by Fr. Mark D. Stuart
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The world into which Saul of Tarsus (later to be known as Paul) was born was a world in which people were divided into camps: There were privileged citizens of the great Roman Empire and those who were forced to live under her rule, but granted no special rights. There were those who spoke Greek, the highly educated, and those who spoke their common native tongues.
And there were many other social distinctions… For St. Paul, the author of our lesson from Ephesians, there was also another one: There were the Jews, God’s “chosen people” to whom God had been revealed and to whom all the promises of Hebrew Scripture had been made; and the Gentiles, that is everyone else, the pagan idolaters. From this perspective, the Jews were “us,” and the Gentiles were clearly “them.” Some things don’t seem to change much. There seems to be something deep in human nature that makes us want to divide the world into “us” and “them” and that causes us to choose up sides, draw dividing lines, and build up walls.
We do it all the time in so many ways: In many places it’s about the color of your skin or ethnic makeup. In other places it’s whether you are Christian or Moslem, or whether you are a Sunni Moslem or a Shiite Moslem; or whether you are a Protestant Christian or a Catholic Christian; or among us Anglicans, whether you are an evangelical or an Anglo-Catholic. Among Anglo-Catholics it’s whether you are a Forward in Faith Anglo-Catholic or an Affirming Catholicism Anglo-Catholic. Or most recently this week with our Church’s General Convention vote to lift the official ban on gay and lesbian persons in the ordained ministry, it can be about whether you support Anglican unity over inclusion and human dignity. Sometimes it’s whether you are immigrant vs. native; or labor vs. management; Democrat vs. Republican; an environmentalist or an oil driller. Other times it’s whether you are gay or straight, or if you are a redneck or a metrosexual.
It’s a world of differentiating “us” vs. “them.” It’s about who is a stranger or “strange” to us, because they are not like us, or do not agree with us. We humans are good at building walls to keep ourselves “safe” and to keep the stranger out.
It’s like the story I was told by the member of a congregation I used to supply regularly, who was a forester. He used to often have to consult property owners to determine boundary lines. Walking up a dirt road to question one such person, he encountered signs all over the fence posts and gate that read: “No Trespassing,” “Beware of Dog,” and “Keep Out… This Means You!” Finally arriving at the door, he talked with the congenial, cooperative landowner. When the forester was ready to leave, the man said to him, “Come and see me again sometime. I don’t get many visitors.”
The great American poet Robert Frost wrote:
Before I build a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall
And St. Paul goes on to say to the Ephesians: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace; in His flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall…”
It is up to us to examine our lives and our hearts to find those invisible but very real barriers that we so easily erect between ourselves and our fellow human beings. God, through Christ Jesus, expands the boundaries of the sacred to include both those whom the rules of high-bound religion would exclude, and those that the secular world would exclude, as well.
We all are in need of the reconciliation spoken of by Paul in Ephesians, because in one way or another at some time in our lives we were meant to feel strange, that we were strangers. We all are in need of a fresh look at just who we are in the eyes of God and where we fit in to the family of God. As St. Paul proclaims, we are all called in Christ Jesus to be one; for through Him we all have access to the Father by one Spirit. The barriers of hostility, the walls of division, are broken down. In God’s eyes no one is strange; no one is a stranger: we are all citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
Think again of the racial, economic, gender, sexual, social, theological, or political barriers that mark the terrain of our lives and determine whom we see, touch, and share our lives. If we erect those barriers, they direct our footsteps, where we go and whose terrain we avoid. And if people are avoided because they are different or strange, we are called to offer them hospitality, some space where they are welcome and in which they can be themselves.
Hospitality means people do not have to conform to our ways, but that they can be themselves in our presence. Hospitality does not try to change people but enables them freedom and space to grow at their own pace as the Spirit of God leads. I like to consider hospitality as the “eighth Sacrament” because it expresses the sacred inclusion God promises to each and every one of us through His beloved Son.
As St. Paul so rightly proclaims in Ephesians:
But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace; in His flesh He has… broken down the dividing wall…So He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through Him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
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