Monday, September 22, 2014

Country Club Church

Did you read that last week the membership of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews has voted to admit women to its prestigious club? Gosh, what’s the world coming to? What will we have next—women ushers?

I don’t mean to make fun of antiquated male-dominated organizations (I am an Episcopal priest, after all), but the gospel lesson for the feast of St. Matthew (Matt. 9:9-13) makes me wonder what it was like to be in the room when that vote was taken.

When the Pharisees began to question Jesus’ disciples about why their master ate with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” It’s hard for me to imagine a more transformative, world-changing concept than the Son of God calling sinners to follow him.

At Fairhope High School, I was in the Key Club, and, back then, despite the civic/service nature of the club, the current members interviewed prospective members and voted to admit only those they deemed worthy. I don’t remember voting people out, but I do remember being interviewed (a process akin to hazing). In college, I was a member of Theta Chi fraternity. We didn’t have a “blackball” policy, where one no-vote was enough to reject a prospective member, but we did require something like 80% agreement to invite someone to pledge. Only once did I find myself in conflict with the will of the chapter—a difficult moment when I had to go and sit down with a freshman and tell him that he wasn’t going to get in. I wouldn’t say that his rejection on superficial grounds haunts me, but it’s a moment that still brings me shame. I’ve been a member of a country club, but, thankfully, as a clergy member, I didn’t get to vote on who’s in and who’s out. I’ve never served on our diocese’s Commission on Ministry—the group that helps discern whether someone is called to lay or ordained ministry—but I do serve on the Standing Committee, which must certify that an individual who has been trained for ordained ministry is suitable for the office.

What’s it like to have the power to decide whether someone gets in or is left out? What’s it like to assess whether someone is worthy to join your club? On what basis do we discriminate? Looks? Wealth? Gender? Race? Religion? Political persuasion? Intelligence? Ancestry? College football allegiance?

One might imagine that the incarnate Word of God would choose the most pure, the most religious, the most holy followers to build his movement around, but Jesus spent most of his time with traitorous tax collectors and immoral sinners—those whom religion had already excluded. Why? Because those who are well don’t need a physician. He came to call sinners to follow him. Imagine that—sinners! It’s one thing for a politician to surround himself with less-than-reputable followers, but the religious leader of the day, whom we discover to be the very Son of God, preferred the kind of people we wouldn’t let into our churches.

As a “religious official” of my own day, it’s fun for me to think what the Jewish leaders thought of Jesus and his movement. “We can tell that he is a wise and powerful religious figure. Clearly, God’s spirit is upon him. But he’s one of them—the kinds of people who show no interest in the faith. Should we listen to him? Should we give him a share of our leadership? Or should we squeeze him out?” The incongruity of an individual’s holiness and his followers’ wickedness was too much for the Pharisees to grasp. It didn’t make sense. And it still doesn’t—as long as you approach the world in the black and white terms of who’s holy and who’s not.

What did Jesus tell them? Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” That’s a quotation of Hosea 6:6—a word from a prophet who was critical of Jerusalem’s empty religious practices. He was calling God’s people back into real relationship—one defined by the ends rather than the means. It was Jesus’ message for the religious leaders of his day. And it’s still God’s message for the church.

Who belongs in God’s house? Who is invited to come to the Lord’s table? Whom would Jesus eat with? Yes, the answer is all of us, but who are we? We are not called because we are worthy. We are not called because we are holy. We are not called because we are righteous. We are called because we are sinners in need of forgiveness. When we come to the table, do we come because we feel holy or because we seek holiness? When we invite others to join us at the table, are we looking for good people who belong or for sinners like you and me who only belong because Jesus has called them?


Jesus called the immoral outcasts of his day. As the church, we exist not to provide a club for saints but an open door for sinners. Who are the last ten people to join your congregation? What brought them there? Are you attracting members like a country club, or are you bringing in the dregs of society?

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