A Place to Belong, Part 3: Inclusivity

© Photo by George Zvanelli (Unsplash)
Published by Josh Hosler on Mon, Nov 4, 2019 8:42 AM
Sermon

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Feast of All Saints (transferred), November 3, 2019
Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

Many years ago at St. Thomas Church in Medina I led a workshop for children about baptism and communion. I invited a group of about 16 kids to come stand around the altar. Feeling out of my depth, I decided to buy time by chatting with them. I remembered that one of the core principles of Godly Play is to stoke the children’s sense of wonder. So I said, “What a big table this is! Some of you can’t even see over the top! I wonder how many people can fit around this table? Fifteen? Twenty?”

And a little first-grade girl replied with hushed awe, “This table is big enough for the whole world.”

This, my friends, is why we are here. This table is big enough for the whole world, and so we set the table every week. And we invite others to the table by baptizing them.

Baptism is what makes you a Christian—a member of Christ’s Body. You might have been a believer first, but baptism is the public ritual that seals the deal, that incorporates you into a community whose work is to keep expanding the table. We baptize infants because we want to give them the gift of this community right away. We baptize adults who are eager to join us, too. The baptized make vows, and then we all help each other uphold them. To be a Christian is to be a part of a community in which you can be planted and grow.

Once you are baptized, God has work for you to do. The purpose of the work is not to save souls—that’s Jesus’ work, and it’s already finished. Rather, our work is simply to share the good news of salvation with everyone, and we do so by smoothing the path of life for others. We draw people to us simply by loving them. Author Madeleine L’Engle, who was an Episcopalian, put it this way: “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

Today we observe the Feast of All Saints. This is a day we set aside to remember all those who have gone before us in the Christian faith. There’s a tradition in some churches of calling on the saints of old to stand beside us as we pray together and renew our baptismal vows. It’s called a Litany of Saints, sort of an honor roll of people who demonstrated their love for God by pursuing justice for the oppressed and humility before God and others. We observe their feast days on our calendar of saints and honor them with special prayers. These are the Saints with a capital S, from Peter and Paul to Francis and Clare, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King to Florence Nightingale and Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day.

But then there are all the rest of us, lowercase saints. We hear today of Christ’s “glorious inheritance among the saints”—that is, the holy ones. We are not less valued than capital-S Saints … just less famous. God honors our efforts at justice and humility, too. On another occasion I gathered a group of children around a baptismal font and asked if they wanted to see what a saint looks like. Then I invited them to hoist themselves up and look into the water. There they saw their own reflections!

In a few minutes we will renew our baptismal vows, as we do several times each year. As we do so, I invite you to call to mind the ones you love but see no longer—people from your life, your forerunners in the faith. Know that they are here with us, and when you come to this table—this table that is big enough for the whole world—know that it’s far bigger even than that little girl could have imagined. For God is the God of the living and the dead, all of whom are alive in God eternally.

Inclusivity is our focus today as we continue to make A Place to Belong at Good Shepherd. The full tapestry of God’s universe cannot be imagined; we can only ever see a tiny part of it. The Church is not God’s only project. Yet we understand Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to have made the difference for absolutely everybody, whether they know it or not. Jesus uses the one thing we all share—death—to conquer death and invite everybody in. At least, that’s how we Christians understand it. And so we are to work for justice, to live with humility, and to become inclusive people by nature. The trick is to always have a bunch of extra chairs lying around.

I know you’re used to me speaking metaphorically, but now I’m going to be quite literal. We talked about some of these things in September at our “How to Be a Good Shepherd, Part 1” workshop. When we gather for coffee after the service, do you stand in a circle to talk to people? Is there a space in that circle for someone to step into? Next time try standing in a horseshoe instead, and look for someone to invite into your conversation.

Do you sit at a table when we gather downstairs? Does the table fill up? Grab two extra chairs and add them to the table. Better yet, keep your eyes peeled for the person who looks the most unfamiliar and uncertain, and gently invite that person in.

When you meet someone who has come to Good Shepherd for the first time, ask open-ended questions and invite deeper conversation. And you can start with the weather and the Seahawks and “what do you do for a living?” But don’t get stuck there. Listen for their feelings, and share your own. Ever so gently, get past the small talk.

The goal is not to add more people to an ever-growing list, just for the sake of a long list. The goal is human relationship. It is just as worthwhile to know people who are just passing through as it is to know people who just might turn in a pledge card. All are included in God’s embrace. If that were not the case, what right would we have to call this A Place to Belong?

We hear today of “the hope to which [God] has called us.” As we mature in faith, we become ever more comfortable sharing in words the shape of that hope, through the stories of our lives, through the content of our prayers, through our deepest reflections on what the events in our lives really mean. The more we share our hope authentically, the more people will hear and want to participate. We will let our light shine, a light so lovely that others simply must learn its source.

Now, we know that sometimes we fail; that’s why we confess our sins and look forward to a fresh start. Many of the folks whose lives we touch will not want to join us, either because we failed to be inclusive, or for some reason beyond our control. It’s good to be gentle with ourselves about this, because while the Church may lose people, God won’t. In the meantime, many people will want to join us. And so we will keep adding more chairs to the table, because a congregation with an outward focus is most useful to the Holy Spirit.

Inclusivity is hard work, of course. We might feel shy about sharing our story with others. We might feel we don’t know how to include without seeming presumptuous, to share our faith without sounding condescending. We may find that it’s tough to dedicate ourselves to building community without sacrificing more of our independence than we’d like.

But those are just minor hurdles. Did you hear Jesus’ words today? Jesus tells us the poor are blessed, but woe to the rich—the hungry are blessed, but woe to the well-fed. He tells us that when we are persecuted, we are blessed, but that when all speak well of us, we’re in trouble. Leonard Cohen once sang of “the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount/Which I don’t pretend to understand at all.” We, too, might hardly recognize any sense in these sayings. They run contrary to our common-sense observations of the world. And to embrace these standards fully may even be to invite danger on ourselves and those we love.

So we should not be surprised that often we find we cannot just turn the other cheek, even when we know that’s the goal. We cannot love our enemies and pray for our abusers, even when we know that’s what’s been asked of us. We know the gold standard—we just can’t do it. What are we to do, then? How do we include those whose actions are hostile to the possibility of community?

There is much work we can do in this area, too, but hear me well when I say this: We are not required to include those who exclude and harm others. If you invite in both sheep and wolves, then in the end you’ll only have wolves. A former mentor of mine put it this way: “All are welcome at this table except those who would unseat others from the table.” We established that we plant Justice first, that Humility and Inclusivity may follow. This table is a sign and a symbol of God’s heavenly table. It is not, itself, the full realization of what God wants for us, because we cannot complete that work hurriedly or carelessly.

That larger table is the end of our Christian hope and the focus of the trust we strive to build all our lives. In some mysterious way, someday all pain and trauma will be healed, and all people will be reconciled to one another. God will triumph. But God insists on sharing that triumph with us, inviting us to succeed and to fail and to learn and grow through it all. Until then, we work and we pray. And on that great Day, we will all join around that heavenly banquet table … the table that really is big enough for the whole world. Amen.

Image credits: