Better together

Nehemiah 3: various verses, Acts 2: 42-47

At several church events, participants have been asked to share our early memories of awareness of cultural differences. It’s interesting to hear the stories of when, usually as children, we became aware of people speaking differently, celebrating differently, or having different world understandings. Some of us seem to have always understood difference – perhaps from having our own particular culture or from being immersed in several different cultures. When I was young, my Jacoby cousins lived in Beirut, Lebanon and my Thomas cousins lived in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. The most interesting Christmas presents came from our family living in other cultures. Their lives seemed almost magical, definitely providing a rich interruption of the ordinary with fascinating cultural differences.

Encountering Others

Jesus is a wonderful model for how to welcome people who are different from us in some significant way. Jesus didn’t just welcome and teach the people who looked like him, acted like him, or thought like him. He had relationships with Roman centurions, a Syro-Phoenician woman, lepers, Samaritan lepers, angry Judeans, slaves and rulers, children and members of the Sanhedren. Every person that he encountered was treated as important, special, and worthy of his attention.[i]

Acts. Jesus’ example became the model for the early church. The description of the church in Acts, chapter 2 is an extension of Jesus’ example in welcoming and valuing every person. They took this very seriously: sharing their money and goods to ensure that everyone had what they needed! The needs of each person in the fellowship were as important as their own -- so they evened out the resources. The thought was, “I can’t be comfortable in my bed if my sibling doesn’t have one and I have one to spare.” The point of this is that every person was so highly valued that the need of anyone had a claim on everyone. They were able to do this because their focus was on God – all week. Not just for a few hours on Sundays – all week long they read scripture and had daily teaching/ preaching. It went WAY beyond daily devotions. What God wanted was as important to them as daily food.

Perhaps they knew that they needed each other. Will Willimon said that “the real miracle of Pentecost” is “that from so diverse an assemblage of people ‘from every nation under heaven’ a unified body of believers is formed.”[ii] Perhaps the claims of those in need, like the Hellenistic Jewish widows who were not receiving equal treatment in Acts 6, remind us that we are far from perfect. We need each other – perhaps as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, to save us from “the temptation of believing in our own self-sufficiency.”[iii] And we seem to especially need people with different points of view, so they can challenge us where we fall prey to our own set of assumptions about the world.

Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt Divinity School in the 1980s was a place trying to become more just. And so a team was formed to explore areas of institutional racism and how traditional practices might need to change to be more just. In order to do this, faculty and students needed to listen to each other, across cultural and racial difference. As a part of this goal, the practice began for loving correction in the midst of conversation. Everyone involved signed on for this. There was a moment in which a student of color challenged an assumption of the older white Dean, and everyone held their breath waiting for the Dean’s response. He looked like he was going to argue for a moment, and then he took a deep breath. His eyes filled. He ducked his head for a moment while we waited in silence. When he raised his head, he looked at the student who had challenged him and said, “Thank you. I appreciate you, and the correction you offer. Now, if you will be so kind, tell me what I need to do to change this.” It was a God moment. Who better to “pop the locks on our prisons than people in whom we see nothing of ourselves.”[iv]

This isn’t easy. (Slow down) It takes practice to really begin to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It takes a lot of spiritual awareness to see the stranger who may challenge us as God’s gift to us. We don’t always feel thankful. But here’s a hint from scripture: if we see each person as one that God particularly loves, we may be looking at them for the right things.

This is important. Bosnian-born theologian Miroslav Volf says in his book Exclusion & Embrace, “It may not be too much to claim that the future of our world will depend on how we deal with identity and difference.” And we, the church, can model hospitality and the honoring of difference. We have the example in Jesus.[v]

Rich or poor, powerful or powerless, like us in some way or completely different – God loves each one of us and we can be a community of compassionate correction for each other. Following Jesus’ example, we can find gifts from strangers.

II. Difference is blessing.

The scriptures tell us story after story about strangers sharing wisdom or showing us something of the divine. To name a few: Strangers at night speaking to Abraham and Sarah about God’s promise for them, the Emperor of Persia who sends Nehemiah to Jerusalem, and Ruth the Moabite who saves Naomi and whose line provides Israel’s greatest king….Scripture has story after story of strangers who reveal something of the nature of God to us.

Hospitality in the Greek is literally love of stranger, philoxenia. Loving strangers leads to blessing. Actually, the command to “love the stranger” appears in 36 places in the scriptures. It’s THAT important![vi]

World Communion. The breaking of Bread was one of the practices of the early church. Their table fellowship was a visible sign of God’s work among them, and the social boundaries disappeared. In the Jewish tradition, followed in the early church, once the blessing is said, the table becomes a holy place and eating together is a sacred activity. It is even a foretaste of the kingdom.[vii] Today we celebrate the global Christian community as we share around tables, in circles on the ground, or standing in worship. In many different places, in many different languages, with many different traditions – we break bread. Our bread here this morning reflects some of the variety of the breads with which communion is celebrated around the world: Naan, rice cakes, tortillas, corn bread, rye, whole grain bread – to name a few. They are reminders of the rich variety of expressions of Christian faith that we join this morning. The breads represent a feast of peoples.

But it’s more than just today – and more than just the breads. We are enriched by diversity in life and in faith. AFRICAN PROVERB: There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That captures something of the truth of our experience: we are indeed better together. If we want to build something that will last, we need a team. As one of our communion invitations says, “The more difference we bring, the more fully we experience the presence of the sacred in our midst.”

On the Lewis and Clark expedition, no one knew what lay ahead. How did they prepare for the unknown adventure ahead? They brought a team – a diverse team with different skills represented. To fulfill the mission, it took a team.

St. Paul’s analogy of the Body matches this thought – we can’t all be hands or feet, ears or eyes. And no part should say to another, “We have no need of you.” We do need to get over ourselves – and thinking we are the gold standard for how to be. The world needs both the thinkers and the doers, cooks and shower monitors, people to handle the money and teachers for the children, ushers, acolytes, greeters, liturgists, fellowship hour providers and servers. All are needed. And our church body is stronger and can go farther when we are all involved, offering the gifts that we have to share. In order for us to build something strong and lasting, we need a team.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that “‘The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image’ – for only then can we see past our own reflections in the mirror to the God we did not make up.” “The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God's image in someone who is not in my image, who language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.” When we can see God’s image in our neighbor who is different from us, we will be closer to seeing God.[viii]

Strangers show up offering gifts. Difference in perspectives offers us more than agreeing can. We’re missing things if we all know and can do the same things. In order to be the Body of Christ, in order to build the church, we need a diverse team.

Jesus shows us: host suppers with surprising guest lists. The Scriptures tell us: offer hospitality to strangers. Surprising blessings result from that hospitality. And celebrate our differences – we are indeed better together, as we listen and honor one another as valued, precious parts of the community. May it be so among us. AMEN.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World” A Geography of Faith. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2009. 96.

[ii] Will Willimon, Acts, 40.

[iii] An Altar in the World, 90.

[iv] An Altar in the World, 94.

[v] Referenced in An Altar in the World, 99.

[vi] An Altar in the World, 96-7.

[vii] Willimon, 41. See Luke 22: 30 and Isaiah 43:6 and 60: 3-5.

[viii] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, British Orthodox Rabbi, theologian, and author. Quoted in An Altar in the World, 100.Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash