A  sermon preached January 1, 2012 at Lebanon United Methodist Church on Matthew 2:1-12 and Ephesians 3:1-12.

This week our church will be a part of the 7th mission trip to Los Diques, Costa Rica.  I have had the privilege, by the grace of God and the generosity of others, to be a part of all 7 mission trips.  Since the first trip in 2006, my experiences in Diques have influenced my preaching and my teaching in various ways.  It’s not uncommon for me to share a story about Don Victor, the pastor at the Church of the Light of the New Day in Diques, or his family.  Or about different children we’ve meet over the years and how their stories impacted our lives.

Don Victor and his story came to mind as I pondered today’s worship service.  About 25 years ago, Don Victor moved his family into Los Diques, leaving behind a comfortable lifestyle to live in a place with no electricity, no running water, and streets and floors made of dirt.  Why?   That’s the question that so many Costa Ricans and Americans have asked for years.  Why would he do this?

Don Victor saw something in Diques that few others did, and few still do to this day.  Where others saw prostitutes and drug dealers, Don Victor saw children of God.  Where others saw a collection of run down shacks, Don Victor saw the Kingdom of God.  Even with this new perspective, Don Victor’s story is not a warm, cuddly one.  He was met with a lot of resistance.  He received very little support from other Christians because he was doing ministry in such a ghetto.  During worship services, neighbors would play loud music or run loud machinery.   At times rocks would rain down on the building during services.  There were days when dead dogs were thrown at the building, landing right at the front gate.

As Don Victor was welcoming the outcasts of Diques into the Body of Christ, he was unwelcomed.

The Apostle Paul knew something about not being welcomed.  It is believed that Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians while in prison.  Paul’s preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ was not welcomed.  Yet, the gospel was not the only thing not welcomed in the first century church.  There was a major controversy in the first church, something I know we are not accustomed to today.  Luke documents the controversy well in Acts 15.  In Paul’s day, there was one major division among people – Jew or Gentile.

In the simplest definition, a Gentile is a non-Jew.  The Acts 15 controversy centered on whether Gentile Christians should go through the same rituals that the Jewish Christians did.  In a sense, it became an issue of membership.  The Jewish Christians were not recognizing the Gentile Christians membership in the church.  The issue was not limited to just Acts 15.  It was a problem that would rear its ugly head throughout the early church.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul’s major theme is that God’s plan of salvation is evident through the unified – the oneness – of the body of the church – the body of Christ.  Many of the mission trips to Costa Rica have had the theme of “Somos Uno”  – We are one.  Don Victor preached about how we are all different, different languages, colors, and hair styles, with different abilities, skills, and gifts, and when we come together we make up the Body of Christ and together accomplish the work of the Kingdom of God.

This idea – this theology – is sprinkled throughout Paul’s letters, including in Ephesians.   Yet, there is this division between Jews and Gentiles.   Paul, in essence, tells the Ephesians what he tells so many others, “Get over it.”  Yes, there are differences.  And that happens.  But don’t let those differences become stumbling blocks to doing Kingdom work.  What Paul is saying is that we all – Jews and Gentiles – can live together in this new Christian community to do the work of the kindgom.

 Yet, the notion that Gentiles were to be included and participate on an equal basis with Jewish people was still quite controversial at the time.  Paul had a goal to unite Jew and Gentile in equal grace.  The bottom line for Paul is this:  Christ simply HAS been made manifest to all, and the good news about him WILL go out from all who are committed to him and to all the world, including the Gentiles.

Including the unwelcomed.

This is just one of the themes we uncover in Matthew’s birth narrative, where the final pieces of the Nativity Set – the arrival of the wise men – are put into place.   Iraqi or Iranian star gazers were not normally seen waltzing into Jerusalem looking for a newborn king.  “If they did,” as one observer has noted, “they would have known enough protocol from their own culture that they wouldn’t normally start by asking common people and maybe a priest or two where this child might be.  Matters of state like this would usually have been handled by an official delegation working through all the ‘right’ channels.  In short, what these men were doing in Jerusalem and how they did it was bound – and maybe even intended – to draw suspicion from the powers that be.”  And suspicion it did draw.

Here are men most likely dressed in clothing that is very different from the cultural norm of Jerusalem, they probably have different facial features, and the gifts they bring with them suggest they are of a higher economic means than the average Jerusalem citizen.  These men are different.

Of the four Gospels, Matthew’s Gospel is the most Jewish.  It’s possible that the faith community that Matthew is writing his gospel for is the first Jewish Christian community in the first century.  There is a strong sense in this gospel to follow the Mosaic law; to hear Jesus teach in the tradition of the great Hebrew rabbis; and the importance of spiritual practices.  In Matthew’s view, this rich tradition of the Jewish faith are items that should be continued in the Christian faith.  Yet, with all this Jewishness, Matthew’s birth narrative has the least amount of Jewish characters.

It seems that the Jewish-Gentile tension is present in this early faith community as well.   I don’t think that it was a mere chance that Matthew includes the Magi in his gospel account.  Matthew is saying that there are traditions that are important and will guide us to growth, but that does not mean that we should keep Gentiles out, because they don’t fit into that tradition.  Mike Slaughter, a Methodist minister, points out that it was these nameless travelers who are the committed ones in Matthew’s narrative.  It was not the Jews, the ones inside the faith community, it was the Gentiles, those outside the community of faith.  Upon arrival, they bow down and worship Christ; they open their treasures and present them to the King; and they leave by a different way – transformed – changed.

From the beginning, Matthew is telling his faith community that tradition is important and valued, but that does not mean we exclude those who are different from us.  Christ is for all.  That is the message of the Manger.  The Christ child was not born in a palace with plush pillows, but rather in a barn surrounded by manure.  The Christ child was not visited by great political leaders, but rather was surrounded by barn yard animals, smelly shepherds, and foreigners.  Christ does the unexpected, and welcomes the unexpected.

The shantytown that is Los Diques is a place where people with no other means go.  Families escaping abusive fathers.  Mothers addicted to drugs.  Grandmothers raising her grandchildren.  Young boys whose only way out is to join a gang; young girls whose only way out is to sell herself.  This is a place the government would rather not exist, which is why they have been so reluctant over the years to provide the basic necessities for these people.

Yet, none of this matters to Don Victor.  Never has.  People are people.  And all people need grace.

I remember once walking through Los Diques with Don Victor and we came upon a teenage boy, who was 15 or 16.  Don Victor looked him right in the eyes and began to rattle off in his mumbling kind of Spanish.  I couldn’t understand a word Don Victor was saying, but I did know from context clues he offered earlier on our walk that we were in the area of Diques where pot was being grown – marjurnia.    While I couldn’t understand, I knew from the young man’s facial expression that he understood what Don Victor was saying.  I noticed his arms abused like a cutting board from the drugs he had been taking.  Don Victor knew this young man, knew that no matter what he had done that day, he needed to know that there was a place for him at the church, that he was valued by Don Victor and Jesus, and that grace was for him too.

The fact that these Magi, studiers of the stars from a foreign land, visited the Christ Child is a bit of foreshadowing into the ministry of Christ.  Jesus welcomed all.  The tax collector that nobody wanted to have lunch with; the children everyone wanted to keep in their place; the leper that no one dared touch; the bleeding woman everyone had forgotten about.  And Jesus stills welcomes all, no matter where you have been or what you have done.

Whenever we gather around this Table, Spencer (or any other Elder) will say that this table is not Lebanon’s table – it is not the UMC’s table – it is Christ’s Table, and as such, all are welcomed.  All are welcomed at Christ’s table.  The bottom line of Paul’s message to the Ephesians is the bottom line of Christ’s table:  Christ simply has been made manifest to all, and to all there is equal grace.

That’s the lesson I have learned from Don Victor – that all are welcomed – all receive grace.  That is the message of Paul’s ministry and the message of the Manger. . . and the Cross.  And we who claim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are called to follow in those footsteps to welcome all to share the good news of an equal grace to all.