Jesus the Stranger

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Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker, Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
February 15, 2009
Available online at:
http://www.mpbconline.org/sermon.php?sermon=2009-02-15
Text: Hebrews 13:1-3; Luke 4:16-30

As followers of Christ we are on a quest for the historical Jesus and for the more-than-historical Jesus, the one who walked Galilean hills two thousand years ago and the one alive to us today in the mystery of the Resurrection, in the Living Spirit of God.  We are tracking Jesus, and he is tracking us.

Two weeks ago I spoke of Jesus the Friend.  Today, I want to explore Jesus the Stranger, Jesus as “other,” different, even as “enemy” because sometimes we perceive him as enemy.  I was told as a young minister not to get too far ahead of my congregation because they might mistake me for their enemy.  Sometimes we mistake Jesus as our enemy.

It may seem strange to describe Jesus as Stranger.  But this may be the only way to make sure we see him as he is, not as who we want him to be.  This is the only way we truly know another, that is, as they are, not our projection of what we wish them to be.

Frederick Buechner describes the Maundy Thursday sermon he heard in an Episcopal church in Wheaton, Illinois.  The preacher was preaching on Peter’s words of denial on the night of Jesus’ arrest: “I do not know the man!”  Peter exclaimed to his questioners.  These words, said the preacher, were not only a lie, they were also the truth.  They were not only a denial, they were a confession.  After three years of following him, listening, watching, he still did not know the man.

Perhaps this is where we begin with Jesus the Stranger.  Unless we know that we do not know him, we cannot grow to know him.  In Christian spirituality there is what is called the Via Positiva and the Via Negativa.  The Via Positiva or positive path is the path which uses all we know of God and all God has revealed to us.  Words, images, experiences are windows open to God.

The Via Negativa or negative path is the path of unknowing, the dwelling in mystery.  On this path we go wordless; we put aside all our images, thoughts, theologies in order to find a deeper knowing.  This is close to what the poet John Keats called “Negative Capability,” which is when we become “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”1

So there are days Jesus comes a stranger.  What we thought we knew we do not know.  Who we thought he was he is not.

I

In our text from Luke we observe how quickly he turned from friend to stranger to enemy.  Jesus was back in his hometown soon after his baptism.  He went to the synagogue for the shabbat service and preached his “inaugural” sermon.  He was invited to read from the prophets and chose to read from Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me.
He has sent me
to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set the downtrodden free,
to proclaim the year of God’s favor.
He rolled up the scroll, then sat, in good rabbinic fashion, to teach.  “Today this scripture is fulfilled,” he said.  Today.

The congregation nodded an approval.  He was Judy Garland singing “Happy Days Are Here Again.”  God’s messianic kingdom was dawning!  One listener punched his friend and perhaps with a hint of local pride said, “That’s Joe’s boy, isn’t it?!”

Then Jesus began to interpret the text; as he did the mood turned sharply.  The kingdom was here all right, but not as they expected. It was coming to foreigners, outsiders.  Jesus gave examples.  There were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time during the great drought, but Elijah was sent (meaning, by God!) to a widow in Sidon.  There were many lepers in Elisha’s day, but he cured a leper named Naaman, the Syrian general.

The kingdom’s here, but in Havana not Nashville.  Healing’s happening but look, it’s a Shiite general in Basra who’s healed.  God’s salvation is beyond our clan, our nation, even our brand of faith.

All of a sudden Jesus the homeboy became Jesus the stranger.  The congregation was filled with rage, the text says, and they seized him and carried him to a cliff to throw him off.

It’s not how you picture your first sermon.

II

But this was not the only time Jesus was seen as stranger, other, different, enemy.
At one point the Gospels report that Jesus’ family came to take him forcibly home because people were saying that he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21, Greek word “ecstase”).

In Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night, he tells of a member of his village when he was growing up.  They called him “Moisha the Beadle.”  He was awkward and shy, but he was one possessed by God and every day chanted his songs to God.  He became Elie Wiesel’s teacher in Kabbala, Jewish mysticism.

Then one day all the “foreign Jews” were expelled from his village, and Moisha was taken away by train.  Days, weeks, months passed, then suddenly Moisha was back.

He told Wiesel what happened.  The train crossed the border; then the Gestapo took over.  The Jews were paraded into the forest.  They were forced to dig huge trenches.  Then they were lined up, shot and pushed into the massive graves.  Children were tossed into the air and used as targets for machine guns.  Tobie the tailor begged to die before his sons were killed.

Moisha somehow escaped.  He had been shot in the leg and left for dead.
Then he began to go to one Jewish home to another telling them what had happened.  No one believed him.  They thought he was imagining things.  Some thought that he had gone mad.  Even Wiesel, his student, did not believe him.  Such horror could not happen.2

Sometimes our “see-ers” and prophets are thought to be mad.

In response to his acts of healing and deliverance, people called Jesus demon possessed and in league with Beelzebul, prince of demons.  He was called a blasphemer against God, a heretic, punishable by death.  In other times and bodies he would have been called a witch.  (In earlier days women accused of being witches were bound and thrown into the river.  If they drowned, that proved that they were innocent.  If they floated, that proved that they were witches and they were pulled out and executed.)  In John’s Gospel some adversaries came and said, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48).

Jesus answered with deliberate evasiveness: “I don’t have a demon!”  It’s an interesting accusation: Jesus the Samaritan, the outsider, the despised and rejected, the mixed-race, heterodox, other.  (Do you know what “heterodox” means?  Someone who “praises God differently,” whose belief is outside the circle.)

Jesus told surprising parables with Samaritans as heroes.  He brought the kingdom of God to a Samaritan woman and enlisted her in his mission.  He healed a Samaritan leper, who was, if you remember, the one of the ten who came back to praise God and give Jesus thanks.

Then by God, he must be a Samaritan!  Do you become a Samaritan because you befriend Samaritans; do you become black when you work on behalf of equality for African-Americans; do you become gay when you champion their inclusion and equal humanity; do you become a stranger when you welcome strangers?  Well, maybe so, savingly so.

Jesus would not let the charge of having a demon stand.  No, his power came from God not Satan.  But he did not answer the Samaritan question.  He let it linger in the air.

Jesus is willing to become the outsider so that we recognize that there is no outsider to God.  Ich bin ein Berliner, “I am a Berliner,” John Kennedy said in Berlin in that famous speech.  I am a Cuban, an Indian, a South African, a Jew, Jesus says.  I am a Sunni, Buddhist, Sufi, Sikh.  I am black and gay, womanish and Latino.  I am human, created in the image of God, anointed by the Spirit, God come as a stranger so there’d be no more strangers in the household of God and God’s earth.

Are we willing to let Jesus come to us as a stranger, as unknown?  Jesus the Friend represents the radical immanence of God, the nearness of God beyond imagining.  Jesus as Stranger represents the radical transcendence of God, the otherness, the difference of God beyond imagining.  As the prophet Isaiah said,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts
neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(Isaiah 55:8-9)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together speaks of the Word of God that comes to us from outside us, extra nos.  The word of God that comes to us in the voice of another.3 To be sure, God’s word is also near us, within us, “in your mouth and in your heart” (Deuteronomy 30:14).  But sometimes the Word of God must come from another place, foreign and strange, upsetting our conventional thinking, our settled truths, our assumed beliefs.

The Welsh poet, Waldo Williams, gives us images of Jesus the outsider, the stranger, the riddler of the kingdom which comes to shatter and re-arrange all our kingdoms.  “Who was it then, for God’s sake?” he asks,

…mocking our boasts, tracking our every trail,
the one who escapes the conscription of every army?
….  He will arrive, the outlaw,
the huntsman, the lost heir making good his claim
to no man’s land.  The exiled king
is coming home one day; the rushes sweep aside
to let him through.4

Will you let him through?  Welcome him?  Will you let him bring the kingdom he would bring rather than the ones we have devised?

III

Here is another question.  Are we willing to meet Christ in the stranger?  In the one who is different?  In the least of these, the special-needs child who is also the special-gift-giving child?  The non-typical, the sufferer.  Isaiah pictured the servant of God coming into our lives,

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
….  He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
as one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows,
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
And now the wonder of the gospel of God:
But he was wounded with our transgressions,
bruised with our iniquities;
(at first there was a typing error: “inequities”!  Yes, that too.)
upon him was the chastisement
that made us whole
and with his stripes we are healed.
(Isaiah 53:1-5, adapted)
Christ says he waits for us in the stranger, in the “least of these,” not just for their sake, but for ours.
The welcome of the stranger is our own healing.  To welcome them is to welcome Christ; to welcome them is to welcome our own disinherited selves.  We welcome those who oppose us, for in their opposition we come to terms with the oppositions within us.

Henri Nouwen left Harvard and joined a community of mentally retarded adults called “Daybreak.”  I cannot imagine a more radical cultural shift.  All the skills and gifts that made him famous, successful, accomplished –  his verbal and writing skills – meant virtually nothing there.  They just wanted him, Henri.  His beingness not his doingness.  Not his lectures, his words; him, his hugs, his affection, his friendship.

St. Francis was repelled by the sight of beggars in Rome, especially the lepers.  One day he kissed a leper and in the kiss met the Christ.

IV

One last question.  When are you willing to become a stranger for the sake of Christ and the kingdom?  Willing to be different, as one opposed, even scorned?  For whose sake are we willing to become a minority in our own city?  Paul wrote,

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like those on
death row; because we have become a spectacle, a laughingstock, to the world.  We are fools for Christ’s sake (I Corinthians 4:9, adapted.)
Growing up in Charlotte, I was taught you had to look good!  Dress good, be good, fit in, care about appearances.  Nothing wrong there.  But when for Christ’s sake are you willing not to look good, not to fit in, not to keep up appearances?  For Christ’s sake and the kingdom’s?

I don’t know why I was called back to my hometown, with my mother and brother and twin sister, back into this conformist Southern culture where the last thing you want to do is make a fool of yourself, to become a fool for Christ.  Maybe God was saying this is exactly where you learn to be a fool for Christ, learn what Paul called the “foolishness of the cross” which is “the wisdom and power of God” (I Corinthians 1:18-24).

I think this proud, high-steeple church in the heart of Myers Park and the city of Charlotte has created a spiritual culture where to a remarkable degree we are given courage to become strangers to the world for Christ’s sake.

We do not follow a Neiman Marcus, Bank of America, Harvard Club, Vanity Fair, Who’s Who in America Jesus, but the crucified Jesus.  I’ve seen a picture of some early graffiti, dated 200 CE, found on a Roman palace wall near the Circus Maximus.  It shows a cross with a man’s body hanging on it, but instead of the man’s head there’s the head of a jackass.  Underneath are the scorning words, Alexamenos Worships God.  We encounter in Christ the one willing to be hideously the stranger that we might come to love ourselves, and God, and our neighbor as we finally become able to love ourselves.

1John Keats, Selected Poems and Letters, ed.  Douglas Bush (Boston: Riverside Editions, 1959), p. 261.
2Eli Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), pp. 3-7.
3Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), pp. 22-23.
4Waldo Williams, “Between Two Fields” in Rowan Williams, The Poems of Rowan Williams(Oxford: The Perpetua Press, 2002), pp. 92-93.  Rowan Williams translated Waldo Williams’ poem from the Welsh.  I have taken liberty to insert a variant translation Rowan Williams made of one line “the one who escapes the conscription of every army” from another work of Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994), p. 131.


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