelphia. I’ve never been to concert so highly attended—about 25,000 – 30,000 people. At first I thought about the power of music to bring people together. At one point, when Billy sang “Piano Man”, he and the band cut out and 30,000 people sang “Sing us a song, you’re a piano man; sing us a song tonight; well we’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feeling alright”. I’d like to think that if there was some kind of global peace barometer, those few moments would have bolstered the human peace index up a smidge. Didn’t matter who we voted for or where we live or who we love, and we didn’t seem to care.

But then as I looked around that stadium, I saw mostly white folks and people who had enough disposable income to drop anywhere from $65 to well over $200 for a ticket, plus parking and food and drink and maybe a t-shirt. So even though a moment like that feels like church, like power and healing and wonder, like the breadth and length and height and depth of the fullness of God, there are still barriers and obstacles that we are quite comfortable with. And I confess—that churchy feeling pretty much dissipated when we were making it back to the car and folks were picking up their tailgating right where they left off and a bazillion cars were trying to leave the parking lot.

So I think we have a ways to go when it comes to the big crowd, transformational events to heal and restore the unity of the human tribe. I wish it was that simple, the power of the mass. Jesus knew how to work a crowd but then it’s the stories involving individual lives—Zacchaeus who vows to continue his generosity, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, any of the healing stories, the woman who was almost stoned for exercising bodily autonomy, the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, you may have your own favorite—these are the ones in which people are restored to themselves and to community.

It’s an evolution we’re talking about but it happens one life, one person at a time, when we step out of our bubble, our point of reference, and dare to understand what it’s like to be someone completely unlike us. Like Elin Ersson, a 21 year old Swede who held up the takeoff of an airline flight so that an Afghan asylum seeker would not be deported and possibly killed when he arrived home. She filmed the entire event—all 15 brief minutes of it—how one man tried to intimidate her, irritated and inconvenienced by her protest to save one life; how others supported her and rallied with her; her tears of relief and joy when she succeeded and the pilot allowed the Afghan citizen to disembark. And when I watched that video, I asked myself, “Would I be so brave? Would I be willing to make myself so vulnerable for the sake of another?”

Stan Mitchell, the senior pastor of GracePointe Church in Franklin, TN, speaking about a young trans person in his church, boldly declares: “If you claim to be an ally of a group of people—if you’re not getting hit by the stones that are thrown at them, you’re not standing close enough.” Talk about the breadth and length and height and depth of the fullness of what it means to live a life in the love of God. Are we willing to get that close? Are we willing to ask God “Let me get that close”?

It’s no easy thing to ask. It’s nothing short of taking up someone else’s cross for a while that they carry 24/7. It’s taking our privilege and spending extravagantly on someone else. It’s divesting ourselves of our power that another power might work through us. In the words of the poet and storyteller Oriah Mountain Dreamer:

“I want to know
If you can sit with pain
Mine or your own
Without moving to hide it
Or fade it
Or fix it.

"It doesn’t interest me
To know where you live
Or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
After the night of grief and despair
Weary and bruised to the bone
And do what needs to be done
To feed the children.

“It doesn’t interest me
Who you know
Or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
In the centre of the fire
With me
And not shrink back.”

This is how we knit our human line together: one excruciatingly small, flawed, tenuous, tender, daring step at a time. It’s how we become rooted and grounded in love. It’s how we grow into nothing less than the dwelling place of God.

Fear thrives on division.

Love dares to understand.

Humanity is my tribe.


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