The Insider Problem
Sermon for Lent 3A March 26, 2017
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
I confess that I am and have often been an insider. Now what does that mean? Well, when I went to grade school in Toledo, Ohio in the late 1940s and through the 1950s all of my classmates were looked just like me. The only person of color who I ever saw on a regular basis was my mother’s cleaning lady. And just before she came every week, do you know what we had to do? We had to clean the house because the cleaning lady was coming.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I had classmates, and friends I’m happy to say, who looked quite different than I did and who came from all over the world. I began my rebellion from my sheltered background by joining a very diverse based fraternity.
In the years that followed I still was an insider. I was inside the Episcopal church and served mostly suburban congregations. The church with the greatest diversity which I served was the new one we started in 1986 and that was in Eagan. But I was still an insider.
I was an insider with the two country clubs I belonged to at time different times in my ministry. I may have preached against the bias that must inherently come from living in a gated community, and then—guess what?—I lived in a gated community when I was the interim pastor at a church in Palm Desert California.
So what’s the problem with being an insider? It’s that there are those “outside” and they are there almost by definition, and usually by the practices and prejudices of those inside. When you and I are inside a special community, whether it’s a church, or a neighborhood, or an organization with a special purpose, you will find a set of practices and a language that continually reinforces certain particular affirmations and beliefs; usually over and against others who do not, and may never ever be qualified, to belong.
But a case can be made, and this case must be made, that this, this church, any church claiming Jesus as Lord and as Savior, ought not to be composed of insiders. It ought not to define itself vis-à-vis those who are not here. The absence of those who aren’t like us ought to disturb us; and we at the same time should be deeply disturbed by practices, policies, politics and prejudices that keep us from seeing others as the children of God.
To be sure, and this comes from Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Methodists—or dare we say Methodist insiders?— l they say that when the world asks us to say something political, we ought to say the word “Church.” For when we are truly ekklesia— And that is the Greek word for church— it means those called from all the different insider places in the world—it means we are called into community that must not let itself be defined by those who aren’t here.
I remember the story regarding a reporter who once interviewed the American poet Carl Sandburg. He asked Sandburg, a master of words, what he thought was the worst word in the English language. Taking a breath and letting the word take it’s time to emerge, Sandburg said, the worst word was exclusive.
We keep seeing the worst forms of exclusion in our world, but we must also recognized the subtle, sugar-coated versions of exclusion that cloud our vision. All of this is addressed in this profound book by Miroslav Volf titled “Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.” The wars of ethnic cleansing are among the most visible aspects of exclusion, but the language of fear regarding groups of people of from various particular nationalities or religious faiths in our world are equally damning.
Exclusion whether overt or subtle is placing ourselves at a distance from the other. Volf says it means removing ourselves from a pattern of interdependence, and assuming sovereign independence. The “other” becomes the enemy. I don’t need to recognize their full humanity. It can result in subjugation, indifference, or abandonment—all of which is to declare some kind of moral superiority, which in the cycle of it all, simply reinforces the insider mentality.
Why have I started this way? It’s because of our Gospel, the lesson from 1st Samuel and our reading from the 23rd Psalm this morning all speak to the issue of exclusion.
Did you notice the direction of blindness in the Gospel story? A man born blind had his eye-sight restored, and knew only, at first, that Jesus healed him. Then it is this once blind man, and he alone, in this story who discovers who Jesus is. The religious authorities want to know how the man received his sight. They don’t believe his story. They called his parents, and his parents disavow any knowledge of the matter. So the religious authorities asked the now-seeing once blind man if the one who healed him was a sinner. The religious authorities call the blindman, himself, a sinner—as if Jesus didn’t know that every one was a sinner. The difference? Jesus doesn’t exclude sinners.
My favorite bible scholar, Dr. Bailey, has said the New Testament names everyone a sinner. Some are repentant sinners, and others are self-righteous sinners. Often those of us well-ensconced inside our safe secure, historical and traditional, religious worlds—we are the self-righteous sinners—usually reluctant to admit the sin part of our identity.
At the end of John’s gospel one man has new deep spiritual insight. He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus. It’s why in that somewhat heretical reader’s theatre play that I wrote I took the liberty of placing Uncle Levi with Paul in Antioch.
The problem the people of Israel had was that God always broke the insider rules regarding who was important, and how an inheritance was to be handled. God favored the offering of Abel, the younger brother His older brother Cain, murdered Able. And then there was Jacob who stole his older brother’s birthright. Jacob in turn has many sons, and they are the ones that turn against Joseph, the youngest most favored son, and sell him into slavery. God needed Joseph for the rest of that story. And today Samuel is to choose a king to replace Saul from the sons of Jesse. He chose the youngest, a mere boy by the name of David.
Those most inside, or seemingly most qualified by age and experience are hardly ever chosen by God to be the links that continue God’s story.
And then there is Psalm 23. I hope you appreciated that we read the King James Version. This is the one passage from our tradition, other than the Lord’s Prayer, that I think we all ought to memorize and carry with us. It is the singular description of God’s continual grace that follows and precedes us. We are guided to be beside still waters, though they often seem turbulent and dangerous. Yes, we walk through valleys of shadows and doubt, but God is there. And then when we feel surrounded by enemies, God feeds us and protects us. And we are always promised a dwelling in the House of the Lord. Psalm 23 is proclaiming that we are inside God’s story, to be sure, but can walk with confidence into stories of darkness and doubt, and even into stories of conflict. The Psalm isn’t about some idealistic world where all is peace and joy, but rather the presence of God in the realities of all of our lives.
Earlier I noted the unusual direction regarding blindness in the story of the healing of the blind man. The dramatic change seems to be physical sight, but the real drama concerns the world he leaves behind. It is a narrow world of constraints keeping in those who belong and keeping out those who are out.
So what happens when there is true spiritual change that challenges the presumptions of those who maintain the boundaries of a particular faith? Mind you, I’m asking a dangerous question. Dare any of us challenge the presumptions of our church? Or of its doctrines and practices? Some think such questions are but the slippery slope of heresy. Of tearing down sacred traditions. But consider this short but provocative poem called “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham.
They drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took them in!
If that doesn’t describe Luther at his best, I don’t know what would. And what I know is that the traditions of any religious community that turns in on itself, communities with rigid walls and boundaries, will be challenged to open its doors, to let in the light, and to see the others, whoever they, as created by God, loved by God, and pursued by God.
You and I are inside the Lutheran Church of the Cross right now. But I deeply suspect that the Spirit of God, is constantly at work to get us out of thinking we have all the answers. That Spirit of God will not let us just quote from Bible, or even a reformer like Luther, unless we are also constantly practicing a generous, loving, and forgiving faith as we follow Jesus. Should we try to draw really sharp lines about who can and can’t come to this table, I dare say, God’s spirit, will present us with a real challenge to anything that represents exclusion.
One last example when one man took a stand against exclusion. It was in April 1865 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, which for four years was the capital of the Confederacy. They were having Holy Communion. Here I will quote from the author Jay Winik and his book April 1865.
“…the minister, Dr. Charles Minnergerode, was about to administer Holy Communion [but then] a tall, well-dressed black man sitting at the western galley (which was reserved for Negroes) unexpectedly advanced to the communion table—unexpectedly because this had never happened here before. … Usually whites received communion first, then blacks—[meaning until then slaves.] [As the black man slowly knelt down at the altar rail] the minister stood [in place], clearly uncomfortable and… dumbfounded. [No one moved, but then a tall distinguished gentleman, older than people remembered walked to that altar rail and knelt down next to that former slave. Others followed.]
That man’s name was General Robert E. Lee. He and that black man were one in Christ. May we all be found one in Christ. Without exception. Amen.
 Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, “Where Resident Aliens Live,” p. 51.
 Paraphrasing Volf, on page 67
 I have paraphrased much of the longer and more eloquent story that Winik told.