sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 08/11/2013
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Human beings experience profound inner tensions when it comes to outsiders. People who are in some way “other.” People who are different in some way that feels significant to us. Age, gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, culture, nationality, various loyalties (brands, teams, political ideas), or sometimes just because they’ve rubbed us the wrong way.
Here’s a famous interview with one the world’s foremost thinkers on the subject of outsiders…
Why do we experience tensions around this topic? Maybe because we’ve all been outsiders in some setting, or to some people. We hate it, don’t we? It’s distinctly unpleasant. And yet, at the same time, we make others into outsiders all the time. Sometimes consciously, sometimes without even thinking about it.
On the one hand, outsiders can be beneficial to us. Relationship with outsiders may enlarge us, strengthen us, improve us. They interest us. Their strengths or the best parts of their culture may be attractive to us. Their perspectives can help us solve problems we haven’t yet solved on our own. If we get close enough to them without fear clouding our vision, we see their value as fellow human beings. Their beauty inspires us. Their pain produces compassion in us.
On the other hand, outsiders can be experienced as threats. Relationship with outsiders has the potential to be destructive and painful. They can challenge our sense of control, place demands on our resources, bring ideas or practices that threaten our established identity or way of doing things. Outsiders can make us uncomfortable. They might be a bad influence, not good.
This tension is at the heart of the parent’s dilemma when her child goes off to school and makes friends. Will her child’s friends add to, or subtract from, the quality of her child’s life?
This tension is at the heart of the immigration debates in our country in recent years.
This tension surrounds hiring decisions. Social calendar decisions.
Every group capable of generating “insiders” feels this tension about “outsiders.” Families. Circles of friends. Athletic Teams. Neighborhoods. Companies. Churches.
Truth is, this tension matters to all of us, every human being, because it’s the tension at the center of love.
You get married because there is this profound pull towards an outsider, and you make each other into insiders. It’s wonderful…! It’s terrible…! The first days and weeks and months are a working out of this tension.
You have a baby or you adopt a child. There is this profound pull towards someone who was such an outsider that they didn’t even exist in the universe until very recently. And now they are insiders. It’s wonderful…! It’s terrible…! The first days and weeks and months are a working out of this tension.
What wisdom does the Bible have to share with us about this tension in our relationships with outsiders? I want to talk about this primarily from the perspective of a faith community, a local representation of the family of God.
Students and youth leaders spent the last week trying to find ways to share God’s love with outsiders. Yesterday there was a blowout blessing party for outsiders at compassion ministry. In two weeks we’ll be massaging the feet of outsiders at the relay for life. In a couple of months, we’ll be pouring blood, sweat and tears into the Fantastic Fall Free-For-All for outsiders. What will we do as some of those outsiders experience God’s love and say, “Let me in!” Do we say, “Well, you’re welcome in if you are willing to act like an insider in a certain set of key ways.” Or do we let them in like we welcome a spouse or a baby, giving as much time as required for the working out of the tensions that come with the kind of love that transforms all of us into insiders with God and each other?
As we look for God’s wisdom in the Bible on this subject, my hope is that you’ll find help in working through this tension in every arena of your life - personal, social, work, spiritual. But we’ll focus our main attention on the question from a faith community perspective, because that’s the lens the Bible looks at it from primarily. I’m indebted to some insightful work by Brad Zinn, a Vineyard pastor in Philadelphia, who got me thinking about this over dinner in Anaheim a few weeks ago, and who then shared a summary of some research he’s done on the topic at the Blue Ocean Conference in Boston last week. I think we’ll take three weeks on this, to finish up August.
Week 1: The Old Testament // A Tension
Week 2: Jesus // A Radical Inclusion
Week 3: The Church // A New Purity
(thinking about a series on the first couple chapters of Genesis in the fall, as well as something on Daring Greatly – the courage to be vulnerable in the face of shame, and possibly a series called “Beautiful Things” inspired by that song we sing in worship, looking at how God makes beautiful things out of our messes, to celebrate our 10th anniversary later this fall. Have some planning to do to pull it all off, so I’m happy for your feedback as I prep for the fall.)
Today we’re going to look at the first part of the Bible, what’s often referred to as the Old Testament or the Old Covenant. It’s the collection of writings that traces the story of a group of people descended from Abraham and his wife, Sarah. God promises to bless Abraham and his descendants, and in turn, to bless all of humanity through them. This is the Covenant part of the “Old Covenant.” And what we see in this part of the Bible is how this tribe of people – eventually called Israel, and sometimes referred to as the Hebrews, and sometimes as the Jews.
The Old Testament displays tension when it comes to how Israel, the people of God, relate to outsiders.
On the one hand, foreigners are perceived as a bad influence, especially because of their relationship to various idols and false gods.
Deuteronomy 7:1-4: "When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you...you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly."
Tipping point: Phineas story in Numbers 25. Not a story you’re likely to have learned in Sunday school… Leads to something like a genocide of Midianites.
6 Then an Israelite man brought into the camp a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spearin his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman's stomach. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000. 10 The LORD said to Moses,11 "Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. 12 Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites."
Climax: Ezra (10) & Nehemiah (13)
22 Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love. 23 Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 24 Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah.
25 I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of them and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God's name and said: "You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. 26 Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. 27 Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?" 28 One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me. 29 Remember them, my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites. 30So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task. 31 I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the firstfruits. Remember me with favor, my God.
On the other hand, the Old Testament also shows blessing and protection towards outsiders. As if maybe they’re not so bad. And don’t forget, they is we, mostly.
At almost every point there is a pushing away of the outsider, there is a counterpoint embrace in the Old Testament.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.
“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
In Numbers 12, we see Aaron and Miriam criticizing Moses for marrying a foreign woman. The Lord hears it and gets a little torqued about it. So he punishes Miriam with leprosy. (Another one that doesn’t make it into a lot of picture bibles…) Moses pleads for her healing in the end, and she gets healed, but still – it’s quite a different tune from the Phineas story, isn’t it?
The Old Testament has the book of Ruth in it. Ruth is story about a Moabite woman, married to Boaz, an Israelite man, who becomes the mother of Obed, who is the Father of Jesse, who is the Father of King David (and eventually in Jesus’ line). And Ruth was written around the same time and Ezra and Nehemiah, the books that have the stories of Israel purging the foreign women and children. What gives?
And then, Isaiah gives a glimpse of the future:
1 This is what the LORD says: "Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed. 2 Blessed are those who do this-- who hold it fast, those who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keep their hands from doing any evil." 3 Let no foreigners who have bound themselves to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely exclude me from his people." And let no eunuch complain, "I am only a dry tree."
4 For this is what the LORD says: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant-- 5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. 6And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant--
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations." 8 The Sovereign LORD declares-- he who gathers the exiles of Israel: "I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered."
It’s like a “hang in there” statement in the Old Testament. As if God is aware of the tension, and says if we’re patient, we’ll see how he resolves it all.
So what can we learn from this tension?
The tension is between two things: purity & justice. On the purity side, God wants those who follow him be part of a community that carries his blessing in such a way that the community bears witness to his holiness and glory (a religious way of saying, so that the whole world could see that he is uniquely good and uniquely great). This is no small concern – it matters because God desires life for his creation, and life flows from him to his creation as his creation trustingly receives life from him. If his image-bearers don’t see his unique goodness and greatness, they won’t trust him to come to him for life, and they will instead look to other sources that fail to give them life. If the community that bears his name loses its distinctiveness because of the corruptive influences of those not shaped by his presence and obedience to his commands, becoming like every other community, then God’s hope for restoring life to his dying creation is in jeopardy. To move Israel towards purity, he forbid them from making commitments to outsiders who might use those promises to move Israel away from trusting dependence on him.
On the other side is justice. Justice is things being how they should be. Right. Lined up with God’s goodness. Interestingly, the justice provisions assume a lack of strict purity. They assume Israel will have outsiders within her borders. Because of tribal loyalties, a foreigner was likely to be ignored, treated badly, kicked to the curb with hardly second thought. Compound that with the fact that outsiders were often outsiders through no fault of their own; displaced by war, born to those displaced by war, etc. and often poor because they had little status or opportunity in ancient societies where opportunity was family dependent. To move Israel towards justice, God commanded them to view foreigners as if they were native-born, connecting it emotionally to Israel’s experiences as foreigners in Egypt. He made merciful insertions into the law to provide for food for them.
The tension arises when those two impulses, purity and justice, pull in different directions. We feel it when we read about how the Israelites treated the Midianites, don’t we? We applaud Israel’s desire to return to God and reject the idols they’d come to worship, but we are repulsed by the violence against these foreign women and children.
So takeaway one, for us, then, is this: Purity matters. Our approach to the outsider should be mindful of our calling to be set apart for God’s purposes. The life God is forming among us is a holy treasure, ours by a gift of grace, easily lost through inattention or distraction.
Takeaway 2? Justice matters too. Our approach to the outsider should be mindful of the reality that God loves the outsider, and values him or her as much as he values the insider. And that he calls us insiders to make sacrifices for the sake of the outsider, as an expression of his love for them, to bear witness to it – a love that we get to enjoy 24/7, but that the outsider may only experience through our actions towards them.
Getting married, joining your life to another person? Having a baby? The life God has formed in you is a holy treasure, a gift of grace, easily lost through inattention or distraction. As you welcome the outsider in, allow them to be who God has made them to be, make sacrifices to demonstrate the value that they have to God and to you, but do not let go of the treasure of who God has made you to be and the mission he has given you. [common errors, especially with kids…]
What do we do when those two impulses seem to be at odds with each other? Well, we’ll explore that one next week as we consider Jesus and his approach of radical inclusion.
Before closing, let me offer a third takeaway. Messiness goes with the territory when it comes to God revealing himself to us. It’s rarely as clean and clear cut as we’d like it to be or imagine it should be. And that’s because he meets us as we are (which always involves some degree of brokenness), and moves us towards his good destination at a pace that we can handle.
Messiness always accompanies mystery. God (and God’s will, his good pleasing and perfect will), because he is fundamentally personal, is mystery, not puzzle. And mysteries are receiver dependent, not sender dependent. (Probably worth a fuller discussion another time, but for now: with puzzles, we are missing key information; understanding depends on information, which is a function of that which is hidden. With mysteries, the data is already there; understanding depends on processing that data, which is a function of us. God is mystery – he is constantly revealing himself; it’s we who have the work of understanding to do, aided by his Holy Spirit.) If we are to receive God’s revelation to us of who he is and what his will is for us, it’s going to be messy along the way, because we – the receivers – are a bit of a mess, aren’t we? God seems to be cool with the messiness. Will we allow ourselves to be?
1. Ask for help if your answer is Yes… Have you stopped depending on God or let go of his mission for you and started depending on something other than him or begun to pursue lesser goals because you got wrapped up in an outsider you welcomed (consciously or unconsciously) in his place?
2. Make a list of people (either specific individuals, or a category of people) you would have difficulty imagining eating a meal with and feeling comfortable with hosting in your home. Then, imagine Jesus eating a meal with them, and inviting you to join him. Take note of what feelings you have, and process that with God in prayer.