Church of Strangers (World Communion Sunday)
Carrie and I traveled Europe last summer. If you want my number one tip for traveling in foreign countries: bring pocket translator guides. If you want my number two tip for traveling in foreign countries: get really good at playing charades. One morning in Rome, for instance, we wanted to take a bus to the Coliseum, so we went to a corner store. But the store owner didn’t speak English, and we can’t recall the exact Italian word for bus. So I’m pantomiming steering wheels and tickets, until finally Carrie remembers and calls out, “Autobus? Autobus!” Our strangeness, our foreignness… made even the most ordinary tasks into large obstacles. It made daily life exhilarating… but incredibly exhausting. Or in France, each morning we got a large breakfast before a full day of museums until we were so exhausted we’d simply grab a light dinner before passing out. We kept griping to each other that—for all its reputation—French food wasn’t very good. Only in our last days did we realize French eating habits aren’t like Americans: dinner is the big meal of the day, not breakfast. Our strangeness, our foreignness… meant we culturally kept tripping over our own two feet. And in England, my wife and I joined my eldest sister and her husband at a local pub to watch the U.S. women’s soccer team play a World Cup semifinals match against England. At the start, we cheered for our gals, and the English cheered back. But as it became clear our team was going to beat the locals’ team, the English around us got quieter and frownier, and we got quieter too out of concern. We were foreigners, strangers there… and the term isn’t “English soccer gentlemen” but “English soccer hooligan”. We were isolated and out of place, and while I’m sure we weren’t in any real danger… we quickly paid up and left. You have to be on your toes when you’re a stranger, for nobody else is around to look out for you.
The prophet Zechariah proclaimed today’s scripture to a Jewish people who at last—after decades of exile in Babylon—had been allowed to return home to Jerusalem. Generations of Jewish people lived and died as exiles, as strangers in a strange land. Their tragic downfall was so great and well-known that, as Zechariah says, “to become like the Jews” was a curse back in those exile days, a saying meaning “to be abandoned by the gods and lost in the world.” After years away from home, God addresses the survivors coming home as “the remnant,” signaling how much and how many must have been lost in their sojourn. And while I take certain pleasure in being a stranger for a time, eventually I want to go home, to feel settled, to feel known and understood without having to explain myself. Being a stranger for seventy years would drive me mad. Yet for seventy years the comfort of being home was denied to the Jewish exiles held captive in Babylon. They mourned their lost kingdom. God’s people were adrift in this world, alone even in crowded foreign cities, strangers in a strange land, isolated and unsure.
Everyone undergoes exile in their life. It’s been hard for me these past few years watching the region where I grew up burn, as each summer becomes the hottest on record and thus the most fire-prone on record. Just last week, I learned multiple friends lost everything in the blazes, and my heart broke like an era was ending. For older Christians, I imagine the changes that have happened to the Church in America have likewise felt like an exile of sorts, like strangers in their own congregations. One hundred years ago, Christianity was so dominant in U.S. culture that church membership was a requirement for any successful business owner: it was how customers knew they could trust you. Today church membership doesn’t hurt you, but it offers no real incentives compared to the perks it once gave. As a younger Christian, I personally find this loss of privileged status empowering: the leveled playing field honestly makes sharing the gospel easier when I know folks aren’t converting because of dollars or pride but only because of genuine faith. But I know for many older Christians, who remember the old days, the Church’s loss of social power feels only like an exile, not an opportunity. And to put a direct spin on the theme of exile, today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. And so I must recognize that many Christians around the world today are exiles in a real, physical sense, as they lose homes to warfare, to oppression, to famine and drought… and our exiled brethren are left unsure how to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and unsure where to move on to.
Zechariah the prophet delivers an interesting take on exile today. To Zechariah, it’s not only the people who left Jerusalem: the Almighty himself abandoned the city. So even though the Jewish people returned to their land by now, they still felt like strangers in their own cities, exiles in their own homes… because God had not yet returned. And so here in chapter 8, the Lord declares, “I will return to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain.” Exile does not end when the Jewish people get to come home. Exile doesn’t end when they get their cities back. Exile only ends when their God returns to them! And notice how God turns the tragedy and anguish of suffering into a means of understanding the grace they are about to receive: “Just as I once warned I would bring disaster upon you, when your ancestors went astray and did not repent, and then I did exactly what I said I would do… now I’m warning you that I plan to do good for Jerusalem and to you my people. So do not be afraid!” Just as God upheld the decree of exile, now God vows to uphold the decree of coming home again. And finally, just as God gave Moses commandments when the people escaped slavery Egypt… now as their exile in Babylon ends, God gives laws again: “Speak truth. Deliver real justice that’s true and creates peace. Don’t make evil plots. Don’t give false oaths.” Once again God not only leads his people into the Promised Land but also guides their hearts to a better way of life. And so in all these ways, it’s the return of God that ends their exile, not a return to a physical location but a return of their relationship with God, a restoration of sustaining grace.
But the last time they entered the Promised Land after Exodus, it was for a kingdom of their own. This time as they enter the Promised Land after decades in exile, it’s not just for them anymore. The Jewish people were exiles before God brought them home. So now all exiles across the world, all nations and peoples, all who wander… shall have a place here. Or as Zechariah declares, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we hear that God is with you.’” Once the Israelites built a kingdom of their own and battled their neighbors. Now this restored Jerusalem shall see all nations flock towards it, for all shall know the Lord has returned with blessing. My favorite line is where God notes with irony, “Just as you have been a cursing among the nations, now I will save you and make you a blessing.” Where once “end up like the Israelites” was a curse meaning “abandoned by heaven and utterly wiped out,” now God morphs into a blessing meaning “have overflowing blessings.” And furthermore, the Jewish people themselves shall be a blessing to the nations now that their exile is over, since God envisions peoples flocking to the Promised Land, saying “Come, let us go seek the Lord’s favor! I myself am going there!” And this streaming of nations does not lead to famine or rationing but rather an overflowing of harvest, as we see in Zechariah’s flourishing vineyard metaphor. All in all, Zechariah is saying that the Jewish people have tasted exile and anguish… but now God is ending their suffering. But moreover, God desires to use these returned exiles… to bless all the other wandering peoples of this world.
Today is World Communion Sunday, when Christians of every tradition, every language, every culture… celebrate God’s gift to us… of the Church, of each other. Because what God promised through Zechariah, God fulfilled through Jesus Christ. You and I are those foreigners clinging onto the cloak of a Jewish person, begging for them to lead us to God… for that’s what the Apostles Paul, Peter, James, and the rest do for us in the New Testament. They are Jewish men who lead us to the God who ends all our exiles on this world… by entering our lives in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And so today we remember that the Church does not belong to Presbyterians only. It doesn’t belong Americans only. It doesn’t belong to white folks only, or to people who sing hymns only, or to people who act like us only, or to people who have it together only. The Church is a community of exiles… streaming towards a New Jerusalem offered to us through Jesus. As Hebrews chapter 11 says, we believers are “strangers and foreigners on the earth… seeking a homeland” we cannot find in this life. We Christians aren’t meant to fit in: we’re meant to be exiles and wanders, strangers and outcasts who yearn for a better home, just like the Jewish people in exile did. So do not get cozy in this world, in this life. Do not settle for raw power in Babylon when overflowing joy awaits in Jerusalem. Do not mock or disgrace others who wander—whether in body due to a lack of home, in spirit due to a lack of faith, in heart due to a lack of hope—do not disgrace your fellow exiles. For we were once exiles like them, and we are strangers to this world, looking for our heavenly home. Because today on World Communion Sunday, we the wandering exiles of this world celebrate that we are indeed a Church of Strangers… but in Jesus Christ we’ve been invited home… and told to welcome all others who join us for the heavenly banquet. May we be faithful in that journey until our wanderings at last are ended. Amen.