Monday, September 18, 2017

9-17-17 Sermon “The Miracle of Inclusion” Part 2 of our “There is UNITY in CommUNITY!” series on Ephesians

9-17-17 Sermon  “The Miracle of Inclusion” Part 2 of our “There is UNITY in CommUNITY!” series on Ephesians

   I was listening to a discussion this week about the ramifications of the hacking of the Equifax Credit Reporting Agency for 143 million Americans whose sensitive credit information was stolen. 
The hacking of social security numbers, dates of birth, and other critical information means that for nearly half of our population, their credit is not and will not be secure for the rest of their lives. Have you checked to see if your information was stolen? Check again…
  One of the things that was pointed out in the discussion that I heard, and that most people don’t think about, but as citizens, as consumers, as credit users and borrowers, our relationship to Equifax is not a business-customer relationship. We are not their customers, banks and businesses are their customers. No, we are the product. Our information, our credit history, in effect, our financial lives are the product they buy and sell. 
  And one of the things that pundits are suggesting we should do to protect ourselves in this mess is to get credit monitoring. That is, utilize a service that monitors our credit reports for us so that if anything fishy pops up, they will notify us. And coincidentally, who do you suppose provides that kind of service? 
Equifax, and the other credit monitoring services. And of course, they’ve offered it to everyone effected for free for the first year, but after that the service has a cost attached to it. One person who was participating in the discussion that I heard equated that arrangement to an organized crime protection racket, where a business had to pay gangsters for protection, and if they didn’t those same gangsters would destroy the business.

   And if that’s not enough, Equifax, who knew about this security breach for months before they made it public, revealed that some executives in the company sold off large amounts of their company stock prior to making 
the public announcement of the breach. Prosecutors are looking into whether there is actually insider trading going on in this situation because they had access to this insider information and tried to profit from it. It is both criminal and immoral to seek to profit at the expense of others based on having access to information that is not generally available to the public. The law prohibits that kind of “insider trading” - being an insider has its privileges, but it also has its responsibilities.

   But, more broadly than this, we like being insiders, it feels really good to be an insider doesn’t it - to know what’s going on, to know what’s coming next, to know who’s doing this and who’s doing that? I’ve always been a news junkie because I liked to know what was going on. As a kid, I used to buy the Fall Preview issue of the TV Guide magazine the first day it came out because I wanted to know what the cool new TV shows were going to be so that I could map out my TV viewing plan well before any of the shows actually debuted. Yeah, I was THAT kind of nerd. It was easier then, though, there were only a handful of stations and networks that you had to worry about. I used to be the one who went to the really big movies the day they premiered so that I could be the one to tell my friends and family about it. I loved being an insider in those ways.

   At the same time, being an insider or an outsider isn’t always a choice. I was never an insider when it came to playing sports. There was nothing I hated more than gym class in school when the PE instructor, one of the school coaches, picked two of the star athletes in the class to choose sides for a baseball, basketball, or kickball game because I knew I was going to be among the last ones picked and then only because EVERYONE had to be on a team. I would bat or kick near the end of the lineup, or I spent most of the basketball game on the bench because I wasn’t part of the “inside” crowd of athletes or “jocks.” Band nerds don’t get to play pitcher, they play right field if they play at all. Being on the outside stinks. 

   And in one of the most obvious, “you-shoulda-seen-this-coming-for-miles” sort of transitions or segues that I can recall ever using in a sermon, the Apostle Paul, in last week’s reading, shared that we are all “insiders” to God’s plan for the redemption of the whole world. We are, Paul says, inside traders because of what God has revealed to us through Jesus Christ. But rather than just seek to profit for ourselves, we are instructed to make this information known to anyone and everyone. God loves all of creation and has a plan to bring redemption and salvation to all the world - that is, God wants everyone on the inside with this one.

   That’s not as easy as it sounds though because, realistically, we have enemies. We do, we have enemies in the world, people we don’t agree with, people we don’t like, people who don’t like us.  From people on the opposite side of culture wars, to that nemesis at work or the bully at school, most of us have an enemy who is not entirely an abstraction. We may not use that word, but the effect is the same. Many of us may also be “the enemy” of someone else. And then, when relationships like this get really convoluted, we sometimes get into “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of thinking and then you don’t know who’s who.

   But like it or not, in life, there are insiders and outsiders. The welcome mat is placed for some and not for others. Some are accepted—others are rejected. Perhaps you have had the experience of being on the inside, of knowing acceptance. It’s a secure feeling. Maybe you have also known rejection and exclusion. It can be frustrating and disillusioning. 
Interestingly, as much as we waffle back and forth on the issue - being open to including as insiders “people like us,” while being less open to “people like them,” studies of young men - and it is almost exclusively young men - who commit mass shootings, hate crimes, and who are radicalized into some kind of violence, are often people who have been excluded, shoved to the outside at some critical juncture in their lives. That kind of insider-outsider ostracism comes at a huge cost for many in our society when it reaches that level of extremism, which it seems to be doing with more and more frequency.

   But what do these questions have to do with us, reading this letter to a strange place and to a people identified by the word “Ephesus,” twenty centuries later? The answer is that it has everything to do with us - EVERYTHING. The primary issues in this letter are our acceptance before God, our access to God, and our acceptance of one another. The good news, Paul proclaims, is that there is “wideness in God’s mercy.” The good news, Paul insists, is that Jesus Christ has destroyed the distinctions between insider and outsider, accepted and rejected. Jesus has torn down the walls that the world, society, and religion has sought to build up - just knocked them to the ground.
   And this is really, really good news for us because, 
you see, we are the outsiders to whom Paul refers, 
we are the Gentiles, we are the ones who once were far off, but now have been brought near, who once were lost but now are found. As Gentiles, ours is the group that was pushed to the edges, left in the margins. 
Thank God there’s wideness in God’s mercy! 
This has happened through the love of Jesus, through the work that God did when Jesus was nailed to the cross—a cross that represents the peace that God has made with the world; a cross that represents all divisions; a cross that communicates God’s desires for the world.
   The wall of division that Jesus tore down was the wall of temple and law, which separated the holy people from the unclean; which prevented many people—most people—from God; which limited their access. God was kept hidden within the walls by the so-called insiders, but this could never be God’s ultimate purpose, because it is true, there is wideness in God’s mercy. 

   In Jesus Christ, God looks upon the multitudes who are hungry and has compassion (Mark 6), and says, “You are included.” 
In Jesus Christ, God looks upon the Gentile, and says, “You are included.” 
In Jesus Christ, God looks upon the stranger, and says, “You are included.” 
In Jesus Christ, God looks upon children, and says, “You are included.” 
In Jesus Christ, God looks upon women and says, “You are included.” 
In Jesus Christ, God looks upon the prodigal (Luke 15) and says, “You are included.” 
In Jesus Christ, God looks upon us, you and me, in all of our conditions, and says, “You are included.”
   This is the radical message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are no longer insiders and outsiders - no longer male or female, Greek or Jew, Gay or Straight.  There are no longer the accepted and the rejected. There are no longer the holy and the unclean (see Acts 10). There are no longer some who play the game and others who are banished to the sidelines! Jesus has knocked down the dividing wall between these groups. The two have become one.

   We are included, and the visible sign of this inclusion is the cross of Jesus Christ.  It is a reminder that as Paul tells us in his letter to the church at Rome, nothing can separate us from his love. Nothing. It is a reminder that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) but that even that cannot separate us from God’s love. It is a reminder that God’s love is expressed to us in the miraculously good news that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 RSV).
   What does it mean for us, then, that the excluded are now included? What does it mean for those on the inside and for those on the outside? 
For those on the inside—in the day of Jesus this would have referred to those who officiated in the temple and knew the laws—we open ourselves to the possibility that God is not confined to our traditions, codes, and formulas and not to our doctrines. The cross takes precedence over circumcision, that is the law, in the inclusion now of Gentiles. The cross expresses the heart and character of a God whose covenant was intended for the blessing of all the families of the earth (Genesis 11). So living a  life that brings glory to God, as we discussed last week, what is sometimes called living a cross-shaped life, means we broaden our circle to include those we previously thought were on the outside, remembering that there is wideness in God’s mercy.
   And what does a cross-shaped life look like? 
I’ll invite you to stand as you are able, but if not do this sitting, and extend your arms straight out to your sides. With your body, you are making the shape of the cross. Living a cross-shaped life, like the shape of the cross itself, means maintaining that vertical relationship, the upright of the cross, between God and yourself, while at the same time maintaining the horizontal relationship with other people represented by the outstretched arms. And if you think about it, you must adopt the form or shape of the cross in order to embrace another person - you cannot embrace another without taking the shape of the cross. So I invite you to turn and embrace another right now. Please be seated.  
   For those on the outside, the cross is good news, it is Christ’s embrace of us. Sometimes we become accustomed to being outsiders, standing apart, not taking our place in the circle. Yet the history of God’s salvation continues, weaving together insider and outsider, offering new interpretations of law…
 as when Jesus said,  “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you”. Through the love of Christ and cross-shaped living by Christ followers, outsiders are welcomed in and transformed into insiders. We become “one body through the cross,” or as our song last week said, “we are one in the Spirit.” There are no longer two groups - we are one.
   Jesus comes into our world to make peace, to embrace, to integrate, to unify. This great work was accomplished in his body, on a cross, and continues in his body, the church. At times we forget, and we lapse into our comfortable divisions, looking toward those who look and think like us, while turning away from those who are “strangers and aliens” to us.
   This is never God’s dream for the church or for God’s people in the church. God wants something more. The miracle of being included, when it happens, is a foretaste of something greater, of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We know it when we see it. We rejoice when we experience it. There is a wideness in God’s mercy. In the work of Jesus Christ, fully divine and fully human, there is the creation of one new unified humanity, where all are included. In a divided and conflicted world, this is surely good news! Amen.

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