God Bless the Outsider

Outsiders worry us. They disturb us. They disrupt our sense of order and the way things should be. They are dangerous. They don’t like us and want us to change. Can you believe that?

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Second Sunday after Pentecost C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Psalm 96:1-16
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

It’s that time of the year again, we thought to ourselves.

As Debbie and I sat outside the Three Lakes Center of the Arts with our puppy Nora, drinking our Lick-a-dee Spitz milkshakes, we watched car after car drive by. We noticed how packed the street was with parked cars. We greeted every person who walked by, and there were a lot of them. The sound of traffic filled the air, of people talking—this small town of ours was filling up!

It’s that time of the year again, we thought to ourselves. Tourist season.

It’s the season where people from all over the country come up to the chain of lakes and descend upon our towns and communities. The population surges. There are people everywhere. More people, more traffic, more…. inconvenience… outsiders…. hisssss….

I hope you can tell by my utterly sarcastic tone that this is NOT how I view the summer crowd that brings new life and energy to our town. Heck, I’ve been here two years and in many ways I’m still an outsider myself! But I’m willing to bet most of us know at least one or two people in our lives for whom tourist season means an influx of unwanted people, of “outsiders” here to ruin the good life we have here.

This is not an uncommon view of outsiders, as we can glean from our readings this morning. Ancient Israel, the setting for our reading from 1 Kings, was heavily critical of outsiders, and I can’t really blame them. The Israelites were God’s Chosen People, special, the only ones with whom God had a covenant relationship. They were called to be apart, to be models, to be different. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, traditionally called the Law of Moses, established very clear, direct rules that separated the Israelites from outsiders.

And given the Israelite’s history with “others”, with outsiders, I can’t say I completely blame them for their view of outsiders. The Israelites as a people lived under slavery in Egypt. When they lived in Canaan, they were surrounded by hostile city-states. The Philistines caused trouble, the Syrians and Edomites waged war on the Israelite kingdoms, Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom, Babylon conquered the Southern, Persia conquered what was left of both, then Greece, then Rome. For the Israelites, outsiders weren’t just enemies in some philosophical sense: often, they were very real, tangible enemies of the people.

The same can be said of the centurion that sends a message to Jesus in the Gospel story. A centurion was a Roman soldier—remember, in Jesus’s day, Judea was a conquered province of the Roman Empire—who was charged not so much with protecting the peace as enforcing the peace, by force. He was a visible reminder of the brutality and oppression under which the Judean people lived every day. We don’t know what wars or battles he fought in, what actions he’d taken, what his relationship was the rest of the people; we only know that he’s a soldier of an occupying force, and that makes him the enemy, an outsider.

Outsiders deserve to be looked down on. They don’t know the history and customs of a people. They don’t follow the traditions and the way things have always been done. They haven’t shared the same struggles, they haven’t faced the same tests, they haven’t come through the same ordeals as the rest of the community. Outsiders don’t belong not necessarily because they are bad people. They just don’t understand. They can’t understand. Someone like me, who didn’t grow up in a place like Three Lakes, can’t possibly understand what it was like to be born here and grow up here. That automatically makes them different, other, not “like us”. And because they are not like us, they don’t belong.

At least, this is how outsiders are treated throughout history, and we are no exception. Outsiders worry us. They disturb us. They disrupt our sense of order and the way things should be. They are dangerous. They don’t like us and want us to change. Can you believe that? Outsiders want -us- to change! Who do they think they are?

And so outsiders are pushed further and further to the margins, to the edges, where they can either be controlled or forgotten about: immigrants, foreigners, city slickers, hillbillies, non-whites, women, children, non-heterosexual and transgender, members of the “other” political party (whichever that happens to be), those “other” Christians, non-Christians, all of them pushed aside to make room for the “us”, the insiders, the in-crowd, the special ones. It’s just the way it is, and for many, the way it should be.

Solomon and Jesus, however, paint us a different picture of outsiders than the one we might like to hang on our walls and admire. And what they say about outsiders has a lot to do with God, and God’s relationship with us.

Solomon’s words are from his dedication of the Temple he’s built to and for God, the very first temple dedicated in the name of God. It’s the crowning moment of his career as king of Israel, and in commemoration of the event, he gives a long speech to the people that includes quite a few prayers, this being one of them.

Though it is a joyous event, dedicating the Temple to God, there is also a great deal of strife in Israel. Things, apparently, are not going well. There’s a famine, there is social unrest, there are enemy nations waiting outside the gates to attack, there is sickness, there is sin. It would seem to be the perfect time to find someone to blame for all of the misfortunes of the Israelites. If only there was someone the community could blame, someone on the “outside” on which the Israelites could put all their troubles, someone they could to and say, “There! It’s their fault! All of our problems are because of them!”

Instead, Solomon, in his call for the Israelites to come and pray and for God to hear and answer their prayers, extends the same call to foreigners and asks God that their prayers be answered as well. Remember, this is the Temple of the Lord God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the Hebrews and the Israelites, the protector of the kingdom of Israel. God is -their- God, not for sale, not for hire.

And still, Solomon prays that their prayers may be heard and answered as well. Solomon of course may be trying to be a shrewd king—he says that outsiders will certainly hear of God’s mighty acts, which will draw them in and praise and glorify God, and therefore, God’s people—but the fact still remains that Solomon recognizes something extraordinary about God: God is also the God of the outsiders.

In the same way, Jesus, in his dealings with the messengers of the Roman centurion, the enemy, calls into question the prevailing attitudes about Roman outsiders. In him, Jesus recognizes a profound faith, a faith that surpasses even the faith of those of the Judeans who have faithfully worshiped God for generations.

It’s not exactly clear why the centurion’s faith is so striking to Jesus. Is it because he’s an outsider, who shouldn’t have this faith? Is it because he trusts that Jesus can heal his slave from afar with just a word? Is it because he trusts that Jesus even has the authority to heal, and that he decrees will in fact come to pass, just like a general’s orders? We don’t know. Maybe all of the above. But what is clear is that in this faith, Jesus finds a strength and a love of God so profound that even he is amazed by it. Jesus, of course, knows the same thing Solomon did: God is the God of the outsider, too.

Which is a good thing, too. Are we Jewish? No, we aren’t. We aren’t part of God’s chosen people, the original “in-crowd” with whom God made a covenant. If God only cared about the Jewish people, the Chosen People, then we’d be left on the outside looking in.

In Holy Baptism, though, we are grafted into God’s chosen, adopted into God’s family. We, who were outsiders, outcasts, foreigners, were brought in; no, not brought in. The walls that delineated the ins from the outs were removed, allowing us entry into the reign of God.

We are also outsiders in the culture and society, or we should be. Christianity as a religion favors mercy, justice for the poor and oppressed, challenges rampant greed and the love of money, teaches forgiveness rather than retribution, and is willing to risk all in the name of compassion rather than hate in the name of security. Though Christianity and western civilization enjoyed a long, intimate relationship, they have parted ways, and Christianity is increasingly recognizing its role as “outsider” in the culture.

All of this reflection begs the question, then: how do we treat outsiders in our midst? I am reminded of part of the Passover rituals in Judaism in which the people are reminded that they were once slaves in Egypt, outsiders, and are now free. Many of God’s commands to the now-free people concern how they treat outsiders, reminding them over and over that they were once outsiders in the land.

So I’d like to slightly rephrase that admonition to remember that you were slaves in Egypt: remember that you were once outside the family of God, and God brought you inside through your baptisms. This is how God treats outsiders and those who don’t belong. God welcomes the outsider with open arms: go and do likewise.

Featured Image: “Outcast” by Sabrina M is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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