Trying to Welcome and Serve All
Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
There is clear diversity within the wide reaches of humanity. We are distinctive in language, culture, and influenced by our respective geographic regions. There are remarkable differences between the races, and, if we are candid, there are remarkable differences within the individual races. I had a roommate from Taiwan who was nearly 6 feet tall, who encouraged me to accept that there are vast differences among the people of China, not all Chinese are short and thin.
The letter to the church in Ephesus might have been written by Paul, but it is not like the letters we commonly identify as authentic letters of the apostle to the gentiles. In the passage we have today, “the church” is represented as the wider church, the vessel for holding and bringing souls into communion with God. Paul’s usual way of writing is to address specific local issues.
The epistle writer’s words, and the message from Mark’s gospel, provide assurance that Jesus has made all of us one, and equally valued. This is a useful reminder to both this local congregation, and the wider Christian community as well. In an age where the culture tries to define and protect borders, and justify inhumane treatment of others, we are well served to remember that in Christ we are all one.
It is also helpful to remind American Christians, in all of our various ethnic backgrounds, that not all of the apostles were convinced it was a good idea to offer the Good News of the Christ to just anybody, especially those suspicious gentiles. We were originally the fringe group.
I often think about the difficulty of having any sort of a membership list for a congregation like ours, where the boundaries are so permeable. People come and go, usually based on their own wishes, and occasionally as inspired by God. At this point in our history, membership becomes important when we come to vote on issues of significant impact on the congregation’s future, and who is eligible to exercise formal leadership.
In this sort of a congregation, it is more useful to expend the greater part of the energy we have in feeding the fire that calls hearts to the love of God, and provides a useful way to call others to enter into the community of the faithful. We carry folks into the presence of God on Sunday morning, and with participation in the choirs, the youth program, the fellowship on Sunday and Wednesday night. We are reminded to keep looking out for the ones who are not here, but God is calling to be here.
In reading for today I encountered the reminder that communication is a fundamental mission of the church. We have received Good News, and are compelled to share that Good News with others. The God we know, love, and serve; is caring, forgiving, and compassionate. The gospel lessons underline the wide sense of welcome that Jesus embodies. The commandment to share the word might predict that we would be early adopters of communication technology. But even I do not begin to get Instagram, and I am not good at Twitter at all.
The gospel passage reassures us that if we are becoming fatigued, we may not be doing it wrong. There is so much work to do. When we see with the eyes of the Christ, we see souls that are out of touch with the family of God and God’s great love for creation. It is a daunting task to be the voice that cries out a word of welcome and forgiveness to all.
Some people in our age have withdrawn from faith communities over sophisticated theological differences. Some withdraw over personality conflicts, initially thinking life is better without the hassle; but in time they feel disconnected. In ever increasing numbers, there are thousands who have never known a faith community that has been good to them, or good for them. Here is where the heart of Christ, that we share, compels us to keep on reaching out.
The sense of being connected to the church, provides a useful and practical way to being connected to God and neighbor. We are here to rehearse and be reminded of our deeper connection to all that is right, holy and just. It is so hard to keep our focus on the God of love when we are distracted by the buzz of current events.
We return on Sunday to hear the challenge of doing all we can to love one another. We return here to be encouraged, even as the public voices make their incessant pitch for us to descend into fear, and become reactionary. It is easy to allow the loudest voice to name the tune, before we apply the filters for accuracy, the concern for justice, and the need for compassion. We try to respect a call for ‘law and order’ and concurrently scan the law for the telltale signs of corruption and abuse to the advantage of the few.
The events of the last two weeks in the international travels of the President have aggravated me in ways I have not been politically aggravated since I was a teenager. I was involved in protests against the war in Viet Nam. Even then I was able to distinguish between my friends and family members who served in uniform, and the military-industrial complex whose greed and lack of compassion fueled that violence.
I am not so naive as to believe that use of the military is always wrong. I am not so naive as to think it is appropriate for the US to devote mammoth amounts of the annual budget to the defense department. If we would value diplomacy, and actually learn how to use diplomacy wisely, we could have greater influence than threats and smart bombs could ever achieve. Diplomacy rests on building and maintaining relationships with those where we share values and interests.
We are bombarded with small minded thinking on every side. It is tempting to believe that the world is rightfully reduced to hundreds of ‘either/or’ choices. We can only have diplomacy OR defense. We have either no screening OR no refugees. The people of the US are not usually that narrow minded, unless they are hounded by fear and misrepresentation.
I fight to keep my perspective. What really happened? Where did it take place? What was the situation? Has it been represented accurately and fairly? Then I choose what reaction and what preparations I should make to influence what comes next.
Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples to carry the good news to crowds of hurting people. Some in the crowds are Jews, and some are strangers. The crowds of hurting people are still with us. The crying need to share the love of God is still with us. We can offer a sense of belonging, especially to those who do not feel like they belong.
I have a friend who is now too sick to live alone. We will call him Martin. Marty has a last name that is not pronounced anything like the way it is spelled. As a boy I expected that people whose names had ‘Americanized’ spellings, would accept ‘Americanized’ pronunciations of their names. Marty does not. I am sure he was ‘corrected’ for mispronouncing his own name his whole life long. Can you imagine a lifetime of being denied your own identity?
He managed to mingle in his small town because of the wit and charm of his wife, who was a darling. Together they were an odd couple, but very loving and generous in their own way. When she died, he was without the social support he needed to get along well with others. His memory of past hurts was amplified by the profound loss of his wife.
Honestly though, Marty is great to talk with. He has an intensity in his eyes that comes from years of keeping his own counsel. He is especially generous to others who ‘could not fit in’ or were judged unfairly. He protects his personal bubble with liberal use of mild profanity. It makes him sound tough and thick-skinned.
Marty makes me aware of all of the years I felt proud looking down on women who dressed too much like men for my satisfaction; or men who were too feminine; or people whose facial features were ‘distractingly’ different. I get a reminder all of the time when men wear their hats indoors, or young men’s jeans hang too low, or cell phones appear where I think they are out of place. I get reminded again and again that I need to give up judging, which is not my job, and focus on loving, which clearly is my job.
And there it is. We are called to broadcast the Good News of Christ, to the real world. We are best when we really welcome folks, just as they are - and not how we prefer them to be. We do our best work when we can meaningfully proclaim; that we are all one people, who share the love of a loving creator, who is making all things new. This faith community, like that of the Ephesians, must recognize ourselves as adopted by Christ and compelled to reach out to others. We gather to be a people who are good to others, and good for them, too.