Sunday, June 16, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "We Were Slaves"

Deuteronomy 24:17-22

17 Don’t obstruct the legal rights of an immigrant or orphan. Don’t take a widow’s coat as pledge for a loan. 18 Remember how you were a slave in Egypt but how the Lord your God saved you from that. That’s why I’m commanding you to do this thing. 19 Whenever you are reaping the harvest of your field and you leave some grain in the field, don’t go back and get it. Let it go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so that the Lord your God blesses you in all that you do. 20 Similarly, when you beat the olives off your olive trees, don’t go back over them twice. Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. 21 Again, when you pick the grapes of your vineyard, don’t pick them over twice. Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. 22 Remember how you were a slave in Egypt. That’s why I am commanding you to do this thing. (CEB)

“Behold a New Thing: The Tribal Church,” Week Three

The face of the 99-year-old woman ran like a map, with gentle wrinkles and creases diving and folding to create something that I imagined the flow of a river must look like if put to a human face.  And while you or I might not know her from Adam, that face tells a story.

This woman was the last of her kind—an ethnic Armenian living in the town of Chunkush in southeastern Turkey, where over 10,000 Armenians once lived before the purges of the Armenian Holocaust during the First World War, nearly 100 years ago.  She is also what writer Chris Bohjalian calls a “hidden Armenian.”  As he writes:

She…had grown up and grown old aware of who and what she (is)—Armenian—but forced to conform and remain silent.  That was the price of survival in the days after the genocide, and it’s a custom that, in small villages such as Chunkush, endures today…whenever we asked Asiya about being Armenian, she would shake her head ruefully and grow silent.  One time, her daughter chimed in: “No.  We can’t talk about that.”

No.  We can’t talk about that.

It is a refrain that I rarely hear, in all honesty, and only in very specific circumstances, like if I’m counseling someone through a past spiritual trauma, or if someone asks me about the rapture.

But I also hear it from Christians.  A lot.  About any number of things, but especially about the things that tend to divide us, like marriage equality, or the theological worth of eggplants.  And so we remain silent for fear of having our welcome revoked.  And how I wish that weren’t so.

We tell ourselves churches must look a certain way and beat ourselves up when they don’t.  But the church is what I imagine a child must be like—as Tina Fey puts it in her memoir Bossypants, yes, you can teach a child manners and dress her up in embarrassing little sailor outfits, but at some point, that child is going to be whatever she is going to be (and, ironically or no, that very line reflects the wonder and splendor of the divine name itself from Exodus 3: I Am Who I Am).

And that’s kind of what it is like for us, you know?  Lots of people would say they know what we should look like—they want to tell us which little sailor outfits to dress up in—but at some point, this church is going to be whatever this church is.  And after being here as your pastor for nearly two years, I have found the closest thing possible to describing what this church is, and what we can become: a so-called tribal church, ministering to a missing generation of believers.

This term comes from a 2007 book of the same name by Carol Howard Merritt, a Generation X evangelically-raised Presbyterian pastor and author.  And we will be basing this new six-week sermon series on this book, as we look at what exactly a tribal church is, and what it can truly do.  We kicked off the series by examining one of the initial tenets of the book: “fostering intergenerational relationships,” followed by “encouraging economic understanding.”  This week, we see the theme of “cultivating unambiguous inclusion.”  Carol writes in this chapter:

The law of Jesus was a relationship; it did not factor in the object of the action, it only mattered how the subject responded...in contrast, our mainline denominational churches endlessly debate who’s on and who’s off our lists… (but) the majority of young adults in our country…see their duty as spiritual people as being to treat others as they would like to be treated, and that means that they don’t tolerate intolerance.

Throughout the exchanges over the doctrine of salvation and acceptable views of sexuality, as our denominations stand with their clipboards (like bouncers –E.A.), negotiating who is good enough to be on our list, they frequently leave those under forty on the wrong side of the ropes.

When I hear arguments in the church, I am told that the church needs to stand up against the evil of a diverse culture, and not allow the world to taint the pure message of the Gospel.  Yet, as a part of an age group which welcomes diversity, it feels like the church is fighting against the very richness and difference of my generation, my friends, and me—a richness and difference that it perceives as somehow tainted and sinful.

A richness perceived as somehow tainted.

It is why a lot of younger Christians have had to “come out of the closet,” as it were, about views they have that may not tow the line that their church or denomination preaches: that they are accepting of gays and lesbians, or that they don’t believe that members of other churches or denominations are necessarily bound for hell.  It is a difficult thing to swim upstream like that, when you are already seen as na├»ve because of your age, or a heretic because of your conscience.

And so people—young people and new people especially—in the church may remain in silence, fearful of upsetting the delicate status quo.

Not unlike the foreigner whom Deuteronomy 24 tries to protect.

Among the 613 laws the Torah hands down, I have to admit that this is one of my favorites.  I know I am not supposed to play favorites with the Word of God—that the entirety of Scripture is God-breathed, inspired, and useful for teaching.  But we all have our favorite verses and passages, and this is one of mine.

Because for most of my childhood, I was one of those “hidden Armenians.”  My great-grandparents fled Armenia in 1915, at great personal risk and expense, for Russia.  Except a few years later, the Bolsheviks came a-knocking, and Russia wasn’t such a great place to be either.  And so my family fled illegally to the United States, where we have lived and died ever since.  We still have the fake passports my great-grandparents used.

And I tell that story because it is not unlike some of the stories I hear from all of you—making quiet exoduses from your previous church homes, whether because you had to relocate for a job, or because you felt or were told you were no longer welcome at the church you once were at.  And on a personal level as your pastor, I am so sorry for the pain that this causes you.

Part of coping with the pain means remembering where it came from.  It is why God is quick to remind the Israelites of why, exactly, they must provide for and care for the foreigner (in addition to the orphans and widows, who were similarly vulnerable populations in Biblical times): because they themselves were foreigners not so long ago, when they were slaves in Egypt.

When they were slaves.  It is a shameful memory that, being far removed from it ourselves, we would probably just as soon assume someone would want to forget.  So shameful, though, that it actually convinces me of the truth in this statement behind the law.  After all, if the Exodus hadn’t happened like that, who on earth would make up an origin story of their people being enslaved and let free through no great insurrection or rebellion of their own?

To admit, “we were slaves” is something that is—and should be—profoundly humbling.  And it is something we can and must admit to ourselves when we come to church.

Because for many of us, this is a church that we have grown to love.  We have worshiped here for weeks, months, years, sometimes decades.  And somewhere within that fabric of time, we are apt to forget what it was like to worship here for the first time, unsure of everything that was going on, not knowing what to expect, hesitant about sitting anywhere lest it be “someone else’s pew.”  Even for the most seasoned Christian, a church was once a foreign land for them as well.

And so we are charged to remember that once upon a time, we, too, were the foreigners in this church that welcomed us in.  We, too, were the strangers.  We too, came from the humble places.

Part of being in church might mean feeling like you are privileged—after all, we have this beautiful sanctuary in which to worship, we have these wonderful friends and family with whom to worship, and most of all, we have this God who came to earth and gave everything for us.

With that sort of array of gifts, we are liable to feel privileged, for the church is indeed a blessing.  But it is a paradoxical privilege—it is privilege that must humble us as well, for we cannot forget our pasts.  We cannot forget that there was a time in our lives—however long ago it may be, even if it was as a little child—when we did not know how to be a part of the church.

Within the scope and scale of our privileged habitat of the church, we have trained our ears to hear the name of Jesus proclaimed, to listen to his teachings interpreted, and to know His Word.

But it was not always thus.  Just as it was for the Israelites that they did not always have a home of their own.  In this way, we are very much alike.  We did not always have a church home of our own, whether because we were too young to remember it, or we did not have one that accepted us for who we are, or for any other reason.  Yet, part of having a home now means not only opening it up to anyone who might perchance stumble across it, but by proactively loving as ourselves that anyone who does find themselves drawn into the worship and fellowship and discipleship that takes place within these walls.  Because in the end, these walls have doors, not gates.  Let us keep those doors open.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 16, 2013

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