Proper 11B Sermon (2006)

Proper 11 (July 17-23)
Texts: Ephesians 2:11-22;
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56; Jer. 23:1-6


It’s not quite time for everyone’s favorite essay, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” But as summer begins to wind down, and as I move to my first regular call in six years, it is time for me to share with you some thoughts entitled, “What I Learned in My Time as an Interim Pastor.” Here in the Greater Milwaukee Synod the experience of being Interim Pastor is dominated by leading the “Mission Exploration” process. After helping to lead six of those in six years, I’m more than ready to stay a while with a congregation and get past exploring mission to doing mission.

But I’m also thankful for the experience of having explored mission with disciples of Jesus in six congregations. I think that it is this experience which has brought to prominence for me the promise to Abraham and Sarah that God’s people are blessed to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. And that our Lord Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that promise as his cross breaks down barriers between people. Our Second Lesson proclaims that beautifully:

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. 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.

The two groups St. Paul is talking about are Jews and Gentiles. At that time in history it was simplest to divide peoples into only two groups, your group and everyone else. Christ Jesus’ death on the cross is the power of God’s love to tear down such human barriers that we might live as one family of God.

But this is one of those things that’s easier said than done. It is so easy to continue to prioritize as human beings in terms of one’s own family first. We have so many rules and principals that are behind that, rules and principals that become part of our cultures. These are the “commandments and ordinances” that St. Paul is talking about.

But, again, this is easier said than done. In Paul’s own time and culture, he faced the challenge of the early Jewish Christians who wanted early Gentile converts to be circumcised. For Paul, not only did such a demand continue to divide between Jew and Gentile, but also between male and female. It was the demand which he came to fight the hardest in those early years of the Church.

How hard is it to fight such barriers? I recall a time a couple years ago at my interim ministry that was probably the most similar to St. Paul’s.

[Tell story of Women’s Circle bible study on a passage from St. Paul highlighting the circumcision issue.] The question comes down to this: As disciples of Christ reach out to others in mission, do we keep the “commandments and ordinances” that help others be more like us? Or do we become more like them, taking up some of their ways? In a German-culture congregation, for example, what are the “commandments and ordinances” of our ways of doing things that might get in the way?

I’d also like to tell a story which I have gleaned from Chris Hedges’ book War is a force that gives us meaning. Hedges is a war correspondent who covered the Bosnian war extensively, and he tells of meeting the Soraks, a Bosnian Serb couple in a largely Muslim enclave. The couple had been largely indifferent to the nationalist propaganda of the Bosnian Serb leadership. But when the Serbs started to bomb their town, Goražde, the Muslim leadership in the town became hostile to them, and eventually the Soraks lost their two sons to Muslim forces. One of their sons was a few months shy of becoming a father. In the city under siege, conditions got worse and worse, and in the midst of this Rosa Sorak’s widowed daughter-in-law gave birth to a baby girl.

With the food shortages, the elderly and infants were dying in droves, and after a short time, the baby, given only tea to drink, began to fade. Meanwhile, on the eastern edge of Goražde, Fadil Fejziæ, an illiterate Muslim farmer, kept his cow, milking her by night so as to avoid Serbian snipers. On the fifth day of the baby having only tea, just before dawn, Fejziæ appeared at the door with half a litre of milk for the baby. He refused money. He came back with milk every day for 442 days, until the daughter in law and granddaughter left for Serbia. During this time he never said anything. Other families in the street started to insult him, telling him to give his milk to Muslims and let the Chetnik (the pejorative term for Serbs) die. But he did not relent.

Later the Soraks moved, and lost touch with Fejziæ. But Hedges went and sought him out. The cow had been slaughtered for meat before the end of the siege, and Fejziæ had fallen on hard times. But, as Hedges says:

When I told him I had seen the Soraks, his eyes brightened. “And the baby?” he asked “How is she?”

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at St. Paul’s Lutheran,
Milwaukee, WI, July 23, 2006

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