May 8, 2011

"A Church For All People"
W. Gregory Pope, preaching

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Series: Practice Resurrection

Galatians 3:26-28

I . . . am . . . speechless!
Speechless with gratitude and pride.
For you, Crescent Hill Baptist Church, outdid yourself last weekend!
I have never been more proud of a congregation that I am of you for the giving of
      your time,
      your love,
      your hard work,
      and your gracious hospitality
to make the Alliance of Baptists Convocation such a wonderful experience for so many.

As always, when I attend Baptist meetings,
there were those who shared with me their remembrances of being here while in seminary.
But last weekend the number of those remembrances do not begin to compare
to their glad amazement at the diversity of our congregation and
to the number of remarks I received regarding your gracious hospitality. 

These people were gushing at the mouth with praise and gratitude.

And it was not generic praise.
It was specific.

If someone asked you something and you didn’t know the answer
you walked with them to find someone who did.
You didn’t tell them where a room was;
you showed them.

You didn’t do what they asked you to;
you did more.

These are their words, not mine.

On Tuesday afternoon,
we sat in our staff meeting sharing stories of all the wonderful things we heard said about you.
We were proud in the best sense of the word.

Leaders of the Alliance,
for whom convocations are very stressful events,
where plans and arrangements sometimes have to be altered on the spur of the moment,
could not say enough good things about you
and how you made the weekend the marvelous experience that it was.

The one remark from last weekend that I will not forget
came from a gay man who, with tears in his eyes, said to me:
“My partner and I have two sons.
We are not always treated with kindness.
But I just walked my little boy over to get some water,
and someone from your church asked him if he would like juice instead.
And they went back into the kitchen to get some.
It was such a little thing,
but it made him so happy!”
I was beginning to tear up as he told me the story.
He and his son felt loved.

Crescent Hill, do you know what we did last weekend?
We lived as the body of Christ.
Your arms that poured water and set tables were the arms of Christ.
Your feet that led people where they needed to go were the feet of Christ.
The smile on your face was the smile of Christ.
The love in your heart was the love of Christ.
The welcome of your words was the welcome of Christ.
The self-giving willingness to make another van-run downtown,
or to the airport,
or out to Hurstborne,
was the self-giving of Christ.

I don’t know what, if anything, happened to you last weekend,
but I felt the best of this church resurrected.

I don’t know what, if anything, has happened within you these four years
that we’ve been gifted with our Karen and Chin brothers and sisters,
but let me tell you what has happened to me.

These past four years, including last weekend, have changed my understanding of church.
While I still believe worship to be the most important guiding and shaping act of the church,
worship is for the people of God, the church.
But the church exists for the sake of the world to continue the ministry of Jesus.
I will say more about that next week.
But for now let us be reminded that the ministry of Jesus
focused on those society and religion had tossed aside.
So if we want to know what to do as a church,
then let’s make a list of those people excluded by society and religion
and welcome them here.
And here, among those whom Jesus called “the least of these,”
there we will find the Christ.

The most transformative experience for me last weekend
occurred while attending a workshop on “The Transgendered Experience.”
Meeting and listening to Allyson Robinson, a transgendered person,
tell her story of the complexity of gender identity
expanded my understanding of what it means to be a human created in the image of God,
and helped me see how things are not as simple as they told us in high school.
In high school biology I was told you were born with one of two sets of chromosomes -
male or female. 
The truth is that a person can be born
with one of nearly two dozen combinations of chromosomes.
Gender identity is not as simple as male or female.  There are other ways to be born.

And your arms of love were wide enough last weekend
to provide room for those stories to be told,
room for people who are often shunned to be loved and welcomed as they are.

The gospel says we are all one:
      gender does not matter
      social class does not matter
      race, ethnicity, and religion do not matter.
In Christ we are all one.

During the last week of his life,
Jesus entered the Jerusalem temple
where he saw the money changers extorting the poor and the foreigner
before they could make the sacrifices they came to make.
And Jesus was ticked.
He started turning over pews and communion tables and driving out the money changers
and said, You have turned this place into a den of thieves,
but God says, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”

The question for us is:
Will we fully embrace being the church God is making us to be? -
A church for all people!
A house of prayer for all people!

We were last weekend.
And God continues to shape us into such a place.

What I love so much about the Alliance of Baptists
is that they search to find oppression and exclusion anywhere in the world and in the church,
and they work to bring an end to it.
They seek to open their arms as wide as Jesus opened his.

They work for economic justice,
marriage equality for all,
partnerships with the poor,
the rights of women in ministry,
peace, liberty, and justice for all.
They believe the good news is for all people.

Last Sunday I was invited to attend the Alliance Founder’s Luncheon.
I was not a founder by a long shot.
In 1987 when the Alliance began, I was a 19 year-old fundamentalist.

One of the founders, Nancy Sehested, told of a time she was sitting on an airplane
and the man beside her said he was a pastor of a church of several thousand.
“Wow!” she said, “You must have incredible potluck suppers!”
Failing to deter him from the question, he asked what she did.
And she said that she too was a pastor.

He said, “I didn’t know there were women pastors.”
And she said, “That’s because we are in the Witness Protection Program.”

And then Nancy told the founders gathered,
“You have protected the witness.”

That too is our task:
to protect the witness of the gospel that is the good news of justice, freedom, and grace for all.
And we protect it by living it.

That is what we did last weekend.

That is what we are called to do every time we gather:
protect the witness by living it.

The witness is simple:
love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself.

Who is our neighbor? 
Our neighbor is whoever needs our help.
Stranger, friend, or enemy.

Extending hospitality, welcoming stranger, friend, and enemy
requires us to overcome
      the fear that chokes out love
      the prejudice rooted in fear
      and the narcissism within each us in order to be inconvenienced.

Loving our enemy certainly does not include celebrating his death!

It has been said that
“The biggest obstacle to hospitality is not the state of the world. 
It is the state of our hearts. 
It is the comfort we crave so badly that we will do almost anything for it.”1  
Hospitality rearranges our way of living.
It can be discomforting.

We are not here as the church to be served
but to put the needs of the guest and stranger before our own. 
To invite the guest and stranger to a place of connection and acceptance and home.

Christian hospitality is an invitation to home. 
We live in a world of profound homelessness. 
There are those literally without a place to live. 
And those whose homelessness runs even deeper. 
Many wander around in the world as if it were a wasteland,
living in isolation and pain.

In the face of such homelessness,
the church is called by God to embody a radical sense of home. 
The home of every human being is the heart of God. 
And the church is God’s home,
God’s family on earth,
the place where all are welcomed as children of God.
Last week Walter Brueggemann talked about hospitality
reminding us the word comes from our word “hospice.”
Hospice provides a safe and dignified place to die.
Christian hospitality, says Brueggemann,
is to give people a safe and dignified place to live.

We do that by making connections and building relationships. 
Aren’t you grateful for the people you met last week,
the strangers who became friends?
Connections were made,
relationships born.

“There is a big loneliness at the center of every person”2
that is meant to lead us to God and to others. 
We all need to know that we are not alone.
We yearn for a hand that will reach out for ours. 
We both want and fear connecting with others. 
But deep down,
we all want to know that when we face life’s difficulties
we are surrounded by a community of grace, people who care for us.

Hospitality meets the human need of acceptance,
the need to know and be known by others.

The Rule of Benedict that guides Benedictine monasteries
does not require a visitor to understand and conform to belief systems or cultural norms. 
All persons are received as they are
and invited into a place where acceptance and compassion seek to generate the desire for God.  Benedict’s way is the way of Christ,
who welcomed without distinction.
Hospitality says to every guest and stranger:
“I welcome you to this place to share our life.”3

To provide a place of hospitality is to offer an acceptance of another
who doesn’t have to prove anything, but just lets themselves be loved.

What we all want most is acceptance.  Right? 
You cannot fully understand me,
I cannot understand you,
but we can accept each other. 

Jesus said:
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me. . .
and just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,
you did it to me.”

If we really believe this it will radically change our behavior toward strangers. 
If you want to know what a church thinks of Jesus watch how they treat strangers and guests.

The gospel calls us to treat every person we meet, as if they are Christ. 
“The message to the stranger is clear:
Come right in and disturb our lives. 
You are the Christ for us today.”4

Have you ever noticed in the gospels how, at every turn,
the disciples and Pharisees seem ready to draw boundaries and distinctions
that would keep people at a distance?
In every instance,
Jesus radically challenges those prejudices
by overstepping the boundaries to invite people in. 
Hospitality allows us to see people as Jesus sees them
and to see Jesus in the people God brings before us.

Hospitality refuses to toss anyone aside. 
You can’t ignore people when you realize that God is looking out their eyes at you.5

Joan Osborne sings a song entitled “One of Us.” 
It asks, “What if God was one of us, just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home?”  Jesus said,
God is one of us,
God comes to us in the guest and the stranger,
and we are all of us strangers on the bus of this world trying to make our way home.
My hearts overflows with thanksgiving and praise for you as a congregation,
for the ways in which in your arms of love continue to grow wider and wider.

We still have room to grow.
And I believe, with God’s help, we are up to the task. 
We are discovering that hospitality is an adventure
that takes you where you never dreamed of going. 
It is more than something you do,
it is something you enter,
something you become. 
It is a way of being in the world. 
It’s about shaping a life that says “Welcome!” 
Hospitality, says one writer, is “the stance of the heart that is abandoned to Love.”6
The Love that is God, that flows from God.

Before we welcome others, we have to welcome ourselves.
Before we truly love others, we have to love ourselves.
And that happens when we experience the unconditional love and welcome of God.

I conclude this morning with these words by Desmond Tutu.
Hear the love and welcome of God as God says to us and, I believe, to our church:

You are my child,
My beloved.
With you I am well pleased.
Stand beside me and see yourself,
Borrow my eyes so you can see perfectly.
When you look with my eyes then you will see
That the wrong you have done and the good left undone,
The words you have said that should not have been spoken,
The words you should have spoken but left unsaid,
The hurts you have caused,
The help you’ve not given
Are not the whole of the story of you.
You are not defined by what you did not achieve.
Your worth is not determined by success.
You were priceless before you drew your first breath,
Beautiful before dress or artifice,
Good at the core.

And now is the time for unveiling
The goodness that is hidden behind the fear of failing.
You shout down your impulse to kindness in case it is shunned,
You suck in your smile,
You smother your laughter,
You hold back the hand that would help.
You crush your indignation
When you see people wronged or in pain
In case all you can do is not enough,
In case you cannot fix the fault,
In case you cannot soothe the searing,
In case you cannot make it right.
What does it matter if you do not make it right?
What does it matter if your efforts move no mountains?
It matters not at all.
It only matters that you live the truth of you.
It only matters that you push back the veil to let your goodness shine through.
It only matters that you live as I have made you.
It only matters that you are made for me,
Made like me,
Made for goodness.7

And so are we all offspring of God, says the Bible.  Made for goodness.
1.  Daniel Homan and Lonni Pratt, Radical Hospitality, Paraclete Press, 2002, 16
2.  Ibid., 10
3.  Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom For Today, Upper Room, 1999, 49
4.  Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights For the Ages, Crossroad, 1992, 141
5.  Homan and Pratt, 10
6.  Ibid., 203
7.  Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made For Goodness and Why This Makes All the Difference, Harper One, 2010, 200-201