Wednesday, October 04, 2006

All Are Welcome! or ?

James 2:1-10

Punctuation makes all the difference in the world. A period says one thing, a question mark says another. That’s why English teachers will ding you for poor punctuation. They know how important punctuation is to good communication.

This morning’s sermon title, includes two different forms of punctuation. It’s not that I don’t know which one to use. I did it to make a point. The meaning of the sermon title changes depending on which form of punctuation I use. An exclamation mark says something like: Come on in and enjoy the water. A question mark says something like: "I’m not sure you should join us. Someone might not think it proper." One message is inclusive and the other is not.

In search of safety, human beings tend to be exclusive. We like boundaries. But James says: don’t show partiality. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, black or white, a mansion dweller or a street person, if you come to church, you’re welcome. That’s because everyone has equal value in the eyes of God.

Once upon a time churches rented out their pews. I guess they forgot to read James, because the more you paid the better the pew, and if you couldn’t pay the rent you sat in the back, or in the balcony. Of course, this practice solved the age-old problem of coming to church and finding someone sitting in your place. But, James wasn’t the only one to deal with this problem. Paul had to deal with potluck dinners in Corinth. Now you ask: how can you mess up a potluck? Well, what happened was the rich people brought a feast but didn’t share with the poor. That meant that some of the people went away stuffed and others went away hungry. Paul told them it might be better if they didn’t have potlucks if they couldn’t share.

Now, Jesus preached a message of inclusion, but it took an encounter with a Syro-Phoenician woman for him to see Gentiles in a positive light. He met the woman while dining in the Syrian city of Tyre. This woman barged into the house and pleaded with Jesus to come and heal her daughter. Now it took a lot of guts to do this and Jesus’ response seems absolutely cruel. He basically told her to get at the back of the line, because "the children get fed first. If there’s anything left over, the dogs get it" (Mk. 7, MSG). I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know and love. As harsh as it might sound, that’s the way Jews saw Gentiles and Gentiles saw Jews. Despite his words of rejection the woman persisted, and she convinced him to heal her daughter. By doing this she helped break down the barrier between Gentile and Jew. Paul later summarized this principle in Galatians 3:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no
longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28).
This is a message of welcome. There is no question mark here. Unfortunately Christians have been slow to learn the lesson. Too often we listen more to our culture than to Jesus. This is even true in America, where Christianity has had a significant influence on culture and society. Remember that it took a Civil War to abolish slavery, and a lot longer before African-Americans got the right to vote in a large part of this country. Women didn’t get to vote in federal elections until the 1920s. Even today most churches refuse to ordain women and many keep them from having leadership in the church. So, I guess we’re still learning what it means to be a place of welcome.

A Different Sort of Church
Two thousand years ago the church was born as a Jewish sect., but Jesus broke down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. It took a lot of pushing and shoving on God’s part, but in time people caught on. From Peter’s encounter with Cornelius to Paul’s journeys, the Spirit broke down walls and invited the world into the church. At first the church spread north and west, following those famous Roman highways, and more recently the church has spread east and south. Many experts say that by mid-century only 20% of Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. I think Paul would be pleased to see all this diversity in the modern church. But, we’ve still got a long way to go before we can say that all the walls have been torn down.

Becoming a Welcoming Church
We decided at our retreat that our church should be a place of welcome, and it’s now one of our five core values. But what does it mean to be a place of welcome? I think it means more than we’re a friendly place where everyone knows your name. Being a place of welcome starts with warm hospitality, but it’s more than that.

The call to be a welcoming place begins at the Lord’s Table. Because it belongs to the Lord it’s not our place to decide who eats and who doesn’t. But, that’s only the beginning. The reason I put in the question mark is that I wonder if there are any limits to our hospitality. Does it matter which language a person speaks, or the color of their skin? Does age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or economic status matter? When we say with Paul that we’re all one in Christ, what does that mean?

It’s going to take time for us to truly understand what it means to be a welcoming place. And just because we put out the welcome mat doesn’t mean everybody is going to come knocking on our door. Not everyone will be comfortable with our message of inclusion or with the freedom we give to interpret the Bible. Some will be offended because we have women elders and the president of our denomination is a woman. They may want us to be clearer about what we believe on certain political and even theological issues. Still, I believe that God wants us to put out the mat and then learn what that word means.

As we learn what it means to be a welcoming church, it will be good to remember one of the foundational principles of our Disciples heritage: "In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity." Because our unity is rooted in Jesus Christ, we needn’t break fellowship over matters of music, worship style, politics, social class, or even our interpretation of the bible. This can make things kind of messy at times, but that’s what it takes to be an exclamation point kind of church!

Preached: September 10, 2006
15th Sunday after Pentecost
First Christian Church of Lompoc

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