Mission First: Gathered Series
Second Sunday of Epiphany
January 15, 2017
First Christian Church
If Donald Trump showed up at the door of this church, would you let him in? Just hold that thought for a bit.
A few years ago, I was involved in helping the church I was at in sponsoring a refugee family. We worked with the Minnesota Council of Churches which has a good record of helping people from around the world settle here in Minnesota. We learned that we were going to sponsor a family coming from Somalia. This is not unusual; Minnesota has been a leading destination for refugees from Somalia, which has been dealing with a civil war for almost 25 years. Now, most of the people who come from Somalia are Muslim. This tends to be the dominant religion in that part of the world. I didn’t think much of this fact until I got an email from a woman who was a member at the church. She was upset about us helping these refugees. It wasn’t because they were African. She was upset because…you guessed it, they were Muslim. As much as I and the Senior Pastor tried to talk about the need to help these people who were simply looking for a home, she was resolute she thought these people could be trouble.
Now, we did go ahead and sponsor this family and helped them acclaimate to American society. But I was dumbfounded that someone was more worried about a person’s faith than they were about helping a family find a safe place to make a life.
Another story. About 20 years ago, I attending a Baptist church in Washington, DC. Back then, the church was made up of both liberals and evangelicals. A minister that had been involved with the church was asked to serve on the pastoral staff. She was more than qualified for the position, but there was an issue: she believed in the inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church. In the 1990s this was still a controversial issue in this Baptist denomination. During a meeting to discuss the issue, another woman rose to talk. She was from the evangelical faction of the congregation. She admitted that she and this pastor didn’t agree on this issue. But she also had a relationship with the pastor and counted her as a friend. She urged the congregation to call this pastor and they did. Here were two women, who were on different sides of an important issue and yet they maintained a relationship, they respected each other.
These are two examples, one positive and one negative. There are those who are willing to reach out to those who are different backgrounds and beliefs, and there are those who think that there are good people and those who seek to harm others. It seems at times that we as a society are less willing to be friends of those who are different from us. Our society has learned to segregate themselves into groups where we can be with others that think just like us. We start to think that the other side is not simply wrong; but somehow dangerous to the very social fabric.
Churches are no less different than the wider society. It’s becoming less and less common to see liberals and evangelicals in the same congregation. Both sides look at each other as apostates, not really Christians. We see ourselves as doing God’s work and the other side? Well, not so much.
I’ve not done such a good job at spelling out our current sermon series which is based on gathering. The church is a gathered community. It is gathered by God. But what does it mean that we gather? If it is God who gathers us in, then who is part of the community? Who is not?
Today’s text has always been an odd one for me. Jesus is back home in Nazareth and he’s asked to read scripture at the town synagogue. He gets up and reads from Isaiah 61. This is Jesus way of announcing his ministry and his mission statement. He tells the crowd that he is the Messiah, the Lord’s annoited. He is here to preach good news to the poor, to liberate the imprisoned and the oppressed and to give sight to the blind.
Now, the people didn’t really get that he was connecting himself to this passage, until he adds to the passage that what was promised in Isaiah is being fulfilled as the people are listening. Everyone is astounded at what they have heard. Some were proud, some were questioning. One the surface, we think this is about what they had just heard. But Jesus could sense people’s hearts. Something wasn’t right, the people were missing the point. He knew they were more interested in him performing more miracles than they were about taking this passage to heart. So, that’s when Jesus took what could have been a nice experience and pushed it a bit further. He tells them that he knows they want him to produce the signs that took place in Caperneaum. But he warns them by telling two stories. First he talks about how the prophet Elijah helped to feed a poor widow and his son in the town of Zarapath. If you can remember from a few months ago when we learned about this passage the town of Zarepath is outside of Israel. Jesus is saying that there were other widows who were dealing with hunger because of the draught, but Elijah was sent to help this foreigner.
Then he shares another story. The prophet Elisha healed a Syrian general named Naaman from leporesy even when there were others in Israel who suffered from leporsy.
All of this riled up the people and they set to push Jesus down a cliff to his death. Jesus is able to slip away, but it seems like he would not be coming to Nazareth for the holidays anytime soon.
So, why were the people so angry? What made them so enraged that they wanted to kills Jesus? These were not unfamiliar stories, so what caused them to go mad with anger?
Just as Jesus was telling them that he was the Messiah, he was telling the crowd that this Messiah wasn’t coming just for the Jews, but for everyone. Those tales were nice to say that God could care for some outsiders, but Jesus was pushing them. God wasn’t just being nice to Gentiles, this was part of God’s plan. No one group was special, which is how the people in the synagogue saw themselves. But Jesus is going farther than this. Jesus is not playing favorites. Mary sung that things were going to be flipped upside-down and here is the proof. Those that felt they were special, that they were God’s favorite, were no longer sitting so pretty.
Jesus would end up living out what he preached that day. He would meet with Samaritans and Roman soldiers and a host of other folk that probably wouldn’t be welcomed in that synagogue. Jesus was on a mission and he wasn’t going to be boxed in.
It’s easy to look at this and think that luckily we aren’t like these people in this passage. I hate to tell you, but we are. We aren’t any better than the townsfolk of Nazareth. We might say we welcome everyone, but there is always someone that we don’t want coming into the doors of our churches. We don’t want people of other ideologies in our churches or maybe someone from a different social class. We say we have open arms, but too often we act like bouncers for the kingdom of God. Jesus was called to be servant to all, not just the people of Israel.
As I said earlier, it is God that gathers the church. It is God that gathers this church. What does that mean for us and are we ready for who God gathers to this church? I’d like to believe that I would be able to welcome all, but would I welcome everyone. Would you?
The church is called to be light in the world. God is building God’s kingdom with us. What the world needs to see in this church and in all churches are communities that are willing to reach out to people regardless if they are not of the right group. We need to be able to come together in prayer and worship with people that we might not always agree with.
So, I come back to the question I asked at the beginning: if Donald Trump showed up at the door of this church, would you let him in?
There is a church that is actually dealing with that question or something like it. The Washington National Cathedral is hosting the inaugural prayer service for the President-elect. The Cathedral has a history of hosting inaugural worship services, so this is keeping in line with that tradition. But the idea of allowing Donald Trump into the doors of the grand cathedral has upset many people around the nation. The Cathedral is part of the Episcopal Church and the Bishop of the Diocese of Washington has tried to explain why they are hosting this service at this time. I want to share what Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde said about opening the doors of the church to the next President:
First, I want to acknowledge the anger and disappointment that our decisions have engendered. And to say that I’m listening, because the spiritual principles that move many of you to protest are essential for the work that lies ahead. While I do not ask you to agree, I simply ask you to consider that we, too, acted on spiritual principles. Those principles, while they may seem to conflict with yours, are also essential for the work that lies ahead.
The first spiritual principle, which always characterizes the Episcopal Church at its most faithful, is that we welcome all people into our houses of prayer. We welcome all because we follow a Lord and Savior who welcomes all, without qualification. Welcoming does not mean condoning offensive speech or behavior; it does not mean that we agree with or seek to legitimize. We simply welcome all into this house of prayer, in full acknowledgment that every one of us stands in the need of prayer.
The second spiritual principle that informs my decision is that in times of national division, the Episcopal Church is called to be a place where those who disagree can gather for prayer and learning and to work for the good of all. I am alarmed by some of Mr. Trump’s words and deeds and by those who now feel emboldened to speak and act in hateful ways. Nonetheless, I believe in the power of God to work for good, and the capacity of our nation to rise to our highest ideals. As President Obama said in his last speech, our nation’s future will be determined by our resolve to “restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.” I ask the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington to join me in dedication to that purpose, in faithfulness to Christ and as ones who cherish the gift of democracy.
Jesus’ mission on earth was to minister to everyone. While the crowd in the synagogue thought God was just for them, Jesus was pushing the boundaries and saying that the love of God is for even those we deem outside of the love of God. If we are honest, we will admit that this is a hard teaching and one we’d rather ignore.
Would Donald Trump be invited here? That’s a question you need to wrestle with so I’m not going to give you an answer. I pray that we can be like Christ, to get outside of our comfort zones and welcome everyone to God’s kingdom. Even when we find it difficult.
Would Donald Trump be invited here? Thanks be to God. Amen.