This message was offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, July 5, 2015.
Readings: 1 Timothy 2:5-6a
Over the course of the next eight weeks—throughout the summer—we will be exploring what it means to be an in-formed Methodists—someone who is not only knowledgeable about what it means to be a Methodist, but also someone who is being formed and transformed by God’s grace. It’s a whirlwind tour, a primer, of what The United Methodist Church believes and strives to be. For those who are interested, we will, beginning next week, have books available to go along with this series. I’d also encourage you to stick around after worship, get a refill on your coffees, and join me and others around the table(s) to discuss this and each week’s message.
Let’s pray. Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear that together, we might be inspired to not only speak but to live your Word in the world starting today. It’s in that most holy Word’s name—Jesus the Christ—we pray. Amen.
It was a conversation in one of my former churches in another community. I was chatting with a single mother—the cousin of a clergy friend. Her son attended the preschool at the church I was serving which is where I ran into her. I don’t really remember too much of the conversation. I’m sure we talked about how I knew her cousin, we were ordained together, and how her son was enjoying school. As the conversation was wrapping up, I invited her to join me and congregation in worship the following Sunday. I can’t remember in any detail the conversation leading up to that point, but I remember her response. She said, “I can’t come. I don’t have nice enough clothes.” She didn’t think she could attend worship or be a part of the church because she didn’t have good enough clothes to wear. I tried to reassure her that God doesn’t care about the clothes she wears, but no amount of persuading could change her perception. Her response haunts me: “I don’t have nice enough clothes to wear.”
Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. He came to save the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the good and the evil. The Church of Christ, therefore, [SHOULD] gladly welcomes in Christ’s name everyone…
The Church—the body of Christ active in the world today—is called to be a place where all can belong regardless of how one identifies or is identified, regardless of the clothes one wears. Young or old, rich or poor, good or evil: there is no one beyond the reach of God’s love. The church isn’t just for you and me; it’s for all the world. Church isn’t just for those who dress a certain way, look, smell, or talk a certain way. Church is for everyone. But, let’s be honest, all too often we make it about us. Worship is a great example. We worship in ways that are meaningful to us—but largely irrelevant to the world around us; we’re not always willing to, say, change up the location of where we hold worship. Most of us feel closer to God in the sanctuary, but the reality is that that space is intimidating for a large number of people. We’ve turned what is to be a safe place (“sanctuary”) into a place where you can’t have food or beverage, must meet the dress code, must know the jargon, and can’t sneeze, cough or say a word without someone turning around and giving you the over-the-shoulder-look of suspicion, annoyance and disapproval. While church is supposed to be a place where everyone can belong, where all are valued and appreciated, it all too often isn’t. And, we’re not just inhospitable to the unchurched. We tend to segregate even among ourselves as Christians.
American churches are increasing in ethnic, cultural and theological homogeneity despite the fact that America is becoming increasingly diverse. Indeed, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith point out that over 90 percent of all American churches are composed of congregations that are at least 90 percent racially homogenous. Further, theologian Scot McKnight suggests that the same processes that contribute to a lack of ethnic/racial diversity in churches are also contributing to ideological and theological homogeneity. Not only do we look the same, we also think the same. Martin Luther King’s famous assessment that “At 11 a.m. Sunday morning . . . we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation” is, sadly, as true as ever.
We like our holy huddles of people that seem to be the same as us.
LifeWay Research recently polled churchgoers and found that most are perfectly fine with the fact that Sunday morning remains one of the most ethnically segregated hours of the week. In fact, many people are more than fine with segregation; they defend it! The researches reported that more than half (53%) of the churchgoers polled disagree with the statement “My church needs to become more ethnically diverse.” And about a third (33%) strongly disagree with the statement.
We, the Church, have got a lot of work to do if we’re going to reflect the diversity God has gifted humanity with. The Church is called to be a community where everyone can belong; a place where people are not overlooked and devalued; a place where people are treated with dignity as individuals of infinite and sacred worth. The Church is called to welcome all in their diversity no matter how we understand ourselves or are understood.
“Christ [God-in-the-flesh] gave himself as a payment to set all people free” (1 Timothy 2:6a, Common English Bible). “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son… God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16a, 17, Common English Bible). Christ didn’t come just for some. Christ gave himself for liars, poor, rich, male female, questioning, black, white, green, red, yellow, gay, straight, hypocrites, dropouts, homeless, young, old, single, married, divorced, doubtful, proud, introverts, extroverts, dirty, spotless, democrats, republicans, independents, and you! Christ came in love to give himself and embrace the entire world; and, we—those who claim to follow his Way—are called to do the same. We’re called to open our arms wide and be a community where all can belong and be loved.
Last week, I had the privilege of hosting our monthly Community Meal. The Meal was setup several years ago to provide food for the homeless on Sundays when St. Vincent DePaul’s (the local soup kitchen) is closed. We took a few risks last week. We moved the time up from 2pm to noon, because noon is when people eat lunch. We decided to fire up the dishwasher and used the church’s table service, because it’s better for the environment and when you’re invited to my house to sit at my dining room table for dinner, you will rarely if ever use paper plates. And, I cooked a meal that I would cook for you if you were visiting in my home—garlic pork loin, cheesy hashbrown casserole, fresh fruit and salad. In May, we served 18 people. Last week, we served 42 people. It was the largest attendance this year. We’re going to keep most of those changes, including the time change, from this point on. I hope you’ll consider joining the meal this month—we host it every fourth Sunday. Participate as a volunteer or as diner. I did both last week and three images stick out from that meal I shared with our neighbors…
First, the image of a man who was clearly homeless—dressed in well-worn clothes that were dirty, rubber boots, and a sweatshirt (in the middle of summer!)—holding a ceramic coffee cup. It seems like such a mundane image but his posture… He was holding that cup like it was a prized possession. He asked if he could have the cup. We gave it to him. The look of excitement and gratitude on his face was both amazing and humbling. As people were taking their first bites of food, I overheard a table talking about the meal. Someone remarked that the pork tenderloin tasted like prime rib because “you can’t buy this stuff on food stamps.” After everyone had been through the line, two ladies walked in late. They were shocked when they picked up their plates such that I heard them across the room say rather loudly, “wow! Real forks and plates today? We don’t get this every day.”
These images have been rolling around in my head all week. I think they illustrate what it’s like when people who are often forgotten or belittled are welcomed and made to feel like they belong. It illustrates what it’s like when people who have forgotten their worth are treated with the dignity and respect they’re due. It illustrates what it’s like when those who feel despised are embraced and loved.
When we embrace people and treat them as if they are of immeasurable and sacred worth, like they’re really loved and valued, lives are transformed: that’s when disciples are made. “Love is from God,” writes John in his first letter, “and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God” (1 John 4:7, Common English Bible). And, I’ve got to believe that as people experience that Godly love that God is being made known to them. God, through the ways in which we love, is made real. “God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them” (1 John 4:16b, Common English Bible). Jesus tells us that it’s by the love we share that people will know we are his disciples: when we love each other (see John 13:34-35).
Who belongs in the Church? Who is Church for? The Church is for every one. Amen? And Amen.
 “How Divisions are Killing Us and Why We Should Care,” by Christena Cleveland, posted October 21, 2013, at TheWell.InterVarsity.org <http://thewell.intervarsity.org/arts-books-media/how-divisions-are-killing-us-and-why-we-should-care> Accessed July 4, 2015.  “3 Reasons Why I Hate Diversity,” by Christena Cleveland, posted February 19, 2015 on ChristianityToday.com < http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2015/february/3-reasons-why-i-hate-diversity.html> Accessed July 5, 2015.