Christmas Movies and Advent Stories: December 4, 2016

I’ve said before that I firmly believe that Christmas is the best time of the year for movies and TV specials. Everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to A Charlie Brown Christmas to Elf to the Grinch to A Christmas Story and beyond. There are certain shows and movies that I just have to see each year for it to really feel like Christmas.

movie-mcc-promo03-crachitsThis week I watched A Christmas Carol. The Muppet’s version. And once again I watched the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how he was transformed from a grumpy, hardhearted miser to a generous and loving man. And as I was watching, I started to think about a lot of those other Christmas shows I like. And I realized that the main character often goes through some sort of transformation.

George Bailey finds hope again. The Grinch’s heart grows. Charlie Brown learns what Christmas is all about. The list goes on…

But then, we have this other seasonal character. John the Baptist. He’s not exactly camera-ready, and he wouldn’t animate well into a cuddly character. John lived out in the wilderness dressed in camelhair and eating locusts and honey. This would be a horrible Christmas special. But this time of year, right before Christmas, we read about how he preached to everyone who would listen and he told them “prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight”.

In other words, he told the people “get ready”. Get ready because someone else is coming, and he is about to change everything. Get ready because your world is about to change.

We read this story every year in Advent, and John may as well have been talking to us. Because Advent is all about getting ready. It’s about transformation. It’s about preparing our heart for someone who is coming, and opening it up to new ways of being.

In Advent we prepare ourselves by focusing on four themes as symbolized by the Advent wreath: hope, peace, joy, and love. Last week we lit the candle of hope. And today we light the candle of peace.

Christians follow the one who was called the Prince of Peace, and Advent is all about waiting for his birth, and preparing ourselves for what he is about to ask us to do. Things like working for peace. Ending violence and suffering. And standing up against hatred and injustice.

This should be the most peaceful time of the year. But have you ever noticed that sometimes people people preparing for Christmas seem anything but peaceful? Our stress levels go up. We argue. We get frustrated in the stores when we can’t find what we need. Some people even go on TV and yell about the color of Starbucks holiday cups and how no one cares about Christmas anymore.

When you think about it, if you are yelling angrily about Christmas, you are probably missing the point. But unfortunately that happens far too often.

black-santa

Santa Claus (aka, Larry Jefferson). Copyright, CBS News.

I was reading this week about how the Mall of America in Minnesota hired its first African-American Santa Claus. This man is a convincing Santa. And, like every other Santa, he does a great job listening to kids share their wishes for the season. My guess is that none of the kids he holds in his lap care all that much about what color Santa is, so long as they get to tell them what they want.

But the adults…they are another story. Adults angrily called the mall and took to social media to denounce the fact this Santa was black. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had to take down the comments section online because of the horrifically racist and nasty comments they were getting.

It seems a lot of people are on the naughty list this year.

But more importantly, can you imagine what Jesus would say about this? This is his grand birthday celebration, after all, and I’m sure more than a few of those comments came from church-going people who would call themselves good Christians.

The reality is that Christians are supposed to do a better job. We aren’t supposed to be spreading anger and hate. We’re supposed to transform the world.

But that’s a tall order. It’s hard to create peace in the world. We can do our best, we can work for good, we can pray for peace, but in the end, we find out an important truth: often you can’t create peace in the world, until you create peace in yourself.

Oddly, those Christmas movies helped me to realize that because when you think about it, as much as those are Christmas stories, they could also be Advent stories. Because they’re all about preparing our heart and transforming our lives.

Scrooge realizes the error of his ways, and only then is his heart transformed. Charlie Brown finds meaning with his sad little Christmas tree despite the fact the whole world has gone commercial, and no one understands what Christmas is really about anymore. And if you’ve ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, in the end we find Clark Griswold, who just wanted a perfect Christmas, finds peace in love of his family despite the fact that just about everything has gone wrong.

One word we give to finding peace within ourselves is “serenity”. A sense that no matter what is going on around us, we will ultimately be okay. A sense that God is will us. And a sense that no matter what the rest of the world is doing, we are able to still find peace and joy and hope deep inside of us.

It’s been said that serenity is an inside job. No one can give it to you. And, really, no one can take it from you, either. It’s a peace that, I believe, comes from knowing what matters most in the world, and opening ourselves up to the peace and the grace that God wants us to have.

And if we’re really serious about Advent, if we’re really serious about preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ, then serenity is the natural byproduct of this time of year. Because if you are truly using this season to focus on what is coming, there is no way that you won’t be changed by it.

Maybe you won’t have a big, miraculous, carol-filled Christmas morning, but inside your heart, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the change happening and the peace filling you.

This time of year, no matter what is happening around us, we are called to prepare our hearts anyway. We are called to open them up to grace and to love and to get ready to welcome Christ into the world. We are called to be messengers of peace, not only in our words, but in our actions.

georgebailey1This week as we go back out into the world, we can go with our hearts holding that promise. We can go as witnesses to the peace that Christ offers us. And we can go as Christ’s transformed people, and Christ’s Advent people.

These are the stories we love to hear, and they are the stories the world needs to hear. The Grinch, Scrooge, Charlie Brown, George Bailey, and all the rest…they were once Advent people too…looking for peace…waiting for a transforming love. And they found it. And so are you, and your story is just about to get good. Amen?

On Freedom of Speech: What it does and does not mean.

As Americans we have freedom of speech, which is a glorious thing. I’ve never been a fan of censorship, even when I find something distasteful or hateful. And I would never ask that something I find morally repugnant be banned on private proConstitution_of_the_United_States,_page_1perty, even if it deeply offends me.

Which is why the misreading of my piece on the Confederate flag is baffling to me. Because nowhere in my piece did I suggest that the Confederate flag be banned on private property, or that the man flying it should not be legally allowed to do so. (I would like to see it removed from public property, but that’s a different story.) I think if someone wants to fly the Confederate flag, that is indeed their first amendment right. I find it detestable, but I would not take that right away.

But here’s where it works both ways: someone flying the flag does indeed have the right to fly it, but all of us who see it also have the right to voice our own opinions about it.

To use another example, you are free to walk to the center of town and shout as many racist, sexist, and homophobic words as you would like. It is reprehensible and terrible, but that’s your right.

But in response, the people who hear you can say they do not agree. And they can also make choices based on your words. They might decide they no longer want to be your friend. They might say they will never again shop at your business. And, yes, they might call you a racist, sexist, and homophobe.

And they will be well within their rights to do so.

So when someone sees someone else flying a Confederate flag, they are free to infer what they want from your speech. For many people, particularly those whose ancestors were enslaved in the antebellum South, they are going to infer that you care nothing about racial inequality. And they are free to then decide how much they want to have to do with you.

That’s because freedom of speech does not free you from the consequences of that speech. 

For instance, I used my freedom of speech when I wrote my blog, saying the things I would say had I the opportunity to talk to the owner of that truck. I said that, to me, those symbols conveyed racist intent. That is not judgement. That is saying “those symbols are painful to many, and I wish you’d reconsider them”. It’s also saying that racism and hatred have for too long been allowed to flourish under the protection of that flag. And regardless of whether or not you agree with me, I have as much right to say that as he does to fly that flag.

The consequences of that speech have come in the form of emails, comments, and tweets calling me every racist, sexist, and homophobic slur I have ever heard. (Update, I have now received anti-Semitic slurs as well.) And the people saying those things have that right. I also have the right to delete them from my private blog (but not from public spaces) because I refuse to allow that speech in my digital home. Being called those names is not a negative consequence to me. In fact, the more people have to resort to slurs to prove their point, the more I know my initial impressions of that flag were correct. Because as it turns out it’s kind of hard to argue that your stance is not about hate when you are spewing hate. 

What I find interesting is that with one exception, no one signed their actual name to those slurs. I think that is because people do understand that free speech does have consequences. If you post hate speech online, it’s out there for every potential employer, date, or friend to see forever. Most people take the necessary precautions and do not sign their name.

The one person who did sign his name responded to my message back. We dialogued and, while we do not agree about the flag, he apologized. For others who sent slurs without their names, but with their emails, I have emailed back. I’ve invited each one to lunch so we can talk face-to-face. Sadly, none has yet taken me up on my offer. I wish they would. I’d like to hear why they said what they said.

Which leads me to this: If you really believe in freedom of speech, and if you really truly believe in what you are saying, why are you not willing to sign your real name? It always interests me that the comments that are most concerned about free speech come from people who lack the courage of their convictions and hide behind their keyboards. It seems pretty ironic to me.

So, I’ll keep writing. Using my real name. And I’ll keep talking about the things in this world that cause pain. And I’ll keep telling the truth I know, the one that is grounded in my faith. You, of course, are free to disagree. But don’t argue your first amendment rights are being denied. Because they aren’t. You are just being asked to consider the consequences of your words and actions. You can choose to do nothing in response, but the choice is always yours. The response to your actions, however, belongs to everyone.

To the Guy Flying a Confederate Flag in Exeter, New Hampshire

I saw your truck parked in front of the Rite-Aid, right by the Dunkin Donuts. Two large Confederate flags were attached to the back of it, waving in the wind. The American flag was, incongruously (and in violation of the flag code), in the center. And, I have to confess, I don’t get it.

Part of me wanted to ask obvious questions: You know you are in New Hampshire, right? And, you know New Hampshire was not a part of the Confederacy?

11709431_400316456841007_5791455240479926301_nI ask this because I’m not so sure you do. Here we are in a northern town, a place that gave her sons up to the Union Army and lost them on the battlefields of the Civil War. A place where locals organized early against slavery and led the charge against it across the country. A place where 150 years ago that flag would have been seen as a symbol of treason.

I grew up in the South where I saw plenty of Confederate flags. My college campus had a small Confederate cemetery on it and every Confederate Memorial Day (do you know when that is, by the way?) they’d be decorated with those flags. And I lived in a state where that Confederate emblem was on the flag for far too long.

Some people say it’s heritage. I don’t buy it. I have Confederate soldiers for ancestors, and I’ve never felt the need to honor them by flying that flag.

I also know it wasn’t even the Confederate flag. It was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. (My ancestors’ unit, by the way.) And I know that even the Daughters of the Confederacy advocated not using that flag anymore back in the 1920’s. And I also know that it didn’t really make a comeback until the 1950’s when a Supreme Court decision let African-American children go to school with white children.

Do you think that flag has been flying in front of the South Carolina capitol since 1865? It hasn’t. It was put there for one reason only: racist defiance in the face of integration.

I think you believe that the flag brands you as a “rebel” or somehow honors your outlook on life. It doesn’t. It brands you as a racist. You may not think you are one, but flying that flag is a racist act.

I know that right now you are saying, “But I’m not a racist!” “Heritage, not hate!” But this isn’t your heritage. It’s mine. And it is hate. And it is racism. And every time you put that flag on the back of your car, we all go back in time a little. And the past wasn’t so great for many of our neighbors.

The present isn’t so great either, by the way. Because in a time when nine African-American churchgoers were massacred at their church by a man wearing that flag, and in a week when seven black churches have been burned with little media attention, those flags tell everyone that you couldn’t care less about what is happening. Others can suffer, so long as you get to wear your flag. It’s like showing up at a funeral and dancing on the grave.

Is that the kind of man you are? One who doesn’t care who is being hurt, so long as you get to show off your flags on your truck?

You aren’t being a rebel. And you aren’t being courageous. And you won’t be on the right side of history.

But here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to end like that. You can stop flying the Confederate flag. You can honor your ancestors here in the North by learning why they were willing to give their lives to fight against that flag. And you can honor my ancestors down in the South by saying you are willing to learn from their mistakes.

Please. Our town doesn’t need those flags. And, if you look inside and find your better self, you’ll find that neither do you.

A few words about comments:

1. For those asking why I didn’t personally speak to him, I’ve only seen him while he was driving and couldn’t figure out how to get him to stop. My wife was in the car alone when she took this picture. Given the racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs I’ve received in comments (deleted) from people claiming to be his friend, I’m glad she didn’t stop. But I’d welcome him to come talk to me.

2. Post away but use your full, real name (First and last) or else I will delete your comments without reading.

3. My mom’s side is from NH and has been for 13 generations. Dad’s is from the South. So don’t tell me I don’t belong in NH.

4. No one is forcibly taking your flag from you. I am saying consider the message you are sending. A part of me wishes every racist would carry that flag so they’d be easy to identify. But I also hope everyone who really, truly does not want to be racist will decide to stop flying it.

5. Because some of the comments I received used derogatory and bigoted terms, I’m moderating comments now (because disagreement is fine but I refuse to host those words on my page). I’m also away for the weekend with my wife so your comment may take a couple of days to appear.

Thanks! 

When It Feels Like Jesus is Asleep at the Wheel: A Sermon on Charleston for June 21, 2015

Like many of you, I’ve spent the past few days thinking about Charleston. Wednesday night people were gathered at a church. They were studying the Bible, and they were praying. And when a young man came in, they expanded their circle and let him in to their fellowship.

There are no words that adequately describe the tragedy of what happened next. And it will be a long process of discernment as we as a society decide how we respond to the evil we saw in Charleston. And for those of us who are people of faith, there is another question that I’m hearing, too: Why did God let this happen?

It’s a fair question. The nine victims were in God’s house, studying God’s Word, and lifting prayers up to God. They were welcoming the stranger, the way that Jesus asked of us. And they were, by all accounts, good and kind people who lived out their faith. No one deserves what happened, but of all people, why them?

By chance, the lectionary this week brings us a story of another time when the people of God were in the midst of danger. The passage and sermon title had been chosen before Wednesday evening, and they, unfortunately, became more relevant this week.

The Gospel we read today tells the story of how the disciples are crossing the sea in a boat. And we are told that Jesus is with them, but that he is asleep. A storm rolls in and the rain and wind start to beat against the boat, until it starts to take in water. The disciples think the boat was about to sink, and they are about to die. And they start yelling at the sleeping Jesus, waking him up and shouting, “Don’t you care that we are dying!”

Copyright, NBC News

Copyright, NBC News

“Don’t you care that we are dying?” Wednesday night I thought about those words, not for myself but for those nine souls in Charleston. “Jesus, don’t you care that they are dying? Don’t you care about your own people, gathered there in your own church?”

I think through the centuries, in many more places than that boat on a Galilean sea and a church basement in Charleston, good people of faith have asked that question. “Jesus, don’t you care? Why do you let bad things happen to good people? Why aren’t you stopping it?”

Like I said it’s a fair question. And those disciples in the boat, they at least got a response. When they woke Jesus up and yelled their question to him, he took action. He spoke to the storm and the sea and said “peace, be still”. And when he did, the rain and the wind died, and they were safe.

The disciples, they got a happy ending. But today I don’t tell you this story to say “everything is going to be okay”. Because the end of the story has not yet been written for us.

But I do tell it, because I believe that it reminds us of something very important: Jesus does not will for God’s people to suffer. What happened on Wednesday night in Charleston was not God’s will. It’s not what was supposed to happen.

Instead, it was what one angry, racist, violent young man chose to do. It was the horrible way that he chose to exercise his free will. It was his turn away from the message that Jesus gave us all, one of peace and love for our neighbor. And it was choosing an act of evil, even after being shown the love of strangers.

And it is horrifying. But, it is not unprecedented.

When I went to college in Atlanta, I would drive by Dr. King’s old church in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. And I’d drive by The Temple, a Jewish synagogue that had been bombed in the Civil Rights movement. And I’d drive by other houses of worship that had been targeted decades before and think about the kind of hatred that would drive someone to carry out an act of violence against a peaceful place of worship. I’d think about how strange it must have been to have lived in that era.

But, as we know now, that era isn’t over. And I should have known better, even at age 18. Because the truth is, I knew racism was alive and well. I grew up in the South and I remember my friends from well-educated “good families” repeating the racist epithets of their parents while we played outside. I remember classmates who shaved their heads and started to wear neo-Nazi insignia. And I remember Confederate flags on the front of cars, or in front of fraternity houses on my college campus, hung by people who called it “heritage”.

Much like the disciples sailed a sea that was sometimes violently restless, I grew up in the South sailing a sea that was far too often disturbed by the undercurrents of hate. But unlike the disciples, who sailed waters that were unsettled by the weather, when we encounter racism it does not come from a natural place. We are sailing on a human-made sea of hate. It does not have to be there.

And like the disciples, we can call out to Jesus to ask him to calm the storm. But unlike the disciples, this storm is one of human making. And it will not be calmed by our silence. That didn’t even happen for the disciples; why should it happen for us?

Instead, it is our job to not just call out to Jesus, but to live out the values he taught us. It is our job to calm the stormy sea by choosing to speak up against hatred and bigotry. It is our job to love our neighbors, no matter who or where they are. And it is our job to reject silence when words are needed. We need to name racism for what it is: not a breach of social etiquette. Not a political concern. Not a relic of a bygone era. But instead, something that we must resist. Something that is a sin.

It may be tempting, here in New England, to think this is not our work. On Thursday, as I rang our church bells in remembrance, I thought about how different our context is here in Exeter than it is in Charleston. I wondered really what we could do from so far away.

But as I was sitting there, I was convicted by a story that the Rev. Bob Thompson told this past year when he came to a We the People lecture to talk about racism. Despite growing up in West Virginia, Bob said, “Exeter, New Hampshire is the only place I’ve ever been called the “n-word”.” And it didn’t just happen once.

And so, we have work to do. We have work to do because we are human beings and concerned citizens, but we also have work to do because we are Christians. And because just like Jesus calmed the storms by saying “peace”, Jesus taught us what it means to be peacemakers. And he was always clear that the peacemakers are the ones who work for justice for all God’s people.

So how do we start? I think the story tells us a little about that. Because the thing that has always struck me about this passage is the fact that Jesus did not calm the storm from back on the dock. He was not waiting for them there on the opposite shore. Instead, in the wake of a horrible storm, Jesus was right there with them, in the same boat.

And so that’s the hope in this story. Jesus does not ask us to do this alone. But Jesus does ask us to get in the same boat, and go where he is going.

Scripture tells us that other boats were out there on the sea that day. The same is true for us. There are a lot of boats out there. There are boats of anger. Boats of fear. Boats of vengeance. Boats of denial. And I’ll admit that sometimes they look pretty attractive.

But when it comes down to it, this is the only boat I want to be in. Because this is where Jesus is at the helm.

That doesn’t always mean that it will be smooth sailing. Because, be warned, no one said that following Jesus would be easy. Sometimes it costs everything. But like Jesus himself said after he stilled the storm, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

I want to be in that boat. And I want to have faith. I want to have that faith because on Wednesday night, not even bullets could destroy the faith of Emanuel AME church. And not even bullets could stop their hope.

So much so that when the shooter was arraigned on Friday morning, when he was brought into the courtroom where the families of his victims sat, their faith and their hope lived. And even in the face of a man who had done such an evil thing, they were able to say something to him that no one expected: “I forgive you”. Again and again they said it. And they said “May God have mercy on you.” And “we will pray for you”.

If they can say that, if they can stay in the same boat as Jesus even when no one could blame them for jumping ship, I can say the things that I sometimes don’t. I can say “that’s not funny” when I hear a racist, xenophobic, or a bigoted joke. I can tell the truth when I hear someone spread misinformation. I can say speak up when it would be easier for me to say silent. And I can say the things that will help to cause change. Because we never know who is listening, and we never know how much power our words, or our silence, might have. And if the families of those lost can say the things they did to the man who killed their loved ones, this is the least I can say from my place of comfort.

That’s my pledge in the wake of Charleston. You can choose the same, but that is your choice. But if you do, let’s pray for one another. Let’s pray that we will be the peacemakers on a sea that sometimes seeks to destroy us all. Let’s pray that we can stay in the same boat as Jesus, even when the waves get rocky. And let’s pray that one day soon we will find the other shore.

But today, let’s first pray for the souls that were lost. The martyrs of the faith. The ones who gave their lives doing exactly what Christ asked of them: transforming their minds, lifting their voices in praise, and welcoming their neighbor with open hearts. And let us do so by speaking their names and keeping our silence for a moment:

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Cynthia Hurd
Ethel Lance
Susie Jackson
Depayne Middleton
Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Sanders
Daniel Simmons
Myra Thompson

(Silence.)

Prayer: O God, whose son stilled stormy seas, we lift up these names and these lives to you. And we lift up our hearts to you as well. God, transform them, and give us the strength and the will to silence the storms of hatred, and to speak words of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Amen.

Why Do the Hateful Choose Our Houses of Worship?

One day during my first pastorate, back in Vermont, I went to the Post Office to get the church mail. That day there was an envelope with the name of a fake organization on it and no return address. It was addressed to me, and so standing there in the lobby I opened it. For the next five minutes I read about how gays and women like me were destroying both Christianity and the country, and how I was a “pitiful excuse” for a minister and human being.

I had just done work in New York advocating for marriage equality, and I had written some pieces for national outlets that had been widely shared. The letter had been sent from another state and to the church’s box and not my own (a box anyone in the area could have easily known). The postmark was also from Florida, and so I assumed the letter was from someone I had never met, and never would, who simply disagreed with my writing.

At home I laughed it off. I pointed out the irony of the fact the sender had chosen a stamp with the word “Equality”. I joked with my wife about putting it on the refrigerator. I told worried church members who had heard about it that it was nothing, and they shouldn’t be concerned. I’d received anonymous emails, and even texts like this before.

What I didn’t tell them is that they’d never been quite this hateful. I didn’t tell them I’d taken the letter to the police and been told they could do nothing. And I didn’t tell them that on Sunday mornings when I preached I now kept scanning the back of the church, waiting for the doors to open.

One Sunday shortly after a man I did not know came into the church midway through the service and walked to the front of the sanctuary. As he walked down the aisle I kept preaching. But with every word I thought to myself, “This is it…he’s going to shoot me.”

He didn’t. He had no ill intent at all. But that day I realized just how much fear I had been carrying around with me.

I don’t know why that memory came back to me so strongly last night when I heard about the shooting in Charleston at Emanuel AME Church. But it did. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and made my stomach turn. And it made me think of driving through the streets of Atlanta when I was a college student there. It reminded me of driving past Ebenezer Baptist in Sweet Auburn or The Temple on Peachtree and every other house of worship that had been targeted during the Civil Rights movement. I used to think about what it must have been like back in the days that people hated so much that they’d try to blow your church or synagogue apart.

I know now that those days are not in the past. I know the fear I lived with for a few weeks is nothing compared to the fear that others live with all their lives. And I know that for many they would give thanks if their worst experience was a hateful anonymous letter in their church mailbox.

IMG_5845Today at noon I rang the church bells here in Exeter, New Hampshire. It was a beautiful, sunny day; the kind that make me never want to leave New England. And I sat on the front steps of the church afterwards and marveled at the dichotomy between a night of terror and a day of beauty, and between my life of mainline white Christian privilege and the life of constant fear that too many of the faithful face.

I thought about a church gathered for prayer and Bible study last night, and how they had opened their circle to let a stranger join them. And I thought about a mosque in Arizona, and how the faithful walked past angry, mocking crowds with guns in order to worship. And I thought about the temple in Maryland, and the anti-Semitic graffiti they found one morning this spring.

There’s a reason the hateful choose houses of worship. It’s because that’s where so many of us put our hope. You can commit a hateful act anywhere, but if you really want to hurt a community, you choose the place they worship. You bomb the synagogue. You shoot up the church. You point your gun and shout at small children trying to get into the mosque. That’s how you cut the faithful so deeply that their hearts never stop bleeding.

But the ones who choose to do evil in the gathering places of the faithful forget one thing: These are not mere buildings. They are the symbols of communities, built often in resistance to hate. They are the places first built by new immigrants, or freed slaves, or spiritual refugees, or genocide survivors. They have known pain before. And they know how to survive it, and transform it. They know how to thrive in the face of the worst that the small-minded and hateful can do. And they know how to live with a faith that those who take up violence will never understand.

Today we ring bells. A small, insignificant-seeming act. And yet, there is meaning. The bells are tolled in remembrance for each life lost. And the bells are tolled as assurance that God is always with us, even in the midst of great evil. But we cannot forget the last reason we toll the bells: as a divine wake-up call to ourselves. The bells are saying it is time to do the work of justice. It is time to stand against hate. And it is time to call the evils of racism and bigotry, and the terrorism that comes with them, by name.

The bells cannot keep silent. And if we really believe in this faith we proclaim, neither can we.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: A Sermon on the Good Samaritan for April 12, 2015

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

So, I’m going to guess that this is the first time you have come to church and read the words of Mr. Rogers in unison. Fair assumption? I know that call to worship this morning may have seemed a little odd, a little playful, maybe to some even a little childish. But bear with me, and I’ll explain.

When I was a child, like a lot of people who were children when Mr. Roger’s neighborhood was on PBS, I watched that show a lot. It was, in fact, one of the few television shows I was allowed to watch. And I remember how each episode started, with Mr. Rogers coming through the door, slipping off his work shoes, and slipping on his cardigan and sneakers.

Over time I got too old for Mr. Rogers and I didn’t think about him all that much. He was just the guy in the sweater with the kids TV show. But this week, as our church school students are starting a new story, I thought about Mr. Rogers again. Because there’s something about what he taught that never fails to reminds me of this Gospel.

Today’s reading is the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is asked by a man who is trying to trick him what he must do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus tells him that he must love God with all his soul and strength and mind, but he must also love his neighbor as himself. And this is where the classic question is asked, the one you and I still ask 2,000 years later: Who is my neighbor?

Jesus rarely gives a straight answer. Instead he tells a story. He tells this story of a man who is traveling and who is robbed and beaten and left for dead on the road. And as he is lying there dying, a priest comes along. He sees the man, but doesn’t stop. In fact he crosses the road to avoid him. And then a Levite, another religious leader, comes along, and he crosses the road too. And by this point two men who belonged to the same people as the beaten man, two of his religious leaders, had walked right by. Things looked grim.

But then a third man, a Samaritan walks by. Samaritans were considered so lowly that the beaten man normally would not even speak to them. But Scripture tells us that the Samaritan sees the beaten man and he is “moved with pity”. He bandages his wounds, and takes him to an inn, and pays for it with his own money. Then he tells the innkeeper to feed the man and take care of him, promising that he will return and pay for it all.

Jesus finishes the story and he asks, “So, who was this beaten man’s neighbor?” And the reply comes, “The one who showed him mercy. The Samaritan.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise”.

Mister-Rogers

Copyright, Pittsburgh Magazine

It’s one of the most important and most well known stories of our faith. But you still might be wondering right now, what does any of this have to do with Mr. Rogers?

Years after Mr. Rogers was a daily part of my life I went off to a Presbyterian seminary, and I learned that Mr. Rogers was also the Rev. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister.

When Fred Rogers graduated from seminary his classmates were ordained as parish pastors. But he made a very unusual request. He wanted to be ordained to a very different kind of ministry in a then new arena: children’s television. Mr Rogers believed that television presented a new opportunity. He didn’t love what he was seeing on TV at the time, but he saw potential for something better. And he wanted to teach children things like the value of respecting others, being kind, facing their fears, and, yes, being a good neighbor.

And so every show started with that song that we all know. The one where he crossed a line not usually crossed by adults, and spoke to children in a way where it was clear that, though he was still the adult, he had respect for them. And he asked them to be his neighbor.

He was a minister of the Gospel. He got what that meant. He knew that we who are Christians are called to be neighbors to the most unlikely of people, even the people on the other side of our television screens. And, though he never preached overtly on his television show, I think each episode had as much Gospel in it as any sermon.

Now, at this point, you might be saying, “Well, yes…it’s easy to love your neighbors in a place where everyone walks through unlocked doors and wears comfortable sneakers and cardigans. It’s not that hard to pick out neighbors from the Neighborhood of Make Believe. But what about the real world? The one where you and I live? The one where not all of our neighbors are what we expect?

I think he got that too. He was hosting a children’s show, and so he was speaking to kids using situations they understood. But if you read a little about his life, this was a man who seemed to always cross the lines to make new neighbors. When he wasn’t on camera, he often stood up for others. And he really didn’t make a big deal about it because that’s just what he thought anyone should do.

But the reality, unfortunately, is that we don’t live in a world of Mr. Rogers.

A couple of years ago I drove out to a friends’ wedding in Kokomo, Indiana. And the whole way out there we kept saying to each other, “Kokomo, Indiana…why do we know that name?” We knew something newsworthy had happened there once, but we couldn’t remember what.

So, we Googled it. And we found out that Kokomo, Indiana was in the 1980’s the hometown of a young boy named Ryan White. Ryan White’s neighbors found out that he had what was then a relatively unknown disease called AIDS.

Driving around town we learned that Kokomo, Indiana is filled with churches. But when his neighbors found out that a young neighbor had this disease, what most of the Christians did didn’t exactly resemble the Good Samaritan from Jesus’ story. They didn’t minister to him or his family, or try to support them. Instead, they barred Ryan from attending the local school, and eventually they ran him out of town completely.

And so, one day about thirty years later, when a group of people who had been kids in the 80’s rolled into town, all we knew about Kokomo, Indiana was that it was a place where one neighbor had been anything but loved.

My guess is that there are a lot of good people in Kokomo. And my guess is that thirty years ago they were as afraid as those two men who crossed to the other side of road and away from that injured man in Scripture. But I remember thinking as we were driving about how that legacy of turning its back on a neighbor is something with which that community will always have to wrestle. All it takes is one time, one choice to not love your neighbor, and the message goes out loud and clear.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Because there are other stories too. Stories like this one: I’ve always liked baseball and I’ve always been inspired by Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. I knew the part of the story where he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color barrier. But I didn’t know what happened after he retired. Because it turns out, Jackie Robinson had to break another color barrier: the one he faced when he bought a house not in Mississippi or Georgia, but in Connecticut. And his neighbors weren’t happy.

The story goes that when Jackie Robinson moved there, his neighbors were so angry that they were sharing their neighborhood with a black man that they even ostracized the man who sold him the property. You might think that a man who had been a ball player and hero might be welcomed, but Robinson found his neighbors were as hostile as those early baseball crowds had been.

But one neighbor wasn’t: the Congregational, and later UCC, church that was just down the street from his house. And because they welcomed him and his family, not only did the Robinsons have a place to worship, but the church had a chance to show who they were. No one remembers them as “the church that turned Jackie Robinson away”. They just remember them as, “Jackie Robinson’s church”. End of story. It’s not a point of pride. It just is. As it should be, because we should never expect anything less from a church.

If we are serious about this whole following Jesus thing, we have to love with the same open-hearted abandon as the Samaritan. We have to love with the same willingness to embrace the newcomer as the church in Connecticut. We have to dare to cross lines in the road, and we have to build the unexpected relationships that will save not just one of us, but both of us. Let’s never make the mistake of thinking that the ones who cross the lines don’t also receive grace here.

But most of all, we have to ask that question Mr. Rogers asked so many times, and not just to the people we want to ask it of, but to everyone: Won’t you be my neighbor? No cardigan or sneakers or singing are required…just a sincere conviction in our hearts and this question that is so much harder than it sounds: Won’t you be my neighbor.

They are easy words to sing, but they are much harder words to say. But when it comes to being the church, really being the church, and to being Christians, there’s no option here. We can’t choose our neighbor, but we can choose community. And God will never fail to bless community. Amen.

Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and the Luxury of Hindsight Hope

Yesterday in worship, during our time for children, I talked about Dr. Martin Luther King. The children and youth at my congregation, from pre-K on up to high school seniors, are exceptional in so many respects. Yesterday was no exception. When I asked our elementary-aged students what they knew about Dr. King they told me stories about discrimination, choosing non-violence, working for justice, and about Dr. King’s life in general. The parents of our church have taught them well, and taught them that opposing injustice is a part of what it means to be a Christian. They give me hope.

As I was sitting there, though, I was aware of how easy it is for me, and for all of us who didn’t grow up in the Civil Rights Movement, to know just how wrong the Jim Crow era was, and just how right Dr. King was. Though I am from the South, I was born years after Dr. King’s assassination. Unlike my parents, I went to integrated schools and was taught by them that all people were equal for as long as I can remember. There was certainly racism all around me, but I knew it was wrong.

Dr. King and John Lewis, marching with other Civil Rights leaders.

Dr. King and John Lewis, marching with other Civil Rights leaders.

When I went to college in Atlanta I began to learn more about the specifics of Dr. King’s legacy. I learned the ways that even the street names in Atlanta were shaped by race and who lived where. I read Dr. King’s speeches. And sometimes, when the injustice of the world seemed unsurmountable, I visited Dr. King’s tomb.

But I also began to wonder: what would I have done as a white person if I had been alive during the Civil Rights movement?

I’d like to think I know the answer. I hope I would have done the right thing. I hope I would have marched, and been arrested, and stood in solidarity, no matter what the personal cost. I hope I would have been a true ally who stepped aside and gave the mic to people of color. And I hope I would have done all of these things because my faith compelled me to do so.

But the reality is that most white folks in Atlanta, even those who knew what was happening was wrong, did nothing. In Atlanta I learned that when Dr. King returned to the city with his Nobel Peace Prize no one wanted to acknowledge it. (It was finally the Jewish community, shaken by the recent bombing of The Temple on Peachtree Street, that stepped up and threw a dinner for him.) Moments of white solidarity were few and far between. And, decades later, I came to find out that sometimes they were misremembered a bit too favorably.

In Atlanta I went to a fabulous Presbyterian church downtown. It was committed to justice and inclusion for all people, and their social justice work was remarkable. I was proud to be a part of this congregation, and I often pointed to a particular story related to the Civil Rights movement to show exactly why. As the story went, when Dr. King was assassinated, this church, just blocks away from Dr. King’s neighborhood, had opened up its building to students and others who were coming to Atlanta for the funeral and who needed a place to stay. The fact a white church in Atlanta would do that so willingly in 1968 was held as truly remarkable. When I heard the story repeated it was with assurances that the church would have done nothing else except be hospitable

And then one day, a man who had been a part of the congregation for decades told me the real story. “Do you think they were happy about it?”, he asked me. “No one wanted to do it…the pastor had to finally force them to do it by telling them how bad they would look if they didn’t!” It turns out the church, while certainly one of the more progressive of the white mainline downtown establishment churches, had wanted little to nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t until the movement literally came to their neighborhood, in a time of national mourning, that they were forced to take a side.

I don’t tell that story to shame that church. The church learned from that experience, grew, and became more prophetic. But the happier, sanitized version of that story is what usually gets told, with more than a little self-congratulation. The reality is a lot more humbling and, in my mind, a lot more powerful.

I think about that story because I wonder what I’m doing now that I’ll look back on years from now and want to remember with a sort of revisionist history. How am I well-intentioned, but not actually willing to act? What struggles for justice am I remaining neutral about, and how to I get myself engaged? What don’t I want to look back on forty years from now with regret and shame over my lack of courage? These are the questions I’m asking myself on this Martin Luther King day.

And on this day, I’m also thinking about the ones who have gotten it right, and who have kept moving forward from one struggle for justice to another. And I’m remembering something I saw in Atlanta when I was about twenty years old. I was marching in the Atlanta Pride Parade down Peachtree street and towards Piedmont Park. As we turned onto 10th Street I saw a man standing near the end of the route, waving at us and cheering us on.

As we got closer I could see it was Congressman John Lewis, Dr. King’s trusted advisor and a man who had braved the worst of the brutality that racism had to offer. Here was a man who had beaten at Selma. Here was a man who had watched his friend die for justice. Here was a man who had nothing to prove, and who didn’t have to be there. And yet he was.

When I think about wanting to be a good ally, I think about John Lewis. He showed me that day how, as Dr. King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. And he taught me that I can’t stay home just because the fight isn’t mine.

I hope I would have done the right thing fifty years ago. But I can choose to prayerfully do the right thing now.

john

Redskins and Respect: A Lifelong Washington Fan on Tradition

Copyright, NFL and Washington Redskins

Copyright, NFL and Washington Redskins

Some of my favorite early memories involve the Washington Redskins. For as long as I remember, I’ve watched games on Sundays. My father is a Washington, D.C. native who has been a fan of the team since they moved to town from Boston in 1937. I’ve watched the ‘Skins play with four generations of my family and, though I now live near a team that regularly makes the playoffs, my loyalty remains with my oft beleaguered Washington football team.

I’m telling you all this to say, in short, that I am a lifelong Washington Redskins fan. I love them. I love them when they are beating Dallas. I love them when they are winning playoff games. And I even love them when they are getting destroyed by the Broncos at Mile High, like they were this past Sunday. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Washington Redskins loyalist.

And I want them to change their name.

I can’t remember exactly when it struck me that the name “Redskins” had anything to do with race or skin color. I had no idea when I said my favorite team’s name that I was actually repeating what at least some Native Americans consider a racial slur. And the reality is that I think very few people who say the word “Redskins,” as it pertains to football, have conscious racist intent.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not racist. And enough Native Americans have stood up to tell those of us who do not share their heritage that it is, in fact, offensive. And that should be enough for us. Tessa McLean, who is a member of the Ojibwe Nation, recently told NBC News that the word “Redskins” is “a term that was created for proof of Indian kill.” In other words, a “Redskin” is proof that a Native American is dead. Which, when you think about it, is both pretty terrible, and pretty counterintuitive for a team that has appropriated Native American imagery.

To me, this is where the folks in the front office of the Redskins should stop and realize “maybe offending a group of people with a pejorative name based on their skin color is not only a bad business practice but, you know, just plain indecent.” But, as of now, that has not happened.

In fact, Daniel Snyder, the team’s owner, has gone so far as to say that, “We’ll never change the name.” He also wrote in a letter addressing the matter that “Our past isn’t just where we came from — it’s who we are.”

What’s odd to me about that is that the Redskins have made big changes in traditions before. For instance, the Redskins were the last professional football team to integrate, waiting until 1962 to do so. I’d like to think that we’ve come pretty far from that past. The team also changed the words to its fight song, “Hail to the Redskins” from “fight for all Dixie” to “fight for all D.C.,” another positive change.

And then there’s the part where they left Washington, D.C. and a stadium named for a champion of civil rights and moved to Maryland in a stadium named for… a package delivery company. So, clearly change is possible in the Redskins organization, even if it means that traditions and heritage are on the line.

I’m not sure what the real reluctance to change the name is about unless it’s the fact that no one in the Redskins front office cares enough about the offense they are causing to at least a significant portion of Native Americans. It’s not that there is a lack of other acceptable names. The Washington Post has suggested a slew of other names that capture the spirit of Washington, D.C. far better than “Redskins” ever has, for instance. Perhaps in a town filled with military personnel and government employees, a name that honored them would be more appropriate?

Pressure continues to build on the Redskins to change the name, coming from everywhere from Native American organizations, to newspapers and magazines refusing to use the team name in print, to the NFL itself. But the more a name change is called for, the more the team digs in its heals. Which makes me wonder, is anyone in the Redskins’ front office capable of seeing that this isn’t about being forced to change a tradition?

Changing the Redskins’ name is not an example of political correctness run amuck. It’s a testament to the fact that people deserve to be treated with respect. It’s common courtesy. And, for those of us who are people of faith, it’s also a matter of seeing the image of God in the other and refusing to use an offensive slur to name it. For me, this is a theological matter. This is about the basic business of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. And none of us, Mr. Snyder included I’m sure, likes to be characterized by a slur (even if the one saying it means no harm).

For now, though, I’m not holding my breath that the Redskins will be changing their name in the near future. I am, however, also not opening my wallet in order to buy anything with the Redskins name on it. I refuse to display it, whether on a hat or a sweatshirt, because I refuse to knowingly cause offense. I also refuse to contribute to an organization that won’t proactively change. Maybe other lifelong fans like me will choose the same route. And maybe, somehow, together we will send a message to Dan Snyder and the team that it’s time for a change.

When that change comes, I’ll be glad to line up at FedEx Field for tickets. And, more importantly, I’ll be proud to call myself a Washington football fan. And who knows… with this issue of the name resolved, maybe the team could spend a little more time concentrating on making it to the big game? That would be a return to tradition that every Washington fan could get behind.

God’s Welcome, and Our Welcome: Sermon for September 9, 2012

429279_10150562577556787_1270530573_nJames 2:1-10, 14-17
2:1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

2:2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in,

2:3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”

2:4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

2:5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

2:6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?

2:7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

2:8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

2:9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

2:10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

2:14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?

2:15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,

2:16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

2:17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

________

Have you ever felt unwelcome? Have you ever had an experience where you were pretty sure people would rather you not be around? Or, at least, they didn’t seem too happy that you were there? I think all of us at some point in our life have.

When I lived in Provincetown there was no UCC church in town, but there were a few others. I wanted to go to church while I lived there, so I checked one out. I got there, parked, went inside, sat through the service, and the left. With the exception of the pastor, who quickly shook my hand at the door on the way out, I don’t think anyone said anything to me the entire time. I felt pretty unwelcome. I left wondering what I had done wrong.

A couple years later I was talking to someone I know who visits Provincetown frequently. He asked me if I had ever found a church to go to there. I told him I’d tried this particular church, and that the service was okay, but that no one had talked to me at all. He then told me that he had too and that the exact same thing had happened to him.

I felt a little better. It wasn’t about me. But I hadn’t known that at the time. And, even worse, it seems like a lot of folks had left that church feeling that way.

You probably have a story like that somewhere in your life. Maybe not in a church, but somewhere. None of us likes to feel like we are not welcome, and, hopefully, not of us intentionally tries to be unwelcoming to others. And churches should be places that “get it”. Churches should be places where all who come through the doors are welcome. But the sad thing is that many people have at some point in their lives experienced churches as an unwelcoming place.

The text we read today is from the Epistle of James. The writer is essentially talking about how to treat people who come to church. He gives the readers an example. He talks about two people who will come into their church: one is wearing expensive clothing and gold rings and the other is poor and in dirty clothes. And he tells them that if they take the wealthy person and give them the best seat in the house, and then take the poor person and make them stand in the back, that they have no clue what Christianity is all about.

He goes on to tell them that at the end of the day if they will send the one who has nothing back out into the world and they say to them “take care, keep warm, don’t go hungry”. But if they the church does nothing to ensure that they actually stay warm and aren’t going hungry, then they just don’t understand the Scripture: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

I used to attend a church in Atlanta that had a big meal on Sundays after church. This is more common down South. Church starts at 11, so by the time it gets out everyone is hungry. And they had a chef who cooked, and it was always pretty good. It didn’t cost a lot. Maybe $5. Cheap enough that I could afford it as a grad student, and certainly cheaper than eating a meal out.

But this church was also located in an area where a lot of folks lived on the streets. And to be fair this church did a lot to help those folks. And they welcomed them into worship. But on Sunday afternoons, that meal that only cost me a few dollars became a feast that was out of reach for them. If they didn’t have the money, they didn’t eat. And they’d go back out onto the streets hungry.

I wonder what James would have said about that? More importantly, I wonder why it took me so long to notice that it was happening for myself? I was comfortable and fed, but I never noticed that none of our homeless guests were staying for lunch, or that there was no system to allow them to do so, until someone pointed it out.

I wonder how often I miss that. I wonder how often I overlook the fact that while I might be feel welcome, others may not. One time in Georgia I was talking with a friend about this small barbecue place about an hour outside of Atlanta. I’d gone there and really liked the food. And she was from the same area originally, so I suggested that someday we try it. She agreed and asked me the name. And when I told her, her face sort of sank. And she said, “I can’t go there…I wouldn’t be welcome.”

I said, “What do you mean? Of course you would.”

And she shook her head and said, “Emily, you don’t get it…I grew up here, and I know that place. Black folks like me aren’t welcome.”

Of course I didn’t get that. I hadn’t had to even think about the color of my skin when I went there. I just went in, paid my money, and got a plate of barbecue. But she did. I had no idea how much I was taking for granted just being welcome in certain places.

Now, we hear that story and we all realize how horrible it is. But what I want to stress here is that unless she had told me she was unwelcome there, I never would have known. And I believe that she genuinely was unwelcome. This is an area that still had Klan marches when she was a kid. But the take away for us today, and for churches everywhere, is that there are some folks who are sure they will be unwelcome in this church because they have genuinely been unwelcome in other churches. And as much as we genuinely want to welcome them, that’s keeping them from coming through our doors.

It might be surprising to hear the questions I have had from people in this valley who have met me and found out I was the pastor at this church. They’ve been curious about coming to church, but they’ve had bad experiences other places and they just assume that they will be unwelcome here as well.

A few have been members of the 12 step groups who meet here regularly. They actually spend more time in this church every week than just about anyone else. And they wonder whether someone like them, a recovering alcoholic or addict, would be welcome here.

Some have been folks we as a church have helped financially. They wonder if they are allowed to come here after receiving help from us. A few have asked me whether they would be welcome despite the fact they really have nothing nice to wear or nothing to put in the plate when it goes around.

Others have told me about how they or there families were judged for who they were when they tried to go into other churches.

We hear these words from our neighbors, and we say “of course your welcome. Everyone is welcome here.” We are appalled to think that there is any question. I can truly tell you that you are a warm church when folks walk through the doors. I hear that all the time. But this is not about you, or who you are. It’s about the fact that unless we make our welcome explicit, they’re not going to walk in the doors.

We might not realize that because we’ve never felt anything but welcome from churches in our lives. But for those of us for whom that is true, we are very lucky. For some people walking through the front doors of this church, of any church, is more than an act of faith. It’s also an act of courage.

So, we try to change that. We try to be explicit about our welcome. And we often reinforce it by using the slogan from the United Church of Christ that so many of you have told me you like so much: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

I love that slogan. But we can’t just give it lip service. We can’t just say it or print it on our letterhead or have it on the bulletin. We have to live it.

The church is not a selective club. We’re not a place where eligibility for membership is determined by someone’s bank account balance or the car they drive or where they went to school. It’s not determined by whether they can put “x” number of dollars in the collection plate. And it’s not determined by whether or not they’ve made some bad mistakes in life or whether they’ve ever been down and out. It’s determined only by this: that the person loves Christ, no matter how imperfectly, and wants to be a part of this community of disciples. All are welcome here because we don’t own this church. Christ does.

That’s good news. That’s really good news because it doesn’t just mean that others are welcome here. It means that you are welcome here too. And not just the best version of yourself. Not the part of you that cleans up well and says the right things and has it all together.

It means all of you. The part that has doubts. The part that doesn’t have things quite together. The part that yelled at your spouse or kids when you know you shouldn’t have this week. The part that deep down you would rather no one else knew about. That part is welcome here too. All of you is welcome here.

We are welcomed here because we have been welcomed extravagantly by God. God loves us so much, that the doors of God’s heart are open to all of us and to us all. Even the parts we’d rather hide sometimes. That’s the beauty of grace. That’s the beauty of what God has done for you.

And that’s the beauty of what those of us who are already here can do for those whom God wants to be here. That’s the beauty of being extravagantly welcomed by God. It makes it possible for us to extravagantly welcome others. We don’t do it because we want our church to keep growing bigger, though, make no mistake, an unwelcoming church is a dying church. We do it because if God’s grace is real, than we can do nothing other than this. We welcome others because God welcomed us first.

This week, as you go about your usual life and work, who could you pass that welcome on to? Who could you assure that God’s love and grace for them is real? And how can we as a church make our welcome more explicit to our neighbors? If God’s grace in us is real, than these are the questions we can’t help but ask ourselves. You can’t truly understand that you have been welcomed by God without in turn opening the doors of welcome wider to others.

May we as a church keep striving to live into what we proclaim: No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Really. Amen.