We are Family (Message for August 28th, 2016)

Scripture:  Ephesians 2:11-22           

 I think the year was 1990 and I was a nine year old at Milan United Methodist Church.  On a Saturday night the church had a film festival.   They showed a couple of shorts before showing a movie that I think was about a church choir trying to catch a thief.   I honestly do not remember much of anything about that movie.   What I do remember very well though was one of the shorts.  It was an animated version of a Dr. Seuss work entitled “The Butter Battle Book.”   This is one of his lesser known works.  It was released in 1984.   In the Butter Battle Book there are two peoples the Yooks and the Zooks.  The Yooks and the Zooks have a lot of similarities but one very striking difference.  The Yooks eat bread with the butter side up but the Zooks eat bread with the butter side down.   This disagreement brings the two people to blows, and it creates an arms race as the Yooks and the Zooks keep trying to build bigger (and since this is a Seuss book, more ridiculous looking) weapons.   This escalates until both sides develop a doomsday device, a little tablet that could destroy everything.  The book ends with uncertainty as a Yook and a Zook stand across from each other in a stare down to see who blinks first.   As a third grader this short cartoon made a big impact on me.  Over the next few years of the early and mid 90’s, I would begin to gain a better understanding of the broader world.   This was the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism.   This was the time of the brutal genocide in Rwanda, racially motivated fighting in the Balkans, conflict in Ireland with the IRA, and there was violence in the Israeli-Palestine conflict.    As I learned about these events I kept coming back to the final image of the Butter Battle Book and wondering if all that separates us are insignificant trivial details.    The fact that this children’s books caused people to ask these questions during the height of the cold war when it was first published caused the book to get banned in some libraries.   I realize now that in some ways the Butter Battle Book conflict over bread oversimplifies the realities of Geo-Political situation.   However, as all great literature does this work of Dr. Seuss does require us to consider some hard and potentially uncomfortable truths.   As a whole, humanity is unfortunately good at finding reasons to create division amongst ourselves.   We have an innate tribal nature that often gets in the way of loving our neighbor as ourselves.    Overcoming this nature is exactly what Paul was writing about in this morning’s scripture.  

            One of the things that we cannot really appreciate about early Christianity as recorded in the Bible is how tense it must have been.   Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles and he founded churches in very Greek and Roman cities like Corinth, Phillipi, and Ephesus.  This first generation of Christians had a serious cultural clash issue.   Christianity, still does, have its roots in the Jewish faith.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the same God that gave Moses the law, and it is the same God that Jesus called his Heavenly Father.    For a variety of reasons this was a bit of a culture shock for the Greco-Romans Paul evangelized to.   One of the big causes of this shock was the Jewish/Gentile dynamic.   The first century Jewish people found a lot of national identity and pride in being God’s people.   The sign of circumcision set them apart, and they had an attitude of mild contempt of all non-Jews, calling them gentiles.    Of course, in the same way the attitudes of non-Jews to Jews in the Roman Empire was not very positive either.  The Greco-Romans saw the Jews as backwards, stubborn, and culturally inferior.    The early church had to bridge this cultural divide, and that is the main idea that Paul is getting at in this morning’s scripture.   Paul first acknowledges the Jewish position, that the Gentiles were not God’s people.   Paul states this in verse 12 to these new gentile believers that they were at one time “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope.”  

            Paul went on several missionary trips, founded several churches, and he was tireless in his preaching and sharing of the gospel.   Paul believed himself to be God’s apostle to the gentiles.   Even though he was Jewish from a very proud Pharisaic line,   Paul saw it as his sacred calling to reach out to people outside of the Jewish family.    The primary message of Paul’s ministry is perhaps summed up in this morning’s scripture.    In verse 14-15 Paul wrote about Jesus stating “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one, and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.   His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace. “   The central idea of Paul’s message is that Jesus died for all and offers new life to all.   It is through that new life, through the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, that we become God’s people.   The physical and cultural divisions that used to divide God’s people from the gentiles no longer exist.  In essence, to God those differences were as inconsequential as if butter was face down or face up when eating bread.  When it comes to who is in and who is out of God’s family one’s nation, tribe, language, and culture is not what qualifies a person.   It is through Jesus someone becomes one of God’s children and   through Jesus the invitation is open to all.   When we accept Christ we become part of a people group that has one thing that unites us above all that can possibly divide us.   As Paul writes in verse 19 and 20, “you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets with Christ himself as the chief cornerstone. “  

            We are members of one household with everyone else who calls on the name of Christ to be saved.   This means that we should be above the tribalism, the infighting, the us-vs-them mentality that plagues humanity.   Sadly we are not.   The story goes a man was walking across a bridge.  He saw another man standing on the edge, ready to jump.  He ran over and said, "Stop! Don't do it!""Why shouldn't I?" asked the jumper.

"Well, there's so much to live for!"   "Like what?"

"Are you religious?"   "Yes."

The man said to the jumper, "Me too. Are you Christian or Muslim?"  "Christian."

"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"  "Protestant."

"Me too. Are you Methodist or Baptist?" "Baptist."

"Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"  "Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?" "Reformed Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"  He said: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."

So the man walking shook his head in disgust and said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.

            This little joke is silly but it also sheds light on a fairly sad state of affairs.   We are supposed to be united as a new humanity but instead we have divided ourselves into ever smaller tribes, all claiming that our understanding is the most correct one- or in some truly terrible instances, the only correct one.    For me this is a joke that I have to laugh at because the only other option is to cry.    For some branches of the Christian tree, they truly see other branches as irredeemable.  Sadly even though all who call on Jesus as Lord and Savior belong together as one people, we far too often fail to recognize that.   While none of us have the power or influence to fix this on a broad level we can do it right on our local level.  

            We have a bunch of good church words.  These are words with deep, symbolic meaning.  Words like grace, mercy, hope, righteousness, and salvation.    I think we should add a new one, one that defines who we are as a congregation of God’s people.   To our list of good church words we should add Ohana.   I will let stitch tell you what it means: 

            Ohana means family.   It means no one gets left behind or forgotten.   What a beautiful definition, and what a perfect description of what we are supposed to be.   Paul wrote in this morning’s scripture that we are members of God’s household.   If we are members of the same household that means we are family.   We are Ohana.   It means the way that we treat one another, the way that we talk to one another, the way that we love one another is to be done in a way so that one gets left behind or forgotten.   Look around this room, these people, this is your family.   These are your brothers and sisters in Christ.  When it comes to how you eat bread, butter side down or up there might be differences.   When it comes to you are voting for in November there might be some sharp disagreements.    When it comes to how you understand and interpret some parts of the bible, things might not line up.    That is all OK, because Ohana means family.    It means we care for another in spite of our differences.  It means we claim that “now in Christ Jesus we who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”    We support each other through the best and worst has to offer.  We make sure that no one gets left behind and we make sure no feels like they are being forgotten.   We do this because it is who we are supposed to be as God’s people, we do this because Ohana is a word that should be synonymous with church.  

            A congregation should be a family, but it is a very special kind of family.   Often families are dividing lines between who is in and who is out.   Family can be treated as an exclusive club that has benefits and perks only for the members.   Some families have impossibly high standards of entry and seems like anyone who would marry into that family is not truly good enough to earn the title of “family”.  Unfortunately too many churches are also like this.   A recent pew research study determined the number factor that all churches that are dying have in common is that they are inwardly focused.    All of the effort and energy of the church goes to making sure the people who are already there are as comfortable as possible.  A church that is inwardly focused is all about keeping it in the family, and expect anyone who comes in to quickly conform to their standards or leave.   That is not the kind of family that the church should be, we need to draw the circle wider.   The church should be like Olive Garden:  “When you’re here you’re family.”   We have to remember that this congregation, this church family, is not something we own.   It is God’s family.  We are part of the household of God, and through the blood, sacrifice, and resurrection of Christ the invitation to join this family has been offered to the whole world.   It is not up to use to pick and choose who gets to be in.     The church should not be an inwardly focused family.   Ohana is the kind of family we should be, a family where no one is left behind and no one is forgotten.    Because a family like that is a family where the lost get found.    

            We are family.   May we model that, may the way we love and care for one another show what it means that no one gets left behind, no one is forgotten.   May we truly live as members of the household of God.    But may we make sure the door is open and the welcome mat into that household is always out.   As this morning’s scripture reminds us, we once were separated from God but it is through Christ we have become part of God’s people.   We have received and accepted the invitation of God’s love and forgiveness.  May we take that same invitation and extend to everyone else we possibly can.   May we be able to say to anyone, no matter who they are, no matter what they done, no matter how different they are you are welcome here.    Welcome home.   Welcome to the family.