Proper 9

July 7, 2002
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Genesis 24:34-38
Reading 2: 
Psalm 45:10-17
Reading 3: 
Romans 7:15-25a
Reading 4: 
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
By Tari Lennon

I suppose one of the features that makes scripture Scripture is that it can be read and experienced in myriad ways. Our lessons for today, for instance, could be read with appreciation for patriarchal tenacity, or respect for the artistry of Israelite poets, or curiosity over Paul’s occasional eruptions of humility, or gratitude for Jesus’ clarity in the midst of such unremitting chaos, or...

With a little imagination, if we take the lessons as a whole, we might even see them coming together to create a script outline for a TV. mini-series on being a foreigner post 9-1-1. First we have the primo-patriarch, Abraham, once again attending to the fact that he is living in a foreign country among people who are not his kinfolk and, therefore, not obliged by blood to maintain the bonds of loyalty. Realizing that it is now time for his and Sarah’s son, Isaac, to marry, and not wishing to risk further erosion of his security through the marriage of his only child to a foreigner, he sends a trusted servant back to his homeland to find a suitable bride.

In a scene that would make Steven Spielberg’s eyes light up, the servant spots the woman from a far. He then projects a series of expectations which, if the woman enacts, will be a divine sign to the servant that he has indeed found the right mate for his master’s son. The woman obliges and acts out the servant’s fantasy. The servant discloses the reason for his visit, makes arrangements with the woman’s father, and takes the woman from her home and country to a strange land, a new family, and a new mate. Once again, from across a field, while they are still far away, the

woman spots the man working in the field, and she knows. Then he sees her and he knows. He takes her to his tent and he makes her his bride. The editorial addendum is interesting, “...and thus Isaac was comforted after the death of his mother...” Hmm...

The issue of “foreignness” is treated with courtly specificity in Psalm 45. The King of Israel is about to marry a Phoenician princess. Implying that the princess is not necessarily thrilled with the prospects of this marriage, the poet encourages her to forget her father and her father’s household. He assures her that in exchange for giving herself completely to the King and her new situation, she will be esteemed for her beauty, adorned in riches, adored by her people, AND, united with the King in the work of producing progeny destined to fulfill the promises of God.

Whatever momentary discomfort may accompany the Princess’s move to a strange land and union with a foreigner will be more than compensated for by participation in developing purposes of God. Yet further, the implication in the poem as a whole is that she and the King will be instrumental in the advent of God’s anointed, and, therefore, in the fulfillment of promises made to Abraham and Sarah so very, very long ago. Not a bad trade-off for enduring the experience of separation from kin, home, land,--being a foreigner!

The experience of foreignness takes a psychological turn in Paul’s letter to Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome. Paul did not found the church at Rome as he had in Galatia, for instance.

Although Jewish-Christians had begun the church at Rome, the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome (circa. 49 C.E.) and during their absence many Gentiles converted to Christianity. Hence, the church at Rome was predominantly Gentile-Christian. After Claudius died, some Jewish Christians returned, adding a Jewish-Christian minority to the church. Nevertheless, Paul would have been a stranger to most of the members of the Roman church.

One of the purposes of the letter, therefore, is for Paul to introduce himself to the church and pave the way for his forthcoming visit there. Paul is, in other words, foreign to most of the people in the church. Since Paul has a particular “take” on the Gospel and since he suspects some may have fashioned an opinion about him out of the hearsay of others, he sets about telling something of his story, how he used to be, how he is now, and how knowing Christ creates a new life and a new way of living. In an effort to overcome any skepticism of himself, he confesses an all too familiar human experience, namely the conflict between intention and behavior. What we intend and what we actually do are inevitably at odds with one another. Paul insists that that conflict is the result of the illusory notion that there are rules of conduct which we can both know and perform.

The problem is that neither rules nor performances account for all of what it means to be a human being. How I look to the outside world has no persuasive power over how I feel inside myself. I can do everything right and be miserable. I can be a total screw-up and be joyful.

The decisive factor is in my inward parts, wherein I know the truth of why I do what I do and understand that belief precedes behavior. To believe in Christ is not only to be united within myself and understand the conflicts within my own person, but also to be united with one another, strangers no longer because in Christ we see that even our frailties and failures are instrumental in the adventure of becoming what God has created us to be. Thanks be to God!

The status of foreigner is elevated to an enviable echelon in Jesus. Here is the quintessential insider, (I mean, how much “insider” could you be than God’s son?) being treated with less hospitality than a stranger and sojourner. In Jesus, however, that treatment is desirable. The world at large is contradictory and chaotic. Not to belong to that world is a good thing. So much of human treatment toward other human beings is “crazy-making,” to the point of demonstrating that people don’t really know what they want or who they are. So, to be a part of the in-group is to be one way one day and another way another day, at the mercy of fads and trends, judgments and opinions. To be clear about who one is, why one is here, and what one is about, as Jesus so clearly did, is to be seen as weird, different, an outsider-foreign to our kin....and isn’t that where we began?

The Rev. Dr. Tari Lennon is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and holds degrees in theology, ministry and psychology. She retired from parish ministry after 43 years and now convenes Open Gatherings which draws people together from all faiths and nonfaiths to explore topics of spirituality, relationships, and personal ethics.