Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 29, 2014
First Christian Church
Ernie is someone you just can’t forget.
Ernie is a man in his mid60s who is developmentally disabled and a part of the community of First Christian in Minneapolis. Every Sunday, someone from the church would pick him up at his apartment and bring him to church. He seems to always have a smile on face.
But Ernie can be a handful. For one, he doesn’t really have an inside voice. This means when he talks, everyone hears. Which meant you might not want to share you deep dark secrets with him. Speaking loudly in the hallway before worship service is one thing. But you see, Ernie also talks like this in worship. Every so often as the worship service would progress, one of the pastors would say something and Ernie would respond in his loud voice. When this would happen, we would simply and calmly answer his question and continue with the service. There are a host of other things I could share about Ernie that would exasperate me.
Sometimes sitting next to Ernie was Kevin, a man in his 50s. Kevin is schizophrenic and it always seemed that he was just on this side of sanity. It was not unusual during the time for prayer that he would ask for prayers because he was hearing the voices again.
After a while we learned something about Kevin. He was a budding artist. He drew fantastic drawings in black and white and also in color. Most of his works had a science fiction feel to them, a vision of what a futuristic city looks like.
What is wonderful to see is that both Ernie and Kevin are considered full participants in the community. In the five years I was a pastor at First, no one ever complained about Ernie or Kevin’s antics at time. People learned to roll with the punches with these two. I was thankful to have been a part of a church that welcomed folks like Ernie and Kevin and were not embarrassed by them.
Churches always say that they are welcoming. But no matter how much this is true or not, churches are always tested. It might be the teenager with autism that sometimes starts yelling in the middle of service while his parents have a mixture of embarrassment and concern. It might be the transgendered person that stays in the homeless shelter for women at the church. It could be the sex offender that has done his time in prison and tries to reconnect in the community. Time and time again, our faith communities are tested. How do we really welcome everyone? Do we understand what welcoming everyone means?
In today’s text; Jesus is giving his disciples some instructions before they are sent on their mission. Jesus is tells them straight up that they have to put Christ and God’s kingdom first before family. I always love the translation of the text found in the Message Bible and this time it does not disappoint. “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy,” the passage begins. Following Jesus was going to be hard and it would test our relationships with our family and friends. People would not understand that you are putting Jesus first, so be prepared. Jesus says, “If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself.”
When Jesus calls us like he called the disciples, Jesus is telling us to learn from him. This process of learning how to be Christlike has name-discipleship.
That word has always confused me. When I do think of it, I think of people reading their Bibles at 5AM or people who are known by what they don’t do: don’t drink, don’t smoke and so on. Nothing is wrong with reading our Bibles or trying to live a chaste life. It’s just that discipleship can seem so hard, so impossible. How can any of us emulate Jesus? Wasn’t he perfect? While I hate to admit my weaknesses, I’m sure that I am not perfect and neither are any of you.
But here’s the thing, we might be called at times to do difficult things, like those who took part in the civil rights marches in the 1960s, all the while facing angry mobs of people. But most of the time, it involves doing a small thing. This is why Jesus talked about how great an act was of giving someone a cup of water. Jesus didn’t say you need to go live in a yurt in Mongolia. Jesus said give someone a cup of water. We will face the more challenging aspects of discipleship, but we start right here with some H2O in a styrofoam cup. When we do something like welcoming the Ernies and Kevins of the world we are doing more than just being nice. We are representing who God is, a God that loves us all, good and bad, straight and gay, Democrat and Republican and so on. When we start with cold water, don’t be surprised if you start doing other things. Once we learn to welcome people, it can be hard to stop.
My full-time job during the week is working as the IT guy at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist in Minneapolis. At one end of the church building, there is a small chapel named Border Chapel. Across from the doors to the chapel is a display. You learn that the chapel was named after a church Border Methodist Church in Minneapolis. Border was a small African-American church at the edge of downtown. At some point, the church was being torn down to make way for a freeway. This could have been where the story ends; the church closes. However, it doesn’t. A short distance away was Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, the big downtown church. Hennepin heard of the struggle facing their sisters and brothers at Border. Hennepin decided to do something that seems rather mundane; welcoming the folks at Border to become members at Hennepin. What was the big deal of this invite? This was the 1950s and churches were still very segregated. Whites went to one church, blacks to others. What was happening between two churches in Minneapolis was not normal. Things like this just weren’t done.
The display has articles from the New York Times about this event. This was huge. There’s a story that I heard that wasn’t in the display. On the Sunday that the Border people would come to Hennepin, the large white congregation decided to do something that was hospitable and God-infused. As the African-Americans from Border came into the sanctuary to become part of Hennepin, the members from Hennepin stood up, welcoming their new members. A cup of cold water made the difference.
This weekend, First Christian is participating with two other Disciples of Christ churches- First Christian-Minneapolis and Spirit of Joy in Lakeville in staffing a booth at the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival in Minneapolis. Some of us have volunteered yesterday and some will do so today. The booth has brochures from each congregations, fan and beads (people love beads) and a place where people can take communion and pray. As I was handing out fans yesterday, more than once I heard someone say “Thank you for being here.”
I don’t think I was doing anything heroic in standing in this booth at a city park on a hot Saturday afternoon. Handing out fans doesn’t seem like much; but it makes all the difference to people who might have been ostracized from churches because they were gay. It says that there is someone, someplace that accepts them and sees them as children of God. A cup of cold water makes all the difference.
Jesus calls us to be disciples. God doesn’t start by telling us to go to seminary and learn Greek. No, God starts by calling us to do simple things; like welcoming a person with developmental disability, or a person dealing with mental illness, or people of a different race or ethnic group or someone who is gay, lesbians, bisexual or transgender. If we can welcome one these children of God, then we are well on our way as faithful disciples of Jesus.
A cup of cold water can make all the difference. Thanks be to God. Amen.