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Monday, May 19, 2014

Location, Dislocation, Relocation.

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I was six years old when my mother, with my two older brothers and five older sisters, completed a 1400 mile journey from eastern Kansas to the little village of Stuarts Draft in Augusta County. We arrived early on a Norfolk and Western passenger train on the morning of March 5, 1946, then walked nearly a mile to where our dad was staying, surprising him with our early arrival.

My father had just made the same trek in a freight car designed for cross country moves, one that held livestock in one end, farm machinery in the middle and our furniture at the other end. It was a huge undertaking for my 40-year-old parents to make this move to a new community with their brood of eight. They also faced the challenge of making a living on the rocky and hilly 120 acre farm my uncle financed for us, quite in contrast to the 160 acres of relatively flat land we had come from.

Why did they do it? Not for financial gain or for a better farm, but for the benefit of us children, believing that the families and young people in the little Amish congregation at Stuarts Draft would provide a better environment for us to grow up in. Many of the young people in their Kansas church youth group were into things like drinking and smoking and some engaged in courtship practices they were afraid we would be negatively influenced by.

I will always be grateful to them for making the decision to relocate. And it turned out pretty well as far as our passing on their faith and values to families of our own. I've often wondered what might have happened to us if they had chosen otherwise.

I shared that story at our house church gathering yesterday, where our lectionary texts reminded us that following Jesus is sure to involve some major relocation, certainly a decisive dislocation of our perspective and direction if not an actual geographical move.

In the Acts 7 passage for this Sunday, Stephen, a passionate member of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem, is brutally stoned by angry members of the Jewish establishment. This young firebrand, not a Judean native, outraged the Judean powers by promoting two controversial positions regarding religion and location. First, he insisted that God doesn't identify primarily with a certain land (the whole earth is the Lord's), and secondly, that God does not dwell in temples made by human hands (but inhabits the hearts and lives of faithful people everywhere).

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So in his speech, instead of appealing to conqueror Joshua, military King David or empire builder Solomon, Stephen elevated landless nomads like Abraham and Sarah, who had answered God’s call to leave their roots and their homeland and to relocate in Palestine, even though, as Stephen reminded them, they never owned a foot of land in the new world--except for their burial plots. He insisted that what really holds people together is not so much their land, but their Lord, their Abba. The kingdom of God is wherever God rules, in the hearts and lives of followers of Messiah.

That didn’t go down well with the ruling party, who saw God as providing a promised land they could call their own, with secure borders that would forever exclude outsiders--along with a temple in their midst which would be God's exclusive dwelling.

But Stephen, quoting key Hebrew texts, insisted that God had no need for either a particular plot of real estate or for a dwelling made with human hands, something very hard for them to hear, especially since they had just been given the gift (by King Herod) of a glorious new temple on Mt. Zion, which they believed pointed to a restored theocracy and a land free of all foreign enemies. The idea that God’s new kingdom, led by Messiah, would welcome everyone, that it was to be an international movement that included all believers of all kinds from every tribe and nation, and not Jews only, was in their minds a rank heresy.

So the relocation Stephen calls for takes us into Abraham, Joseph, Moses and Jesus territory--all of them being resident aliens in their time--and into temples not made with human hands.
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