a new hymn for the 2019 Confirmands of the Madison Christian Community
a new hymn for the 2019 Confirmands of the Madison Christian Community
Here’s the story: religious leaders had excluded a person from congregational participation, claiming this person was of a category unfit for God’s presence. Later—unfortunately much later—through Jesus this person is welcomed to the community, which is met both by popular acclaim but also by lingering resentments from the authorities.
This week, as we’re preparing for the Pride Parade, I’m having difficulty not seeing this Gospel story as a pretty precise parallel for how the church has treated LGBT folks over the past decades. It’s not an exact analogy; the Bible story is termed an exorcism or healing, while very clearly particular sexual orientations or gender identities are not wrongs that need to be fixed.
Yet still, it seems sadly uncanny how people who are lesbian, gay, transgender, and all kinds of queer have been condemned and pushed out of churches for years and years, being told you are not welcome, that the Bible’s regulations are against you, even that “God hates fags.” Then gradually, much too long later, came reversal, as some especially open-eyed churches—those who were best-attuned to the need for and prevalence of God’s grace, prevailing amid all of our lives that are too quick to condemn others in order to call ourselves okay—some communities gradually began offering a welcome and bucking the trend and rejecting the dominant and domineering regulations. And the broader popular culture—including some who will be lining State Street this afternoon—cheered this reversal even as some church authorities sought to slow the process or dragged their feet and grumbled through the change, or simply were put to shame by those with richer faith and compassion.
I said I was having difficulty not seeing this Bible story through this lens, and I really am feeling it as a difficulty. It’s not in the least that I regret the welcome. I don’t have doubts about God’s grace or believe we’re doing the wrong thing. I rejoice that we are a Reconciling in Christ congregation and find it a faithful necessity to have that rainbow logo with our identity. I’m eager to keep pushing our synod to fuller inclusion. That’s all well and good (other, again, than the regrettable delay of “what took us so long?”).
My difficulty in hearing the Bible story this way is the risk of just being self-congratulatory, that we pat ourselves on the back as those who get it, and we shake our heads at the feet-dragging grumblers who continue in shame. We don’t come to church just to applaud ourselves for being so welcoming or for proclaiming that God isn’t a narrow-minded jerk.
Partly it’s because we still have work to do. “All are welcome” may be exactly true as a theological statement, of the doors being open and the good news offered to all, of the Lord’s Supper as gifts given and shed for all. But that blanket welcome on God’s part doesn’t yet mean we do it well on our part. Pastor Sonja pushes this better than I, that if this weren’t just my place but were for all, then my way wouldn’t get to dominate as if it’s “right,” whether that’s for race or gender or learning style or ability level or age or musical taste or whatever. It raises the question for us: if God’s welcome is broadly offered and only true when it is enacted for all, then how do our practices and attitudes join that, and how are we the foot-dragging impediments of religious institution?
That propels us actually deeper into the content of this Gospel reading, and even more so the reading from Isaiah. In the Gospel story, there clearly seem to be sides, with the woman and the crowd and Jesus on one side versus the congregational leader and others as opponents. Rather than just inviting you to pick which side you want to be on, though, Isaiah prompts it by confronting your behavior. Specifically, verse 13 begins with a pair of contrasting very big “IFs”: “IF you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; IF you call the sabbath a delight…”
Let’s come back to the IF in a moment, but first pause to notice something spectacular: according to this in Isaiah, the purpose of this day is for delight. It’s a beautiful description—sabbath is not identified simply for rest or to go to worship, but for the delight God created you to enjoy. This day is so that your soul may sing. This is so that you may know freedom. It’s to release whatever distracts you and exactly to cure today what confines you, even if for a time, so you can glimpse a vision of a broader and better life, and praise God for it. Today is so you can delight.
To be part of this godly delight is very obviously not fulfilling regulations or requirements you need to do just right. It’s not how you worship (like how well you sing or what you say in your prayers, much less the right clothes or amount of offering). It’s not try out where you need to fit in so well, as if your welcome comes at the expense of somebody else, as if you’re better than others in some holy quality or another. Your delight is not dependent on your behavior, or conditional on how you feel about it. The delight of being uplifted arises exactly because you are never excluded by anything you’ve done. Never. Any aspect, good or bad: “your quirks, your questions, and your queerness…In baptism, you were claimed as a precious child of your Creator.”* The value of the day is that precisely—each in our very own ways—we need it. We need this chance to delight, because we’ve been crippled for too long and held in bondage for too long and keep worrying we’re not good or worthy enough, or have been told we don’t measure up. So you need this sabbath day, whose point isn’t what you do but is what you enjoy, realize, and delight in!
That also brings us back to the IF of Isaiah and the conflict in the Gospel story. The critical question in both is IF we’re just using this day for our own self-interested advantage. That can be hard to judge, if we’re delighting selfishly or more communally. For example, it’s supposed to be a day of rest; so if you get a weekend break with your family or a few moments of quiet amid the hectic week, is that delight worthwhile? Does that fit Isaiah’s criteria? Or, again, if you really enjoy singing Tom Hind’s liturgy in worship, is that delight for praising God, or is it that the tunes are catchy and choral singing releases endorphins that make you feel good and harmonious? Would that still count, since it remains far from Isaiah’s warning against “trampling on the sabbath”?
Maybe for more clarity we could ask this: Do we say we are so welcoming and loving, open and supportive because we like the old familiar faces of friends, or are we really ready for strangers and people who don’t look or act like us?
See, the delight is this broad, shared experience that is an engagement communing with who God created you to be and also in relationship with others as God created them to be. That’s bound to push you and make you open up some fresh edges. Again, this is the shape of things when we say that “all are welcome.” It doesn’t mean they’re allowed in if they look and act like you and know what you know and vote how you vote and keep quiet when you want them to. All are welcome means all, and it means a welcome from God, but also insists on welcome from us. Jesus sees you and reaches out to touch you, to offer you life. But you can’t block his vision or interrupt him reaching out to others who also need him. It’s impossible to secure more blessing by pushing aside or trampling others down, since we receive delight from God as we are receiving each other with delight.
Still more, this isn’t just embodied as we huddle amid a friendly little group at church, not just one hour a week we’re nice to each other, not just a shelter and refuge from surrounding nastiness. The delight of this gathering for God’s sabbath spreads out from here and across the world as the consummation of creation. For the brokenness and fractures that divide us in condemning each other, for sorrows that burden and devastations wracking and attempting to destroy our spirit, this godly delight is on the loose, the abundance of life, the fullness encountered in relationship, with Jesus and with each other. This is perhaps summarized in one of my favorite lines from the whole Bible. I even happened to reference it last week before noticing the verse would be included this week. It’s Isaiah 58:12: “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Wow. Could there be a better title for fostering shared delight?
This is a gathering where all are welcome, because God created all for delight, so you should have access to inspiration and rejuvenation and joy, and so should all others. But it doesn’t rest in this gathering alone. If you’ve missed church, you miss something wonderful and important, but you haven’t missed out on God or lost a ticket to some belated heavenly bliss. Rather, this is simply where we begin to live into God’s vision for our very present world, where delight isn’t confined to the worthy few, but spreads and is recognized by popular acclaim. This delight will march up State Street to reconcile the breach we have caused and felt. And then godly delight must continue on to the troubled streets of Milwaukee and charging through the closed doors of politicians-for-hire and is a deluge of repairs for Louisiana homes. And such delight must sweep away the rubble around a small, stunned Syrian boy and it resounds on the breeze with cicada calls and purges us like a baptismal rain and renews after raging fires. And, yes, all too often God’s delight has needed to bowl over shameful religious people exactly like us who have preferred to squander it or imagined it could be bottled up in individual serving sizes for your self-interest and pious-pretending pursuits. But there’s a cure for that, too.
The fullness of God’s blessing is for you, because you are part of God’s good creation. You are welcome here. Let’s sing it, better than I can say it.
Hymn: All Are Welcome (ELW 641)
* Thanksgiving for Baptism, http://www.reconcilingworks.org/ric/ricsunday/download/
Sermon for 5Oct14
Matt22:1-14; Is25:1-9; Ps23
A year ago, I got to go to Wyeth’s birthday party. She was turning 3. I heard a month ahead that she put me on her guest list. I thought that was cool, though I was still nervous.
See, I walked through the door, into a crowded house, and knew only her parents and recognized her babysitter. In spite of feeling out of place among the others, I quickly felt welcome when Wyeth spotted me and exclaimed with a big smile, “Pastor Nick!”
Reflecting back on that party, I’m really glad I went and had fun celebrating with Wyeth. I also have to admit I didn’t even think to invite her to my own birthday. I’m used to parties as small gatherings of my family.
Which says that Wyeth probably can teach me about gospel and about our Bible reading today. This is a reading of outstanding, radical hospitality, an extravagant invitation. It’s about there being a place for you, even when you feel out of place. The only thing keeping you from this celebration is your own reservations, because Christ has indeed secured your RSVP for you.
Let’s go back through the Gospel reading again, with the lens of Wyeth’s party alongside. There will be places it fits, and places we have to adjust (because, after all, even Wyeth is not exactly Jesus).
The parable starts with inviting the typically expected guests. For Wyeth that would most likely have three important traits: 1. kids also about 3-years-old. 2. they come bearing gifts. 3. ready to have fun. For the king in the story, there might be some overlap: he probably expects they’ll bring gifts to celebrate the wedding. The king, though, is likely inviting landowners or officials, the wealthy or the successful, the popular and the pretty, the “haves” of the community.
But then they don’t come. That happened for Wyeth, too. As you may know, even by her age life is busy, so there were 3-year-olds with all sorts of other commitments instead of the birthday party. They had sports games or play dates or appointments or distracted parents. Some of the excuses to the king are like that, too: one had to check on his farm, another was at work. They also had worse excuses; I don’t suspect any of Wyeth’s intended guests were busy with murder.
Another difference is that some of her original guest-list did arrive. The king has an entire party of no-shows. And there’s no distinction between legitimate regrets and the worst offenses. We’ll come back to that with some more interpretation.
For now, notice that the next step is to cast a broader net of invitation. (That metaphor of a net is appropriate; it is about drawing everybody in, a real catchall.) Wyeth did it by inviting a schmoe like me to her party. I clearly didn’t exactly fit in, but she wanted me there anyway. The story’s invitation is a notch more insistent still, simply yanking in passersby off the street, “the good and the bad,” it says, flagging down traffic, pulling over bicyclists, stopping people with yapping dogs, grabbing the Mormon guy by his tie and the Girl Scout selling cookies, pushing in the person in the wheelchair and carrying in the stumbling drunk, not offering a single criterion for entry, but simply encouraging them to join the party. That means even if they think they’re worthy and fit to be there and have every right and are appropriate and fun to party with, still they have the same place as the boors and the bores and the broken and every other loser.
God doesn’t want to keep anybody out. Neither will God let you kick others out, or let you be blocked. The point with God is never how good or how right you think you are; it’s that God loves a party and wants to celebrate. All are welcome. You are welcome.
Let’s try applying the parable at three locations. First, assume that Jesus’ party is heaven, the eternal banquet, with infinite life in the house of the Lord and cups overflowing, where your enemies may be there, but all are celebrating together, redeemed and welcomed by our loving Lord. You may not feel ready to spend eternity with some folks, but in our times it may not be all that shocking to imagine heaven is broadly and equally open for all.
As a second location, think about this worship gathering. If this is a foretaste of the feast to come and is where we practice for the party, we can look around this gathering and estimate how we’re doing. We’d probably guess we’re okay at saying “all are welcome” and not drawing lines that keep some out. But we should also admit that if we’re really extending Jesus’ hospitality and living out his grace, then we should have a lot more people here and really be celebrating.
With that, I also want to come back to the rejected invitations. With Wyeth, those who couldn’t be there missed out on a nice birthday party. With the king in the story, it got them permanently crossed off the list, as one author says, in an A-Team with bazookas blowing up BMWs sort of way.*
I want us mostly to notice that there were no good excuses, no legitimate or worthy regrets. In the story, being interrupted by the details of daily life was just as bad as bumping off the messengers. Not the reasons, but missing the party is the main problem. If worship is the practice, getting us ready for God’s big fulltime party of the kingdom, then we should take that more seriously here. Or we should take it less seriously, and show up for a raucous, abundantly loving dress rehearsal.
For a third location, we must presume that the location isn’t just heaven. It isn’t just at church. The kingdom of God is taking on flesh in your lives. This practice of enjoying life with others, of radical welcome that will leave no one a stranger and celebrates God’s extravagant blessings really is at Wyeth’s house, and yours, from now on and for eternity to come. Which raises a final question: if we consider heaven so open and easy to get into, why are we still so resistant to living that out even in small ways here and now?
* Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, p458