A wide, wide Church

Wristbands given out by All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church
at the Capital Pride Parade, June 9, 2012.

A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 22, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:11-22, and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.

If God said to you one day, “I’d like to re-make my Church. I’m putting you in charge of quality control.  You get to choose who’s in and who’s not in.” What would be your standard?   The ones who don’t get in aren’t consigned to any bad place—they just have to go to their own churches, say, or wait for a little while, or go to a special place where they’re properly prepared for your church. 

“So,” God says, “who’s in?”

Would your friends get in?  or your family?  Or perhaps not your family?  Who would be in your perfect church?”  If God asked me this—and if I were honest—I think I would probably say that I’d like everyone in my church at least to view scripture the way I do—that it’s a sacred book that in some places may not be factually true, and yet, scripture teaches, and imparts great Truth.  That would be a good starting point.  I also think I might like a church where everyone could sing, but of course we’d all agree on which hymns to sing and which anthems the choir would use. 

To imagine who might populate our “dream church” can be helpful exercise sometimes.  It helps to expose what is often under the surface for some of us.  It also may help uncover our motives for being in a particular church or following a particular way.  I think it’s helpful, as well, because if you’re anything like me, it usually turns out that my idea of a perfect church, a perfect gathering of God’s people—is usually a very different idea than what God created and still creates. 

The scriptures today work together to show us God’s vision, God’s dream of his called and gathered people.  The readings remind us of the broadness, the expanse, and the array which is to be the church of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians gets right to the point— though, admittedly, Paul writes in terms that may sound strange to us today. He writes about the “circumcised” and the “uncircumcised,” hardly a topic one might expect for a Sunday morning in July. But he’s really just using shorthand for a conversation about Jews and Gentiles, Gentiles being everyone who is not born Jewish. By the time of the Letter to the Ephesians, the early Church was filled with at least two kinds of people—some were former Jews who had decided to follow Christ. Many probably still thought of themselves as Jews, even thought they had, in many places, been driven out of the synagogues. But these Jews who followed Jesus were also successful at inviting non-Jews to join the movement. We have stories in scripture about some of them:  There was the Ethiopian Eunuch, there was the Centurion Cornelius, and before long there were many, many more.

But there’s a conflict going on in the early church at Ephesus. It’s not exactly clear what the problem is, but some scholars think it had to do with new Jewish converts who felt that since they were really Jewish (circumcised), that they deserved a more immediate entry and a higher status in the community than those who were Gentile and had never been Jewish.  They wanted a kind of HOV lane for salvation,  a kind of “Hebrew origin variety” easy-pass.

Among some early communities there was even the question of whether a Gentile man who joined the Christian Church should become circumcised like a Jew in order to be a good Christian. Should Gentile women adopt the customs of faithful and orthodox Jewish women? These questions may sound strange to us today, but they were HUGE question for early Christians.

And so, it’s in this atmosphere that Paul preaches, “You who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”

Paul goes on to write with assurance to the newly converted, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

Paul says that we, all of us, are to be one household. If you go to Israel today and look at any of the archeological sites you can see what a household in the first few centuries looked like. It might be a couple of rooms, but then when the children grew older, a sleeping loft might be added on. Then when a child grew up and got married, an addition would be built on to the house, and so the household grew.

With each new addition, another room would be added. It didn’t matter if the new person was liked or disliked. It didn’t matter whether they brought anything in particular to the household. What mattered is that the new person was family, and they were welcomed, and they were included.

The other scripture readings for the day point to various dynamics with the church. The Old Testament reading warns that there will be those leaders who will seek to separate and divide. Some will attempt to scatter the flock and drive them away. But God will create a remnant of those who follow God, and this remnant from every land, and bring them home. And among this new family, there shall be no fear and none shall be missing.

In the Gospel, I wonder if this isn’t one of those places in which even Jesus questions his calling.  One can imagine a contemporary church growth consultant pointing out to Jesus that he would do much better if he were to focus on a particular demographic and tailor his message accordingly.  “Your vision is too big.  You can’t be all things to all people,” they would say.  In today’s Gospel, it seems like Jesus is getting tired and is trying to get a little break.  “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.”  And with that, Jesus tries to go off to a “lonely place.” It’s almost as though Jesus, himself has enough of a following, an already full plate, a more-than-full agenda.

But then, before long, God sends more people.  God expands the word, the appeal, the message, and the healing.  And God gives Jesus the power he needs to keep on.  Jesus teaches and heals and loves with the knowledge that God’s love is for everyone.  There is no end to the wideness of God’s mercy, to the fullness of God’s fellowship.

A few years ago Martin Smith preached a great sermon at the confirmation service at the cathedral.  He told a great story about a young boy at St. Columba’s Church.  Martin noticed in worship that at the end of the prayers, the little boy would give his mother a “high five.”  After a while, the mother asked him why he was doing it, and he replied, “When we’ve finished a prayer, don’t we all say ‘I’m in!’?” 

“I’m in” perfectly captures the idea of an Amen.  Amen has been used not just as a punctuation mark to a prayer, but a way of our entering into the meaning and the intention of the prayer, of claiming our part in it, of saying “I’m part of the team.”  But it also means that there is a team.  There are others who have our back, and also lead out in front. There are people covering the sides.   Sometimes it’s our calling to play a different role, but faith is never, ever a solo sport. 

Whether it is the worldwide community of believers who are trying to get along, or the Episcopal Church, or a local parish like this one—the good (but sometimes difficult) news of the Gospel is that all are welcome. It doesn’t matter if you are a life-long Christian. It doesn’t matter if you are still trying to figure God out.

God spreads a table before us in the presence of those who trouble us. God anoints us with holy oil, and fills our cup until it’s overflowing. God’s goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. We’re in—each one of us.

May God continue to remind us of his holy welcome, and may God continue to show us how to welcome one another.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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