March 12, 2019, 1:02 PM

Near and Far - Sermon, 3/10/19

I’m just the right age to have owned a record player as a little girl. Eventually, I graduated to a tape player in grade school and received my first CD player when I turned 13. Even as technology progressed, I have many fond memories of sitting in my room and listening to my favorite Sesame Street record. The best song on my Sesame Street record featured Grover, the friendly blue monster.

In this song, Grover teaches the concepts of around, over, under, and through. Now, I won’t traumatize you by singing the song, but you will just have to trust me that it is just adorable. The song also teaches the concepts of near and far. Grover stands close to the microphone to teach “near.” We then hear Grover running away from the microphone, making him sound “far” from his audience.

Those two concepts – near and far – are important concepts for kids to learn. Somewhere along the way, though, we end up putting values on “near” and “far.” Near is good; far is bad. We end up making decisions – deciding what to keep near and what to send far away.

Somehow, we convince ourselves that God does the same thing – God decides who to keep near and who to send far away. We convince ourselves that God acts like us – keeping favorites near and sending others far away. But today’s scriptures tell a different story.

Our first reading is from the book of Deuteronomy, a collection of stories about the early history of the Jewish people. At its root, the book of Deuteronomy tells the story of God’s people and their journey to the land God promises. Today’s section of Deuteronomy contains a set of directions for the people to follow upon arrival in the promised land.

One of the first acts commanded of the people is for them to go to the priests to present gifts of gratitude to God. Finally arriving in the promised land, the people have much to be grateful for. But it’s not just the new arrivals who have received a bounty from God. Deuteronomy says that the Levites AND the aliens are also called to celebrate.

What a strange combination of people for a party! The Levites, the aliens, and the chosen people. Levites are assistants to the priests. They are the ultimate insiders, believed to have secret knowledge about God. Levites, we might say, are experts on God: who God is and how God chooses to be in relationship with the people. Levites are believed to be nearer to God.

If Levites are on the “near” end of the spectrum, then aliens are at the “far” end of the spectrum of relationship with God. Unlike the Levites who are God’s insiders, aliens are God’s outsiders. Aliens are people thought to be outside – outside the reach of God’s relationship with humanity. Aliens, unlike the Levites, are people without a country, without land. Aliens, unlike the chosen people, do not enjoy a relationship with God.

Even looking at all the differences between them, God still wants the three groups to celebrate God’s bounty together. The Levites – the near ones, the alien – the far ones, and the chosen people are meant to party together. In God’s view, there is no longer favorite or despised. In God’s view, there is no longer insider or outsider. In God’s view, there is no longer near or far. There is one people, gathered together by God to celebrate God’s bounty.

A similar breaking down of boundaries shows up in the New Testament reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Paul tells his audience that, in Christ, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek.” This is almost as surprising as the author of Deuteronomy’s statement that Levites AND aliens are called together by God. In Paul’s time, no one could be farther apart than the Jews and the Greeks.

Like the Levites, Jews are believed to have the inside track on a relationship with God. Jews had centuries of relationship with God as God’s chosen people. Now, in the Christian era, folks assumed that Jews made better Christians. Jews weren’t starting from scratch when they came to proclaim Jesus as their Messiah. The Jews were evolving, to use a strange phrase, from a relationship from the One, True God to a relationship with the Son of the One, True God.

In stark contrast to the Jews, the Greeks were thought to be the ultimate outsiders – the opposite end of the spectrum. The Greeks had a completely different history than the Jews, particularly in the Greeks’ religion and religious practices. There was no background of relationship with the One, True God for the Greeks. In fact, many Greeks came from the practice of believing in multiple gods. Like the aliens in Deuteronomy, Greeks had no claim to believing in Christ as God’s Anointed One.

In Paul’s time, many people thought that Greeks and other Gentiles had to become Jewish first before being baptized as Christians. There are records of knock-down, drag-out fights about this argument in both scripture and history books. Paul wants to settle this argument, once and for all, by assuring his audience in Rome that “everyone who calls on the name of Jesus shall be saved.”

Paul is convinced that, in Christ, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek.” In Christ, all the boundaries that we humans are so good at building up are torn down. In Christ, all the lines that have divided people for centuries are erased. In Christ, there is no distinction between near and far.

A great hymn was written on this idea of erasing the distinction between near and far. Again, I will not traumatize you by singing it at you. We will sing it / we just sang it. “In Christ there is no East or West.” In Christ, all distinctions will fade away. In Christ, there is no near or far – just one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.

The hymn takes it one step further in the last verse where the songwriter says that, “In Christ, now MEET both East and West.” In Christ, we trust that “near” and “far” have faded away so much that we can join in ministry with East AND West, Levite AND alien, Jew AND Greek.

Let us find comfort, then, that wherever we fall on the spectrum of relationship with God – whether we feel like insiders or like outsiders, whether we feel like a Levite or like an alien, whether we feel like the Jews or like the Greeks, whether we feel near or far from God – wherever we fall on the spectrum of relationship with God, we trust that “everyone who calls on the name of Jesus will be saved.”

As we continue on our Lenten journey, I pray we will continue to know, and trust, and believe that we, too, can call upon the name of Jesus and experience salvation. “Near” and “far” cannot define us. Wherever we are on our life’s journey with Christ, salvation is available to all who call on the name of Jesus. Amen.

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