May 15, 2022

Easter 5 Worship

Today's scripture was the appointed first reading, the one from Acts 11, in which Peter has a vision in which God declares clean that which had previously been thought of as unclean. The sermon was the first installment of a two-part series entitled Comings and Goings. It is about the way we open and close worship. Today we talked about our words of welcome: We are disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. United in spirit and inspired by God's grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all. Next week's sermon will be the second and concluding installment, and will talk about the way we close worship, with the song God Now in Peace. What follows is a video of this service (click on "read more") as well as a complete transcript of the sermon.


Comings & Goings
Part 1: “We Welcome All”
There are many references to scripture that we know, but can’t quite place. There are also many bits of scripture that we think we know, but aren’t in the Bible at all—such as Cleanliness is next to godliness, and God helps those who help themselves.

But one verse that most of us know that really is there is I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. That’s how the 121st Psalm opens. It’s worth knowing the whole psalm, because it’s a beautiful passage of scripture about God’s faithful love. And it ends with these words:

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

—Ps. 121:8

And it’s this idea of going out and coming in that I want to talk about today and next Sunday. The way we come in—that is, how we open our worship service every week—and how we go out—the way we close it—are both very significant. So I’m talking today about our words of welcome.

I think a lot of you are aware of the fact that this is a rather recent development. The elder has always welcomed people to worship, of course, but during the pandemic when it was just me doing things on video for a while, I developed a particular way of opening the service. At first, I simply used the identity statement of one of our denominations—the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.

I find these words to be both beautiful and profoundly meaningful. But we are a congregation that is part of two denominations. And the United Church of Christ has several different expressions of who we are—one of which our elders had been using for years: No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here. I, too, love those words, and I always make sure they’re used when inviting people to the table for the Lord’s Supper.

But the UCC also has a mission statement. And I found that when I used it to complete the opening sentence of the Disciples’ identity statement, it was a perfect expression of who we are as a congregation: United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.

When we returned to in-person worship last Easter, we kept using these words of welcome, and the elders decided that it shouldn’t be spoken by just one person, but that we all should participate. So for a year now, we’ve been saying them responsively as our official opening words of worship. They are, quite literally, who we are.

This means that these aren’t just words. We are a church that welcomes all people. Which goes without saying. All churches say “Everybody’s welcome!” It’s on their signs, it’s in their bulletins, it’s in their advertising. And don’t they all mean it just as much as we do?

This is something we actually talk about here sometimes. We say “Everybody’s welcome!” so why should we have to say more?

Well, the long and the short of it is that a lot of people assume that we don’t really mean it. That’s because churches have had a habit of saying “Everybody’s welcome,” assuming that the people who aren’t welcome know who they are. During the long history of segregation, there were plenty of churches that used those same two words knowing full well that they weren’t true. I hope back then that we meant what we said—we certainly do now—but not every church did.

In the more recent past, we’ve had to challenge ourselves on what we mean when we day “Everybody’s welcome!” But before I talk about that, let’s look at today’s scripture reading from Acts 11. In it, we find Peter. Peter and his brother Andrew were Jesus’ first disciples, and throughout the gospels, we find that Peter is the spokesperson for all the others. Peter denied Christ three times before the crucifixion, but professed his love for Christ three times after the resurrection. On more than one occasion, Christ made Peter a shepherd over the church. And so when something significant happens in Peter’s life, we need to take notice.

And today it did. Like Paul, Peter is spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But unlike Paul, Peter is trying to stick to his co-religionists—his fellow Jews. He is of the opinion that in order to become a Christian, people first have to become Jews, because he is still dividing the world between clean and unclean. But he was given a vision in today’s reading that showed him that in Jesus Christ, those walls had been broken down. If the veil of the temple that divided humanity from God could be torn in two, then certainly the divisions between people could be removed as well.

Twice before, Peter was given three opportunities to understand what he was doing. And today, for a third time, Peter is shown the same vision three times. There’s no mistaking it: Peter—the first among all the apostles—was in no position to stay away from those he used to think of as unclean.

As soon as these visions ceased, Peter was visited a Gentile leader who invited him to a supposedly unclean home. And now Peter had no excuse. He accepted and was amazed when someone became a disciple of Christ without first being cleansed of being a Gentile. This is one of the most earth-shattering passages in the scriptures, for it shows us the true nature of a church we all thought we knew.

Throughout its history, the church has had many missed opportunities to be faithful to the One we claim to embody. We do not obey the words of Christ to feed the hungry and house the homeless and heal the sick. We have missed many opportunities for making peace and loving one another. And we have missed many opportunities to reach out to others that those around us claim are not yet worthy—to welcome into God’s family those who are shunned or considered unclean. This is the same church that uses the phrase “Everybody’s welcome” without always meaning it.

Which brings us full circle, back to our welcome. What do we mean when we say, “We welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all” at the beginning of worship? What do we mean when we invite people to the Lord’s table with the words, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here”? Well, the long and the short of it is that we believe everybody’s welcome. And when we’ve been challenged on whether or not that’s true, we’ve tried our best to faithfully come out on the side of love.

Word got back to me sometime last year that a person who used to come to church here didn’t want to come back because we weren’t God-centered. We were “man-centered,” they said, so they preferred a different church. And that’s their right, of course. All of us have our own ways of interpreting scripture and discerning what is and what is not God’s will for us. But if God is love, and love is at the center of how we relate, not only to one another in the church, but also to the world around us, then there’s something that I need to talk about here.

And I say this not just because I believe to the core of my being that it’s true, but also because it’s what I’ve heard so many of you say. Perhaps you didn’t say it in these exact words. But you said it nonetheless. And that is that you go to church here because we don’t interpret what love is through the filter of the Bible, but that you interpret the Bible through the filter of love.

And so when you are called upon to bless the relationship of two persons of the same gender who loved each other, you said, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here." And when you had to decide whether or not to call a member of the LGBT community to be a leader in the church, you said that “we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.”

This hasn’t always been easy. Nobody here made that decision to please men [sic]. Some couldn’t abide this radical welcome, this unconditional love, this grace, and they left. Others didn’t agree, but they decided God wasn’t through with them yet, so they stayed and learned and grew.

I have found in my brief time here that people continue to pop in and out of our lives who assume that when we say “Everybody’s welcome,” that we don’t actually mean it—that there are some who will find rejection here. When they discovered that we do welcome the LGBT community or that it’s okay by us if our communion bread is the gift of someone of a different faith, they left.

They are still tied to certain verses of scripture that they’ve been taught make it impossible for certain people to be Christians—that to be a disciple of Christ, they must first be changed into something they’re not. I’ll not be getting into the six verses (three in the Old Testament, three in the New Testament) that are always quoted here. But I will tell you this. These verses were written two to three thousand years ago, and not one of them addresses the issue of two persons being in a committed relationship. Indeed, all of the verses in question are translations which usually don’t accurately convey what Moses or Paul or whoever were actually saying in Hebrew or Greek. And in every case, we have decided to pick and choose which scripture we want to obey, and which scripture we want to reject. For example, did you know that in the same set of laws that forbid prostitution, it also forbids sowing different kinds of seeds in the same field, wearing blended fabrics, getting a tattoo, and cutting the corners of your beard?

Once we start arguing these points, grace is forgotten and faith is lost. So let me repeat, we choose to interpret the words of scripture through the filter of love, not to interpret love through the filter of the verses of the Bible.

As you can see, I nearly fell into the trap that I had promised myself that I was going to avoid this morning. So let me get back to the point of this sermon: We welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all. We mean what we say, and it hurts us when people reject this message. For through prayer and study and experience, we have arrived at the same conclusion that Peter came to through his visions. In Jesus Christ, we have learned that God is love. No longer do we view some people as acceptable and others as abominations. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here. We say that because we believe it.
—©2022 Sam L. Greening, Jr.