In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus tells a story about some people who ministered to him and some people who didn’t. And the plot twist in that story is that what really happened was that some people ministered to those in need, and some people ignored those in need. In that story, Jesus told us that when we minister to people who are in need, we are ministering to him “in his most distressing disguise,” (as Mother Teresa liked to say).
Part of our missional strategy here at Zion is at least once per year we corporately find ways to address the priorities of Jesus in Matthew 25: Feeding the hungry, satisfying the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prisons. We honor the emphasis Jesus placed on offering preferential treatment for the marginalized, on doing charity. We are called to do justice, but we are also called to do charity, which is necessary because we don’t yet have justice.
We begin this week with Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger. As I’ve been preparing this series for the past several weeks, I’ve been thinking about my dad. He died in 2004. My dad was a guy who never met a stranger. Grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, sidewalks, adults, kids, didn’t matter — my dad would find a way to strike up a conversation like he’d known you forever. Sam has this same kind of outgoing, generous, friendly nature and it’s one of the things that first drew me to him. So far, Sammy is like this too. Thankfully since he’s a small child, he takes his cues from us, but he will talk to anyone about anything that is on his mind. He’s never met a stranger.
Not everyone has that same kind of personality. But as followers of Jesus we are called to have the attitude of never meeting a stranger. The word stranger in the Bible can also be translated as alien, foreigner, sojourner, immigrant, outsider … the literal translation is “not like us.” So as we think about specifically what welcoming the “stranger” looks like this year in our city for the people of God gathered at Zion UCC, I suggest to you that this call includes our welcoming those who have been estranged from the church, particularly LGBTQ folx.
In August 2008 this congregation made the bold commitment to publicly extend God’s extravagant welcome and affirmation to each and every person who walked through those big red doors. In the United Church of Christ, becoming Open and Affirming is a process that is officially managed by the Open and Affirming Coalition. Being Open and Affirming means more than just being “welcoming.” There are churches in the UCC that call themselves “Faithful and Welcoming,” which means that they welcome LGBTQ folx into worship but they will not affirm LGBTQ sexuality. And they are up front about that. Now I wholeheartedly disagree with them, but at least they are up front about it.
As their name suggests, they believe they are being faithful to the Bible. I wholeheartedly disagree with them about that too. There are very faithful interpretations of all the texts in the Bible that seem to refer to LGBTQ orientation and relationships that still allow us to fully affirm the human dignity and inherent blessedness of LGBTQ people. The Bible is old enough and, frankly, complicated enough that you have the freedom to choose your interpretation of the verses. People who sincerely love Jesus disagree about how to interpret the Bible. That’s just reality. The important thing to remember is that everyone is responsible for the actions we take based on our interpretations. We can’t blame our actions on what the Bible says. We are responsible for our choices.
There is not a doubt in my mind that LGBTQ folx are welcomed by God and must be welcomed by us. As a congregation, we’ve settled that question. I know that there are people in this congregation who agree that we need to be Open and Affirming but wouldn’t don’t feel confident about the Bible verses. If that’s you, I recommend a great book called Unclobber by Colby Martin. This is not a textbook; it is written for normal people by a man who shares his own journey of changing his understanding of the Bible. There are also a few free online resources and I’ll put links to those in our Facebook group later today.
It is not our job to police the doors of this church. There is no such thing as “deserving” to be included. No matter what kind of theology you have, “deserving” is not a helpful or useful category.
Your theology might lead you to believe that everyone deserves to be included because everyone is created in the image of God. Great! Everyone is in – deserving is not an issue!
Or your theology might lead you to believe that no one deserves to be included because we can’t earn God’s favor. Fine, it’s not about what we deserving. Deserving is not an issue.
Whichever one of those works for you you, it doesn’t really matter because you land at the same place: we are all the same. If you think everyone deserves it, great. If you think no one deserves it, fine. either way, deserving is not an issue. I cannot deserve a welcome that you don’t deserve, because we are the same. Being included is not about who deserves it and who doesn’t. There is no hierarchy of inclusion. Let’s be very clear: LGBTQ folx are fully included. People with criminal records are fully included. Neurodivergent people are fully included. People experiencing homelessness are fully included. People who aren’t dressed up are fully included. People who are dressed up are fully included. Small children who can’t stay quiet are fully included. People who have never been in church and don’t know any of the rules are fully included. Everyone is fully included.
This call of Jesus to welcome the stranger is not unique to him. He is rooted in a tradition that goes all the way back to the exodus from Egypt. Let’s read together this morning a short passage from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 10. In your Bibles, Deuteronomy is very close to the beginning. It’s the last book of the Pentateuch, which is a fancy name for the first five books of the Bible or what Jews call the Torah, or The Law.
Deuteronomy is remembered as one big long speech by Moses at the end of the Ancient Hebrews’ 40 years wandering in the desert. This speech remembered their past and prepared for their future. It was a restatement of the covenant they had with God, explaining the way they were to live as a result of who they were. And it is here, in the context of God’s larger covenant invitation on how to live that we have for the first time God’s command to welcome the stranger. This is the foundation of everything else. Let’s read together from Deuteronomy chapter 10, starting in verse 12. Think about our church’s mission and the beginning of this might sound familiar to you.
“So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him you shall serve; to him you shall hold fast; and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.
From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
Here’s the main point: We are called to welcome others because we know what it feels like to be unwelcome. Our acceptance of others is rooted in our experiences of being unaccepted.
Even if you are the most privileged person in this room, I bet that you can think back through your life to a time when you felt like the outsider, the alien, the foreigner, the new kid. If you’re still struggling to find a moment, think about middle school. Perhaps you know what it feels like to have someone treat you like there’s something inherently wrong with you, like you will never be good enough, like you will never belong. That is a deeply painful experience.
Now, those experiences can lead us in one of two directions. As they saying goes, “it can make you bitter, or it can make you better.” And the difference is our experience of grace.
If I have an experience of being an outsider, and I do not ever allow myself to experience God’s full and gracious acceptance of me before I can do anything acceptable — if I don’t know deep down that I am a beloved child of God, then I will spend a lot of energy excluding other people because it makes me feel better about myself. If do not experience God’s acceptance at a soul level, I will try to feel better by making other people feel worse. The power to exclude others makes me feel like I am included somewhere, and so I exclude. Does that make sense? Feeling excluded could make me bitter and lead me to exclude others.
On the other hand, feeling excluded could make me better. God’s acceptance of us is constant and unconditional. There is nothing we could ever do, nothing about who we are, that can change how much God loves us. Period. That is the meaning of grace. If I can accept the grace that God is already constantly extending to me, the grace that is already mine, know that I am already accepted by God and inherently worthy of love and belonging, then my experience of feeling excluded will lead me to include others. If I know I am accepted, if I don’t have anything to prove, then I have nothing to lose by accepting other people. If I get it deep down in my soul that I am welcomed and affirmed by God then I can be a channel of God’s grace to welcome and affirm other people.
Human beings are wired for relationships. Even independent introverts need to feel like they belong somewhere. No one wants to go through life with everyone’s back turned toward them. We welcome others because we know what it feels like to be unwelcome and we don’t want anyone else to feel that way. If we fail to welcome others, it is because we have forgotten who we are and where we came from.
We need to remember that our spiritual ancestors knew what it was like to be unwelcome; we are spiritually descended from people who were shaped by the experience of being outsiders. Because we have been welcomed by God, we are called to make sure no one else ever feels like an outsider. The way people believe what God thinks of them is by experiencing what the people of God think of them. If we are not welcoming, it indicates that God is not welcoming. If we are open and affirming, it indicates that God is open and affirming. The book of First John chapter 4 verse 12 says “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” And just before that in chapter 3 verse 17 John says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but closes their heart and refuses to help, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” What matters in the end is how we treated other people. Everyone is welcomed by Jesus. And since we are Christ’s body here are now, everyone belongs with us. All belong here. Period.