Mission Possible sermon series – #2 Welcomes and Accepts All People

SCRIPTURE – Gen. 18:1-8 –  The Lord appeared to Abraham[a] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures[c] of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

SERMON
Mission Possible sermon series
#2 – Welcome and Accepts All People
Sept. 14, 2014

We’re off and rolling on our sermon series taking a closer look at our new Vision and Mission statements. Last week, we spend time with our Vision Statement, which is “connecting people with God and each other.” We concluded that what people are most looking for is themselves, and that by connecting them with God and each other, the church can help them find what they are looking for. At our core, we are children of God, made in God’s image, called to love one another with Godly love.

That sounds so easy, doesn’t it? But how do we do that? How do we connect people to God and each other? That’s what our Mission Statement is all about. It spells out five different ways that we are called to achieve our Vision. These next five weeks I’ll be preaching on each of them, hopefully giving us some clarity on what it means to strive for each of these five goals. Then, our General Board will start the important work of putting concrete action steps to each of the five points of the Mission Statement, and then…we pray! We pray that God’s Spirit leads us into the future God has ordained for us.

A quick disclaimer that I probably should have offered last week. These are not going to be the kinds of sermons I normally preach. I really enjoy diving into a scripture passage and sharing the context and history and interpretation with you, then figuring out how to apply it to our lives. I promise we’ll get back to those, but this series is more of a view from the balcony, a big-picture look at our future together. So I ask that you listen with your ears and with your imagination as we figure out together who God is calling us to be.

Today, we look at the part of the Mission Statement that says we connect people to God and each other by welcoming and accepting all people. Now, I’m not naïve. I recognize very clearly the potential minefield into which we’re about to step. That’s why I want to make a couple of things clear right up front. First of all, I’m not going to draw any conclusions for you today. You have a brain, you don’t need me to think for you. We each have our limits to who we are willing to welcome and accept, so you’re not going to leave here with a checklist of who’s in and who’s out of God’s kingdom. Frankly, there’s a good chance that each one of us would be on someone else’s “you’re out!” list, anyway.

Secondly, I’m not expecting everyone to be in agreement about what this statement means. That’s the challenge of a good, God-given Mission Statement. It calls a congregation out of their comfort zone into the wilderness places where their assumptions will be tested, their understanding of God expanded, and their faith deepened. Sure, we could take the easy way out and not wrestle with these kinds of issues. That would be safer. But I don’t believe God is calling us to be safe, God is calling us to be faithful. This sermon, and all the ones in this series, are not meant to be definitive explanations but conversation starters.

OK, have I sufficiently insulated myself from any hecklers or flying tomatoes? “Welcomes and accepts all people.” In our town hall meeting where we discussed this statement, one congregation member said, “This is hard. We don’t do this.” Do we? I think that’s an interesting place to start the conversation. Many of the visitors to Crestwood say that they experience this to be a very warm and welcoming congregation. I believe one of the reasons we have so many new families in our church is because they felt genuinely welcomed here. Like Abraham in our scripture, we go out of our way to extend hospitality to those in our midst.

But before we break our arms patting ourselves on the back, let’s remember that our Mission Statement is not meant to name who we are, but who God is calling us to be. That means that, while we do each of these things well, there is room for challenge and growth. For example, the Mission Statement says we welcome and accept all people, but I believe that each and every one of us has a limit to “all.” I know I do. I would struggle to welcome someone who had been convicted of a violent crime. I would have a hard time welcoming someone who had wronged me or my family. Who would you have trouble welcoming? Each one of us has a limit to “all.”

Here’s something a tad shocking: there’s actually biblical precedent for not welcoming all people into your midst. In the Hebrew scriptures, as the Israelites are settling into their new home in the Promised Land, God is very explicit about instructing them not to intermingle with the pagan tribes that surrounded them. God didn’t want the Israelite’s purity diluted by the introduction of foreign gods or foreign wives, so through the law God told them to keep to themselves and exclude those not like them.

Thankfully, Jesus came along, who told us that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Rather than trying to keep his followers separate from those around him, Jesus repeatedly crossed boundaries and upset the exclusivist tendencies of the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, had conversations with women and lepers, and often made the hated Samaritan foreigners the heroes of his parables. Jesus radically redefined what it meant to connect with God and each other, especially those not like us.

So if Jesus left us with an example of welcoming all to the table, where did we go wrong? Unfortunately, the church in America today has a reputation for being mean-spirited, exclusivist, and extremely prejudiced – all in the name of Jesus. I believe that started way back at the Reformation, when Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church and began interpreting the Bible for themselves. They quickly learned that where two or three are gathered, there will be four opinions, and none of them will agree. So the Protestant church started splitting over issues of doctrine and biblical interpretation.

That’s the issue about trying to interpret and apply what we think the Bible says. Every single person who does this believes in their heart that they have it right. And not everyone has the humility to keep that opinion to themselves, so out of their passion and conviction, Christians began trying to encourage people who disagreed with them to see how wrong they were. And if someone didn’t come around to the correct way of seeing things, then those folks weren’t welcomed in the church or at the communion table. That’s why today we have thousands of different denominations, many of which are downright hostile to those who think or act differently than them.

I’m relieved to say that I don’t believe Crestwood or the Disciples of Christ denomination is one of them. We have a generous spirit when it comes to welcoming people different than us, and I believe our church is especially good at creating space for people who hold differing views. But I’d like to suggest there is a difference between welcoming someone and accepting them. It’s one thing to have them worship with us for a week or two. But what if that person we don’t want here joins the church? Or serves on our ministry team? What if they sit next to us in worship?

The root question here is, “What is required for a person to be accepted at Crestwood?” As you know, there are no entrance exams or litmus tests people must pass in order to place their membership here. We don’t check references or quiz you on your Bible knowledge. But just because someone is a member here doesn’t mean you have to accept them. I believe the challenge the Mission Statement gives us is to move from occupying the same space as others to accepting them as part of our church family. And that’s not always easy to do.

Making that move to acceptance goes back to the promise we’re given in scripture that each and every one of us is made in the image of God. Each and every one of us. The abused and the abuser. The victim and the convicted. The persecuted and the persecutor. The homeowner and the homeless. Every one of us. There are some folks that I would personally struggle with welcoming to the table each Sunday. But those personal biases are balanced by this quote from Rev. Sara Miles: “The surest sign of Jesus’ real presence in communion is when there’s someone completely inappropriate at the table.” From week to week, that inappropriate person could be a visitor, the person sitting next to you, or, depending on what you did the past week, it could be you. And yet, we are welcomed and accepted by Christ.

In her new book, our denomination’s general minister and president, Sharon Watkins, relates a wonderful story about an experience with a family living in Appalachia. The family’s dinner table was set in their large kitchen. At that table they gathered for meals and sharing the news of the day. It was a rough-hewn table that was handmade. Each time a new child was born into the family, he went out and cut another board for that table. They always made room for one more in their expanding family.

Our table should constantly be expanding. Each week, we have people visiting with us, looking for a warm welcome, looking for a genuine experience of God, looking for their true selves. Is there room for them here? All of them? Paul says in Galatians that, because of Christ’s ushering in of God’s kingdom here on earth, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are made one in Christ Jesus.” What categories would Paul add today to his list? There is no longer Republican or Democrat, there is no longer gay or straight, there is no longer black or white, there is no longer Cardinal fan and Wildcat fan…All means all. All are welcome and accepted.

I want to close by making this point: acceptance doesn’t mean agreement. We don’t have to believe the same way as another person to accept them. To accept them is to listen to them, to get to know them, to hear their story. That way, if you still disagree, it is grounded in your relationship with them, not uninformed judgments or prejudices. Is there space here at Crestwood for those conversations? Do we feel safe sharing with others our fears, our doubts, those things that others might deem unacceptable? We are called to be witnesses to God’s love, the life-changing love we have received through Jesus Christ. We’re not only called to love those we want to love; that would be too easy, and faith isn’t meant to be easy. We’re called to love all of God’s people, especially those we judge to be unloveable. In doing so, we make God’s kingdom real here on earth. Our Mission Statement calls us to welcome and accept all people. May the welcome and acceptance we extend to others reflect the welcome and acceptance we have received from our generous, gracious God.

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