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10.23.2011

Maybe It Sounds Crazy. . .

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's
Proper 25 A / Matthew 22:34-46


At this year’s diocesan convention, The Rev. Stephanie Spellers will be the keynote speaker.  A few years ago, I attended one of her workshops called “Radical Welcome: Practical New Tools and Ideas.”[1]  The workshop began with participants  responding to two prompts: (1) what do you think of when you hear the word “radical” and (2) what do you think of when you hear the word “welcome”?  Here are some of the things participants had to say (other words may come to your mind as well).

Radical

unpredictable – out of the ordinary – bold – extreme – on the fringes – challenging – political – revolutionary – cutting edge – committed – Jesus – confrontational – dangerous – cool and trendy – different – activist – uncompromising – expert  - deliberate – fanatical – spontaneous – scary –

Welcome

Friendly – open – inviting – relaxed – warm – eat – be yourself – generous – be at home – Jesus – take your shoes off – servant – hospitable – non-judgmental – comfortable – inclusive – extension – magnanimous – embrace - family

With these two words in mind, what might happen if we put them together – what might a “radical welcome” look like:

“Uncompromising hospitality” --> I don’t care how long you’ve been told you don’t belong; from here on out, you’re in!

“Unpredictably friendly” --> being surprised that they mean me too!

“revolutionary family” --> who are my brother and my sister?

It sounds a lot like gospel living, doesn’t it.  Today’s gospel reading is familiar to many of us – especially 8 o’clockers who hear every week:

“Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

These two commandments – though separate in the Old Testament – one found in the book of Deuteronomy and the other found in the book of Leviticus – these two commandments, as understood by Jesus, are of equal importance. [2]  When Jesus says the second is like the first, the word, in Greek for like is ho-MOY-ah  - a word that means inseparable.  So for Jesus, it is meaningless to say I love God with all my heart, with all my soul and all my mind unless, in practice, I also demonstrate love for my neighbor.  Love for God; love for neighbor – the inseparable commandments.

And who is our neighbor?  The gospel of Matthew is very explicit about this question.  In chapter 5 of the gospel, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[3] Our neighbors then are both our friends and our enemies – those we know and those who are “The Other.” 

In Jesus’ time, “The Other” included tax collectors, prostitutes and lepers, orphans and women and the poor – all groups of people notably included in Jesus radical welcome.  In our own time and place, who are some of “The Others”?  Who are the groups that experience marginalization in our community? What groups experience marginalization in our congregation?  What people because of their race, culture, language, generation, class, education level, sexual orientation or physical ability are on the margins at St. Mark’s or in our community?  Have we become satisfied at St. Mark’s because we accept some of these “others”, or because, even if we don’t associate with them, at least “they” are here?  And if so, does this really fulfill the commandment?  These are questions that make a lot of us uncomfortable.  But they are questions we must face honestly and openly in order to have the eyes to see “The Other” and the hearts to embrace “The Other” – in order to love our neighbors as ourselves.

“Radical welcome” then is first and foremost a spiritual practice – it is not about being cool or trendy or about being politically correct.  It is about following Christ, trusting God, surrendering to God – a spiritual practice of opening our arms to all “The Others” and allowing our hearts and our very life to be transformed by The Other’s presence, gifts, and power among us.

St. Mark’s is a blessed community.  Because of your generosity, your compassion, and your caring commitment, we are able to provide space for the Interfaith Action’s hospitality center – a place for homeless men and women to come together for shelter, for food, for support, for companionship.  Because of your generosity, your compassion and your caring commitment, we are able to send monies to the Diocese of Renk to help with church-building and now, in South Sudan, with nation-building.  Because of your generosity, your compassion, and your caring commitment, we are able to provide Christmas gifts for families who might otherwise go without through the Cathedral Shelter Christmas Basket program.  These are just some of the many ways in which St. Mark’s is a blessed community – a community that has stretched out its arms with radical hospitality.

But now, I invite you to stretch a little further.  I invite you to think about who else is marginalized in the community. Who lives on the margins of our congregation?  Perhaps it is the person who wears the same dirty clothes, and carries everything they own in the same dirty back pack who comes to the Hospitality Center day in and day out. Or perhaps it is the young boy at Oakton Elementary School who is falling behind in math and reading because there is no one at home who can help with homework and not enough volunteer tutors or mentors in the community to ensure that he - and every other child - has the tools they need for success.  Maybe it's the same-sex couple who has adopted their first child and knows of no safe place to celebrate with a community of faith.  Whose stories are not being told? Whose opinions are not asked when important decisions need to be made? These are The Others in our midst – those living on the margins of our community.  These are the ones that Jesus calls us to love as we love ourselves.

With these persons in mind, imagine offering them a radical welcome.  Imagine showering them with uncompromising hospitality.  Imagine being perceived as unpredictably friendly. Imagine inviting them to be a part of a revolutionary family at St. Mark’s.  Imagine calling one another in the middle of the week to say, “Hey! Be sure to show up at church on Sunday because it’s really important that we show our support for the new person who comes in our doors, because it’s really important that we make space for and listen to that person’s story during coffee hour, because it’s possible that that person’s story will transform our own! Hey! Be sure to show up!!!” Wouldn’t that be radical?!

Maybe it sounds crazy – maybe it sounds frightening - maybe it makes us down right uncomfortable.  But at St. Mark’s  - that is exactly what I urge each of you to do.  I want you to be here each week not because you have nothing better to do on a Sunday morning, not because you feel it is the “right” thing to do, but because you love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and because the best way you know to show that love is to embrace The Other – the unchurched person who comes through our doors to experience the love of God for the first time in their lives, the person who has been told too many times “you are not welcome here” who needs an experience of uncompromising hospitality – that kind of radical welcome that says, “I don’t care how long you’ve been told you don’t belong; from here on out, you’re in!” 

I want you to come coffee hour each Sunday to offer strangers a cup of coffee and an opportunity to tell their story not because you don’t have enough to do and not because you don’t have enough friends already, but because you love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and because the best way you know to show that love is to embrace The Other – the lonely person who comes inside with the hope that maybe at St. Mark’s, like nowhere else they’ve ever been, maybe here they will finally find someone who has time for them, as they are.  Someone whose concept of family is revolutionary – someone whose idea of radical welcome says, “You are my brother or my sister.”

Today we kick off our stewardship campaign. Sometime in the next day or two you will receive a letter from our Stewardship Cluster Co-Chairs, Nancye Kirk and Byron Scott.  In that letter you will be asked to prayerfully consider your giving to St. Mark’s for 2012. 

Some of you will pledge because you believe it is the right thing to do, the reasonable thing to do.  Others of you will pledge because it is the Biblical thing to do – Scripture suggests the tithe – or 10% - as the appropriate first fruits offering to God; Scripture includes King David’s prayer “For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.”[4]  These are good reasons to pledge. 

But, this morning I want to suggest that there is yet another – perhaps more powerful reason to pledge and to pledge generously to St. Mark’s.  I believe that some of our best years as a church are before us.  I believe that God is calling St. Mark’s to the winning cause of mission.  Through our generosity – yours and mine – people will be helped, lives will be changed, there will be times of reconciliation, wholeness, caring, and justice.  Through our generosity – yours and mine – the Other, the outsider, the stranger, those on the margins - will be radically welcomed here; the Hospitality Center will continue to serve the homeless here; our church school will continue to nurture the faith of our young people; and the sick and the homebound will continue to be fed by prayerful visits.  Through our generosity – yours and mine – we will continue to be fed abundantly by God, given everything we need to go out into the world proclaiming the redeeming love and radical welcome of God.

“Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”


[1] Stephanie Spellers book, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other and the Spirit of Transformation (Church Publishing, 2006) is an excellent resource.
[2] Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:8.
[3] Matthew 5:43-44. 
[4] 1 Chronicles 29:10b-14.

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