Thursday, August 06, 2015

August 2, 2015 A Stranger In A Strange Land

Good morning.  My name is Dave, and in case you’ve forgotten who I am, I’m your minister.

I am very pleased to be back.  I was blessed with a wonderful time of rest and renewal during my sabbatical, and the words most in my mind – and in my heart – today are gratitude and thanks.

It was a bit strange though, as it was three months of not knowing much of what was happening here.  I didn’t see as many people as I thought I might, probably because I was out of town so much, but occasionally I would bump into people and get a bit of information, such as the great VBS that took place.  Thank you Laine and Jackie and all the others who made that such a great week of ministry!

And thank you certainly to the church staff, who had to shoulder many other responsibilities while I was away, and they did so with much grace and faithfulness.  Thanks also to the elders, who gave so much of their time and talents in providing leadership, both in worship and the in the ministries of the church.  And I am grateful to all those who preached the past three months, one of whom had the pleasure of hearing Tanya say that she would rather hear her any day than have to listen to me!  And thank you – the congregation – for your faithful support of this church and its ministry, and for the gift of a sabbatical.  I can’t express how much it has meant to me.  I was burnt out when I left and sometime in the midst of June I suddenly realized that my brain had come back online and my energy was returning.

Let me add that I hope you don’t have any unrealistic expectations of sermons.  I did not spend the past three months writing this morning’s message; I did, however enjoy sitting on a lot of back rows listening to others preach, and sitting in the congregation was a really good perspective for me.

I’m going to watch my time this morning, because I’ve probably lost my sense of how to keep track of 15 to 20 minutes, and because I attended one church where the speaker said she was well-known for being brief.  I got a little worried when people started laughing, and it was over 50 minutes later when she began to wrap up her message (and it was an excellent message).

I return this morning with thoughts about being A Stranger In A Strange Land.  Our text comes from a portion of Psalm 137, verses 1-7 –

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. "Tear it down," they cried, "tear it down to its foundations!"

The context of the passage comes from a time, centuries before the birth of Christ, when the people of Israel had been carried away into captivity in Babylon.  It was a tremendous jolt for God’s people, being removed to a distant and strange land, where they were ridiculed as captives.  There, in their new home of Babylon, they wondered how it could be that they, the people of God, had come to such a place.

It’s hard to be in a strange environment.  As I traveled during my sabbatical, I found myself in many places that were foreign and strange to me. 

When Tanya and I arrived in Paris, it was an unsettling few moments.  We had been traveling through English speaking countries and now we were in a land where we did not know the language.  We came to Paris by train, and when we stepped off the train it was a very different setting for us.  The train station was very large, very crowded, and it was confusing to us as we tried to find how to make our way to our hotel, which was a good distance away.  We made our way through the crowd and the chaos of the station and stepped onto the sidewalk, where things continued to be confusing and chaotic.  Taxis were lined up along the curb, the drivers were shouting to tourists and travelers in different languages, and we still didn’t know what direction to go or how to get to our destination.

We decided to walk across the street and get some lunch, so we entered a sidewalk café and hoped we could communicate with our server.  We quickly discovered that language would not be the problem we feared, as everyone we encountered in the city spoke English, and all the restaurants had bilingual menus or would make available an English menu.  We spoke with the waiter, who gave us advice about managing the subway, and soon we were feeling more comfortable.  It didn’t take long for us to find our way to our hotel, and soon we were managing to get around the city with ease.

But each time we came to a new destination, I found myself longing for what was familiar.  It’s hard to be in a strange environment, but it’s good for me – and good for us all – because so many people live their lives in places that are foreign and strange to them and we cannot have true empathy and compassion for others until we share similar experiences of feeling like a stranger in a strange land. 

Interestingly, some of the places where I felt like a stranger were churches. I worshipped in some churches that practiced a liturgy and had a worship format that were strange to me, and I found it to be somewhat disconcerting.  I was amazed to find how hard – I don’t know if hard is the right word – it was for me to open some of those church doors.  I grew up going to church and have spent all of my years in churches, so I was a bit surprised to find it was difficult – or at least uncomfortable – to enter a church.  It’s hard to walk into a church for the first time, and sadly, some churches don’t make it any easier.  During my sabbatical I visited many different churches and I discovered this – all churches say they love visitors, but not all churches demonstrate that love.  One week, I decided to attend the early service of a church.  It’s sign and web site advertised an early service, but when I arrived – five minutes before the start time – I was surprised to find an empty sanctuary.  I waited around for a few minutes and no one else came.  After searching for a few minutes I found the program for their second service, and it mentioned nothing about why there was no early service.  I think this is fairly simple – if you advertise a worship service, you should have that worship service.  I left and went to another church, and I still wonder why the other church did not have their early service.

At one church, I felt uncomfortable because I was unfamiliar with their liturgy.  I tried to watch others so I knew when to stand and when to sit, but I still managed to stand when everyone else sat down and I sat down when everyone else stood.  There were churches, certainly, that were very good at welcoming visitors.  I attended a large church in Louisville that was very good at offering a welcome.  A few days after the tragic shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, I attended a prayer vigil at this church.  It is an African-American congregation, and it didn’t occur to me until I walked in the door that there I was, a solitary white guy walking into an African-American church.  Would it create concern with anyone?  I received a wonderful welcome, but I couldn’t help but wonder about what people thought, as a solitary white man had walked into Emanuel church.  I decided to return for a Sunday morning service and it was a wonderful experience.  Of all the churches I visited, this church really had it all together.  When I drove onto their property there were people to give me directions.  When I stepped out of my car there were people ready to greet me.  When I walked up the steps to the front door, there were people to open the door, greet me, and lead me to a seat.  When the time of welcome came, people came over and hugged me.  When the service was over, people came over to hug me again.

Tanya and I visited some places where church attendance is very poor.  In England church attendance has plummeted in the past generation, although there is certainly life in some churches.  France has even lower church attendance.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t faith, and it certainly doesn’t mean that God is not present in those places.  God is very much alive and active in the world, and we’ll talk about this some next week in my message The Worldwide Tribe of God.

But it is disconcerting to think that this place – this church – is a strange land to some people.  What might we do to make it less strange to them?

Some people are strangers to the land of prosperity and blessing.  Too many people feel as though security and prosperity exist in a land inaccessible to them.  They peer into such a land, looking on from a distance, but they believe it is a land in which they will never dwell, even though they are physically close to such blessings.  It is possible to be in such close proximity to blessing and prosperity and yet be so far away, and the danger for those of us who live in such blessing is not so much to ignore those individuals, but to fail to even be aware of their existence.

I’ll tell you one of the realizations I had during my sabbatical, and it disturbed me – how easy I could disappear into myself and into my own life.  I traveled with Tanya on several of her work trips.  On one of them, I went to a nice shopping mall.  It was a very hot day and I was happy to find a nice, comfortable, and cool place to sit.  I had a cold milk shake that cost 8 or 10 dollars and I sat down in an overstuffed chair and thought to myself, this is the life.  I’m in a nice, comfortable chair, sitting with my feet up.  I’m in a nice cool place on a hot day.  I’ve got my tasty, expensive drink.  This is the life!  How easy it would be to disappear into myself.  That is not the point of life! While we need moments of rest and reflection that is not a state in which we should live all of our lives.  To do so is to fall into a stupor and be anesthetized to the needs of the world around us.

And then there are those who are literal strangers. 

There are many strangers in our land.  Some of them are legal residents and some of them are not.  Our country has been engaged in a very contentious conversation about immigration for a while now, and my purpose this morning is not to wade into the politics of that argument, but rather the theology of the discussion.  The Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, is very clear about welcoming the strangers who are among us.  One of the most famous stories of the Old Testament is that of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Most people interpret that story in a particular way, and see the sin of those cities in only one way.  The Bible, however, tells us something different.  The prophet Ezekiel says of Sodom, now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:49). 

I am the grandson of illegal immigrants.  My paternal grandfather came to this country from Wales, where his family had mined for coal for generations.  They sailed from Liverpool, England as steerage passengers, and if you’ve seen the movie Titanic you’ll know that steerage passengers are the ones literally in the bottom of the boat.  They came with a bit of money in their pockets and carrying a few possessions.  They made a life here, but I don’t know what kind of welcome or help they found upon their arrival, but I’m grateful they made it to here.

As Tanya and I traveled through Europe, we were strangers in other lands.  One evening, in Rome, we sat down to dinner at a sidewalk café up the street from our hotel.  Seated next to us were three ladies from the States.  They lived outside of Chicago and they were retired schoolteachers.  One of them was originally from Maysville.  She told us about some of the students she taught over the years, and we knew the names of a couple of them.  She had been in Shelbyville a number of times over the years and knew people we knew.  It was very nice, so far from home, to meet and talk with someone who knew home.

In the coming months we will talk about home – coming home to church and coming home to faith, in addition to other topics related to home.  As for me, I am very grateful to be home.

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