This is yesterday’s sermon preached at Law Parish Church. Your thoughts and comments are welcomed.
“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.” That is the strap line of The United Church of Christ’s TV advertising campaign in the States. The TV commercials have been banned by some of the major media corporations because they have been deemed offensive. One portrays a church with bouncers at the door, keeping undesirables out, and the other has people being ejected in a James Bond fashion. At the press of a button they are fired out of their pew.
The commercials have been deemed offensive by CBS and NBC. By implication the UCC ads say that other churches are exclusive, that certain groups of people are not welcome there because of their race, sexual orientation or ability. That’s why they have been banned. The sad fact is that this is true, whether this exclusion is deliberately enshrined in policy and theology or not. The UCC welcomes anyone, everyone, and has decided that spending millions of dollars on this message of inclusion is worthwhile. And it works. Thousands of people have come along to see if they really are welcome here.
The question of who is in and who is out is one that has perplexed and even obsessed the Christian church since its birth.
The difficulty is that the answer to this question, and indeed perhaps even the question itself, is artificial. Institutions need to work out who their members are for all kinds of reasons. We need to know who can and cannot make decisions and who can write cheques and most importantly, who can be blamed when things go wrong. I’m not so sure that the kingdom of God has such limits.
Prior to the Reformation the question of who belonged to the church in this country wasn’t really a consideration because everyone did. We sometimes talk about living in a Christian country, as though such a thing still exists. Four hundred years or so ago it did. Everyone was deemed to be a member of the church because the church was the state and the state was the church. The only people who didn’t belong were those heretics who were harshly dealt with. Heresy was a civil crime.
The Reformation changed all that. The reformers had to define what they were and indeed what they were not. Membership became an issue. Who was in and who was out suddenly mattered a great deal. This is a legacy that we have inherited.
The problem with this is that Jesus was pretty set against his followers making those kinds of decisions about people. The Kingdom of God is not an institution and in the illustration of the wheat and the weeds Jesus cautions against us trying to separate out the good and the bad. If we try to grab a handful of weeds we will just as surely pull up some wheat at the same time.
As with all great preachers, Jesus gives three illustrations of this point in chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel. He talks of wheat and weeds, or fish caught in a net, both good and bad, and of yeast in the bread. To the untrained separating weeds from wheat and sorting out different kinds of fish would be almost impossible. And at what point do yeast and flour stop being separate ingredients and start being bread? If we judge someone at a particular stage of their life to be unsaved does that preclude them from ever being saved?
The first will be last and the last will be first. Whoever is not against us is for us. I for one don’t fancy even beginning to try to work out who’s in and who’s out on these criteria and when we add grace into that already confusing mix I think it becomes clear that the one thing we should not be in the business of is deciding who is saved and who is not.
So what are we in the business of? And who is our business?
Some years ago I attended a week-long conference at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. The theme of the conference was ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and the ideas that were discussed continue to challenge me to this day.
Two words formed the basis of the discussion: reciprocity and household. I would like to spend a little time on each.
Reciprocity is acting in a way which is reciprocal, corresponding; matching; complementary; equivalent and reciprocity along with a very rigid system or honour and shame was the basis of Jewish society in Jesus time. Do unto others as they have the means to do back unto you. People had very clear ideas about who they were responsible for; their family first; their equals next; then those who were less than them and finally the outsiders. Outsiders, the beggars, the lame, the prostitutes and the poor had no part in society.
The Parable of the Great Supper, recounted by Luke, is told during a meal. It tells the story of a man who invites his ‘friends’ to supper. They all make excuses, the traditional way of signalling disapproval with the arrangements, as to why they can’t come and so the host sends his servants into the streets to get the outcasts to come in and eat. As there is still room he sends them out to get more ‘undesirable’ people to come in and eat. The story is shocking as it goes against all the societal rules about friendship. The man has allied himself with people not in his social grouping, bringing scandal and disgrace, both to the original guests and to himself.
It is this system that bears the wrath of Jesus in the Parable and it is only in this context that we can make any sense of the next part of Luke’s story.
He tells us that ‘large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-yes, even his own life-he cannot be my disciple.”‘
What on earth does that mean? It means an end to the social model of Jewish 1st Century society. Family groups were, and still are, exclusive. Blood is thicker than water. Families look after each other but are often closed to outsiders. We often hear people liken the church to a family. Is this the kind of family we mean?
It is much easier to be nice to someone when you know that they will be nice back. It is much easier to give gifts when you know that you will receive a gift of similar value in return. But that is not how the household of God works. Households in Jesus’ day were a collection of extended family and workers who lived separately but together under the rule of a patriarch. This extended household is a better model for our church that the spurious nuclear family. Such a family is the invention of marketing companies. In the household of God barriers are permeable. People can move between groups but remain under the authority of the head of the household, God. Groups meet each other’s needs but care for the whole household and the wider society. This story is perhaps a good example:
“There was once an old monastery which had lost its inspiration. The same routines were performed as they had always been, but there were no new novices and little enthusiasm for the rites of prayer.
The Abbot saw all this and he grieved. At a loss as to how to change things, he paid a visit to an old hermit who lived in the woods. The hermit welcomed him in and spread the table with bread and cheese and wine. After they had eaten together the recluse addressed the Abbot.
You and your brothers have lost the fire of God. You come seeking wisdom from me. I will tell you a secret, but you can only repeat it once. After that no one must say it aloud again. The hermit then looked deep into the eyes of the Abbot and said, ‘The Messiah lives among you.’
They were both silent as the Abbot considered the import of this saying. ‘Now you must leave’ the hermit said.
Returning to the monastery, the Abbot called all the monks together and told them that he had a teaching which he had been given by God. He added that the teaching was never to be repeated out loud again. Then the Abbot looked at each of his brothers and said, ‘The Hermit says that one of us is the Messiah.’
The monks were startled. ‘What could this mean?’ they wondered silently. ‘Is John with the big nose the Messiah? Or Father Matthew who keeps falling asleep at prayer? Am I the Messiah? But puzzled as they were they never repeated the saying again.
As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a special love and reverence. There was a gentle, whole-hearted, human quality about them now which was hard to describe but easy to see. They lived with each other as those who had finally found something of significance. Their words were careful, considered and gentle. Who could tell when they might be speaking to the Messiah?
Before long, the vitality of the monastery attracted many visitors and young men began asking to join the community. The old hermit died without revealing any more and the Abbot sometimes wondered if he had understood correctly.”
From ‘firstname.lastname@example.org′ by Mike Riddell
Love God and love each other as Jesus loves us. That’s not a bad place to start our journey toward the kingdom.
And what if God was one of us? What if the messiah lives among us or is one of us? We talk enough about seeing God in others and in creation, so how about we start acting like it. What if God was a stranger, a homeless man, an asylum seeker with an unmarried mother? Oh that’s right, he was. I wonder what kind of a welcome that messiah would get in our churches on a Sunday morning? Would he be met by the bouncers at our door? Or ejected, not by a 007 style seat but by cold shoulders and icy stares?
And yet the church has an amazing capacity for good. People are fed, clothed and healed through the tireless work of people like you. But then perhaps it is easier to be charitable to people who are helpless, powerless and far away.
So where does all this leave us? What business are we in? And who is our business? Our business is creating and sustaining the household of God. As for who is our business? In the household of God all are valued, all are equal and all have a place. Not just some people, not just the people like us, not just the deserving or the gentle, but all and the decision about who is in and who out is not and will never be ours to make.
It might be that our first intention is to make that very clear to our communities. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here. That is the mark of the household of God. That is the sign of Christ’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.