September 9, 2018 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here, and video of the entire service can be seen here.
“Whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome in this place, and you are welcome at God’s table.”
Those words are printed in our bulletin. Unless the new guy forgets to say them, we hear them every Sunday before we come to Communion. The search committee, when they came to visit, let me know how important they are to this congregation, and, after being here for only seven weeks, I can already see for myself that they reflect the identity of this parish at a deep level. But do we believe what they say? Do we really believe that all people, regardless of who they are and what they believe, are welcome in this place and at God’s table? Is that a statement of our faith, or is it merely a catchy slogan that describes the kind of church we wish we were or, worse, pretend to be?
It isn’t easy being a church that welcomes everyone. People are…messy. They can be disruptive. They can be unpleasant. They can be needy, walking into a community and continually demanding more of that community than it has to offer. They can be off-putting, pushing people away because of how they look or talk or smell. They can be controversial, making others uneasy because of their recent arrest or recent affair or recent bankruptcy. And some people can be down-right dangerous, threatening others verbally or physically. We might want to welcome anyone and everyone into this congregation, but we cannot and will not allow a sexual predator to wander through the halls. But, if we believe what we say, then we must believe that anyone and everyone belongs here among us and at God’s table.
James knew that this wasn’t going to be easy. “My brothers and sisters,” he asked, “do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” In other words, can someone who shows partiality still believe in Jesus? James was writing to the early Christian community, but he raised the kinds of issues that seem particularly relevant to the twenty-first-century Episcopal Church: “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and…to the one who is poor you say…‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Our branch of the Jesus Movement isn’t exactly known for being a poor people’s church. What Rector wouldn’t rather have a congregation filled with generous, easy-going parishioners than critical, complaining hold-outs? What Vestry wouldn’t rather see an eager, energetic volunteer walk through the door than a “pew potato” who does nothing more than show up?
Notice, however, that James isn’t making a practical argument but a theological one: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” The problem that James has with favoritism isn’t its lack of hospitality but its incongruity with the gospel. The real issue isn’t our behavior but God’s. Who is God? God is the one who chooses the poor, who sides with the marginalized, who loves the least among us. The gospel of Jesus Christ shows us that God embraces those whom the world brushes aside. Jesus shows us that God’s love belongs as much to the outcast as to the one at the center of the religious community. If we believe that, if we believe in Jesus, then we must make space here in the midst of us for anyone and everyone not because it’s the nice thing to do but because it’s who God is and what God does.
To be that kind of church, we must first acknowledge that it’s easier for us to reach out to people who look and talk and dress and think like us, but those aren’t the people to whom God is opening God’s arms. Of course it’s easier to be a church where the pews are filled with people who have money to share and problems that they would rather keep to themselves, but that’s not a church that reflects God’s reign in the world. Even Jesus, when he told the Syrophoenician woman that it wasn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs, showed an instinctive preference for his own people. But the woman’s response reminded him that, when it comes to God’s love, there is always enough, even for the uninvited guest to receive a full share. What will it take for us to learn the same lesson?
The answer for us isn’t to try to be more welcoming but to go deeper in relationship with Jesus, the one who shows us that God’s love has no limits. For the most part, our congregation is good at making space for outsiders. On the surface, we are as friendly as any church in Fayetteville. We take pride in our welcome. But even the most intentional welcome has its limits. If the only thing holding open our doors is our decision to be friendly, then eventually we will reach our breaking point, and our hospitality will run dry. Why? Because there will always be someone too difficult, too hostile, or too painful for us to embrace on our own.
It is not we who welcome the stranger but God who welcomes her into our midst. If we want to be the community where all of God’s people dwell, we must remember who it is that has called us into this place. We must remember that we, too, are here not because of who we are or because of what we bring but because we also are recipients of God’s unconditional love. If we want to be a church that welcomes anyone and everyone, that is where we must start—with our own radical welcome by the one who loves us and the whole world without limit.
Whoever you are, you belong in this place. Wherever you may be on your journey of faith, you are welcome at God’s table. But you cannot come to that table and participate in that sacred meal if you are unwilling to share it with everyone else who may come and kneel beside you. The invitation is universal and the price of admission is free, but the cost of participation is enormous. To share in the body and blood of Jesus Christ you must recognize that your place at the table is in no way the product of your own doing but is completely and totally a gift of God. And you must recognize that everyone else has been given the same gift for the same reason. How humbling! How equalizing! How threatening! How glorious!
You cannot believe in the power of unconditional love and also believe that such love has limits. You cannot be the recipient of God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor, and deny that same grace to anyone else. As a speaker at last week’s All Faiths Summit said, “You only love God as much as the person you love the least.” That’s true, but, if you’re struggling to love others, try remembering how much you are loved by God. You, too, are welcome at God’s table, and it is God’s welcome that makes room in our hearts for everyone else