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A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003

No Longer Strangers or Strange

By The Rev. Michael Hopkins

St. George's, Glendale, Maryland

July 20, 2003

Proper 11(B)
2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Some of you will remember, several years ago now, one of the more delightful typos that crept into our liturgy. It appeared in the psalm for the day, Psalm 146, verse eight, which should begin,

The LORD loves the righteous; the LORD cares for the stranger . . .

But on that day it read,

The LORD loves the righteous; the LORD cares for the strange . . .

Which, in the congregation, was seized upon not just as fun, but also prophetic and, even, descriptive, of our life together.

Remember, St. Paul says to the Christians in Ephesus, that you Gentiles were outsiders, aliens, "strangers to the covenants of promise." He is, of course, writing to the generation for whom this was literally true. They were not Jews, and, by definition, unable to be in relationship with the God of the Jews. It was Paul himself who had carried to them the message that the dividing wall between Jew and non-Jew had been broken down.

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

The Gentiles are no longer strangers and aliens, but "citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

This is to say that we too, ourselves, Gentiles that we are, are no longer strangers and aliens, but "citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God." What was true of the Christians in Ephesus in Paul's day is still true for us today, only our memory of this truth is even weaker than theirs. It is hard to remember, in a Church that has been dominated by Gentiles since its first century of existence, that none of us are children of God by, as it were, birth, but by adoption, by choice, the choice of God made real on the cross.

None of us likes to feel a stranger. Even more, none of us likes to feel strange. We tend to extricate ourselves from situations where we feel either one or the other or both for very long. We long to feel at home. It is undoubtedly what goes on in the heart and mind of anyone who visits us in this place, for instance. They feel either one or the other -- at home, or strange. And, for the most part, the feeling results in whether they show up again or not. Remember that, Gentiles of St. George's?

We often hear from newcomers that they visited St. George's and almost immediately felt "at home." We don't much think of those who don't come back, how they must have had the opposite feeling, must have felt a stranger or "strange."

I have to tell you a bit of my own story now, and this is a bit that I have never talked about much. Some of you, I suspect, will resonate with it a great deal. Others of you may not. My prayer is that it does not make you feel strange!

It is my experience of being a stranger, of feeling "strange." And I do believe it is the predominate story of gay or lesbian people like me in our culture, and it is that experience of ours that is really not understood very well.

It is the feeling of being a stranger, the feeling of being strange, almost all of the time. It is the feeling of never feeling quite at home, anywhere, anytime, even in the place that you think of as home. Because there is a secret about your life, that you are sure if anyone knew, you would be rejected. You're sure of this not because anyone necessarily told you that, but because it is just the way it seems to be.

Why is that? Because no one seems to be having the same experience with life that you are having. And you cannot connect with so many of the experiences and feelings that are being projected on to you. You don't relate to the world the way people are expecting you to. People talk to you all the time about who you are and what you want, but you know--and it is a terrifying knowledge--that is not the way things are for you.

After a while you do one of two things, you stuff that part of you deep inside, well, something like a closet, or you embrace being strange with everything you have. Actually there is a third way, where many (if not most) lesbian or gay people live while they're growing up and long after. You just live with the lights turned down low, hoping that no one will notice. You learn to be depressed and try to just get by.

I'm not saying that this experience is exclusive to gay and lesbian people. It isn't. But there probably isn't another whole class of people who, by and large, share this same experience. Is it getting better? Perhaps a bit, but only a bit.

I speak of these things this morning not only because of the Ephesians reading, but also because of the drama being played out in our Church. I believe the purpose of this awful, protracted, angry debate the Church is having about the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in its life and ministry is, if nothing else, an opportunity for the Church to remember its own strangeness, its own call to be a company of strangers for whom the dividing wall, that is, the hostility, has been broken down in the cross of Jesus.

And this is one very powerful reason why it is so hard, because there is almost nothing we human beings will fight against more than being made to feel a stranger, or, worse, being made to feel strange. How much of the dynamic of this debate is about perfectly normal Episcopalian not wanting to be associated with an institution that is perceived by the culture as strange!

On the other hand, it is why the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the Church is also an incredible evangelistic opportunity, with ramifications way beyond the confines of the debate about sexual behavior. It is because of that other piece of our common humanity, that as much as it is in our nature to run away from situations where we feel strange, we do this precisely because there is at least a little stranger in all of us.

There is at least a little piece in all of us that worries about fitting in, that wonders whether our particular individuality is acceptable to some larger group, even those whom we love. Most of us have at least one secret about ourselves that we are sure would cause our rejection by others, the proverbial skeleton in our closet.

If I'm saying anything to you in the room who are heterosexual, it is, imagine that that little, fearful place, in you, encompassed pretty much your whole life, the basic ways you perceive and relate to the world around you. Imagine not just a skeleton in your closet, but your whole life.

It is difficult as a gay person to not perceive this debate as one that is about whether I will be made to feel a stranger in this house that I call home, this Church where I got the first glimpse that in the eyes of God I was not a stranger but a friend, that my life was not simply strange but given by God to be valued and to offer in the service of others.

That makes this debate (I must be honest) very painful for me. As much as I know (and I do) how much it feels for conservatives or traditionalists to feel these days like their Church has been taken away from them, can the answer be to take my Church away from me? Isn't there any possibility that we can somehow make this our Church, with room enough for as many different strangers as God sends our way? And can we not submit our dividing wall to Jesus and see if it stands or not?

Apparently not, the answer has come. Bishops of thirteen dioceses of the Episcopal Church seemed to draw a line in the sand this past week. In only somewhat veiled language, they declared ready to put themselves under the authority of some other Province of the Anglican Communion and to declare themselves to be the true Church. I've made copies of the statement so you can judge it for yourselves.

All because of a stranger like me, it seems, although we all know it goes far deeper than that. It goes deep into our understanding of God and how God relates to the world, the place of the Scriptures in our lives and where authority lies in the Church. The most telling line in this statement came at the very end, they desire a Church "whose disciples are ever constrained by the plain sense of God's word written." This is about who has authority to interpret the Bible (which, interestingly enough, was one of the main things the Reformation was about).

The statement itself is in the form of a letter addressed to a group of archbishops who have been critical of recent actions related to sexuality in Canada, England and the United States. It begins addressed to "Most Reverend Fathers in God." Excuse me, but the "plain sense" of God's word written?" Doesn't Jesus say to call no man on earth your father? Just whose "plain sense" are we talking about?

What we are talking about, I believe, is whether or not the Church will continue to embrace its biblical vocation of being the company of strangers, and, therefore, the place where everyone might feel at home, which is, to me, the plain sense of the passage from Ephesians we have before us. Who is too strange for the Church? Who is too much a stranger for the household of God?

He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. It is painful to me, and, I believe, just plain wrong, for these men (and they are all men) to threaten to divide the Church so that their view of the interpretation of Scripture, and their view of the world, will continue to dominate. But by their line-drawing, they are forcing the whole Church to make a choice, for if it does not, it has chosen essentially to be held hostage, and its witness will be marred for a generation or more, and, more importantly, folks like me will be made to believe that this is not a company for the strange and we must go elsewhere to experience the transforming unconditional love and mercy of God in Christ.

That is not a threat of my own to leave--I, frankly, at this point, don't know what I will do if they get their way. But it is a statement of the ramifications of action taken to appease a threat. And it is not just gay and lesbian people who will no longer feel welcome, but anyone who has caught a glimpse of the incredibly good news that God has called together in the Church not a company of the clean, perfect, and utterly normal, but the messy, the in-need-of-forgiving and completely strange.

The Good News is that we are no longer strangers, and no longer strange, in the household of God, because together we are a company of strangers, a company of the strange, led by the strangest one of all, Jesus Christ. That is the extraordinary good news of my life, and, I know, of many of your lives, straight or gay. Pray with me that is still true in the Episcopal Church two weeks from now.

Our prayer could go something like this, a verse of a favorite hymn,

The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may Thy house be my abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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